And don't forget the booby!" Thus, my favourite birding notification ever. Summer 2023 has been a triumphant season for Scilly Pelagics, the best in 23 years. I remember chatting to birders in the Scillonian Club years ago about rarities, with someone confidently suggesting that the biggest leaps would come from aboard MV Sapphire. So followed a handful of Fea's-type petrels, the odd Scopoli's Shearwater and the 2020 Zino's Petrel. There was always a sense of intrepid excitement on board – the worse the weather, the higher the tension (and risk of seasickness). This constant enthusiasm and anticipation are always led from the front by Bob Flood and Joe Pender: with Scilly Pelagic magic, you never know what might happen.
But the Zino's Petrel (at least I saw that one) pales almost into insignificance when compared to the drama of the 2023 season. Things started with a spectacular weekend at the end of July: five Scopoli's, 5,400 Cory's, 1,810 Great and 217 Sooty Shearwaters, two Long-tailed and four Arctic Skuas, three Sabine's Gulls, 68 Wilson's and 380 European Storm Petrels, plus a Cuvier's Beaked Whale, a variety of more common cetaceans and several huge Atlantic Bluefin Tuna boils.
On the very next day (the Monday), Scilly Pelagics struck gold with a South Polar Skua, tentatively identified aboard the Sapphire and confirmed from photographs. Things couldn't get any better, surely? Then one week later (the next 'Magic Monday'), on a casual steam back toward St Mary's, Scilly Pelagics went platinum, with the wholly unexpected and surreal appearance of a Red-footed Booby. Gosh, to have been on board must have been something else. While neither of these birds were firsts for Britain, they were the first of their kind to not to be put in boxes and immediately require medical assistance.
July and August saw extraordinary numbers of seabirds in the South-West Approaches, leading to bumper pelagics out of Scilly. Multiple Scopoli's Shearwaters (pictured) were among the highlights (Nathaniel Dargue).
One week later, on yet another Magic Monday, Scilly Pelagics pulled it out the bag again – surely the most iconic bird of the year so far on one of the UK's most iconic lighthouses: the booby was back, perched atop the Bishop Rock. I'm usually one for a well-behaved WhatsApp group (chitchat and banter firmly restricted), but the elation, swearing and beaming photos were too tangible to censor. They had more than put in the time, effort, blood, sweat and tears and earned that encounter.
In the days that followed, some 600 people twitched the booby. Given the logistics involved and geographical location – an isolated rock in the Atlantic at the most south-westerly point of the UK in the middle of the school holidays in one of the country's most expensive destinations – this was impressive. The 'Booby Specials' were still running nearly two weeks after the bird was found on the Bishop, with 140 birders arriving on one day alone. As UK seabird twitches go, this must rank highly in terms of excitement, complexity of logistics and numbers of happy birders. Oh, then another casual South Polar Skua was found, on Friday 25th.
But wait. It can't be more pelagic fairy dust, and surely not on another Magic Monday? "Pair of boobies on the Bishop." But now there was a Brown one, too! The scenes aboard the Sapphire must have been incredible, while shore-bound locals desperately scrabbled to charter jetboats on a bank holiday – to no avail. Luckily, the Brown Booby held on to the lighthouse with as much determination as the Red-footed, for a few hours at least, affording outstanding views that evening.
I have missed out on the ultimate Scilly seabird season. There have been no skuas or boobies for me; I dipped the Black-winged Kite, too, but did see the Forster's Tern. But while many twitchers are fuelled by competitiveness and jealousy, I am genuinely delighted for all those who have managed to connect this summer (insufferable, I know), and especially Bob, Joe and all the locals. It sometimes feels like Scilly Pelagics is offering a sort of care-in-the-community service for local birders, but it's appreciated either way.
After each pelagic, Bob sends a group WhatsApp with highlights from that trip: on a good day, you'd have a nice haul of big shearwaters, a peppering of petrels, maybe a cheeky Sabine's Gull and a sprinkling of skuas. Sunday 20 August was no different, except someone pithily replied: "And don't forget the booby!" Chuckle. Who could?
- This column first appeared in the October 2023 edition of Birdwatch.