Isle of May

Razorbill Alca torda ©Wikimedia Commons

While the Isle of May is part of the unitary authority of the county of Fife its birds are recorded separately from it, so it has this page of its own. It is located in the north of the outer Firth of Forth, approximately 8km (5.0 miles) off the coast of mainland Scotland. It is about 1.5 kilometres (0.9 miles) long and 0.5 kilometres (0.3 miles) wide – covering less than 60 hectares. The west coast of the island has cliffs up to 45m high, and from there the land slopes down to the eastern shore which is mainly rocky with three small beaches. In the north is a peninsular that becomes a separate island at high tide.

The island is owned and managed by NatureScot being designated as a national nature reserve since 1956. There are now no permanent residents; historically the island was the site of St Adrian’s Priory during the Middle Ages.

Birding the Isle of May

Visitors to the island are take the ferry from Anstruther in Fife for day visits, the journey takes c.45 minutes from the small harbours of Anstruther and Crail, and also from North Berwick. However, by arrangement, up to six visitors can stay at the bird observatory, usually for a week at a time. More than 10,000 people visit the island each year between Easter and the end of September. The rest of the time is free from disturbance to protect seal pups. Both Common and Grey Seals frequent the waters and a number of cetaceans, particularly Harbour Porpoise and Minke Whale. Land mammals are confined to rabbits (probably introduced by the monks) and a endemic race of House Mouse.

The Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick has two live cameras on the island, which can be remotely controlled by visitors, to allow close viewing of the seabird ‘cities’, which have cormorants and shags, guillemots, razorbills and puffins as well as terns. Prolific breeding is possible as the island is predator free. Other species also breed including kittiwakes, fulmars and gulls. Eider are ever present.

In winter the island has an important population of Purple Sandpipers and turnstones with a number of passerines commonly seen including Robins, Blackbirds, Wrens, Thrushes, Pipits and Wagtails. There are usually several Short-eared Owls present. Because of its position the island is renowned for rarities blown off course during migrations with notables such as White’s Thrush and Calandra Lark.


County Recorder
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 285+

    over 200,000 birds during breeding season.
Birding Aps
  • Where to Watch Birds in Scotland

    Apple iOS | Android
    This app will help beginners and experts alike to discover hundreds of the best places to see and enjoy birds around the country.

    Where to Watch Birds in Scotland, the Scottish Ornithologists' Club's free mobile app for Apple and Android devices, now has over 580 sites. New sites will continue to be added and existing ones updated as far as possible. The app launched in April 2019 and since then has been downloaded by more than 15,000 users and amassed over 750,000 site views. It won 'Product of the Year' in Birdwatch and BirdGuides' 2019 Birders' Choice Awards, and the BTO/Marsh Award for Local Ornithology 2020.
Useful Information
  • Isle of May Bird Observatory Annual Report

    Members' Area Reports Portal
    Published by Isle of May Bird Observatory Trust. It is available from Stuart Rivers, Flat 8 (2F2), 10 Waverley Park, Edinburgh, EH8 8EU or by emailing Stuart. Copies are also available to purchase from Waterston House priced at £8.50.
  • Visiting the Isle of May

    How to visit
    Isle of May NNR - Visiting the reserve
  • Isle of May Bird Observatory

    Observatory WebsiteSatellite View
    Bird Observatory established in 1934. Regular boat trips to island from Anstruther on pleasure cruisers in spring and summer. Birders (six) can stay on the island for a small charge. Celebrated migrant hot spot; wonderful seabird colonies.

Abbreviations Key

  • NNR Isle of May

    WebsiteSatellite View
    We hope you can visit us this year on the Isle of May (we open from 1st April) but if not, continue to follow all the news and views from the island on the blog. Happy NewYear!
Guides & Tour Operators
  • Anstruther Pleasure Cruises

    The May Princess sails from Anstruther to the beautiful Isle of May almost every day from 1st April to 30th September. Licensed by the Maritime Coastguard Agency to carry 100 passengers, she has been operating on this run for the last twenty years. The trip on the boat lasts from around 4.5 to 5 hours in total, which includes 2.5 to 3 hours ashore on the Island, and if the weather allows a slow circumference of the Island by the boat to allow visitors to enjoy the spectacular scenery and wonderful wildlife from the sea. On board enjoy the commentary and assistance during the trip from our experienced Skipper and crew, who will try and make your day out a most memorable one. The boat also has a small snack bar and toilets.
  • Isle of May Boat Trips

    Boat Trips
    Our boats are purpose built Rigid Hulled Inflatables or RHIBs built by Humber world renowned for their strength of construction and sea keeping ability. They are very safe, very stable and perfect for your trip. They are fitted with the much demanded bench seats for your comfort and full waterproofs are supplied if needed. Crossing time from Anstruther to environs of Isle of May is typically 20 -25 minutes at a comfortable cruising speed. Our skippers Rab, Stef, Simon, Billy and Roy all have masters certificates and many years experience on the Firth of Forth.
  • Isle of May Landing Trip

    Landing Trip
    Explore the wildlife haven that is the Isle of May and known as the Jewel of the Forth. It is a National Nature Reserve run by NatureScot and is home to the largest Puffin colony on the East coast of Scotland. When you are ashore during the nesting season you will see hundreds of these comical and loved little birds on the island as well as giving you plenty time to explore and marvel at the other amazing wildlife all over the island. You are welcomed by the NatureScot warden who will explain how to avoid disturbance or damage to the nests or young birds. You can then choose to join a short introductory tour by your Seafari guide or you are free to explore the wonders of the island on your own.
Trip Reports
  • Wayfaring Kiwi

    Boat Trip
    A Magical Day Trip to the Isle of May in Scotland
Other Links
  • Isle of May National Nature Reserve

    NatureScot Webpage
    The Isle of May provides a vital haven for seabirds and seals. At any time of year, you’re sure to find something of interest.
  • The Chatty Blog

    The chatty logs, held in the observatory provide an informal account of the observatory’s 75+ years of operation. News and items of interest and the occasional extract from past log books will appear here…

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