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Landscape by Keith Ratcliffe  
© 2008


May in June

I love visiting islands and this year I set a target of going to five new islands – the Isle of May was on that list. I first tried to get there in April but on the chosen day the wind was too strong and the sailing cancelled. The second try in June coincided with a lot of other people’s plans and the boat was full so we took a gamble on the weather and booked for the following Monday.

It was a good choice with clear skies and a slight swell as we boarded the ‘May Princess’ on a full boat. As we approached the island the variety & number of birds increased – gannets, auks & of course puffins. We skirted the North end of the island where thousands of gulls were nesting and also caught sight of seals.

The landing was spectacular to say the least. As a sailor who avoids rocks at all costs the approach to the harbour was anathema – it was lined with jagged outcrops and was little wider than the boat, that coupled with an on shore swell required careful timing by the skipper to launch his entrance to the narrow embayment. This he did with ease and we motored up to the small quay to disembark.

We all assembled on land to hear the briefing from the RSPB warden on the island. Her words were accompanied by the screaming of the Arctic Terns who nested by the path that led from the quay to the rest of the island. We were offered small sticks to hold over our heads to protect us from attack by the unhappy terns – I preferred my walking pole.

Terns

This is a small island but two and a half hours is still not quite long enough to explore it so off we set. North end first and we stayed religiously between the blue marks that kept us off the nests. We were soon closer to Puffins than I have ever been and the camera clicked away. It was remarkable that they were so undisturbed by our presence – as if they knew the blue line as well as we did.

At the North end we visited the alternative landing and met a sailor out from Anstruther for the day. As he observed this side was more sheltered for a landing though the small quay was situated in an area of impressive rock architecture. We watched him back out and turn carefully for deep water.

The next stop was the cliffs on the South side of the island – as we approached we were told by a very determined lady ‘ Look out for the peregrines!’ This view point gave access to an area of cliffs where many birds nested and there were superb views at close range of Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmar & Kittiwakes – the latter’s cries so mournful and descriptive. A scan with the binoculars revealed an interloper on a high ledge – a tall thin bird with a distinctive raptor head – it was indeed a peregrine falcon. The colony seemed either unaware or unphased by his presence – perhaps there is an inevitability of capture but a mentality of ‘It won’t happen to me’. He flew off and we moved on

The paths are well marked and clear but on several occasions we came across Eider Ducks nesting on or close to the path – the beautiful markings of the female on the nest blended so well with the undergrowth that they were almost invisible. We left them to their patient incubation.

There are five lighthouses on this island, which could be credited with the invention of the device in Scotland. The first one dates back to 1632 though occasional warning fires may have been lit earlier by the monks who occupied the island from the 11th century. The currently active one was built by Stephenson in the 19th century and is now fully automated. The ruins of earlier installations are decaying nicely to provide photogenic subject matter.

Puffins

There are many cliff top viewpoints and I have to say that of all the sea bird sites I have visited this offers the closest views of the nest sites. Even baby Shags look attractive when seen this way! Arches, stacks and sheer cliffs with balconies of nests are easily seen from safe locations amid a cacophony of calls. Even the smell makes an impression – you know you have been close to nature here. The other aspect that impresses you here is the sheer volume of bird life that circulates in a whirlpool of flight over and around the cliffs – it is a maelstrom of avian activity that whips up a frenzy of energy and impact on the observer.

We return to the quay via the abbey ruins that are rather unassuming – there are few remains from the earliest building and the later structures are very ordinary – perhaps fitting to a place of solace & retreat rather than glorification.

We run the gauntlet of the terns again but I fall behind to take a picture and without a protective stick I get bombed – just a light touch but still an intimate connection with a bird protecting its territory that will remain with me for a long time.

After everyone is aboard the skipper turns the boat in its own length then when the time is right he revs up the engine and breaks out of the confining rocks into the open sea and back for Anstruther but not before he visits the South of the island. Weaving in and out of the embayments we get magnificent views of the nests and a vivid impression of the height of the cliffs here - the sea sucks and swells and everywhere the screech of the birds penetrates. This is an evocative passage beneath the dark crags that is their home and a reminder of how well they adapt to their life on this particular edge.

An hour later and we eat fish and chips from one of the best chip-shops in Scotland to provide a fitting end to a remarkable day on the May in June.

© Keith Ratcliffe

June 2008

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