Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Isle of May,Scotland June 2018 Creatures great and small. Part 3

In addition to the seabirds there are a few other breeding birds to be found on the island but they are few and far between and don't necessarily breed every year although in the case of the Barn Swallows
Barn Swallow   Hirundo  Rustica
and Rock Pipits
Eurasian Rock Pipit    Anthus petrosus
it appears they have become permanent fixtures whereas I'm not sure if the Wrens I have seen in the past bred there this year.One species that did try unsuccessfully to nest was a pair of Carrion Crow. Their nest high up on the Main Light was blown away in the storm we experienced which is a benefit to the island as there are enough predators there already without the need for more egg thieves.
Two species I have failed to mention so far are the breeding Oystercatchers of which there are a few.
Eurasian Oystercatcher    Haematopus ostralegus
Oysters being substituted for snails as a large part of their diet too.
One of the benefits of being a late breeding season was that for the first time since the April visit in 2012 I got to see and photograph male Eider ducks.

Common Eider   Somateria mollissima
There were  just one or two still on the island and I was reminded of the eerie sound they make as a mating call.
Common Eider   Somateria mollissima
Possibly the most handsome duck I have seen but they are also feckless fathers it would seem as they desert the island once the eggs are laid and leave the mothers to do all the incubating and rearing.
Common Eider   Somateria mollissima
I don't know how they manage to survive but they never leave their nests it would appear and rely on camouflage for protection from predation. 
Once the ducklings are big enough to move the females gather together to form defensive creches.
Common Eider    Somateria mollissima
although sometimes their sense of positioning doesn't look too sound.
As previously mentioned, the Isle of May has a substantial seal colony, both Common and Grey Seals too.
They can be seen basking on the rocks at low tide but very often are only well viewed from above as was the case with this juvenile.
Common Seal   Phoca Vitulina
Sometimes they come right in to the harbour and are naturally curious about your presence.
Common Seal   Phoca Vitulina
and if you are lucky you might even get to watch one out of water too.
Common Seal   Phoca Vitulina
I have never been lucky enough to witness other cetaceans from the island but sightings of Orca, Bottlenose Dolphin and one or two whale species have been noted on occasion.
The other main mammal inhabitant on the island are the rabbits. 
Rabbit  Isle of May,Scotland 2016
Originally brought to the island by Monks as a food source they are now huge in numbers but it's that reason there are so many Puffins because they use the burrows for nesting.
While we were there this year we also came across a team of "mousers' who were surveying the island population and in the past a friend of mine has conducted a full island survey of the various spider species to be found too!
Spider hunt!
He found quite a lot of previously undiscovered ones too so although the island is fairly small it still has secrets to give up to those who are prepared go searching.
During spring and autumn the Isle of May is a regular stopping off point for migrating birds and that is the most popular time for the ardent birdwatcher to visit in the hopes of catching glimpse of a rare species. I was lucky enough to be on the Island in 2012 when the first ever Black-winged Stilt was recorded.
Black-winged Stilt
A real rarity to Scotland it was a cause of frustration to those on the mainland as the weather prevented the day trippers to sail on most of the few days it stayed.
Various Owl species are recorded on migration but it's a surprise to me that they don't stay longer as there seems to be a plentiful supply of food.To this day the only Long eared Owl I have seen is one that landed on the island again in April 2012.
Long-eared Owl
Part of the duties of residents of the observatory is to keep an accurate log of the species seen, and for those who are qualified to do so, to ring and release them back in to the wild in an attempt to learn more about migration patterns, longevity etc. 
For me though it's not just the wildlife it's the people I have met and befriended too that make the island special.
Helping hands
I have nothing but gratitude to those who so freely give their time to maintaining the observatory and associated workings.Most people who visit probably take all this for granted but on one occasion I visited there was a work party staying with us and doing some work, and hard dirty work it was too.
Home improvements
All I could do was offer to cook, but at least the person travelling with me was competent enough to do some electrical work.
Helping hands
I decided that I would return to lend a bigger hand when the opportunity arose and this I did in 2017 when I visited for a week and helped out as a pass me fetch me kind of helper although I was given free reign with a hammer and nails on the odd occasion!
My role was not exactly key but it gave me a lot of satisfaction to be part of the team that rebuilt one of the traps.
Helping hands
Even though project manager Mark didn't take the news well when told I'd been given a saw.
The responsibility!
I couldn't allow the blog to pass without mention of the support we get from warden David Steel and his team, they help us to transport our baggage, allow the use of a big freezer for food storage and are always willing to share information or offer help in other ways too.
They are there to greet you on to the island and there to say goodbye which always leaves you wanting to go back for more.
 Sad to leave
When I will return depends on so many factors not excluding availability of course. There is always room for volunteers though I'm sure, especially if you have a needed skill. It was my intention to offer once again next spring but my current health problems probably mean that it's impossible.
We'll wait and see.
In the meantime I am just grateful that I had the opportunity once again this year and had some great company in the Low Light to make it one of the most enjoyable visits to date with a fun bunch of people as I'm sure you can tell.
Happy days!
So it's fingers crossed I get to make a return and re-live the thrill and expectations of the next stay as you make the crossing to the little island that is the Isle of May.
Happy to arrive

Monday, 30 July 2018

Isle of May,Scotland June 2018 Survival of the fittest. Part 2.

