The Bird Observatory is located on the Island for one primary reason, the island’s importance for birds. In the spring and summer the island is one of the largest breeding seabird colonies in Scotland and is particularly important for Puffins with over 40,000 occupied burrows. Other breeding seabirds are typical of the area but all are found in important numbers including Shag, Eider, Guillemot, Kittiwake, Razorbill, Arctic, Common and Sandwich Tern, Herring, Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls.
In spring and autumn the island is an ideal site to monitor migrant passerines. When conditions are right, in winds from NE round to SSE, the island can receive large “falls” of migrants originating in Scandinavia and eastern Europe, occasionally with scarce or rare species among them. To find out more about recent bird sightings from the island visit the bird news pages
Bird ringing on the island has a long history and is one of the main functions of the Bird Obs. It is operated under the auspices of the British Trust for Ornithology Ringing Scheme (click here for more info on ringing). There are 4 Heligoland traps set in sheltered gardens with specially planted cover to attract and support migrant birds. Ringers also use mist nets to catch migrants and there are also many long term ringing studies of the breeding seabirds.
A downloadable checklist of all the birds seen on the island (to the end of 2018) is available here:
The Bain Trap (above) a heligoland trap used for catching migrant birds for ringing (Pic: AW Lauder)
spotted flycatcher – a grounded migrant
Common Redstart trapped for ringing
Common Rosefinch one of the most regular of the scarcer migrants
Fieldfares and other thrushes pass through in their thousands in autumn
The core work of the Observatory is the Daily Census. Observatory visitors are asked to spend part of their day (ideally the morning) recording all birds seen within three zones on the island. This helps to maintain the long term data on bird migration through the island.
The Isle of May is one of the largest colonies of Grey Seals in the UK and from late September thousands arrive to pup though many are present around the island throughout the year
A bull Grey Seal Surveys his territory (pic: JMA Osborne)
Rabbits are abundant all over the island, very tame and their burrows are often occupied by Puffins. Their populations fluctuate markedly with disease.
Rabbits are abundant across the island, their populations fluctuate with disease and their holes are often competed for by Puffins (pic. JMA Osborne)
The area around the Isle of May can hold large numbers of cetaceans at certain times in particular Minke Whales can be seen ferquently in late summer and autumn both from the island and on the crossing. Up to 20 Minke whales have been seen off the island in a single day, in some cases close in.
Though rarely seen from the island Bottlenose Dolphins are seen often from the crossing just off the Fife coast in addition, Harbour Porpoise are regular and white-beaked Dolphin also likely.
Minke Whales are a regular sight through the summer and autumn in the seas around the island
Butterflies & Moths
Just like migrant birds passing through the island migrant butterflies like the Painted Lady, Peacock and Red Admiral can be present in large numbers during migration, late summer and early autumn movements can number thousands on some days. Along with them moths such as Silver Y can also occur in large numbers.
Painted Lady – a migrant butrterfly sometimes seen in their hundreds moving across the island (pic: JMA Osborne)