A return to the Isle of May

July 24, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Following from my first trip to the Isle of May where our puffin viewing had been rather limited, and the much more successful trip to the Farne Islands, I still hadn't seen the iconic vision of puffins - that of their bills full of sand eels.  An ornithologist friend who has been ringing seabirds on various islands in the Firth of Forth reported to me that I'd only have a short spell to return this year before the pufflings fledged, and where there are pufflings, there are parents with sand eels in bills.  The pufflings themselves were unlikely to be visible as they keep in burrows until they are ready to fledge, and in an attempt to dodge the gull sentinels, usually fledge under cover of darkness.  Jane was unable to join me on this occasion, but with a check of the tide times, I set off last Friday morning.

"Miracle" near The Isle of May"Miracle" near The Isle of MayA lovely morning to be out sailing.

The boat sailed at 9.30am from Anstruther, and the weather promised to be yet another hot one even at that hour.  I learned in New Zealand that if attempting to photograph still water,  it is better to do so first thing in the morning before any wind gets up.  And so it proved as we sailed East on a millpond-flat sea, only disrupted by the East Coast's brand new RNLI lifeboat which came to spin around us.  Only a few miles to the south of us, those at The Open (golf) at Muirfield were experiencing calm early conditions with a bit more wind later on.  

Swimming Atlantic Puffin near the Isle of MaySwimming Atlantic Puffin near the Isle of May

It was already very hot on the island when we landed and where before we had had an easy walk up towards the cliffs, we now had to do some dodging from dive-bombing Arctic terns.  They hadn't been there at all when we visited before, but there were little balls of fluff on red legs and the promise of their parents' sharp beaks as the chicks ventured round looking far from ready to fledge, and having brought my monopod on this occasion, I extended it above my head as I had with the tripod on the Farne Islands - again avoiding attack.  

Arctic Tern on the Isle of MayArctic Tern on the Isle of May

Three other differences this time were that there wasn't a rabbit to be seen, I only noticed one female eider duck and I didn't see any swallows either.  The rabbits may well have been taking shelter in their burrows.  The chief ranger informed me that sadly some of them have myxomatosis.  Another contrast was that where before we had seen empty greenery around the burrows and bare cliff tops, now there were masses of adult puffins, some with sand eels and some without.  Overhead, they zipped round, sometimes circling, sometimes landing, and rarely going straight to the burrows because of the gulls waiting to mob them. 

Atlantic Puffin with sand eels, Isle of MayAtlantic Puffin with sand eels, Isle of May

Walking East towards the white lighthouse, the lesser black backed gulls had plenty of chicks and where there are chicks, there has to be food.  The black backed gulls are great scavengers, and that includes both sand eels and pufflings if they get a chance.  Despite seeing a couple of aerial mobbings, I was relieved not to witness an attack on a puffling.  Most of the other seabirds' chicks had fledged, although we saw a couple of large shag chicks struggling to keep cool in the heat, a razorbill chick and a couple of kittiwake chicks.  Since returning from the trip, I have read that kittiwake numbers are down by as much as 87% this year so I hope these chicks thrive to boost the numbers again.  I returned to the boat through carpets of sea campion and scentless mayweed, and past the dive-bombing Arctic terns, although by this time they were dive-bombing each other.

Scentless Mayweed, Isle of MayScentless Mayweed, Isle of MayWell-named!

I had thought that we would be taken straight back to the mainland as we had been on the previous trip, but instead, the boat circled clockwise round the island, pausing for us to see the last of the common guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes who still had unfledged chicks.  In the sea we saw a few grey seals swimming around the boat, and further along, razorbills diving beneath the surface to dart around in the crystal clear water like torpedoes.  Groups of gannets flew past and puffins bobbed along on the water.  In such hot conditions, the sea seemed like a good option for those whose parenting jobs had been completed.

Seacliffs on the south side of the Isle of MaySeacliffs on the south side of the Isle of May

One question lingered from this trip.  An elderly man had sat next to me on the outward journey and gave me an in-depth explanation of his equipment (Nikon).  During this time, whilst watching me attaching polarizing filters to my lenses, he remarked that he keeps them on his lenses all the time.  When I queried whether he meant UV filters, he asserted that they were polarizing filters.  I would be intrigued to see his photographs, and particularly those taken in dull conditions.  An article I have subsequently read puts forward good arguments, so I might experiment.

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