Tag Archives: Isles of Scilly

Late Oct 2019 – Scilly Season

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!).

Blue Rock Thrush

Blue Rock Thrush – not especially blue, but on a rock!

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.

Spotted Crake

Spotted Crake – absurdly close views at Lower Moors

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.

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Red-breasted Flycatcher – was present on Tresco for most 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.

Yellow-browed Warbler 1

Yellow-browed Warbler – there are generally a few on Tresco at this time of year

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.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear – it has been a good year for this species in UK

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.

Waxwing

Waxwing – flycatching from the wires behind the quay in New Grimsby

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.

Citrine Wagtail

Citrine Wagtail – showing down to a few metres as it fed in the long grass

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!

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Duck – this 1st winter drake spent the day on Abbey Pool

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.

Yellow-browed Warbler 2

Yellow-browed Warbler – this one was chasing the others 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.

Siberian Chiffchaff

Siberian Chiffchaff – one of three at Rowesfield crossroads

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!

Rustic Bunting

Rustic Bunting – a nice find on the edge of the old Heliport

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.

Rustic Bunting 2

Rustic Bunting – still present the following morning

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.

Borough Farm

Borough Farm – sad to see it in the process of being ‘dewilded’

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?

Sunset

Tresco – sunset, looking over the channel towards Bryher

 

20th-28th Oct 2016 – Tresco Revisited

The Isles of Scilly are a great place to go birding, particularly in October. While not as good as they used to be, possibly due to a changing climate and a now more northerly atlantic storm track taking more transatlantic vagrants further north, exciting birds do still turn up. St Mary’s is the main island, where most birders have historically stayed, but I have been visiting Tresco for almost twenty years now. This October half term was no exception and once again we spent a week on the island.

6o0a5350Little Bunting – the first bird at Borough Farm, Tresco

The tone was set on the first full morning, on 21st October. Walking round the fields at Borough Farm, a small bird flew up from a weedy strip and landed in the hedge the other side. It was perched face on, but the fine black streaks on the breast and chestnut cheeks confirmed it was a Little Bunting. It has been a good year for this species in the UK, a scarce visitor from the north-eastern European taiga on its way to its wintering grounds in India and SE Asia. It is always a nice bird to find.

The Little Bunting hung around in the same field for several days. We had to wait until 24th October for our next good find. Walking around the fields at Borough Farm with fellow Tresco regular Steve Broyd, my son Luke and another of the visiting birders, we happened to be discussing how it is a good many years since there had been an Olive-backed Pipit on Tresco. They seem to still be regular on the other islands, but for some reason they don’t seem to turn up here (perhaps it is the lack of habitat, more on which later…). A couple of minutes later and a pipit flew up ahead of us from some weeds and dropped straight back down out of view. There had been a Tree Pipit here a couple of days previously so we had to check it out properly – as it crept into view, we could see it was indeed an Olive-backed Pipit, with a bold pale supercilium and pale spot on the rear of the ear coverts.

6o0a5949Olive-backed Pipit – the first we had seen on Tresco for many years

6o0a5410Tree Pipit – had been around Borough Farm a couple of days earlier

The Olive-backed Pipit flew up into the hedge and perched in the branches preening, where we could get a good look at it. Then it dropped back down into the field further along. When we had first seen it, we had noticed a second bird in the same field. As we walked a little further up the track, a Little Bunting flew out and landed in the hedge behind us.

6o0a5739Little Bunting – a second bird at Borough Farm

We had just seen the first Little Bunting fly back to its favoured field – could this be a second bird? I saw this bird again in the same place in better light early the next day and it looked much duller than the first Little Bunting. However, it was not until late that afternoon that our suspicions appeared to be confirmed and we found two Little Buntings feeding together.

6o0a6045Little Bunting – two birds together at Borough Farm on 25th

That may not be the end of the story. Looking closely at the photos, it appears that neither of the two Little Buntings on 25th October was the bird which we had first seen earlier in the week – it seems that there may have been three Little Buntings in total at Borough Farm that week!

The other highlight of the week on Tresco also appeared on 25th. There had been a Pallid Swift seen on St Mary’s the previous afternoon, but there was no sign of it there that morning. It had been mostly bright and sunny but early in the afternoon, a bit of cloud descended. I happened to bump into Steve Broyd along Pool Road and, as we stopped for a chat, Steve announced that he could see a Swift heading our way. Sure enough, it was a Pallid Swift, possibly the St Mary’s bird relocating but perhaps not impossible that it was a different one.

