Monday 1 November 2021

Scilly Isles - October 2021

It's always a pleasure to go to the Scilly Isles and this year was no exception. As an oasis of peace and tranquillity from the bustle of the Southeast, the Isles of Scilly are ideal. The islands are quiet with very little traffic. (you are not allowed to take your own car). Whilst it is true that small aircraft come and go now and again, the general feel of the place is of peace and relaxation. 

There is also very little light pollution so after dark it is easy to see many more stars in the sky than in the South East of England. 

2021 is the 4th consecutive year that four of us have travelled for the autumn migration. We go there because birds from other parts of the northern hemisphere sometimes appear. There can be several reasons for this but generally it works like this: 

1   In the autumn many birds migrate, generally from the North to the South. They are on the move. 

2   Now if there happens to be a major storm, they may get blown off course.

3   They may be blown over the Atlantic. That's quite a long way, they will probably be exhausted and they take every possible opportunity to land. The Isles of Scilly are about 50 km West of Land's End. Just the sort of land that some exhausted birds will be looking for. 

Now, it follows that you really need a big storm to blow all the birds around in order to find some interesting vagrants. Unfortunately, there was no big storm prior to our visit this year so the number of unusual birds was definitely down. Sigh! You can't have everything. On the other hand, the weather was fabulous with sunshine every day for the whole week. Anyway, here are some of the birds that we saw, including some that are quite common and which most people will have seen or heard of. 

These are some of the waders we saw:
Curlew - the wader with probably the longest bill of all. 

Bar-tailed Godwit - another wader with along bill.

Black-tailed Godwit - similar to the Bar-tailed but the tail is black instead of barred. This is seen best when it is in flight and the tail is exposed.

Water Rail - a very shy bird. It spends most of the time in the reeds out of sight.

Sanderling - a small wader that races along in the tideline probing the sand and mud for small creatures.

Common Snipe - not as shy as the Water Rail, but so well camouflaged that it can easily be missed.

Jack Snipe - smaller than the common Snipe and rarer. While feeding, it bobs up and down all the time.

These are birds which migrate in Autumn, generally to Africa:

Snow Bunting - actually a winter visitor here from Scandinavia. so not going to Africa.

Pied Flycatcher - rather uncommon. Likes large dense forests to Breed.

Black Redstart - a lovely redstart which flicks its tail often while perched or on the ground.

Willow Warbler - a summer visitor with a lovely descending song.

Northern Wheatear - another summer visitor which breeds in high places in the North.


Some common and generally resident birds:

Blackbird - a nice male on some Hawthorn berries

Lesser Black-backed Gull - the bright yellow legs and mid-grey back are the features to watch for. The head is pure white in summer.

Moorhen - a common bird almost everywhere there is water. This is a juvenile. Adults have a lovely red and yellow bill.

Red-legged Partridge - an imported game bird but I like them.

Meadow Pipit - a common bird of meadows and here on the coast.

Robin - needs no introduction. 

Siskin - an attractive finch with much lemon.

Stonechat - a resident bird in most of the country. Likes to perch on the top of bushes and tall grasses.


One or two raptors which I managed to photograph:

Sparrowhawk- likes to dive into gardens while smaller birds are on the feeders.

Merlin - our smallest raptor, Not often seen. Very fast and manoeuvrable. Often chases swallows and other birds in flight.

We did see some rare vagrants as well. Here are the ones I photographed:

Serin - a small yellow finch. It really stood out from all the other small birds.

Red-backed Shrike - Extinct as a breeding bird in the UK, but is often seen on migration. Catches insects and small mammals and stores them impaled on barbed wires.

Red-rumped Swallow - Generally found in Southern Europe but resident in tropical Africa and Asia. Doesn't have much of a red rump in this photo.

Now, the up side of the dearth of rare birds was the glorious weather. Here is a typical scene of a palm tree and blue sea!

St Mary's in October looks like the Caribbean!

One day, we hired a four-seater electric golf buggy to get around St Mary's. With a top speed of 15mph, it was great fun. We were able to move around sites quickly and looking very superior as we passed other birdwatchers! this is what we had:

Now, I wouldn't want you to think we did nothing but look for birds! No, we had coffee at the Star Castle Hotel, had meals out some evenings and indulged in three cream teas! Sometimes we played on a swing. The others said I just never grew up, I don't know why. 
Warning! This video (by Magnus Andersson) contains scenes of unbridled fun!

As the weather was so good, the ferry crossings on the Scillonian III were very calm too.

My total bird count was about 99 for the week.

Saturday 18 September 2021

Glossy Ibis shines at Emsworth

While we were staying near Chichester, news came in of a Glossy Ibis that had been around for a few days. In 15 minutes I was there. Two other photographers were on the bird, which was slowly making its way up a water channel towards us.

Glossy Ibis. The bird in the foreground is a Greenshank

There were a number of dogs off the lead and someone talking very loudly nearby. Shortly after I took this photo, it took fright and flew off. This photo shows the iridescent green in the wings.

Showing the iridescence in the plumage

I was happy to get the photos I did.

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Drama on Falmouth Pelagic

I spent the bank holiday weekend away in Cornwall. I travelled down with David, Magnus and Paul. We stopped in South Devon on the way to look for Cirl Buntings and got lucky in Labrador Bay RSPB. Cirl Buntings breed only in South Devon and they can normally be seen no-where else in the UK, though they have recently also been re-introduced into Cornwall.


Cirl Bunting

We continued on to Cornwall, watching a few more birds at Stithians Reservoir, where the highlights were a Little Stint and a Wood Sandpiper. A Little Stint is a tiny wader.

