A Scilly diary (Part One): Red-rumped Swallow Stops Play


If you don't mind, I would like to postpone a fourth article I have in prep on the birds of South America, and bring you a report of recent events a little closer to home. I am on St Agnes, Isles of Scilly, where I hope to remain at least until November; and if BirdGuides continue to permit me to utilize their pages for what is, in effect, no more than a glorified blog, I hope to bring you occasional missives throughout the year, extolling the wonders of Scilly island life.

It wasn't a conscious decision of mine to leave Cork behind—indeed I'm not strictly sure I actually have—but in leaving job and flat for a three-month trip to Ecuador and Peru in the summer of 2007, I came back to Europe faced with an amount of uncertainty. A chance phone call to an old friend, Andre Robinson, last August, found him ensconced at an organic sheep farm in the north of Cornwall, with an invitation to go and visit for a week. I ended up staying nine months: mending fences, laying hedges, and, eventually, administering to the needs of over 100 newborn lambs. The idea of a move to Scilly began to take shape after a short visit to the islands in October of last year, and when I was offered the opportunity of working at a newly established organic fruit and vegetable farm on St Agnes, I jumped at the chance.

Richard's Pipit
Richard's Pipit, Saltfleet, Lincolnshire (Photo: Russell Hayes)

And here I am. I've been here just over a week. And what an interesting and enjoyable first week it's been. I'm here to work, yes; I'm here to engage in the social life of a small community, yes; but the obvious motive behind this move—in case it needs spelling out—is to find my own birds. And if I can keep the rabid, single-mindedly determined maverick in check, I'm here to see other people's birds too. But the self-finding thing comes first. I don't keep life lists anymore: I have no serious World List, no British (& Irish) List, no Western Palearctic list. What I have is a 'back of the Shell Guide rarities list'.

It's something of a joke, I know, among some serious birders of my acquaintance, well-versed in the advances of modern field identification, that Sharrock and Ferguson-Lees' Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland is a bit outdated when it comes to the subtler points of separating one rare bird from another. Maybe so. As far as I'm concerned, though, the Shell Guide provided a source of heady epiphany at the start of my road to knowledge of the birds of these wonderful shores—here are the nice common birds in the front; these are our exciting rarer visitors at the back—and I've remained loyal to it ever since. Though Ring-billed Gulls and Little Egret numbers have gone through the roof since the book's publication in the early 80s, and your own Snowy Owl (in the front of book) is undoubtedly much harder to find in Britain than, say, Richard's Pipit (at the back of the book), it is still the standard by which I 'judge myself'. The list of rare birds assessed by the British Birds Rarities Committee will continue to chop and change as the years go by—as more and more birders get out and find their own Radde's and Pallas's Warblers—but the Shell Guide provides my line in the sand, that says: "There...these are the birds you'll have to try extra hard for if you want to see them within the borders of your own country." In case you're interested, I've found myself 'stuck' on 30 Shell Guide 'rarities' for the last 18 months, since a Woodchat Shrike at the Old Head of Kinsale popped up in the same field of view as a Red-backed Shrike I was watching.

If you can accept this background information with the pinch of salt it necessitates, I shall move on to the present. For this first correspondence from Scilly is a story of 'failure'—though it is also a tale of great pleasure. I'll take it day by day, shall I?

Tree Pipit
Tree Pipit, Black Hill, Shropshire (Photo: Jim Almond)

Saturday 10th May

I arrive on St Agnes in the early afternoon and become immediately acquainted with my new employer—farmer Ben Hicks—and am taken for a short, introductory stroll around his fields. I then have the remainder of the day to myself to explore the island at leisure. There are no rarities as yet; but I enjoy pleasing encounters with several common British birds I've seen very little of in the last fifteen years spent in Cork or the US of A: Cuckoo; male Yellow Wagtail; Tree Pipit. The last species in particular—a bird I failed to see in five years in Ireland—was especially pleasing. I watched it for half an hour through a telescope in the afternoon sunshine, and tried to reacquaint myself with some of the subtle differences from the Meadow Pipit feeding alongside it.

