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A Scilly Diary. (1 Viewer)

chowchilla

Well-known member
Over the last few days I'd seen several continental White Wagtails amongst the sprinkling of migrants. There was a general feeling that migration might begin to pick up as we transitioned into April. It was still bloody cold at times, however. Scilly doesn't get windy, it gets WINDY. Even a bright sunny day can be tempered by this. Undeterred, I headed out in the hope of adding to the occasional continental offerings.

My first stop was for some 'unmissable' Purple Sandpipers on the Old Town quay. I missed them. I would continue to miss them until they stopped being reported. Quite astounding. Rather more cooperative were a pair of Stock Dove feeding in a field just east of Old Town. Unlike the abundant Woodpigeons and Collared Doves on Scilly, these birds exist in very small numbers here and can be a bit shy. I was genuinely surprised though that it had taken me so long to connect with them. The complete lack of migrants meant that they were a compensation of sorts. I picked my way east across St Mary's.

There were lots of Linnets around, another common Scilly staple. Nice birds, but hardly edge-of-the-seat stuff. As I got closer to Porth Hellick, I began to see a few Willow Warblers, so that was something. Wheatears were also still trickling through. Then I heard, and eventually saw, my first Blackcap of the year. Promise of better things? Alas no, and indeed Porth Hellick itself was pretty quiet, apart from a couple of very vocal Cetti's Warblers. I have subsequently learned that Cetti's are a relatively recent regular breeder here, and indeed, they can be heard from dense wet cover in many parts of the island. It would be interesting to discover how many pairs there are currently breeding. Interestingly, a common UK bird was drawing birders to Porth Hellick, today, including me. Seeing as the migrants were still a bit of a let down, a Dabchick on the main lake ended up being the main highlight. Meagre pickings indeed. What's more, the damn thing was proving elusive, and it was a good half hour before it emerged from the reeds to give distant far-side-of-the-lake views.

A few days later, better luck was to be had on a WINDY Porthcressa beach, where several Sandwich Terns gave decent, albeit distant, views, either in flight or resting on the distant rocks. They continued to move past Scilly over the coming weeks in small numbers, but generally didn't hang around St Mary's much. Better still, they were joined on this particular day by a cooperative Yellow-legged Gull that sat placidly on the same rocks allowing good scopable views.

Easily the best bird of the week, however, was up on the Garrison. Here on a cold, dull evening, I found myself watching the bushes behind the changing rooms for a tiny migrant. After half an hour or so, it didn't show and I moved further in towards the pines. Almost at once I found it. A Firecrest that had been reported the previous day was actively feeding in the lower branches of the nearest pine. There were Willow Warblers in the same tree, and the whole group were moving pretty fast. I lost the Firecrest, which gave brief, not-fantastic views, and found myself watching the Willow Warblers instead. I couldn't relocate the Firecrest which I thought I had seen fly out, and so I had to settle for what I'd had. It turned out that no one else reported it thereafter, so I consider this the one that nearly got away!

At least, the dull weather was not a patch on what I had experienced on the Garrison the week before. I was up here in a howling gale perusing the vicinity of the playing pitch trying to find birds without being bowled over. A woman staggered past me so bundled up in layers that I could barely see her face. I knew how she felt; the weather here is changeable, even within the space of a single day, but... it was slowly, almost imperceptibly, getting warmer, and the warm spells were lasting longer. Days like this were gradually giving away to better weather, and, as it turned out, the improved meterological prospects held promise of some pretty good birds... Of which, more soon.
 

chowchilla

Well-known member
Rising at dawn is something I'm getting better at. You'd think as a birder I'd have had years of practice, but in truth I've never been much of a morning person. In Australia, I was utterly hopeless at getting up early, or if I did, I'd be back in my bedroom by 09.00 to escape the heat. It was an exhausting way to live. I think the air here must be cleaner; I do seem to be sleeping better, but in most instances of early rising, I'll be honest... it's because I have to go to work.

And so it was on this particular wishy-washy day that I got a message on Whatsapp about a rare bird whilst I was at work. There was the possibility of going for it during my short break, because this particular bird, a 'probable' Spanish Yellow Wagtail- the iberae subspecies of the Yellow Wagtail complex- was on Porthcressa Beach, or more accurately at Little Porth, an arbitary division of that same beach; literally a stone's throw from work. I was flat out at work, but kept my alerts on to see what strategy was best: to go for it during my break, or wait until after work. In the end, the latter won out, primarily because the bird was clearly showing well and not giving any real inclination of wanting to leave its little corner of the beach. And so it was that I had time after work to go home, change out of my uniform, grab my bins and camera, and head for the bird; a process that took barely ten minutes from clocking off.

