The Chatty Blog

Low Light, Isle of May

Bird Observatory log books in the low light, Isle of May

The chatty logs, held in the observatory provide an informal account of the observatory’s 75+ years of operation. News and items of interest and the occasional extract from past log books will appear here…

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Reflections of the Isle of May (2) – Autumn

This article is the second part of an account of early visits to the Isle of May by John Swallow, a regular Isle of May Bird Observatory visitor. This reflects on his first Autumn trip in 1985 and recalls many of the sort of highlights those of us who visit in autumn enjoy…

For my third trip, and second stay on the Isle of May, I was lucky enough to join Lothian Ringing Group on the island trip from 19th to 26th October. It was certainly a week to remember.

We arrived in Crail at 2.30pm to find Jimmy was “out fishing”. but within the hour we were loaded aboard and off for the May with the now familiar sense of anticipation.  On the crossing we logged a couple of RT Divers, a Bonxie and an Arctic Skua, not a bad start. The star of the first day was a Woodcock caught in the Arnott Trap. The traps were already busy with 8 Blackbirds and a Redwing also trapped and ringed.

Woodcock from the Arnott Trap (image: John Swallow)

Trap rounds on Sunday were a little underwhelming with just 4 thrushes but then things really began to pick up. On Monday overcast conditions and fog over at Bass Rock welcomed a trickle of blackbirds and a brambling too. Then on a walk past “the cottages”  a Red-breasted Flycatcher put in an appearance, it was relocated by Gordon down by Burnett’s Leap and was trapped in a hastily erected mist net.

Mike Harris then turned up a nice Dotterel down on the Maiden and we duly trotted down there and saw the bird. More Brambling headed over calling, a few Blackcaps were in the traps and a Short-eared Owl was seen. On returning to the Low Light Stan was proudly holding the bird with Nosh and Mike Martin offering their thoughts on ageing. Not sure what to do if I found an owl in a heligoland if it flew towards me I rather naively asked Stan what I should do, I’ll never forget what he said and it wasn’t make sure it’s in ringers grip!

Red-breasted Flycatcher caught at Burnett’s Leap

Tuesday morning found the island clothed in a thick fog with visibility down to less than 200m. Robins could be heard “ticking” all around with many thrushes and a few Brambling, one trapped and ringed. The fog lifted slightly mid morning but we knew we were in for a good day and 46 birds were ringed including a Redwing, 6 robin, 2 Goldcrest and a Common Redstart.

However, the best bird was a phyllosc trapped at 1pm which as it was extracted made a curious chacking sound. It certainly wasn’t a normal chiffy or tristis type, the face was striking with a clear eye-line, a well defined supercilium which was buff behind the eye and buff undertail coverts too. Stan checked the bird, we had the islands first (and to date only?) Dusky Warbler! More birds continued to pour in with 40 Brambling as the wind changed to east and then south-east as the mist lifted again.

After all the happenings of Tuesday Stan suggested an “early start” for Wednesday, he didn’t have to ask twice. Out early with the wind now set south-east we worked the heligolands and in sheer numbers terms this was the biggest day I have witnessed. Literally thousands of thrushes were arriving, calling as they tumbled down from the sky. We estimated 15,000 throughout the day with a supporting cast of 400+ Brambling and 3 Black Redstarts too. We ringed 484 Blackbird (I ringed 160!), 12 Redwing, 9 Song Thrush, 2 Fieldfare and a Ring Ouzel. Passerines ringed included 3 Starling,  6 Blackcap, 10 Goldcrest, 3 Chiffchaff, 2 Robin and 4 Brambling. Plus singles of Woodcock, a Sparrowhawk making a very healthy ringing total of 540. Quite a day.

Ring Ouzel amongst thousands of other arriving thrushes (Image: John Swallow)

After a clear night and wind now in the south-west thrush numbers abated somewhat but Tree Pipit was a nice addition on Thursday, with  45 Brambling and a Black Redstart still around plus a couple of Yellowhammer and another Short-eared Owl. Not surprisingly the daily ringing totals dropped to 96 and then 39 on Friday. Sea watching produced a few Sooty and Manx Shearwaters with Arctic and Great Skua too.

Leaving the island we added Little Auk on the crossing to make my weekly total a nice round 50 species. It was my second visit and I had ringed 331 birds (thanks Stan!) and many thanks to everyone in the Low Light.  The grub was great thanks to Stan and Sue’s pre-trip planning and the evenings were filled with many stories as the Two Good Ladies looked down on a happy crew. After lights out we fell asleep happy to the sound of the island mice munching our mars bars (other chocolate bars are available).