6o0a5885Pallid Swift – spent the afternoon of 25th October over Tresco

The Pallid Swift spent a several minutes hawking over the fields along Pool Road. As it banked and turned, it caught the light and we could see its overall brown plumage tone, the prominent white throat patch and pale face highlighting the dark ‘alien’ eye. Reeling off a few photos, I managed to capture the spread tail, with the outer tail feather (t5) short, not noticeably longer than the next one (t4). All good features of Pallid Swift.

It drifted off higher as the cloud blew through and spent an hour or so flying up and down over the trees on Middle Down. Then later in the afternoon, we found the Pallid Swift again over the other side of the island, over Old Grimsby.

One of the drawbacks of staying on Tresco is that it is not so easy to get to one of the other islands if something good turns up. There were lots of quality birds on St Mary’s and St Agnes, but unfortunately none lingered long enough for us to get over to see them this year – or even survived long enough. A Pale-legged or Sakhalin Leaf Warbler might have been the bird of the trip if we had seen it but was sadly found freshly dead on St Agnes on 21st, apparently having flown into a greenhouse window.

Two Red-flanked Bluetails were on the islands also on 21st, one on St Mary’s and one on St Agnes, but neither was present the following day. A reported Siberian Stonechat on St Mary’s the following day was misidentified and it was only later that evening, after it had departed, that it was correctly identified as a Caspian Stonechat from photos. A Rustic Bunting was also only seen very briefly on St Mary’s that same day.

A report of a probably Dusky Thrush on St Mary’s on 26th at least came out early enough for us to catch the boat over. Unfortunately it was only seen by one observer and promptly disappeared before we – or anyone else from St Mary’s – could get there. We did have a very pleasant day on St Mary’s, the highlight of which was seeing two more Olive-backed Pipits in fields at Old Town.

img_7974Olive-backed Pipit – two were on St Mary’s on 26th but there had been three on 25th

A possible Asian House Martin reported on St Mary’s late on 27th was relocated at Innisidgen on the morning of 28th. We were due to leave later that day anyway, so had to make a quick decision and managed to get an earlier boat over to St Mary’s. Unfortunately, by the time we got there it had been identified as just a regular House Martin – we did see a little group of four House Martins along with about half a dozen Swallows.

A possible Eastern Yellow Wagtail was reported at the riding school that morning, which was just a short walk away, so we went to have a look for that. It was showing very well, but unfortunately was just a Yellow Wagtail – it called like one of the western races while we were there and had a dull yellow wash under the tail and a bright yellow patch on its breast. However, otherwise being rather grey, it could perhaps have been a Grey-headed Wagtail instead, the Scandinavian race of Yellow Wagtail. There had been an Eastern Yellow Wagtail on St Mary’s several days before we arrived, but that had obviously departed.

6o0a6343Yellow Wagtail – one of the western races, possible Grey-headed?

Although we didn’t find any other rarities during the week, there were plenty of other birds to look at while we searched the island. A selection of photos of some of the other highlights are included below.

6o0a5654Short-eared Owl – two showed very well, flushed from a roost at the woodpile on 24th

6o0a5227Black Redstart – one or two most days, but with larger numbers on 24th & 28th

6o0a5303Common Redstart – this 1w male spent most of the week at Borough Farm

6o0a5462Redwing – good numbers of thrushes passed through earlier in the week

6o0a5313Ring Ouzel – two came in with the other thrushes on 21st

6o0a6126Yellow-browed Warbler – seen daily, present in very good numbers this year

6o0a5319Goldcrest – as usual, there were plenty around the island

6o0a5781Firecrest – 1 or 2 were seen on several days

6o0a5334Pied Flycatcher – a late bird, lingering in Abbey Wood for several days

6o0a5613Curlew Sandpiper – on Abbey Pool all week, sometimes with two Dunlin

6o0a6286Jack Snipe – one or two were on Abbey Pool

6o0a6243Greenshank – 22+ on Tresco, but this one confiding bird was on St Mary’s at Lower Moors

Borough Farm has been one of the best places for birding on Tresco for the last few years, and this was the case again this year, hosting the 2-3 Little Buntings and Olive-backed Pipit while we were there, as well as many commoner birds. Most of the rest of the estate has been vigorously tidied up – now looking as smart as a home counties golf course! Gone are the weedy bulb fields along Pool Road, for example, replaced by improved grassland for cattle grazing which is regularly mown or replanted. Several of the hedges were removed to make larger fields and the remaining ones are regularly flailed to a nice smart square shape. Unfortunately, all of this renders this area all but useless for birds. Other parts of the island have been similarly tidied up. Tresco used to be one of the best islands for rarities, but now struggles in comparison with St Agnes or St Mary’s. Lack of habitat is probably one of the main reasons.

tresco-2016_9Tresco – the fields along Pool Road, now improved grass and tidy hedges

tresco-2016_11Flailing the hedges – one of the regular activities designed to keep the estate ‘tidy’

Borough Farm is the only remaining place on Tresco where there are still traditional bulb fields and the combination of weeds and overgrown hedges, including some large sycamore hedges, act as a magnet for any birds visiting the island. Unfortunately Tresco Estate has decided to take back the farm later this year. At this stage, we do not know what the estate plans to do with the land but given that they gave up growing bulbs many years ago it seems unlikely it will be kept in its current state. Probably it will be tidied up and put down to grass, in line with the rest of the estate.

