Dolphins and shipwrecks

Pair of dolphins viewed from the Scillonian

Pair of dolphins viewed from the Scillonian

Dolphin viewed from the Scillonian

Dolphin viewed from the Scillonian

One of the delights of the ferry trip to the Scillies is the chance to see dolphins. I’ve been lucky on both outbound journeys, seeing a large number of them – and even managed to snap a few this time. I used to think that to see cetaceans you had to go to more tropical areas, but the reality is that you can see many species in British coastal waters, if you go to the right places.

Life on the Scillies is critically dependant upon the sea in many ways. They were originally joined to Cornwall, being separated by the rise in sea levels since the Ice Ages – but even in Roman times most of the current archilpelago was part of a single large island (known as En Noer). The main port was in what is now St Martin’s. Today, the island of Gugh is cut off from St Agnes at high tide, while Bryher and Tresco are separated completely, except for a few days when the low spring tides enable people to walk from one to the other. The rising sea levels caused by global warming are not a new phenomenon, but the acceleration of an old one.

Every island has its own unique character: my favourite one is St Agnes. It’s wilder than the larger St Marys (which is like a small rural town), and is Britain’s most south-westerly inhabited island. It is also closest to the most treacherous stretch of water in the world. There have been more shipwrecks off the western rocks (a few miles west of the St Agnes) than anywhere else in the world. The other attraction of the island, like the others, is that it is a genuine working community. By contrast, Lundy at the mouth of the Bristol Channel has a slightly artificial feel, being entirely managed by a heritage group.

Much as I would have liked to have seen more rare birds, it is no hardship to have time to explore the Scillies!

The west coast of St Agnes - a rugged environment!

The west coast of St Agnes – a rugged environment!

Rocks off the coast of St Agnes

Rocks off the coast of St Agnes

Old Town bay, St Mary's

Old Town bay, St Mary’s

Enjoying the Scilly season

I’ve just come back from a wonderful few days around Land’s End and on the Scillies. As it’s the autumn migration, the area is a hotspot for birds on passage, and thus for – ahemtwitchers birdwatchers as well.

The greatest wildlife spectacle of the week took place on the passage over to St. Mary’s. I was surveying the ocean for interesting seabirds when I noticed a patch of water looking strange – and a dolphin emerged! It was the first of several dozen that appeared over the next hour: some of them jumped clear of the water before diving back, coming close to the boat, diving under and then re-appearing and jumping in the wake. Others could be seen more distantly towards the horizon. It was an unexpected and spectacular show.

It takes only moments on the islands to realise that they have a climate that’s much more tropical even than the tip of Cornwall, with normal gardens having agaves and other succulents that wouldn’t survive on the main land.

Agave in a harbourside garden – with the Scillonian ferry reflected.

I took a couple of day trips to St. Agnes,  an island with a much wilder and more remote air. On Wingletang Down, to the south, there are some wind-blasted rocks that have taken on weird shapes – none more so than the inevitably-named Nag’s Head.

The Nag’s Head on St Agnes

It’s a great place to birdwatch, though. There were some notable rarities – such as a Richard’s pipit which, for some reason, I had to see – and several yellow-browed warblers. It also happened to be the right time for seeing black redstarts: although they breed on the mainland, they do so only in small numbers and thus are quite hard to track down. Just a couple of days previously they had started to pass through, and I saw several while I was there.

One of the delights of birdwatching on the Scillies is that it’s also a very social time – a meeting ground for like-minded people who also think that feathered migrants are worth getting excited about. Arriving at the campsite, the conversation was clearly going to be about the barred warbler (which eluded my attempts to spot it), while at the coastguard cottages it was obviously the rose-coloured starling (which, being the juvenile was very, very brown). On the Tuesday I hung out with Alfie Brown (a Trinity person also on the islands) and James Garside, whose sharp eyesight meant Alfie and I saw birds we might otherwise have missed.

One of the showiest birds was a spotted crake on St Mary’s, which was almost oblivious to the birdwatchers gazing in rapt attention as it negotiated the boggy terrain at the Lower Moors. Attempts to photograph it were thwarted by the darkness of the area, resulting in perfect images of motion blur, so my better shots were of comparatively common birds viewed from a hide at another nearby pool.

Purposeful: heron on the prowl at the Lower Moors, St. Mary’s

Snipe squelching through the mud

On the final afternoon in the Scillies I had to take the early boat back to St Mary’s to catch the Penzance ferry. As we arrived at the harbour, one rather taciturn gentleman suddenly broke into a wry smile and cried out “I don’t want to go!”.