24/01/2010
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Scilly brings sanctuary on the seashore

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Various friends and email correspondents have asked me if they've missed my summary of last autumn's events on St Agnes in this column thing of mine. They haven't. For one simple reason: I haven't done one. As probably just about every birder in the country knows by now, by its very own high standards we had an exceptionally quiet 'Scilly Season' last year. For the first time since 1994 there wasn't one American landbird on any of the islands: not even a Red-eyed Vireo, a Blackpoll Warbler or a Grey-cheeked Thrush, reasonably regular vagrants that have rescued several previous otherwise quiet years. Of course, not unusually, we had a reasonable share of what you'd call scarce but annual migrants — such as Tawny Pipit, Little Bunting, Radde's and Pallas's Warblers — to enjoy, but overall the theme of the autumn was one of quiet frustration. Honestly, it wasn't just my own lack of a good time that I lamented, but I felt bad for all those who stored up a fortnight's holiday and spent their hundreds of pounds getting here, only to find that they weren't getting any real value for their money.

Radde's Warbler
Radde's Warbler, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Richard Stonier)

I did toy several times with the idea of writing an article based on these scarce visitors, but it felt empty without any real hook to hang the account on. Other issues, such as the dominant high- pressure system throughout mid-September to late October, producing non-migrant-inducing sunny skies and light northeasterly winds, rendered me and others less-than-happy bunnies. Even then I might have concocted something to write about — if it wasn't for the fact that a recurring theme in this period was that I had the briefest of glimpses of many of the above-mentioned scarce visitors: three seconds on a Common Rosefinch, two Pectoral Sandpipers in flight only, a split-second glimpse of the Radde's in Covean; an Olive-backed Pipit also seen only in flight. Modern sportsman seem to have a slightly nauseating tendency to 'look for the positives' in a bad performance or a defeat, but I prefer to remain true to my feelings, and wait for the moments when genuine inspiration arrives. And now is the time...

Common Rosefinch
Common Rosefinch, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Gary Thoburn)

I left Scilly with some relief in early November for a three-week break in north Cornwall. Now came the opposite of those awful six weeks of almost constant Indian summer earlier in the autumn. With the eventual collapse of that spiteful high-pressure system, depression after depression swept in from the Atlantic depositing a record amount of rainfall on the southwest of England, and presumably elsewhere. I might have enjoyed one morning's respite from the conditions here, or a pleasant, peaceful afternoon there, but I'm sure there wasn't one continuous 24-hour period of release from the relentless southwesterly gales rushing in across the peninsula. The world's weather system really does seem to have gone completely mad. I managed to fly back to Scilly late in the month, just about squeezing a flight from Penzance between one more set of atrocious conditions and another. At last some sanity returned, and the beginnings of this next chapter were born.

Looking back over the previous twelve months, it's been an unusual thing that my two most enjoyable periods of birding of the year on Scilly have happened at a time when I would normally not have been out at all. I wrote about the first spell of exciting birding earlier in the year, in June, in an article called As Good As It Gets. And similarly, because of the two industries I've been involved in over the last twenty years — the restaurant business and the flower industry — some of my busiest times have been in the build-up to the Christmas period. Generally I've had to get my head down working all hours from mid-November onwards, which, seeing as I've usually taken the whole of October off to go birding, is no bad thing, really. This last December has been rather different. Again, exceptional weather conditions have played their part, perhaps finally working in my favour after three months raging at the gods in the skies.

I'll move on to the January Big Freeze later; first let me recall the bountiful period in the first fortnight of December when below-average night-time temperatures slowed down the growth of our flowers and left me with an unexpected amount of spare time to wander at leisure around the island of St Agnes. The primary attraction of this first two weeks of December was that after the hideous End of the World conditions of November, it was a relief to be outside once again, enjoying that inimitable sharp light that only midwinter seems to provide. Most of the better sunsets I recall seeing in my time have been in the afternoons on one of these classically crisp, pre-Solstice days. This year, it was almost as if those late-autumn storms had never occurred and the world seemed aright once more — a new birth had taken place. With all the self-imposed pressure of my military-style October rarity hunts set aside, I walked about with a lightness of tread that seemed impossible in the sulky, heavy-hoofed trudges around the island that characterized the autumn. And most remarkably of all, seemingly effortlessly, birds fell at my feet!

