In the middle of October, something happens to British twitchers. The lure of six small islands 28 miles off the Cornish coast becomes too strong to resist and thousands of dedicated birders up and leave their local patches in a mad scramble to bag themselves a ‘lifer’. Neil Glenn explains how you can be a part of the madness, too.
When to go
The peak season for Scilly is the middle two weeks in October. Statistically, this is the prime time for finding rare birds on the islands so this is the period most birders choose to stay. In truth, anything can turn up at any time from mid September to the middle week of November. If you wish to avoid the crowds, you should avoid those middle two weeks of October. The downside of this ploy is that more eyes mean more rarities will be found. The upside is that if Britain’s first Willet is discovered during these off-peak weeks you will be watching it with only a handful of similarly smug birdwatchers.
Some birdwatchers travel to Scilly in spring, mainly in May, when several rarities have been found as well as many overshooting migrants such as White Stork, Alpine Swift, Black Kite, Hoopoe, Savi’s Warbler, rare herons, etc. The islands certainly aren’t overburdened with birdwatchers during this period, so if you like the idea of finding some good birds while enjoying a quiet walk then spring might be the time for you to get a feel for the islands.
Even in peak periods, getting away from the crowds isn’t that difficult. Shy birdwatchers can easily head the opposite way to the ‘green army’ when news of a rarity breaks. In fact, this can pay dividends as I found to my benefit when my wife and I headed to Bryher one October afternoon in 1996 as three boat loads steamed towards St. Agnes for a “possible” Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Our reward was to find a Bobolink and to watch the boatloads appear on the horizon to appreciate our find when news spread!
And if you really want to get away from the crowds you can always visit St. Martin’s. A few brave pioneers strike out to this outpost in the hope of earning fame and glory by finding their own ‘mega’. Like-minded individuals should be warned that such a ploy can backfire, as Martin’s is mostly out of radio range and it may also prove difficult to evacuate the island should a rarity be found on another island. Such decisions add extra stress to what should be a relaxing hobby.
Once you have decided when to go, you now have to choose your mode of travel. There are three ways of getting to Scilly, other than swimming: the Scillonian III, the helicopter and the Skybus. The boat offers the bonus of seeing several seabird species such as skuas, auks, petrels, shearwaters and Sabine’s Gull but you will need a good stomach. It is not known as the Great White Stomach Pump for nothing!
I remember one entertaining evening at the nightly log in the local pub (more of which later) when a newly arrived birder reported a Storm Petrel from the Scillonian that afternoon. When asked if he had got a good look at the bird, he memorably replied, “Yes, I was sick all over it!” I’m sure the seagoing waif enjoyed the homemade organic chum.
The quickest way of jumping the twenty eight miles from mainland Cornwall to the islands is to take to the air, though fares are very expensive. Mile for mile, an equivalent airfare to New York would cost over £12,000!
Accommodation ranges from camping on The Garrison (only for the very hardy in October), reasonable bed and breakfast establishments, through to renting cottages or staying at luxury hotels at over £150 per night. Having said that, in busy years I have found people sleeping in hides and even under the rickety Community bus so there really is something to suit everyone’s pocket.
You will probably make landfall on St. Mary’s, the main island of Scilly. Ostensibly, the only way of getting around is on foot, as visitors are not allowed to take their cars (although blue badge holders can apply in advance to take their vehicle with them).
A few taxis ferry people from the quay and airfield and they are available at the drop of a bobble hat when a rarity turns up. Be prepared to share with a group of anxious birdwatchers and you should survive the ride along the narrow, country lanes!
The Community bus sometimes runs during The Scilly Season and is good value at £1. Last year, this stopped running half way through October, which was a bit bizarre to say the least. If all else fails you could try hitching a lift: the locals are well used to the weird and wonderful ways of birdwatchers now.
Getting from island to island is a simple matter of stepping onto one of the inter-island boats. The owners readily put on extra trips if needed and are prepared to run at any time should the need arise. And why shouldn’t they? When the aforementioned Short-toed Eagle frequented The Eastern Isles, the boatmen christened it The Golden Eagle!
