Friday, October 03, 2014

Scilly Isles 2014: Hungry for more

Packed an ready to go

Penarth Boy, and now Scilly Isles supremo, Will Wagstaff is on the record as having said that birding on the Scillies is “either feast or famine”.  Having ‘dined out’ twice before on the birding cuisine the islands has to offer and having had our appetite well and truly satisfied on both occasions, it was with great anticipation that Gethin and I (accompanied by Mrs JJ) returned to Scilly for another helping between 23rd and 30th August this year. On the menu was a delicious combination of Surf ‘n’ Turf – a couple of pelagics for some seabirds, accompanied by the prospect of juicy morsels on land in the form of some ornithological waifs and strays.

Scanning Hayle Estuary at high tide

Hors d'oeuvres
Before setting out on The Scillonian, we chose to stay a couple of nights in Penzance and squeeze in a little birding locally at RSPB Hayle Estuary. On a sweltering hot day there were already signs of some return wader passage. We quickly ticked off:  Ruff (3); Whimbrel (1); Greenshank (3) and a Common Sandpiper. There were also plenty of Curlew, about half a dozen Redshank and, in amongst them, were a good number of Teal, a pair of Wigeon, Little Egret (6) and a Mediterranean Gull.  

Don't be fooled - the sea got a lot rougher.

Main course
We found last year’s birding on the islands a little bit nouvelle cuisine: the portions were small, but very tasty – an Icterine Warbler and a couple of Citrine Wagtails being the two tastiest dishes. This year’s island fare was sadly a bit WeightWatchers: nothing to get excited about. Gethin and I spent a lot of time grilling legendary hotspots such as Porth Hellick, Lower Moors, The Garrison, Holy Vale etc as well as venturing over to Tresco, Bryher and St Agnes. That vital ingredient – the wind – was blowing (very lightly) from the wrong direction so it was the usual blend of migrants we encountered: Wheatear, Blackcap, Chiffs, Sedge Warbler, Yellow Wagtail, hirundines etc. The various pools served up some Snipe, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit, Green Sandpiper, Greenshank and Redshank, while the beaches had Ringed Plover, Turnstone and Sanderling.

Great Shearwater from the Sapphire (Photo: Joe Pender)

If birding on the islands was a little bit slimline, then both pelagics we went on had the same calorific value as a deep fried Mars bar. If you’re birding between July > August on the Scilly Isles you must book on to a Scilly Pelagics trip, led by Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher aboard the Sapphire, skippered by Joe Pender. Joe's a great photographer and I recommend you have a look at his blog. The knowledge these guys have of seabirds is just awesome. They are the Michelin star chefs of pelagics!

The winds may have been light when we were there but the swell on the sea was heavy during both our trips. Dosed up on Stugeron, nothing was going to affect Gethin and my appetite for petrels and shearwaters. But, one poor dab was responsible for bringing up several portions of Soup of the Day throughout an entire 5 hour trip as he undertook a little bit of extra-curricular chumming barely having left the lee of the islands. There’s nothing worse and, once we’d returned, he told me he’d never go on a boat again!

The first pelagic had healthy helpings of some very special seabirds, all of whom came in very close to the boat enabling the photographers on board to fill their boots. We had 10 Great Shearwaters, Sooty Shearwaters, Great & Arctic Skuas, dozens of Storm Petrels, a corking adult Sabine’s Gull, Common Terns and, unusually for mid-ocean,  a Peregrine tanked past!

If the first pelagic trip was a feast, then the second was a banquet. Everybody on board (apart from the poor soul with mal de mer) stuffed their faces on 48 Cory’s Shearwater, 24 Great Shearwater, a Sooty Shearwater, 300+ Storm Petrels and several Great Skuas.  An experience Gethin and I will never forget.

Interestingly, as we sat in the Sapphire ahead of our second pelagic, we witnessed a major Scilly Isles twitch which had local resident birders sprinting down to the harbour at St Marys. The bird that caused such excitement was a Little Tern – a very rare bird on the Scillies. One birder told me he’d seen more Fea’s Petrels in Scillonian waters than Little Terns!

Little Tern at St Mary's Harbour (Photo: Joe Pender)

A wafer thin mint . . . ?
On the morning of our departure from the islands Gethin and I were sitting in a café, chewing the cud and digesting the birds that the Scilly Isles had served up (as well as some coffee and a toasted teacake). We were delighted with the seabirds of course but, greedy as most birders can be, we felt that the absence of tasty birds on land meant that the holiday as a whole lacked that little bit of ‘icing on the cake’.   

The Scillonian would sail in 3 hours to take us back to the mainland. “Have one last look on BirdGuides, Geth” I said, and there it was: Western Bonelli’s Warbler showing well at Content, St Marys. Panic. Where the hell was ‘Content’?! We flew out of the café and jumped on a taxi driver half asleep in car. “Can you take us to ‘Content’ please?”

Cory's Shearwater from the Sapphire (Photo: Joe Pender) 
We arrived at ‘Content Farm’ (the fare was £5!) only to be confronted by another problem: there were no birders visible anywhere.  Only on the Scilly Isles! The bird could be anywhere. We ran around like maniacs and, just as we were about to give up, Gethin found not one, but two birders: Martin Goodey and Will Wagstaff no less. A short wait later and the Western Bonelli’s Warbler – which had the decency to give its diagnostic call a couple of times while we were there – was in the bag.  Thanks to the kindness of another Scilly birder who offered us a lift back in to Hugh Town, we made it back to The Scillionian with some time to spare (and without incurring the wrath of Mrs JJ).


Our August 2014 Scillies trip served up yet another load of fantastic birding dishes - you could say we were 'Content'! If we were to be really picky, it was a disappointment that Wilson’s Petrel, Balearic Shearwater and Fea’s Shearwater weren't on the menu on the pelagics this year – they must have run out, because all three of them had been seen from the Sapphire the week before we arrived! But it was another yet another memorable trip which I’d recommend to everyone. We’ve already booked our Scillies ‘table’ for August 2015.


Wayne said...

Why is the TM in pyjama bottoms at Hayle?

Your dining metaphor is a little bien cuit.

Dan said...

Do you think I over-egged the pudding with the culinary references?

Re: pyjamas . . . . apparently they're 'à la mode' - see, you're not the only one who can speak Italian ;-)

Phil Hill said...

Great report Dan, trouble was I was seasick just looking at the video !!

Jeff said...

What do you mean highjacking my blog !!
Great account of a smashing trip by the sound of it,could fancy it myself next year.