10/07/2009
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A Scilly Diary: As good as it gets

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It's been a glorious spring on the Isles of Scilly, and now, as we come to the end of June, it's time for me to write my report.

It all started (at least for me on St Agnes), as these things sometimes tend to do, with a period of rather introspective plodding about seeing nothing to very little. While the St Mary's-based birder at the beginning of May saw the first Temminck's Stint on Scilly for fifteen years, a young male Montagu's Harrier that toured the island for a couple of days, a short-staying Bonaparte's Gull (as well as the opportunity for easy day trips to Tresco for a spring Little Bunting, Bryher for Woodchat Shrike and St Martin's for Red-rumped Swallow), for all the considerable time I put into birding for the first fortnight of the month, all I came up with was flight-only views of an early Quail on Wingletang one evening. I began to think this just wasn't going to be my month, and thoughts strayed inevitably to other places where I'd rather be birding at this time of year.

Red-throated Pipit
Red-throated Pipit, St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Steve Arlow)

On 10th May, a Sunday-afternoon twitch to St Mary's for a splendid female Little Bittern showing in front of the hides at Porthellick brought me my first national rarity in over six months. I then returned to St Agnes, however, and plodded around for another couple of days during which a Garden Warbler and Yellow Wagtail were about my only rewards. Finally, on 15th May, after three days of strong easterly winds, I stumbled into a stunning, summer-plumaged Red-throated Pipit, right out in the open on the beach at Porthcoose. An hour later, I found a very tardy female Lapland Bunting feeding in much the same place and my spirits were well and truly revived. News came through that evening that what looked like a female Collared Flycatcher had been seen on Bryher — a bird I would very much like to have seen, but one I had to forego due to a work commitment the following day.

Great Reed Warbler
Great Reed Warbler, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Steve Arlow)

Still, the Pipit was a crippler, and even broke into a burst of song from time to time, belying the fact it was still hundreds of miles from its Arctic breeding grounds. A male Ruff in full summer attire arrived around the same time and attracted birders from St Mary's to view this rarely seen plumage on the Isles of Scilly. Bits and pieces of work again kept me from dashing off to St Mary's midweek when a Great Reed Warbler turned up, also at Porthellick. By the weekend this latest bird was still appearing intermittently but at the same time a gale-force southwesterly wind had moved in, accompanied by dull, cloudy grey skies. I had a stipulation that if I was going to abandon my patch for a Great Reed Warbler then I wanted it to be up at the top of the reeds singing its head off. Reports from other birders and current weather conditions suggested that this was unlikely, but with the Little Bittern still showing occasionally, and at least three Red-rumped Swallows around St Mary's, I was still debating with myself by the time Sunday morning came round. News at 10 o'clock of a Pallid Swift now appearing over Porthellick Pool suddenly put paid to my vacillating. Now it was time to make a move...and quickly.

Red-rumped Swallow
Red-rumped Swallow, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Steve Arlow)

It is at this point that the story of the best two weeks' spring birding I've ever had in the UK really begins.

Inter-island twitching is a fairly routine business for the crowds of birders that visit Scilly in October, but for me, alone on St Agnes on a Sunday morning in the off season, it is a much less straightforward affair, especially on a day of howling southwesterly winds and high seas, as this was. I knew from my visit to St Mary's for the Little Bittern seven days earlier that there was certainly a 5 o'clock boat on Sunday afternoons, but I couldn't wait until that time with a Pallid Swift to be chased. There are no scheduled services from my home island at all on Sunday, but I telephoned them anyway to see if they knew whether any of the St Mary's tripper boats might be arriving in this wind. Perhaps I could get a lift back with one of them? "It looks like there's one coming around the corner right now," said David Peacock, owner of the Spirit of St Agnes, looking out from his lofty position overlooking the sound between St Agnes and the main island. I broke into a quick dash back to the house, and hastily gathered up my telescope and toothbrush and a few other odds and ends for a night on St Mary's. I do sometimes miss the hurly-burly of my old days on the mainland, and those spur-of-the-moment mad dashes, but this, in its scaled-down format, is as good as it gets here.

