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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Isles of Scilly- October 11th - November 1st 2005,
A bird diary of three weeks spent on Scilly in autumn 2005.
The weather during the period was mild and often sunny. Temperatures usually reached 15 – 19 degrees Celsius during the day and rarely fell below 12 degrees at night. It was completely or mostly sunny on 13th, 15th, 18th, 19th, 20th, 22nd, 23rd, 25th, 26th, 27th, 28th and 30th. Heavy rain prevented birding on only three days, the 11th, 24th and 29th. Winds were predominantly from an easterly direction from October 11th – 18th, westerly from 19th- 23rd, and often strong to gale force southerlies from 24th to the end of my stay. Fog affected birding occasionally during the first week when the easterly winds were light.
I stayed at the campsite on the Garrison from 11th to 24th, when it closed to the season. At £5.75 per night this was excellent value. Thereafter I moved to the Pier House B+B opposite the Mermaid, and later to Nundeeps guest house in Ram’s Valley. Both of these guesthouses were comfortable and offered reasonable value at £25-£30 per night.
Tuesday 11th October. Weather: rain, heavy at times. Light winds.
I had travelled to Penzance by train on the Monday, and stayed overnight there before catching the Tuesday morning crossing on the Scillonian. There were few birds to be seen on the crossing and the weather was wet at times, although the sea was fairly calm. Highlights were three Great Skuas and two Common Scoters among the usual Gannets and gulls.
I met Adrian Riley on the boat, and on arrival at St Marys quay we were greeted by Gary Thoburn. The weather was too wet for birding, so we adjourned to the Mermaid for a few beers. Later, once the rain had eased slightly, we made our way to the Lower Broome Platform on the Garrison where we eventually obtained some excellent views of the Blackpoll Warbler. I took advantage of the lull in the weather to pitch my tent at the campsite, then it was back to the pub to celebrate my first lifer of the holiday!
Wednesday 12th October. Weather: cloudy but dry, light breeze becoming fresh NE.
I spent a full day on St Mary’s catching up with the rarities already present. The Sora showed very well at Lower Moors, with a Water Rail feeding in the open for comparison. A tristis-type Chiffchaff was mostly elusive in bushes behind the Hilda Quick hide although it could often be heard calling.
At Carn Leh the long-staying Spotted Sandpiper showed at extremely close range as it foraged among seaweed and rocks. As we walked along the road between Old Town Lane and Higher Moors, a pager message came through that a Black-throated Diver was flying over Tresco heading towards St Mary’s. We stopped at a suitable viewing point overlooking the airport and sure enough, a couple of minutes later the diver, still in almost complete summer plumage, flew over our heads in the direction of Porth Hellick – never to be seen again, much to the dismay of Scilly listers as this is a rare visitor to the islands.
Along the trail from Higher Moors to Holy Vale, a Yellow-browed Warbler was calling but failed to show itself in a dense thicket. Later in the day we had excellent views of this species at Newford duckpond. From the terrace of the Longstones café, a few interesting birds could be seen including a male White Wagtail on the barns and some Siskins over, with male and female Peregrines in the area.
Early afternoon, the pager brought news of an Arctic Warbler on St Martins, a species I have never seen, and something of a bogey bird for Gary. As we were at the wrong end of St Mary’s, and very much enjoying a relaxing afternoon’s birding, we resolved to wait until tomorrow – a decision we would come to regret!
As we continued our walk, a Hawfinch showed quite distantly feeding on berries at Borough Farm. Opposite the new riding stables near Pelistry Lane, a superb Red-breasted Flycatcher performed well along a line of elms, with a Black Redstart around the stables themselves.
Having seen many of the scarce species present on the island, we took a walk around Porth Hellick Down, where three Golden Plovers flew over heading towards the airport, and a drake Common Scoter passed at sea. A very pale juvenile Sedge Warbler in front of the Seaward Hide at Porth Hellick Pool got pulses racing, before it showed well enough to confirm that it was not the much rarer Aquatic Warbler!
Thursday 13th October. Weather: sunny, strong NE breeze easing by the afternoon.
We took the morning boat to St Martins, and predictably the Arctic Warbler was not seen today despite much searching in the area around Little Arthur Farm it had favoured.
Despite that we had a very relaxing few hours birding, spending the best part of three hours watching the small sheltered fields behind the cricket pitch. Many migrant birds were in evidence and three different Yellow-browed Warblers showed well at times, as well as two Firecrests, two Willow Warblers, a Spotted Flycatcher, and many Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. The resident Magpie, a major rarity on Scilly, flew overhead.
