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Bed & Breakfast Isles of Scilly

Birdwatching

wren on agnes smaller

Local expert ornithologist Will Wagstaff of Island Wildlife Tours gives us the lowdown on birdlife in a yearly summary...

"The islands are best known for the wide array of vagrant birds that reach Scilly during the autumn months, particularly during the peak month of October. This is not the whole story, as there are plenty of birds to see throughout the year with a chance of something unusual in any month.The majority of birdwatchers who visit Scilly are not the rarity hunters of October but those who have come to enjoy what birds are here on these beautiful islands. It cannot be denied that the discovery of something unusual is a thrill, but for many it is the very tame resident birds in superb surroundings that make birdwatching on the islands such a pleasure.

 

In general woodland species are rare on Scilly so birds such as Bullfinch, Treecreeper or Coal Tit for example, are much rarer than some of the waifs we see blown across the Atlantic every year even thought they only have to fly twenty eight miles or so. At the start of the year a walk though the more sheltered parts of the islands may find the wintering Chiffchaffs that will sometimes sing on sunny days. Slightly more elusive is our smallest bird, the Goldcrest, which although only a quarter of an inch smaller than the Wren is a rather quiet bird. The same cannot be said of the Wren, which as our commonest bird seems to be singing from every bush at the start of spring. On sunny mornings the resident Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Robins are also joining in the beginnings of the dawn chorus.

sanderlings oystercatcher tresco turnstone

The sandy beaches are good sites for the small flocks of Sanderling that scurry back and fore at the waters edge. A few of the browner Dunlins are also present but it is the loud black and white Oystercatchers with their long orange bill that catch the eye. On the more rocky shores Turnstones can be found hiding in the seaweed, suddenly becoming a blur of black and white in flight.

 

fieldfareWinter

If there are any cold snaps on the mainland during January and February we can see small influxes of Redwing and Fieldfare to the more open fields with Snipe, Woodcock, Lapwing and Golden Plover often arriving in large numbers trying to avoid the frozen ground elsewhere. During the winter months a scan between the islands on calm days will find some of the Great Northern Divers or something a little rarer such as a Long-tailed Duck or Eider.

 

 

Spring

As we move into March there are small signs that spring is not very far away with Lesser Black-backed Gulls increasing in number on their favourite roost sites and a scattering of Linnets on the open headlands. Although a few Pied Wagtails winter in Hugh Town small flocks often pass through the islands during March. It is during this month that we see the first Swallows and Sand Martins of the year and the male Wheatears start to arrive on their way north. They look very smart in their dapper grey plumage with the white rump flashing as they zip away over the open areas they frequent. Towards the end of the month Sandwich Terns can be seen feeding between the islands as they pause on the journey. If we are lucky, and we usually are, a Hoopoe or two can be seen creeping around the edge of a bulb field to the delight of the finder. These exotic species arrive every year after a spell of southerly winds in March and April but can be incredibly elusive despite being pink, black and white! guillemotAt sea Razorbills and Guillemots can be seen around the outer rocks with the former becoming increasingly common between the islands. Once we reach April the dawn chorus is in full swing with some of the newly arrived migrant warblers such as Willow Warblers and Blackcap adding their voices to the melody. Large numbers of waders pass through the islands at this time of year so it is not unusual to hear the tittering cry of a Whimbrel as they pass over in the night or to find small flocks of them feeding along the shore or in an open field. Some of these waders are now showing signs of their summer plumage so that we now see Turnstones with white heads and tortoiseshell feathers on the mantle or Sanderlings with brick red heads and breasts for example, particularly later in the month. It is at this time that Shags and Cormorants are easier to identify as the Shags have a small ‘quiff' on the top of their heads for a few months in spring- a feature lacking in the much scarcer Cormorant. Swallows can arrive in large numbers with House and Sand Martins often mixed in the same flocks. Common Terns will join the Sandwich Terns in late April and will hopefully start to breed but of all our seabirds it is the Puffins that attract most attention as they congregate around their strongholds in the Western and Northern Rocks. Some of the more unusual birds that been seen at this time of year have included Purple Heron, Short-toed Lark and Red-rumped Swallow, all from southern Europe.