Wood Sandpiper - L, and Little Stint - R

We stayed the night in Camborne.  On Sunday after breakfast, we made our way to Falmouth Marina for the pelagic with AK Wildlife Cruises. What’s a ‘pelagic’ I hear some of you ask?

Pelagic – adjective, pəˈlædʒɪk,  (technology) connected with, or living in, the parts of the ocean that are far from land.

So, for birdwatchers, a pelagic is a boat trip out to sea to find pelagic birds, i.e. those which spend all of their time at sea and never come ashore except to breed.

Now, the pelagic didn't start well. The skipper, Keith, had forgotten the chum in his freezer. Chum is quite important on a pelagic. It's a foul-smelling mixture of mashed up fish but is nectar to sea birds and attracts them like bees round a honey pot.  Keith was very experienced, knew the waters around Falmouth like the back of his hand, and assured us that the lack of chum wouldn't stop us seeing the birds we wanted to see. He knew the signs, he explained, of where the fish would be, based on the activity of gannets far off. Fish attract seabirds.

On the boat of AK Wildlife Cruises

Paul - L, and me on the bow of the boat.

The section of water from the harbour to the open sea is always a bit quiet. When we reached the open sea Keith, true to his word, spotted the signs of a ‘build up’. We raced towards it and found a raft of shearwaters and other birds sitting on the sea. Most were Manx Shearwater, a common pelagic species, but there were also half a dozen Sooty Shearwaters which are larger and not so common. A good start for Keith then!

All Manx Shearwaters except the one indicated.
Manx Shearwater - L, Sooty Shearwater - R
Sooty Shearwater. Unusual and imposing!

There were also one or two Balearic Shearwaters. Also uncommon and shy!

Balearic Shearwater. Not that common so nice to see.

The weather was mainly overcast but there was very little wind. The sea was like a millpond. I was very happy about this as I had not wanted to take a travel sickness pill. I don't normally get seasick but on pelagics the boat is often left to drift. It tends to rock uncomfortably, even if the sea is only a little rough.

As the day progressed things got better and better. Keith knew his onions as far as cetaceans were concerned and pointed out not only the pod of local Common Dolphins but also a smaller pod of about a dozen Bottlenose Dolphins which had a couple of small calves with them.

Bottlenose Dolphins with calves

Keith invited us, three at a time, to watch from the bow. I was lucky enough to be there when several dolphins delighted in swimming along with us. We were under power and travelling along but the dolphins easily kept pace with us, hardly needing to move a fin, as this video shows. Amazing!

As well as the dolphins, there were also Atlantic Bluefin Tuna present. These enormous fish sometimes jumped out of the water like dolphins. They fed on anchovy fry near the surface and where the tuna were feeding the shearwaters and other sea birds congregated to dive in and enjoy the fish bounty.


Atlantic Bluefin Tuna jumping. These huge fish reach 220-250Kg!

We also witnessed a disturbing incident which brought home the ruthless nature of life in the wild. Skuas are a family of sea birds with a reputation for being aggressive and piratical. They often harass smaller seabirds who have caught fish and force them to drop their food. The Great Skua is a large powerful bird. We came across one attacking a Herring Gull. Most of you will be familiar with Herring Gulls and will know that they are not small birds. Here is how the story progressed.

Great Skua, commonly known as a Bonxie

When we approached, the Great Skua (AKA Bonxie) was attacking the Herring Gull and was clearly winning!

At our approach the Bonxie flew off.

The poor Herring Gull took the opportunity to make a run for it. However, it had been severely weakened in the attack.

When we were a safe distance away again, the Bonxie moved in for the kill! The gull looks terrified!

Shortly afterwards, the Herring Gull was dead!


Before witnessing this incident, I had never thought that a Bonxie would attack such a large prey. We live and learn!


As well as shearwaters, other pelagic birds include petrels, mainly European Storm Petrels and Wilson’s Storm Petrels. Petrels are rarer than Manx Shearwaters and/or are much harder to see on account of their small size. They are really tiny. They are little bigger than a sparrow, weigh only 25-30g, yet they survive at sea in all conditions.  The first time one was spotted I just couldn’t get on it (i.e. manage to see it, usually with binoculars). The same happened with the second sighting, and the third. I was beginning to get desperate! Only on the fourth sighting was I able to see it and take photos. Here is my rather weak effort at a photo. Not only are they tiny and hard to see, they are also difficult to photograph.

European Storm Petrels

In true Blue Peter fashion, here is one I prepared earlier, from another pelagic from the Isles of Scilly in 2009.

European Storm Petrel

Later, we came across a small number of European Storm Petrels just sitting on the sea. I had not seen this behaviour before.

European Storm Petrels. Tiny, cute and weighing only 25-30g!

Later still, we came across two Arctic Skuas - yes, the pirates! Arctic Skuas come in two colours (or morphs). We had one of each. When we got too close, they flew off and attacked a small flock of Kittiwakes.

Arctic Skuas. Dark morph is on the left and the pale morph on the right. They are robbers!!

Arctic Skua - Dark morph

The missing chum may have brought the diminutive Petrels a little closer to the boat if they had been tempted in by it. We may have seen them closer, or we may have seen Wilson’s Storm Petrel too. Who knows? At all events, it was a very enjoyable pelagic.

The following day we came home via Kynance Cove on the Lizard peninsula. Highlight of our walk was a Red-billed Chough. 

(Red-billed) Chough. Rare outside of the far West of Cornwall and some areas in the West of Wales!

Before leaving for home, we also enjoyed a Cornish cream tea, jam first of course!