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A Scilly Story

The Isles of Scilly have always held a legendary status for me and I’ve wanted to visit for a very long time. I’ve spent years reading the incredible records of mega birds like Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Waterthrush and White’s Thrush so I was really excited to finally get the opportunity to go last week with Ribble Bird Tours.

Heading out to our flight

The trip started on Friday 28th with an early start to drive down to Land’s End. We caught the 3.50pm flight to St Mary’s and were all checked into our B&B by 5pm. As there were two good rarities on the island we headed straight out birding. The first stop was back to the airfield and, after about 20 minutes searching we located the Tawny Pipit which had been hanging around for a few days.

Searching for the Tawny Pipit

Tawny Pipit

Next stop was Penninis Head for a very confiding Ortolan Bunting. It was feeding on the coastal path and only moved out of the way when you got within a few feet of it. Unfortunately the light was fading quickly by this point making it not ideal for photography.

Ortolan Bunting

On Saturday morning we headed down to the harbour in Hugh Town and took a boat to Tresco. The first boats to the various “off-islands” each day generally leave around the same time so the prevailing movement of all the foot-traffic at that time of day is always towards the harbour – most people gravitate that way to head off for their day trips to St Martins, Bryher, St Agnes or Tresco.

Once we landed on the island we headed to Great Pool to look for the Pectoral Sandpiper which had been seen there recently. We quickly located it along with a couple of Water Rails. We then headed down Abbey Road towards Tresco Abbey where we had our lunch. The afternoon was spent walking back along the other side of the pool but we didn’t really see much else of note.

Abbey Road - Tresco

Great Pool, Tresco

Sunday was spent “up-country” – the name used for the top half of St Mary’s. The day involved a lot of walking but, bar a couple of Water Rail and a fabulous apple strudel for lunch, there wasn’t much around. News came out of a Jack Snipe at Lower Moors and we picked this up (and another couple of Water Rails!) on the way back to our accommodation.

Jack Snipe

Water Rail

St Agnes was our destination on Monday, again it was pretty quiet but we did get a couple of star birds – a Yellow-browed Warbler and Common Rosefinch.

View from St Agnes

Our final day on the Scilly’s was again spent on St Mary’s. A walk up to the golf course saw us watching a Lapland Bunting feeding in the long grass alongside a stone wall. A Buff-breasted Sandpiper had been briefly seen on Tresco before flying off so we took the chance that it could have relocated to the airfield on St Mary’s – a regular spot for them. We walked through Holy Vale to get there and, although a Yellow-browed Warbler could be heard calling, we couldn’t locate it. We did manage to find a Firecrest which was an added bonus.

Photographing the Lapland Bunting

Lapland Bunting

Holy Vale

Unfortunately for us there was no sign of the Buff-breasted Sandpiper on the airfield so we called it a day.

We were due to catch the 10.10am flight back to Land’s End on Wednesday but we woke to fairly thick fog. We headed up to the airport but after a few hours it became clear we weren’t going to be flying back.

Fog on St Mary's

The only way we were getting off the island was to catch the boat, Scillonian III, which leaves St Mary’s for Penzance at 4.30pm. The trip takes around 3 hours which gives you plenty of opportunity for sea-watching. There were plenty of porpoise and Common Dolphins to be seen on the crossing and I also caught sight of some Bluefin Tuna, including one which jumped well clear of the water! On the bird front there were hundreds of gannets but, more interestingly several Manx Shearwaters, 2 Great Skuas plus a couple of large shearwater species which unfortunately stayed too distant to be conclusively identified.

Scillonian III

Record shot of Great Skua

We arrived back in Penzance not long after 7pm and, after collecting our luggage, we were bussed back to Land’s End airport to collect the car. 4 diversions around night time road closures later I finally arrived home at 4.30am and headed straight to bed.

The trip was a little underwhelming on both the migrant and rarity front. Only one flycatcher species was seen by the group (although not by me) which was a Spotted, we didn’t see any Redstarts or other birds which we might have expected. The one thing I did notice was the sheer number of Song Thrushes. While this species has been declining elsewhere in Britain they seem to be thriving on the Scillys – they were just everywhere! Also noticeable was how close you could get to the common birds like House Sparrows and Starlings – you could approach really closely without them being bothered at all.

House Sparrow

Song Thrush

The islands have so much else to offer other than just the rarities and migrants - I’m already planning to go back next year!

As ever, thanks to Stuart Meredith of Ribble Bird Tours for a well organised trip and doing all the driving!

Hugh Town, St Mary's

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