Short-eared Owl in the hand (Image: John Swallow)

Attendees: Lothian RG – Stan and Sue da Prato, Gordon Anderson, Ian Fullerton, John Swallow and Tay RG – Norman Atkinson, Mike Martin, John Johnston

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U-boat Activity in the Vicinity of the May Island during both World Wars: by Ron Morris

During both World Wars the main thrust of Germany’s U-boat campaigns concentrated on the Western approaches to the British Isles, the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, which were far more lucrative and safer for U-boats to operate in than the North Sea and the east coast of Britain. Nevertheless, the U-boat threat was still present in the latter areas with the sinking of and damage to, many naval and mercantile ships, as well as the laying of minefields, bearing testimony to the U-boats’ attentions. Ron Morris here provides an account of the main incidents involving U-boats within the limited context of the Firth of Forth and its approaches. The full article (2MB) can be viewed below or downloaded.


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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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Happy Birthday – 85 years old today

The Isle of May Bird Observatory officially turns the ripe old age of 85 this month. Scotland’s first observatory and the UK’s longest running!

Here is page one of the chatty log which begins on 28th September 1934 with the arrival of a party of 4; W B Alexander, R M Lockley, HFD Elder and EV Watson, great names of 20th Century ornithology!

Among early activity they started building a Heligoland trap.

Good birds were few by the looks of it but the “Cole” Tit on the 30th Sep would still be a good island bird today!

Lets hope the party to arrive today will be able to celebrate the observatory’s birthday with good arrival of migrants!

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Mr Bain would be impressed…

As posted back in early April,thanks to funding support from SNH, we began and have now completed the renewal of the Bain Trap.

The Bain trap is arguably one of the most successful traps on the island for catching migrant passerine birds for ringing. It was first built between 1948 and 1949, single handedly by John Bain, one of the Lighthouse Keepers. Perhaps he felt he had a lot of spare time?

In 1949 the trap materials cost £73 – equivalent to around £2500 today by my calculations, and yes it can be confirmed that building a heligoland trap is not cheap and a good deal more than inflation might predict! We are grateful to SNH for a grant towards the cost and to donors who provided funding support and not least to those volunteers who undertook the task of building it in their own time without them it would have been an impossible task. Built in a period of around 4 weeks it was a speedier job than that of John Bain and has meant the trap is already in action and catching migrants. The finishing touches of course take longer as the bushes and vines need to grow to provide that attractive cover, on the otherwise treeless island, for those migrating small birds as they stopover.

The trap will be used by bird ringers for decades to come and will maintain the catching effort on the island that we’ve seen over the previous 69 years since it was first put in place. The images below tell a little of the story…

and there is a piece also on the SNH NNR Blog which covers the work – click here

The old bain trap in around 2001 already suffering the ravages of the winds and salt spray. still working but not as well as it could
The Bain Trap sits close to Kirkhaven and the ringing hut near the southern end of the island.
Volunteers hard at work building the trap frame – it has to be strong enough to stand up to violent North Sea storms
The inside of the trap is protected from the worst of rabbit grazing to allow bushes and shrubs to grow to provide attractive cover for birds while the “arms are netted to allow birds to be gently “chivvied” into the funnel of the trap
The narrow catching box end nearing completion where the birds end up and can be removed for their rapid ringing, measurement and release
Water and other features are provided to attract birds
The completed trap ready for operation – this angle shows the classic dog-leg funnel of a Heligoland trap…now just for the vegetation to recover for full working glory…well done everyone!

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Bain Trap Renewal

Thanks to funding support from SNH we have begun the renewal of the Bain Trap, one of the Heligoland traps on the island used to catch migrant birds for ringing. Having been first built between 1948 and 1949 it was the third trap to be constructed by the observatory, in this case single handedly by John Bain, one of the Lighthouse Keepers.

There is always debate among visiting ringers as to which of the traps works best and catches most birds, most agree it is the Bain Trap and great care is being taken to maintain the exact footprint and funnel profile of the trap as it has been proven to work so effectively.

The volunteer work parties are out on the island now and are mid-construction. Progress can be seen in the images here:

The trap footprint laid out
Supports and beams being erected and side wall panels

Updates on the finished trap will be posted as soon as available.

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