As I approached Little Porth, I could see two people who did not appear to be birders apparently telling me to stop approaching them. It was only as the bird took off, that I realised that it was on the path between us! For those that know the area, that's the beach-side path that runs to Little Porth. So they were birders it would seem, but without bins? I never figured that one out.

As luck would have it, the bird hadn't gone far and was quickly relocated on the beach; mulling about on the rocks, and occasionally chasing some insectile morsel onto the nearby sand. And it was close! What a lovely bird it was too. Birders were strolling to the location getting fantastic views then strolling off again. It really was the most leisurely of twitches, if one could call it that.

I stayed about an hour and took lots of, quite frankly, terrible pictures, including these:
 

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chowchilla

Well-known member
A curious thing happened the other day... A well known birding regular to Scilly was on Bryher and encountered a man whom he described as the sort one associates with a more casual form of birding; or perhaps a newbie. It was a snap judgement, and may not have been accurate, but that's not what was remarkable about the encounter. What was remarkable is what the gentleman in the immacuate new Barbour with the top-of-the-range-bins said when asked if he'd seen much:

"Oh yes, a Crag Martin and a Woodchat Shrike." Or words to that effect...

The conversation more or less ended there, perhaps because the relayer of this story was too surprised to follow up with any more questions.

Now, if you've been paying any kind of attention to the birds that have turned up on Scilly of late, then you'll know what happens next; but otherwise, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this bloke was a beginner who had no clue what he was looking at. Or, like me, you might just be puzzled as to what he actually did see. Meanwhile, our storytelling regular didn't see either bird, nor did anyone else, which appeared to reinforce the notion that they were- if you'll pardon the pun- flights of fancy.

Herein lies a cautionary tale of why the casual birder and more than a few non-birders aren't always clueless; or perhaps it's a cautionary tale not to judge a book by its cover. Either way... a couple of days later, a Crag Martin- a first for Scilly- was found on Bryher... Again it would seem; because either this was one hell of a massive coincidence, or it had been around for days and somehow missed by everyone, except Barbour Man.

I awoke that morning with the intention of researching literary agents and continuing the never-ending process of refining my novel pitch. I left my phone switched off; after all... there hadn't been 'much about', and I didn't want to be disturbed. After a couple of more-or-less productive hours, I switched on my phone for a quick check. For at least an hour, the alerts not only confirmed that the Crag Martin was very real, but that there had been a mad scramble to charter The Osprey (A inter-island boat rather helpfully piloted by a birder by the name of Jo) for a morning crossing, but that I had already missed its scheduled departure time! Gaah! I read more of the alerts. Phew... they had failed to gather enough birders (they needed a dozen) and the next boat would be at 14.00. Once I had established that I could just turn up at the quay, I made absolutely sure that I wasn't going to miss it.

And so it was, that a boatful of local birders (and a few bemused tourists), set off in The Osprey, destination Bryher. En route, as a nice little bonus we had a few moulting Great-Northern Diver, one of which was almost completely into its summer finery. As I type this, summer-plumage GNDs are all over the place right now!

We alighted at Bryher Quay (nickname Anneka's Quay as she did a Challenge Anneka thing on the telly where they built a bigger quay than the old one), on an exceptionally low tide. For those of you not in the know, Bryher lies very close to Tresco and at ultra-low tides you can actually walk between the two islands, sometimes in ankle deep water- though for most people it's more of a wade, often at waist height. Over the years, it has become a bit of an old tradition for everyone to attempt the crossing at least once. They even set up food stalls and such for that purpose! But not today... In fact, if the bird had travelled over to Tresco, it did look marginally too deep for the average birder carrying cameras and scopes. As luck would have it, Jo the boatman hung around for a bit in case we decided en masse to head to Tresco. The main reason for this was because the bird had disappeared. As we stood on the quay contempating whether to stay put or go to Tresco, those with scopes could clearly make out a number of hirundines- mostly Swallows plying the coast of Tresco, but none on Bryher. At least none we could as yet see. Seeing as we were here, most of us opted to stay put and explore, because it really was a case of hedging one's bets now, and second-guessing the bird could lead to missing it entirely; or jamming straight into it. Either way, a decision had been made (by most of us, at least) and we left a few stragglers on the quay and headed off.

