Scot­tish bird­ing

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…

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - IN­TER­VIEW BY: STEVE NEW­MAN

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

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