On Saturday 30 June 2018, six young birders set sail for the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth to take part in the SOC/Isle of May Bird Observatory's, 'Young Birders' Training Course'. Here's how they got on on their island adventure...
At 11:30am, 6 intrepid young birders – Alice, Bethia, Dylan, Hannah, Mark and Sean (me) - gathered at Anstruther Harbour to be boated out to the Isle of May for a week. Rather surprisingly, we were met with glorious sunshine which persisted for the whole week! I was especially happy to be able to set off for the island, as 11 hours previously had been in Kirkcaldy accident and emergency with a broken collarbone and concussion from a bike accident, uncertain whether I would be able to take part in the course at all. Gathered on the pier, we were told the boat wouldn’t be leaving for another hour or so, giving us some time to explore Anstruther.
A 20-minute sailing, with close sightings of Gannets, Guillemots and Puffins, brought us to the Island, where we were greeted by many of the staff and researchers. Disembarking the boat, we were treated to a close fly-by of a large group of Arctic Terns, low to the water and in perfect synchrony. The sunny walk from harbour to the bird observatory took us past Puffin nesting grounds, quickly putting smiles on everyone’s faces.
After lunch, unpacking and a short introduction to the island by Stuart, one of the course leaders, we were given a quick tour of the island, with plenty of close-up views of Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Fulmars and gulls. Returning to the observatory, we were treated to a delicious dinner, cooked up by Mark Oksien (another course leader), after which Steely and Becks, Isle of May Warden and Assistant Warden respectively, came around to introduce themselves and their work.
Our first ‘proper’ day on the island and we kick-started with a morning sea-watch from 08.00-09.00. Some were perhaps more ready to go than others - with the boy’s room being up and about well before 07.00 – but needless to say, everyone was excited for the first day! Despite the sea-watch from both Lower Light and Rona being rather uneventful, there was much to see in the moth trap. From 09.00 - 10.00 we identified the species. A particular favourite among all was The Spectacle, Abrostola tripartita, with the circular tufts of scales rising from its thorax looking like… well, you guessed it… spectacles.
After taking quite a while perusing over the moths (don’t worry, we got faster as the week went on!), we headed outside to check the Heligoland traps and set up mist nests in the Top Garden and by Lower Light. Mark Oksien explained the principles of bird ringing and after a demonstration it was our turn to ring the Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Pied Wagtail caught in the traps. Ringing was a first experience for many and so was an especially enjoyable activity to do on the first day.
After some much needed lunch, it was time to meet Mark Newell from CEH and learn about the work he does on the island. Following on from this, Stuart spoke to us about the data collection and logs at the Observatory, along with providing tips for becoming better birders. A number of us put this into practice after dinner, when we tried to distinguish between Puffins and Guillemots from ever increasing distances. Time seemed to slip by and before long it was 23.00 and we had yet to fill out the log books. By 24.00 they were finally complete and we resolved to start them much earlier the following evening.
Another beautiful day on the Isle of May. The morning began with checking the moth trap at Fluke Street - we had 11 species today. We then set off to Rona for our first experience of ringing Great Black-backed Gull chicks, a fun but challenging task due to the chicks’ large size, sharp bills and knack of escaping. Ringing is an important way the island’s staff contributes to research, so it was worth the patience, bites and smell of damp, algae-covered feathers to have a chance to ring these young birds. After that, we headed down to Pilgrim’s haven to carry out a beach clean. On the surface it appeared relatively unpolluted, but as we moved stones piled up by this year’s storms, we were appalled by the never ending mass of polystyrene fragments, cotton buds and other litter. We hauled our filled bin bags up the beach with the grim awareness that we had, quite literally, only scratched the surface.
On return to the Low Light, Stuart taught us some important skills in fieldcraft and identifying birds - being able to thoroughly describe plumage is key to providing solid evidence that a certain rare bird has been sighted. Tea was a lovely meal outside in the setting sun at Fluke Street (an unexpected upside of a malfunctioning oven). Back at the Obs, we completed the log and drank tea until dark, excited for the night ahead. With the mist net set up and the odd-sounding recordings of Storm and Leach’s Petrels blasting out to sea, we stocked up on biscuits and waited. The first ‘stormie’ arrived at 00:30. Everyone gathered around to see the House Martin-sized seabird and catch a whiff of its distinctive musky smell. It was quite a treat to see such an amazing bird up close. Those who stayed up longer were awarded with a second stormie at 01:30. Once it had been ringed and examined I had the honour of releasing it back into the night.
The morning began with our first porpoise sighting of the week, spotted by David Steele on his way back from a routine sea watch. We then spent time at the observatory identifying and noting down Shag rings, with some entertainment as one individual jumped back and forth along the rocks to pinch nest materials for their chick! After lunch, we took it in ‘terns’ to observe the feeding rates of the nesting Arctic Tern residents, before attempting to ring Greater Black-backed Gull chicks for a few hours. With thoroughly messy waterproofs and a few arm scratches later, we headed back for a much-deserved tea break before attempting the same with Lesser Black-backed chicks – RIP Mark’s regurgitate-covered record sheet! We then headed up to Fluke Street for a wonderful curry night, before heading out to the clifftop hides to observe Guillemot jumplings fledging from their ledgings. This was without a doubt one of the most emotional moments of the week – we all became so invested in those we spotted that seemed likely to jump! Each was given a cute (I mean…totally scientific and non-biased!) name, and as each took the plunge we leaned over the cliff edge to make sure they landed safely – which I am happy to say they did! By around 11pm it was dark enough that watching the birds was a tricky business, and so we headed back to the observatory for another faithful logbook completion and to await a second round of Storm Petrels as their song was echoed into the night.
