Last July, six more young birders set sail for the Isle of May to take part in the SOC/Isle of May Bird Observatory's, 'Young Birders' Training Course' 2017. Here's how they got on on their island adventure...
SATURDAY 1 JULY
Following first introductions on a lovely sunny morning in Anstruther, our group set off on a wet and windy journey by RIB across choppy waters to the Isle of May. As we got closer we found ourselves surrounded by Puffins (I’d never seen so many at once). Upon arrival at Kirkhaven harbour, we were greeted by the raucous shrills of nesting Arctic Terns, and spotted a chick or two amongst the rocks. We ambled along Holyman’s Road to our cosy accommodation at the Low Light where we unpacked, set up our telescopes and had our first lunch on the Isle of May.
After lunch we had a visit from the CEH Isle of May Field Manager, Mark Newell. Mark gave us a rundown on the seabird research undertaken on the island and prepared us for our taster week of daily life on the May. Next, we were treated to a tour of the island, visiting Burnett’s Leap with a view to Rona, and then up to Three Tarn Nick on the North Plateau where we saw Razorbills as close as two metres away. We visited the Heligoland Traps to see if they were working, and found a Chiffchaff and four juvenile Pied Wagtails, which allowed us our first ringing demonstration. Then finally off to the Low Light for pizza. Not a bad start to the week!
SUNDAY 2 JULY
Another glorious day on the Isle of May. Today we took shifts in the hide near Low Light so we could record Puffin feeding rates. I arrived at 8am for my shift, and before long I spotted my first Puffin scuttling into its burrow with a mouth full of fish. It was at that point I realised the next two hours were going to be a lot of fun. I had thought the Puffin’s ‘flying brick’ type flight pattern was comical but it is nothing compared to their ridiculous penguin-like run. I’ll be honest, it’s only day two and I’ve already fallen in love with this place. I saw two Pufflings brave the outside world to stretch their wings before retreating back to the safety of their burrow. Some of the Puffins came up really close to the hide which was great as it meant I got to hear their very sweet grumbling noises.
After my stint in the hide I went off to join the rest of the group while they were building tern huts. We’re learning so many different skills out here, I never thought when I applied for a birding course that I would be measuring, sawing and hammering wood.
After this we all headed out to do a bit of habitat restoration. We weeded out a lot of nettles in various places so we were able to put up some mist nets. That evening we managed to get a few juvenile Starlings, juvenile Pied Wagtails and a Swallow in the mist net. We’re still all a bit apprehensive about ringing but I’m sure our confidence will grow.
MONDAY 3 JULY
After breakfast we headed to Fluke Street to open the moth trap, which yielded two moths. It was bright and sunny while we checked the walls towards the south of the island for any Pufflings that had gotten stuck during the night on their descent to the sea. Next we got our waterproofs on in preparation for our trip to Rona. Not for inclement weather, but to protect us from the predicted shower of gull excrement we’d endure whilst searching the undergrowth and rocks for Great Black-backed Gull chicks. Any unringed chicks were fitted with metal rings alongside a coloured ring with a visible short code which allows researchers to record the movements and success of chicks, data which is used by SNH to monitor the population.
After lunch we met with Mark to do some ‘Puffin grovelling’. This meant sticking our arms down Puffin burrows to pull out the chicks to ring them. This was very hit and miss - some burrows were full of water from the rain the previous week, some had inches of excrement which was unavoidable as your arm went into the burrow. Others had very long burrows, too long for an arm to reach the chick at the end. I was fortunate in the burrows I checked and managed to retrieve three chicks plus one adult. Mark Newell told us about the concrete Puffin boxes which had been installed on the island when burrow space had become limited one year. However during the winter there was a mass mortality resulting in a considerable reduction in the Puffin population size, meaning that the boxes were no longer necessary. No Puffin pairs had successfully bred using these boxes until this year; box AO contained a Puffling which was the first to be hatched. Lewis ringed the Puffling then we put it back into the box - what an honour!
After this we had an ‘essential skills’ session with Stuart followed by some free time. I wandered down to Altarstanes, probably my favourite part of the island and a good place to look up at the cliffs and their inhabitants.
Later that evening we donned our coats for some Puffin netting. We had to run down to the net when a Puffin had been caught to pick up the fish they had dropped and then take the Puffin to be ringed before release. We did this until it got towards dusk, then went to the south of the island to watch Guillemot chicks jumping into the sea, or ‘fledging’. Emotions ran high whilst watching this; seeing the small, fluffy chicks jumping from such a height into the inky water below was nail-biting stuff. Thankfully all the chicks made it down alright whilst we were watching. It was very late by the time we got back to the Low Light, and quickly got into bed to make the most the time we had to sleep before the 04:30am start the following day.
