I had been looking forward to today for much of my trip – the Isle of May is a superb seabird colony in the entrance to the Firth of Forth and I had the privilege of being warden there in summer 1979 – just a mere 40 years ago! My main role was to greet visitors to the island and guide them in what to do, and what not to do. I also supported the research being carried out on the seabirds and generally make sure the National Nature Reserve was well looked after. There was a large gull colony that covered most of the island and important numbers of cliff nesting birds and puffins. I cannot remember how many visitors came, but I do not think it was much more than 1000 (I did count, and somewhere at home I will have the report). We (myself and whichever researchers were about) lived in a small research hut called the Mouse House after the project on mice that had allowed the hut to be built. There were three lighthouse keepers manning the island and occupying both the lighthouse itself and other accommodation. A bird observatory occupied a disused lighthouse building and was home to around 4-6 birders/ringers who changed over on an approximately weekly basis. Travel to the island was on shellfish creel boats, one in particular run from Crail by Jimmy Smith.
Travel nowadays to the island is on a boat carrying around 100 people that goes nearly every day of the week for a 5 month season. Last year there were around 13,500 visitors to the island.
The main attraction of the island is undoubtedly the puffins. More than 40,000 pairs nest on the island. Visitors are guided to stay on well marked paths in order to avoid collapsing the puffin burrows that are more or less everywhere where the soil is suitable. These paths were all there in 1979, but the sign-posting and roping was not.
The number of researchers on the island has risen to around 14 now – sadly my friend Mike who was I think instrumental in getting me the job as warden in 1979 was coming onto the island a day after my visit, so I did not see him, but I did get a cup of tea with some of the research team. He has maintained studies there since 1973, an extraordinary record. At present the main focal species appears to be the shag (a type of cormorant) and most of the population is marked with uniquely lettered colour rings. These can be read with a telescope in all seasons and thus the detailed life histories of some birds can be followed.
Yesterday was also another day for co-incidences. In 2016, late in my time with JNCC, I took part in a six week research trip counting whales and dolphins in the Atlantic off Scotland, Ireland and France. The poor sea-handling and lack of mirrors on the ship caused me to grow my beard. On that ship we worked in groups of two, and my co-researcher was Becci. I was thus amazed to see Becci step on board the boat to the Isle of May as we were boarding in Anstruther. We did a lot of catching up on the way out and it turns out that she is planning a long bike ride herself, following the grey whale migration southwards off western North America to Mexico this coming autumn (thegraywhalecycle.com). That is a truly impressive trip (and makes me rather envious!). Good luck Becci!
In 1979, one of the island’s visitors was a young artist called Keith Brockie. He later produced a beautiful book: One Man’s Island of paintings done on the Isle of May. One of my memories was of drinking rather too much of my home-brewed beer in one session with him (turns out no-one is producing home-brew on the island just now – surely a gap?). Anyway, I was delighted to here that by yet another co-incidence he was on the island and I tracked him down to find him sketching a razorbill and its chick – not much change there – but then why change something so good already?