Monday 15 May 2017

May Day! May Day! 9th May 2017

My wife and I decided on a week's break in the East Neuk of Fife which lies between Edinburgh and Dundee on the east coast of Scotland.This was no hardship for either of us as we both are of Scots ancestry and always look forward to renewing our ties with all things north of the border, although Fife was unknown to us and deliberately selected as a new experience.

We settled on a rented cottage in the ancient and tiny seaside village of Cellardyke  with its sixteenth century harbour  and which is conjoined with the picturesque, larger and busy village of Anstruther also overlooking the outer Firth of Forth. Even better, lying about 8km off the coast and clearly visible is the famous National Nature Reserve of The Isle of May (known to locals as just, May) owned by Scottish Natural Heritage and which is but an hour's boat ride from Anstruther's harbour with the boat that takes visitors, the May Princess, leaving every day on the tide and giving two to three hours to explore the island before returning.

The Isle of May
April to August is the peak time to visit the Isle of May when it is bustling with a quarter of a million breeding seabirds and the month of May is particularly good to observe the various species of seabirds as they settle in to breed. The numbers of seabirds are truly phenomenal and on such a small island they are literally everywhere you walk and look. In pairs there are an estimated 17000 Guillemots, 2700 Razorbills, 6500 Black legged Kittiwakes, 500 European Shags, 1000 Common Eiders and a mixture of 1000 Common  and Arctic Terns but Atlantic Puffins top the lot with an incredible 46,200 pairs breeding. This is even more impressive when you consider that in 1959 there were only around 20 pairs of Puffins breeding on the island with an increase to 3-4000 pairs by 1972. Small numbers of Oystercatchers, Fulmar Petrels, Herring and Lesser Black backed Gulls also breed on the island and all the seabird populations on the island are currently considered healthy and show no sign of decreasing. Of the passerines, Northern Wheatears, Rock Pipits, Pied Wagtails and Wrens breed on the island too.

Over two hundred and forty species of bird have been recorded from The Isle of May and when wind conditions have an easterly element in them the island has an impressive record for attracting rare migrant birds in both Spring and Autumn as well as large numbers of commoner migrants. For instance on a single day in May 1985 100 Bluethroats were recorded as were 15,000 Goldcrests on a single day in October 1982. The most impressive record and unlikely ever to be repeated has to be 40 Pallas's Sandgrouse found on the island in 1888 as part of a large scale irruption of this species from Asia. A number of first records for Britain have originated from here including Siberian Thrush, Pied Wheatear, Olivaceous Warbler and Isabelline Shrike and recent rare birds have included Rustic, Lapland and Ortolan Buntings, Wryneck, Arctic, Greenish, Icterine, Barred and Blyth's Reed Warblers, Common Rosefinch, Calandra Lark and Sooty Tern. Indeed the day after we had visited the island and the wind turned east a male Red breasted Flycatcher, originally ringed in Sweden and a male Eastern Subalpine Warbler were discovered sheltering on the island but were gone the next day.

The Isle of May is 1.8km long by 0.5km wide and is 57 hectares in size, lying on an axis pointing northwest to south east. The island consists of hard volcanic rock and is sparsely vegetated with a low lying and rocky east coast and a west coast dominated by high cliffs up to 55 metres high. It has a long and impressive history, with man first setting foot on it some five thousand years ago and a monastery being established from 1145-1320. Scotland's first lighthouse, a simple tower with a coal fired beacon on top was built here in 1636 and in 1816 Robert Stevenson built another more sophisticated lighthouse to replace the original one, the light being lit by oil and eventually electricity.

Robert Stephenson's Lighthouse built in 1816 and now fully automated
During both World Wars the island was a naval base and in 1956 finally became a National Nature Reserve. The island was judged to be ideal for establishing a Bird Observatory which was duly achieved in 1934 and is currently located in the former Low Light buildings on the eastern side of the island and manned throughout March to November, but even before the creation of the Observatory, from 1907 two intrepid ladies Misses Evelyn Baxter and Leonora Rintoul, with shotguns, carried out regular annual visits to study migration on the island.They incorporated their findings in a two volume book, The Birds of Scotland, published in 1933 and which became a classic and is now highly collectable.

Low Light now the Bird Observatory
Foghorn at southern end of the island
During our week in Fife Scotland excelled itself, in that we were blessed with sunny weather for the entire length of our stay, so after a couple of days settling in and finding our way around Anstruther and the other little villages along the coast I booked us on the May Princess for a Tuesday visit to the Isle of May, assuming that a weekday would be less popular than a weekend but I was proved comprehensively wrong and we sailed with the allowed maximum of a hundred visitors on board. 

