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

Unst. Day 29, Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll

Early morning at Burrafirth I came across large, tame Redpoll. It appears to be a 1cy Hornemanns Arctic Redpoll on account of its overall (BIG) size, deep bill base, bull necked appearance. The white base colour, warm buff tones about the head and face. Its definitely at the streakier end of the spectrum and this would i think usually warn people off as it did me somewhat initially. thanks to Dave Cooper and Brydon Thomason for their input and coming to see it and to Geoff Wyatt who saw the bird respectively and has come to the same conclusion of its identity.

The undertail coverts show ‘pencil line ‘central shaft streaks, which is in keeping with the whole birds vibe really: streaky. In fact this could be a downfall of the bird generally infront of a commitee but i’ll do my best to convey the birds presence in the description. Being used to looking at a very variable group of birds (Gulls) , Im enjoying my baptism into these , evaluating things like; overall structure, stance , bill shape and expression in a passerine that stays mostly still (whilst feeding) as you watch has been great.

Since the last post the highlights have been Dave Cooper’s Buff breast, which was joined by another the following day. I didn’t get to see Brydon’s OBP or Blythes Reed despite looking but i did see Geoff Wyatt’s lovely Red flanked Blue tail at vaylie, nice one Geoff!

Last couple of days now before i make the long journey to scilly…

Unst. Day 23, Booted Warbler

Fairly quiet in between my last post and now although since the 17th we’ve had autumns little blessings: Yellow browned warblers in small numbers but widespread over the island.

David cooper found 2 little buntings at Burrafirth on the morning of Thursday the 17th and David Haigh and I found a very secretive Red-breasted Flycatcher at Valyie in the same afternoon. Al found a Bluethroat close to home on the 18th but not too much to write home about since, until todays Booted Warbler, found by Brydon near Halligarth. A charismatic bird which I thoroughly enjoyed.

The bird showed well on occasion and called a handful of times. Perhaps some promising weather between now and when Im scheduled to leave on the 2nd, fingers crossed for both!

Unst. Day 16 , Spotted Sandpiper

A still, bright day with light Northerly winds. I’d decided to abandon the car and Dave H dropped me at Skaw first thing as I intended to do the northern sites on foot. Lamba Ness hosted a flock of c30 Lapland Buntings and a Single Snow Bunting. A walk along the cliffs proved fruitless and the only bird of note really was a Barred Warbler in a bit of cover all the way over at Saxa Vord old army Barracks, My third of the Trip.

Just as I was coming back home into Haroldswick at around 12.30 I decided to walk the vegetation on the northern end of the beach and this stunning juv Spotted Sandpiper flew in front of me at the waters edge of me as I walked.

At first views were into the light but I’d seen the short tail and wingbar cut off before the greater coverts in flight, the bird was also calling an ‘un-common sandpiper’ like ‘Peeteet’ and flushing out into the bay only to return to the same spot, I wanted to see some plumage features and had to get on the good side of the light, eventually it came and fed on the seaweed affording good views.

What a beauty and one of my favourite waders! Sadly it flew out into the bay again and was lost. Hopefully it will turn up again tomorrow, I’m very pleased with the find but I’d love some local birders to see it.

Unst. Day 8, Red Backed Shrike + a few bits since

Its been largely quiet since my previous post last Friday, the follwing day I went back to Sandwick and both the Greenish and Barred Warblers were still present. The Greenish having moved inland slightly and feeding up on a dyke with Iris beds either side in the north of the bay.

I walked almost a km round the Headland and flushed a second Barred Warbler from cover close to an old settlement, a less showy bird which would flush long distances each time I got closer.

David Cooper and Brydon Thomason kindly invitied me seawatching on Sunday morning as the winds were in the NW. a number of Sooty Shearwaters passed north aswell as 2 Blue Fulmar which were new for me! Cheers Brydon for threm. Ive had small numbers of Migrants, things like a single Reed (below) and a few Willow Warblers, probably lingerers, but the best of Which was a Rosefinch that popped up during a brief calm spell on the 6th in a garden at the top of my road in Haroldswick. The Wood Warbler is still present in the Garden.

