Tuesday 25 June 2013

Isle of May - day eight. Puffins and terns. The final hours.

Saturday 15th June 2013

Our final day. We had nearly until 4 on the island so treated it as normal until lunch then two hours to tidy and pack (thank you Keith, Hallgeir, James, Tim, Ruth!)

In the traps, 6.30-7am we caught a young rock pipit. These birds are all over the island; the phrase is 'lbj' (little brown job); they're often overlooked, like the dunnocks that are likely in your garden and on all of your walks. Every bird is intricate in plumage when seen really close-up. The pipit we caught was born this year, signs of its yellow fleshy 'gape' still showed where beak joins head.

I didn't paint today, just drawing: puffins at various spots and then the Arctic terns for an hour before the two tourist boats arrived. I hadn't yet drawn the terns and found them really difficult. They're very slender, with wings like sharp white rapiers. They twist and turn balletically in flight and their tails form a wide fan when they land or hover. The overall look is white, with a black skull-cap and a bright scarlet dagger bill that matches remarkably small scarlet feet. In time will evolution remove their feet completely? ("Not unless they never want to land or swim again!", points out Jennifer, sensibly.)

Arctic tern preening postures

The puffins on the island are interesting. Those seen are mostly juveniles, birds that are only a year or two (or three or four) old; they don't become sexually mature until they're 4 or 5. The ones that can't yet breed instead stand around on every available rock and roof and slope and wall. A few will be holding sand eels and small fish in their beaks in an attempt at impressing prospective partners. Puffins generally mate for life and ringing records show typical lifespan to be 18 years. The oldest known bird was recorded as 35 years, 11 months, 13 days, in 2010 - BTO puffin ringing recoveries.

 The puffin in the middle has its eye closed, yet the eye ring and leathery eye patch makes you think it might be open but squinting. In winter these adornments are shed completely, along with the puckered yellow 'lip' and part of the beak.

Breeding puffins will rarely be seen - they're either off fishing or are down in their burrows. Parent puffins fly in from the sea, food in beak, either flying directly into their burrow or landing immediately outside it and scampering in – to avoid gull predation. The burrows are often old rabbit holes, which the island is covered in.

I at last found time for a sketch inside the South Horn. I love it in there, perhaps my favourite place on the island. It's peaceful and quiet; the sounds of outside are deadened. Through a bendy-glassed window cut in the thick stone walls is a distorted view of rocks and sea and the East Lothian coast (weather dependent of course!) I hope to paint this same window scene one day in acrylics.


At quarter to four we were loaded up on the boat, sad but content after such a productive week. Luggage was well wrapped and tarpaulined to protect sketches. At the Kirk Haven harbour entrance were two turnstones on the rocks and on my final circuit of the island I'd seen three starlings - 2 new bird species for my stay, bringing me to...

a total of 34 bird species seen throughout the week.

The sea was choppy and the RIB Osprey bounced us up and down but luckily didn't make me feel more than just a little queasy. Salt water spray covered our faces and lips but my clothes were well waterproofed. It was almost fun.

Lifts were given to Leuchars thanks to Tim and Ruth, and Keith, then the train to Edinburgh for me and James and Hallgeir. Then we went our separate ways.

A bath was nice.

New birds today:

 a razorbill composition, to be painted

Island oddities:

On the Isle of May you often see humans doing strange things; necks strung with cameras, lenses as long as your arm, large rucksack containing more. You see a lot of people doing this:

photo thanks to Silvana Grimaldi

And, when I was there, at least one doing this (look at the feet):

photo thanks to Silvana Grimaldi

I like walking barefoot. It feels natural and fresh and 'real', brings an extra dimension to being outdoors. And of course there are no dogs on the island. On one of the hotter days my shoes were off whilst painting so I decided to keep them off for my walk back to the Low Light. Over a kilometre of upslope, downslope; grass, earth, concrete, gravel. Gravel can jag but go slow and its fine. Grass is the best of all, walk barefoot over your lawn at home and you'll see what I mean.

Friday 21 June 2013

Isle of May - day seven. An owl, a whale, a Scottish folk singer.

Friday 14th June


Departed Low Light around 6.30am to check the traps. Due to two days of finding nothing, I'd just stated,  
'we're probably wasting our time',
from Keith,
and we began running forwards into the heligoland trap, waving arms and making noise... and the owl flew to the catching box... and Keith caught it. 7am in the Arnott Trap.


This was even better than the shrike and the puffin. Owls are my absolute favourites. Wonderful creatures. Ours was a female, ringing age code 5 (hatched during previous year). Wing length 293mm, weight 218 grams. Her eyes were like glass beads, orange and black, they pierced right through you. Her feathers were long and soft and in beautiful buffs, tans, browns and whites. Her legs and feet (to the very tips of her toes) were covered in a soft and fine tan-coloured down. Her talons were black and long and curved. Her 'ear' tufts stuck right up, perhaps an inch. These tufts that you see on some owls don't actually mark the ears; the ears are odd curve openings behind and below the eyes, only seen if you part the feathers there. The large facial discs around either eye of an owl are thought to help channel sound toward the ear holes, rather like a satellite dish.

