I’ve just come back from an enjoyable week in the Scillies. Birding is a highly social activity – especially where you have a high concentration of birdwatchers, as happens during the autumn migration in the Scillies. Here’s how it works…
It starts on the ferry from Penzance. Birdwatchers tend to congregate on the upper deck, because there are often interesting species to be seen that are rarely if ever seen inland (like shearwaters and skuas), and a good chance of seeing dolphins. There was a relaxed and buoyant mood, as people chatted about what they were seeing, and hoping to see once they arrived.
I booked into the Bylet, a guesthouse about five minutes from the centre of Hugh Town, generously managed by Lisa. At breakfast (which became the main meal of the day) I discovered that all five others who were there were also birders – so it wasn’t hard to guess the topic of conversation!
Compared to many of the other birders on the island, though, I am almost a novice. This becomes very apparent when the conversation turns to life lists – the number of species one has seen in the UK, or wherever. Take for example a conversation with Len, an ex bank manager staying at the Bylet.
Len: “I’ve got a life list of about 480, but I don’t chase after birds much these days, not like I used to.”
Me: “My life list is about 230 or so.”
Len: “Excuse me?”
Me: “My life list is about 230 or so.”
Len: “Goodness me! I’ve seen 268 already this year – and I’m down on previous years!”
Me: “How do you manage that living in Devon?”
Len: “Well in January I spend a week on the Hayle Estuary, then in February I have a few days in the Forest of Dean. In March…”
Hmm, and you don’t chase birds these days?!
The main social event for birders on St Mary’s happens around the ‘log’, which takes place daily in the bar of the Scillonian Club at 9pm. It’s a regular ritual, and anyone looking for liturgy outside a church would be amply rewarded here! The guy co-ordinating it goes through the systematic list of British birds, to log all those seen during the day. For example: “Anyone seen any common redstarts today?” No response. “No. Black redstarts – one still at Town beach – any others?”
“One still by the Old Town Cafe.” “One still at Borough Farm.” “There was one on St Agnes today.”
“Stonechats – lots of them today as usual. Whinchats: anyone seen any of them?” And so on.
I was delighted to see a couple of Lapland Buntings. Three years ago I had gone to see a small flock reported in east Yorkshire; in my impatience all I managed to do was to spook the entire flock so they flew off, before I was able to positively identify them; they didn’t return for some hours, long after I’d departed. I was therefore abnormally relieved and delighted to see the two on St. Mary’s! There was also a very obliging snow bunting, which foraged along the footpath leading to the lighthouse on Peninis Head. It was completely unworried by how close people got to it.
However, despite all my efforts, my best photographs were of a common bird, and happened quite by chance. I was sat on a bench outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay, and chatting with a couple of other birders, when I noticed a song thrush, perched only inches away on the arm rest of the next bench. So – while trying to maintain the conversation! – I manoeuvred the camera forward and started snapping.
It happened that this week was unusually poor for a migration season. Although chance conversations tended to be optimistic at the start of the week, there was a feeling of despondency among many birders by the end. The main problem was that the prevailing winds were unsuitable for anything particularly interesting to be blown in. Nevertheless, for me it was a delight just being on the Scillies and to be able to wander around these beautiful and wild islands.