#YCW2020 A Day in the Life – Isle of May Nature Reserve Manager David Steel

During the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, we’ve been joining SNH staff working along our shorelines and waterways to gain an insight into the important and varied work they do. This month Isle of May National Nature Reserve (NNR) Manager David Steel reflects on an unusual start to the season as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. 


Isle of May NNR ©Patricia and Angus Macdonald/SNH

It has certainly been a strange season on the Isle of May NNR. The early spring period saw myself heading back for my sixth season on the island alongside my assistant Bex Outram, who was returning for her seventh year. However within days, the nation was gripped by Covid-19 and the decision was taken to close the island down – not an easy decision but an important one in strict accordance with Scottish Government and NHS Scotland guidelines. As a result, we locked up the buildings, packed our bags and departed the island in late March.

At that stage we did not anticipate what the spring would hold for us, but just over two months later, after many virtual meetings and plenty of form filling, we were eventually able to return. The decision process was complex with many hurdles along the way, but thanks to a great team effort we landed back on the island on Monday, June 8.

Life back on the Isle of May has certainly been very different to previous years. We returned at a time when the island is normally at its busiest – boats are usually full of visitors, with 18 staff and researchers working long hours and a further six residents at the island’s Bird Observatory. Two days after our arrival, we welcomed three researchers from UKCEH and BTO who were carrying out essential work for the renewable industries but otherwise there has just been the two of us, both socially distancing and living with no visitors and no bird observatory. It’s certainly a very different Isle of May although we do feel lucky and very privileged to be back and working – and there is certainly plenty of work to do!

In our absence it has been life as usual for the seabirds and wildlife of the island. Our nesting Shags had both small and medium sized young in early June with the first fledgling leaving the cliffs on June 22. The auks were feeding youngsters with Guillemots and Razorbills all with chicks and the first fledgers were starting to jump off the cliffs from June 23. Small numbers of Puffins had hatched young by the time staff returned to the island with the majority of the colony hatching by mid-June.

As usual, Kittiwakes appeared to have started later than most birds with the first young hatching from June 14 while Fulmars were still incubating with the first chicks not expected to hatch until early July. On the island top, the Terns were well settled with the first Arctic Tern chicks hatching from June 17, while the majority of Eiders had completed their breeding season with very few evident by the time staff returned (small numbers were seen leaving for the open sea with ducklings). The large Gull species were (as expected) very vocal and very evident.

On a more unique note, four pairs of Cormorants are nesting on Rona with the first chicks hatching from June 13 (only the second ever breeding attempt) while Shelduck parents were seen leaving with young on June 18. With no human presence on the island birds certainly took advantage as a pair of Wrens successfully nested at the Low Light bushes and a pair of Carrion Crows (including the long term resident individual known affectionately as ‘patch’) raised a family of four in the same area.

While some other seabirds nested in new areas (Guillemot, Razorbills and Kittiwakes were discovered in new nesting areas on the cliffs) the award for the most bizarre location has to go to one of the pair of resident Wood Pigeons. On arrival back to the island it was discovered that a pair had entered a building in Fluke street through an open window and nested on a work surface! However it wasn’t just the bizarre location but it appeared at least three pairs of Wood Pigeon are nesting on the island, taking over the world having only nested for the first time in 2015!

Pigeon nest (David Steel)

Wood pigeon nest! ©David Steel

It has certainly been a very strange 2020 and we definitely won’t be forgetting this season in a hurry. While you might not be able to visit currently, why not keep up to date with all the latest from the island on the Isle of May blog.

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