Sabine's Gull
Sabine's Gull, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Martin Goodey)

First an immaculate juvenile Sabine's Gull that had spent a week surfing the inshore coastal waters of St Mary's popped up on our local beach for a couple of hours. This was a 'Scilly tick' for long-term St Agnes resident Doug Page, and as he and I watched it I felt a distinct shift in my perspective on the circumstances of the previous two months. You might call it a 'closure' and a sense of moving on, if you like to use such psychological terms. I've always been fascinated by these little, subtle movements of our Inner Being and how in the matter of one morning, or an afternoon, or even a half-hour, one finds oneself looking back over recent events in a whole new different way. These events may not necessarily be life-changing, or even permanent, and they don't seem to be able to be manufactured wilfully, but they do seem to crop up with a regularity that hints at depths to the human experience that biological science comes nowhere near to explaining. This Sabine's Gull was the first I'd seen anywhere for almost six years; in fact I realized as I watched it that it was the first I'd properly seen. The others, I recall, had been distantly on seawatches, often flying past at times when I hadn't quite got my eye in, and frequently left me gagging for more. I concluded as I watched it that this was the best bird I'd seen on Scilly since the June Black-eared Wheatear. Though not an actual 'official' rarity, it was in its own way 'rare' for me (and for Doug) and I entered into a zone where all of a sudden all those absent American passerines and all those Bimaculated Lark-less days of the preceding couple of months lost their energy to unsettle. Now, without effort or 'spin', instead of moaning that 'all' I'd seen this autumn had been a bunch of scarce migrants, a wave of satisfaction swept over me that I was grateful for what I had seen. The past two months of dissatisfaction seemed like the blink of an eye when set against the bigger picture of time, stretching infinitely both into the past and the future. And this renewed sense of perspective and optimism brought back that immeasurably wonderful gift that I might call the 'common touch' — something I was aware that had gone missing for the past couple of weeks. "Look at the breast band on that Ringed Plover!" "Check out the legs on that Redshank!" It was great.

I realize as I go about my business that a lot of birdwatchers probably exist like this all of the time, perhaps many of them who read my articles. They don't take themselves so seriously that birding affects their general mood as they go about their day. They always go out birdwatching with a certain amount of hope and expectation and a positive attitude that says: "Hey, I see what I see. And I enjoy the birds I'm seeing all of the time without wanting for any more." Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on which way you look at it, I'm not like that, and with due respect, I don't wish to be. I actually like being a grumpy so-and-so some of the time. I've tried the upbeat positive stuff and it just doesn't work for me — or at least not when I'm on the hunt for rare birds in Britain. I'm your archetypal manic-depressive birder and it's a condition I've learned to live with over the years. But I really enjoy existing for periods of time in the mood that this Sabine's Gull engendered. And you know what? The next day there's this Richard's Pipit flying over...the day after that there's this Red-throated Pipit turning up on Periglis Beach...there's a couple of Jack Snipe alongside the pool...now a Water Pipit, also on the beach. What a great time. Almost as many unusual or interesting migrants in the space of a week's casual birdwatching in the first ten days of December as I had in the whole of October while grinding my guts out!

Jack Snipe
Jack Snipe, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Richard Stonier)

At times in the two autumns I've now spent on Scilly (and quite frequently in the seven autumns I had in Ireland) one just becomes incredibly jealous about the birds turning up on the Shetlands, or anywhere else in the country for that matter. It's never a nice feeling wishing you were somewhere else instead of where you are now. Most serious birders are probably aware of that at some time or other. Just before I came to Scilly I actually applied for the job as assistant chef on Fair Isle whilst at the same time enquiring about farming jobs on St Agnes. Like many of my contemporaries, the thought of moving to Shetland crops up from time to time, almost every time there's a run of major rarities there, in fact. But in this current context...it's Sunday, the first week of December: I do a few hours' work in the fields in the morning, and then go for a stroll on my patch, finding a very confiding winter-plumaged Red-throated Pipit feeding on the seaweed. Then I return home past the two palm trees in my garden, and sit outside in the sunshine for a couple of hours, before venturing out again for a moment to watch a spectacular sunset behind the islets that represent the last piece of land in England before the continent of America; and I ask myself "Have I made the right move?"

Just in case there's still any lingering doubt as to the answer to this question, I go back to the house to check out whether the four Firecrests that have been roosting together in the trees above my bathroom skylight every evening this week have returned; and yes, there they are again. In the morning, one of those inexplicably tame Song Thrushes that dwell on the Scilly Isles is at my bedroom window first thing, demanding I get out of bed and furnish it with the chopped dates it has become used to hoovering up several times a day. Sometimes it hops across the threshold and joins me in the front room, where the hungry, jealous, but slightly more timid, female Blackbird never ventures, but where my local Robin also makes an occasional appearance. This is when I know Fate has dealt me the right hand. The Isles of Scilly still offer me the best local patch in Britain in which to birdwatch, and ply a living, twelve months of the year.

