Our friend Mike Martin invited us to spend a week at the Bird Observatory on the Isle of May. The IoM is 5 miles off the coast of Scotland at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. It is owned and managed by Scottish National Heritage as a National Nature Reserve. Most visitors are day trippers but up to six people can stay for one week at a time in very nice accommodation in the "Low Light" (below).
The Island is a major nesting site for around 200,000 seabirds. mainly Puffin, Arctic Tern, Guillemot, Razorbill, Shag, Kittiwake, Fulmar and Eider, plus three Gull species and numerous resident Rock Pipits.
Instead of a daily account of our activities and sightings I have decided to deal with each major bird species in turn, providing a photographic snapshot of the avian life on the Island in June, the height of the breeding season.
The Atlantic Puffin is perhaps the biggest attraction for visitors. It Spends autumn and winter in the open ocean of the cold northern seas, returning to coastal areas at the start of the breeding season in late spring. It nests in clifftop colonies by digging a burrow in which a single white egg is laid. The chick mostly feeds on whole fish, here primarily sand eels. After about six weeks it is fully fledged and makes its way at night to the sea. It swims away from the shore and does not return to land for several years. Most of those from the IoM will end up in Norwegian waters. Interestingly I once spotted a solitary Puffin off the Spanish coast near Sotogrande, while on a sailing trip out of Gibraltar. They do disperse around coastal waters all over Europe..
There are no natural predators on the Island, raptors are driven away by the Gull population and the only animals present are rabbits. However Puffins returning to their burrows with fish are regularly mugged by marauding Gulls.
If a puffin is caught a violent struggle ensues which can last for some time until the weary victim reluctantly gives up its fish in order to escape. The triumphant Gull must grab the fish quickly or it will in turn be mugged by others of its kind.
I was impressed at how dertermined the Puffins were to hold on to their fish even under extreme duress. Occasionally they would break free and find safety in a burrow, but usually the much larger Gull would prevail, as in this case shown here.
Puffins numbers in some regions have declined quite drastically for various reasons so it is officially listed as threatened, vulnerable to extinction. It is a tribute to the excellent stewardship of the Isle of May that from only five pairs of Puffins breeding here in 1958, twenty years later there were 10,000 pairs and numbers are up again this year. Great news.