But more, much more than this, is the sheer delight of being back at this location. Do you know that St Agnes ties with Lundy as the second greatest provider of birds new to Britain and Ireland (after Fair Isle)? And here is the field where I saw my first Hermit Thrush in 1987; the lane where I saw Northern Oriole in 1988; this is the area where 300 of us dipped Caspian Plover in spring 1989 (the same spot where Europe's first Wood Thrush skulked, again in '87). Two-barred Greenish Warbler; Semipalmated Plover; Common Nighthawk; Blue-cheeked Bee-eater; White's Thrush; Siberian Thrush; Short-toed Eagle.... An island of legends; pure legends...

I can't get to sleep tonight for sheer excitement.

Sunday 11th May

I've been at my new job for no more than an hour when Ben's wife phones to say she has just met someone who has seen a Bee-eater, two fields away from where I'm working. "Off you go and look for it," says Ben. Now that's what I call a good working relationship! Mindful of the fact that most Bee-eaters in Britain are simply seen flying over calling, I go off and look with moderate to low expectation. But there it is! It's sat quietly at the top of a Pittosporum hedge, making one brief sally out for an insect in the five minutes I permit myself to look at it. Never mind, I see it several more times later in the day, including one protracted, long stare as it sits on the woodpile just opposite Ben's house. I could have found that bird if I'd been by myself—it would have been a 'find tick'—but not to worry, I enjoyed seeing it anyway.

There are a couple of singing Reed Warblers around today, and my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year. It's the scenery on St Agnes that overwhelms me now as much as the thought of birds. I doubt I ever noticed it when I was younger. Look at those rocks; look at those coves; see this sandy beach out here at the very edge of the British Isles...

European Bee-eater
European Bee-eater, Spain (Photo: Steve Fletcher)

Monday 12th May

I saw the Bee-eater splendidly well a couple of times during the day, and got to meet several of the resident Scilly birders over from St Mary's to twitch it. One or two of these birders I knew from my twitching days two decades ago, and it was, as you could imagine, a great surprise and pleasure to see them again. I was jealous of their tales of the Pallid Swift that was flying around the island for several days just before I got here; even the Subalp that I just missed by a day. That last is one of the commoner things I still need for my 'back of the Shell Guide finds.'

Never mind the birds: I was asked today whether I'd be able to turn out for the St Agnes cricket team this next weekend. There's an away match against St Martin's. The thought of sailing off to one of the other islands for a spot of jolly old cricket is an appealing one: I'm a great lover of the sport; although it has to be said, after a promising first season as a third-team cricketer when I was 15, I made a conscious decision to give up playing in order to concentrate on my birding. The only time I've turned out in the last 25 years was for a work's side in 1989. As I ended up missing the famous Baillon's Crake in Sunderland city centre that same night—two miles from my house—I made a resolution never to play the game again. I duly saw the bird next morning, but I don't want to have to go through another sleepless night like that again!

But Time mellows you. Yes, I'll play.

Tuesday 13th May

Another look at the Bee-eater while I worked this morning. I was planting a huge, long row of onions, and I looked up once to see it fly over my head. All very nice.

I was still in a mellow mood after a brief recce of the island at lunchtime. I was on my way back to work when a voice from behind a hedge called out: "Are you a birder?" I replied in the affirmative. "There's a Red-rumped Swallow just flown over your head, mate!" Sure enough, minutes later, I picked up the same bird flying back towards us. Flying over the same field I had been working all morning! A very, very much-desired Shell Guide find-tick gone begging! What a bittersweet moment! It was great to see Red-rumped Swallow again after an absence of 10 or 12 years—really great—but I wish it was 'mine.' (My inner pessimist reckons that's set me back another three to five years before I have another chance to find one.) It must have just arrived at that very moment. The voice from behind the hedge, the bird's finder, was—I soon learned—that of Nigel Hudson, secretary of the British Birds Rarities Committee; he was over from St Mary's to see the Bee-eater, and just happened to bump into the Swallow. I gather from the joviality of the phone messages sent back and forth to St Mary's that Nigel does not find many rare birds himself. Okay then: I shan't begrudge him this one.

