A week on the Isles of Scilly in October 1993 with Alastair Stevenson was not my debut visit to the magic islands, but it was the first time in my then fledgling twitching career that I had experienced the Scilly scene at its height. It was, then, to all intents and purposes ‘my first Scilly’. We picked a good week!
We arrived on the Scillonian, full of anticipation, quickly dumped our bags at our accommodation, and headed out into the field. Our first target was the Eye-browed Thrush which had already been present for a couple of days at Rocky Hills. Pretty much instantly we had great views of it in with a flock of Redwings in a roadside field below the chalets (and how glad I have been over the years that I saw that bird – it has been a much trickier species to catch up with in the last couple of decades). Then it was on to Telegraph and the long-staying Upland Sandpiper – another tick. A little bit more of a hike down to Old Town and past Tolman Café, seeing a Melodious Warbler at Porth Minnick on the way round to the airfield and my first Richard’s Pipit. An afternoon of entirely shameless twitching by a couple of low-listing tyros, and not exactly a bad little intro.
Early morning birding round Hugh Town produced a Lapland Bunting and a Firecrest. More significantly, today was the day of my first-ever visit to St Agnes, and it did not disappoint – it has been my favourite of the islands ever since. No major rarities today, but Alastair’s and my tart’s tickfest continued with good views of a juvenile Rose-coloured Starling and our first Yellow-browed Warbler, with a back-up cast of commoner migrants including another Firecrest. And then there were the views, of course – there can be few finer places in the world to be than the beer garden of the Turk’s Head on a sunny day with a pint and a crab roll after a good session’s birding.
We decided to stay on Mary’s today, and the day started with a Short-toed Lark on the airfield, then a bit of head-scratching over a particularly grotty-looking juvenile Long-tailed Duck at Porth Hellick. There had been an arrival of Ring Ouzels overnight, and we saw five during the day. In the afternoon we hurried back out over to the Carn Friars side of Porth Hellick to look for a Rustic Bunting that was frequenting a small pine tree. While looking for it I turned round in time to find a Wryneck flying across the field behind.
Then news broke of a Hermit Thrush on Tresco. We made the usual beginner error of assuming one tick was as good as any other, and stuck with looking for the Rustic for a while. Thankfully it showed soon after, so we then wised up and dashed to the quay for a boat to Tresco. We dipped that evening, but so did most people. It was our first experience of a big Scilly twitch – there were something like 600–700 birders on the islands that week, and probably more than half of them were on Tresco that evening. There were a few brief sightings, with a large crowd dashing after each one, and only a very few at the front connecting each time. As the light began to fade we admitted defeat and headed to the boats.
Along with many others, we were back over to Tresco on an early boat this morning, but there was no sign of the Hermit. Plenty left and headed back to Mary’s, but we stuck it out. And so it happened that we were standing with a group of birders up by the old tip when a CB crackled into life: ‘Birders on Tresco, what are you looking at?’ We hadn’t a clue what it was or even where at that stage, but legged it round the corner to find a group of birders down on Pool Road with scopes trained upwards on to Vane Hill off to our right, with more arriving all the time. The next CB message was a yell: ‘Grosbeak on Tresco, grosbeak on Tresco!’
We all pelted down the track, underneath the bird, to join the gathering crowd and enjoy great scope views of a first-winter male Rose-breasted Grosbeak perched up on the bracken-covered hillside, quietly munching its way through blackberries. A loud murmur of appreciation went through the crowd as it overbalanced, then steadied itself, showing off those scarlet underwing coverts. Then I was treated to my first sight of a whole boatload of birders running from the quay, desperate to see the bird – among them I recognised several who had been on the island only a couple of hours before, and who had just settled into an afternoon’s birding on Mary’s before being rudely ‘yanked’ back to Tresco.