All than glisters is not gold
It is important for newcomers to remember that rare birds are not hanging about on every street corner. Having read the reports, it may seem to Scilly virgins that they will step off the boat and find a Blackpoll Warbler hopping about around their feet. I know people who have scoured the hedges and bushes on the islands solidly, dawn to dusk for two weeks every October and have still never found a BB rarity so one has to be realistic.
What you do have is an excellent opportunity of finding a sub-rarity such as Yellow-browed Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Short-toed Lark, Richard’s Pipit and the like. The more you study the weedy fields and the thick bushes, the more chance you have of turning up the ‘megas’ such as Yellow-browed Bunting, Philadelphia Vireo, Common Yellowthroat, etc.
Conversely, it is easy for a Scilly novice to make a faux pas as they stroll around the leafy lanes and enchanted forest-like trails. Most do not realise that a Yellowhammer, Green Woodpecker or Long-tailed Tit would cause a mass stampede of local birdwatchers to see such island ‘megas’ and only mention them a few days later in passing. Other such sought after species include Bullfinch, Corn Bunting, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Rook, Coal Tit, Treecreeper and Nuthatch to name but a few. By far the commonest woodpecker species is Wryneck!
I remember a few years ago when the resident birdwatchers urgently hired a boat to take them to St. Martins where a Magpie had been found; the first for thirty years. Scilly really is a very strange place!
It’s quiet. Too quiet…
Once on the islands, flushed with enthusiasm, you will no doubt feel the need to ask the obligatory birdwatcher’s question of anyone you meet: “Anything about?” Depending on whom you encounter, you will at some point be greeted with: “It’s very quiet”.
Pay no attention to these people! Scilly is populated by a curmudgeonly bunch of old timers (and yes I include myself in this category) that seem to measure quietness by the number of Firsts-For-Britain on show at any one time. Further probing of these glass-half-empty types might reveal ‘just another’ Blackpoll Warbler on The Garrison, the seemingly annual Wilson’s Snipe on Lower Moors and a whole host of Little Buntings, Blyth’s Reed Warblers, American Golden Plovers, Short-toed Larks, Red-breasted Flycatchers, Spoonbills, Yellow-browed Warblers, Richard’s Pipits, etc.
A degree of torture may be needed to even draw a mention of such beauties as Red-backed Shrikes, Firecrests, Black Redstarts, Wrynecks and Jack Snipes or such drab scarcities as Rose-coloured Starlings, Common Rosefinches or Serins from these people such is the disdain in which these species are held amongst some birdwatchers.
And Lapland Buntings, Snow Buntings, Dotterel, etc. do not even trouble the radar of these Grumpies. I was once watching a Kestrel master a howling gale on a grassy bank below the airfield, admiring the way in which it hung in the air, head perfectly still against a force seven gale while I, fifteen stones of solid, immovable fat, was being buffeted off the coastal path when I was approached by a birdwatcher who enquired what I was looking at. When I pointed to the Kestrel hovering ten feet above his head he emitted an audible, disgusted “tut” and walked on. Well they do say beauty is in the eye of the beholder…
Fieldcraft and ettiquette
At some point, the Scilly virgin will be confronted by a melee of birdwatchers crammed into a tiny space trying to see the latest avian arrival like a pack of Paparazzi photographers around the newest Z-list ‘celeb’. This can be daunting but there a few survival tips to bear in mind to help you through.
Once news of a rare or scarce bird breaks there is always a dash to see it. On the whole, autumn birds tend to stick around on Scilly for a couple of days at least so you may choose to hang back a bit and let the crowds subside before you go and see the target species. Again, this ploy has its drawbacks: more eyes on site help to relocate a bird should it decide to move. If you are first on the scene the following day, you may not be able to find it on your own. If you like this sort of challenge, all well and good but it can be frustrating especially if it is a ‘lifer’ for you!