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Sunny weather, Firecrests, Chiffchaffs, and a few Black Redstarts remained with me throughout the following week. At least three Woodcock were seen for protracted periods right out in the open, showing remarkably well on the deck. Then on the second Sunday of the month, in the exact same location that I'd come across the Red-throated Pipit seven days earlier, a fantastic brown-and-white Water Pipit appeared, poking its way about the extensive ridges of seaweed that had washed up during the November storms. It was still there into 2010.

Black Redstart
Black Redstart, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Martin Goodey)

And so to Christmas and New Year...iIt's an odd fact that I happen to have been on Scilly for a week in January 1987 when the biggest snowfall in 25 years occurred, carpeting the familiar highways and byways of St Mary's in a six-inch pile of glistening white. I was over to see a girl I'd met during the previous birding season, and during my seven days I was pleased to see a couple of wintering Firecrests, a few Chiffchaffs, Black Redstarts, Great Northern Divers, a Jack Snipe and a Water Pipit. Another 20 years later, in 2009, I popped out for a couple of hours on Christmas morning and 'cleaned up' on all of those species, plus only my second Grey Plover of the year, and also what I described in my diary as 'my Christmas present from the islands', one of my very favourite birds: two Lapwings flapping steadily over Wingletang Downs. Little did I realize at the time that these last birds were to be the forerunners of an exceptional midwinter arrival in the New Year that I shall now describe in some detail.

It has been quite extraordinary to have been here on Scilly, for the second winter running, watching the news and the weather reports on the telly from around the remainder of the British Isles. Unlike that exceptional winter of 1987, where both Scilly and southern Ireland received unprecedented amounts of snow from the south, we've had barely a flake these past two weeks. It's been forecast several times, yet apart from a couple of heavy hail showers here and there, we've had the freezing cold temperatures (though not much below 0°C) and the biting winds, but no snow of any substance at all; certainly nothing that has lasted more than twenty minutes on the ground. I took a walk out to Gugh in the midst of the worst reports from the mainland, and I could see, 27 miles off in the distance, the hazy outline of the cliffs of southern Cornwall with wall-to-wall white stuff from one end of the horizon to the other. I've had to remind myself, as we've shivered around here in exceptionally low temperatures, that we've actually been the warmest place in Britain for much of the time; possibly the only ones not to have received even a measure of snow (Channel Islands excepted?).

Common Snipe
Common Snipe, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Martin Goodey)

So, of course, we naturally seem to have been a refuge for hundreds of thrushes and dozens of Lapwings and Golden Plover, plus one or two other significant surprises. I have to say, though, that I've had mixed feelings about the whole event. First there was the delight of seeing the arrival of the first dozen Lapwings; then we registered our fifty, and perhaps peaked at something just below seventy. Islanders were ringing me up and asking me what were these birds in their gardens, while I was enjoying the unexpected sight of two birds parading right outside my front door. At one point I was on the couch, grilling these two Lapwings, a Snipe, a Woodcock, two Fieldfare and 10 Redwing, when the local Water Rail ran out and appeared right out in the open in the midst of them. Walks out to the Downs and along the seashore produced the incredible sight of dozens of confiding Fieldfares following the local cows or prodding about in the seaweed, sometimes right up to the water's edge on the lapping tide. I turned over the seaweed a couple of times with a fork to expose the maggots and flies that were residing just beneath the surface.

Then the birds started dying on us.

First of all I came across a Blackcap, sitting in the middle of the path with its head under its wing in the middle of the day. It looked a goner as soon as I picked it up and saw its half-closed eyelids, but I put it in my pocket, took it home, and set it in one of our big rat traps with some food and water and turned the heating up for it. I got back half an hour later to find it dead. In the meantime, I'd also come across one of my garden Lapwings dead on the lawn, still with its eyes open but apparently having just keeled over and collapsed with exhaustion. It seemed we had crossed some sort of starvation threshold where these migrants from the mainland had come here to find that there just wasn't enough food to go round. Another dead Lapwing was pointed out to me later in the day; and a report came in of two dead Redwings in the road by the Post Office. The thought of the mass starvation that would be going on back on the mainland was almost too much to bear as I looked around and saw our relatively unfrozen ground. The majority of the hundreds of Redwings on the island seemed to be coming from under the Pittosporum hedges, and from stands of dense bracken out on Gugh and Wingletang Downs, and I hoped they would be faring better rummaging around in the decaying leaf litter than the Lapwings would be doing out on the open ground.