There are not that many different species of birds to be found on the Isle of May, it's just the numbers that are staggering!
200,000 thousand plus of which includes over 40,000 pairs of breeding Puffins. Everyone loves a Puffin and it's not just human loves that these enigmatic birds have to cope with. Their everyday struggle for survival is monumental.
Atlantic Puffin
Once the eggs have hatched the Puffins have to fly many miles out to sea , it's estimated as many as 80 miles is not unusual, in search of food. That's of course provided the eggs have hatched as it's not unknown for their nesting burrows to become flooded in particularly bad wet summers.
So who are the villains of the peace?
In fact there are several. Although I don't think that the once nesting Peregrines still stay on the island I may well be wrong. I didn't see one on this visit but in early 2017 I witnessed one fly off with a fully grown adult Puffin.
Peregrine Falcon     Falco Peregrinus
Top of the food chain comes the huge Great Black-backed Gull.
Great Black-backed Gull   Larus marinus
There are several pairs nesting on the island and they are on constant patrol looking for an opportune moment to strike.
Great Black-backed Gull   Larus marinus
They are capable of carrying off an adult Puffin or a small rabbit, often drowning their victim before setting about ripping them apart with their strong bills.
Great Black-backed Gull   Larus marinus
Exposed chicks of Razorbill and Guillemots disappear from their cliff ledge nests in seconds if the parent birds don't keep a constant vigil but it's not just the Great Black-backs that are a threat, their smaller cousins the Lesser Black-backed Gull
. Lesser Black-backed Gull   Larus fuscus
and Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull   Larus fuscus
breed in considerable numbers and they too have chicks to feed.
All three of these Gull species will snatch a chick if the opportunity presents itself and they are not particular as to which species it is either.
I have in the past often witnessed Gull on Gull predation, here a Lesser Black-backed has made off with a Herring Gull chick with the chasing posse no chance of saving the victim.
Herring Gull Isle of May,Scotland 2016
Puffins seem to be the most vulnerable though as it's not just the birds themselves the Gulls are after, it's the food they have searched so long and hard for too that is highly desirable. Both Herring and LBB Gulls harass the returning Puffins in an attempt to make them drop their catch.
Herring Gull ambush
and it's these moments of raw nature that keep drawing me back to witness each time I visit the Isle of May. There is always something new to capture on camera even if the players are largely the same.
Because everything was so late this year the colonies of terns, mainly Arctic,  had barely started to lay eggs, indeed more often than not the birds were not even on the nesting sites but sat on rocks in the harbour with matings still taking place.
My hopes of capturing improved shots of the birds bringing back fish to feed their young was a forlorn hope and instead of this
Artic Tern Sterna Paradisaea
the best I got was the very infrequent view of a bird taking in some water to drink or landing for a bath.
Arctic Tern  Sterna Paradisaea
Arctic Tern  Sterna paradisaea
Hopefully I'll get another chance in the future.
We were lucky in as much as the very first signs of Puffins bringing back food started a day after we arrived and by the end of the week the numbers had increased many times over.
Those shots of a bill full of Sand Eels were once my top ambition as a wildlife photographer
Atlantic Puffin  Fratercula arctica
and although they are still fun to take I now try for something a bit more ambitious.
Atlantic Puffin
although that's not always the case. Sometimes you realise you haven't got the simple shots of the likes of Shags in flight
Common Shag    Phalacrocorax aristotelis
which isn't as easy as it looks as you need particular conditions to get them flying up at your level.
Sitting on the cliff tops on a sunny day just waiting and watching is pure bliss.

Black-legged Kittiwake  Rissa tridactyla
Kittewakes flying for the pure joy of it 

Black-legged Kittiwake  Rissa tridactyla
as are the inquisitive Fulmars who come to take a closer look at you.
Northern Fulmar   Fulmarus Glacialis
You have to be prepared for the unexpected, a rapid change of camera settings may be needed, just focussing on the action may well prove too difficult leaving you somewhat frustrated but if it was easy you probably wouldn't bother.
Squabbling Kittewakes tumble in flight as they take pecks out of each other.
Black-legged Kittiwake  Rissa tridactyla
I totally blew that sequence and that was really annoying!
Still, there's always another day so be grateful for what you did get!
Black-legged Kittiwake  Rissa tridactyla
Whereas the weather wasn't always bright and sunny the fact you are on the island for more than a few hours gives you a far wider window of opportunity so with a bit of luck your moment will come.
A bit of wind at the cliff tops is ideal in holding the birds up to make photography a bit easier some of the time.
Atlantic Puffin  Fratercula arctica
and if you are careful you can actually follow the birds when they take what seem to be exercise flights in an arc around the sea before landing back in the same place.
Razorbill  Alca torda
It makes life much easier as you can be prepared in advance of the action.
Razorbill  Alca torda copy
If the birds fly with the wind it's a more difficult task, particularly with the more aero dynamic Guillemots.
Common Guillemot Uria aalge
But with patience the opportunity eventually presents itself when circumstances are more favourable.
Common Guillemot Uria aalge

Unfortunately very few were bringing back fish to chicks 
Common Guillemot Uria aalge
both Guillemots and Razorbills still having eggs to incubate.
Razorbill  Alca torda
Still there was plenty to keep me occupied and even gave me the opportunity to think of trying for something a little bit arty!
A stunningly beautiful Shag's feathers
European Shag  Phalacrocorax aristotelis
can look more interesting viewed a bit differently.
European Shag  Phalacrocorax aristotelis
A visit to the Isle of May isn't just about the seabird colonies though, there is more to it than that.