A good illustration of this came one October when I was leading a group. An Olive-backed Pipit was found on St. Agnes early one morning and several boatloads of birders headed out to see it. My group had a pleasant morning on the main island before catching a later boat to see the pipit. By all accounts, it was mayhem in the morning as people jostled to see the OBP: a good bird but certainly not in the top bracket of Scilly rarities by any stretch of the imagination.
When we arrived, there were less than ten people admiring the bird at close range without a hint of pushing and shoving. Of course, my tactic could have gone horribly wrong if the OBP had suddenly vanished but we were rewarded with unobstructed views of this subtly beautiful species and were thus close by when a Bobolink was found a few hundred yards away. Sometimes, fortune favours the slow!
After a short while, you will get to know the people to stand near when a bird is being looked for. Some birders seem to see the bird well and quickly whereas others always struggle and sometimes dip out altogether. I cannot mention names but you will soon learn who to follow and who to avoid.
If you do see the bird well, then please allow others to take your place at your viewing spot. There is nothing more annoying than hearing the same voice giving directions to a bird over and over again over the space of an hour when people around them cannot see: yes we know you can see it, and have seen it several times, now please move so someone else can have a chance!
After a frantic day’s marathon attempting to see all of the new arrivals, whether it be your seventh Yellow-browed Warbler of the week or a coronary-inducing Upcher’s Warbler on St. Martin’s, or a slow day informing everyone who will listen that it is painfully quiet, it is the tradition to round off the day’s entertainment in the local pub at The Bird Log.
With pint in hand, birders gather to find out what has been seen, what might have been seen or glean a bit of birding gossip. Amongst other birdwatching wares such as holidays, videos, radios and books there is also a chance to purchase the latest photographs of some of the birds you have seen on your trip.
If there are one or two ‘megas’ on the islands, the atmosphere at the log can be electric. There is almost as big a crush at the photographers’ table as at the twitch itself, everyone eager to see how well the snappers have captured the momentous bird for posterity. The Master of Ceremonies shouts out each species and people shout back how many they have seen, e.g. “fifty seven Gadwalls on Tresco” if it has been a slow day. The trick is to let everyone have their say then trump the highest total just as the announcer is about to move to the next species (“actually there were fifty nine Gadwalls on Tresco”).
Scilly virgins can make a fool of themselves at this point if they aren’t careful. Do not claim six hundred Cormorants off Deep Point: Cormorants are relatively scarce on the islands so you are seeing Shags. I have also mentioned some species that are rare on Scilly but very common on the mainland so be prepared for a disbelieving gasp when you casually mention you saw a Corn Bunting in the morning, especially if you haven’t mentioned it to anyone since!
The log is an essential tool to plan your activities for the following day. You may wish to follow up on the rumour of that Hermit Thrush on Gugh or you may choose to head in completely in the opposite direction to avoid the bulk of birdwatchers. You will also be helping to add to the data of the birds on the islands: your records, even of the most common species, really do count and you can see this in the excellent Annual Report published by The Isles of Scilly Bird Group (ISBG).
Join the fun!
All of this may seem a little daunting to newcomers. Some people hate the Scilly Season while others wouldn’t dream of missing a year (I am in the latter category). It really isn’t anything to be anxious about. Every new birder is welcome and you will strike up many a happy friendship on your annual visits. I have seen several children grow up during my time on the islands, kids I first encountered in pushchairs being wheeled around by birdwatching parents who are now going to University and still joining us, which is nice.
For people travelling to Scilly for the first time, I would strongly recommend you join a guided group (see Who Goes There? Section). The experienced leaders will guide you through your first visit helping you to get to know the ropes. In this way, you will be able to tell if this is the sort of holiday you enjoy or it isn’t. You may choose to come back on your own after one or two years, once you feel comfortable amongst more experienced birdwatchers. Of course, I have to declare a vested interest in this strategy but it really does make sense for the first time visitor.