Reflections on the Isle of May (1 – spring)

An article kindly sent by John Swallow, regular Isle of May Bird Observatory visitor, on his first week-long visit in Spring 1985. Enjoy John’s reflections of his first stay at the Obs and the highs and lows of early spring on the island…

My latest trip to the Isle of May was cancelled this year due to the Covid-19 lockdown so like many I have had a bit of extra time to think about some of the great times I have enjoyed on the island.

You can never repeat your first visit and mine was made as a day trip on 14th October 1984. It was a short trip, from just after 9am to 2pm so there was some hurried birding on the island as we logged 28 species. Not surprisingly given the time of year there was a scattering of Fieldfare, Redwing and Song Thrush but the star that day was a male Ring Ouzel which was shown to all at the ringing hut. A couple of Short-eared Owls were testing the thrushes which all seemed more than a match for them. Two “purps” on the rocks were nice to see and on the return crossing three Velvet Scoter.

A male Ring Ouzel in October 1984, one of Jhn’s first birds on his Isle of May List (image: John Swallow)

As we left on Jimmy’s fishing boat (the May Princess doesn’t run in October so this was an Edinburgh Branch SOC fieldtrip) and as a new Trainee bird ringer, I vowed to make more visits to taste again the special atmosphere of the island and of course see and ring lots of great birds.

I managed to arrange a place in the Low Light the following spring. Places were at a premium and I had managed to squeeze on as “an extra” with a few other “non-birders” and a couple of “mice-men”, Graham Trigg and Les who were continuing their genetic studies of the islands isolated mouse population.

Mike Harris had kindly agreed to be my ringing Trainer while I was on the island and at Midday on the 20th April we met in Crail ready for the trip. As a more seasoned May visitor Mike was testing the NE wind, he  wasn’t optimistic and when Jimmy arrived after telephoning Fife Ness Coastguard and the May Lighthouse he duly cancelled the crossing (legend has it that local football fixtures always played a part too!). The NE winds continued through Sunday but Monday was calm and once Jimmy had unloaded his crabs and he’d made another check with the May Lighthouse, we were off at 14:30.

On Jimmy Smith’s “Breadwinner” in April 1985 (image: John Swallow)

Safely delivered to the Low light we headed out and I helped the “mice men” placing some of the Lulworth traps. A nice Wheatear was flitting over the rocks and turf and the island list was up and running. Tuesday arrived with a 5-6 north-easterly, an early morning seawatch proved fruitless (wrong end of the island, these were the days before Steely showed the North Ness was the place to be). Fourteen “purps” graced the harbour rocks, and a few Wheatears clung on, a single Lapwing was displaying on top of the island and a female Merlin dashed past before perching on the Beacon later that day.

Helping the “mouse men” (image: John Swallow)

I wasn’t finding any birds in the heligoland traps during my trap rounds but on Wednesday I managed to twinkle a phyllosc into a catching box. Safely bagged I now had to ask Mike to help. This early Willow Warbler was a ringing tick for me – a belated thank you Mike. The afternoons birding produced a single Swallow past Altarstanes landing, the light then being excellent I enjoyed watching and photographing the many seabirds and reading Puffin colour rings from the small “Puffin hide” near the Low Light.

The view north in April 1985 – many regular visitors will recognise old buildings no longer present (image: John Swallow)

On the May you are at the mercy of the weather and on Thursday with north-easterly winds it was a bitterly cold and snowed, so needless to say there were few passerines about and even the sea birds had decided to leave the island.

The low light in unseasonal spring snow, April 1985 (image: John Swallow)

The last day dawned with the wind now in the west and trap rounds produced a single Chiffchaff and a Robin. Birding in the afternoon was brightened with a calling Whimbrel past the low light showing some sign that migration was underway. In contrast a biscuit coloured sub-adult Glaucous Gull near the South Horn which then drifted north along the western cliffs was probably a result of the weeks cold north easterly winds.

With the wind direction now firmly in the west, our departure on the Saturday was in no doubt but heavy hailstorms and a dusting of snow returned that morning and not surprisingly the Heligoland traps were empty again. So the week finished with just three birds ringed,  and a species total of 37. It was my first taste of life in the Low Light and I have to say we had a great time and Jaap’s log call of 2 Shelduck will forever ring in my ears.

With thanks to other attendees: Graham Triggs, Lesley Wobble, Jim Brockie, Jaap and Joyce Marks

John Swallow

Enjoy more from John and others as we publish more visitors recollections in future.

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