As she was being ringed I made a few pages of ultra-quick sketches. The Fluke Street residents were roused and seven or eight scientists and staff actually left beds early to see her, and said it was worth the early wake-up. Apparently a long-eared owl on the island at this time of year is a very rare event – read more on warden Dave's blog here.

One of those who came out to see was the brilliant Karine Polwart, well-known Scottish folk singer whose music I listen to all the time. She and storyteller Claire McNeil were on the island for a couple of days prior to Sunday performances in the South Horn as part of the island's Seabird Open Day.

After the owl I went back to my Pilgrim's Haven spot and using ink and watercolour greatly improved yesterday's start:

For the rest of my time pre-breakfast I sketched puffins – it was my second last day on the island and there are few other places where you can find yourself surrounded by tens of thousands of them. When you start to look closely they're tricky; the facial and beak patterns and markings are complicated. And they seem very jumpy, heads constantly switching left to right, to forward, to left, to forward, to right, etc. Perhaps they do this more than other birds or perhaps I just noticed it more because of the extra large side-on surface area of face and beak.

Around noon, looking from outside Low Light over a flat calm sea, I saw... a whale! It was a minke, far out but seen well through binoculars.
From my sketchbook:
“Minke whale. Lunchtime. I spotted from Low Light. It was up and down on and off over several hours. Each time we saw it it would appear two or three times, coming up for air. Long dark back; long and backwards curving fin. Nose came up once or twice. Quite sharply pointed.”

Hallgeir, James and Keith were all around to watch. Karine was passing and joined us (plus chat and art-showing). There were porpoises too, though I'm not sure I saw them. It scuppered work plans for a couple of hours; we couldn't take our eyes of the sea. Once the resurfacings seemed to have stopped I continued with my shag painting of yesterday. It's still to be worked on:

After tea I again drew puffins, enjoying getting to know their shapes.

New birds seen:

female blackcap (top garden)
long-eared owl

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Isle of May - day six

Thursday 13th June

Nothing in traps.

7-9 am in secluded spot on Pilgrim's Bay, a beach of boulder stones; smoothly rounded and large but not large enough to be comfy to sit on. My folded padded mat helped a little. I'd been given permission to be off the path down on the shore because there were no puffin burrows in the slope down. I had to be out by 9am when the remote cameras (controlled by vistors to the Scottish Seabird Centre) might start being used. In winter months this bay is home to calving grey seals.

Looking to a tall cave, the even taller Angel stack on the left of the scene, I worked one piece in watercolour and the other in ink applied with pencil and brush. Seabirds filled the air and any available ledges on the cliffs. A seal was relaxing on the boulders only ten or twenty metres from me.

Pre-lunch I started drawing a shag on her nest directly outside Low Light. Lots of shags are nesting here and we've been easily able to watch them turning their eggs and tending their young. Shag chicks are pretty ugly; featherless, black, reptilian little things. I'm not sure even their mothers could love them. The adults are beautiful. Their feathers shine in all different shades of green, blue and black. In the breeding season tall display plumes adorn their foreheads. After lunch the same subject in watercolour, A5, then began a larger piece.

In the evening back at Lady's Bed, painting a watercolour of the South Horn and an interestingly oval cave. The plants in the extreme foreground are sorrel and sea campion. The reds dotted over the middle ground are the flowering stems of the sorrel. These two plants absolutely carpet the island. There's also thrift but the many rabbits keep it stripped of flowers. In some years the rabbit population plummets and then the thrift thrives.

Before tea I spent some time up at Mill Door -one of the highest points you can get to- looking across to the Greengates cliffs. There was a strong wind at this side of the island and razorbills, puffins, guillemots, gulls were hanging in the air in front of me. Here are some photos:

 Mostly razorbills, because they're my favourite.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Isle of May - day five

Wednesday 12th June

At 6.30am nothing in the heligoland traps. I went up to the South Horn and began a watercolour that looked north-west to the informatively named main lighthouse - Main Light. Dominating the foreground is a wonderful giant (giant's?) sentry box. It housed the clockwork timing mechanism that released air to the foghorn. The two foghorns on the island had to be perfectly precise, each had a different voice so captains could navigate safely by comparing the two.


Painting was finished between breakfast and lunch. My breakfasts have been relaxed: looking to sea; chatting with whoever was around - Hallgeir, James, Keith,  Maurizio & Silvana; working my way through Keith's 'Return to One Man's Island'.

A few hours of sketching razorbills at Lady's Bed. Enjoying observing them closely. Without binoculars or direct lighting from the sun you can hardly ever make out their eye - a dark bead that sits at the end of the horizontal white facial stripe. To me it always looks like that white stripe is the eye; like the birds are wearing some sort of battle helmet.

Maurizio and Silvana left this afternoon and were replaced by Tim and Ruth.

New birds seen:

- Black guillemot at Kirkhaven and again outside Low Light
- 44 Canada geese flying in a long line out at sea
- Kestrel

Thursday 13 June 2013

Isle of May - day four

Tuesday 11th June 

I'm enjoying these early starts. 6am today.

