Saturday, 15 February 2020

Isles of Scilly 7th to 14th October

The pelagic in August had been my first visit to Scilly for 17 years and now I was here again. I normally travel and bird alone in the UK, but this time I was accompanied by my friend Jason Reece.  For various reasons, we travelled down to Penzance separately and I met Jason at the Queen's Hotel on the Friday evening. I had arrived in the afternoon and a little birding around Penzance had been quiet but at least produced a confiding Turnstone and a ridiculously approachable Rock Pipit.


Rock Pipit

Jason and I met for a drink in the bar and to sketch out some sort of a plan, but we opted to go with the flow.  I had joined the WhatsApp group and Jason had his pager. We concluded that a combination of media would give us the best chance to connect with anything that was about. 

The following morning was blustery with light rain, and Jason, not being a natural sailor was a little anxious about the crossing. However, I was able to allay his concerns somewhat, regaling him with my exploits from August and that once the seabirds appeared, he would forget about any maritime induced nausea.

After embarking from Penzance, we sat inside but with the weather clearing after half an hour we went on deck. It wasn't long before we were getting Manx, Sooty and Mediterranean Shearwaters. The birds were coming close enough even to draw the attention of some non-birders. It was really good! One Sooty Shearwater just past half way out came close enough for a passable record shot.

Sooty Shearwater

Arriving on Scilly, we checked the latest news. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a British tick for both of us had been seen on Lower Moors that morning and it was there that we headed after dropping off our luggage at The Wingletang.

We stared at a collection of bushes for the next three hours. They say you should never leave the site of a rarity, but when a Red-throated Pipit came on the pager for Peninnis, we decided we would give that a bash and least see a bird. 

It's not that far a yomp to the peninsular and the bird was at the town end, and was located right away, going in and out of furrows with a few Mippits for company. It was a tick for Jason, so at least one of us was happy. We headed back to Lower Moors only to hear that the cuckoo had showed, which was a bit of a blow. I had the feeling that this bird was going to give us the run around.

A brief diversion was provided in the form of a Smooth Stick Insect Clitarchus hookeri, which had decided to attach itself to Jason's coat. It was carefully extricated and 'posed' for photos before being released back onto the brambles.

The next day, inevitably saw us back at Lower Moors and it's bushes but no cuckoo. We looked at our options, which included the Red-backed Shrike that had been at Old Town Churchyard since late September, but we decided to keep that one in reserve. Then news broke of a Blue-winged Teal at Porth Hellick. It wasn't too far to go, so we went there via Parting Carn, bagging the Pink-footed Geese en route and a rather obliging Barn Swallow.

 Barn Swallow

Pink-footed Geese

Turning up at Porth Hellick, there was a decent twitch for the teal, and there were conflicting reports; one that it had flown across the pool and the other that it had flown off at height. The consensus was that the bird was still around and after a short wait, the Blue-winged Teal flew in front of the Sussex hide and showed well with Eurasian Teal. The bird's bill somewhat intermediate between Garganey and Shoveler was distinctive. Then, as it preened it showed the blue lesser coverts.

 Blue-winged Teal (left)

Blue-winged Teal

By late morning we were wondering whether to search for the shrike, when news broke of a Red-eyed Vireo on Peninnis, on one of the permissive paths that are set up in October.

On arriving there, news was that the bird hadn't been seen for half an hour and we decided to make a tactical withdrawal and have coffee and cake at Old Town. En route, the Red-backed Shrike was perched out in the open on its ivy-clad tree.

I have to say, Old Town cafe was a disappointment and seems rather impoverished compared with how I remember it, back in the day. It wasn't helped by the fact that their dish washer was broken and we had to use paper cups and plates. I can't remember anything about the cake.

Back in the field, we returned to chez vireo. The bird had just been seen, but was currently out of view. It was quickly relocated and at close range, just below the canopy. The bird showed very well, 'Giving itself up' in Dick's words, and remained in the open, preening and roosting in full view for at least 30 minutes. A cracking bird and still an iconic Scilly species, even if they're not the mega that they once were.

Red-eyed Vireo

The 9th was an uneventful day. We gave the cuckoo a really good go in the morning, but there was nothing doing. We now assumed that it must have flown off or expired.

With nothing new in, we had a ramble around the island with a vague hope of locating the Blue Rock Thrush, which had been giving birders the runaround for a couple of weeks. In Old Town Churchyard the shrike was still in its tree and two Spotted Flycatchers were present, one of them perching up nicely.

Spotted Flycatcher

Nearby, in Old Town bay was a Greenshank and a Northern Wheatear on the rocks.


