Any way the wind blows: autumn 2022 on Scilly


As most of you will know, the Isles of Scilly was graced last October by a bird that many of us had waited a lifetime to see in the UK. This is my personal perspective on it, including a lengthy introduction as to the reason I happened to be on Scilly at the moment it occurred.

Bear with me, as I take you right back to October 1982, when a hitherto unprecedented 100 Pallas's Warblers and a dozen of both Radde's and Dusky Warblers landed on the east coast of Britain during the course of a week. I was then a 15-year-old schoolboy, and though two years later I was inclined to 'excuse myself from my lessons' as the birding bug intensified, right then I was conscientious enough – or sufficiently afraid of the consequences – not to miss the morning register.

The night before I'd had a phone call to tell me that a Pallas's Warbler had been seen along the coast at Whitburn, 3 km from my home – a bird I hadn't even heard of. I calculated a bus before first light would give me no more than 20 minutes to look for this colourful little creature that wasn't in any of the three bird books I owned, but which had been described to me by the same kindly birdwatcher who had informed me of its presence.

The immediate coastline was littered with dozens of exhausted Goldcrests feeding along the barren clifftops as I stepped out the bus at dawn in half-light and mist, and there was great urgency in the short time available to find a yellow rump and a flashy head pattern among them. At one point my binoculars briefly met a warbler in a gulley just past the lighthouse, but I brought them down again almost immediately on seeing the lack of stripes.

Time was up. It was go home now and get yourself to school or face the possible wrath of teachers and mother in the event of any delay. In returning to the bus stop to catch a ride back in the opposite direction, I briefly acknowledged two other birders who I scarcely knew, telling them I hadn't seen a Pallas's. When I got home from school that evening the telephone rang to tell me of another bird that I'd never heard of. One of the fellows who had walked past me that morning had found something called a Radde's Warbler just a minute or two after I'd left the scene. Was it the same brown bird I'd written off just 10 minutes earlier? Of course I'll never know for sure, but I think it was. There are still times I can close my eyes 40 years later, and see a thick eye stripe and glaring supercilium staring challengingly back at me.

I upped my game after that. The idea that I was growing up in a stark industrialised area that could be visited from time to time by exotic birds that came from so far away they weren't even included in the major European field guides of the time was certainly an intriguing one. The Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland came out round about that time and was a landmark publication for many birders of my generation, introducing in its section covering every bird that had been seen at least once in the region and giving a number of the total occurrences for each. I don't have a copy to hand, but I think the number of Radde's stood at 26.

The man who found the Radde's Warbler, Ian Mills, turned out to be the keenest birder and twitcher in the local area and gradually over the following two years, as my interest in birds intensified, I accompanied him on many a long journey through the night talking endlessly about birds. Every other journey either Ian asked me if I wanted to hear his Radde's Warbler story one more time, or if he didn't, I would ask for it again. "One day," I thought ...

The day had arrived rather too soon, as it turned out. In November 1984 I found a Dusky Warbler in the area that I mistakenly called as Radde's. The Shell Guide may have been great at introducing us to a whole load of new birds, but it wasn't so great on the finer details of separating them! I guess you could say that episode deepened the resolve even further. I twitched my first real Radde's Warbler in Wells Wood in October 1985 and saw a couple more around the country over the next few years, as well as familiarising myself with their appearance and character in a first foreign trip to Thailand in January 1989. So by the time I did genuinely stumble across one in the UK in October that same year, I was able to confidently identify it on call in flight.

Found in the BBRC secretary's garage on St Mary's, 27 years after the event: a couple of pages from my handwritten description complete with cartoon birder in the bottom corner (Graham Gordon).

Moving away from the east coast to base myself overseas for the following 15 years, my Radde's quest entered a hiatus. But once I returned to settle in the UK, specifically St Agnes, Isles of Scilly (where one or two Radde's turn up each year), the hunt was back on.

Practically every October since 2008, there have been days when the conditions are most appropriate, I've stormed around the island concentrating exclusively on tangled areas of bracken and brambles, engaging the obsession. One time I found a Radde's that spent four days skulking elusively in a turnip field. I had brief untickable views one morning of a calling bird I came across silhouetted against the rising sun at dawn, and had a two-second glimpse of another found by someone else at Covean. It was getting to be a long time since I'd seen one really well.

