Don’t bank on it, 2

And we pick up yesterday’s blog on a boat to the Isle of May with gannets fishing around us…

The sun had gone and I was glad that I had opted for a combination of short-sleeved shirt and jacket as an each-way bet on the weather.  You can’t bank on the weather over a five-hour trip in August.

As we arrived at the Isle of May the May Princess circled the island and the crew pointed out the grey seals that would be pupping on the beaches in about a month’s time, and the cliffs where earlier in the summer guillemots, kittiwakes and fulmars would be filling the air with their cries and the stink of their guano. For in wildlife terms this was a quiet time to visit – too late for the peak of seabirds and too early for cute baby seals – but there was, after the south-easterly winds, a chance of migrant birds and perhaps some interesting rarity.

We landed in a sheltered cove with turnstones and purple sandpipers on the rocks and then the party of 25-or-so land lubbers were back on shore on this famous island.  This was my first visit and I was keen to see what the island was like.  The first impression is that there are lots of buildings on it – from the ruins of monks’ abodes to the first Scottish lighthouse to its modern counterparts – and a small visitor centre and a bird observatory too.

Just as we own most of RBS, we own the Isle of May too – or at least Scottish Natural Heritage does.  SNH is the statutory body in Scotland, with a similar role to that of Natural England down south, that manages the Isle of May.  We were all greeted by the friendly SNH staff who told us not to fall off the cliffs, not to walk off the paths (because any suitable ground has a puffin burrow a little below the surface) and to remember that there are some live CCTV cameras on the island, so watch what you do, and where, as you may be watched whilst doing it (I’d really like to know what those cameras have caught in the past alongside the seabirds and seals at which they are usually aimed).

Our hopes of some exciting migrants were not gratified as a few wheatears and a single robin were the only migrant passerines we saw – you just can’t bank on birds at all.  But the island was beautiful and I’d love to go back at other times of year.  We still saw lots of rabbits – many of them an interesting sooty colour – and there were plenty of shags sporting large colourful rings which must have meant a lot to the seabird scientists who study these small cormorants but meant nothing to me.

Living in Northamptonshire I don’t get to see the sea as much as I would like, so I sat at the southern end of the island, watching the gannets, kittiwakes and shags offshore and hoping in vain for a minke whale.  The coast of Fife was to the north and that of Lothian to the south.  A whimbrel flew past.  A distant butterfly was probably a peacock.  And a shower of rain was heading our way.

Our stay on the island was too short but well worth the fare and as we headed back to Anstruther I bought a blueberry muffin (reminding me of my recent trip to the USA) and a coffee from the attractive dark-haired lady who had taken my fare back on land.  She seemed quite adept at taking my money in a very nice way and I asked her how long she had worked on the boat (four years) and what she had done before.  Fiona Smith told me she had worked in a bank – no wonder she was so good at taking my money.  Which did she prefer? – this, with no doubt, it was fantastic she said.

So these days, for up to six days a week from the beginning of April through to the end of September, weather permitting, Fiona takes the fares for the May Princess, sells snacks to the passengers on the boat and gets a little walk around the Isle of May most days.  It’s very clear that she thinks it beats working in the bank.  And in the winter it’s off to the Canaries for some sun and to find some more work.

You can’t bank on banks these days, and you can’t bank on birds (but that’s part of the fun of them) but Fiona, it seems to me, has invested wisely in a job that makes her happy.

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