Meanwhile on St Mary’s a Hoopoe was showing well on Peninnis and a Red-throated Pipit had been found on Porth Hellick Down, so we resolved to get the 14.30 boat back from St Martins and see these birds.
However at 14.00, news came on the pager of an Ortolan Bunting showing well in fields above Little Arthur Farm, about ten minutes walk from where we stood but in the opposite direction to the quay! We calculated that we would have enough time and sped towards the bunting, however by the time we reached the site the bird had flown off. We stuck it out for five minutes but at 14.15 decided that two birds in the hand on St Marys were better than one in the bush on St Martins! As we half-walked, half ran down the track through Little Arthur Farm, I noticed a bird feeding in a pasture. As I raised the bins it flew off strongly, but my split second view of the bird was enough to confirm that it was the Ortolan Bunting! I was reluctant to “tick” the bird on such brief views, as although I have seen this species abroad it would have been a new British bird for me. Unfortunately neither Gary nor Adrian were able to get onto the bird in time.
We jumped into the 14.30 boat just as the boatman was untying it from the quay, and once back on St Marys chartered a taxi to Carn Friars. Many birders were gathered at Porth Hellick Down, some of whom were scoping a Meadow Pipit thinking it was the Red-throated! Soon the Red-throated Pipit did appear, and we eventually got excellent views although the bird was incredibly mobile around the Down.
Then we headed over to Peninnis Head, on foot this time. The Hoopoe was showing distantly on the coastal path on the west side of the Head, and while we were there two Snow Buntings fed virtually at the feet of the crowd of birders.
Friday 14th October. Weather: Fog, occasional drizzle, light to moderate E.
Yesterday a Common Rosefinch, a Radde’s Warbler and a Barred Warbler had showed well on St Agnes virtually throughout the day, and a possible Blyth’s Reed Warbler had been seen briefly, so in the absence of anything new on St Marys in the early morning, Gary and I decided to head over to the island to try and see these birds.
Overall it was a disappointing experience as the Rosefinch, Barred and putative Blyth’s Reed Warblers had apparently disappeared overnight, and the Radde’s was being very elusive in the garden of Rose Cottage where viewing was restricted.
We trudged around the whole island and the only bird of any note was an autumn male Pied Flycatcher in fields below the Parsonage, which showed well enough for Gary to photograph despite the poor light conditions. Another Pied Flycatcher and a Spotted Flycatcher showed briefly in the Parsonage itself, and six Golden Plovers were on the rocks offshore from the campsite.
We decided on a third and final attempt for the Radde’s Warbler, as each time we had been to Rose Cottage during the day the crowd had been too large to be able to view the garden properly. There were only half a dozen birders still present, some of whom had been here for over five hours, and we spent a half-hearted hour or so staring into the small vegetable garden without success. Giving up and heading towards the Turks Head, we had walked about 30 yards when I happened to look back at the birders and noticed they were on to something. We hurried back and were treated to excellent views of the Radde’s for about ten minutes as it fed in a marrow plant and sometimes showed in the open.
Our pint in the Turks Head tasted all the sweeter, now that we had salvaged something from the day, but it was to be the Radde’s warbler’s final farewell as shortly afterwards it was caught and eaten by a local cat.
As usual the evening was to the spent in the Atlantic Inn, the Bishop and Wolf, and the Scillonian club – one drawback to camping, if you are on a tight budget, is that a tent is a most unappealing place to spend a dark, rainy evening, and the lion’s share of ones cash is invariably spent on beer!
Saturday 15th October. Weather: sunny and warm, fresh SE wind.
My friend Tim Harrop had arrived late on Friday night on the Scillonian, so we intended to spend the morning on St Marys so he could catch up with the long-staying rarities. Unfortunately the Blackpoll Warbler had not been seen since Thursday, and the Spotted Sandpiper had gone, but the Sora, Red-throated Pipit and Red-breasted Flycatcher were still available.
We were watching the latter bird, in the far north east of the island near Pelistry, when the pager reported a Paddyfield Warbler showing well in the allotments along the west side of Peninnis Head! This was a potential lifer for Tim, although I had seen the one at Lee Valley in 2001, so along with two nearby birders we ordered a taxi and were soon rushing along the path from Porthcressa towards the allotments.
We staked our claim to a viewing position in the large crowd, and before long the bird was giving some good views as it fed in a Pittosporum hedge and even showed out in the open on a stone wall.
After that we were able to relax and enjoy the day’s birding, seeing the Sora and the Red-throated Pipit as well as a flock of eight Hawfinches overhead near Carn Vean. We thought this might be a Scilly record, but at the log that evening someone reported that they had seen twelve in the same area! It was clear that we were enjoying exceptional numbers of this species.