Little Bittern
Little Bittern, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Steve Arlow)

After waiting for fifty-odd day-trippers to disembark at the St Agnes Quay, I jumped aboard ship, the only passenger returning to St Mary's. Because there was only me and the skipper — in what amounted to my own private water taxi — we anchored in Hugh Town harbour and rowed the last couple of hundred yards to the Quay. A stylish way to twitch. There was no taxi waiting for me on land, as I hadn't managed to get past Kris 'Spider' Webb's answerphone, so there was nothing for me to do but to begin walking Porthellick-wards, out of Hugh Town 'city centre'. I had 30 minutes' hiking time to recapitulate just what this Pallid Swift would mean to me. First dipped at Portland Bill in 1984 when there were barely a handful of records for the UK, I somehow managed to miss at least two (if not three) at the same location 20 years later when — or so it seemed to me — every man and his dog had ticked the species off on his national list. The fact that my old mate Paul Cook had once turned up two Pallid Swifts on my old home patch at Marsden Quarry and that I had arrived on St Agnes last May just three days after a Pallid Swift had spent the last of its four days on the island all added to my desire to see this particular bird.

Once again it was Porthellick Pool that was the centre of the island birders' attention, and within minutes of arrival there it was — my first British Pallid Swift, hawking up and down the Porthellick pines, keeping company with a feeding party of some 20–30 Swallows and House Martins. There were no other Swifts for comparison, but that barely mattered as this pale sandy Mediterranean Apus put on a spectacular show for all concerned, winging about sometimes just a few metres above our heads. Any concerns I might have had that this would be a difficult bird to pick out were redundant within the first few views that showed to remarkable effect the white forehead, dark eye-line and scaly underparts that conclusively separate this species from our familiar, breeding Common Swift. There was no sign of any of the four or five Red-rumped Swallows that had been seen around the area the previous day; the Little Bittern did not show; the Great Reed Warbler was absent; so my whole attention for the afternoon was focused on this mercurial flying creature. I joked to my friends (who have seen this bird practically annually on Scilly for the past five or six years) that I was probably the last birder of our generation finally to tick Pallid Swift for the UK, only to field a phone call later in the evening from Paul Derbyshire — a birdwatching buddy of 25 years and a fellow with whom I have birded on five continents — informing me he had just that very afternoon finally seen the Pallid Swift that had been frequenting Crosby Marina for over a fortnight. A couple of 41-year-old birders, who had met as schoolboys back at Cley in the mid-1980s, who had lived and worked together for nine years in Cape May, ticking the same species, 400 miles or so apart, on the same Sunday afternoon...I don't know about you, but I thought that was quite ticklish!

It looked like that was about it for the spring as the migrant count back on St Agnes the following week was pretty grim, and I threw myself increasingly into farm work as a better bet than the dull daily grind of birding in soulless west to northwesterly winds. Funnily enough it was a Sunday again when I was elsewhere doing something else when a Black Kite was seen flying in over the sea at Periglis Beach, St Agnes, and off across the island over towards St Mary's. I haven't worked out precisely what I was doing at 12:37 that day but I was either in the shower or tending to my washing line, and either way that Black Kite must have flown virtually right over my head without me seeing it. The guy who first saw it, Ashley Fisher, had been told I was off playing cricket on Tresco that day and hadn't bothered to ring me. It was only as I was about to step on to the one o'clock boat to Tresco with the rest of our team that I first got to hear, secondhand, about the bird. Obviously I was mortified at having missed a Black Kite flying right over my head, but redemption was at hand when I learned that the bird, having given St Mary's a miss, was now being watched over the south end of Tresco — precisely the location our boat was heading for! Standing at the helm of the boat, I strained every optical fibre I could muster, but alas, the Kite departed Tresco, flew past St Martin's, and disappeared towards the Eastern Isles, minutes before I crossed that threshold where tiny little dots in the binoculars resolved themselves into identifiable shapes — all turning out to be Lesser Black-backed or Herring Gulls on this occasion.

