After threats of unusually low tides and easterly gales, the majority of the group set sail very early in the morning on the notoriously unstable Scillonian. As it turned out, we were pleasantly surprised to experience the calmest of seas you could hope for! Others joined later having taking the shorter route of flying to the small airport on St Mary’s. In total, we were 17 with an array of experience from newish birders to those with vast knowledge and awareness of the birding world. Sadly, the group was one down at the last minute due to a very unfortunate accident that put our 18th member into plaster from ankle to thigh.
A good number of seabirds: Fulmar, Manx Shearwater, Gannet, Shag, Cormorant, Razorbill and Guillemot were on the list before the beautiful islands appeared in view. Once landed, we walked around The Garrison above Hugh Town on St Mary’s en-route to the wonderful Mincarlo B&B. Bryony and Ella and the team were extremely accommodating and coped marvellously with all our needs.
We were given such a privileged tour around the Scillies courtesy of Jane who, having visited the Scillies about 25 times, was an expert leader knowing all the routes and best birding places on all five inhabited islands (including the local refuse dump on St Mary’s). Jane’s local contacts put us in good touch with the birdlife each day and we too were able to report into their network of communication about what was being seen and where. These contacts and the daily list on the birding record chalkboard led us to see the Snowy Owl on Bryher, the Iceland Gull on St Mary’s golf course and the Iberian Chiffchaff on Tresco. Had we not used modern technology to listen to the diagnostic call of the Iberian Chiffchaff the night before we may well have missed it, but Nick’s excellent listening skills meant we caught it by sound before seeing it.
Of course we concentrated on the bird life, but we also saw many things of interest including historical sites such as Neolithic burial chambers and the last resting place of Harold Wilson. The flowering plants were beautiful, with many we recognised but challenged ourselves to name. Many of the flora such as the Mesembryanthemum (Hottentot Fig) and Oxalis (Bermuda Buttercup) were introduced from South Africa. All the islands have bulb fields, with Daffodils and Ixias being grown commercially. The pollution-free environment of the islands meant many trees, granite walls and rocks were covered by amazing grey-green lichen which gave an eerie feel to the landscape.
There wasn’t a lot of animal life but we did have close views of the Grey Seals on the uninhabited rocks of Annet and saw six seal heads bobbing in the water off St Martin’s. We also saw Rabbits and Red Squirrel in Tresco Abbey Gardens and a bat out in broad daylight plus some suspected Hedgehog footprints. It is really impressive and important that the islands are now free of Brown Rats that would normally eat eggs and kill chicks of birds that nest on the ground and in burrows.
The inter-island boats provided a fantastic opportunity to see seabirds including all the auks but the tiny Puffins were few and far between. On a number of rocks, a Cormorant sat alongside a Shag giving the ideal opportunity to compare the size of these two related birds. Shags were far more abundant with over a hundred individuals in one raft (described comically by Lois as a ‘Shag-Fest’) all showing off their bright yellow eyespots. Other seabirds included the Great Northern Diver and the majestic Gannets that dived into the water at such speed as did the Sandwich Terns seen plunge-diving off the coast. On St Agnes, we had eye-level views of two Kittiwakes flying along the cliff edge where they were probably nesting. Song Thrush, Wren and House Sparrows were everywhere. On all islands there were more Collared Doves than Woodpigeons. Lower Moors on St Mary’s gave us some newly hatched Mallard chicks and four Moorhen chicks visible through the blind. Over the week we witnessed Song Thrush parents busily feeding their chicks in an eye-level nest close to the path.
Other less common birds included the Ring Ouzel, Water Rail and Hoopoe but not everyone saw these. We searched in vain for a Wryneck on The Garrison and for Rook at the north of Tresco but they were not to be for this trip list. After spotting the male Snowy Owl who stood out like a sore thumb on the dark heather moorland of north Bryher, it flew east and landed on a more prominent point. From there, we were all able to get great views of this magnificent bird. It was flushed by a couple of dog walkers who were oblivious to this spectacular bird flying just above their heads on its way to Tresco! We had excellent views of a very noisy Cuckoo and, for those who chose not to race to the top of St Martin’s but instead take a leisurely rest, a Montagu’s Harrier in flight. The St Martin’s pub claimed to have the best view in the world – and indeed gave a great view of the only Ravens seen all week.
In all, the group saw 88 species which perhaps isn’t a vast number for a week’s intensive birding but it was the nature of the birdlife and the rarity of some that made the week so very special. The intensity of the migratory falls of Blackcaps following a foggy morning was amazing with behaviour never before seen by any of the group (feeding on the ground in a field on St Mary’s and grazing for sand-flies on the beach at St Warna Cove on St Agnes). On Wingletang Down on St Agnes we had a view of more than ten Wheatears, whose white rumps we all became familiar with during the week and, with so many Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers about, we were able to focus on their small diagnostic differences. The weather remained sunny for most of the week but the winds were chilly. We had only a couple of very short showers so we were lucky. The winds changed to north and north-easterly by the third day so the crazy numbers of migrants were no longer evident and the resident Sparrows, Song Thrush, Linnets and Wrens took over. The Snowy Owl was the ‘bird of the trip’ for most of the group but others gave that special token to some stunning species like the Gannet, or more humble species including the very tame Song Thrush or the ubiquitous and very noisy Wren whose explosive song is out of all proportion to its size.
Many thanks to those experienced birders who made us feel very welcome and shared their knowledge unselfishly and we are sure the whole group would like to give special thanks to Jane Cumming for leading from the front. Alison and Jeremy Pilling
If you are interested, there are some interesting photos of the Snowy Owl and Iberian Chiffchaff on a local Scilly birder’s blog site: http://scillyspider.blogspot.co.uk