common tern sandwich tern puffin with fish

 

Summer

As the month moves from April to May we see a greater variety a birds with Swifts being noted for the first time and a scattering of Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, Whinchat and Common Redstart adding a touch of colour. At sea the last of the seasons Great Northern Divers are often found to the south of Samson where the gull colonies are now in full swing. The first of this year's young birds appear in the fields and gardens during May with Blackbird and Thrush chicks seeming to be begging for food at every turn. One of the most exotic birds of the month is the Golden Oriole that reaches Scilly every year at this time. The black and yellow males are often located when singing early in the morning when their mellifluous whistling song really catches ones attention. Another popular scarce species to arrive in May is the attractive black and white Woodchat Shrike whose chestnut head often seems to glow in the sun. Despite that they are still hard to locate and many more probably reach the islands than we know about. May is one of Scilly's better rarity months with European species such as Black Kite, Little Bittern, Black-winged Stilt and Great Reed Warbler all being recorded in recent years. swallow singingThe last signs of any mass migration are usually over by early June although we can see large numbers of Swallows and Swifts in some years. There is always the chance of some rare vagrant such as the Black-eared Wheatear that was on St Agnes a few years ago. The seabirds are now at their busiest, so whether it is the noisy Kittiwakes on their breeding ledges or the whirring wings of the Razorbills, Guillemots and Puffins as they fly low to the sea, there is always something happening. The beaches are now at their quietest as the Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers are the only species to breed so any other species present will be quiet non breeders. More youngsters are fledging all the time and yet some species such as the Stonechats are now on their second brood so the males are singing again as they try to maintain their territories. The early nesting birds such as Cormorant or our one pair of Raven can be seen with the young but for the slower breeding species such as Peregrine or Fulmar there is still a long way to go before we see their offspring.

 

curlew trescoBy early July there are already some signs of the autumn to come as more Grey Herons arrive to spend a few months on Scilly around the shores at low tide before moving to the rocks or pools to roost during high water. A similar pattern is followed by the Curlew as they can gather in flocks of thirty or more by late July.This is also the month we see the last of the auks for the year with Razorbill and Guillemot heading out to sea in mid month with the final Puffins seen in the last week of July. On the land the last of the young birds leave the nest although they may well spend the next few weeks following their parents about begging for food. Once the young have become self sufficient the adults then moult so as to have their new feathers ready for the rigours of the winter. Many of the songbirds now fall quiet as they have no need to sing once the breeding season has finished and when moulting they are not quite as agile and as such do not want to draw too much attention to themselves. Some ducks such as Mallard take this to an extreme by becoming very drab and dowdy whilst all the Shelduck leave Scilly to moult away from the islands only returning in early November with a fresh set of feathers. As August gets underway migrants begin to appear with waders such as Common and Green Sandpipers on the freshwater pools and Turnstone, Sanderling and more Ringed Plovers on the beaches around the islands. On the land Wheatears in their browner non-breeding plumage can be found on the outer headlands, still flashing their white rump as they flit away over the open heather slopes. At sea small numbers of the rarer seabirds can be found from some of the pelagic trips. These usually include large numbers of Storm Petrels which although breeding on some of the uninhabited islands are never easy to see from land. With these will hopefully be a handful of the much rarer Wilson's Petrels away from their Antarctic breeding grounds for a few months. Manx Shearwaters can be seen closer to the islands but out at sea there is the chance of Balearic, Cory's and Great Shearwaters if the weather conditions are suitable.

 

l egret t channelGrey Herons and Little Egrets can be seen feeding between the islands in greater numbers as the month progresses. In good weather they will roost on some of the smaller rocks and islets between the islands but in windier conditions they tend to roost in the big trees close to the Great Pool on Tresco. If the wind comes from the east towards the end of August there is always a chance of something more unusual from the continent such as a Wryneck or Woodchat Shrike along with greater numbers of species such as Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, Whinchat, Common Redstart and Willow Warbler. The latter are mostly juveniles and as such are a rather smart yellow bird with a green back that stand out from the surrounding dull green foliage.

