The boat slows as we begin to enter the shallower, smoother waters around the island. Seabirds now number in their thousands; bobbing on the waves of the Forth, flying around us in every direction. Most of them are tightly packed in on the busy sea cliffs of the May Isle itself as we gently cruise by towards the harbour.
When asked in 2015 during a radio interview ” If you could recommend one place in the world to see a natural spectacle, where would it be? ” Sir David Attenborough, surely the worlds greatest naturalist, responded unequivocally. “The North of Scotland, the great sea cliffs in Spring covered in seabirds. [It is] just an amazing sight of the wealth and glory of the natural world.”
This may no longer be Spring but I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. Especially after visiting the isle.
200,000 seabirds nest on the 57 hectare island throughout the summer months meaning birds are literally everywhere building nests, laying eggs and rearing young. It makes for fascinating watching and presents countless opportunities for budding wildlife photographers such as ourselves to create interesting images. More importantly it is a great place to learn more about how these birds are impacted by climate change and in turn how they help us learn about the impact that climate change is having on the waters around us.
Departing the boat we are given our introduction to the island by reserve manager David Steel. He stresses the importance of sticking to the paths to protect the birds nests and limit the stress our presence may cause to the summer residents. Not everyone’s paying attention though. It’s not that his introduction isn’t interesting or engaging but rather that the harbour is home to hundreds of ground nesting Artic Terns who are far less welcoming than David. When they aren’t squabbling between themselves they are instead attacking the day trippers who they see as a threat to their nest.
We are asked not to linger around the area the Tern’s are nesting as the more time they spend trying to see us off the higher the chance their eggs won’t be successful. As asked we make our way up the footpaths towards the cliffs but are continually attacked as we go.
Raising the camera above my head I use it as a distraction for the Terns to aim for and hold the focus and shutter buttons down firing off rapid shots with each passing dive the unhappy tern makes hoping to get one or two usable shots. It works. My head is unscathed and I come away with one or two useful shots.
The island is tiny meaning it takes only minutes to go between the different points of interest noted on the map which you are provided allowing you to make the most of the 2.5 to 3 hours you will have on it.
It is also beautiful in itself and full of history. Home to Scotland’s first lighthouse, used as a Naval base during the World Wars and has a massive Foghorn which you can go inside and learn more about.
I don’t even need to get near the cliff edges to see my first Puffin, they are everywhere, perched on nearly every grassy verge available. There were at the last count in 2014 46,000 pairs of Puffins on the Island making it the largest Puffin colony or Puffinry on the East coast of the UK. They are also the reason most of the visitors, including me, are here.
Reaching the cliffs I’m amazed at how many Puffins there actually are. Having only seen 15 to 20 pairs at our local reserve Fowlsheugh on the mainland or from our time on Orkney I’m taken back by seeing numerous clusters of 50 plus birds huddled together on the cliff face.
This is a busy time of year for them and the rest of the seabirds. Having returned to their burrow and been reunited with their life long mate in April, they have hopefully incubated their egg throughout May and should now be parents to a very hungry Pufflin living below ground who constantly needs to be fed. The parents are therefore very busy making lots of fishing trips to feed the young creating lots of opportunities to capture the classic image of a puffin with a beak full of sand eels.
Within only twenty minutes of sitting in roughly the same spot I was able to capture both of these images along with many others.
It seems obvious but it really emphasises the need to visit the right location at the right time to give yourself a far greater chance of capturing the image you have set out to create. Travelling the extra distance and taking the extra time really is worth it.
Although I have decent shots of what I came for I begin to think about how much time I have left to build on these images and also canvas the islands other inhabitants just as another member of the Auk family lands in front of me.
As I am plugging in the settings into my camera to take the above shot I notice a man next to me taking a note in a pocket diary. He also has a spotting scope set up on a Shag’s nest and briefly peers through it before taking more notes. He is obviously a member of the team of the volunteers and staff that reside on the island roughly from March to August. Keen to learn more about the work Scottish Natural Heritage carry out and about the birds themselves I strike up a conversation.
” I’m watching the Shag nests and taking note of the number of chicks” he says just as a pair of young chicks appear from under the mothers wing across from us.
It’s one of the main tasks the staff and volunteers carry out during the summer counting the number of offspring per nest for each species. It allows them to calculate how successful the breeding season has been.
They also count the number of individuals per species and monitor what they eat through observation and catching birds like Puffins in mist nests he explains.
All this information is collated providing a large pool of data which can be analysed providing a better insight to what is happening in the seas around us and to our seabirds.
For example, the seabirds top catch is sand eels but the sand eels themselves have been getting smaller over the years. It is thought this is due to the sand eels own food source phyto-plankton decreasing in our waters because of global warming and increasing sea temperatures. This may help to explain why Kittiwake populations have drastically decreased in the last decade.
Kittiwakes are surface feeders whereas the Auk family (Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills) dive deeper and chase their prey. Shags go even deeper, diving down to pluck their prey from the depths.
With the deep divers having to catch a larger number of a decreasing population of sand eels, surface feeders such as the Kittiwake will catch substantially less food which they may not be able to survive on which may explain the dramatic decrease in Kittiwake numbers.
This is not proven as more data is still required to fully understand sand eel abundance and population structure before a decision is made on what action we might take to help the population and in turn the sea birds if any. It is a good example of why the work carried out on the NNR is very important.
We can help with this task. The RSPB has set up Project Puffin asking for all photos taken of a Puffin with a beak full fish to be uploaded online here. This information will be made available to all bodies and the Isle of May NNR will be comparing the photos taken on the island to their own data. This is an amazing opportunity for all of us to contribute to conservation work in action.
As our conversation comes to its natural end I realise time is escaping me and although I now have plenty of images of all of the major species I am still not happy with the images I have. So with a slight panic I leave the area of the cliffs I have spent the last hour and 45 minutes at.
As I walk around to the next view point it is clear it is now Puffin prime time. Nearly every Puffin in sight now has a beak full of sand eels or the larger sprat.
But I just can’t seem to find the right angle, backdrop or light that will make for the intimate portrait I have repeatedly seen everywhere online but am determined to capture.
I continue to different viewpoints and continually take snaps of any scene that could make a decent image.
Time passes quickly and with 15 minutes to go I change my attitude, “just enjoy the moment, less happy snapping” I tell myself as I take a seat and start on my long overdue Tesco meal deal, crisps first of course.
Just as I open the bag an adult puffin lands right next to me in the brightest pool of light I’ve seen all day with a mouth full. I have slight a moment of inner conflict before I think “stuff the crisps” and switch my camera back on.
It was the right choice. This image may not be unique or even the best of its kind but its probably the strongest image I’ve taken of Puffin to date and is a step forward in my development as a budding photographer.
With the boat due to leave in 2 minutes I grab my bag and crisps and hurry back to the harbour through Terns where I nearly lose my hat to a well placed nibble from a particularly grumpy bird. I make it back just in time and am thankfully not the last back on the boat. I find a seat and get stuck into my crisps with a big grin having had a fantastic afternoon watching, photographing and learning more about one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world.
A big thanks is due to David and the team on the island for unwittingly contributing to this post and to the crew at Anstruther Pleasure Cruises for getting us to the island safely and back.