July 1st   Leave a comment

I went to the Isle of May this afternoon on the May Princess from Anstruther. It was the usual fantastic spectacle. 45,000 pairs of puffins this year and most just on the point of fledging their young. Hundreds of puffins were in the air at any one time, with bills full of sprats or sand eels. They almost crash land by their burrows because they approach so fast and immediately scurry down and disappear. They have to do this or they will lose their hard won fish to one of the prowling herring or lesser black-backed gulls which chase until the puffin drops its catch. It’s heart breaking to see a puffin lose their fish which may have been caught tens of miles away and the result of many hours hard flying and fishing.

A puffin waiting for the photographer to move out of the way of its burrow: it doesn't matter where you stand on the Isle of May you will be in the way of a puffin.

But the puffins are doing better than the guillemots and razorbills. The violent wind storm of a few weeks ago blew many guillemot chicks and eggs off their precarious ledges. The puffins will have been perfectly safe in their burrows. There were no obvious chicks remaining on the cliffs for either guillemots or razorbills, although many that survived the winds will have fledged and gone already. In contrast, the kittiwakes seem to be doing well with many nests with a couple of well grown chicks in them. Large enough that they look in constant danger of falling out, which of course happens to a few of them. They will all be safely fledged in the next couple of weeks and then we can look out for the very characteristic black “W” wing pattern of the juvenile kittiwakes as they pass Crail and head out to the North Sea for the winter. It’s a great signal of a successful breeding season, but one that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Many kittiwake colonies to the north are not fledging any chicks, year after year, because of low fish stocks due to over fishing and climate change.

Kittiwake chick

Another breeding speciality of the May Island is the arctic tern. The large colony down at the landing stage has failed again this year. A couple of specialist predatory gulls took most of the eggs laid a few weeks ago. This is despite the artic terns’ ferocious defence of their nests. One of the highlights of any trip to the island is their aerial bombardment if you stray close to their nests. This is particularly intense when they nest next to the May Princess’s landing stage. But not this visit. The terns have now moved up onto the top of the island where you are not allowed to walk. They still have problems with the gulls up there though and it is uncertain whether they will have a successful breeding season after all. The highlight of my visit was the very close views of a pair of terns nesting about 15 meters from the path. Just far away for them not to try and mob passers-by, but close enough for the terns to circle just above my head, with the sunlight glowing brilliantly through their wings. One of my ambitions is to see an arctic tern in a similar way in Antarctica and to wonder whether it is an Isle of May bird.

Arctic tern - possibly the most superlative bird in the world

Posted July 3, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

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