Lucy McRobert: chasing a Scilly big year


I have previously extolled the benefits of year-long patchbirding. It's a chance to connect deeply with your local environment, getting to know every tree, bush, pebble, footpath, nook and cranny intimately. It encourages you to revisit birds gone by, as you actively search for and appreciate species that you may otherwise overlook. It urges you to become mindful of the changing seasons on an almost daily basis, plan your diary and visits with thought, and never take wildlife for granted. You record every wildlife interaction with conscientious detail. There's lots of walking. In short, it's good for mindfulness, mental and physical health.

Ha! That may all be the case, but no one mentions what it's like to experience a Local Big Year as the plus one, the partner ... the baggage, if you will. And I can confirm that I didn’t receive a single wellbeing benefit from my husband's Big Scilly Year.

When Rob announced his intention to do a Local Big Year, I was cautiously supportive. He's your typical 500+-species, 1990s-UK-wide twitcher and has never really patchbirded before, so this was intriguing. Plus, it wouldn't be that different to our normal year, right? We explore the islands constantly and Rob keeps meticulous bird notes, so at most, this seemed like a mindset shift. I was wrong.

The first warning sign arrived on the evening of 1 January (yes, that early). We'd had a pleasant family birding day on Tresco, with husband a touch more focused on his 'scope and less on routine activities (like eating or toilet stops for the toddler). It was generally successful with the first 60 species recorded.

There were some omissions, like Common Linnet and Dunnock. Both would dominate the first week of 2022, with an island-wide dearth of the former and a conspiracy among the latter to hide. I saw Dunnocks everywhere, but they evaded Rob at every turn. A worrying amount of time was spent discussing top locations for Greenfinch and Goldfinch.

The year continued, with me steadfastly insisting that seawatching through one 'scope in a stiff south-westerly wasn't a family activity, and husband stressing every time the local WhatsApp group pinged. Things became more serious as, according to BUBO, for the first few months Rob was in the lead for local listers. This nagged his competitive streak, trying to maintain the slight lead he earned early on. Weekends were gently manipulated to fit with birds I didn't even register; I went to Tresco for a family day out, little did I know we were actually there for a Green Sandpiper.

Green Sandpiper is one commoner British species that represents a good bird in terms of an Isles of Scilly year list (Green Bunion).

We were also away from the islands for stretches at a time, meaning that there were some hefty misses – not least a cracking male Black-headed Bunting on Bryher. And then there was the time that he spent £20 chartering a jetboat to Tresco to see two Canada Geese. I was forbidden from making dinner reservations or plans until well after dark, "just in case". The one time I did, he turned up an hour late because he was busy dipping a Pechora Pipit in October a mile and a half away. 'Why didn’t you go?' I hear you ask. Because it was predictably dark by the time he arrived on site 45 minutes later. That was the final straw. A week later he bought a car. Yes, a car. On Scilly. 

There were some pluses. Despite slipping behind in August, he finished on a respectable 195 species. And even though I'm not convinced he saw markedly more birds than in a 'normal' year, among these were more self-finds than ever before, including a Laughing Gull on St Martin's and again on Tresco, Common Rosefinch on St Agnes, plus Garganey and Dusky Warbler. Simply being out more, intensively and repetitively exploring the same spots, led to more birds and an enriched experience. 

For all the benefits, I was relieved when he said he wouldn't do it again. Big Years aren't for me, no matter what the geographical scale. I get distracted and can't keep notes or a diary to save my life. But ultimately, while I can tolerate playing second fiddle to a Blackburnian Warbler, I draw the line at Common Linnets and Canada Geese.

Written by: Lucy McRobert

Lucy McRobert is a wildlife author and communications professional, as well as a Birdwatch columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @LucyMcRobert1