 

Autumn

If the winds continue from the east during September there may be followed by rarer species such as Icterine and Melodious Warbler or Common Rosefinch along with the chance of something much rarer such as the islands first Lesser Grey Shrike in over thirty years that spent a few days on St Mary's in September 2010. However at this time of year it is fast moving depressions that come in from the Atlantic that raise many birdwatchers expectations as Scilly is the best place in the country to look for and find an American bird that has been blown miles from home. Some species such as Buff-breasted or Pectoral Sandpipers can be seen most years but it is rare birds such as Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, or as happened in 2010, Wilson's Phalarope that get the pulse racing. By the time late September/early October comes around any change in wind direction can bring a new bird to the islands. Over the years it is this period that has brought most of the new birds to create the islands total of 431 species. If the weather becomes settled then very few migrants are found but if the aforementioned trans-Atlantic depressions are racing across the ocean to our shores there is every chance we will get an American species as it hits our shore and then a Siberian waif as the low pressure makes its way into the continent. There are many cases of a bird from the USA in a field next to another from northern Russia during mid October. It is therefore at this time of year that most of the birders with an interest in rare birds visit Scilly. During the late 1980s and early 1990s Scilly was very much the place to be with hundreds of birders on the islands but this has changed over the years with many fewer here at the peak periods compared to years gone by. As with all birding it is all a matter of luck that the birds will appear during ones visit but if you hit the right time there is the chance that anything can turn up.

chiffchaffEven the so called "common" birds are rare elsewhere, with birds such as Red-breasted Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Warbler and Firecrest reaching Scilly annually and others including Radde's Warbler, Little Bunting and Red-throated Pipit being seen most years.Towards the end of the month large numbers of Redwing and Fieldfare can reach the archipelago and in the past have occasionally brought such great rarities such as Eye-browed Thrush and Black-throated Thrush with them. More and more Chiffchaffs can be found in the sheltered fields and sallows and it is with these that one of the gems of the autumn, the Pallas's Warbler can sometimes be seen. This tiny, Goldcrest, sized warbler is a favourite with many visiting birdwatchers. As the holiday season comes to an end the birds will hopefully keep coming with Snipe and Woodcock arriving as the first frosts hit the mainland. Larger numbers of ducks can be seen on the ponds including Wigeon, Tufted Duck and Pochard with the chance of a Goldeneye or Greater Scaup. It is not too late for a major rarity with species such as Masked Shrike from the east or Hermit Thrush from the west being found in early November.

 

lapwing flight golf courseOn the sea Great Northern Divers are now more frequently seen between the islands with a Black-throated Diver or two not unusual.  The shallows near Higher Town, St Martins are the favoured winter hang out of a small group of Slavonian Grebe and the occasional Eider, Red-breasted Merganser or Common Scoter has also been seen in this area. Colder weather on the mainland towards the end of the year will bring more of the winter thrushes, flocks of Golden Plover and Lapwing and small groups of Meadow Pipit. Various predators are more easily seen at this time with the Peregrine Falcons a regular sight hanging in the wind over the edge of Hugh Town. The sudden appearance of a flock of Starlings wheeling around the sky is often the first indication that a Merlin or Sparrowhawk is about, although seeing them is not always easy as they zoom low over the fields. Sanderling, Turnstones and Ringed Plovers join the ever noisy Oystercatchers on the more open beaches with the chance of finding the more elusive Purple Sandpiper on the more rocky shores. At the top of the tideline Stonechats, Pied Wagtails and Starlings join the resident Rock Pipits looking for food and if we get any late Swallows they are often found flying up and down low over the strand on the more sheltered shores. A dull grey bird on a sheltered beach that shows a flash of red in its tail as it lands will be a Black Redstart. One or two will winter in some of the more protected beaches, especially around Hugh Town. Even in December there can be a surprise or two. In recent years we have seen a scattering of Glaucous or Iceland Gulls from the north or an Avocet away from their wintering grounds on the south coast.

peregrine falcon merlin glaucous gull at old town

In one short article it is impossible to cover all that can appear during the year but suffice to say whatever the time of year there is plenty of birdlife to see on Scilly." by Will Wagstaff

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