Rarity finders: Cape May Warbler in the Isles of Scilly


The unprecedented arrival of New World warblers in Britain this autumn (see December's Birdwatch) represented the pinnacle of an exceptional 12 months of experiences with this group of birds which, for us on Scilly at least, began with the dazzling Blackburnian Warbler on Bryher in October 2022, and was followed shortly after by the remarkable events which lead to my wife and I discovering a Myrtle Warbler on St Mary's the following month! Personally, I failed to see how this could be topped. 

Fast forward to late September 2023 and it quickly became apparent that an unimaginable event was unfolding along the length of Britain and Ireland's west coasts, with Pembrokeshire grabbing the headlines. It felt only a matter of time before Scilly mustered a response, which eventually came in the form of a Northern Parula on St Martin's on 23rd. A handful of other Nearctic arrivals were welcomed to islands in the same week, which set the tone for what promised to be an October for Scilly's history books – but that was never really the case. Our small assemblage of transatlantic guests soon departed and were replaced by the usual assortment of mid-autumn scarcities. Overall, a very good 'Scilly season' came and went, but given what had unfolded further north, there was a conflicting and regrettable feeling that Scilly had, maybe, been a little short-changed. 

Following two busy weeks of family and work commitments through early November, I was deeply craving a day in the field. On Monday 6th I set my sights on spending all of Friday birding on Bryher, provided my working week went to plan. We'd seen a relentless conveyor belt of fast-moving Transatlantic depressions rip through the islands since late October, one of which delivered a confiding Grey-cheeked Thrush to St Mary's, but it felt like there was more to be uncovered. I was also aware that, by Friday, not a single birder would have set foot on Bryher for an entire week since Bob Flood's visit there on the 3rd. All of the above considered, my anticipation was through the roof!

I boarded an 8 am jet boat on Friday 10 November in a 80-kph north-westerly wind and headed out of St Mary's harbour into a wall of white water and a heavy swell. The journey to Bryher was, without doubt, the liveliest inter-island crossing I've experienced in my nearly six years on Scilly. 

The Cape May Warbler is the second twitchable British bird after one in Shetland in 2013 (Scott Reid).

Disembarking at Anneka's Quay, I headed gradually south along the east side of the island, paying close attention to any sheltered fields or hedgerows. Within 20 minutes I'd reached Green Bay and was drawn to two small clearings bordered by mature Pittosporum, tucked away at the back of Veronica Farm, 50 m or so inland. One clearing was fully sunlit, the other only partially, and I opted for the shadier area to focus my attention. After several minutes of seeing very little, I began trialling various tones of 'pishing' in the hope of tempting some birds out, and it worked! I was soon being investigated by a Goldcrest and a European Robin, shortly followed by a Common Chiffchaff

A few moments later, another bird popped out of the shadows which looked a little more interesting – very pale beneath with an overall cold, grey appearance. Siberian Chiffchaff? Upon raising my binoculars, however, I very quickly realised this wasn't the case! 

I was faced with front-on views of a lightly streaked, chunky-billed warbler, which briefly turned to show two subtle wing-bars. "An American warbler! Woah!". The species wasn't immediately obvious. My heart rate increased, and my brain went into overdrive, but before I could begin to process what I was seeing, the bird turned and flicked out of view, flashing a yellowish rump as it did so. Another Myrtle Warbler? Given the events of last November, this seemed the likely conclusion. Some features didn't sit right so I wasn't certain, and with fleeting views lasting no more than five seconds, I needed to see this bird again.

Scrambling through my bag for my camera, I glanced up to see it back in view, and after tearing off my lens cap I managed to take just one shot before the bird flicked past me. Looking directly into the sun, I edged around the bushes to get better light on where the bird had landed and, in doing so, inadvertently flushed it. The bird flew across a field towards a lone Pittosporum on the beach edge, but that bush was also directly into the sun, so I hung back to gather myself and not risk pushing the bird any further. I checked my photo, hoping it would provide the evidence required to clinch the ID, but no – it was horrendously out of focus!

