Birding in remote parts of Scotland can be very rewarding as David Steel, who has worked on both the Isle of May and the Farne Islands, explains…
We ask one expert how the remote birdwatching gems of Isle of May and the Farne Islands differ
THIS YEAR, THE Isle of May celebrates its 60th year as a National Nature Reserve. David Steel has been reserve manager for the past two years. Before that he had a similar role on the Farne Islands for 14 years. Here, we speak to him about how these two birdwatching gems differ.
How does the Isle of May differ from the Farnes?
Well, this island certainly keeps you fit! On the Farnes we got everywhere by Zodiac (inflatable boat) and the islands are generally flat. The May is a mile long and has hills, valleys and steep paths. Saying that, I’ve also got a quad bike here which is great for loading coal and heavy supplies off the boat by crane straight into the trailer. On the Farnes, they do it the hard way, all by hand and legwork. There are also shrubby areas here which are absent on the Farnes, and there are four Heligoland traps and a ringing station. So, I’m more active in ringing migrant birds than on the Farnes. It’s another aspect of my job I find fascinating. We’re also opening up the Victorian lighthouse to the public this year and, of course, there’s the bird observatory, which people can rent and stay in.
How do visitor numbers differ from a birding point of view?
We have very low visitor numbers, only around 10,000 a year, whereas the Farnes gets that in a month or so. Having said that, the Farnes are a real wildlife spectacular – there’s nothing like them anywhere else in the UK. Here, though, it’s more relaxed, we only have a maximum of about a 125 people on the island at any time and, because of the island’s size and topography, you can spend ages walking about only seeing a few of them. We have to work harder on here. On the Farnes, visitors are kept within board walks and roped off areas. Here, there are paths and marked ways, and though 90% of people do stick to them, sometimes we get some straying in to nesting areas even though there are big signs up asking them not to.
Puffin burrows can easily collapse under the weight of a human laden down with tripod, cameras and scopes.
So, which one offers the best birding?
It depends what you want. On the Farnes, the birds are all around you and within easy distance of your scope and binoculars. On here, apart from the colonies, you have to search for them. You can also get three hours on the island, whereas, on the Farnes, you only get an hour, and there’s no landing fee on the May. We also get two streams of migrants, as we’re just outside the estuary of the Forth, as well as the North Sea run. So you can get Bluethroats and Cuckoos turning up here on the same day. Records here have included Britain’s first ever Siberian Thrush while migrants such as Icterine Warblers and Bluethroats are regular visitors to the island.
How are the cliffs different on the May for birding?
Due to the long coves that cut into the island, you have easy access to watching the cliff colonies from a position directly opposite them, so you can sit down with your lunch and watch the Razorbills and Guillemots going about their daily lives, something that isn’t possible on the Farnes. The Farnes have far greater tern numbers, but we have greater auk colonies. There are 400 pairs of Razorbills on the Farnes with 4,500 on the May. We also have Gannets from the Bass offshore, a small colony of Manx Shearwaters and Peregrine. To be honest, the Farnes is far more spectacular, but we have a greater range of habitats and thus potential species for the birder.
Is there any one thing that makes the Isle of May stand out to you?
Seabirds, seals, wildlife… the Isle of May has it all and, despite working on North Sea islands for the last 16 years, I can still be surprised by what happens and what turns up. We’ve even had Red Grouse on here! We caught and ringed a very early Storm Petrel in June and an adult Roseate Tern arrived in the jetty roost. We also had the news of our recent Sandwich Tern breeding – the species has not nested on here since 2004, and the pair are using the new terrace we constructed last year. We wouldn’t say no to a Roseate Tern breeding attempt either. If there’s one thing that makes it for me, though, I have to say it’s my hot shower. I can now have one after a hard day, something that wasn’t possible on the Farnes!
We only have about a 125 people on the island at any time and, because of the island’s size, you can spend ages walking about only seeing a few of them
The Isle of May lighthouse Male Eider on the Isle of May
Reserve manager David Steel (right) with visitors on the Isle of May