Scillies 2020

The second part of my ‘two months off work’ Autumn: 3 weeks on st Agnes, isles of Scilly from the 5th of Oct after a long drive down from Shetland. This year was always going to be a bit weird, with some of the regulars not able to make it as well as new Covid rules affecting things that I’ve become used to and look forward to somewhat. But despite these setbacks st Agnes was as beautiful as ever and in the end the birds were pretty bloody great.

Slow to begin with as the winds had been in the dreaded North West and numbers of migrants were low, the odd Yellow Browed warbler and Pied Fly around one or two Lapland buntings etc

Flushed a showy Wryneck on Gugh on my first full day. A guaranteed bird on st Agnes in autumn.

Three days in and an atlantic depression dropped in 2 Swainsons thrushes a Red-Eyed Vireo and a Black and White warbler across the Islands to the north but apparently nothing for st Agnes! We made our way over to Tresco the following morning but no sign of the B&W warbler, the American Golden plover out on the rugged area in the north of the island was almost just compensation.

A Buff-bellied pipit had also been found a few days later and perhaps the same bird (or potentially another) was found by Neil Wright out on Horse point on the 14th. The bird was vocal, regularly showed well and I paid 3 or 4 visits during its time with us.

Horse point also played the somewhat unlikely setting to a couple of arboreal species: Red breasted Flycather and Pallas’ Warbler, the former found by new-comer Lol, fed amoung the boulders exclusively. The latter was a very bright individual, this photo was taken by Lee Amery, mine just didnt do it justice!

A Siberian Stonechat was found on Gugh by a visiting birder. A nice, peachy toned frosty bird with a slightly two-toned white and peach rump, DNA sample recovered so will be interested to see if indeed it is a female maurus as it appears to be overall considering underwing also.

Whilst watching the stonechat on the 17th I had a Little bunting drop out of the sky calling, only to perch up 50 yrds away and then disappear off towards the garden. The following day I was again in the same spot looking for the Stonechat when a Red breasted Flycatcher caught my attention towards to higher ground above the house, nice to find birds whilst watching someone else’s. (excuse the poor pics!)

Also on the 17th, near the site of the Stonechat, I was chatting to birding Hero Paul Dukes when I caught sight a 1st winter Caspian gull flying across the Gugh bar and heading away from me. “Shit…. sorry Paul Ive got to run, thats a Caspian Gull” I legged it after the bird which luckily had joined a group of gulls on the water 300 metres away. There are only 3 records of Caspian Gull for scilly up to now (I found the first record in 2016 which also coincided with a large arrival of lesser black backs around the island as these did), hence the legging it.

A small group of birders saw the bird with me and I got a couple of texts saying that some Scilly listers would be interested in the bird if i could refind. I made an effort later in the day to check the areas that gulls gather in but all drew a blank until I joined Paul Heaton at the campsite where around 10 birds were feeding near the tideline, one of which was another 1st winter Casp, a completely different bird!

A few more Agnes birders got onto this bird but neither could be found the following day for the Scilly listers.

In the following week st Agnes played host to another 1 or even possibly 2 Pallas’ Warblers, a few Dusky warblers including one Mike and Lee found below the parsonage and Graham came across one calling on Barnaby lane whilst there had been another elsewhere. Other islands held Radde’s Warblers but I was holding out for one on st Agnes, alas. An increase in Black Redstarts and Chiffchaffs including a couple of tristis birds (below). Small numbers of Bramblings amoung the growing number of Chaffinches and increasing numbers of winter Thrushes were noted.

An American theme to the start of the trip followed by some scarce eastern birds and I was feeling like Scillies 2020 was coming to an end for me, I was joined for my final 4 days by my girlfriend Amy and thank god she came because it was her idea to walk around on Gugh after the rain (associated with a seriously fast moving atlantic depression!) had cleared on Saturday the 24th.

We split up so she could watch the waves and I birded around the back of the plantation. Suddenly a song thrush flew almost right over my shoulder and I caught a split second glimpse of an oddly sized bird chasing behind it. A moment passed and I heard a short sharp “Chik…chiik” call. I froze, my heart started racing and a phrase came to mind “like sneakers on a basket ball court”, my brain told me I’d just heard a Rose-breasted Grosbeak; a speices I have invested special interest into since finding a a first winter female on Wingletang in september 2017, In both Canada and Mexico I’ve paid them special attention and in particular the call whilst working alongside them this year in Feb at the latter location.

With slightly shaky legs I moved towards the calling bird, hearing it again and suddenly it flew infront of me perhaps less than 10 metres distance, I saw it with the naked eye only and in flight but I could see clearly that it was a Grosbeak as it disapeared through a wall of pittosporum. Fucking hell… The bird was still calling and moving away unseen, I anticipated where it might have moved to and got near to the garden where it flushed from some brambles into a Pittosporum 10 metres away from where I was standing.

I finally got bins on it…A Male! I thought to myself, as I watched it cleaning its bill on a branch, it had obviously been feeding on blackberries but didn’t seem too bothered by me. I ,on the other hand was near exploding with excitement but also wanted to take in the bird and the moment before putting out the news.