In October 2022 I was booked for my usual first fortnight at the Rosevean cottage on St Agnes alongside Jamie Partridge, Laurence Pitcher and Jack Wylson with an option to extend into a third week, if the weather proved optimal. We saw a Swainson's Thrush on Tresco towards the end of the fortnight, and a very active treetop-feeding Greenish Warbler spent a week on our immediate patch, but it's fair to say the conditions were less than stellar most of the time.

Having decided to extend our stay midway into the third week, we were now ready to leave. For my part, I had dozens of squash, melons, onions and seeds waiting to be harvested back at the organic vegetable farm in Somerset where I now live, and the others had work commitments of their own. As always, Laurence and I kept an obsessive eye on the fine details of the weather forecast but there was little encouragement to be had by doing that. I had a few people enquire my opinion of a strong frontal system set to arrive from mid-Atlantic, but I brushed it off, cursing instead the strong winds and heavy rain that were likely to cause some discomfort, if not delay, in getting off and back to the farm to continue work.

Swainson's Thrush on Tresco was one of early October 2022's Scilly highlights (Terry Laws).

At breakfast, Laurence had the Scilly Travel page open on his phone and was poised ready to book the three of us off on the plane at midday the next day. I vacillated for a moment and then said: "No, I'll go off on the boat instead." There's always an inner resistance to leaving Scilly too soon and sometimes just a few hours can make the difference between seeing something or not.

That afternoon there was a very dramatic and significant change in the weather forecast. The mid-Atlantic system with its strong winds and heavy rain had fizzled out sooner than expected, and instead a thin sliver of high pressure would move in overnight bringing light easterly winds across Scilly. I'd been noticing an interesting run of Radde's Warbler appearances in eastern Europe, as well as an early arrival of four or five birds in south-east England, and while Yellow-browed Warbler numbers, in particular, were unusually low, there seemed to be something different happening in Phylloscopus schwarzii world that convinced me it would probably worth staying on a couple more days to scratch that itch of not having seen one well for nigh-on thirty years.

As the next day dawned mild and still, with just the faintest of easterlies brushing the land, the search began. Twins Paul and Neil Wright had spent 10 autumns scouring Foula and eight on Scilly, yet neither had seen – let alone found – their own Radde's, arguably the ultimate birder's bird. I bumped into Paul as I was scouring the brambles and I informed him of my confidence there had to be one on the island that day. An hour later, I got the call.

Paul had found one. I rushed to see it, but viewing was tight at a small gate and I stepped back to allow others who'd never seen one get in ahead of me. The aura of being in the arena of one was palpable and I was quietly simmering with an urgency to get off and see if there were any others about. I knew that eventually folks would drift off and I would come back in the afternoon and have another go, but for the time being I decided to take a 15-minute break from the intensity and grab a bit of lunch.

Just as I was sat with Lee Amery, our neighbour Steve Williams came out the house and delivered the astonishing, simply jaw-dropping news over the garden fence: a Blackburnian Warbler had just been discovered on Bryher. That moment will live with me forever. It had only been a week since I'd been asked which was my favourite American wood warbler and the answer had been unambiguous. I was lucky enough to see rather a lot of Blackburnians in 10 years living in the USA. I'd seen singing males in my garden in Cape May, New Jersey (on a day when 200 were in the area), seen them on the breeding grounds in New York State, on the wintering grounds in Ecuador, and even handled a few dozen by the Canadian Great Lakes. But for years I'd said out loud that my relationship with the species would not be complete until I'd seen one as a vagrant in the UK. And now, the possibility, nay the probability, was here that the ambition was about to be fulfilled.

It was still a beautiful day but we were faced with the logistical problem of extremely low tides potentially causing us to have to wait three hours to get a boat across. However when Steve informed our boatman John Peacock that the St Mary's boats were already on their way for a beach landing he brought that forward two hours. While those who had already seen the Radde's well enough repaired to the Turk's Head for lunch, I dashed out around some favourite spots, accompanied by a sensation that my brain was literally melting in the heat of the excitement. Only two nights ago, Laurence had been lamenting the absence of a serious headline American warbler on Scilly that would alert the masses since the Ovenbird of 2004, and recalling Blackburnian Warbler and Chestnut-sided Warbler in the French Atlantic Islands just to the south of us in recent times.

How had this bird got here in Radde's Warbler winds? Well, I think I know the answer to that and it's an astonishing example of how birds from two completely different directions, hatched 10,000 km apart, can turn up down here on the same day. The sudden decline of the mid-Atlantic low I outlined above allowed a once-seen and soon-forgotten system from Nova Scotia to sweep westwards across Ireland and south-west Britain, depositing a Myrtle Warbler at Kilbaha and a Tennessee Warbler on Skokholm earlier the same day (and later a Baltimore Oriole on Lundy). The bottom edge of the associated warm front had just clipped Scilly, and retrospectively I remembered the typical two hours of muggy, drizzly rain that certify an arrival of Atlantic air the previous afternoon.

