An Isle of May adventure diary

"Days are merging but still I am enjoying it so much. Every day is different. The May Princess is coming. I swear the birds never stop calling, flying, it's like they never rest or sleep."


Wildlife and Conservation Management student Maria Eugenia Cavaliere gained valuable experience rescuing puffin chicks and building a protective enclosure for trees as a volunteer on the Isle of May.

The SRUC Elmwood student, who is originally from Argentina, captured her experience of working at the Bird Observatory on the Firth of Forth island in July in images and a diary.


The unfolding of events

Looking over Bass Rock and Berwick Law.

Anstruther, Friday 16th, 15:30pm, sitting down on one of the tyres which serve as signposts outside the wooden hut, waiting for the boat to cross to the Isle of May. I am about to embark on what promises to be a wonderful adventure; a new journey to add practice and knowledge to my career in wildlife and to enrich my life.

I am amazed at how life can change so dramatically and so quickly. Today I was supposed to leave to Tarland, Aberdeenshire, on the caravan with my dog Bamba. I was looking forward to this holiday on my own, a time to reflect, to meditate and explore both Auchnerran and Glen Tanar, which were both subject of our studies last term.

However, this changed on Wednesday when I received an email from Victoria asking about volunteering for one week. Well, I didn’t have to think too long about this opportunity that fell from heaven. I cancelled my campsite booking and started planning and waiting for confirmation of a place in a boat to cross.

The rest of Wednesday and all of Thursday was a nail-biting wait, anxious as I was not getting any confirmation from the people already in the island, texting back and forwards to Victoria and Alan in Ireland. The fear that I was going to be left ‘sin el pan y sin la torta’: without my holiday to Tarland nor my trip to the Isle of May! But… God is good to those who wait!

On Friday morning a text from Alan arrived asking if I could leave on the boat at 4pm. YES! So I made the final arrangements, dropping my youngest daughter at her dad’s, then going shopping for appropriate clothes to wear/work on the Island. I got back home at 1:30pm with the news that the boat was brought forward to 2pm! I packed my rucksack in five minutes and raced through the impossible bendy country roads, overtaking cars wherever it was safe. There was no way I was going to make it in time.

When I got to Anstruther the lovely attendant lady said very calmly that the next boat was due at 4pm. That’s when I checked my nearly dying phone and found the last text from Alan with this new departure time. RELIEF!!! I hadn’t missed my boat!


Saturday, 17 July, about 7am

The Bird Observatory.

I am sitting outside my home, the Birds Observatory or 'Low Light', looking North, the rising sun's rays on my face. The cacophony of the birds never stops. The building sits by the edge of the cliff and the volcanic rocks.

Reading a great old book ‘Isle of May, A Scottish Nature Reserve’ by W. J. Eggeling, 1960, one of the many, many books in the Observatory’s lounge, I learnt that “the Isle of May is the exposed part of a single sill of olivine-dolerite, popularly known as greenstone, dipping gently north-east”. The island is populated by hundreds of gulls, puffins, shags, even seals. This is going to be another hot day so swimming will be in the agenda.


Sunday, 18 July, 7am, not sunny :(

Building the Heligoland ('Legoland') trap, first proper job achieved!

I must introduce Mark and Charlotte. Mark is ‘the boss’, a long, long time volunteer for the Bird Observatory. Charlotte is one of the HNC Wildlife and Conservation Management students from Aberdeen. Each of us share the Low Light and the facilities.

Yesterday started with small painting jobs: stone steps either side of the wall and compost bin, followed by lunch and then… BUILDING: Heligoland trap or ‘Legoland’ as I like to call it!

I’m sorry to say that my first jobs in the ‘Legoland’ where a bit frustrating, like taking old rusty nails from pieces of wood. But I was then moved to something much more productive: digging and burying pieces of wood, almost like railway sleepers, in order to stop rabbits from going into the trap and nibbling on the trees.

Soon I am going with Charlotte to rescue pufflings, the puffin chicks that get lost amongst the nettle and go into shock. We'll try measure, weigh and ring them and then release them over the cliffs. 

I'm also learning to ID birds, like arctic terns, kittiwakes and shags.


Monday, 19 July, late and tired!

Greedy 'George Segall', who would help himself to everything and anything we put on that table, not leaving much for his seagull friend!

An early start for Charlotte and I. We set off at 7ish on our puffling walk. I caught one myself and rang it, but we had to redo it. Chris also had to redo his, so I kept the spoilt one, which I now wear as a keepsake on my necklace!

Then I went to carry on with the ‘Legoland’ building. We are almost done, the last few poles before the box. Little progress today and a blunder! I dug the trench, levelled it, measured and cut the planks to size but I never considered that I had to shape them around the concrete in place for the poles! So… I tried to fit the bottom planks by force, using the mallet and… disaster! I managed to break one of the concrete blocks!!! Thank goodness Mark was pretty cool about it.


Tuesday, 20 July

Charlotte holding a juvenile puffin.

6:30am, the alarm reminds me to start the puffling walk at 7:30am. We only found eight of them today, because the weather wasn't great. I ringed one and released it. After that we're off to 'Legoland' for some more digging and securing.


Wednesday, 21 July

Going for a nice but chilly swim after lunch.

No puffling walk this morning, so not too early a start. Cloudy, but good visibility. I should try to go across Rona when the tide is low.

Days are merging but still I am enjoying it so much. Every day is different. The May Princess is coming. I swear the birds never stop calling, flying, it's like they never rest or sleep. I'm still finding it hard to ID them though. My memory is terrible!

But I’m proud of what I have achieved so far. Building the fenced enclosure was challenging, but I managed that and felt super once it was finished yesterday!

After lunch I met Laura, another girl, for a swim off Alterstane. Cold, but lovely! I later did a tern food survey. There aren't many tern mums that feed their babies at this time of year.


Thursday, 22 July

A puffling burrow.

Today we went for a puffling walk at 8am, but there were none to be found. The rest of the day was taken up by cleaning and more trap building. After dinner we left to see the net trapping of terns. Charlotte got to hold a tern, measure wing and weight, but nothing for me this time.


Friday, 23 July and Saturday, 24 July

From the left: Steely, Charlotte, me and Bex.

Our task is fulfilled! Soooo happy! We worked until 6pm, then went back home to finish pre-prepared ‘pastel de papa’ dinner, ready for 8pm! So late! Mark was asking for the gravy and put mint sauce into it!!! We then met Steely, Backs, Laura, Chris, Mark and Carrie at the Big Light. Tot to the very top. The light is in great condition and wonderfully kept. LOTS of pictures!

Without doubt, this has been one of the most amazing experiences in my life: pregnancies and births, sleeping under the stars in Calingasta, San Juan, Argentina, and now one week on the Isle of May!


It is now the 26th August and for the last two weeks I have been sewing bird bags to take on my next visit to the island, which will hopefully be very soon.

Posted by SRUC on 26/07/2021

Tags: Wildlife
Categories: Student and Alumni