It was pretty tightly crammed but just about bearable and sailing across a deep cobalt coloured sea with the sun shining down on us, although quite cold, it was still a very enjoyable journey. Not for everyone though and blue plastic bags were distributed by the jovial crew to those who felt their breakfast no longer wished to remain in their stomachs.

Almost immediately on our leaving Anstruther Harbour we were joined by two Bottle nosed Dolphins that played around the boat for a few minutes much to everyone's delight. They came very close, arcing out of the water showing their shiny, wet, pewter grey bodies and stub nosed faces before gliding effortlessly below the surface of the sea.

As we neared the island,we encountered groups of Eiders and then more and more auks became obvious, flying at great speed towards the island or swimming singly, in pairs or small groups on the sea and crash diving in alarm or skittering across the water when panicked by the closing presence of the boat. Puffins, with their outlandish, gaudily coloured bills, were only ever encountered in pairs or singly, warily watching our passage, reluctant to fly until the last possible moment and causing much excitement amongst the passengers as they were definitely the star attractions.

Guillemots including a 'bridled' one and a Razorbill

Razorbills and Atlantic Puffin

Auks on the water below their breeding cliffs
Gradually the island came to dominate the horizon and soon we were cruising under the towering cliff faces, marvelling at the sheer spectacle of so many seabirds flying over or swimming on the sea, or standing on precipitous ledges looking down on us from cliffs that were occupied from top to bottom by birdlife.

Cliffs at the northwest end of the island

Razorbills at the top and Guillemots below on the cliff face

Razorbills on the clifftop

Guillemots on their breeding ledges
Razorbills, black and stocky with a thick, blunt looking bill hurtled across the sky above us on whirring wings or stood in distinct pairs on their own small piece of territorial cliff ledge, their bills partially opened as if in constant complaint, whilst browner plumaged Guillemots, looking almost sylph like in comparison, with their slimmer upright bodies and fine pointed bills, stood in ranks, shoulder to shoulder like boxed toy soldiers on long narrow ledges, some facing outwards to the sea but others facing inwards, their heads raised looking up at the bare cliff face above them. Gannets, huge in comparison, flat backed, with widespread, black tipped white wings, glided with majestic purpose low over the sea, some with a beakful of seaweed heading back to their nest site. The Bass Rock which harbours in excess of 175,000 Northern Gannets in the breeding season is the largest Northern Gannet colony in the world and is but a few miles away across the Firth of Forth and clearly visible but these Gannets appeared to be nesting on the Isle of May possibly due to lack of space on the Bass Rock.

Northern Gannet with nesting material


Kittiwakes kept up a constant, insistent complaining ki-kee-yah ki-kee-yah, their cries echoing back off the cliffs and from the dark recesses of sea caves that we passed. The noise, commotion, abundance of birdlife and sheer endless panoply of movement can never fail but to impress as a spectacle.

Kittiwake ledges on the northern cliffside
Adult Black legged Kittiwake
The landing on the island has to be made at the small and narrow natural harbour of Kirkhaven which necessitates some nifty and delicate manouevering of the boat. However, today there was a huge swell running as a consequence of high winds the day before from the north east which was bringing tonnes of sea water in massive, metres high swells, one after another booming and crashing into the rocks either side of the harbour entrance in a welter of white froth and was creating great potential danger for the boat and us its passengers.

The skipper tried valiantly for twenty minutes to gain entrance to the harbour but the swells just kept coming one after the other and there was nothing he could do to safely get the boat through the narrow entrance. To risk the awesome  unstoppable power of an incoming swell would cause him to lose control of the boat and it would be dashed onto the rocks.

In the end he reluctantly had to give up and apologised, telling us this was the first time in five years this had happened and by way of compensation slowly circled the entire island to allow us to view the seabirds and some Grey Seals. Although disappointed not to be able to land, nonetheless I did have a great opportunity to get some flight shots of the various birds and also see them close to on the water before making our way back to Anstruther. Everyone got a 50% rebate on their ticket and we decided to give it another go the next day, Wednesday,

 Atlantic Puffins
Wednesday brought a much calmer sea and even better, less than thirty passengers had booked  on the boat so there was a more relaxed atmosphere and room to freely move about to take photos of the birds. Just as yesterday when we neared the island we encountered large numbers of seabirds and as before we cruised below the large cliffs, currently acting as avian tenements to countless auks and gulls.The Guillemots and Razorbills are really not built for land and it was all too apparent from their behaviour how much they are adapted for a marine existence. Their legs placed far to the rear of their bodies are designed to propel them under water as are their narrow wings and they sit uncomfortably on bended legs to support their upright bodies when huddled on their cliff ledges. On the sea it is a different story as  they seem to merge into the water, their bodies sinking low and becoming almost awash, the densely feathered plumage repelling the water, and the birds will often place bill and head below the water as if snorkelling. It is all so natural and easy in what is after all their normal environment and where they spend most of their lives.



