Birding the Isle of May by Darren Hemsley

Birding the Isle of May

By Darren Hemsley, from Birding Scotland

The following article is reproduced with permission from Birding Scotland magazine. For more information about subscriptions and back issues email Harry Scott.

 

The Isle of May lies in the entrance of the Firth of Forth, about 8 km south of the Fife coast. It is only 1.5 km long and 0.5 km wide, and orientated on an axis pointing north-west to south-east. The island is characterised by a low lying and rocky eastern coast and a west coast, dominated by high cliffs. Despite its small size, the May holds some spectacular seabird colonies, the largest Atlantic Grey Seal colony in eastern Britain, and an impressive history stretching back thousands of years.

The island is an important site for migrant birds passing to and from their wintering grounds, and it was judged to be an ideal location for a Bird Observatory. The island is the site of the oldest Bird Observatory in Scotland, and also the second oldest in Britain (Skokholm Island in west Wales being the first), which was established in 1934. Other than a brief period during World War II, it has been manned by bird ringers during the peak migration seasons since. Even before this, as far back as 1907, two intrepid ornithologists (with shotguns), Miss E.V. Baxter and Miss L.J. Rintoul carried out regular spring and autumn visits to the island to study passage migration. Initially housed in the old coastguard Lookout, the Observatory moved to the Low Light on the eastern side of the island shortly after the end of the War. Birds stopping on the island are caught in mist nets or Heligoland traps, biometric data is recorded, and the birds are fitted with rings before release. Data gathered is used to establish migration routes and potential changes in populations. During the summer, the Observatory also carries out seabird ringing as part of long-term population studies. By 1997, over 200,000 birds had been ringed on the May, and over 250 species of bird recorded.

 

Isle of May National Nature Reserve

The large numbers of seabirds, seals, and the maritime sassland found on the May gained protection in 1956, when the island was designated a National Nature Reserve. Although still owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board at this time, management of the reserve was taken over by the Nature Conservancy Council. The internationally important numbers of breeding seabirds and seals encouraged the NCC to purchase the island in the late 1980s, and in 1989, the island passed hands from the Lighthouse Board to the NCC, now Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Shortly afterwards, the island was given additional European protection as a part of the Forth Islands Special Protection Area (SPA).

 

Breeding Birds

The May supports over 200,000 seabirds of 12 species during the peak of the seabird season. This huge number of birds on such a small island means that nesting birds are, quite literally, everywhere.

As part of the management of the reserve under SPA notification, SNH have a duty to monitor seabird species. Much of the work is presently carried out jointly between ITE (Institute for Terrestrial Ecology) and SNH. Data from this monitoring work is integral to the national system of long term monitoring for seabird populations, as the island is one of four strategic monitoring sites in Great Britain. The other three sites are Skomer, Canna, and Fair Isle. The work from these has a huge influence on the national monitoring strategy.

The main seabird nesting areas are on the west cliffs where the large colonies include Kittiwake, Guillemot, Razorbill and Fulmar. The island supports over 17,000 pairs of Guillemot, 2,700 pairs of Razorbill and 6500 pairs of Kittiwake. The Shag population suffered from a wreck which occurred in 1992, and dropped from around 1500 pairs to the present relatively stable number of around 500 pairs. All of these populations are, at present, extremely healthy, with no signs of long term declines in breeding numbers.

Away from the cliffs, the island also supports large numbers of breeding birds. One species which has increased dramatically in numbers in the past few decades, is the Puffin. The population has risen from a handful in 1959, to 3000-4000 pairs in 1972, with the most recent estimate in the region of 40,000 pairs from a count carried out in 1998. The island is increasingly becoming honeycombed with burrows.

The tern colony, around the Beacon at the summit of the island, is now the largest in the Firth of Forth, with an estimated 968 mixed pairs of Arctic and Common Terns in 1997. Other important breeding species on the island include Eider (with over 1,000 breeding pairs), Oystercatcher, Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Breeding passerines include Wheatear, Rock Pipit, Pied Wagtail and Wren.

 

Migrants

The island has played host to a number of spectacular falls in its time. These have included 100 Bluethroats on the 14th May 1985, and, in 1982 exceptional numbers of autumn migrants such as 15,000 Goldcrests on the 11th October, and 10,000 Redwing, 2,000 Song Thrush, 4,000 Fieldfare and 30 Ring Ouzel in single days between 13th and the 17th. In 1888, during the great irruption, a flock of 40 Pallas?s Sandgrouse were found on the island.

