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Saturday, 25 October 2014

A Scilly Sojourn (Pt.1) - October, 2014

We'd only been back for three days from our holiday in Dorset when I had a phone call from our good friends Roger and Lynne in Devon asking if we would like to join them in the Scilly Isles for a week. Sadly, one of the couple that they had booked to go with was rather ill, and they were not able to go. A quick investigation of the possible travel arrangements had us more than a little enthusiastic about this opportunity. We'd only ever been to the Scillies on a day trip with the kids when they were small - and at the 'kicking stones around out of boredom' stage of their lives. This would give us a whole week, and when the bird migration season was under way too!

Ferry transport between Penzance and St. Mary's was quickly booked, as was the overnight accommodation for the outward journey, and car parking for our car in Penzance (only residents' cars are allowed on the islands).  All would be plain sailing - or so we thought!

Friday 3rd October

We were out with our daughter, on our way to celebrate her birthday, when I got a text message from the car parking firm in Penzance to say that our ferry crossing had been cancelled, and asking what we wanted to do about our car park booking! It was nearly two hours later that the ferry company got in touch to tell us about the cancellation! They'd been warned about severe weather for the night of Sunday 5th and the morning of Monday 6th (we'd been booked to sail at 09.15 on 6th) and the captain of the vessel had decided that it would not be safe to sail.

We were offered a sailing on Saturday 4th or Tuesday 7th instead, or an upgrade (at our expense) to a flight from Lands End on Monday 6th. I was a little concerned that, whereas the boat had a checked luggage allowance of 25kg and a 'standard' cabin allowance, the flight only had a checked luggage allowance of 15kg, and nothing greater than the size of a book was allowed in the cabin. I was assured that, because of the circumstances, the allowance restrictions would be waived. So, £76 later, we were booked for the flight - being the option that caused the least turmoil.

Sunday 5th October

We set off in the late morning in sunshine, stopping for a late lunch at the Cleveden Craft Centre, just a couple of miles off the M5, south of Bristol. The Centre is home to Arnold Smith who is the finest craftsman in leather that I've ever met. He did a super leather picture of a Little Owl for me a few years back. My wife, Lindsay, bought a few gifts and leather-working tools (his prices are very good) and also came away with some leather scraps to practise on. We must have spent a couple of hours here, so it was late afternoon before we arrived at Hayle, where we'd booked a night in the Travelodge.

We didn't do much that evening, except go over the road to the Premier Inn for an evening meal, where we were pleasantly surprised by the food and service.

Monday 6th October

We'd originally been expecting an earlyish start this day but the change in arrangements now gave us a relaxing time. We called in at the garage shop next to the Travelodge to buy fruit, etc. for breakfast, then re-arranged our luggage so that the fragile items, such as cameras, could be in the cabin with us during the flight.

It's only about a 6 mile run to Penzance from Hayle, and I dropped off Lindsay at the train station with the bags whilst I went to leave the car at the secure compound. This gave me an opportunity to see where the sea had been crashing over the jetty and sea walls a few hours earlier! The captain had not been wrong in cancelling the sailing.

It was only a brisk 10 minute walk back to the station, where we awaited the minibus to take us to Lands End airport (included in the £76 upgrade charge). This duly arrived and we were soon at the airport check-in. 

Skybus, who fly to the Scillies, operate two types of aircraft - 8-seater 'Islanders' and 19-seater 'Twin Otters'. At check in the staff were very friendly and helpful but I was told that all my baggage had to be checked for the hold. They did, however, kindly mark my photographic rucksack with a 'fragile' label. It was novel to have one's personage weighed, as well as one's baggage!

We decided on a snack lunch at the airport whilst awaiting our flight, and watched as a Twin Otter (which was our a/c) arrived and an Islander departed.

DHC-6 De Havilland Twin Otter G-BIHO - Lands End Airport
I was one of the first to board the plane, but was preceded by a couple with a dog - the first time I've seen a dog in the cabin of an aircraft. It's also the first time for many years that I've flown with an open door between cabin and cockpit!

View to cockpit of G-BIHO
The flight was smooth, and the landing expertly executed, and we arrived in sunshine at a windy St. Mary's airport. Bags were brought round to the pavement outside the front of the building and a minibus was provided to take us into Hugh Town (the principle centre of civilisation on St. Mary's). We'd been tipped off that this would take us to the door of our accommodation, and so it did!

Roger and Lynne had arrived an hour or so beforehand from a week on the neighbouring island of Tresco, and so were there to greet us and show us around the property. It was wonderful! It was comfortable and spacious, but it's crowning glory was the aspect to the rear. A conservatory went across the whole of the rear of the house, outside of which was a patio area with garden furniture, beyond which was a small garden with pebbled area and borders with exotic plants. At the end of the garden was a chain 'fence' separating the garden from a public footpath, below which  was the beach at the centre of a sheltered, but rocky, bay.