It was therefore very sad walking round Borough Farm for the last time this year, looking at the fields and reminiscing about all the great birds I have seen here over the last twenty years, not knowing what it will be like in the future. Perhaps it is finally time to call it a day on my visits to Tresco?

p1330769Borough Farm – the contrast is clear, weedy fields and overgrown hedges

p1330780Borough Farm – the Olive-backed Pipit and one of the Little Buntings were in here

p1330770Borough Farm – the Olive-backed Pipit also spent some time in this field

October 2015 – Gone Scilly

The Isles of Scilly are a great place to spend time birding in October. We spent a week on Tresco, the second biggest of the islands.

Traditionally, Scilly was regarded as one of the best places in the UK to catch up with American vagrants. The highlight of our week was a juvenile Spotted Sandpiper which flew in calling and then spent just one evening feeding on the muddy edge of the Great Pool on Tresco.

IMG_2307IMG_2290Spotted Sandpiper – dropped in for an evening to Tresco Great Pool

The American equivalent of our Common Sandpiper, the juvenile Spotted Sandpiper is distinguished among other things by plainer tertials and greater coverts, a shorter tail and yellow legs. Only the adults in summer plumage have the distinctive spotted underparts. It is a regular vagrant to UK, with about 200 records here and a small number normally appearing annually.

A day trip across to St Mary’s, the largest of the islands, allowed us to catch up with a couple of lingering birds there. Blyth’s Pipit breeds around Mongolia and winters in southern Asia and is a very scarce vagrant to the UK. One had been hanging around in a couple of grassy fields here for over a week already the time we got a chance to see it.

IMG_2193Blyth’s Pipit – a very occasional visitor from Asia

Having seen the Blyth’s Pipit, we walked round to the airfield where a Short-toed Lark was feeding on the short grass right next to the runway. These are much more regular visitors to the UK from southern Europe, and this individual had been here for nearly two weeks already. It was completely unphased by aircraft taking off right behind it!

IMG_2266Short-toed Lark – feeding on the short grass on the airfield

As well as rarities, Scilly is a great place to catch up with other migrants. There were at least four Yellow-browed Warblers around Tresco while we were there – it was hard to go for a walk around the island without running in to one or two of them, or at least hearing their distinctive calls.

P1120077Yellow-browed Warbler – one of several on Tresco this week

Commoner migrants also pass through the islands on their way further south. This Whinchat spent an evening feeding on the fence along Pool Road. It was still present briefly the following morning, and then seemed to continue on its way.

IMG_2329Whinchat – spent an evening feeding by the cattle field

The Great Pool on Tresco has an enviable record for turning up rare wildfowl, as well as vagrant waders. Migrants including a single Pintail and a couple of Shoveler appeared amongst the Gadwall, Teal and Wigeon while we were there. A couple of Pink-footed Geese seemed slightly out of place. A single Garganey was present throughout our stay, and was the best the Great Pool could muster this year.

IMG_2338Garganey – lingering on the Great Pool all week

Jack Snipe are also regular at this time of year around the Great Pool. They are largely crepuscular, best looked for early in the morning or at dusk. One was present for much of the week. They have a distinctive feeding action, bouncing up and down constantly. The Jack Snipe was joined by a single Common Snipe one evening,  which took to bouncing up and down as well while it was together with it.

IMG_2339Jack Snipe – regular on the muddy margins around the Great Pool

Tresco has traditionally held a small number of introduced Golden Pheasants. Sadly the population there, as with most of the rest of the UK, is no longer considered self-sustaining and is boosted by periodic additional releases. They are still great to watch, easiest seen at dusk along the road by the abbey.

P1120182Golden Pheasant – a stunning male

Non-avian interest is now provided by the introduced Red Squirrels. Although not native to the islands, Tresco has no Grey Squirrels, which have seemingly proven so harmful to the populations of Red Squirrels across so much of the UK. They can now be found in various places around the island.

P1120113Red Squirrel – one of the recently introduced individuals on Tresco

Above all, the islands are simply a lovely place to spend time walking, with the added advantage that you never know what might drop in while you are there. Well worth a visit.

P1120148Sunset on Tresco looking towards Bryher