Northern Wheatear

We walked up past Old Town and to the airfield where a Dotterel had been reported, but had gone by the time we arrived. A female Stonechat was a nice diversion for a while and perched close-up.

At Porth Hellick beach, Jason, being an historian was eager to show me the monument placed in honour of the arrestingly-named Sir Cloudesley Shovell, whose ship foundered on the rocks in 1707. 

Moving on, we heard the Cetti's Warbler by Sussex hide and had a Yellow-browed Warbler by the road. 

Somehow we had got this far without any serious cakes, so with Longstone's a short walk away, we traversed the Tolkienesque Holy Vale and then up the path from the hamlet.

From my visit in August, I knew that Longstones served mean cakes and I wasn't disappointed. The peanut fudge cake was giving the Attenborough chocolate peanut stack some serious competition.

Peanut fudge cake

After our refreshments, Jason and I agreed to pursue the Block Rock Thrush at different locations. I retraced my steps in hope of relocating the bird at Giant's Castle, which seemed as good a place as any. A Shag was pleased to be snapped on Porth Hellick beach and at Giant's Castle I lingered to photograph Ringed Plover, in what was now perfect late afternoon light.

 Eurasian Shag

Ringed Plover

The 10th began calmly enough and Jason and I planned to visit Tresco in order to see the Short-toed Lark, which had been frequenting the heliport.

On the way to the quay we paused by the harbour wall, where two Med Gulls were loafing. A few well aimed pieces of bread lured the birds closer. The morsels were consumed by Herring Gulls, but at least enabled me to get a shot of a first winter Mediterranean Gull in flight.

Mediterranean Gull

We had tickets in hand, in the queue for Tresco when Jason's pager beeped. 'Swainson's Thrush Carreg Dhu Garden.' This was a British tick for Jason, and I hadn't seen one since the '87 Longstones bird. There was no question, the lark would have to wait. We headed back into town and when we were on the Strand, I bumped into my old friend Ken Spriggs from Leicestershire. There was a taxi bound for the airport, and we claimed force majeur, piling on, and were dropped off on Telegraph Road, at the end of the lane to the garden.

We joined the throng, which was assembled in a semi circle around the area where the bird had been seen. Two hours elapsed and there were no further sightings. I was ready to give up and then a message on WhatsApp alerted the fact that the Blue Rock Thrush was showing at Morning Point. I needed this for my British list, and Jason was happy to give it a go. 

We made a bee-line back into town as quickly as possible and negotiated the narrow passages at Sally Port and onto the Garrison Walls. Jason and I had become separated, but we reconnected east of the Woolpack battery. A couple of birders informed us the bird had just flown along the coast. Jason set up his scope and said, "I think I've got it!" I looked through the eye piece. It was a fair way off, but after a few seconds of processing, I realised I was looking at a Blue Rock Thrush.  We were joined by more birders, including county colleague Rob Hoare and the bird continued to feed among the rocks between our position and Morning Point. It flew a little closer and eventually we had fairly good views in the scope, but it was never close enough for a photo.

There was only one way to celebrate a new bird - cake!  We walked back into town and popped into Strudel in Town, which is hidden away off Thorofare. Jason plumped for the apple strudel and I went for the Russian cake. Now, Russian cake is something I remember from my childhood, a vodka-soaked marble cake. This was nothing like that and while a perfectly enjoyable dessert, was a little disappointing, simply because I had hoped to rekindle my youthful memories.

'Russian Cake'

Replete after our cake, we checked out Porthcressa Bay, where a Great Northern Diver was showing off shore. There was nothing mega, so we had a go at knocking off a Snow Bunting that had been reportedly showing down to a few feet along King Edward's Road. We located the bird initially at a puddle, but it flew up to the stone wall by the road and showed amazingly well, indifferent to our presence.

Snow Bunting

On the 11th we revived our plan to visit Tresco. It was a wet day and even with my weather app set to optimistic, we were going to get wet. Docking at New Grimsby, we walked the short distance to the air field. We located the Short-toed Lark immediately. The bird was never particularly close but by employing a little field craft I was able to get a record shot. More obliging was a male Stonechat near the Abbey gardens.

Short-toed Lark


With the aim to gain kudos at the log call, we set about counting the ducks on the Great Pool. The hide was particularly well positioned, as we entered it during a really heavy downpour. Counting everything as we went, including Wren and Dunnock we reached the New Inn. We thought we had had a decent morning, but while we were tucking into sticky toffee pudding, Will Wagstaff was finding Rustic Bunting and Red-eyed Vireo! 

