Wild Location: The Isle of May

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Wildlife biologist and photographer, Nilanjan Chatterjee, reveals the delights that can be found at this National Nature Reserve - an essential location for any bird photographer.

The British countryside is as picturesque as defined in the Emily Bronte classic Wuthering Heights. I was just lucky to be here in the warmth of the summer months, when the rocky shores are bounteous with wildlife. I had reached St. Andrews early, but the perfect English coastal setting robbed me of all sense of time. ...


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...Locals in this area claim occasional sightings of seals around the beach, so I thought I would try my luck until the boat arrived. My destination was the Isle of May: a National Nature Reserve in Scotland. It is at the junction where the River Forth meets the North Sea, commonly known as ‘Firth of Forth', home to a group of islands (Isle of May, Bass Rock) which are world famous for
seabird nesting.

I hurriedly boarded the catamaran from Anstruther. Scores of unknown smiling faces greeted me while I was searched for a place to sit down and I was excited for my first experience capturing the splendour of the seabirds. The Isle of May has one of the top five congregations of Atlantic puffin in the United Kingdom and was subsequently designated a National Nature Reserve in 1956. Among other seabirds, this puffin was my prime focus for this trip. The sailing from Anstruther started around midday. Being curious I asked the skipper, “where can the birds be seen?”. He asked “which ones?” and I replied with a giggle “the puffins, of course.” He laughed “Everywhere, my dear!”. After about twenty minutes a flock of Northern gannets flew by, making my heart feel as light as they were. Little did I expect that everywhere meant ‘literally everywhere’.

After a voyage of half an hour, the grey contour of the isle turned into different colours and, looking closely, one could make out the cliffs, green fields and the lighthouse. Numerous seabirds appeared from nowhere, swooping low, just above our heads. Soon the boat wriggled though towering rock pillars and we were in the midst of an arctic tern colony. Then comes a warning from the boat skipper, “watch your heads and get your hats on”. Even in this frenzy, I luckily spotted a lone, grey seal basking on the rocks.
After arriving at the rocky shores of the island, there was an orientation session about the 'do’s and don’ts' while on the island. Flocks of puffin, fulmar and gulls were everywhere, as far as the eye could see. There were nests and fledglings at almost at every footstep, hence it was risky for visitors to venture beyond the trails. After the session, I headed straight out to experience the natural extravaganza.

Species that, to-date, that I had seen only in books and documentaries, were present in innumerable amounts just in front of me. Nesting seabirds went in and out to fetch food from the sea for their nestling chicks. Everywhere in my surroundings there were birds and I could clearly see my long-awaited dream unfolding before me; puffins sat on rocks and cliffs, almost posing for me. They are a member of the auk family, with a flashy red-orange beak to complement their black and white body. Next to them were groups of fulmars and gulls; huge colonies filled the overhanging shelves of the rocky cliffs, with fluffy fledglings accompanied by their parents. The estuary holds small fish: mostly sand eels, cod and herring, which the parents get by the mouthful for the young ones. Most of the parents alternate the journey to get food and, ambling on the sea-facing trail, I saw hundreds of birds going back-and-forth to the sea, flying past me with beaks full of fish.

Given the chance I would have stayed on this island without a second thought, but the strict timing of the ferry made returning mandatory. As I proceeded further on the trail, I came across sheer cliffs and, along with the previously seen birds, some new lifers were added to my list: razorbills and guillemots. Razorbill, as the name suggests, has a thick beak with a blunt end. They are monogamous and pair for life. Guillemot, also known as common murre, look quite alike to the razorbill, except for the beak, which is pointed and spear-like. Both species are colonial breeders, nesting on cliffs and boulders, and the island is home to thousands of such pairs. Their black-brown upper-parts camouflage with the colour of the cliffs and their white underparts resemble the white droppings of the birds on the cliff ledges. My joy knew no bounds watching this prodigious seabird congregation on this remote island in the North Sea.

Another attraction of the island, a lighthouse known as the ‘Stevenson Lighthouse’, has been converted into a bird observatory. The lighthouse was established more than two hundred years ago and is primarily used to guide ships passing through the area. Miles away from the mainland’s air and light pollution, the night sky would be a visual treat for star lovers.

Proceeding from one end of the island to the other, the grass-covered ground had large pits all over. These burrows were puffin nests and were active during this period of the year. I stopped to watch the delightful sight of puffin parents going in and out from the burrows, but hardly spending any time stopping around the burrows - an evolutionarily tactic to keep away a predator’s attention.

Halfway around the island there were camps that provided basic necessities for the reserve manager and other people working on the island. Close to the camps there was a small pond, where, from a distance, I caught sight of some movement. As I neared, I found another reason to be joyful; eider ducks, the biggest ducks found across Europe. They usually breed in the Arctic and spend winters further south, in more temperate areas.

The other end of the island had more prominent cliffs than the northern sides and I was taken aback by the sheer number of seabirds nesting on the cliffs. Counting them seemed unimaginable. A few steps ahead, I saw the first kittiwake I have ever seen. The parents provided warmth and food to the inquisitive nestling peeping under its parent’s belly. Inquisitively, I took a step forward towards the cliff and looking down, saw a grey seal, lazing around on the rocks below.

Contented, I reluctantly retraced my steps back to the jetty, but not before I came across a pair of Eurasian oystercatchers and a colony of arctic terns. The parent terns started mobbing, circling close over my head. I had no desire to recreate Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, so headed back to safety and to spend the rest of the time watching the cliff-nesting seabirds through my binoculars.

There are a lot less predators of these birds on the islands, but there is still a prevailing need to survive in these resource-paltry havens. Fulmars and gulls make the most of their bigger size by stealing food from smaller returning seabirds. There are also incidental cases where these birds harass newly-fledged chicks as an easy target. This remote island, set at the River Forth estuary, remains active for only a couple of months each year, with millions of seabirds nesting on every corner of the island.

A rocky outcrop caught my attention. It was a verse laid down by a visitor, stuck on the island for days;

There was an old man on the May
Who knelt on the north Ness to pray;
‘Oh, Lord, I have sinned
But why need the wind
blow westerly day after day?

(Visitor in 1947)

It was a smooth sailing for me to the island and back. I was back to town, yet the scent of the sea lingered. The chorus of the white-winged creatures against the deep blue sea echoed in my ears and the frame will remain carved into the canvas of my memories for a lifetime.

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Nilanjan Chatterjee

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