Not a tour, but a family holiday – and Scilly is conveniently a great place for birding in October! The Isles of Scilly are perhaps best know in birding terms for the number of American landbirds they have historically attracted in Autumn. We stayed on the island of Tresco, but we made several trips over to St Mary’s too.
Late October is not the best time, and sure enough all the ‘Yanks’ which had previously appeared cleared out a few days before we arrived. Still, there were more good birds to find, and one rarity at least had the decency to linger long enough for us to catch up with it.
The day we arrived, our first stop was to see the Blue Rock Thrush which had been hanging out on the rocks around the Garrison and Peninnis on St Mary’s. It was very mobile and could disappear for long periods but conveniently, it was located just before our plane took off and we were able to catch up with it after only an hour or so of casing up and down the clifftop path (it had taken others several days to see it!).
The Blue Rock Thrush was not especially blue – it was a young bird, a 1st winter. But it was flying around and feeding on the rocks, which is what a proper wild Blue Rock Thrush should be doing.
After that, we still had a bit of time before our boat over to Tresco, so we walked down to Lower Moors. The Spotted Crake helpfully appeared just as we arrived, in the ditch beside the path. This bird had been very obliging on previous days and it didn’t disappoint today. We watched it down to just a couple of feet, and at one point it passed right beneath the wooden footbridge on which we were standing. Amazing views of what can be a very secretive species, possibly my best ever.
The following day we found ourselves heading back to St Mary’s, when a report emerged of a Chestnut-eared Bunting on Peninnis first thing in the morning. It had flown off but we went over anyway just in case it was refound – it wasn’t! We did find a rare bunting ourselves, also on Peninnis, but unfortunately it was just a Yellowhammer. Rare on the Isles of Scilly perhaps, but not quite so unusual back in Norfolk!
Monday was spent on Tresco. A Citrine Wagtail appeared on St Mary’s and a few bits and pieces on St Agnes, but we didn’t manage to find anything unusual. The Red-breasted Flycatcher which had been at Borough Farm for a week or more was still present, and it was good to catch up with that. It could be surprisingly elusive, but it remained in the same group of trees for much of our stay.
There are almost always good numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers at this time of year, and a quiet day on Tresco gave us the chance to catch up with a few of those too.
Things hotted up on Tresco on Tuesday. After a quiet start to the morning, one of the few other hardy Tresco regulars, Steve Broyd, called to say he had found an Isabelline Wheatear up on Castle Down. We raced up to help him pin it down, as it was very mobile initially but eventually settled down around a favoured area of rocks. It would remain here for several days and we got fantastic views of it over subsequent days. It has been a good autumn for this very rare south-eastern European species this year.
Birders from St Mary’s coming back from seeing the Isabelline Wheatear later that day found a Waxwing on the wires at New Grimsby. It was a lovely sunny day and it was flycatching from the telephone wires. When it flew off, it couldn’t be refound until it was found feeding in an apple tree in one of the nearby gardens the following day.
It was back to St Mary’s the next day. The Citrine Wagtail seen a couple of days previously had settled down at Salakee Farm and had been showing down to a few metres yesterday. When we arrived in the morning, it was a bit more distant and and we were looking into the light. After spending some time exploring St Mary’s, which also gave us the chance to catch up with the Dartford Warbler on Peninnis (a ‘Scilly tick’ for us), we returned in the afternoon and were treated to views of the Citrine Wagtail down to a few metres as it fed in the long grass in the corner of the field.
The following day, it was back to scouring Tresco for something new. Those efforts were rewarding with the finding of a 1st winter drake Ring-necked Duck on Abbey Pool. It was present all day, although it spent some time tucked in the edge of the vegetation asleep, but could not be found subsequently, although the weather was not particularly conducive to finding it again!
It was a lovely sunny day and the Yellow-browed Warblers were particularly active and vocal. There were three regularly around the Rowesfield area and it was interesting to watch one today behaving very territorially, chasing the others off from its favoured sallows.
The next two days were very windy and wet at times, so if there were any new arrivals they would be very hard to locate. Things improved dramatically on 27th, which was largely clear and sunny at times, with much lighter winds. Starting off on the regular circuit of the island, the first thing that became apparent was that there had been a big arrival of Siberian Chiffchaffs. After one up at Borough Farm, there were three together in the sallows at Rowesfield crossroads. There were plenty of Common Chiffchaffs in too, great to compare them side by side.
At least one of the Siberian Chiffchaffs at Rowesfield crossroads was rather vocal, its call a rather plaintive ‘iihp’. It was even singing on and off in the sunshine – not something you hear in the UK very often. Fantastic!
Any other day, that would have been the highlight of the morning but today there was more to come. Walking along the edge of the old heliport, a bunting flew up from the long grass beyond the fence and started to call – a distinctive ‘ticking’. Thankfully, it circled round and dropped down into the top of the brambles behind me. A Rustic Bunting!
Unfortunately the Rustic Bunting flew over into the sallows on the edge of Abbey Pool with a Reed Bunting and didn’t show itself for the birders who were just arriving from the boat over from St Mary’s. It was seen again, back in the original spot, together now with three Reed Buntings in the early afternoon and we found it there again at dusk.
The Rustic Bunting was still present the following morning, with the Reed Buntings in the same place on the edge of the Heliport, but unfortunately it was now time for us to leave. We caught the boat back over to St Mary’s that afternoon and bid our farewells to the Isles of Scilly.
There was a sad side to what was a wonderful week. I have been visiting Tresco regularly for 24 years now and over that time I have seen some great birds up at Borough Farm. The farm had been leased out and worked traditionally for bulbs, flowers and vegetables, but a couple of years ago the Tresco Estate took it back under its own management. The estate has long eschewed traditional mixed farming in favour of focusing on intensive beef cattle, meaning the other fields around the island have already been turned over to improved grassland.
It was sad to see this year that Borough Farm seems to be heading the same way – the once weedy fields are now mostly covered with grass, the hedges have been cut right back and then browsed heavily by cattle. Apart from the one corner where the Red-breasted Flycatcher was, which still has some taller sycamores, there were very few birds there this year. It seems surprising to see ongoing ‘dewilding’, intensification of loss-making modern agricultural practices, particularly in this part of the world, at a time when many other estates are looking to ‘rewilding’ as a better way forward.
I am not sure how any more years I will continue to go back to Tresco. It is still a beautiful island, but not as beautiful for wildlife as it used to be. The only good news is that there are plenty of other islands in the Scillies to explore which have not been so extensively ‘tidied up’, where there are still weedy fields and overgrown hedges. Is it time to join the growing exodus of birders who have moved on from Tresco to explore other islands?