Sticky toffee pudding

Back in St. Mary's and with the weather still a bit rubbish, we headed for Lower Moors, giving 'the cuckoo' a desultory 15 minutes and also failing to photograph a Spotted Crake, found by my Dutch friend Debby Doodeman which had apparently been walking around people's feet. I did however get some nice shots of Common Snipe from one of the hides and a Water Rail emerged from the reeds for long enough for a record shot.

 Common Snipe

Water Rail

Armed with our notes, we were stoked at the log call, scoring with our counts of ducks. When it came to Carrion Crow, Lucy announced that the threshold of significance was 40 and I weighed in with our count of 41 on Tresco. Get in!

The 12th was a day I won't forget in a hurry. It was during breakfast that news of a Convolvulus Hawk Moth Agrius convolvuli broke, the insect said to be resting on a telegraph post by Harry's Walls. I had always wanted to see one of these, so we walked there and found it still clinging to its post.

Convolvulus Hawk-moth

We had a plan to look for the Spotted Crake, but as we were chatting to Alison Allen, a message came through that the Yellow-billed Cuckoo had just been seen by my mate Paul Buxton at the Dump Clump. As this was a stone's throw from our current position, we hurried to the place. Alas, on arrival, no one on site knew exactly where the bird was, and with my Virgin signal not available, I couldn't contact Paul for better directions. For 20 minutes, we waded through the mud, seeing nothing. After all the rain, the Dump Clump was turning into the Great Grimpen Mire - and it was hard work. I stepped over a particularly thick bit of mud and looked back towards Lower Moors, when movement caught my eye. 

For a second with the naked eye, I assumed I had a Collared Dove. Raising my bins I focused on the bird. Rufous wing panel, long graduated tail, white underparts and curved two-tone bill. Yellow-billed Cuckoo!!! I blurted an expletive and 'I've got it!' 

Over the next ten minutes there was a bit of a scrum but Jason and a few other birders had the bird in the same place.

Afterwards, we connected with a Turtle Dove, which was consorting with Collared Doves by the Industrial Estate. Feeling that we were on a roll, it seemed like no better time than throw the dice again for the Spotted Crake.

There was a few birders by the little bridge along the path, and the crake had been seen briefly a few minutes earlier. As I was making space on my memory card the bird appeared on the path a few feet away. I was treated to a few minutes of the bird walking around, oblivious to its admiring crowd.

Spotted Crake

In the evening, Jason and I ate in the Atlantic. We had switched between there and the Mermaid. The latter was more like restaurant food, but the Atlantic served better beer and proper pub grub. 

Yours truly

Our last full day was the 13th. A White-rumped Sandpiper found the previous afternoon was reported as still present at Toll's Porth. As this is a bit of a yomp, we hailed a taxi that just happened to be going to Telegraph. We cut through the burial chamber and down to the coast. The bird was feeding among the tidewrack but owing to the lie of the land was difficult to approach, so I only managed a record shot. Also at this spot were two Ravens, one showing well as it patrolled the coast.

White-rumped Sandpiper


From Toll's Porth we walked back to Telegraph and then along Pungies Lane to Newford Duck Pond where a putative female Green-winged Teal had been present since the beginning of the month. The bird certainly was a good candidate and showed the width of cinnamon in the wing bar, suggestive of GWT. I understand that DNA analysis and further moult has established the bird as a drake Green-winged Teal. News from St, Martin's of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak was frustrating for Jason, as we were a long way from Hugh Town and wouldn't make the extra boat that was planned for there. I had seen one on Scilly, years ago, but wouldn't mind another, so we hoped it would stick.

Green-winged Teal

We headed south via Borough Farm and Holy Vale, where we found a Red-breasted Flycatcher. This was a catch up bird for me, as Jason had seen one earlier in the week at the Dump Clump, while I was elsewhere. 

After a good morning and a fair amount of walking, we paused for a break at Longstone's cafe, where cake of the day was chocolate roulade. A typically photogenic Song Thrush was just too smart to pass up, as I munched on my cake.

Song Thrush

Chocolate roulade

Jason was feeling bushwhacked, so he headed back to town, leaving me to explore. I spent the afternoon around Telegraph Lane, where I managed to bag a late Hobby, briefly and the third Whinchat of the day. I gave the White-rumped Sandpiper another go, but didn't feel comfortable getting any closer, but added Whimbrel to the week list along the beach.



On the 14th, our final morning, news broke early that the Rose-breasted Grosbeak was still at St. Martins by the art gallery. We breakfasted early, and headed for the boats, aiming to be the first in the queue. 

It was a sweaty up hill walk to the spot, but we didn't have to wait long for the bird to appear, showing itself twice in the open, if not awfully close. It was a quality bird with which to round off our trip.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

The Rosy Grosser twitch

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