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The Isle of May

The Low Light
Title: The Isle of May Expedition
Continent: Europe
Country: Scotland
State / Province: The Firth of Forth
Date: June 1997
Participants: Alan Martin, Susan Frost, Bob Gifford, Brian Cresswell & Rich Mooney
By Rich Mooney

During June 1997, three members of A.R.G, (Alan Martin, Susan Frost & Richard Mooney) and two members of Stour Ringing Group, (Robert Gifford and Brian Cresswell) spent one week on the Isle of May, Scotland to help out with the ringing studies of the Islands Sea Birds.The Isle of May is situated on the east coast of Scotland and lies at the mouth of the Firth of Forth, 8 km southeast of the Fife coast.

The Island was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1956 and in 1989 the Scottish Natural Heritage acquired the Island from the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB). There are two lighthouses on the Island. The Main Light is automated and so know longer manned, the Low Light is leased by the Scottish Heritage to the Isle of May Bird Observatory to be used as accommodation to Ornithologists.

The Island holds nationally important numbers of seabirds. Large numbers of Puffins, Shags, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Eider Ducks all breed on a regular basis. Passerine species regularly breeding are limited to Rock Pipit, Pied Wagtails and Swallow. However many migrant Passerines are trapped in the Heligoland traps around the Island during the spring and autumn. Species such as Blue Throat, Icterine Warbler, Barred Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler and Wryneck are caught almost annually.

We arrived on the Island at four thirty in the morning and made our way to the Low Light, our home for the next week. It was great to finally arrive as we had spent the last two days in Anstruther struggling to get across with some local fishing men. The main problem was poor weather conditions and ‘the swell’ which was too strong to land the boat. We eventually chartered ‘The May Princess’, the tour boat for the Island to take us over while the weather broke.

Brian, Susan, Alan, Rich and Bob
The Low Light basically consists of a living room with two beds in an alcove, a bedroom with four beds, and a small box room with a single bed at the back, a kitchen, wash room and a chemical toilet outside. A wood burning stove, a calor gas cooker and paraffin lamps for light heats the living room.

Once we had sorted all of our equipment out it was time to have a walk around and start to get familiar with the Island. We headed northwest towards the North Horn on the part of the Island called Rona. The problem as we walked along was that you didn’t know which way to look; there was so much activity, Puffins flying above your head carrying Sand eels, Gulls calling, Rock Pipits searching for food amongst the boulders and as we crossed the bridge onto Rona the sound of the Kittiwakes in the gully was so loud you could hardly hear yourself think.

We met up with one of the permanent staff on the Island later that morning and went over the rules on the Island, no go areas and any restrictions on ringing. The only restrictions we had were that none of the Fulmars were to be ringed as they were still on eggs. Also to avoid the Arctic Tern colony as the young are ringed all at the same time to cut down on disturbance.

The rest of the day was spent clambering over rocks ringing Guillemot’s, Razorbills, Shags and Kittiwakes. We also caught a few Puffins in mist nets which would have been much more productive had the wind dropped. This was good time spent, as we had to get used too applying the different types of rings needed for each species. Our second day again was spent mainly targeting Guillemots, Kittiwake and we doubled the amount of Puffins caught the first day.

When ringing birds in any situation but especially on cliffs there are two main considerations to be aware of: the safety of the ringer and the safety of the birds. With this in mind one of the most effective and safe ways of collecting the birds off cliff edges is using a technique called ‘Hooking’. This method involves using a pole, which can be extended with a hook on the end. The hook is placed around the bird’s neck and then it is raised up off the cliff. Once the bird has been ringed and processed it is placed back on the hook and lowered down to its nest or ledge. This method is not only safe it has the minimal effect on disturbing the birds, especially Guillemots who nest in communal groups on ledges.

As with anything there is always a knack and Hooking was no exception. Luckily Dr. Mike Harris was there to give us a few lessons. Dr Harris, of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, is an international authority on ‘The Common Puffin’ and has thirty years experience in handling ringing and trapping Sea birds. We spent the next day with Mike concentrating on ringing Guillemots on the west side, Bishop Cove and Mill Door. The cliffs here are particularly high (50 metres) so Mike did all the hooking on this occasion and left us to the ringing.

This was quite a memorable trip as while Mike was hooking, a Fulmar decided to give a ‘Fly By Warning’ and knocked his hat off. It doesn’t sound that bad, other than the fact he was standing two feet away from the edge with his back to it. He bent down, picked his hat up, brushed it off and gave us all a smile. I thought to myself this guy must have nerves of steel. As we made are way back up, Mike said, “I’m getting to old for this”. Fair one!!

By our fourth day we had really got a good system going and on occasions split into two groups to maximize our time. While one group concentrated on Gulls another would target Shags and Razorbills. We were learning lots of new skills ourselves. Using two-way radios to target young gulls accurately, abseiling and spring trapping Rock Pipits. But best of all was the use of a ’40 mist net, ‘Flicking for Puffin’.

This was a fairly basic method; we positioned ourselves at the bottom of a small hill where the Puffins were coming over. When a bird came over low enough we would raise the net. Once caught, another team member would move in and extract the bird. This accounted for at least ten Puffins one of which was an amazing longevity retrap. This bird was originally ringed as a chick on the Island in 1974 making it twenty-three years old. What was even more remarkable was the fact that the ring was still legible, giving that they spend most of their time on the sea.

The other surprise we had was because some of the Puffins had dropped their cache of sand eels, this attracted in the Arctic Terns of which we caught six and one Common Tern.


Over a period of six days we ringed over seven hundred birds of 14 species. This figure could of easily been doubled had we got on the Island on time and had better weather. That said, we did count ourselves lucky that we still managed to get out every day. The atmosphere on the Island is quite magical and as with the other members of the group I too have come away with many fond memories and look forward to returning one day.


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