Beaches, Little Porth - view south-west from the patio
Roger and Lynne hadn't eaten yet so Lindsay and I sat and admired the view whilst they had lunch. I was immediately excited by the presence of Stonechat and Rock Pipit in the garden, as they are both species that I don't see too often. These two species were to be constant visitors during the week.

Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) (male) - Little Porth
Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) - Little Porth
I'd volunteered to cook the evening meal that night, but the girls wanted to go and do some shopping whilst Roger and I went off to try and find some birds. Through the Scilly Birding CB network (Roger has a CB radio) we knew of a couple of possible areas to look at. 

Our first stop was in front of a garden near the hospital, where a Barred Warbler (Sylvia nisoria) was being seen on an occasional basis. Between us during the week, we made several visits to this location to try and get good views of the bird but didn't succeed in anything other than a disappearing backside, and no photos. Whilst there, friend Jim Almond arrived on the scene with the greeting of "Hello Richard. What are you doing here? There aren't any owls on the Scillies".

From there, we visited Old Town churchyard, although nothing of interest was seen, and then set off towards Peninnis Head. By Carn Lêh there were superb views, and I made a mental note to come back and try to photograph the Stonechats that were around.

Carn Lêh and Old Town Bay, St. Mary's
We were also starting to see some huge rocks which were wonderfully eroded by the wind and rain.

Weather-worn rock - Peninnis Head, St. Mary's
Up on the head, I was in for a real treat. There were a couple of Snow Buntings that were bumbling about on the path, and very confiding. I'll only show a few images here, as I was to return the following day and get better ones. I suspect that these were both first winter males - any suggestions would be appreciated.

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) (1st winter males?) - Peninnis Head, St. Mary's
A walk round the lighthouse didn't turn up any more birds, but again I was bowled over by the rocks. One of these looks like a fist, complete with thumb on the left.

Rocks - Peninnis Head, St. Mary's
The CB radio sprang into life and told us of Brambling near Buzza Tower and 1st-winter Med Gull at Little Porth. so we started heading back to base, re-checking by the hospital (which is when we had our glimpse of the Barred Warbler).

There was no sign of the Brambling, but as we approached our home we found a Med Gull flying around outside. Sadly, we'd lost the light by now, so only record shots.

Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus) (1st-winter) - Little Port, St. Mary's
My cooking that night seems to have gone down OK, as Lynne asked for the recipe.

Tuesday 7th October

The day dawned bright and sunny, although it was still rather breezy. Roger and Lynne were heading off to the north of the island to visit some favourite haunts, and Lindsay and I settled for a more leisurely day.

Roger and I were both a little hampered by not being able to get a signal on our phones. Roger said that all had been well until 2nd October when his had suddenly stopped functioning. We were both with the EE network, and a call to EE (on Lindsay's phone) confirmed that the EE mast on St. Mary's was 'down' and would be for a while. I was told that my account would be credited with £10 in compensation. It turns out that the problem was due to the mast being painted! It did not come back on line again until the afternoon of our departure. Thankfully, the WiFi at the property was functioning - if painfully slowly!

All four of us set off on the (twice-daily at this time of year) community bus, Lindsay and I getting off by Carreg Dhu Gardens, and Roger and Lynne continuing northwards. Carreg Dhu Gardens are beautifully maintained by the community, and entrance is free to all . The gardens are a bit of a birding hot-spot and, at this time, there were reported sightings of Firecrest (Regulus ignicapillus). I did manage a brief, but clear, sighting, but didn't manage a photo.

From the gardens, we wandered back into Old Town, stopping at a couple of artists studios/galleries en-route. After a good lunch at the Old Town Cafe, I set off for Lower Moors whilst Lindsay had a wander on the beach. There was talk of a Jack Snipe from the first hide at Lower Moors and I was keen to try and get some images of what would be a 'life bird' for me.

I arrived to find that the Jack Snipe was just about visible, and a lone Greenshank was in full view. At first I thought the Greenshank only had one leg, as only one was visible and, even when moving around it was hopping on one leg. Later, it put down a second leg!

Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) - Lower Moors, St. Mary's
Eventually, the Jack Snipe woke up and did show a little better, and I did get a record shot before I had to return to the beach to collect Lindsay.

Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus) - Lower Moors, St. Mary's
At Old Town we chatted to someone that had come in on the morning boat. Apparently it had been an extremely rough crossing, with one of the passengers having to be hospitalised. We were extremely thankful that the boat hadn't sailed the previous day!

Lindsay and I took a walk up through the churchyard and over to Carn Lêh, where Lindsay patiently sat on a rock whilst I photographed the Stonechats. There were, I think, four there, and I concentrated on two of them - an adult male and a 1st-year male, as far as I can make out.

Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) (1st-year male) - by Carn Lêh

Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) (male) - by Carn Lêh

On Peninnis Head the wind was blowing hard, and we only saw one Snow Bunting where there'd been two previously. However, this time I managed some shots that I was even happier with.

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) (1st winter male?) - Peninnis Head, St. Mary's
We continued our walk and found a second Snow Bunting round the far side of the lighthouse. This one was somewhat less confiding than the other one, but an exceedingly pretty bird. I promise that these will be the last Snow Bunting images in my account of the Scillies Sojourn, but I think these birds are delightful and I'm never likely to get as good again.

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) (2nd 1st winter male?) - Peninnis Head, St. Mary's
As we walked back towards base, we had a great view towards our home for the week - indicated by the yellow line.

Porthcressa and Little Porth - St. Mary's
 Back at base, whilst Lynne was cooking dinner, there was a Grey Seal out in the bay.

Grey Seal - (Halichoerus grypus) - Little Porth
Not wanting to be outdone by their friends at Carn Lêh, the local Stonechats put on a good show in our garden.

Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) (1st-winter female?) - Little Porth

Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) (1st-winter male?) - Little Porth
That night, Lynne gave us an excellent roast chicken dinner.

Wednesday 8th October

All week we had relatively strong breezes and the forecast always gave the threat of heavy showers, and occasionally thunderstorms. In the event the weather was unseasonably warm and sunny for most of the time. On this day, however, Roger and I got a good soaking as we went out to see what we could find round The Garrison. The result was absolutely nothing except a distant sighting of Gannet!

Having dried off and had a snack lunch, we sat for a while in the conservatory. A Meadow Pipit paid us a visit.

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) - Little Porth
Out in the bay there was a bird fishing. I said to Roger that there's a Shag or a Cormorant out in the bay to which Roger replied that it'd be a Shag as there are very few Cormorants round the islands. However, I now see from my photos that it was a Cormorant, and it stayed in the bay for most of the week. On one occasion it caught a very large fish. I wish it had been closer and the light better. I'll never ceased to be amazed by the capacity of a Cormorant's throat!

Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) - Little Porth

That afternoon, Lindsay and I found ourselves back at Old Town churchyard, looking for Firecrest. We didn't find the Firecrest, but I was intrigued to see two stick insects there. I did take some photos, but I was to get a little better at a later date.

Back at base our neighbour called from the bottom of the garden to ask if we'd seen the Sand Fleas. There were thousands of them coming over the wall from the beach and onto the footpath. I spent ages trying to photograph them but the light was awful and they didn't stay still for a second - except when they had an argument which led to a fight to the death! These aren't really fleas, but non-biting amphipods, sometimes called sandhoppers. You can get a measure of their size from the size of the tarmac stones (with very fine grains of sand between). Here's the best of a totally bad bunch of images.

Sand Flea (Talitridae spp.) - Little Porth
The weather started to brighten up a bit and we had a rainbow. I could spend hours and hours, just watching the changes in the view from the property.

View to the  south-east from Beeches, Little Porth
That night we went out to a nearby fish restaurant, The Galley, for dinner. The food was utterly superb. I had Pan Fried Sea Bass Fillets, Creamy Fresh Crab and Smoked Salmon Risotto, Lemon Drizzle for my main course - it was sublime!

This was the end of our third day and, everywhere we went, the birders had been saying how this was the worst Scillies migration season in memory. Now I'm very much a novice birder, and I'd rather be getting pleasant images of a Stonechat than getting very distant glimpses (and no photos) of a 'little brown job' that I couldn't identify without the help of an experienced birder. In fact, some of the experienced birders were having difficulty, with a debate running for some time as to whether it was a Richard's or Blyth's Pipit up by the airfield - it eventually ended up as Blyth's! My point here is, although the hard-core birders were in dismay, I was having an absolute ball!

So here's another shot of a Stonechat, taken on that Wednesday evening before we went out to dinner.

Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) (male) - Little Porth
The second part of my report will follow in a few days time. I promise that there'll be no more Snow Buntings, only maybe one or two more Stonechats(!), and quite a few birds not already featured, including the odd rarity.

Thank you for dropping by.


  1. Sounds like you had a good time Richard, I think you and I are the same and our happy photographing the "common" stuff, the Stonechat have made me realise the ones I took today are pants and the Snow Buntings are one of my favourite species you can see them over at Salthouse in Norfolk. Well done on a life tick with the Jack Snipe and I found the inside plane shots interesting too but my favourite images are the rocks. The first weather beaten one is just beautifully weird and the first is equally bizzarre surely the wind couldn't do that could it? Got me intrigued to part two.