Today started like most days have done recently: checking the beaches and short grassy areas that attract Golden Plover and other waders. In the afternoon I drove down the track to Lamba Ness and from the car, I saw a Red back shrike in flight chasing after a Bee, pulled over and got distant views.

The bird was moving over a large area but eventually saw it nicely.

This Lapland bunting seemed to come out of no where and landed only 20m away from me on the headland. I spent the last part of the day watching a House martin feeding in a Geo at Skaw.

A Nice first week up here, the weathers set in its ways for another 7 days it seems so I’ll continue looking for Ducks and Waders from the West but lets see what happens.

Unst. Day 4, Greenish and Barred Warblers

Today was supposed to be about looking for Waders from the West but whilst I walked along the dunes at the top of SandWick beach in the South East of the Island I flushed a small Phyllosc from a nettle bed which turned out to be this beautiful Greenish Warbler!

It was fairly confiding but aware of my presence, I heard it call a couple of times as it moved around the dunes including feeding on the deck quite abit. The following images are probably over kill for just a greenish warbler but I really enjoyed the find.

10 minutes after I stopped watching the bird I flushed a Barred Warbler from the dunes 100 metres back towards the car. I saw the bird well 3 or 4 times but always briefly, I felt abit like i was just flushing it further away so left it.

Other than these migrants I saw about 30+ Wheatears during the day, a Sand Martin and a Willow Warbler at Burrafirth and a pale unstreaked Acro at Haroldswick pool took 2 hours of my afternoon; Turned out to be a rred warbler. Also Ive had 4 Juv Curlew Sandpipers in fields with the Golden Plover flock at Uyeasound in the past couple of days. Getting to grips with the place and the birding now i think. more to come when theres more to tell but a good day.

Unst. Day 1

I was able to negotiate the whole of Septemeber and October off work to spend birding intensively.  The first month of this ‘Sabatical’ I’ll be staying in Bordanoost Lodge, Haroldswick, Unst, Shetland. Covid tested, travelling alone and car packed with 4 weeks food.

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As I pulled into the driveway of my accommodation I saw a Phyllosc flycatch from low down in the Garden’s sheltered Sycamore: turned out to be this excellent Wood Warbler. It stayed all day and I came back a couple of times whilst trying to orientate myself and figure out where to look for birds.

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My host, and mate; Allan Conlin doesn’t arrive for a week or so but David Cooper, Island resident, ex-Sussex birder and voracious bird finder generously agreed to show me a couple of sites, we met at Skaw where he had found an Arctic warbler earlier in the day.

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Later whilst I was still head scratching looking for sites that I’d heard of, he called again to let me know he’d found a Greenish warbler, So I went and took that in. An excellent Phyllosc’y start to the trip.

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As I said, Im here for the month so I’ll be doing the blog as much as theres need to!

Kent coast migrants and Erith Juv Casp

Just what I wanted from the second weekend in August: Saturday morning I drove down to Kent to bird from Langdon Cliffs to South Foreland in search of Migrants.

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It wasn’t too bad for early August, with the concentration of migrant birds mostly in the Langdon hole/fox hill down area. It was about 25 degrees at 7am and birds were active even before the sun was on the bushes. Below, one of c15 Willow Warblers present early on.

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Other totals were as follows: 2 Pied Flycatcher, 2 Spotted Flycatcher, Whinchat, 2 Wheatear, Grasshopper Warbler, 2 Black Redstart, 6 Yellow Wagtail over west along with c200 Swift, c100 Swallow and about 30 House Martins.

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Sunday morning I went looking for waders at Oare Marshes but besides good views of the adult Bonapartes Gull i had nothing else there of interest. I swang by Erith Pier on the way home and Rich and I lobbed a dozen or so loaves at a gaggle of hot gulls at low tide (not ideal gulling conditions!). About 10 juvenile Yellow Legged gulls came in and towards the end this beautifully plumaged juv Casp also appeared out of no where infront of us.

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Id imagine there will be more hunting for coastal migrants between now and september so Im glad to have got a nice Casp in before I ‘forget’ about gulls for a month or so!