The other tick of the day was a Red-breasted Flycatcher showing well by the Abbey Gardens – a lovely little thing. Ironically that was a world tick for me but the grosbeak wasn’t. Among another good spread of commoner migrants, other highlights today on Tresco included Whooper Swan, Yellow-browed Warbler, Firecrest, and another smart male Ring Ouzel. We finished the day off back on Mary’s with a little group of 6 Snow Buntings on the airfield.
A bit more Scilly madness today. An enjoyable morning on Aggie included a Barred Warbler in the Chapel Fields (a tick for me but not for Al), Wryneck, and Glaucous Gull. Then came the CB message: ‘Black-throated Thrush on Martin’s’. It was still a seriously rare bird back then, needed by plenty of keen listers.
We jumped on a boat straight there from Aggie, and joined the scrum of birders who’d got over from Mary’s. The bird was in among a decent Redwing flock (which also included yet another Ring Ouzel), but one of the photographers had reportedly got too close to the bird and flushed it (yes, it was occasionally an issue back then too), and he was getting dog’s abuse over the CB. Luckily for all (not least him) it soon came back and everyone got decent scope views. But it was also the afternoon of the annual Birders v Islanders football match, and the kickoff had to be delayed, amid frantic CB messages asking everyone on the Birders team who had seen the thrush to head back to Mary’s!
Late afternoon up round the Four Lanes area, we found a Hobby. Only Al and I saw it. Great – a first-timer on the Scilly scene and I had to shout a brief mid-October Hobby at the log. Some of the looks I got when I did were straight from a cartoon by H. E. Bateman, and I could hear the mutterings. Oh well, I knew what we’d seen, but it was a bit of a baptism of fire.
Again we decided to stay on Mary’s today, and were rewarded with some good birds. First was a juvenile American Golden Plover with a small group of Golden Plovers on the Giant’s Castle end of the airfield. Then a dash to Kittydown, where there was plenty of jockeying for position to finally see down the right furrow in a bulb field and get good views of our first Bluethroat. Another good day was rounded off with views of a juvenile Woodchat Shrike in fields below the airfield at Old Town.
The big news today was the Hermit Thrush being relocated on Tresco, in the area near the Monument. Birders piled over en masse. The boatmen on our boat tried their best for us, with a beach landing nearer the site rather than landing us much further away at New Grimsby. It didn’t work out so well for one unlucky birder, who tripped on the gunwale and went face first into shallow water. I think he was OK. We were too busy running to check, or to laugh. But we spent the rest of the afternoon dipping – 3 Whooper Swans and a Merlin weren’t exactly consolation.
Then, like good little birders, we, and many others, dutifully left when told that the last boat was leaving from New Grimsby. As the boat chugged past the Monument, those few that had stayed behind suddenly appeared on the ridge above us. ‘They’re waving!’, someone said. Waving, my arse: they were cheering and flicking us massive V’s, as the Hermit had just showed. Gutting!
We headed back to Tresco the next morning, desperately hoping finally to connect with the Hermit Thrush. We were off on the Scillonian that afternoon, so the pressure was on. Rows of birders, sitting, kneeling, and standing, formed at either end of the ride the bird seemed to favour. A Woodcock flying through caused several stifled cries, then suddenly a thrush shape appeared by the side of the ride. There it was! At this point the quick release on my tripod released of its own accord, dropping my scope on to the head of the guy sat in front of me. Timing! All very quickly smoothed over and we settled down to enjoy good views. Some while later Alastair and I started walking back towards New Grimsby and found four other birders quietly looking up at a bird in a tree by the path. It was the Hermit, of course, and it showed brilliantly for a couple of minutes down to less than 20 feet!
Back on St Mary’s, a Long-eared Owl had been found in the sunken garden over near Pelistry. Another tick for both of us, but we had limited time, so had to leg it. We also had to reassure a succession of bemused birders who saw us running and wondered what rarity they didn’t know about. We just had enough time to enjoy a few minutes’ worth of excellent views of the LEO before legging it back to Hugh Town and on to the Scillonian. A great end to a fantastic week.