If this event alone hadn't been bad enough to rally me out of my end-of-season funk, then the news at tea that a male Red-backed Shrike had now been found on St Agnes in my absence was the send-me-over-the-edger. No more long lie-ins in the morning for me for the next two weeks! No more lazy lunch-breaks! This year, for once, no matter how low the migrant count from day to day, I was going to see this through to the second week of June. For years I had been promising myself this, yet I always seem to run out of enthusiasm and stamina by the end of the third week of May. I always start up out of the blocks too eagerly on the first day of the month (see Three White Rabbits and a Tawny Pipit or Three White Rabbits... and a Broad-billed Sandpiper for examples of this) and I always fade away before the month is out. This year, this year, this year....

It helped my renewed enthusiasm considerably that we had a change in the weather to sunny southeasterlies for the last week of the month. It helped that I went off for a wander on Tresco post-cricket and bumped into a Red-rumped Swallow while my team-mates supped ale in the pub. The Black Kite episode had served to separate me from them and had served to remind me that I had given up cricket aged sixteen simply because for some unknown reason I was just too heavily obsessed with birds to have any other commitments in my life. True, finding my own Red-rumped Swallow for the first time ever was small fry in a spring when there had been five or more on St Mary's, but it was still an elation more long-lasting and deeper and somehow more mysterious than any of those wicket-takers or six-hitters could ever hope to experience. Seeing the male Red-backed Shrike in the evening back on St Agnes gave me a boost too. My alarm clock was set for five the next morning. I went out and saw nothing, but the feeling was good.

Dunlin
Dunlin, St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Lee Fuller)

It was two or three evenings later that I came across what, for me, was the most exciting bird of the spring. Readers of this piece might not necessarily agree — but don't worry: there's a Bee-eater and a Golden Oriole up ahead, among others. If I had heard that an 'American' Dunlin had been sighted somewhere on Scilly other than St Agnes I might have expressed mild interest but I doubt I would have bothered to look for it. It is, after all, still 'only' a subspecies, and one that I'd never really thought about or 'dreamt about' seeing on this side of the Atlantic. But to find a bird right out in the open that you can't immediately put a name to is as exciting as it gets in the life of any birder, especially when you have almost 30 years of experience behind you. This is what happened right here.

I had been called out to investigate an 'interesting Yellow Wagtail' (perhaps a female Blue-headed?) and was in the process of following it across the rocks adjoining Periglis and Porthcoose Beaches, when I turned to see a very interesting-looking shorebird about a hundred yards away, running up and down the back and forth of the rapidly incoming tide. I keep an eye on the waders here several times a day and usually the process of identification is a pretty instantaneous one —  "Ah, a winter-plumaged Knot, I see"  — but this one had my head reeling. "What is that?" I asked out loud to no-one in particular.

I shan't labour you with all the ins and outs of the permutations that spread through my mind in the next 30 seconds. To borrow a phrase from Ian Wallace, who wrote in British Birds of a strange late October Willow Warbler at Flamborough Head that had him 'all over the genus' for several minutes before he realized what it was (an 'eastern' or acredula Willow Warbler, as a matter of fact), almost every Calidris sandpiper in the Northern Hemisphere passed through my brain and was quickly rejected. I was looking at what would be termed a 'small' wader, though it was clearly much bigger than a Dunlin, long-legged, exceptionally long-billed and with a long tapering body. It stood head and shoulders above the six or seven Sanderling that were also present, running along the beach. At range, the plumage was unremarkable, except for what appeared to be a neat, heavily black-streaked breast band that in some ways at least put me in mind of a Broad-billed Sandpiper, though the bird was clearly too big and too long-legged for that to be the answer. The belly was white. Curlew Sandpiper was perhaps the closest match structurally but the plumage was all wrong: the breast band, in particular, was too prominent, and the bird seemed to lack the typical fine grace and elegance characteristic of that species.

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I needed to get closer.