We checked around the Fraggle Rock Cafe where it had last been seen. We scanned the coast, the rocks, the surrounding hills. Nothing. There was a general consensus that the bird had indeed flown to Tresco. In retrospect, this was an odd collective decision. Firstly, because we had barely begun to explore Bryher, and secondly, because every report of the bird said that it was not associating with other hirundines. Thankfully Jo, bless him, was still waiting, and we piled back onto the boat. About halfway across, a few of us just happened to be scanning Bryher with our bins. I spotted a large chunky hirundine making its way up a ridge just as there was a shout that the Crag Martin had been spotted. I was looking right at it!

I had seen it, but not for very long. The bird disappeared over the ridge, and not everyone had seen it. Jo, FTR, had seen it, and was gracious enough to turn the boat around and land us back on Bryher at no extra charge. Now that's impressive. The group charged off in pursuit- and scattered. We literally had no idea where the bird had gone, though the majority did make their way up a steep track in the general direction the bird was last seen. At the summit, magnificent views across the island were to be had, but there was no martin. The promised rain showers had held off and the sun even threatened to come out. An alert came through. The bird had been found, and it was over the West side of the island over the main settlement, and especially Hell Bay Hotel but had been commuting over to the nearby Great Pool.

There was a stampede along a perilously steep track down which my momentum carried me at the sort of pace that could have seen me tumbling over if I wasn't careful. We came to a road and continued our sprint rather more safely- only adrenalin carrying us. I for one wanted better views; others just wanted to see it. Some of us got as far as the Great Pool; no sign of it anywhere. We were told by at least three observers that the bird had been merrily feeding over their heads for a good fifteen minutes, leading to crippling views and a few cracking photos. Then another alert came through- it was back up the ridge again!

I was already knackered by this stage, but off I went. Several breathless minutes later, I was bent over double heaving in air as the bird had once again disappeared. Then there was a shout. And there it was! The bird came over the ridge, circled around, and disappeared once more. We didn't have long to wait before it returned, seemingly on a circuit and excellent views were had by all. Phew... I even managed to get a few, quite frankly, dreadful pictures. In the meantime, a few of us got onto a distant falcon that was very likely a Hobby. A brief search for a recently reported Hoopoe came up empty, however. We returned to the ferry triumphant, and not a little relieved.

So that 'casual' birder we had heard so much about was right! But didn't he also report seeing a Woodchat Shrike? The following day (or possibly two days, I can't remember), a Woodchat Shrike was found on Bryher. Again.

Here, for your delectation, is a crap picture of a Scilly first:
 

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chowchilla

Well-known member
Hot on the heels of the Crag Martin was a report of a Purple Heron that flew in off the sea at Porth Hellick. I couldn't get away to see it, but fortunately it not only stuck around, but made it's way to the Lower Moors, necessitating a much shorter trip from home.

Having recently missed a similarly commuting Marsh Harrier, I was keen to connect with this bird. Upon arriving at the Lower Moors, it was evident that we'd had quite the influx of hirundines, with lots of Swallows and House Martins, and a not inconsiderable number of Sand Martins. It was equally evident that there had also been an influx of other summer migrants as both Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler sang from cover in the surrounding reedbeds. Spring was finally in full swing, and not before time.

The Lower Moors are quite a pleasant place to spend an hour or two even if you're not chasing scarce birds, and offer views back towards town over what is pejoratively known as the Dump Clump. This appears to be a reference to the fact that the main island rubbish dump lies in that general direction, though you can't really see it from the main path through the moors. Be that as it may, this was where the Heron was last seen heading towards.

A small group gathered, as is fitting for any uncommon bird around here, to see if it would put in an appearance. As we chatted and scanned, and chatted again, a large heron went up and there was a shout. All bins focused on, a Grey Heron. False alarm, but at least we were all alert. Time moved on and there was no sign of the heron. Some folks headed off, having seen it earlier or because they had given up. A small group of us moved in the general direction of the hides and stood beside the main hide watching in the general direction of the Dump Clump. There we took in common migrants, the views, and... not much else. This went on for over an hour. People were getting restless, but as ever when you're not on a schedule, we waited. And waited.