Wednesday was a very practical day, full of grafting and hard work! Although I came into the course with very little in the way of woodwork and construction experience, I definitely learned more than I was expecting. The day wasn't all hard work however, and between the building of tern boxes, we were able to go to one of the hides to carry out Puffin counts. This involved identifying all individuals which had coloured rings within a certain area. This was very entertaining, especially since the Puffins were so close, probably just a metre or so away! The afternoon was focussed around building and fixing tern boxes. Although many of the old tern boxes were beyond our salvation, we built plenty more, each with their own tern-pun related name.
In the evening the mist nets were put up once more, with limited hopes for amount of birds we would catch. However, the nets were very successful, and enabled us to ring plenty of loud Starlings, which, despite the racket they made, did not put up much of a fight when it came to being handled.
The morning started well with little wind and no rain, which would define the weather of the day. As with most mornings, we retrieved the moth trap from its traditional spot under the elder trees, near the low lighthouse where we were staying. These mornings were most enjoyable with moths covering every surface as we tried desperately, often unsuccessfully, to identify each individual that came out of the trap. The week had seen huge numbers of species like Dark Arches, however the brightly coloured Garden Tiger had truly dominated earlier in the week. By Thursday numbers of them had started to decline but lack of Garden Tigers was made up for in abundance of other species. The Burnished brass, like trapped animated gold drops, fluttered in their specimen boxes and a Campion, with its gold and silver outlines looked like a miniature Persian rug. A Beautiful Golden Y, with the flash of gold on its wing, sat contently among the more colourful species. One true beauty emerged from that morning was the White ermine, a species of pure snowflake white that even a novice moth trapper can identify. Overall that morning we caught and identified fifty-seven moths. Two Sexton’s Beetle wandering around on the bottom of the box like little black and yellow tanks, with little scarlet mites attached to them, no doubt picked up from their food, rotting meat.
Much of the morning was dedicated to a talk lead by Professor Sarah Wanless who recently won the ‘Outstanding women of Scotland' award for her work. Whilst fascinating, it was too long to write about here, but it did bring up some interesting points such as the fact that plastic and elastic pollution has been suggested as an impacting factor on seabirds since the seventies. From the end of this talk up to lunch, we worked to repair one of the helioland traps that had suffered the regular wear-and-tear of life on an exposed island which resulted in an entirely new roof due to the last one disintegrating. We also did a second beach clean, yet another depressing adventure in the world of human overconsumption.
That evening we decided to join some of the seabird ecologists in their Puffin ringing. Almost as soon as we arrived Puffins started hitting the net. Running to retrieve the Puffins and their meals before the gulls did was fraught with difficulty as the ground was littered with Puffin burrows that one needed to avoid for the birds and your own sake. Overall 29 Puffins were caught, rung and released and their meals recorded so the scientists could record what food they had and when. Of the three Puffins I rung, they collectively completely put me off all Puffins by giving me some of the worse bites I’ve ever received from an animal. At around twelve o’clock, after the mandatory record-keeping, we all fell into bed after another exhausting but incredible day on the May.
Our last full day on the island came around far too quickly, with all of us wishing we had another week. As it was the last day a few of us decided to take an early morning walk, which once again reminded us what a special place the island is. Returning for breakfast, we were all excited to see what our final day had in store for us.
After breakfast we set out on our final Great Black-backed Gull colour ringing session of the week, running around after gull chicks while trying not to fall in the sea or let the chicks escape. As usual, this wasn’t without some added excitement. Highlights included: spending a very long time persuading four stubborn chicks to leave a pool of water, resulting in more than one set of sodden feet, and watching Alice carry four large gull chicks at once, all determined to escape, back to the ringing area.
Next task for the morning was some routine maintenance on the Heligoland traps, replacing broken or rotten beams and rusty chicken wire, rather hot work in the scorching Scottish sunshine.
After lunch we were given a demonstration of how to catch and ring a Shag, using a hook on a long stick and some careful handling of that large beak, followed by what has got to be the highlight of the week: Puffin grovelling. This requires lying on the ground and sticking your hand as far down a Puffin burrow as possible to try and retrieve a puffling, so that we could measure and ring it. There are four possibilities when pushing your hand into this lucky dip: the latrine, an empty burrow, an angry, fierce adult Puffin with a sharp, powerful bill or a cute, fluffy puffling with a soft bill. After being told at the start of the week the nesting season was too late this year for safe Puffin grovelling during the course, we were all overjoyed to hear that we would get to handle pufflings. After being given a quick demonstration and sticks to increase our reach, we set out across the survey area, methodically checking each burrow. Mark was first to find a bird, but unfortunately this was a dead adult. A few minutes later Bethia excitedly pulled out our first puffling. A few more finds ensued, giving all of us the chance to measure, ring and get a photo taken with “our” puffling.
While the public were on the island we had, yet another, interesting and informative talk by Stuart on how the data collected at the observatory is used, analysed and stored.
To celebrate our time on the island, after dinner we headed over to the researchers’ and wardens’ accommodation at Fluke street for a pub quiz, a lovely way to finish an amazing week.
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