After stealing up behind the man-made breakwater that separates the two beaches, I stuck my head up above the parapet, and there, at less than 20 yards' range, the penny dropped. I had seen this bird before. The fabric of time split in two and I had a simultaneous split-screen vision of the present moment and the very morning, twelve years ago, that I had first clapped eyes on American (or Hudsonian) Dunlin in Cape May. I was as astonished then, as I was now, at how these could possibly be the same species as our dumpy little round-shouldered Eurasian birds. As if to highlight this reaction, I noticed for the first time that there was in fact a single 'regular' Dunlin not far from the American for comparison. The size difference was as marked as that between a Ruff and a Reeve. I made some phone calls but it was too late for the St Mary's birders to catch a boat over. Later in the evening, I saw the two birds bathing side by side, right beneath me as I hid behind the breakwater, and I wished others could have been there to share the moment. As it was the bird was not seen on the same state of the tide the following morning, but it did put in a 20-minute reappearance next evening when, again, I was the only one present. I can't find out exactly how many American Dunlins have been reported in the UK and Ireland as a whole, but it does seem to be less than a handful. I'm not sure whether any have even been accepted. The Rarities Committee secretary has already been on the phone asking for more details, which he shall have, but I fear as a single observer without photographs you might not see the record officially accepted in print. Remember, then, that you read it first here!

Song Thrush
Song Thrush, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Jim Woods)

I promised you a Bee-eater and a Bee-eater is what you're going to get next. As I've said already, it's not like me at all to be as keen as this in late May but the change to blazing sunshine and southeasterly winds on the morning of Friday 28th May had me all of a quiver. I was still riding the crest of a high from that freaky Dunlin and rushing about between jobs: vacuuming holiday cottages, cleaning windows, harvesting courgettes and mange-tout, planting onions. The one major (potentially quite boring) task I had to accomplish was to plant a whole field of potatoes by myself in the lane between Tamarisk and Troytown Farms. I dillied and dallied all Saturday morning before finally resigning myself to the fact I could put the job off no longer. I had been at my labours barely two minutes when I thought I heard the magic pruup call I've been hoping to come across every spring throughout my birding life, so far unsuccessfully. The call of a Bee-eater. A Song Thrush was giving it large in the hedge right next to me and I wondered if I had been fooled by one of its imitations. No, there it was again...and again, a third time. I dumped the bucket I was carrying, spilling potatoes everywhere, and charged across the field to pick up my binoculars. I assumed the Bee-eater was passing high overhead and I would have to squint at the burning hot midday sun in an attempt to catch a glimpse of it. I ran out into the lane to get a better look at the sky and there, right next to me, was a Bee-eater in the hedge in all its multicoloured glory!

It didn't stay in the hedge long with me rushing up on it like that; in fact, pretty soon, after a couple of delightful swoops it swept off over the hedge and disappeared towards the bottom of the island. Like a four-year-old chasing soapy bubbles through a meadow of spring flowers I skipped off after it with a shiny innocent delight in my heart, all adult things like work and planting spuds temporarily forgotten. The view had been brief but spectacular — an ephemeral moment on a perfect spring afternoon in a perfect location. What more can I say? As good as it gets.

The Bee-eater was relocated not far from my house about two hours later by some visiting birders from St Mary's. I didn't get very far with my potatoes after that for the remainder of the day, I can tell you. I spent a very pleasant afternoon with my telescope and a half-dozen other birders watching the bird feeding around the Pittosporum hedges surrounding the fields in which I had spent the winter picking flowers. At the same time there were three absolutely gorgeous adult Little Stints feeding on Periglis Beach — one of my favourite birds in the world, and quite a rare visitor to Scilly at this time of year — as well as a spectacularly colourful male Blue-headed Wagtail.

At six o'clock next morning I was there to see the Bee-eater sail off and away over the Pittosporum hedges, beyond the Lighthouse, never to be seen again. At seven o'clock a few notes of the musical song of that other great Mediterranean exotic, the Golden Oriole, came faintly to my ears from the tall elms along the driveway into the Parsonage. Starling mimicry this time? No — once again, it was the real thing. I scurried this way and that, trying to get a better vantage point for overlooking the trees the sound was coming from, then, after twenty minutes, I scored mightily with a fantastic view of a young male Oriole sitting out in the open for fully 30 seconds. This time there were to be no prolonged views to follow — I did hear him singing briefly again next morning — but that just keeps the appetite sharp for more of the same this time again next year.