Razorbill and Guillemot
This time there was no problem in accessing the narrow harbour as today the swell had gone and the sea was gentle and benign. As we passed through the rocky entrance a snow storm of Arctic Terns, only recently arrived on the island from their phenomenal long distance migration from the southern hemisphere, erupted from the rocks where they were enacting their highly strung, ritualised courting behaviour and forming breeding pairs. Eiders, the drakes resplendent in black and white, aaaahh ooooed their crooning un-duck like calls to their brown females as they swam on the tide. The females as ever appeared totally unimpressed.

Arctic Terns

Common Eider-pair

Common Eider-drake
After disembarking we were given a short talk  by one of the assistant wardens on where to go and what to do and what not to do on the island. The main thing was common sense really and that was to keep to the marked paths so as not to tread on the puffin burrows which literally now cover most of the island. A similar situation existed on Skomer when I visited there some two years ago although the burrows belonged predominantly to Manx Shearwaters rather than Puffins.

For the next two and a half hours we indulged ourselves in close encounters with most of the breeding seabirds, the first priority naturally being Puffins. It was impossible not to notice them as they were everywhere you looked, standing in pairs or little groups, quizzically watching us with a slight air of nervousness before flying off on whirring blurring wings, carrying their plump little bodies hither and thither. Their black and white plumage, bright orange legs and feet, clown faces and their crowning glory, that beak of many deck chair colours make them immediately irresistible both to ordinary members of the public and hardened birders alike. We walked past any number of them prospecting nest sites or just standing about  in small parties on a rock or grassy mound as if  unsure what to do next.

 Atlantic Puffins
As we turned onto a grass track my wife pointed down to my feet where a female Eider sat silently within inches of me, intently watching us as she incubated her eggs. A satisfyingly large, plump duck. grey brown with many darker lines and squiggles across her body and wings she is the complete opposite to the showy and obvious drake with his black and white plumage. She regarded us with a dark unblinking eye, unmoved and determined to remain incubating her precious eggs and we left her squatting over her eggs like a large feathered tea cosy, sunk amongst the grasses, Sea Campion and Celandines.

Common Eider-female incubating eggs

Common Eider-drake
Further on, a rough grassy area was home to a colony of breeding Lesser Black backed Gulls, each off duty gull standing or sitting on a rock or mound guarding his or her incubating mate. Smartly defined in black and white with sulphur yellow legs they are handsome birds and if not so familiar would surely attract more attention.They are killers though and do not hesitate to take advantage of sick, injured or unwary birds and unguarded eggs and young. 

Further still a rocky gully held nesting Kittiwakes, the majority still nest building and flying back and fore to a sloping face of bare earth and loose grass to tear tufts of grass from the earth and then return with a beakful to their mate guarding their tiny piece of precipitous real estate lest another Kittiwake laid claim to it in their absence.

Black legged Kittiwakes
Having indulged ourselves with a surfeit of Puffins we returned to the boat and had a quick cup of tea which allowed me to give my still troublesome knee some rest before subjecting it to more extreme exercise. I am not sure whether this is good or bad for it but if I was to take maximum advantage of the island and the birding opportunities there was no option but to get on with it.

The May Princess safely in Kirkhaven Harbour
This time we went in the opposite direction, walking slowly northwest up a grass path called Lady's Loan to the ruins of the Priory. Another Eider was snuggled down on her nest by one of the drystone walls but of more interest, two pairs of Arctic Terns were setting up territory and selecting their nest site near to the path, their harsh, grating calls and extreme postures forming part of their stylised courting ritual and pair bonding. They are such remarkable birds spending most of their life in the air and travelling virtually constantly, covering thousands of miles from northern to southern hemisphere and back again, apart from their breeding season. Their blood red legs are very short, shorter even than their close cousin the Common Tern but who needs long legs when most of one's time is spent in the air. In flight they almost bounce with an elastic fluid motion  as their long pointed wings cleave the air and their feather light bodies move up and down with every beat of their wings. They are all points, bill, wings and tail, an amalgam of acute angles.

