Avid birders coming to Scotland will likely have heard of the famous Isle of May. Located just outside of Edinburgh within the Firth of Forth, this beautiful national nature reserve along the Fife coast is home to hundreds of thousands of unique bird species during spring and summer!
Watching the Isle of May birds is a special treat to most visitors who stop by, not only because of the wealth of species that flock to the Isle during the breeding season but also because of the large numbers of endangered species present.
The Isle of May is an important site of Scottish natural heritage, owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board and carefully managed by the Natural Conservatory Council. Thankfully, however, the Isle of May is open to visitors during the breeding season and offers informative guided tours and opportunities to see the birds in their natural habitat.
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The Isle of May sits in the outer region of the Firth of Forth, about 18 kilometres from North Berwick and 10 kilometres from Anstruther. The Isle is tiny, measuring 1.8 kilometres in length and less than a kilometre wide, but it is home to a large number of seabirds during the breeding season – approximately 200,000!
The Isle of May is a safe breeding site compared to the Scottish Mainland and does not contain any natural predators to the bird populations like foxes, stoats, and rats. Spanning over 57 hectares, visitors can expect to see over 285 bird species, many of which are migrants from the Arctic.
Since 2022, the seabird populations have slowly recovered from a strain of avian influenza that spread in the summer of that year.
Details to Know
The Isle of May highly accommodates visitors and has several excellent facilities, including a gift shop, visitor centre, and toilet facilities.
The Isle is accessible only by ferry, but there are options to leave from Anstruther, North Berwick, or Dunbar. Once you’re on the Isle of May, expect a rocky and windy path through the terrain – the Isle of May Loop is about 4.2 kilometres and is a medium-difficulty trail. There are few shade points, so bring water and sunscreen on warm days.
Some packages offer a guided tour of the Isle along with their boat trips, which is an excellent way to learn about the island and the migration of the birds. Whether or not you’re on tour, there is a bird observatory and bird hide to stop and birdwatch that will prevent disturbance of the nesting seabirds.
Bringing a pair of binoculars or a telescope is recommended for daytrippers taking time to survey the bird population, as the views of the seabirds and their chicks can be too far to make out in detail for the human eye.
Also, remember to hold onto any loose belongings, as the Isle of May can experience some incredibly windy days. Standing closer to the cliffs can lead to losing a hat or a phone if you need to pay attention. And, unfortunately, the seabirds aren’t trained to retrieve it for you.
When to Visit
The best time to visit the Isle of May is during the breeding season, between June and July, but you can catch a ferry from April through until September to see the other species on the Isle, like grey seals and their seal pups.
How to Get There
The most prominent locations to reach the Isle of May are the towns of Anstruther, Dunbar, and North Berwick.
If you’re travelling from Dundee or St Andrews, Anstruther is the closest point of departure you can reach the Isle of May. Ferries leave from Anstruther Harbour, and you should pre-book your trip before you arrive. Anstruther offers two main ferries, the May Princess & Osprey. The May Princess is the more luxurious choice and offers a 100-seat capacity, refreshments, and bathroom facilities. The Osprey is a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) that only seats 12 but offers a quicker trip to May Isle.
The Dunbar and North Berwick towns offer easy access to the Isle of May if you’re coming from Edinburgh, Kelso, and Haddington. From North Berwick, you can
The Dunbar trip takes you with the Bluewild Rib and offers a 4-hour tour with a guided island tour. Finally, the North Berwick takes trips nearly daily and is also on a Rip (rigid inflatable boat).
Top Birds to Look Out for
Once you’ve arrived on the Isle of May equipped with binoculars and boots, you can set out onto the nature trails and go birdwatching. Here are the unique and vital species that you can see on the Island:
Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica)
Every year, thousands of Atlantic Puffins flock to the Isle of May. They arrive in April and May and stay to bond, breed, and raise chicks until late July. They are easily identifiable thanks to their colourful beaks, black upperparts, white underparts, and prominent white cheeks!