Back to the potato field. I achieved five minutes' planting on this occasion before I casually glanced upwards to see a 'Buzzard' flying low over my head. More panic ensued. My bins were a hundred yards away at the bottom of the field; I just retrieved them in time to see the bird drop down out of my line of vision. First impressions said 'Common Buzzard', but wind direction and time of year suggested 'Honey Buzzard'. Thanks to a couple of Carrion Crows going ballistic in the distance, I was able to relocate the thing two minutes later, as it flew out of the elms at the end of Barnaby Lane and across Castella Down, directly towards me. I saw it was in a fairly unexciting immature plumage (no barring anywhere on the underside) but its shape and flight action told me it was a Honey Buzzard alright. It flapped off in the direction of the Western Isles and I saw that it never once held its wings in the shallow 'V' attitude of a Common Buzzard, that its wings looked too broad for the slim body, and that the tail was quite long for a 'Buzzard'.

Red Kite
Red Kite, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Martin Goodey)

It's not just the actual birds you see, of course, that makes birding so exciting in these occasional spells of high drama that we all enjoy from time to time in our lives. Sometimes it's the feeling of expectation or anticipation that comes along with them. What will happen next, you think; when is the Big One coming? It was marvellous to feel my faith in St Agnes renewed after what has essentially been a rather long, dull, hard-working winter. Following a disappointingly blank November at the denouement of last autumn's excellent migration season, we were the only main island not to be visited by Scilly's long-staying Gyrfalcon this winter. April brought me unsatisfactorily brief views of the back end of a Hoopoe on two occasions, and a quick look at a Red Kite that spent most of its time on St Mary's, so apart from that Red-throated Pipit in mid-May, and a nice fall of 30-odd Black Redstarts in early March, you'd be surprised at how starved of real good birding action I'd been for seven months over here. There's no sea-duck around St Agnes in the winter time; no geese; no grebes; most days the few Great Northern Divers I see are way off over towards Tresco. There's not much going on amongst the large gulls (small gulls of any kind are notably rare); no flocks of finches or pipits or buntings or anything really at all to keep us entertained in the winter. No owls, no woodpeckers, no Nuthatches, no Treecreepers, no Coal or Long-tailed Tits....

So you see when it's good here, I really like to make the most of it. And when we get a big headline rarity like the Black-eared Wheatear that turned up next, in early June, St Agnes feels like a really special place to be. And I remember why I came to live here in the first place. My most beautiful moment with the male Black-eared Wheatear that pitched in here on 2nd June came the day after it turned up. I'd already spent several hours admiring it the first afternoon and evening, but at 6am next day — a glorious golden light shining on the yellow gorse and pink thrift flowers carpeting Wingletang Down — I sat and watched this boldly patterned little black-and-white bird all by myself, sometimes at less than ten yards' range, so close I could almost see my own reflection in its beady little eye. To think this was the first Black-eared Wheatear to reach Britain since 2002 — and where were the crowds! Not here. Just like it had done yesterday, the bird was singing its rather Sylvia-like scratchy warble, and the sound echoed around the towering granite pillars at the edge of the North Atlantic, like a spring morning on a Mediterranean mountainside. Brilliant.

