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Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Another Scilly Sojourn (Pt.2) - 16th to 19th March, 2018

This is the second part of my report on our visit to the Isles of Scilly in March. The first part can be found here.

Friday 16th March         Peninnis Head - Higher Moors - by Porthellick House - Porthcressa

After breakfast, I set off on the path up to Buzza Hill and then along the track called King Edward's Road to Peninnis Head. There are some pleasant views from King Edward's Road (possibly named because the mud is probably deep enough in places to plant potatoes!).

view to The Garrison from King Edward's Road
Before I got to the head, by the windmill ruin, I noticed a crow on a dry stone wall that was pulling at something. At the distance I was at, I couldn't tell whether this was animal or vegetable, but I suspect the former.

Carrion Crow  (Corvus corone) - near Peninnis Head
Just before the gate that leads on to Peninnis Head I noticed a male Stonechat on the other side of the field. Drystone walls on the Scillies tend to be a bit more makeshift and heavyweight than the refined structures found elsewhere in England!

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (male) - Peninnis Head
Passing through the 'gate' onto Peninnis Head, I found that I could get closer views of the Stonechat.


Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (male) - Peninnis Head
Suddenly a female appeared, somewhat closer than the male.


Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (female) - Peninnis Head
One of the great attractions of Peninnis Head are the wonderful rock formations. The first image shows what I believe to be Pulpit Rock, the second includes Tooth Rock, and I suspect the third also has a name but I am unaware of it!



Rocks - Peninnis Head
There being little but the Stonechats around, I headed along the path on the west side of the head, back towards base, taking a few shots of the scenery as I did so.

view from Peninnis
view to Porthcressa from near Peninnis Farm
The girls had made other plans for lunch and so, arriving back at base before mid-day, I had a quick snack and, feeling lazy, phoned Toots Taxis  to take me to the entrance to Higher Moors, near Porth Hellick House. I arrived at 12.15, and arranged for the taxi to pick me up again at 14.15.


I'd been told a Short-eared Owl had been being seen from the path to Holy Vale from this point. Never having taken this path before, I was totally unaware of the terrain it traversed. Almost immediately after taking this path, I found myself picking my way through densely spaced tree trunks in a very wet area. I persevered for a while, but could see no sign of the trees thinning out to give an area suited to a Short-eared Owl, so turned back and crossed the road to take the track which leads to the bird hides overlooking Porthhellick Pool.

I found the first hide full of Wildlife Trust workers on their lunch break. They were there to replace the boardwalk with an excellent recycled plastic version and were making a splendid job of it! I left them to it and headed to the next hide.

There were relatively few birds visible, and little to photograph, but there were a couple of 'oddball' birds which I found rather interesting. The first was what I suspect to be a melanistic Mallard drake, rather than a hybrid, as it had all the characteristics of a normal drake other than the colour, although there was a very small hint of green in the head plumage. The lower female in the first image is also a little puzzling.


possible melanistic Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) (male) - Porthhellick Pool
The other mystery, was a small duck with almost entirely black plumage which had a brilliant green sheen when the sun caught it at an angle. I'm assuming that this was either an escapee from a collection or a domestic duck of some sort.


mystery duck - Porthhellick Pool
The only other thing I photographed from the second hide was a nicely presented Moorhen.

Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) - Porthhellick Pool
I took a stroll further along the path, to the bay, but didn't find anything of interest. I did, however, stop to photograph a caterpillar (which Bob Dawson subsequently kindly identified to me as a Ruby Tiger) and a bee of an unidentified species although I think it could be Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), on my return journey.

Ruby Tiger (Phragmatobia fuliginosa) (larva) - by Porthhellick Pool
bee species - by Porthhellick Pool
I returned to the first hide, and spent some time trying to photograph a Greenshank which remained distant. The results were greatly inferior to any images of this species taken in the previous few days so will not appear here. I did, however, get a few shots of a heron on the far side of the pool.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) - Porthhellick Pool
It was fast approaching the time when I had to make my way back to the road, to rendezvous with my booked taxi, when a couple of gentlemen came into the hide and asked what was about. They then said that they'd just seen a Short-eared Owl from the road! They explained very clearly where they'd seen it and I beat a hasty retreat. 

It didn't take too long to locate the owl, but it was two fields away and too far away, and too hidden by branches to get a photo.  I took a quick decision and entered the near field, leaving plenty of distance between me and the owl, and took some shots.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - by Porth Hellick House
Due to intervening branches, I was getting soft focus and not a good view. However, by maintaining my distance of around 100 metres (measured on Google Earth) but moving up the hill, I was able to get a better line of sight.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - by Porth Hellick House
Having grabbed the shots, it was time to head back to the road. I was delighted at having achieved my first owl sighting on the Isles of Scilly.

For the rest of the afternoon, I spent time with the birds at Porthcressa.

Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) - Porthcressa


Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) - Porthcressa

Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) - Porthcressa
Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba ssp. yarrellii) (male) - Porthcressa
That night we returned to the Atlantic for a most enjoyable dinner.