    1. Thank you, Doug. I had a great time there. One of the things about the Scillies is that the resident birds, including the Stonechats, are very confiding - making photography relatively easy when the light is good. You did extremely well with your Stonechat images in the circumstances, and I'd have been delighted with them if they were mine! Whilst the Snow Buntings aren't resident, someone suggested that we could well be the first humans that they'd ever seen. There will be some more amazing rocks in the next post too!

  2. Hi Richard, I love the pictures of your Stonechats, we have them here at Morden Bog, lovely little bird. I also love the pictures of the Snow Buntings, these birds have been seen on Chesil Beach, near the Fine Foundation Chesil Beach Centre. Those rocks are certainly interesting shapes.

    1. Hello Linda. It was made quite clear to me by my pal Roger that Stonechats are commonplace down in the South-West. For us Midlanders they're a real treat. As mentioned to Doug, above, there's a few more wonderful rock shapes to appear in my next post. Many thanks - - - Richard

  3. I am happy to have found your blog.
    Excellent photographs and an interesting read.
    I have found that if you pick Sand Hoppers up they stay still. I can watch them for ages they remind me of a Flee Circus.

    1. Thank you, Adrian. I've very much enjoyed visiting your blog too!

      That's a fascinating fact about the Sand Fleas/Hoppers. I'll try it next time!

  4. Good grief!!!
    Now that is a wonderful trip!!
    I can understand all the excitement about it, I would have loved to be present! ;-)
    I envy the Stonechat and Snow buntings, 2 birds I'd love to photograph and observe.
    Your pictures are brilliant!
    I am always amazed at the size of the fish a cormorant can swallow.... :)
    Great post Richard, I expect more!!! ;-)
    OK, my surprise has just been published for 'Owlers' Blog Network' !!!!!
    Enjoy your sunday!!!

    1. Thank you, Noushka. You'd have had a field day with the Stonechats and Snow Buntings - they were so easy! If I'd have been on my own and could spend more time with them, I'm sure I could have done better than I did do, with more action in the shots.

      Your new owl post is truly amazing! I'll add bit to OBN when I've finished replying to comments.

      I hope the back is better - - - Richard

  5. What an amazing experience,must go one day.
    Beautiful detail,your Stonechat and Snow Buntings are the very top end of brilliant,love them.
    Fab tick,Jack Snipe also in the bag.

    1. You really should go there sometime John, particularly as it's almost on your doorstep! It's not only a really beautiful place to visit. Everyone seems to be so friendly and helpful, and the resident birds are very confiding. I reckon I'd be happy birding there even without the birds on passage.

      Many thanks for your kind words - - - Richard

  6. I really need to go there for the scenery (and maybe some birds of course). All the pictures are amazing, but I really like the Cormorant action shots. from Findlay

    1. Thank you, Findlay. You'd absolutely love it there - not just at migration time. However, the benefit of being there at migration time is twofold. Obviously the influx of rare birds is a major factor, but the influx of birders, most of whom carry CB radio and pagers, also means that the detailed location of rare birds is instantly published.

  7. What a fabulous detailed account of what was obviously a superb trip. I felt as though as I was there most of the time as I read through it. You have some great pictures, and the shots of the Snow Buntings remind that pretty soon we will be seeing these birds here as they arrive in huge flocks to spend the winter. That very last shot of the Stonechat atop the flower is nothing short of superb. Now bring on Report No. 2!

    1. Thank you, David. The whole Scillies experience was utterly amazing. Possibly half the people out and about at any one time were birdwatchers, even in the centre of the 'town', and the inter-island boats were almost exclusively filled with birders - they were even having to put on extra boats!. I can see that you'll have to start making plans for yet another visit to UK!

      Best wishes - - - - Richard

  8. What a fab post mate, you have whet my appetite for a visit, maybe next year? A brilliant selection of images too, but loving the Stonechat image on the chain linked fence, quality!!

    1. Thank you, Paul. You'd have a great time there, but there are no owls - except the occasional SEO in the winter.

  9. What a fantastic opportunity, Richard! Thank you so much for sharing the adventure!

    Beautiful scenery, interesting rock formations, your description of dinner has me planning a trip to the coast for fresh seafood, wonderful birds and even a rainbow! Who could want for anything more?

    Okay, I could.

    I am totally jealous of your Snow Buntings. They only show up in Florida very rarely during winter migration and by the time I hear about it they are already in South America. Simply superb images of these beauties!

    Looking forward to the next installment of "Richard and Lindsay's Seriously Superb Scilly Soujourn"!

    1. Thank you for your comments, Wally. As you probably already realise, we had a truly amazing time on the islands, and are hoping to return.

      Snow Buntings aren't that common in these parts either. I sometimes see them in the north of Scotland - mainly in the winter - and they have been known to show up locally to me, but I've only once caught one locally.

      Thank you, also, for your kind suggestion for an alternative title to the piece. That's certainly what it felt like!


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