Later in the afternoon we headed up to the Garrison on the off-chance that we might be able to relocate the Blackpoll Warbler. While we were standing at Lower Broome platform, news came through that the bird had been relocated at Lower Moors! We arrived at the site fifteen minutes later to find the bird showing well in trees alongside Telegraph Road to an appreciative crowd of birders – a lifer for Tim, as it had been for me a few days earlier.
Sunday 16th October. Weather: fair early, then fog, light SE breeze.
Today started full of promise - as I headed from the campsite towards the Star Castle to meet Tim it was obvious there had been a significant fall of migrants, with many Black Redstarts, Blackcaps and Redwings around the football pitch. A single Whinchat and a White Wagtail were also present. As we were checking the area, news came through of a Dusky Warbler at Sallyport and a Radde’s Warbler at the health centre. We thought it was only a matter of time before a “mega” turned up today! Both the Dusky and the Radde’s had disappeared by the time we reached those sites, which unfortunately set the tone for the day.
After a late breakfast in Old Town café, we headed to Peninnis where a juvenile Red-backed Shrike had been found. From the raised vantage point along the coastal path on the west side of the peninsular, the shrike gave distant views to the north. The Hoopoe could also be seen at the same time from the same spot by looking south! The pager reported a Barred Warbler at Porthmellon, but it was only seen briefly before it disappeared, typical of this elusive species, and we didn’t bother to go and look for it.
Instead we resumed our planned itinerary and continued from Old Town along the coastal path towards the airport. A Ring Ouzel fed at the edge of the airfield where the coast path crosses the turning circle. At Porth Hellick Pool, a Jack Snipe fed in front of the Stephen Sussex hide, while a Willow Warbler and two Reed Warblers were the highlights of a brief visit to Higher Moors.
While we were at the latter site, news of a Little Bunting at Porthloo duck pond came through. We headed towards the site but en route stopped off at Carreg Dhu Gardens in an unsuccessful attempt to see the Firecrests present there, so by the time we arrived at Porthloo the Little Bunting had, of course, disappeared. A Merlin flying through the area provided some consolation while we waited, plus yet another Black Redstart on a nearby rooftop. As the evening drew in, we headed back towards Hugh Town, pausing to admire an adult male Common Redstart as it hopped around among the boats on Town Beach.
Monday 17th October. Weather: occasional light rain, moderate SE breeze.
We started on Peninnis today, hoping to find something good in the allotments or the top fields. A thorough working of the area didn’t reveal the hoped-for rarity, but the Red-backed Shrike was still present and gave much closer views today, as did the Hoopoe on the coastal path.
A Snow Bunting frequented rocks near the lighthouse, and there was a Brambling with the finch flock in the quinoa field. One Black Redstart was seen at the allotments. A late Common Whitethroat in the top fields and a Kingfisher in Porthcressa Bay were both “trip ticks”. Two Peregrines hunted around the area.
A Yellow-browed Warbler had been showing well at Holy Vale, so we decided to go and see this bird. We quickly located it in sycamores opposite the cottages where, true to form, it gave excellent views. Nearby three Black Redstarts, including an adult male, fed around the barns at Longstones,
We returned to Carreg Dhu and today we were lucky, at least two (probably three) Firecrests showed superbly well in trees around the northern entrance to the Gardens. From there we headed north towards the Golf Course, pausing briefly at Porthloo duckpond where the elusive Little Bunting had been seen again that morning, although once again it did not oblige us.
At the Golf Course a male Lapland Bunting, still in partial breeding plumage, showed well with a flock of Meadow Pipits and Skylarks. Two Yellow Wagtails were also present with the flock.
Feeling distinctly unmotivated in the dull and wet weather, I adjourned to the Atlantic Inn for a beer. Tim’s short but very productive stay was over and he headed back to the mainland on the Scillonian.
Tuesday 18th October. Weather: sunny and calm.
Migration was in evidence at the campsite during the early morning, with several Bramblings overhead with groups of Chaffinches, large numbers of Siskins, and a Ring Ouzel perched in the dead tree near the chicken coop. However after three days on St Marys, I fancied a change of scene, so took the morning boat over to Tresco. It was also a welcome opportunity to boost the trip list with a wide range of ducks available on Great Pool.
I was lucky today to see a total of ten duck species on the Pool. As well as Mallard, Gadwall and Teal, there were two Wigeon, a drake Pintail, a single Shoveler, and best of all among the dabbling ducks, a female or immature Garganey which had been present on and off for nearly two weeks but had often been very elusive. The diving ducks were represented by three Pochard, a female Scaup and the long-staying adult drake Ring-necked Duck. Another island rarity in the form of a Little Grebe was also present on the Pool.
