Ever dreamt about living on a remote island with only seals and seabirds for neighbours? It’s all part of the job for David Pickett! A bona fide wildlife expert, David is the reserve manager for Scottish Natural Heritage’s National Nature Reserve (NNR) on the Isle of May and spends several months of the year based on the island, monitoring puffins, shags, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills, grey seals and many more gorgeous creatures.
Just 1.8 km in length and less than half a kilometre in width, the Isle of May lies just a few miles off the coast of Fife and is a paradise for birdwatchers and wildlife spotters. As well as welcoming some 200,000 seabirds during the breeding season, this tiny island is home to colonies of both grey and harbour seals and sometimes even offers sightings of dolphins, orcas and whales from its shores, making it the ideal location for an unforgettable wildlife watching experience.
David recently took part in our #AskSNH Q&A on twitter and Facebook, answering your burning questions about life on the Isle of May. Want to find out how you can visit the island? When’s the best time to spot orcas or whales? What volunteers get up to when they’re not keeping an eye on their feathered friends? Read on to find out!
Question: How can one get to the Isle of May and are there puffins? (Melissa Bar-Ilan via Facebook)
David Pickett: Visitor boats to the island run from Anstruther in Fife and North Berwick in East Lothian, and it’s possible to visit up to the end of September. The puffins have left the island for the season now but will be back on the island again when boat trips start again at the beginning of April next year.
Q: How long have some of your puffins been returning to May for? Do they go back to the same spot on the island every year? (Heather Anderson via Facebook)
DP: Puffins will generally pair for life and return to the same burrow each year. If they can, young puffins will return and claim a burrow in the same area of the island where they were hatched. Puffins can live up to the age of 40, so that is a lot of years returning to the island.
Q: How many species of bird are on the island? (Gill Hallsworth via Facebook)
DP: About 285 different bird species have been recorded on the island. A small number of these are seabirds that actually breed here, like the puffin, guillemot and shag, but most are passing through on migration, sometimes staying on the island for days, sometimes for hours and sometimes just flying right overhead.
These migrants vary from robins and blackbirds, occasionally in their thousands, to rare birds that don’t normally live in the UK but have been blown off-course to the island. There have even been birds found on the island that have never before been seen in the UK, like the Siberian thrush and the Isabelline wheatear. Part of the joy of the Isle of May is never knowing what might turn up next.
Q: What is the best time to go to see whales? (Meliza Rodriguez via Facebook)
DP: The time you are most likely to see whales, usually minke, is August and September. Numbers vary each year, and even on a good year you have to be very lucky to see one.
Q: Have you ever seen orcas off the island? (Gillian Thomson via Facebook)
DP: They have appeared 2 or 3 times, but I haven’t seen an orca off the island. One memorable day last year we did see 14 sperm whales from the island as they moved across the Forth and out past Fife Ness. Though they were quite a long way out, we could see the whales waving their tails about, splashing and bobbing their heads out of the water with the telescope. There were only about 6 of us on the island that day, but we were absolutely buzzing for days after.
Q: Have you developed a special relationship with an individual bird or other resident species while on the island? (Quarkybirdy @Quarkybirdy)
DP: My favourite bird on the island tends to vary on a daily basis. The shags are stunning at the start of the season, the female eider ducks when seen close up have the most amazing feather patterns, the kittiwakes are a delight to watch, but the species I have spent probably most time working with is the arctic tern. I think that the island would not quite be the same if it wasn’t there. They are just beautiful birds and wonderfully entertaining to watch.
It never pays to name individual birds as this nearly always spells doom for them. We did have an eider duck that for a few years nested right next to the visitor toilets. She was called toilet duck but has now disappeared.
Q: What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen on the Isle of May? (Francesca Logan @f_logan)
DP: I couldn’t name one thing; every day that I have spent on the island I have seen stunning things.
Q: How many people volunteer per year on May and what kind of things do they do? (Heather Anderson @TheShrub)
DP: Usually we have up to 10 people volunteering on the island over a season. We advertise in January for 2 long-term volunteers each year who stay on the island for a 10-12 week period during the peak season from April to end July. They are usually people starting off in a career in conservation and this placement gives them a really good block of experience in dealing with visitors, studying seabirds and doing practical repair jobs.
We have to give a health warning to these placements because people often leave addicted to seabirds and islands! The other volunteers do shorter periods of 2 weeks but these are often people who have skills that we have matched to certain jobs we need doing on the island.
Q: How can I volunteer? (Eden @mitchell8896)
DP: As you can imagine we have far more offers from volunteers than we have places. The best thing to do is to look out for our adverts for long term volunteers in January and apply then, or keep an eye out for any appeals for volunteers with specific skills.
Q: How can such a small island cope with 10,000 visitors a year? Logistical nightmare? (Kenny Ritch @kennyritch)
DP: The short answer is through careful management. In more detail, visitor numbers are restricted on the island to a maximum of 124 visitors a day for only 3 hours a day. This reduces the amount of disturbance to the birds and gives them time to bring in food to chicks.
We limit the visitors by only allowing licenced boats to land paying visitors. Each boat that lands is met by SNH staff and given a brief introductory talk covering the rules on the island. The most important rule is that visitors must stick to the paths so as to not disturb the birds and not to tread on any nests, chicks or through puffin burrows.
Most people are very good and do as we ask, but there are always a few who think the rules don’t apply to them. When visitors are on the island SNH staff and volunteers patrol the paths to answer visitors’ questions but also make sure that visitors don’t stray. In this way the 10,000 visitors get a fantastic experience while not affecting the wildlife they have come to see.
Q: Can anyone stay at any time? (Barbara Hartley via Facebook)
DP: Unfortunately not. The only place members of the public can stay overnight is at the Isle of May Bird Observatory building, the Low Light, where people can book up to a week. Preference is given to birdwatchers and bird ringers so that they can help to monitor the migration, but you can still see a lot on a day trip as you get up to 3 hours on the island.
Q: When you’re not watching wildlife, what’s your favourite activity on the Isle of May? (Annierose Knox @anniespacerose)
DP: We do say that if you’re awake on the island then you’re working, which, when not at the computer, usually means watching wildlife in some way. We do have a little bit of down time, though – I’ve done a little bit of spoon carving using driftwood, which has been fun.
One of the highlights of the season is the Isle of May salsa night, when everyone on the island gathers for an evening of salsa dancing in the old visitor centre building at the end of May. Seeing some Latin moves in a small wooden hut 6 miles out on a lump of rock in the North Sea is certainly memorable!
Q: How do you deal with “isolation”? (Nuria @Nuritje)
DP: It isn’t actually that isolated. For the top of the island you can see Edinburgh, the Castle and the heart of Scotland. Sometimes I end up sharing our accommodation with 15 other people plus 6 in the Low Light, so it can be more of a problem finding a bit of space for peace and quiet! It is only at the beginning and end of the season that things quieten down, but there is so much to do and see that it keeps you busy. You’re never bored or stuck for something to do.
Q: What are your most and least favourite things about the island? (My Life in Scotland @LifeinScotland)
DP: My most favourite thing about the island is coming back onto it, and my least favourite is leaving it. My first view of the island when driving through Fife is from the road between Peat Inn and Anstruther, and every time I come over the rise and see the island (assuming there’s no fog) I can’t help but get a bit more excited.
Fascinating! Have David’s answers left you desperate to experience Scotland’s wildlife or to see the Isle of May for yourself? Boat trips are still available from Anstruther and North Berwick until the end of September or early October, so start planning your trip now!