Every October thousands of Britain's keenest birders descend on this group of islands to scour them for rare birds, some of which are among the rarest visitors to the Europe.
The Isles of Scilly consist of five inhabited islands and scores of other islets and rocks with no permanent residents and they lie about 45km off the south-western tip of Cornwall. Formerly part of the mainland, they became isolated with a rise in sea-level and now boast a variety of habitats including farmland, downland and woods, marshes, pools and dunes, fringed by cliffs or sandy and rocky beaches.
The main interest for birders is transatlantic vagrants and passerines in particular. Species such as Red-eyed Vireo and Grey-cheeked Thrush are virtually annual and a variety of other North American birds usually appear.
One of the most sought-after groups are the American warblers, Blackpoll Warbler is virtually annual and others recorded include Black-and-white Warbler, Parula Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Hooded Warbler as well as Northern Waterthrush and Common Yellowthroat.
The first British records of Tree Swallow and Cliff Swallow have occurred on Scilly in recent years and undoubtedly there will be other British "firsts" in the future. Such is the expertise of the many searchers that few rarities go unnoticed in these islands in autumn.
As well as passerines there are also North American waders to be found and species like Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpiper and American Golden Plover are recorded annually with more occasional Killdeer, White-rumped Sandpiper, Baird's Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper or Solitary Sandpiper. Other transatlantic visitors have included Common Nighthawk, Black-billed Cuckoo and Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Chimney Swift.
There are also vagrants from northern Europe and Siberia such as Richard's Pipit, Red-throated Pipit and Olive-backed Pipit, Radde's Warbler and Dusky Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Bluethroat and Ortolan Bunting, Little Bunting and Rustic Bunting. Rose-coloured Starling, Icterine Warbler and Melodious Warbler are regular in early autumn.
In all, more than 50 rare and sought-after birds appear on the islands each year with many other scarce and uncommon visitors.
In contrast, relatively few birders visit the islands in spring, although numbers are increasing. The first migrants are usually Northern Wheatear and Common Chiffchaff, often with Firecrest and Black Redstart, followed by the main movements of the commoner migrants.
In summer breeding birds can appear sparse and indeed many of the commoner woodland birds of mainland areas are absent. However, the seabird colonies make up for this shortfall with greater numbers and variety than elsewhere in south-west England. Breeders include Northern Fulmar, Manx Shearwater and European Storm Petrel, Great Cormorant and Shag, Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin and Common Guillemot.
Also breeding are Kittiwake and Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull, Common Gull and the now very scarce, Roseate Tern, and Sandwich Tern are also usually present in summer.
Common Shelduck, Rock Pipit, Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover breed on shores and around the pools on Tresco there are breeding Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler, Common Whitethroat and Common Chiffchaff, Mallard, sometimes Gadwall, Northern Shoveler and Common Teal also nest.
Other birds present in summer include Common Quail and Common Cuckoo, resident species include Eurasian Skylark and Meadow Pipit, Song Thrush, Stonechat, Goldcrest and Linnet. Tresco is home to a small number of Golden Pheasant which may or may not form a self-supporting population.
Winter birders are very few but those that do make the trip can see Great Northern Diver, Shag and Long-tailed Duck on the sea and Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper on rocks and Sanderling on sandy shores.
The islands regularly have wintering Grey Wagtail, Common Chiffchaff and Blackcap and Short-eared Owl arrive in late autumn-early winter, often joined by Merlin and Peregrine Falcon. Grey Heron, Tufted Duck and Common Pochard often winter on the Tresco pools and Water Rail are commonly seen.
Seawatching in autumn can produce Manx Shearwater, Great Shearwater and Sooty Shearwater, possibly also Cory's Shearwater, often skuas and sometimes Sabine's Gull. Also in autumn, Grey Phalarope can be seen offshore and Northern Gannet and Kittiwake are usually present throughout the year. Alternatively these birds can also be seen from the boat to the islands or from inter-island boats.
Areas of Interest
St Mary's is the largest island in the group with excellent birding on the Lower Moors Nature Trail.
A variety of migrant passerines can be seen and there is a wader scrape overlooked by hides. Porthellick Pool on the Higher Moors also has hides and attracts waders and ducks as well as regular Spotted Crake. This is probably the best site in Britain for good views of Jack Snipe.
To the south is the golf-course and airport area where the grassland attracts scarcer species such as Richard's Pipit and Tawny Pipit, sometimes Eurasian Dotterel, and Buff-breasted Sandpiper is almost annually recorded.
The Garrison, close to Hugh Town, is always worth checking for scarce passerine migrants and Porthloo to the north is good for waders.
The island of Tresco lies north-west of St Mary's and has the best freshwaters in the archipelago at the Great Pool and the Abbey Pool. Garganey is regular in spring and Spotted Crake in autumn at the Great Pool and the Abbey Gardens to the south may hold migrant passerines.
St Agnes is the westernmost of the major islands and linked to neighbouring Gugh by a sandbar. The Big Pool is one of the major birding interest on St Agnes but nearby Periglis Beach has hosted rare waders including Semipalmated Plover, Baird's Sandpiper and Lesser Golden Plover. In the south of the island is Wingletang Down, a well-known haunt of rare migrant passerines with a particularly good record for producing rare warblers.
St Agnes, reached by boat from St Mary's, is smaller and quieter but still attracts a good number of the scarcer migrants such as Wryneck, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Common Rosefinch as well as rarities that have included White's Thrush and Common Nighthawk.
