Edinburgh-based artist, Kittie Jones, returns for another week of drawing and painting on the Isle of May.
For me, the Isle of May is so much more than the puffins, but it would be fair to say that it is the puffins that make a big impression during late spring. The strange grunting noise they make is curious. Whilst walking around the island, grunts would arise from burrows making me aware of life beneath the surface. Puffins have the most amazing fluorescent orange feet and legs – as they stand around in bright sunlight a pinky-orange reflection can be seen on their white bellies. The many rabbits on the island inadvertently help the nesting puffins by keeping the foliage short, building burrows which may be appropriated, and providing young as prey for the population of great black-backed gulls.
At this time of year the guillemots and razorbills are well established on the cliffs around the island. There are over 13,000 pairs of guillemots breeding on the Isle of May – they need a space of less than 10cm to nest, meaning guillemot colonies are tightly packed. The noises emanating from the colony are difficult to describe: a cacophony of high-pitched barking and gargling – you’ll need to head out to the island to hear for yourself!
Whilst watching razorbills and guillemots you may notice that the inside of their mouths (their gape) is a bright buttercup-yellow – quite striking if you see one yawn, and they do! It is also worth noting that their colouring is more subtle than you may initially think – soft chocolate browns and charcoal greys are there, alongside the black and white.
The eider ducks were a major part of the trip this time – many of them were gathered in pairs or small groups around the island. There were a number of nesting females who were so well camouflaged that at times it felt like you were almost upon them when you first caught sight of them. They had morphed their bodies into a flying-saucer shape and if it was windy or cold (which it often was) they would tuck their beaks into their back-feathers and aim their unblinking gaze at you. They make perfect models for an artist, although I was careful to avoid getting so close that they were frightened off as gulls keep a watchful eye on eider nests.
One morning I set off to seek new subject matter and headed out to look for the grey seals that breed on the island each year. As I peered over the side of a gully I saw a single buff-coloured velvety seal lying across the ridge from me. I could not see its head, just flippers resting against a plump body, and its tail which it would occasionally stretch out to reveal two scallop-shaped limbs.
It was a joy spending time drawing the seals, a different approach was required from my more familiar subject of birds. With birds the difficulty is in grasping a sense of the skeleton underneath, unseen flesh and shape-shifting feathers. Birds also have a tendency to move much more! With seals, the problem is in finding interesting shapes amongst a mass of blubber. Luckily the seals had beautiful colouring and markings, plus their faces were so compelling that it was hard not to find a sense of character in them.
The human stories of the island are interesting too: this time I met a researcher who was spending the next three months counting puffin corpses (studying great black-backed gull predation), an ornithologist recently returned from 18 months in Antarctica and a puffin expert who had decided guillemots were more interesting!
Many thanks to reserve managers Dave Steel and Bex Outram for letting us come back, Mark Newell for organising our accommodation, Roy of the Osprey for two exhilarating boat trips and of course my fellow artists for their wonderful work and company: Leo du Feu, Liz Myhill, Susan Smith, Nye Hughes and Emily Ingrey-Counter.
For more information about my work please visit my website: www.kittiejones.com
Why not make a trip out to the isle of May this season and see all these amazing birds and animals for yourself. Have a look at the website for details on how to get there.
All images by Kittie Jones.