Monday, 25 April 2016

My time on the Young Birders’ Scotland Training Course, by Samuel Hood

At the start of July last year, myself and five other young birders (aged between 16 and 24), set off from the small Fife harbour town of Anstruther, heading for a rock barely visible on the horizon. The ‘rock’ in question was the Isle of May and we were off to take part in the Young Birders’ Training Course!

The 2015 Young Birders’ Training Course participants and SOC / IoMBO leaders
The 2015 Young Birders’ Training Course
participants and SOC / IoMBO leaders
It was around this time last year when I found myself filling out the application form for the opportunity, hoping that I might secure a place on the week-long funded training course which is run by the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) and the Isle of May Bird Observatory (IoMBO) on the May. I was delighted to receive an email back not long after, letting me know I’d been successful in my application! I’d never visited the May, but had read about the island and its remarkable record of producing very good birds, as well as its fascinating history. Combined with the thought of a seabird colony during the height of summer, and the experience proved a very exciting prospect!

The first chance all the course participants got to meet each other was at the harbour on the morning of departure. None of us knew each other at that point; however with talk soon turning to birding and wildlife, it was clear we’d all get on well! Ourselves and our leaders from IoMBO and SOC, set off for the island soon after, filled with anticipation about the week ahead.

On approaching the May, the cacophony of sound, as with any seabird colony, was the first real taste of things to come. Passing beneath the westerly cliffs of the island, we had fantastic views of Razorbill, Guillemot and Kittiwake, the birds leaving and returning to the sheer face of the white, guano-covered cliffs. 
The Low Light by Samuel Hood
The Low Light by Samuel Hood
As the RIB pulled up to the island’s jetty and we disembarked, we were greeted by staff from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), before heading straight to the island’s bird observatory, which was to be our ‘home’ for the week.

The Observatory is housed in the ‘Low Light’ (one of three lighthouses on the island), and is the oldest continuously operating bird observatory, having maintained its official title since its inception (apart from during the war years, between 1939-45, when the Low Light was used as a billet for troops based on the island).
Our setting for the training course was therefore, pretty spectacular!

Over the next seven days we had the opportunity to get involved in a number of the day-to-day duties that managing a nature reserve, such as the Isle of May, entails and a chance to develop our bird survey skills and techniques. We assisted CEH with some of their ongoing project work, which involved for example, Puffin netting and studying specific Puffin burrows, as well as doing a stint observing Kittiwake colonies as part of CEH and SNH’s 24-hour nest watch study of nesting pairs.
Kittiwake with SOC leader Eilidh and course participant, Ptolemy
Kittiwake with SOC leader Eilidh and 
course participant, Ptolemy

Over the course of the week we got the chance to ring a range of different species, including Kittiwake, Artic Tern, Puffin, Great Black-backed Gull and Starling. Others tasks carried out during the course included constructing Tern nest boxes and chick shelters, with the hope of encouraging Roseate Tern back to breed on the island in the future. The team also spent a night trying to catch Storm Petrel, without success unfortunately.

There were many highlights from my time spent on the island: getting the chance to chat to Mike Harris (co-author of the Poyser monograph, The Puffin) about Puffin and hearing about his more recent work with other auk species; driving Heligoland traps and mist netting for Puffin, but the group’s last full day on the May was to result in arguably the birding highlight of the week.

Lesser Black-backed Gull by Samuel Hood
Lesser Black-backed Gull by Samuel Hood
Poor weather conditions in the morning had led to some of us seawatching from the terrace in front of the Low Light. With visibility deteriorating and incoming rain, it was the best seawatching conditions we experienced whilst on the island. Other than a movement of Kittiwake offshore, it was generally ‘quiet’, but a raucous from the Lesser Black-backed Gull colony below alerted us to the presence of something overhead. Lifting from our scopes we found ourselves looking at a single Great Skua, a mere 60 feet from us. We got a fantastic view of the bird and its conspicuous white wing flashes as it cruised over the now very agitated gull colony below. Later that day after returning from a walk around the island, we found ourselves watching a stunning summer plumage Black Guillemot, the bird floating amongst a raft of Guillemot and Razorbill. This was a very welcome addition to the week’s bird list and one that proved to be a ‘lifer’ for several people amongst the group. It was a lovely way to round off our week spent on the May.

SOC and IoMBO’s Young Birders’ Training Course was a fantastic experience for me and one that I would highly recommend. It helped to further cement the direction I want to follow for a career in conservation and as well as providing a range of excellent experiences, spending a week on the May and staying in the Observatory with reminders of its esteemed previous visitors all around, was unsurpassable. Since the course I’ve taken steps towards getting involved in ringing as well signing up to volunteer on Fair Isle this summer and I’ve continued studying Countryside Management at college. I’d encourage anyone who is keen to further their bird skills and knowledge to apply for a place on the course.
To find out more about this funded-training course and to view and download the application form, visit the SOC website at The closing date for completed applications is 5pm on Monday 2 May 2016. You can find out more about the Isle of May Bird Observatory, here

Samuel Hood


  1. Sounds like an excellent experience and an excellent course.

  2. It must of been amazing! It's wonderful that the SOC and IoMBO have created such an inspiring experience for young birders. I think I'll apply when I'm old enough. :)