I spent a considerable amount of time in the woods in search of the Great Spotted Woodpecker, a major rarity on Scilly. Having heard the bird calling on several occasions, it was frustrating not to get a glimpse. Up to six male Golden Pheasants, definitely the most stunning bird of the day, provided excellent consolation. Much as I wanted to get a good view of the woodpecker, I (sensibly?) decided not to spend the whole afternoon on the trail of what is of course an everyday bird on the mainland.
Instead I spent a couple of hours at the south-east end of the Great Pool, where the long-staying Spotted Crake showed briefly along the muddy edge, as well as two Water Rails and a Greenshank, and a Sedge Warbler frequented the reeds. A couple of birders had had a brief glimpse of an interesting acrocephalus warbler in the bushes, but nothing popped out during the time I spent there although an unseen Yellow-browed Warbler called from deep within the thicket. The two long-staying Spoonbills flew over, heading for the west end of the Great Pool, and I was later to see these birds again in flight from the boat back to St Marys.
While at this pleasant spot, news broke of a probable Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler at Green Farm on St Marys. Resisting the urge to race back to the quay for the early boat back, I remained on Tresco. However I saw little else of note, except the escaped Peregrine/Lanner type hybrid falcon which had been roaming the islands for some days, perched in a tree overlooking Simpson’s Field. Six Black Redstarts frequented the beaches of New Grimsby.
Back on St Marys, I could not summon sufficient energy or motivation to head to the far north of the island in an attempt to see the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, or “PG Tips”, as this ultra-rare eastern Locustella warbler is affectionately known among birders, on account of the black and white tips to its tail feathers. Instead, I decided to enjoy a beer at the Atlantic Inn, which is where I was when the scarcely believable news came through that a probable Allen’s Gallinule had been seen several times during the day near Woolpack Battery on the Garrison!
Downing my pint, I immediately headed to the site where a considerable crowd of birders were already gathered. I was roped into participating in an organised flush. As we surged through the thigh-deep bracken and brambles, I tumbled face-first into a hidden gully, much to the delight of the crowd – my antics possibly being the highlight of the afternoon for the assembled birders, as no Allen’s Gallinule was seen.
The single observer who had seen the bird was deemed to be very reliable, and it transpired that another group of birders may have seen the Gallinule briefly the previous day in the same area, so there was only one place myself and every other birder on St Marys would be the following morning! Along with many others I stayed at the site until nightfall, the avian highlight being a Merlin heading over the Garrison and out to sea towards St Agnes.
Wednesday 19th October. Weather: mostly sunny but a few showers, fresh NW wind.
Along with many others, I stationed myself at Woolpack Battery from first light, and by about 9.00am almost every birder on the islands seemed to be present. Several flushes of the areas in which the Allen’s Gallinule might have been hiding resulted in failure, although the undergrowth was so thick that a vagrant elephant could probably have slipped undetected past the line of birders.
By way of consolation, a superb near summer-plumage Great Northern Diver flew past, a long overdue year-tick for me. A Black Redstart was present and the long-staying Marsh Harrier could be observed distantly flying over Gugh.
Another organised flush, for the Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, was scheduled to take place at 11.00. By the time I left Woolpack Battery it was already 10.15, and as I figured that all the taxis would be already employed in ferrying the large crowd of birders to the north of the island, I decided to walk. I covered the 2.5 miles to Green Farm in record time, arriving at 10.50.
However it was to be another major disappointment, as although this time everyone saw the bird in question, it turned out to be a Sedge Warbler, although quite what a Sedge Warbler was doing creeping around on the ground like a mouse in a field of crops and weeds is anyone’s guess!
Whilst in the area, Gary and I decided to check out Newford Duckpond, where the long-staying Yellow-browed Warbler showed well but was incredibly restless and therefore very difficult to photograph. We also observed a superb candidate for a Siberian Chiffchaff – a very pale and grey bird, pure white underneath with a prominent supercilium and a single wingbar on each wing.
Returning towards the south of the island via the Holy Vale nature trail, news came through of a Little Bunting on Porth Hellick beach. We headed straight to the site, and eventually managed some excellent views of the bird. As is typical of the species in my experience, this bird was very mobile and restless, and when on the ground quickly disappeared among the vegetation.
By this time it was late afternoon, and on the way back to Hugh Town I made a quick diversion to Lower Moors where a Jack Snipe was visible from the ISBG hide but there was little else of note.
