Birding in the Scillies

Black redstart on St Mary's at Borough Farm

Black redstart on St Mary’s at Borough Farm

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!

Whimbrel at Old Town bay

Whimbrel at Old Town bay

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.

Snow bunting on the way to the lighthouse at Peninis Head on St Mary's.

Snow bunting on the way to the lighthouse at Peninis Head on St Mary’s.

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.

Lapland bunting on St Mary's at Peninis Head

Lapland bunting on St Mary’s at Peninis Head

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.

The song thrush outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay.

The song thrush outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay.

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.

The song thrush outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay.

The song thrush outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay.

Snow bunting on Leckhampton Hill

One of the reasons that birdwatching is addictive is that the lows and highs can follow in rapid succession. Yesterday I persuaded Dave Doughty and John Linney to join me on a trip to Lydney to see a cattle egret that has been hanging around the area for the last couple of weeks. We thought we were in luck when we arrived at the most accessible of the potential sites, and found a spry pensioner whose pager told him that the bird had been seen there that morning. Although he saw it fleetingly, it remained hidden from view – so we decided to look for a way to get to the other side of the lake for a better look.

While failing to find a route through a nearby industrial estate, we chatted with the elderly gentleman – and soon found ourselves listening to a remarkably intrepid character. It turns out that Edwin Shackleton holds the world record for flying in the most number of different types of aircraft as a passenger (241). This included a day trip to Cairo via Concorde (the cheapest way to fly on it): door-to-door from Filton, it took him 25 hours, with a trip to the Pyramids in the middle.

Dave and I eventually found a route to the far side of the lake – starting at the harbour, along a rather convoluted set of paths. A couple of locals directed us along the way; “follow the track to the buildings, take the path to the right, go across the marsh and you’ll get to the end of the lake”. We found the marsh – and it absolutely stank! But when we got to the lake, there was no sign of the egret. As we waited, a couple of men from the Wales & West Utilities company arrived, looking for a gas leak – so we directed them to the marsh.

Today I saw on the Gloster Birder forum that a couple of snow buntings had been seen on Leckhampton Hill this morning. As this was just a 40-minute walk away, I realised that I had to go – especially as the weather was good. I reached Hill Farm, and began to scan the area – seeing very little. I went round the outside of the farm buildings, hearing the occasional chirp and nothing else. A few skylarks flew up and trilled, and I told myself to be grateful to see their display.

Snow bunting on Leckhampton Hill

As I walked towards the car park, I was bemoaning my lack of luck in birdwatching over  the past ten days. I glanced down at the path and there, a few feet in front of me, was a snow bunting! It flitted off briefly when some dog walkers went past, but then for twenty minutes I watched it grazing along the side of the path. It was  untroubled by my lurking with a camera and allowed me to get some decent pictures. After the failed egret trip, this was a spectacularly good viewing of a lovely bird.

Snow bunting on Leckhampton Hill (2)