A small part of the crowd watching the Blackburnian Warbler on Bryher (Graham Gordon).

Speaking personally, rather than the tension you'd expect on a journey to see your most wanted bird in Britain, our boat ride from St Agnes across to Bryher that afternoon was one of unbridled joy. Due to the state of the tide, John had opted to take us around the west side of Bryher while we could see St Mary's boats unloading in the bay on the south side. I was braced for the run off the boat, but despite my 10 years on St Agnes, I still have little familiarity with the geography of Bryher and I was concerned about going the wrong way. Luckily our new Scilly records secretary Liam Langley knew the fastest way and I was at his shoulder all for the 15 minutes it took to reach Popplestone Fields, where 300 pairs of eyes were already fixed on some distant elms, waiting for movement.

After just two minutes we had our first brief distant view of the bird, though even at 100 m range the yellow-orange throat elicited an audible gasp from the newcomers. There was a gap of 20 minutes and then it was picked up again much closer feeding intently on the inside of a Pittosporum hedge. Over the course of three hours it transpired this was a perfect location for 400 birders to find their own style of seeing it: those who preferred to stand still and wait in one spot were eventually rewarded when the bird came their way, while others shifted positions following the bird as long as they could. The atmospehere was terrific, though amongst all the hugs and backslaps, I kept looking round hoping to see Laurence and Jamie's faces, but they weren't there.

Such is the social bond that ties those of us who have remained true to Scilly over the years, our astonishment at the appearance of Blackburnian Warbler was tempered by the knowledge that our friends had left the day before. Its not the first time the latter has been the victim of excrutiating bad luck, leaving Scilly to chase a Scarlet Tanager in Cornwall in 2011, only to have it turn up on the islands the morning he left.

Onboard The Spirit of St Agnes (Graham Gordon).

We got back to St Agnes at 7.30 pm and all headed immediately to the Turk's Head in an effort to boost their profits. Unable to leave the warmth of this magnificent occasion behind, I elected there and then to avoid the expected travel congestion of the weekend and hang on for another couple of days. Lee Amery organised an early morning boat the Monday I was set to leave and we all went back to enjoy further sizzling views of the Blackburnian in the sunshine. One of mine and Lee's long-time twitching and Cape May friends, Fred Fearn, appeared, having driven all night from Shetland, adding to the buzz of the occasion.

A few hours later, when Fred came to join the St Agnes birders sat outside the pub, he dropped the news of another unexpected turn-up on Scilly that day. Laurence had slipped back down overnight from Sussex having not told any of us he was coming. The tear that ran down my cheek at that moment was part empathetic delight for my friend, but also relief that we wouldn't have to bite our tongues in future years when recalling the momentous events of the previous 72 hours!

Seeing Blackburnian Warbler as a vagrant in Britain 'completed' Graham's lifetime experience with the species after varied encounters in the Americas (Lee Amery).

I was waiting at the end of the gangplank of the Scillonian to greet Laurence as he came on board in the afternoon. I've had so many trips on that boat over the years, I normally just go straight downstairs and crash out for the first half of the journey, but the occasion warranted us staying on deck and basking in the glory.

About an hour into the voyage I picked up a whale blow at the front of the ship, a harbinger to having two Fin Whales either side of the boat for 20 minutes, accompanied by some incredible Great Shearwaters close by in the evening light. I said to Laurence: "If we see a Fea's Petrel now, shall we just just jump in the sea and end on a high right here?"

Fixing my eyes on the horizon, I was still hoping to squeeze out every last Great Shearwater possible, not wanting this journey to end. And then it happened. An initially puzzling few seconds on an unfamiliar bird in the middle distance suddenly transformed in to my wild, uncontrolled shouts of "Fea's Petrel! Fea's Petrel!"

It only lasted about 30 seconds, but half the folk at the back of the boat got on to it. Amazingly, someone got a photograph that I will treasure forever, having not seen the bird for that long at all. I didn't jump in the water and, ironically, I never did see any Radde's Warblers on St Agnes.

The perfect end to Scilly 2022: a Fea's-type Petrel from the Scillonian (Lee Gregory).

Written by: Graham Gordon