Information on the latest sightings can be found on a board at the post office in the centre of the island.
Bryher and St Martin's
The remaining islands of Bryher and St Martin's are less-visited by birders except when a rarity is reported.
Landing on the Annet and Western Rocks is prohibited but there are regular boat-trips around the rocks from St Mary's. Most of Scilly's seabirds breed here and Manx Shearwater, European Storm-petrel and Atlantic Puffin can be seen.
Birds you can see here include:
Great Northern Diver, Northern Fulmar, Cory's Shearwater, Great Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Balearic Shearwater, Wilson's Storm-petrel, European Storm-petrel, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, European Shag, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Common Shelduck, Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Common Teal, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Garganey, Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Common Goldeneye, Common Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Common Quail, Golden Pheasant, (rare), Common Pheasant, Water Rail, Spotted Crake, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Eurasian Dotterel, Eurasian Golden Plover, American Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Northern Lapwing, Sanderling, Little Stint, Pectoral Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Jack Snipe, Common Snipe, Eurasian Woodcock, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Spotted Redshank, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Grey Phalarope, Pomarine Skua, Arctic Skua, Long-tailed Skua, Great Skua, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Sabine's Gull, Sandwich Tern, Roseate Tern, Common Tern, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin, Common Woodpigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, European Turtle Dove, Common Cuckoo, Short-eared Owl, Common Swift, Eurasian Hoopoe, Eurasian Wryneck, Eurasian Skylark, Sand Martin, Barn Swallow, Northern House Martin, Richard's Pipit, Tawny Pipit, Meadow Pipit, Rock Pipit, Grey Wagtail, White Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, Common Wren, Dunnock, Eurasian Robin, Bluethroat, Black Redstart, Common Redstart, Whinchat, European Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Ring Ouzel, (mainly Sp), Eurasian Blackbird, Fieldfare, Song Thrush, Redwing, Mistle Thrush, Common Grasshopper Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Eurasian Reed Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Common Whitethroat, Barred Warbler, Blackcap, Pallas's Leaf Warbler, Wood Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Goldcrest, Firecrest, Spotted Flycatcher, European Pied Flycatcher, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Red-backed Shrike, Woodchat Shrike, Carrion Crow, Common Starling, Rose-coloured Starling, House Sparrow, Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch, Eurasian Siskin, Eurasian Linnet, Common Rosefinch, Snow Bunting, Lapland Bunting, Ortolan Bunting
Apart from the ubiquitous Rabbit, there are few mammals on the islands except the Scilly Shrew which is a race of the Lesser White-toothed Shrew, absent from mainland Britain but widespread on the Continent.
Grey Seal breed around some of the islands and can commonly seen in summer. The islands have a distinctive race of Meadow Brown Butterfly and there is also a race of Common Blue confined to Tean.
For botanists there is much of interest including the Dwarf Pansy on the dunes, absent from the remainder of Britain and species such as Sea Holly, Shore Dock, Small Tree-Mallow and Orange Birds-foot Trefoil, scarce and local on the mainland.
Access and Facilities
To visit the Isles of Scilly in autumn and in particular, in October, the accommodation, which is mainly on St Mary's, needs to be booked well in advance. Access to the islands is by 2-3 hour boatride on the MV Scillonian from Penzance which is often very rough.
Alternatively, it is possible to reach the islands by plane from Land's End and in the summer period also from Newquay, Bristol, Exeter & Southampton. (The Penzance helicopter no longer operates.)
There is also accommodation on the smaller islands, where there are still rarities to be found, but most birders tend to stay on St Mary's where a birding-based social life has developed involving quizzes, slide-shows and a great deal of exchanging of information.
- Isles of Scilly Holiday & Tourism Guide
- Local Patch Report: Isle of Scilly Birding
- Isles of Scilly Bird Group
- Cornwall Birding
- Scilly Isles on OpenStreetMap
- BirdForum Opus contributors. (2021) Scilly Isles. In: BirdForum, the forum for wild birds and birding. Retrieved 11 May 2021 from https://www.birdforum.net/wiki/Scilly_Isles
Content and images originally posted by Steve
When you step off the boat/plane you set your watch to the new time zone, you go back 50 years.
The Scillionian leaves from Penzance and weather permitting you can stay on deck and see the Cornish Coast as you sail towards the Isles of Scilly. If travelling by boat you can look for seabirds during the journey, Shearwaters, Grey Phalarope, Auks, Skua's. There are regular fixed wing flights from nearby Lands End Airport. You dont have to worry about luggage when you get there, it will be delivered by the very efficient luggage system. You can go off birding the moment your foot hits Scilly soil. There are 5 main islands, St Mary's, Tresco, St. Agnes, St. Martins and Bryher. Most people stay on the largest island St. Mary's. Boats leave the harbour normally in the morning and early afternoon, the timing usually works out so that you can choose to spend about 2 hours or 4-5 hours on the islands. The prime time for rare birds is the middle of October which is when the majority of birders plan to be there. I once calculated the historical prime arrival days for rarities which is in the back of one of the IOS Bird Reports, can't remember which year. The Isles of Scilly are not just about rarities and twitching, you can join in on the rush to see a new rarity, you can try and find your own or you can simply wander around the beautful islands to your heart's content. To Be Continued.
- sea views
- I love the place