Black-eared Wheatear
Black-eared Wheatear, St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Martin Goodey)

It had been at around 2 o'clock the previous afternoon that I got a call from Will Wagstaff telling me that two of the regular clients on his Island Wildlife Tours had gone off from the rest of the group and had found, and photographed, what was obviously a rare wheatear on a small cove between Wingletang and Santa Warna Coves. I rushed out and found the couple still sitting watching their 'mystery bird' that was frequenting a large rocky outcrop and a grassy bank right next to the sea. I recognized it right away as a Black-eared Wheatear — a bird I'd fantasized about finding myself along this very stretch of coast many times in the past twelve months. Indeed I'd walked this same footpath several hours earlier, probably looking the other way! I was happy all the same to congratulate the finders and sit down and enjoy the bird with them. Within the hour a posse of St Mary's birders — including Will himself with rather a large group — came and sat and watched the bird flycatching in its own little arena. As one of my old twitching friends from St Mary's, John Higginson, remarked: "This bird set me back a penny or two in the 80s." Having missed a one-day Black-eared Wheatear at Portland Bill (that place again!) in the spring of 1985, and on successive June weekends in 1987, both John and I had been present at massive dips at first, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, and second, Farlington Marshes, Hampshire. It was another seven years before we both caught up with the species. I was rather surprised to learn in the BirdGuides newsletter that their occurrence in the UK has dropped quite dramatically from over a dozen records each in the 80s and 90s to just three in this current decade. This St Agnes one was gone after just two days. A female Red-backed Shrike turned up the evening the Wheatear was first seen.

There was one last piece of 'excitement' to come before I set aside my binoculars for a month. As if my earlier 'what-on-earth-is-that?' moment with the Hudsonian Dunlin wasn't enough for one season, I had another just like it, a week after the Wheatear, above the Troytown campsite on Castella Down. A few new Reed Warblers and one or two Lesser Whitethroats were still passing through St Agnes as late as 9th June, but very little else, though my first Bar-tailed Godwit of the year on 7th was one of those interesting little things that keep you hooked when you're intensely watching one local patch. We'd lost the sunshine for a couple of days but there was still that easterly wind that just kept dangling a little carrot in front of my face: "one last bird to tie it all up... one last bird."

At 8 o'clock in the evening I was walking through a dense area of bracken and foxglove flowers not far from where I'd come across a Bobolink last autumn, when a bird with a rather orangey rump darted off ahead of me. My first thought that it was probably a Sedge Warbler was dismissed when a second flushing a minute later clearly revealed the bird to have an unmarked mantle. Interesting! Unfortunately there was a lot of cloud cover around, and indeed, about twenty minutes later a rather heavy rain shower descended on me and my ambitions to work out what this bird was. I was faced with a situation not dissimilar to when I first located a Blyth's Reed Warbler last year — a bird I couldn't initially identify in fast-fading light. On the former occasion I got lucky, the bird eventually came out and performed; here it didn't happen: over the course of an hour I got tantalizingly fleeting flight views of what appeared to be a small, unstreaked Acrocephalus warbler. I was pretty sure again that this wasn't a Reed Warbler; it looked consistently small, short-winged and relatively long-tailed — all features that began to piece together as a Paddyfield Warbler in my mind. What a bird that would be to end the spring on St Agnes.

I persisted in my efforts to get some sort of clear view of the bird's head, but it was not to be. I lost it for up to ten minutes at a time, and even though at times I saw exactly where it had flown to, it remained singularly impossible to see on the deck. With more time to spare maybe I would have nailed this bird? But it was gone in the morning. The irony of having written a piece for these pages earlier in the year entitled 'Here's Some That Got Away' was not lost on me for this 'one that got away' was more painful than any of the instances I'd written about previously. Of course one has to accept these episodes philosophically, and in truth the regret was gone pretty soon afterwards, but I would still have preferred it if this great fortnight had not ended on such an ambiguous note.

Ah, but we can't always choose our script can we? The nature of birding is that we will always have moments when we are left wondering 'was it or wasn't it?' I just hope I've got my 'missed biggie' out of the way for the year and that it doesn't happen to me again in the near future. But put it all together — a Black-eared Wheatear, a Bee-eater, an American Dunlin, a Pallid Swift, a Red-throated Pipit, a Honey Buzzard, a Golden Oriole (and not forgetting those three marvellous Little Stints) — plus a bit of mystery at the end, and you have all the ingredients of an exceptionally fine spell of fabulous British birding. All I can say is 'roll on the autumn'.

Written by: Graham Gordon