I somehow got involved in some drinking games with some locals in the Atlantic Inn and later the Mermaid that night, which meant that I forfeited the intended early start the next day!
Thursday 20th October. Weather: sunny, light westerly breeze.
To shake off my hangover I decided to take a long walk around the coast path of St Marys. It was a lovely day and I took a number of photographs of the scenery as I passed Porth Hellick Down, Tolls Island, Innisidgen, Bar Point and Porthloo, but unfortunately interesting birds were few and far between – the highlights being two Peregrines, a Brambling, a Kingfisher and good numbers of Black Redstarts.
By the evening I felt a lot better hangover-wise, but it was clear that bird-wise things were very quiet, with numbers of just about everything significantly lower than on previous days.
Friday 21st October. Weather: showers, strong to gale force westerly wind.
There were few passerines in evidence around the campsite due to the high winds, and the conditions looked appropriate for seawatching, so at about 9.00am I headed out to Peninnis Head.
A very sure sign that a seawatch might be a waste of time was the sight of Brett Richards walking away from the Head! However I stuck it out for two hours, and the only bird of any note apart from a few Gannets and auks was the summer-plumaged Great Northern Diver again passing by close inshore.
Due to the strong wind I was able to find very little else of note for the remainder of the day, with a handful of Black Redstarts, a Jack Snipe at Porth Hellick Pool, and small numbers of common waders at Porthloo beach being the highlights.
Saturday 22nd October. Weather: sunny, light NW breeze.
Again a late start to the day due to the combined effect of the various pubs and the Porthcressa Inn disco the previous evening!
I worked Peninnis Head again late morning, and thrush passage was more in evidence today with two Ring Ouzels and half a dozen Redwings feeding in the ploughed fields there, although little else of note.
After another visit to the pub at lunchtime to bid farewell to my birding companions, most of whom were departing on the Scillonian today, I headed back towards Old Town and spent some time going through the finch flocks in the weedy field next to the churchyard. Large numbers of finches of many common species were present, including two Bramblings.
The best bird, and my first significant find of the trip so far, was the Serin which appeared on a weed head as I chatted to Andy Jordan. It had obviously been feeding quietly low down among the weeds, but unfortunately it remained on view all too briefly and I could not get Andy on to the bird before it flew off along the back hedge, calling as it went. Andy managed to see it in flight but the bird disappeared towards Peninnis Head and despite a thorough search we did not see it again. We put the news out and other birders turned up, but it was not relocated, although it could well have been one of the two birds that turned up on Bryher a few days later.
Sunday 23rd October. Weather: sunny and calm in the morning, wet and windy later.
I definitely felt ready to head to another off-island today, and decided on Bryher. Almost all of the birders on the boat got off at Tresco, and I was delighted to see that only three of us remained on the boat to Bryher. I fancied a day on my own with the chance to find my own birds.
It was a beautiful morning, and as I walked around, I concluded that Bryher was probably my favourite island for birding. Relatively few people, and small enough to work quite thoroughly during the day. As I walked towards the Hell Bay Hotel, shortly after getting off the boat, a Common Crossbill flew overhead, calling loudly as it headed towards the pines of Tresco. This bird was to set the theme for the day – no major rarities found, but an interesting day for migrants.
Apart from the Crossbill, the best birds of the day were a Woodcock near the dump, one of the resident Spoonbills in Green Bay, three newly arrived Fieldfares, single Whinchat, Black Redstart and Wheatear, many Siskins, about 15 Bramblings with 300+ Chaffinches in fields near the football pitch, and a selection of waders including both Golden and Grey Plovers, Dunlin and Greenshank.
By mid-afternoon, wind and rain had swept in and the crossing back to St Marys was very wet and unpleasant.
Monday 24th October. Weather: heavy rain and gale force SW winds all day.
Pretty much a washout today as far as birding was concerned, in fact an excellent day to move from the campsite to the Pier House B+B, where I could enjoy my warm, dry room and luxuries such as a warm bed and a television!
Tuesday 25th October. Weather: sunny, strong SW wind.
I spent a full day on St Marys today, relishing the fact that there were now far fewer birders and I could have many places to myself! The best birds were two Richards Pipits on Salakee Down, which gave superb views. The birds were very different in plumage, with one individual very buff underneath, particularly on the flanks. I wondered whether this was the bird reported as a Tawny Pipit on Peninnis a couple of days previously, although the Salakee bird did have obviously pale lores.
Again today I walked around the north of the island via the coast path and Trenoweth, although I had little to show for my efforts – the highlights being a Jack Snipe at Porth Hellick, a Peregrine, three Black Redstarts and a Wheatear.