Ideal conditions for a fall on the island are easterly or south-easterly winds, with an area of high pressure over scandinavia, and sporadic showers to bring migrants down onto the island. Unfortunately, these conditions also often produce sea swells, which mean that boats are unable to land on the island, since the only truly reliable landing is Kirkhaven on the east side.

Near annual scarce migrants include Bluethroat, Wryneck and Red-backed Shrike in the spring with Red-breasted Flycatcher, Marsh Warbler, Icterine Warbler and Yellow-browed Warbler most autumns. The season of 1997 held a number of surprises, with an especially good third week in May, when in one day, five Bluethroat were present on the island, while a total of 11 Red-backed Shrikes were present during the period. The week also provided a Golden Oriole on the 18th and 19th, and a Spotted Crake on the 22nd.

The summer provided the two star birds of the year. On the 1st June, a Lesser Grey Shrike was found around the lighthouse, with a Tawny Pipit in the same area. Unfortunately, this bird was only seen by residents, as the weather prevented boats from sailing during the two days the bird was on the island. The second bird was the Two-barred Crossbill. A splendid adult male spent several days from 6th August, feeding on thistle heads around the Beacon and the lighthouse. After being initially reported by a day visitor, and then sighted again by a research worker who identified the bird from a field guide during the evening meal, this ‘strange pink bird’ was finally tracked down and positively identified on the 8th. This was the first island record and a number of birders were able to travel to see it during its stay.

The island has hosted a number of firsts for Britain, including Siberian Thrush, Pied Wheatear, Olivaceous Warbler and Isabelline Shrike. In recent years, birds of note have also included Rustic Bunting, Arctic Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Hoopoe, Sabine’s Gull, Richard’s Pipit, Olive-backed Pipit, Sooty Tern and Blyth’s Reed Warbler.

 

When to Visit

The timing of a visit obviously depends on what the visitor is hoping to see. Anyone wishing to see the breeding species should ideally visit when the birds are beginning to incubate eggs, around the last three weeks of May. At this time, the tern colony is beginning to settle and drake Eider are still accompanying females to nest sites. The seabirds, such as Shag, are still in attractive breeding plumages. In early June, the first chicks of many species will be present, and activity around the colonies becomes frenetic. July and August sees most species fledging, and the island slowly becoming a quieter place.

Ideal times for visiting to view migration, and perhaps see something out of the ordinary, are in the last two weeks of May, early June and late August, September and October, though the island is closed to day visitors from October 1st, due to the large pupping seal population.

 

How to Get There

Access to the island is via one of the licensed operators which sail from Anstruther or Crail, on the Fife coast between 1st May to 1st October. For details, contact the St Andrews (01334 472021) or Anstruther (01333 311073) Tourist Offices.

Daily sailings (weather permitting) of the May Princess from Anstruther take one hour to cross, and give two to three hours on the island, which allows time for good viewing of the breeding birds. All the areas where migrants usually occur are on the footpath system, so if migrants are present, they are normally visible to day trippers. Visitors are requested to stick to the system of footpaths, marked by blue topped posts, in order to minimise the risk of crushing Puffin burrows or disturbing nesting Eider and other breeding species. Photographers should note that attempting to take photos from off the path is counter productive; breeding birds near the path system are usually a little more accustomed to the public.

Sailing times can be obtained by phoning (01333) 312228. Tickets are bought from the kiosk at Anstruther harbour.

Accommodation for up to six people is available at the Observatory, usually for a week at a time, from March until early November. Birders and ringers are especially welcome in order to carry out the recording of species on the island. Details of accommodation can be obtained via the Bookings Secretary, Mike Martin, 2 Manse Park, Uphall, West Lothian EH52 6NX. Telephone (01506) 855285.

Accommodation for up to six people is available at the Observatory, usually for a week at a time, from March until early November. Birders and ringers are especially welcome in order to carry out the recording of species on the island. Details of accommodation can be obtained via the Bookings Secretary, Jonathan Osborne, at jonathan@osborne108.fsnet.co.uk or phone on 01896 848 126 for further information.

 

Useful links

Visit the Isle of May recording area page

Visit SOC Fife branch page

Find out our recommended birdwatching sites across Scotland. Visit our Where to birdwatch pages