Three or four minutes passed with no further sign, before another spell of 'pishing' tempted it back to the same cluster of branches. I grabbed a few more photos and, confident that some were in focus, I went to work on the identification. With binoculars locked on once more, I had to get my brain into gear, and with the bird sitting side-on, my thought process was as follows: "OK, yellow rump, you're going to be a Myrtle Warbler. But no! You're not! This isn't right for Myrtle. Think. Think! What are you? What am I missing?". A slight change of angle revealed faint greenish-yellow sides to the neck and, after my cogs turned for a couple more seconds, the penny dropped. "Cape May Warbler! There's nothing else it can be! It's a Cape May Warbler! Wow!"

Rafts of seaweed provided plenty of foraging opportunities (Scott Reid).

With photos obtained, identification confirmed, and adrenaline pumping like never before, I told myself to just watch the bird, take in as much of it as I could, and enjoy the moment, so that's what I did for the next couple of minutes before it dissolved away into the vegetation.

I took a moment to compose myself. I knew the scale of the find. I'd never found anything this rare, and I might not ever again. I'd remembered looking on from afar in amazement as Britain's second Cape May Warbler was found on Unst 10 years ago and was subsequently twitched by many, and here I was having just found the third. For a few strange moments, I was the only person in the country who knew this mega bird existed.

I sent the necessary messages to the Scilly birding news groups (livened up with some involuntary expletives) which I knew, all too well, would send the 20 or so birders on St Mary's into meltdown! With my phone now pinging away to itself as people responded to the news, my job was a simple one – find the Cape May Warbler and stay with it.

By now it was 9.15 am and I received word that the first boatload should be arriving at 10.30 am. The only problem – still no bird. The stand-and-wait approach proved fruitless, a couple of 'pishing' spells had lost their desired effect, and I stared up at 20 m of impenetrable Pittosporum and pines ascending the hill behind the clearing thinking "this is going to be a nightmare!" More than half an hour passed, and I decided to step away from the scene and take a walk along the beach – after all the bird had briefly flown that way earlier.

My first 10 minutes on the beach offered little hope, despite being out of the wind with the warming sun creating an attractive microclimate beneath the tamarisks which half a dozen chiffchaffs were taking advantage of. About to return to the fields, and on the phone to Ren Hathway who was anxiously waiting on St Mary's Quay, I took a final look around the lone Pittosporum and there it was, flycatching! "I've got it, Ren! It's on the beach, I've got to go!".

The first-winter female Cape May Warbler would regularly flycatch from a lone Pittosporum and succulents at the top of the beach (Scott Reid).

The next half hour was uncomfortably tense as I stood some 10 m from the bird, trying to enjoy it, but partly terrified it was going to flick back to the original fields before everyone arrived. Thankfully, it didn't, and before I knew it a jet boat tore past Green Bay and I was soon greeted with the welcome sight of Kris Webb running along the sand. In the end, I had to tell him to stop hugging me and actually look at the bird!

The following few hours were immensely enjoyable. More hugs, handshakes and excitable conversations were shared as I stood along the glistening water's edge with a dozen or so friends revelling in the wonder of Scilly's first Cape May Warbler, which put on an exceptional display as it expertly reduced the Green Bay fly population.

One of my absolute favourite aspects of living on Scilly is the occurrence of special birds outside of the typical Scilly season. The excitement of a huge October twitch can be superb, as can the associated celebrations, but these mid-November megas are special. As with the St Mary's Hermit Thrush in 2019, and the Myrtle Warbler last year, by late afternoon I was there alone once again, sat on a rock with the Cape May Warbler hunting as close as 2 m away!

The days that followed brought logistical challenges for those wishing to travel from the mainland, with limited flights and reduced inter-island boating due to tides, but a handful of people each day continued to successfully make the journey, nonetheless. I eventually returned to Bryher the following Wednesday and enjoyed another afternoon watching this Nearctic gem in the company of great friends.

If Cape May Warbler proves to be the last American wood warbler to grace our shores in 2023, it would be a fitting way to bring the curtain down on the greatest autumn of transatlantic vagrancy in British birding history – on a tranquil beach in the mild November sunshine. This is Scilly birding at its very best!

Cape May Warbler, Bryher, Isles of Scilly (Scott Reid).

Written by: Scott Reid

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