I wonder if these birds that reached Scilly were just a tiny fraction of those that had successfully made it to southern Ireland, or perhaps parts of France that were unfrozen? Or were they so starved on the mainland that they wouldn't have had the strength to make it any further than this? Certainly the fat count on the dead birds I picked up was practically non-existent. I write just as some milder wet air has come into the southwest, and I hope now that these birds can recover their strength here before moving on to wherever it is they're going. Maybe we'll see some return passage going on over the next couple of days?

Firecrest
Firecrest, St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly (Photo: Rob Laughton)

What has been just as concerning over the past week or ten days is that a number of the insectivorous birds that were here during that mild spell at the start of December seem to have disappeared. There's still 1–2 each of Firecrest, Chiffchaff and Black Redstart about the island, but they are certainly not as prominent as they were back then. Have they successfully moved on to warmer climes? Or have they, too, expired under bushes while I wasn't looking? I have little doubt that the Water Pipit has got away successfully; I haven't seen it since the turn of the year, yet it seemed to be gorging itself happily on the abundant insect food in the rotting seaweed along the Periglis seashore. Because of the unusually intimate association I've had with the birds of Periglis Beach this past month, I've been surprised to note just how much bird movement is actually still going on on a day-to-day basis, at a time when I traditionally imagine active migration would have come to a stop. Even before this recent cold snap, and the arrivals of the odd Skylark and Mistle Thrush that were undoubtedly not here before, there were hints at a micro level that 1–2 Linnets were still coming and going; that Chaffinches were moving off the island well into mid-December. Even that Red-throated Pipit we saw in early December was gone the following day, never to be seen again. Meanwhile, three Black Redstarts clearly arrived just a couple of days later. It's not likely I'll ever be able to forsake the ups and downs of September and October, but just for this one December it's been fascinating to have seen bird migration occurring at a very subtle level.

And I've saved the best moment 'til last. Right at the peak of that exciting first couple of days, when the Lapwings and Golden Plover (and Snipe) started dropping out of the skies, I had two remarkable encounters with a couple of birds I'm rarely inclined to wax especially lyrical about. I've not got anything in particular against raptors, it's just that unlike some birders who have a special affinity for them, they tend to fall quite low on my list of favourite groups (but still way ahead of ducks and geese, I have to say). On this occasion that I'm describing, however, I had views of two birds that will stay in my mind for a long time. First I disturbed a massive female Peregrine from what I soon discovered was the body of a dead Curlew. Sightings of Peregrines come and go on St Agnes. I can go three or four months without seeing a single one, then I find myself recording the odd bird or two every day for a fortnight or so, usually in late autumn. I've never seen one as close as this bird that circled three times in front of me, practically at eye level. It was so close that I could see not only its glaring yellow eyes and blood-tipped bill, but also every single feather on both upper and underparts. At such intimate range I could see that many of its feathers had an unexpected degree of wear and tear, such that my abiding impression was one of a favourite moth-eaten old teddy bear! I had a quick look at the unfortunate Curlew , before sitting concealed for twenty minutes to see if she would come back. She didn't; so I pressed on.

I'd just passed through the gate from the St Agnes campsite, out on to the Castella Downs, when I had a brief glimpse of a bird's wing disappear behind one of the ancient old carns that dot the St Agnes landscape. "Merlin?" No, an adult male Hen Harrier, almost touching distance away! I don't know which of us was most shocked to see the other as the bird emerged from behind the rocks and found me standing there gawking at it from about ten yards' distance. I believe it's the first time I've ever seen a Hen Harrier from above, and I had such a close view I could see every one of its six black-fingered primaries! (A male Pallid, I remembered, would have had a pale grey first primary.) After the muscular manoeuvres of the earlier Peregrine, the sheer grace of this totally unexpected creature took my breath away. There wasn't one single record of a Hen Harrier on Scilly in 2009 — never mind an adult male — despite year-lister Ashley Fisher seeing such less-than-annual raptors as Montagu's Harrier, Red Kite, Black Kite and Honey Buzzard in his record-breaking year. The local rarity status, the proximity of the views, the special winter light in a special, special environment filled me with a joy that encapsulated the sum of the previous month's birding.

Written by: Graham Gordon