The Isle of May is a wonderful destination in season (May to July) and it is worth birding on the Fife Coast too as you approach Anstruther for the boat for a couple of east coast specialities. I thoroughly recommend a trip and in this post will share some of the things to look out for.
We had a trip planned a a month ago for migration season but it was cancelled due to high wind so it has been great to reschedule for mid-June. It is always worth booking a couple of dates in case the wind stops the boats from running.
East Coast Specialties
Before heading out to the Isle of May (1pm boat) we checked out the Fife Coast for a few hours or birding.
First target was the Corn Bunting. Sadly because of modern farming practices this bird has declined dramatically over the last 50 years and is firmly on the UK’s “red list”. This dumpy LBJ (little brown job) has a wonderful song and is known for flying with its feet dangling behind it. Corn Buntings cling on in Fife with an estimated 110 pairs established on the East Neuk. As we left Crail and approached Kilminning we scanned wires and posts and were delighted to see one conveniently perched in a nearby a lay-by. We pulled in and used the car as a hide as the trusting bird greeted us with its “jangling keys” call.
Our other main target was the Yellow Wagtail. This summer breading migrant is restricted to the East Coast in Scotland so I can’t see it at home. A local birder told us that there were 3 pairs between Crail and Anstruther so we stopped in a lay-by and scanned the nearby fields. After five minutes we were delighted to see a male and female pair flying over and landing nearby on the kale crop.
We took the fast boat out to the Isle of May from Anstruther. Whilst bouncing over the waves we saw several Gannets flying past in long lines. This is our largest sea bird and it is a wonderfully specialised bird, perfectly suited for plunge diving into the sea to fish. Recent research shows that they may actually change the shape of their eye lens to stay focused underwater when chasing prey. The nearby Bass Rock is the worlds largest Gannet colony with over 150,000 birds breeding here and they patrol the east coast from this base fishing to feed their young.
Our boat approached the Isle of May from the north so our first contact was with the connected Isle of Rona.
We soon saw several Grey Seals both in the water and hauled out on the rocks. The Isle of May is a preferred breeding ground for Grey Seals with about 8,000 landing on the island each autumn and over 2,500 pups being born here each year. There were far fewer this June day but still plenty to form a descent welcoming party.
High rise living
Our boat travelled past the west coast cliffs before landing. The seabird colonies of Britain’s coast are really our equivalent of the Serengeti -a true wildlife spectacular. If you haven’t experiences the sights, sounds and even smells of a sea cliff bird colony book yourself on a trip as soon as you can, you won’t regret it
The cliffs around the Isle of May are home to thousands of Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and a few Fulmars. In this high-rise living each bird has it’s niche. At the bottom you have the Common Guillemots taking the lowest few stories of this seabird city.
Next come the Kittiwakes, looking quite like Common Gulls (found inland) but these gulls are only found at sea (or in Newcastle!). They come ashore to breed and they maintain a small territory from their neighbour on the crowded ledge where they lay their eggs and raise the young chicks.
Mixed in, and resting on the very highest levels of the seabird skyscrapper are the Razorbills. This is a beautifully marked bird with yellow gaping mouths, white marked bill and clear white line to the eye. This is one of the rarest auks in the world with less than a million pairs and they pair for life.
Lastly taking their place on this seabird city at the Fulmars. Most people would think that Fulmars are a gull species but their tube-noses tell a different story. This bird is actually closely related to the Albatross. The origins of their name comes from the old norse for “foul gull” due to their habit of vomiting stinking stomach oil on unweary intruders. I stayed well clear for this image, taken after landing, grateful for the reach of my camera lens.
Nature can be cruel
Whilst approaching our landing point we saw a bit of a commotion. A Great Black Backed Gull was struggling on the surface of the water whilst an anxious Kittiwake parent flew back and forth above. The Great Black Backed Gull is a top predictor in this habitat and easily capable of taking a Kittiwake chick and indeed this is what had happened here. Nature can be cruel at time but all birds have their place in this balanced echo system.
Bring a Walking Pole!
If you visit the Isle of May between May and July it is advisable to bring an umbrella or walking pole with you – something to hold above your head. There are over 2,000 Arctic Terns breeding on the Island and this species will defend their territory vigorously. This means they will fly at your head or whatever is your highest point (hence the walking pole). They will also use invasive walkers for target practice and I myself was promoted to a lance corporal and then full sergeant thanks to a series of deposits on my right shoulder. Arctic Terns live an amazing life with the longest migration of any living creature (from Arctic to Antarctic each year). We saw a few Common Terns along with the much more abundant Arctic Terns during our visit.
The Isle of May is famous for Puffins and fair enough, there are over 46,000 of them here during the breeding season, and they look lovely. This tiny auk has a classic profile when the bill is in full breeding colours. They nest in burrows so it isn’t possible to see the chicks but the adult coloured bill is a sight to behold. These birds are everywhere on the Island and it is wonderful to see so many almost everywhere you look. The classic image of the puffin is with a mouthful of Sand Eels and this is quite an easy image to capture when so many birds are present.
Don’t overlook small birds on the Island. In mid-May you may come across an exciting migrant, but in June you can still find resident Pied Wagtail and indeed Rock Pipit flitting amidst the larger more dominant seabirds. Like it’s cousin the Meadow Pipit the Rock Pipet is a classic LBJ but with duller colours and slightly larger size allow you to distinguish it.
Whilst fewer in number the Oystercatchers on the island make up for their low numbers with volume. As they fly overhead they make quite a noise and if you approach their nest they will try to distract you by taking a prominent location nearby and chirping their alarm call anxiously.
Birds come to the Isle of May to breed and that means there are lots of youngsters around.
The chicks of Lesser Black Backed Gulls are lovely little fur-balls and can be found quite close to the path.
On the cliffs and rocks near the shore, Shags have also successfully bred. The green scaly serpentine sheen of the adult contrasts with the brown fluffy young.
Most of the Eider Ducks have already left the island in June but a few females were still on nests peaking up above the vegetation and others had formed a small creche on Island’s small lochan. The males have long-since left, leaving the females to fulfil all the child-rearing duties.
The Isle of May and Fife Coast is a wonderful place to visit and I hugely recommend you go. May to July are the best months to visit (May for the migrants as well as sea birds and later months for full on sea bird action). You can get to the Isle of May from Anstruther and also South Queensferry and North Berwick. The Nature Reserve maintain an excellent blog on latest goings on which is worth a look at any time of year but certainly before you go.
I can’t wait to go back next year.