Saturday 17th March                     Porthcressa

The weather had deteriorated somewhat, with a threat of rain and cold winds. I took the decision to stay close to base. Things started looking up, however, when, first thing after breakfast, I spotted a Mediterranean Gull out in the bay. Summer plumage for this species was a first for me and it stayed all day.



Mediterranean Gull (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus) (2nd summer) - Porthcressa
I'd not been seeing as many Song Thrushes on the Scillies as on my previous visits, but I did manage some shots this day. The first was taken in the garden of our base.


Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) - Porthcressa
A Shag was out in the bay, whilst a Cormorant decided to be more obliging by coming ashore.

Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) - Porthcressa
Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) - Porthcressa
The Chiffchaff put in another appearance and the Rock Pipits were ever-present.

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) - Porthcressa
Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) - Porthcressa
However, I found myself spending a significant amount of time with the Black Redstarts




Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) (female) - Porthcressa
That evening, I noticed that the Snowy Owl had been seen again that day - this time on Tresco. Furthermore, a boat (the Sea King) was scheduled to take a trip to Tresco, departing at 10h15. The slightly worrying situation was that snow was forecast to fall that night, and again in the morning.

That night we dined in.

Sunday 18th March                 Porthcressa - Tresco - Porthcressa

We awoke to a light covering of snow - things didn't look too bad! However, I found that the boat would be calling at Near Carn on Tresco as it would be low water at that time. This would add another 3 miles (5 km) to my walk up onto North End - a walk that the last part of which would be uphill over relatively rugged ground.

When I went out at 06h30, it didn't look too bad, but it soon started snowing heavily - this was taken at 06h49. 

Snowing! - Porthcressa
By 07h40 the snow had stopped and all looked rather beautiful.


Scilly Snow - Porthcressa
I now had a dilemma on my hands. I only had lightweight walking shoes with me as the weight limit on flights to the Scillies is very low - I was going to get wet feet in the snow! I was also not sure that I was up to the challenge of what, to me, would be an arduous walk. Bob Dawson emailed me to alert me to the owl and inform me that there was a boat to Tresco, and both my wife and daughter were very encouraging, so I decided to go for it, on the basis that if it turned out to be too much I could turn back and await the return boat at 15h15. It helped to know that there would be an open pub and café on Tresco.

I headed down to the harbour at an appropriate time and noted Sea King in the bay with its two-man crew on board. They were busy clearing snow in the open boat. After a while, they brought it round to the quayside - the snow was still piled up on the lower part of the windshield.

Sea King - St. Mary's Pool
When we came to board, we found the boat was full of snow, and the seats cold and wet, so I stood for the first part of the journey. It was a pleasant crossing to Tresco, and Tresco looked most inviting as we approached Carn Near Quay.

Carn Near, Tresco
On the way up the road which leads from the jetty to the Abbey Garden I got into conversation with a gentleman who looked as if he too might be going to look for the Snowy Owl. As it happened, he was a teacher on St. Mary's and here to do some research for a forthcoming school visit to some of the ancient monuments on the island, but was quite keen to tie the visit in with an attempt to find the Snowy Owl. I was quite happy to follow the lead of this gentleman (Nigel Bray) and it was agreed that we would walk together.

We took a slightly circuitous route, initially heading east and then doubling back alongside the north side of Great Pool, stopping off at the hides en route. It was good to see Sand Martin had arrived. We then made our way round New Grimsby before cutting up towards Townshill, and then towards Beacon Hill. Emerging onto higher ground, we had good views of King Charles' Castle.

King Charles' Castle, Tresco
We continued up to the castle, keeping our eyes peeled as we did so. Nigel had to take notes and photos of the information boards at the castle, and I searched the immediate surrounds. There were views down to Cromwell's Castle to the south-west.

Cromwell's Castle, Tresco - Bryher beyond
We then set off north to Gun Hill where there were some great views.

Men-a-vaur and Round Island from Gun Hill, Tresco
While I was busy admiring the scenery, Nigel spotted Wheatear and Black Redstart. Nigel seemed more interested in the Black Redstart, but the Wheatear was the treat for me.


Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) (male) - Gun Hill, Tresco
We headed eastward and were still having no luck finding the owl. Nigel needed to resume his other mission for the day, and so we said our goodbyes and Nigel set off downhill. I started photographing the wonderful scenery, and Nigel had not gone more than about 100 metres before he called out. I turned to see the unmistakable shape of a Snowy Owl fly across in front of him and settle on the ground. I took a safety shot before going to join Nigel.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1st winter female) - Tregarthen Hill, Tresco
As I slowly approached Nigel, the owl flew off and settled at a considerable distance. Sadly our view was directly into the sun, and photography was difficult.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1st winter female) - Tregarthen Hill, Tresco
We had a quick chat, and I advocated fieldcraft which I have successfully applied to photographing other owls, the main factors of which are:  (1) try and avoid eye contact with the owl, and hold the camera to your face before turning towards the owl; (2) never walk  directly towards the owl, but take a loosely spiralling path, or zig-zag path, which lets it think that you will walk past it at a distance (in the circumstances, the spiral was appropriate); (3) move quietly, slowly and steadily. In the event, this worked beautifully and we were able to walk past the owl and get some shots with better light. Here's a sequence that covers the event.






Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1st winter female) - Tregarthen Hill, Tresco
It was a version of that last shot which earned me Birdguides 'Photo Of The Week'. We'd had our fill, and were ready to walk away when the bird lazily took to the air and flew eastwards up onto the top of a ridge - it was time to depart the area.


Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1st winter female) - Tregarthen Hill, Tresco
Nigel went hurrying off to the south west while I made my way south. My target was to have a light lunch in the Ruin Beach Café on the eastern side of Tresco. On the way I took some more shots of the scenery.
 
view towards Northwethel and St. Helen's

Gimble Porth and Middle Carn, Tresco
I didn't quite find the route I intended but ended back near Townshill, so took Back Lane to Norrard and the Ruin Beach Café . Here I had an excellent smoked salmon and cream cheese ciabatta with salad and crisps. The only downside to the visit was that the price for this programmed into the till was £1 dearer than the price printed on the menu, This was, of course, rectified without quibble, but I hope that they have sorted it out now!

I took a stroll back to New Grimsby and then back to the hide on Great Pool nearest to civilisation. There was little to see, but it was good to sit down and relax. As I left the hide I took a distant shot of a drake Pintail.

Pintail (Anas acuta) (male) - with Mallard - Great Pool, Tresco
When the time came, I made my way to the New Grimsby quayside, stopping to photograph the huge snowman that was starting to suffer from the thaw that had well and truly set in, and which someone had admirably set a Lifeboat collection box beside.

Snowman - New Grimsby, Tresco
It quickly got rather cold on our run back to St. Mary's. Nigel reported that he'd been back up onto North End later in the day and the owl was still on the same ridge.

Back at base I went to the sea wall to have a last look at the Porthcressa birds. A Mediterranean Gull was still there.

Mediterranean Gull (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus) - Porthcressa
Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) - Porthcressa
Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) (female) - Porthcressa
That night we had a hearty meal at The Scillonian club. It had been a fabulous day and an exciting ending to our stay on the Isles of Scilly.


Monday 19th March            the journey home

After breakfast and packing, the minibus came at 09h10 to take us to the airport. We arrived at the check-in desk to be informed that no flights were able to reach St. Mary's because of snow and ice on the mainland. Passengers for the two or three flights before ours were all waiting in the 'lounge' (for want of a better term) in cold draughty conditions. The staff were, however, hopeful that things would get moving soon. 

Two or three people decided that they'd already missed their prime reason for going to the mainland and were either reallocated to a flight the next day or (possibly) given a refund. People on an earlier flight than ours were given refreshment vouchers for the café after two hours delay. Eventually it was announced that a plane was on its way from the mainland. We must have been very lucky as the three of us were called to check-in to be on the first flight out - I don't think any of the others waiting were so lucky!

We were just under the two hours late when we took off for Lands End. There was no wait for baggage and we were in our car within five minutes of landing.

In spite of major road closures through snow earlier in the day, all roads were clear by the time we reached them, and it was an uneventful drive home.

Conclusion

For me it was by far the most exciting of my visits to the Isles of Scilly, and the girls had a great time too. The weather was, technically, the worst we have experienced there, but the results for me were probably enhanced by the weather (definitely in one case!). Whilst, most of the time, I went off on my own, the girls had a great time together and the arrangements worked extremely well. I am, therefore, very grateful that friends Lynne and Roger gave up this week and we were able to take advantage of the vacancy.

I would like to thank the management of Beeches for an excellent stay at their property. My grateful thanks also go out to the wildlife/bird enthusiasts that I met there - Bob Dawson, Ren Hathway, Nigel Bray, and the gentleman that showed me round Shipman Head, Bryher (sorry, I didn't note your name, but please get in touch if you read this) - you were all key to the enheightened enjoyment of my stay.

I must make mention of a very special little girl on Bryher - Martha Eggins of Hillside Farm! This wonderful young lady has designed the most delightful fridge magnets which she sells in aid of the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust (she raised £380 for them in 2017!). Sadly, I became aware of this the day after I visited Bryher. I was, therefore, extremely grateful to receive a fridge magnet from Martha in the post to my home (together with a wonderful card that she'd written herself) in return for a donation. If you get the opportunity, please buy one of Martha's fridge magnets - and give generously!

The week gave me what will probably remain the lifetime highlight of my bird photography - Snowy Owl - in snow - on The Scillies - WOW, WOW, WOW!!! More on that subject here

Thank you for dropping by. Possibly more snow, but closer to home, will feature in my next blog post.