Still shaking my head with disbelief, I set down my binoculars at the end of the row of onions, and got back to work. I hadn't been there two minutes, when (somewhat distantly, please note) I saw four dark, floppy 'shapes' hanging in the air in the direction of the St Agnes Big Pool. They were clearly something interesting. By the time I'd zipped back to my binoculars they were gone. I shut out the thought that they might just have been Glossy Ibis, and settled back to work. I'd really only glimpsed them too momentarily to come to any positive conclusions. When I heard later this evening that 4 Cattle Egrets had arrived on St Mary's, I wondered if there could have been a connection with my four (dark?) birds. Yes, it would seem: Nigel had indeed seen four Egret sp. flapping over the Big Pool at the exact same time as me. Cattle Egret would be another find tick for me. That's three I've missed already. And I've only been here three days! Had I better get used to the fact that I'm treading on somebody else's patch after having many moments in southern Ireland all to myself, and that I'm destined to be at the back of the queue when the big bird finds are handed out?

Red-rumped Swallow
Red-rumped Swallow, Kenidjack Valley, Cornwall (Photo: Mike Barker)

Wednesday 14th May.

Whilst working, I saw both the Bee-eater and the Red-rumped Swallow really well a couple of times; underlining how close I'd been to finding them both. A lunchtime walk saw—surprise, surprise—the return of the four Cattle Egrets to St Agnes. I watched them hanging in the wind for five minutes above Barnaby Lane, looking for a place to land. If only this had been my first sighting, they would have been Under The Belt by now. The anomaly of their apparent 'dark' appearance to the naked eye yesterday afternoon was explained by the shadow effect on their underparts from the glare of the overhead sun. That's my excuse anyway. This recalls a story I tell from time to time of the greatest 'string' I have ever witnessed: when we were travelling for a Cattle Egret somewhere in Derbyshire (in the days when they used to be rare) and the driver of our car screeched to a halt and yelled "There it is" as a Carrion Crow flew across the road. I now sympathize; and the next time I tell the story it will be with a bit less of a malicious glint in my eyes.

Turtle Dove
Turtle Dove, Tetney Lock, Lincolnshire (Photo: Dave Bradbeer)

Thursday 15th May.

Red-rumped Swallow, Bee-eater and Turtle Dove are the best birds of the day. Also a couple of singing Reed Warblers, and two or three Spotted Flycatchers perching prominently in the open. The Red-rumped Swallow called several times with a barely audible chirrup: surely one of the most undistinguished sounds in the bird world?

In the evening, Ben took me out to Annet in his boat. We were hoping to see breeding Puffins; but there was nothing but a bunch of ugly-looking Great Black-backed Gulls and a young female Peregrine loitering about. Maybe the presence of Species B and C was responsible for the absence of Species A? Still, you're floating around in the Atlantic Ocean on a beautiful calm, clear evening, looking back at the St Agnes lighthouse, and marvelling at the jagged beauty of the rocky islets surrounding you. The sun sets rosy in the west; and a different orb, gleaming white and near-full, rises in its place. What's not to love? A shrill, piping Common Sandpiper greets us back on the shore, and its call rings out long into the moonlit night.

Friday 15th May.

Three Turtle Doves together in one of our fields is an unusual sight for me: never having lived in an area where they generally occur, I don't remember ever seeing more than one or two together. I enjoy them for half an hour, while trying to ignore the fact they're feeding on the mustard seed we sowed this afternoon.

The cricket match is getting nearer. I'm feeling the first pangs of anxiety.

Saturday 16th May.

