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A Report from

Scilly Excitement 2nd-8th October 2008,

Chris Hall

“Hold on to your hat”, advises the safety briefing at the heliport in Penzance, where a slow take off in reverse is a bizarre experience. Cruising at 1500 feet above sea level, with numerous little Gannets and the odd Shearwater down below, emphasizes the vast scale of the oceans and yet tiny birds still manage to ‘jump’ these huge distances between the continents. This is what makes birding on The Scillies so exciting, as you just never know what might show up next.

During breakfast of day one in The Scillies, we got news of a Red-breasted Flycatcher at the “dump clump” on St. Mary’s, and so this was our first target. Checking the allotments and trees next to the rubbish dump drew a blank with the Flycatcher, but the abundance of House Sparrows, in their dozens, is an amazing contrast to their decline elsewhere in Britain. With no trace of the Flycatcher, we headed off to the airfield in search of the Dotterel, which landed yesterday, shortly before we did. On the way, a scan of the rocks in Old Town Bay produced a Kingfisher, and up by the windsock, there was the Dotterel, with two Golden Plovers for company, as well as a Northern Wheatear. With the tide out at Porth Hellick, the bay had Grey Heron, Little Egret, Ringed Plover and Greenshank, with numerous Goldcrests in the trees along the shore. After a full morning and a late lunch at the Longstone Heritage Centre, next spot was a White Wagtail, told from earlier Pied Wags by the sharp border between the black head and light grey back. The day also produced two Sparrowhawks and great views of several common Snipe, but no sign of Jack.

With news of Buff-bellied Pipit on Bryher and a Red-breasted Flycatcher on a trampoline in one of the gardens there, we planned to do Bryher next, but the weather was so grey, wet and windy we had to make do with Tresco, where the Great Pool had numerous Redshank, Greenshank, Gadwall and Teal, plus two Pintail, while a passing Peregrine gave a nice view. The poor weather kept the small birds hidden but along the well-wooded Abbey Drive, we enjoyed brilliant views of five stunning male Golden Pheasants, which frantically fanned their golden capes whenever their ‘ladies’ appeared. Back on St. Mary’s the bird board was a sorry sight with only a handful of sightings, including a Reed Bunting, thanks to the day being such a washout, and so we never did get to see the trampolening Flycatcher!

It continued grey and drizzly next morning, where a circuit of The Garrison failed to yield Yellow-browed Warbler, but we did have Sandwich Terns in Porthcressa Bay. After lunch in The Mermaid Inn, we took the boat to St. Agnes. On the beach at Periglis Cove, the waders included numerous Dunlin and a single Curlew Sandpiper at close range, clearly showing its longer more curved bill and whiter underparts with a nice peach flush to the breast. Heading inland, a fast flying Merlin was gone in a flash and by The Parsonage, a Yellow-browed Warbler showed fleetingly for a lucky few within the group. Back on St. Mary’s, a scan of the Black-headed Gulls, feeding in the shallows off Porthcressa Beach, revealed a single Mediterannean Gull, which in first winter plumage, has a darker beak, larger and darker mask and blacker primaries than the Black-headed Gulls.

With continuing unsettled weather, we kept our options open by spending the morning close to Hugh Town. On Penninis Head, a patient stake out did not connect with the Wryneck we hoped for but we did find a Snow Bunting and watched the plucky bird feeding on Heather seeds at very close range. With improving weather, we decided to have an early lunch and then return to Hugh Town quay to catch the boat to Bryher in the hope of finding the reported Buff-bellied Pipit. As we disembarked on Bryher, a steady stream of hopeful twitchers headed across the island in the same direction, stopping briefly for a posing Whinchat. Once at Popplestones, on the west coast, a thin green line of onlookers indicated the location of the Pipit from Arctic Canada, amongst the high tide line of black seaweed. At last we had a five star megatick in our scopes and as we watched it foraging alongside Rock and Meadow Pipits, it looked like a cross between the two, with the black legs of the Rock and the more faintly streaked and paler underparts of the Meadow, but lacking its streaky back. In fact it looked just like the picture of rubescens in the fieldguide. That night we celebrated in The Atlantic Inn, where a white fur coat draped on one of the bar stools twitched when stroked and turned out to be an albino Skunk called Dennis! No I’m not making it up, and a Skunk at the bar must surely be an even rarer sight than the Buff-bellied Pipit on Bryher.

With one day left on Scilly, we did a sweep of St.Mary’s. Still no luck with the Wryneck on Penninis Head, but we cleaned up on the Lower Moors Nature Trail with a posing juvenile Water Rail, sporting a blood-red bill, followed by superb views of a Jack Snipe, bobbing along among a group of larger Common Snipe, making a great comparison of these two closely related species. As the Jack settled down for a snooze with his back to us, we could clearly see the lovely dark green sheen and bold parallel straw yellow lines on the mantle, and in the excitement to see this elusive bird, Stephen plunged into a soggy ditch.

After lunch at Tolman Café, another visit to the airfield windsock reminded me of the top of Cairngorm, as both Dotterel and Snow Bunting were present. Following the coast north to Porth Hellick Down, we were once more on the trail of a five star bird, this time an American Golden Plover. Up on the Down, a scan of the area located a group of half a dozen or so Golden Plovers, with a greyer individual among them. This was the American species and here we could see it side by side with our own yellower European version.

From Porth Hellick, we strolled along Higher Moors Nature Trail and up Holy Vale. Here we picked up the high-pitched call of a Yellow-browed Warbler, which came into view and obligingly perched on leafless twigs just yards in front of us and so we got some amazingly good views of this delightful tiny Asian vagrant, with two wing bars, prominent pale yellow supercilium and clean white underparts. Higher up the Vale, a Firecrest flitted through the foliage and eventually gave us some great views.

Don’t ask what arrived the day we had to leave, but in five relatively quiet days we still managed to see top quality birds from Europe, Asia and North America. This is the excitement of Scilly birding.


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