I was privileged to visit the Isle of May off the east coast of Scotland for a three day photographic study during the breeding season. It was not my first time as I had travelled to the island for a short two hour venture the previous year and that had whetted my appetite to study the amazing bird life on this national nature reserve. Access to the island is very limited as it is home to what is now the largest Puffin colony in Britain, some 55,000 pairs, as well as having prolific numbers of Razorbills and Guillemots.
As you land on the island you are immediately greeted with the noise of swooping Arctic Terns, keen to protect their chicks and the sight of puffins flying in all directions in a very businesslike manner. There are no trees on the island and it is almost devoid of shrubbery. The fierce winds keep the grass flat, with ‘sheltered’ areas of longer grass and nettles providing cover for insects, and rabbits, which are numerous on the island – some almost a dark black in colour.
The staff although variable in number during the summer months only, comprised two wardens and two volunteers at the time. Marked access paths are strictly enforced by the staff all round the island to ensure visitors do not stray off the paths and damage shallow underground Puffin breeding burrows, containing precious eggs or chicks. As you wander round, the burrows are everywhere and it is very difficult to tell a rabbit burrow from a Puffin residence.
Even in the gloom of a full moon the Puffins fly across the island in their hundreds as speedy bullets, hardly changing direction. Come rain or high winds they go about their business. Throughout the night the constant sound of birds calling, particularly gulls, can be heard.
As day breaks, Puffins continue to appear from all directions flying low over the island and during spells of feeding, the Puffins can be seen with mouthfuls’s of up to a dozen sand eels or with large silver sprats as they bring food to their single chick protected in it’s underground burrow. The chicks are easy prey for marauding Black-backed or Herring gulls if they emerge too far from their burrows. The rocky island has numerous cliff nesting sites also for the Razorbills and Guillemots, with the birds using the height of the cliffs to propel themselves towards sea in search of food. The high bird population has made the cliffs white with bird droppings or guano as it is known. As you stand at the cliff edges the strong smell of guano has a pungent smell of fish as you might expect. If you are patient you can approach the Puffins slowly. By sitting and edging towards them a bit at a time, you can get very close, up to two metres, before they get bored with your presence and fly off.
I found my visit was very rewarding, the Puffins are very unique looking little birds and my fondness for these beautiful creatures increases as I study them and take their photographs. The Isle of May nature reserve is certainly a very special place and the staff and volunteers that support the island are to be commended for their hard work and dedication to ensure that numbers of these charming little birds ever increase.