After what felt like a good length of time watching the bird some more and checking i had at least one or two ‘decent’ photos I left it to get signal and put the news out, by the time I’d got back it was no where to be seen. I could see Amy in the distance and I waved her over frantically, I don’t think she’s ever seen me so excited, hands shaking etc, I think she thought it was hilarious. The bird was now lost and people arriving. It was getting towards dusk but luckily Mike young Powell had relocated it giving point blank views above the house. Kathy YP, Renton R, Chris W had all seen it too and I ran up there to see it for a few moments before it disappeared into the pittosporum again.

Sadly The bird wasnt seen again, I would have loved to spend more time with it.

The following day was my last full one and we’d had a good time in the pub the night before (following covid guidelines) there were a couple of boat loads of people over looking for the Grosbeak and with no show someone ended up finding a Red-eyed Vireo at lower town farm, I was only about 100m away when I saw the news (aaarg) but the excitement from the previous day was still at the forefront so I happily lapped up my best views of the species ever (including on the other side of the Atlantic) as it lazily fed in the low bows of the apple trees.

Thinking to myself that was an excellent end to the holiday Amy and I went for Icecream when suddenly my phone , which had been without signal for a while, went crazy; pinging and alerting , INDIGO BUNTING st AGNES BIG POOL!!! I quick footed over there to find a load of birders not looking in any direction, Myself Steve Brayshaw and Chris Williams and Doug Paige went round threshing mill to get a different angle on the bonfire where it had been seen originally and I picked up the bird on the floor 5 metres infront of us. its there!!! where? there!!!

I wish I had a photo of it looking more lively, an amazing record and hopefully will re gain its strength. I watched it get blown over by the wind on the morning I left. They can have such a big, bug-eyed look, this one hardly at all probably due to fatigue but some nice tones across the plumage and indigo colouring was apparent in brighter day light.

So that concludes my Scillies trip, which was great. Just a shame I couldn’t share it all with everyone who couldn’t make it. still was great to spend time with everyone who could and perhaps next year will resemble something closer to normal.

Unst. Day 31, PALLAS’ GRASSHOPPER WARBLER!

1st of October, my final full day on the island and the weather was wet and windy but the first day of proper south easterlies and simultaneous high pressure further east, of the trip. I had a frustrating 30 minutes chasing around an Olive Backed Pipit that I’d seen closly in flight and heard call a few times near Setter’s Hill Estate, most likely the bird Brydon had found some days before. It flew over the houses and I just thought ‘fuck it’ (He’d had a similar experience with it a day or two before also apparently.)  After lunch at my new accommodation, Shore station, Burrafirth I had a little Bunting feeding at the bottom of the wall 10 metres from my door. Quite a dull bird, occasionally flying around calling but approachable.

Rachel, the owner of the property had mentioned previously that I should walk around the grounds of the main house and have a look, as I hadn’t done up to this point I began walking up the steep drive only to flush a large, dark looking Locastella out of cover on the grassy bank just below me, It had flown over the wall and out of sight, I rushed round to the rockery area, a small hillside with mostly ferns and long grass cover broken up with regular large flat rocks. The bird flushed out of a tussock and back over the wall again, I quickly approached the chest height dyke and peered over. Amazingly, the bird was out in the open next to the tyre of the owners Landrover out on the black gravel. Fucking hell…PALLAS’ GROPPER!!!

…It  dashed underneath the Landrover only to return to its initial spot with its back to me and facing back in my direction ,I could see its warm brown and streaky mantle, rusty coloured rump contrasting dark tail with some unworn white tips just visible and white tertial spots. The bird quick stepped over to some cover in the corner of a walled section of garden gas canister, old pallets and timber and some tall grass too.

I was very excited, and told pals on private message groups and made some phone calls to Allan, Brydon and David and knew I needed to speak to the landlady before putting news out ‘nationally’ it had also started to piss it down.

A few minutes later and the news went out, a search ensued but the bird was nowhere to be seen. It took a while but eventually it was picked up down near the walled garden and a good number of people saw it that evening, everyone was well behaved and the following morning was even better without any need for organized flushes as the bird was sitting out in the open and showing in the grass every so often. It proved Easy enough to keep tabs on with the number of eyes on it.

Thanks to Pete Morris for the incredible above image.

Im really happy to have found it on my last day, rounds the trip off beautifully despite my undeniable worry that Im leaving the place where most of the action will be for this week. But Im keen to keep plans, fate and all that. Scillies is next for me, three weeks on beloved Agnes, bring on the Americans.

Id like to thanks Paula and Allan Conlin for putting me up at the lovely Bordanoost lodge, the Jewel of Haroldswick 😉 Check out the link if you’re thinking about going up in future and staying, I can throughly recommend. Ive kept the blogging fairly brief but i could go on and on about things like an amazing Aurora one night and a day where i counted 44 Yellow-broweds across the island.. lovely stuff and plenty more for things i want to see next time. Im happy with the finds, saw some brilliant birds and met some really great people.

Thanks also to David Cooper, Brydon Thomason and Robbie Brookes for being so nice and hope to see you all again, heres a few images from the last week or so…

Above pic courtesy of Allan Conlin