In our round of the traps - nothing but a puffin, stuck in the second-top walled garden. It hadn't yet found the ramp put there to enable the escape of stranded birds. Many seabirds need height to take off, or a long run-up when on water. There are neither of these in a small walled garden.

So, I got to hold puffin once Keith had ringed it. They're extremely muscly and powerful little birds and quite viciously snap at your hand with those colourful wedge beaks. Their claws are razor-sharp and will shred your skin if you don't hold them tightly enough. You get a puffin airborne again by throwing it upwards as high as you can!
Our puffin is now ring number EX32874. Wing length 151mm. Weight 315g. Ringed at 7am.

Puffin: "WHO does he think he is? Just WHAT does he think he's doing??"

The art:

A day of being pleased with my results. I started overlooking Pilgrim's Haven; pebble-boulder bay, seabird cliffs, tall slit cave, bright blue shadows. A pillar box watercolour with no pencil underdrawing.

Lots of hours at Altarstanes harbour on the west side. I like it here. It feels secluded and is sheltered from the wind when blowing from the north. Grey seals were in the water and I sketched them briefly. I focused on razorbills - sketches and a larger watercolour. Hopefully you can zoom in on the sketch to read what I wrote.

Interesting things:

- Cup of tea and half hour of chat in Low Light with Mike Harris; scientist, world puffin expert. About birds, islands, lighthouses.

Look closely in the sky - nearly all of those black specks are puffins!

Thrift, lichen, lighthouse family's washroom (now home to a swallow nest), Main Light Behind

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Isle of May - days two and three

Sunday 9th June

Up at 5am and straight out. It's fully light! Why do we sleep so late back home? By 6am I was painting and by 10am I had my first ever puffin sketches and a larger watercolour with a puffin detail - still to be finished.


Apart from an hour nap post-lunch I was working out there all day. What a place.

Two interesting sightings today:

- a clifftop puffin, sunlit, four or five eels in beak (the puffins apparently only began bringing food back three or four days ago, so pufflings must be startibg to hatch.)

- a great black-backed gull flying to sea, a dead puffin clasped in its webbed feet, dangling limply below, head-down.

New birds today:

Spotted flycatcher x2 (my first ever).
Unidentified warbler.
Carrion crow.


Isle of May - day three  

Monday 10th June

Razorbill painting, guillemot sketches:


A day of birds even closer-up; in fact in the hand, though not mine. On my way back from watching warden Dave logging moths caught overnight in the mercury vapour trap, I passed via the Main Light and spotted in the Top Garden an unknown bird. It was a shrike but I didn't know anything more than that. Red-backed shrike, male, Keith was able to tell me as soon as he saw my photos. We quickly went out to try to catch it.

The Isle of May Bird Observatory exists to record the comings and goings of birds to the island. Being five miles out in the Firth of Forth it's the first land that many migrating birds will encounter when arriving in Scotland from Europe or Scandinavia. During times of migration thousands of birds can be seen to land here, even just in one day, and rarities regularly turn up. Volunteers pay to come and man the observatory, as we are this week. It's desirable for at least one to be an expert birder but it's not vital. Keith (Keith Brockie - wildlife artist. See his books on the Isle of May) is the one in our group so I've been watching and helping where I can, and learning a lot.

Ringing the shrike - after perhaps an hour of gently following as it enjoyed the shelter of the walled Top Garden we managed to catch it in the heligoland trap there. What a stunning stunning bird. Shrikes are also known as butcher birds - they are known to cache stocks of insects, small mammals and birds by impaling them on thorns or barbed wire fences. They could just as rightly be called bandit birds because of the black bandana that runs between their slate blue head and chestnut brown back. The whole underside of the bird is whitish with a gentle hint of rose. The legs and beak are black.

Interesting things today:

- A short-eared owl, before lunch, being chased by many Arctic terns from their colony at Kirkhaven harbour.

- A peregrine falcon looking for breakfast, as I ate my own outside Low Light, 8.40am:
The terns on the hill took flight, wheeled a giant curve.
A large group of puffins whirred rapidly past from nearby.
A flock of pigeons came speeding above, silhouetted.
Suddenly, among them - a pigeon that wasn't a pigeon. It was a peregrine. It flew fast, flew high, swooped low, circled on scimitar wings. At the top of a climb it tucked wings and stooped, plummeted so fast... but didn't catch anything this time. Through binoculars I managed to make out its yellow eye ring and black bandit mask; a bit like the shrike's only covering more of the peregrine's head.

- I spent three evening hours attempting a painting through a telescope. A kittiwake on nest. I've never drawn with a scope before and I didn't get on well with the hassle of setting up comfortably and the feeling I was straining my eyes. But I see the benefits of watching so closely; you can sit far enough away not to disturb your subject yet feel you're right beside it. It was very engrossing studying and translating all the details of gull and may and rocks. More work is needed to finish.

New birds today:
Short-eared owl.
Red-backed shrike (my first ever).
Whinchat (my first ever).

The old gully trap, a passing ship:


A razorbill to finish:


I love razorbills.