I must admit, that at this stage my stomach did a rare thing and reminded me that I needed to eat- plus it was sort of 'tea time', and I didn't rate the prospect of seeing the bird. A few folks had already drifted away, and so I eventually left the group by the hide and headed North back towards the Telegraph Road entrance. Halfway there, a large heron got up out of the reeds and flew north, gradually changing its trajectory towards the East. A Purple Heron! I was all alone and managed to rattle off a few pics before running back to the group by the hides to see if they had seen it. They looked at me, aghast. From their position they had missed the bird entirely.

Having stood with them for well over an hour, I had chosen the time to walk up the path to perfection. Had I not done so, I would have missed it. It is these happy accidents that keep birding exciting and unpredictable. It can also be incredibly frustrating if you happen to be part of a group that misses it.

And so here, for your delectation, are a couple of my usual incompetent visual records of Purple Heron:
 

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chowchilla

Well-known member
Yeah, normally I can't get onto flying birds with my camera, but it worked this time! I suppose herons are pretty slow fliers.
 

chowchilla

Well-known member
It just so happens that I was up at the gold course randomly hoping to see something good. Now, for those of you unaware, birders are generally not welcome to walk around the course looking for birds without advance permission. The relationship between birders and the golf club is a somewhat uneasy one these days. Permission can be granted to walk the fairways however, if you ask nicely, and then only if no one is actually playing golf when you're there.

I hadn't obtained permission and so I watched the nearest fairway from the rope divide that separates it from the car park. It only took a few minutes to get my first, definitely not continental-looking, Yellow Wagtail, dancing about on the fairway itself. There were also a lot of Wheatears. I mean, a ridiculous number of them. I counted about fifty before giving up- and there were many more. That was just on the single fairway that was visible.

I scanned the long hedge that divides the first fairway from the next, and focused on a Woodchat Shrike. I blinked, refocused and there was no bird there. I didn't see a Woodchat Shrike I told myself, but I had been thinking about said bird from the one I had so recently missed on Bryher. With nothing else of note, I whizzed back down the hill on my bike and within minutes had located a Water Rail picking its way around the edge of a field close to the northern end of the Lower Moors, giving excellent views. My phone pinged. A Woodchat Shrike had just been found on the golf course. My brain sort of did a flip at this stage. I got on my bike and cycled all the way back up to the golf course, by which time, a few birders had beaten me to it. I told them where I'd seen it and got a few puzzled looks. 'Yes, I did see it, honest guv', I said, or words to that effect. I'm not sure everyone believed me, and I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, because I hadn't put it out! I literally hadn't trusted my own senses. I saw it for a second and then it wasn't there. It was a very weird moment.

We quickly learned that we now had permission to go onto the course and look for it. Several of us fanned out and began our search. As we came up the adjoining fairway, we located the first of three Ring Ouzels. Their pale wings, pale chest crescents and flightiness, make them quite distinct from Blackbirds. A few minutes later, and we had a Golden Plover- my first for Scilly. Still no Shrike. As we circled around to the first fairway, quite a birding crowd had gathered. Well OK... not October numbers, and this bird isn't super rare, but there were at least 20 of us. We got back to the car park. No sooner had we done so, then the Woodchat Shrike popped up onto the long hedge that divides the fairways- in the exact place I'd 'found' it.

I learned two things today: firstly, to trust my senses, despite my 'problematic' eye issues these days. Secondly, that Kris Webb is a seriously nice bloke. He gave me the credit for finding the bird, even though I hadn't put it out. And so my first self-found Scilly rarity was in the bag! Alas, no pics. I didn't have my camera with me, because I'm still an idiot.
 
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Mike C

Emeritus President at Burnage Rugby Club
England
I wasn’t sure whether I would bump into you on Monday afternoon’s twitch to Bryher for the Black-headed Bunting.
Quite a few of the local birders seemed to have good bosses who allow some “flexibility”. With visiting birders, I guess there was a little group of 20 on Rusty Bay enjoying the bird.
 

chowchilla

Well-known member
I wasn’t sure whether I would bump into you on Monday afternoon’s twitch to Bryher for the Black-headed Bunting.
Quite a few of the local birders seemed to have good bosses who allow some “flexibility”. With visiting birders, I guess there was a little group of 20 on Rusty Bay enjoying the bird.
I was recovering from night shift, so I think we missed each other. Managed to get over yesterday and will detail my exploits here, anon. ;)
 

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