Both the Yellow-browed Warbler and probable Siberian Chiffchaff showed extremely well at Newford Duckpond. The latter bird was today heard to call, surely confirming its identity - a monosyllabic note quite unlike the familiar “hweet” call of common Chiffchaff.
Wednesday 26th October. Weather: murky a.m, sunny p.m, strong SW wind, warm (18C).
The weather looked good again for seawatching, so I decided to head to Horse Point on St Agnes as this is the most southerly headland of all the islands. Between 11.30 and 13.15 I logged 2 Sooty Shearwaters, 1 Manx Shearwater, 1 Great Skua, 1 Arctic Skua and 4 Kittiwakes. A timed count of Gannets and auks over a one hour period from 11.30 to 12.30 produced 145 Gannets, 39 Guillemots, 12 Razorbills and 27 unidentified auks.
Raptors were also in evidence - an adult female Marsh Harrier passed overhead, a female Merlin attacked a flock of Starlings and a Peregrine flew past the Point.
Pleased with several additions to the trip list, and with the weather brightening up and seabird passage tailing off, I took a slow walk around St Agnes in the warm sunshine, spending some time in the vicinity of the lighthouse where the long-staying and elusive Barred Warbler had again been seen that morning. Certainly, a large number of Blackcaps were present, but I failed to find my target bird in the abundant cover.
The two Spoonbills were roosting on the rocks offshore from the campsite, St Agnes now being the third island on which I had seen these particular birds.
Apart from a few waders there was little else to be seen, and with very few birders present it was certainly feeling like the tail end of the migration season. On the way back to the quay I walked across the sandbar to Gugh, and again apart from a few Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs it was very quiet.
Thursday 27th October. Weather: warm and sunny, strong southerly wind, 18C.
Once again I was in the mood for making my own discoveries on one of the “off islands”, so I took the boat across to St Martins, intending to check out the cricket pitch area again as it had been so productive on my previous visit. Unfortunately the boat docked at Lower Town, which meant a walk of perhaps a mile and a half to my destination.
I didn’t linger along the way and hence saw few birds, however it did mean that I was the first to arrive at the small, sheltered fields behind the cricket pitch. Almost immediately I noticed a phylloscopus warbler flycatching in a sunny corner, and suspected I was on to something good because this bird had a single wingbar on each wing! Unfortunately I was alone, and I had no sooner seen the bird than it promptly disappeared over the hedge.
A minute or so later another birder arrived, Paul Sterry, complete with camera and long lens! The mystery warbler appeared again before he could set up his camera, but we both managed slightly better, although still brief, views, and discussed the possibility that the bird could be a Greenish Warbler – although it was clear that this was a very late date for this species, which more often occurs in August and early September.
Another couple of birders arrived, including Mike Vickers, who also had a camera. Both Mike and Paul had come to St Martins to get some photos of the long staying Yellow-browed Warblers in the same area. Unfortunately the mystery bird disappeared for half an hour, during which time I was wondering whether we had really seen enough on the bird to confirm its identity! I needn’t have worried, as presently it showed again in the same corner, and Paul and Mike were able to take a number of photos as it was on view for a good five minutes.
By now we were all in agreement that it was a Greenish Warbler, although the bird had not been heard to call, hence I called it in to the pager services as a “probable”. Most of the 15 or so birders present on St Martins turned up at the site shortly afterwards, and although the bird didn’t show again for over two hours, when it finally did appear the majority of them managed to see it.
That evening Mike brought his camera to the bird log, and the photos were the envy of those who were on other islands as very little else was found today.
Other than the Greenish, a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers and one Firecrest showed from time to time in the same hedge I had seen them in on my previous visit. I took a walk through Little Arthur Farm and managed to connect with the long-staying ringtail Hen Harrier as it flew along the ridge above the farm. Back at the quay a Marsh Harrier gave distant views over the island of Tean, but I was less lucky with the resident Ravens, as seconds before my arrival they had flown off from the same island.
Friday 28th October. Weather: mostly sunny, occasional showers, strong southerly wind.
My success with the Greenish Warbler had really put me in the mood for finding my own birds, so I headed again to Bryher. A few more birders were on the boat this time, on account of two elusive Serins there which had been present for a few days near the football pitch.
Whilst on the boat, news came through of a Pallas’s Warbler showing well at Jac-a-Bar gardens on St Marys, which was a little galling as I needed this bird for a year-tick, and besides there are few nicer birds to see than a Pallas’s. I resolved to get the early boat back if things were quiet on Bryher and go to see this bird.
On arrival on the island, I decided to avoid following the other birders to the area where the Serins were usually to be found, and instead took a walk over to the Stinking Porth / Hell Bay Hotel area, as well as checking the bushes around the dump and the pitch-and-putt course.