Although they can be mistaken for penguins, these seabirds are distinctly different species. Once the Puffins land on the Isle of May after flying for months without touching any ground, they pair up. These migrant birds will mate with only one other puffin throughout the mating season, and the female will only lay a single egg. Visitors coming in late May will see the chicks hatching from eggs before setting out to the sea again.
Common Eider (Somateria mollissima)
A frequent visitor to the Isle of May, the Common Eider is a large duck species known for its distinctive coats. The males are black and white with green, yellow, and pink markings on its head, while the female is brown with a delicate barring over its coat.
In April of 2023, there was a sighting of King Eider amongst the Common Eider, which made the second sighting of this bird since 1884! Common Eider can be seen throughout the year on the Isle of May.
Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
The Northern Fulmar is recognisable thanks to its outstanding bill – stout and hooked with two nasal tubes that emerge from the top. Otherwise, their white and grey colours be easily confused with other species.
The Northern Fulmar are present throughout the year on the Isle of May but often disappear between August and November into the North Sea. They are a long-lived bird species, able to reach 50 years comfortably if given the opportunity.
Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)
Like the striking shorebird, the Eurasian Oystercatcher is identifiable by its long, yellow-orange bill, white underpart, and grey overpart colouration. As you walk through the Isle of May Loop, you’ll likely hear the short chirp of the Eurasian Oystercatcher before you see it.
They are ground-nesting birds, and visitors may have a chance to see the perfectly crafted nest of the Oystercatcher with one or who speckled grey eggs within. You’ll know when you suddenly hear a cacophony of chirping!
Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)
When visiting the Isle of May, it’s impossible not to hear the distinctive call of the Kittiwake above the other birds. The profound “Ki-teee-wa-aake” is a noisy and recognisable tune that gave these gentle gulls their name.
Kittiwakes generally arrive in mid-March and stay until October at the latest, although you may see the chicks returning to the island’s nest before they head out as well. Their black legs and feet are easy to pick out as they fly across the Isle.
Common Guillemot (Uria aalge)
Home to a staggering 15,000 Common Guillemot, the Isle of May is teeming with these pretty birds. They are easily identified by their black overpart and bulbous, white underparts. They can often be found on the high, west-facing cliffs on the Isle of May between May and July.
The Common Guillemot is different to the other birds as they do not build nest structures and instead incubate a single egg without a nest. During late July, visitors can watch as the young Guillemot take their first flight after jumping off their cliff-side homes.
Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis)
Boasting the title of the largest British breeding Terns, the Sandwich Tern has a mighty 33 – 38 inch wingspan. Watching these birds dive from the air into the water for their prey is an impressive sight, especially for such a large bird!
In addition to their large size, they are recognisable thanks to their long, black bill with a yellow tip and their shaggy crowns. Sandwich Terns nest with other breeding seabirds like Common Terns since they show little territorial aggression.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull (Larus fuscus)
The Lesser Black-Backed Gull is a common species throughout the Isle of May and makes up a considerable portion of the population. They have seen a population decrease in recent years, but these aren’t impactful when you compare them to internationally significant numbers.
You can find this species on the rocky shores of the Isle of May or using the Heligoland trap nests as their preferred place to nest. The most accessible identifiable feature of this bird is its black back, as well as its yellow bill and feet.
Avid birders coming to the Isle of May to see the seabirds and wildlife should be as close to the action as possible. There are plenty of accommodation options for visitors, including in the towns with access to the Isle of May: Anstruther, Dundee, and North Berwick.
Glasgow is about a 30-minute drive from many of these towns mentioned above and can provide guests with options for luxury hotels, excellent bed and breakfasts, and even cosy self-catering homes.
We’ve detailed our top accommodation choices for you to check out below.
Nearby Things to Do
In addition to migrant birds passing through the Isle of May, there are plenty of other things to do on the Isle – such as seeing the seal pups during October. The boat trips offered by harbours around the Firth of Forth will also give guided tours informing guests of the many aquatic species that call the waters their home.
And, of course, we can’t forget about the numerous attractions you can do in Glasgow’s big and bustling city. Here are some more selections for things to do.
- Things to Do in Anstruther
- Things to Do in Edinburgh
- Things to Do in Queensferry
- Things to Do in North Berwick