Arctic Terns
We eventually arrived at a place called Lady's Bed, a viewpoint at the northwest very cliff edge of the island. Here I found my favourites, Razorbills. They were very close, within feet of us and showed no alarm at our presence. Pairs and single birds were establishing their own small area of cliff ledge territory where they would lay their one large elliptical egg and raise their chick. Despite their formidable bill and bruiser like build they rarely indulge in violent confrontation but establish a pecking order by intimidatory deep churring growls, backed by the occasional shove of silky white breast, opening of their beak to reveal a bright yellow interior and threatening flap of  narrow wings to deter any encroaching rival. On the sea it seems a different matter and I have witnessed some formidably energetic and prolonged fights with neither bird willing to submit. 

Razorbills fighting
Accompanying the unsociable Razorbill growls were the faster whirrring calls of Guillemots, inevitably to be found in assemblies both great and small, loathe to ever be on their own and always seeking to sidle up and join their fellows for company. Some indulged in a communal display of bill pointing, raising their bills vertically to the sky. A 'bridled' Guillemot, looking like it was wearing white, wire rimmed spectacles stood half asleep on a rock. These individuals are said to be more prevalent in northern populations and after we saw this one we seemed to notice many more.

'Bridled' Guillemot


The braying growls, churrrs and whirrrs of the auks and the cries of the occasionally nesting pair of Herring Gulls were supplemented by the constant sharp, rhythmic cries of Kittiwakes, many now sat on nests here, whilst others were still in the process of establishing a nest site.  

Black legged Kittiwakes
A couple of Shags had made their home here also, sitting on bulky nests in the sun. Superficially they look black but closer inspection reveals a subtle beauty of green glossed plumage scalloped with black fringes and their green eyes constantly cast about with a snake like motion of their neck at all the activity around them.

European Shag
Puffins were here too, in small numbers but kept themselves discreetly apart from the throng as if unsure about their safety amongst their larger fellow cliff dwellers.

Atlantic Puffins
Beyond the cliffs, which fell in dizzyingly deep shadow to the sea there were countless auks settled on the sea like a vast covering of feathered flotsam. Birds were bathing, preening, feeding and generally having a  good old time of it, relieved no doubt to be away from the crowded, hot, noisy and dusty cliff ledges, stained white with guano and being crapped on by birds on ledges above them but eventually they would have to return to relieve their mate.

I sat with my wife on a rock stained golden yellow with lichen, facing seabirds literally feet away from us.The noise and it has to be said the smell was incredible, and I realised that the noise and smell would be constant and never ending day and night for as long as the birds were here. We sat, relaxed and mentally idling, just enjoying the experience, not unique but always a delight to encounter, with the constant movement of the birds and the changing panorama making it forever interesting.

Mrs U pointing out some Puffins
Time was drawing on with the deadline for the return of the boat to Anstruther being 4.15pm. We were the last to leave the cliff edge and still had time on the slipway  to chat to the head warden and his assistants, one of whom was from Islip in Oxfordshire. This kind of coincidence has happened so many times to me now that it is no longer unusual but it set a pleasant seal on a remarkable and intensely enjoyable day

We sailed around the island, with the skipper pointing out various historical buildings and topographical features whilst I yet again marvelled at the sheer abundance of birdlife. We came to a group of Grey Seals hauled out onto the rocks, lounging in the sun, some with their fur turning pale ginger as it dried out. Over two thousand seal pups are born here every year from mid October to December but only around two thirds reach maturity.  It is the largest colony in eastern Britain and since 1982 for six weeks each year, commencing in October, they are studied and recorded when access to the island is forbidden, so the seals can monopolise the island beaches and grassy slopes without disturbance from visitors. During the summer about a hundred seals still remain around the island.

Grey Seals
We reached the northern tip of the island and the skipper turned the boat on a heading for the return crossing to Anstruther and the noise of calling birds slowly died on the wind. We passed a distant two masted ship belonging to Greenpeace which was studying the effect of flotsam and jetsam on Basking Sharks. A quiet contentment settled on the May Princess as we chatted to our fellow passengers while traversing the ever blue sea as the boat's white churning wake left a meandering trail of phosphorescence back to the slowly receding Isle of  May.

At the end of our week in Fife a pleasant and unexpected birding opportunity presented itself in the arrival of a rare female Citrine Wagtail, temporarily residing on a flash of water at Lynemouth on the Northumberland coast

Citrine Wagtail- female
This would entail but a short detour from our route homewards on the southbound A1 and so, on a showery Saturday morning I found myself in the company of just one other birder standing on a sandy track and sharing the delights of a female Citrine Wagtail, feeding literally within feet of me on the muddy margins of what was no more than a very large puddle in some waste ground

This was only the second Citrine Wagtail I have ever seen in Britain and the first time I have seen a female of this species anywhere. A nice and pleasant supplement to a most enjoyable and rewarding week in Scotland.

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