There was very little to be seen, with a clear reduction in almost all species since my last visit to the island, so eventually I found myself heading back towards the football pitch. A small group of birders were staring into a weedy field and as I approached them, I heard a Serin calling and saw it flying strongly away from the field and out of sight. None of the birders had seen the Serin on the ground – like my one on St Marys the previous week, it must have been feeding low down on the ground among the weeds.
This was the only sighting we were to have of this species all day. A male Brambling showed well in the weed fields, as well as at least 20 Siskins, but finch numbers were well down compared to my visit the previous week.
Bryher’s best bird by far was an adult male Snow Bunting, that fed unconcernedly on a grassy path behind Green Bay, sometimes coming so close to the assembled birders that it was nearly too close to focus the binoculars! Despite my thorough grilling of the bushes in the Green Bay area, there were few other migrant species of note – my tally comprising only a handful of Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests.
Therefore I was pleased to head back to St Marys on the early boat and share a taxi to Trenoweth. The Pallas’s Warbler showed exceptionally well in the sycamores at Jac-a-Bar, sharing the “bird of the day” honours with the Snow Bunting.
Walking back to Hugh Town in the late afternoon, a brief stop at Porthloo beach produced a Peregrine and a Black Redstart.
Saturday 29th October. Weather: gale force southerly winds, heavy rain all day.
News had been coming in from the Azores about an exceptional run of rarities caught up with the low pressure systems sweeping across Europe, which themselves were the tail end of a recent hurricane. Among the highlights recorded there were White-eyed Vireo (first record for the Western Palearctic), Black-throated Blue Warbler, Hooded Warbler, and no fewer than 7 Indigo Buntings and 32 Chimney Swifts! Certainly more than enough motivation to get me out into the field, despite the atrocious weather, particularly as only half-a-dozen visiting birders and the ten or so resident birders still remained on the islands.
I took a walk around St Marys, but it soon became apparent that very few birds would be showing in these conditions. I did manage to see the three Water Pipits at Carn Vean, which had been present for some days but which I had not got around to seeing until now. The Yellow-browed Warbler was still at Newford Duckpond and I spent a soggy hour at the viewing screen at Jac-a-Bar gardens, where finally I was rewarded with an immaculate Hawfinch feeding on the ground below the bird table no more than 20 feet away.
A Grey Phalarope had been blown in to Old Town Bay so I headed there, however when I arrived the bird was nowhere to be seen. I could hardly stand against the wind and my optics were quickly becoming covered in rain and spray so I gave up and head back to the guesthouse to dry off, and there I stayed for the rest of the day as the rain continued relentlessly.
Sunday 30th October. Weather: sunny, strong to gale force southerly wind.
I forgot that the clocks had gone back last night, and I had got showered and dressed before I realised that I was an hour early for breakfast. So I went to Porthcressa Bay to try and connect with the long-staying first-winter Mediterranean Gull which was usually present there in the early mornings. Sure enough, there it was - and after breakfast, while still at my guesthouse, I received a phone call from Alan Hannington to say that there was now a female Eider in Porthcressa Bay, and a Grey Phalarope off Morning Point.
On arrival at Porthcressa Bay I quickly saw the Eider, an island rarity, and later as I headed through Hugh Town towards the Garrison with Alan and John Higginson, it flew over our heads heading towards the Harbour.
Unfortunately I was too late to connect with the Grey Phalarope – again – as it had drifted off by the time we reached Morning Point.
I decided to take a walk past Old Town and along the coast path past the Airport. I was just crossing Salakee Down when I received the phone call that I had almost been expecting, given the high numbers in the Azores and several in Ireland – Chimney Swift at Jac-a-Bar! By running most of the way, and scrambling over the slippery tree roots along the Holy Vale nature trail, I managed to get to Trenoweth in about fifteen minutes. Just as I covered the last 200 yards to the site Alan called me again to say that the bird was now over Abbey Pool on Tresco and he was already on a boat and heading over there. Undaunted I continued to Trenoweth, and almost as soon as I arrived relocated the bird over the pines! Over the next half hour or so I enjoyed repeated views of this Nearctic vagrant, often at close range as it swooped overhead – and only half a dozen birders were there to enjoy it, a small fraction of the numbers that would have been present had the bird appeared a couple of weeks earlier!
The bird seemed to fly off in the direction of Newford Duckpond, so I walked the short distance to this site and in the warm sunshine enjoyed close views of both the Yellow-browed Warbler and probable Siberian Chiffchaff, while the Chimney Swift appeared overhead on several more occasions in perfect light.