I begin the day with the best-looking male Whinchat I've seen in a very long time, before making my way to the cricket pitch for a bit of very necessary cricket bowling practice. I used to fancy myself as a useful swing bowler—I've a trophy for the most wickets in the league from my one and only season to prove it; though I should add that if trophies were given for the most runs conceded I would probably also have been in line for an award—but I'm very worried about current form and fitness. Maybe I could at least loosen up my shoulders. I check no-one's looking—it's seven o'clock in the morning, so no-one is—sneak into the sports shed, and find myself a tatty old ball. It feels good in my hand, and I look forward to seeing how it comes out first time, but the snag is: I step out on to the pitch to find...the Red-rumped Swallow is sat there, right in the middle of it. There's no way I can bring myself to disturb it; I am too much in awe. I spin myself a few catches instead, then retire none the wiser about how I'll fare if called upon to bowl. Red-rumped Swallow Stops Play: that's a new one for cricket enthusiasts the world over.

Whinchat, Elan Valley, Powys (Photo: Kev Joynes)

Sunday 17th May

My nerves and excitement about this afternoon's cricket match overshadow any such emotions I might have had about finding rare birds. I'm on Scilly for the next couple of months; I'm bound to find something, surely? (Please!) But how the ball will come out the hand if called upon to bowl is a different matter entirely. How much will I embarrass myself? Will the first delivery go looping over the head of the square leg umpire (anything Steve Harmison can do...) or bounce thrice before reaching the batsman? I find a Quail in the morning, flushing at my feet, and flying off towards the Big Pool from the ridge behind Periglis Beach. I see the white Vs on its mantle, and hear a short squeak from it in flight—another remarkably unremarkable call if ever there was one: nothing like its magnificent, far-carrying wet-my-lips summer song.

The ride out to St Martin's on a beautiful, sunny afternoon is a special one. I wonder how many people would be surprised to learn that such deliciously blue-green-coloured seas and such long, sandy beaches could be found around our British Isles? Quite a few, I bet. We are met on St Martin's by a chap elegantly dressed in whites; sporting a sweater with the words St Martin's Cricket Club, Isles of Scilly emblazoned on the front. I look around at our raggle-taggle mob in jeans and shorts and T-shirts, and think to myself: "What have I let myself in for!"

Well, we ended up getting slaughtered, didn't we? Some young South African lad smashed a load of sixes and fours and carried his bat for an unbeaten 80 or something. We had a Kiwi open the bowling for us, and a Jamaican came on first change, but it's been a while, I fear, since either of those nations produced any real world-class cricketers. Much to my surprise, the captain asked me to come on and bowl five overs. I managed a respectable first six balls, then went somewhat astray with the twenty-four that followed. I couldn't prevent the young South African's relentless onslaught on our bowling, though I did get one finger to a shot he smashed back at me after a hopeless full toss. I'll show you the bruise the next time I see you. Another rubbish delivery smacked straight back down the pitch cannoned off my outstretched boot and dislodged the bails at the non-striker's end. The batsman was run out by a mile.

Chestnut-sided Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler, Canada (Photo: Mark Dennis)

Despite my request to bat at number twelve (first to save embarrassing myself further, and second to go birding) I was called on earlier than expected. For one thing we only had nine men (one of them 68 years old) and for another we were losing wickets at an alarming rate. With something like a hundred runs still needed off seven or eight overs, I went out at number nine to join our captain who was progressing rather better than the rest of the team with something like 30-odd not out. And now at last I enjoyed some unexpected success in my first week on Scilly. No, we were never going to get near their score. But I did manage to score 22 runs, which I believe is only the second time I've ever got to double figures in any form of cricket, and the only other time (I scored 38) was when I was slogging out in order to try and get myself dismissed so I could catch the last bus home. I even hit two boundaries: a feat rarer in my own life than Richard's Pipits self-found. One day this summer, perhaps, just perhaps, I might realize my ultimate dream of spending a sunny afternoon flailing a wilting bowling attack to all parts of the ground and maybe once in my life reach 50 not out. I'd almost swap finding, let's say, a Chestnut-sided Warbler to be able to do that!

But I doubt it. I reckon I've had my moment in the sun. Unless I trip across a genie of the wish-granting variety I am probably more likely to accomplish the latter ambition—or its equivalent in rarity status—than I am the former.

I shall let you know, either way.

Written by: Graham Gordon