TUESDAY 4 JULY
Tuesday began early, despite staying up until after 23:00 the night before watching Guillemot jumplings. Our 04:30 rise and 05:00 start were justified by the chance to help CEH members with their dietary study of Puffins. Birds were to be caught with mist-nets on their return journeys from the sea to their burrows, dropping their edible prizes in the process. Running to the birds was key not only for their welfare, but also to deter opportunistic gulls that would otherwise be onto the fish in a flash. Catching double figures of birds gave us all a chance to ring at least one adult, alongside the usual Pufflings that we rescued from beside the customary wall each morning. A novelty for that Independence Day afternoon was a tern feeding watch; in pairs, we were to monitor two randomly chosen Arctic Tern nests and the only Sandwich Tern nest with a chick, tallying up the incoming feeds for one hour. My partner drew a blank with his Arctics, but my Sandwich chick got one feed exactly halfway through our slot, so at least I had something to write!
WEDNESDAY 5 JULY
We started off today by visiting the moth trap down at Fluke Street - our moth ID skills are improving each day. Next we searched for Pufflings which had got lost in the nettles while trying to fledge overnight. We came across seven Pufflings this morning, I find this job very rewarding because without our help these Pufflings would not have survived. Next we helped with tern chick recording. With each chick we found, we picked it up and either read out the ring number or took it to be ringed. We were able to see tern chicks of all different ages which I found really interesting as we were able to see the age progression.
Later that day we went back and ringed the Puffin chicks we had found that morning, everyone seems to be becoming far more confident with the ringing which has been great to see. After this we headed off to ring Kittiwake chicks which was enjoyable as the chicks were very sweet and fluffy.
Stuart then took us round to see the south end of the island where we got some really impressive views, it feels very calm round that end of the island. Later that day we set up a huge mist net so we could hopefully catch some storm petrels that night. We stayed up until 2:30am and in that time we did manage to catch a storm petrel which was very exciting!
THURSDAY 6 JULY
After a long late night of Storm Petrel ringing, the morning got off to a slower start with everyone falling out of bed at around 8:30am. The first activity of the day was to go through the moth box we had put out the night before. Emptying the box and identifying all the moths had become an eagerly anticipated activity most mornings, especially amongst a select few who were seemingly becoming experts as the week progressed. I personally wouldn’t have put myself down as being overly keen on moths, however, I found myself growing to love it and that morning Alison and I were the first to dive in. Key species we were growing to know included Dark Arches and The Spectacle, while the Beautiful Golden Y were present in numbers as well as some new species for the week including Burnished Brass and Large Yellow Underwings.
Our hands-on work with the birds and any work off the main paths comes to a halt whilst visitors are on the island so as not to encourage them to wander from the paths. Instead time was put towards creating nest boxes for the terns. The tern chicks are easy prey for the larger gulls on the island and so providing the young with places to shelter reduces the predation risk massively. After already completing half the boxes earlier we soon turned the final two sheets of plywood into another 13 nest boxes. This made our 26 boxes for the week, more than last year’s young birders by one box…. not that it is a competition !
The weather was panning out to be a nice night for another Storm Petrel ringing session, however before this was the main event of the year, the quiz. The observatory was split into two teams and so was Fluke Street. After several rounds of tough questions, including a ‘bird’ round of course, everyone showed their strengths (and weaknesses) and the observatory came first. With some added drinks this kind of social event really encompasses the family spirit on the island. Sometimes it is not always easy living in such an enclosed environment but with everyone sharing a common interest and passion for birds and conservation at no point did I or anyone feel out of place or unwelcome.
Last but not least was another night of Storm Petrel ringing, which although an amazing experience to be able to see these stunning, charismatic little sea birds up close, it is also very draining staying up until 3am for the second night in a row. Some did not make it all the way through the night, but everyone managed a look at the one individual we caught. With standard views of Storm Petrels being 100m off shore in stormy conditions, having one in your hand is just incredible.
FRIDAY 7 JULY
We were off to help Bex do some more gull chick ringing. This was no mean feat, a small group of larger chicks were pretty wary of us and if we got too close they would just go into a large pool of water. In the end it took us all staged at various points around the pool to get the chicks back to dry land and a few of us were army crawling (me included) and hiding in ‘ambush’ as the chicks were walked towards us. Let me tell you it is not easy staying upright when you are trying to get across slippy rocks quickly, but we did it and lying flat on my stomach strewn across the rocks, I caught the chick that needed ringed. Woo, Go Team!
We headed up to the main lighthouse to have a look at the archaeological exhibition that has been on show since May. We then had a session with the SNH team to hear about what had led them to this point in their career. It was really interesting to hear about the variety of ways in which people got involved in the conservation sector and ended up being on the Isle of May.
Our last evening on the island, what should we do? Well of course have a ceilidh! Simon from SNH was able to provide the music and it was up to the Scot’s to remember the routines. We got there in the end and everyone seemed to enjoy ceilidh dancing as it was some of the group’s first experience of Scottish dancing. It was a great way to end a fantastic week just the tidying and cleaning to go tomorrow….
SATURDAY 8 JULY
On the last day of an active week, we had a short but eventful morning. As well as cleaning and tidying the Low Light for the next lodgers, we wrapped up our final thoughts on the week’s events in the Chatty Log. And, as a bonus activity, we investigated a Rock Pipit nest and ringed three (very cute) chicks, before setting off to Kirkhaven to say farewell. We watched the Isle of May grow smaller behind us as we set off, and released a Puffling passenger into the waves, before arriving at the last destination on the week’s journey, a (yet again) sunny Anstruther.
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