Satisfied with my “lifer”, I walked slowly back through Holy Vale and on towards Hugh Town, the highlights being a late Swallow at Higher Moors and a Merlin at Salakee, but unfortunately no further American vagrants! Luckily the Chimney Swift stayed for another day so the birders who had headed over to Tresco were able to catch up with it.
Monday 31st October. Weather: sunny spells and showers, fresh southerly breeze.
As many of the boat services to the “off islands” had now finished for the season, it was becoming increasingly difficult and inconvenient to head to the other islands, so I resolved to stay on St Marys for the last two days of my stay.
Although the Chimney Swift was still present in the north of the island today, I decided instead to have a final look at the Blackpoll Warbler and Sora, both of which were continuing their long stays at Lower Moors. The Blackpoll showed briefly in trees around the footbridge near Telegraph Road, the area it had come to favour over recent days, and the Sora put in a cameo appearance as it walked quickly along the edge of the reeds, visible from the ISBG hide.
While in this hide a Merlin zipped overhead towards Old Town, and a Greenshank fed right in front of the hide, but there was little else of note.
I went back to the area around the footbridge and although the Blackpoll did not show again, a Yellow-browed Warbler called from deep within the thicket there, and I had brief views of an acrocephalus warbler which I assumed was a late Reed Warbler – but I had to wait until the following day to ascertain the true identity of this bird!
Feeling I had thoroughly grilled the area, I headed to the Dump where a superb Hawfinch showed well on the ground beneath the apple trees in the allotments there. The Dump Clump was surprisingly devoid of birds, as was the Garrison campsite, but yet another Hawfinch showed around the archway between Hugh Town and the Star Castle.
Other than a scattering of Black Redstarts, little else was seen today. It felt like nothing new would turn up and I anticipated a quiet final day tomorrow, but a surprise was in store.
Tuesday 1st November. Weather: sunny morning, rain and wind sweeping in by mid afternoon.
Along with another birder, Marco Johnston, who was staying in the same guesthouse, I spent the first part of the morning sorting out travel arrangements back to the mainland for the next day, as the Scillonian crossing had been cancelled due to the forecast gale force winds and heavy seas. Instead we were to fly back to Lands End early the following morning, which suited me better than a late afternoon boat crossing as I could head straight home and would not need to spend money on another night’s B+B in Penzance.
After organising our travel, we wandered around Peninnis Head, but very few birds were around. As we approached Old Town churchyard, I received a message that a probable Blyth’s Reed Warbler had been found at Lower Moors, in the area favoured by the Blackpoll Warbler, and where I had briefly glimpsed an acrocephalus warbler the previous day! I berated myself for not attempting to get a better view of the bird I had seen the day before, and we headed straight to the site.
On arrival, only the finder of the bird, Tristan Reid, and one other birder were there. Tristan had had excellent views of the bird, and was personally convinced of the identification, but putting out such a difficult species as a “definite” is a big call and he wanted other birders to confirm the ID.
I spent a total of five hours in the same area during the day, and was only able to see the bird for a total of about 20 seconds as it was incredibly elusive. The very short primary projection immediately indicated this species, while the cold olive-green colour above and prominent yellowish supercilium mainly in front of the eye were further pointers. The bird was clearly slim and long-billed and perhaps subtly different in structure to a Reed Warbler. Several other birders attempted to search for the bird during the day, including some who had unsuccessfully “twitched” Scilly for the Chimney Swift, but only two others saw it. However it was seen well by local birders the following day who were able to confirm the identity on the views they obtained.
The Blackpoll Warbler showed extremely well at times, seemingly totally unconcerned by the presence of birders as it fed in branches only 3 feet above our heads. During my five hours staring at the same area of bushes I also logged a very bright Yellow-browed Warbler, a late Willow Warbler, a male Blackcap and good numbers of Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests.
As the rain set in and the wind picked up mid-afternoon, the chances of the Blyths Reed Warbler showing again seemed remote, so I headed back to the guesthouse and, later, to the Atlantic Inn and Scillonian club for a final night out before heading home the following morning.
Personally I had had a most enjoyable and, overall, very successful three weeks on the islands, with three lifers (Blackpoll Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Chimney Swift), a British tick (Red-throated Pipit), and second records of Sora, Paddyfield Warbler, Radde’s Warbler and Little Bunting. My UK Year List had increased from 268 to 286, bringing the magic 300 within the realms of possibility. I resolved to return again next year, to stay even longer if work and personal commitments allowed!
Great Northern Diver
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Blyth’s Reed Warbler
Total species seen: 135