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Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Another Scilly Sojourn (Pt.1) - 11th to 15th March, 2018

On a couple of occasions we have stayed on the Isles of Scilly at the invitation of friends Lynne and Roger, who had a regular booking at a wonderful beachfront property. Once was in October, 2014 and the next time was March, 2016. Lynne and Roger had a disappointing time in March, 2017 and so decided to give up their March spot. As Lindsay and I were hoping to get a booking at this property in our own right, with a view to taking our daughter (Melanie) and granddaughter (Georgie) with us, we were delighted when the proprietor offered us Lynne and Roger's vacated week.

In the event, it was just Melanie that came with us, Georgie electing to stay at home with her father. Here is an account of how our stay progressed - Warning, this is an exceedingly long, and profusely illustrated post! 

Sunday 11th March              to Hayle, Cornwall

Melanie arrived at our house at 10h00 and, having transferred her almost non-existent luggage to our car, we set off for Cornwall. Apart from the odd comfort break, we made a small diversion to the Craft Centre at Cleveden to visit Arnold Smith's leatherworking studio and also to sit and enjoy our picnic somewhere with a view. It was Arnold Smith's work that inspired me to try my hand at leather carving just before Christmas.

The weather was pretty grim as we arrived at the Travelodge just outside Hayle, and our plans were upset when we found that 'the Scottish restaurant' over the road was shut down for rebuilding. It was Mothering Sunday and we knew that many places would be packed out with families and young children. After a rest and a cup of tea in the Travelodge, we set off to find somewhere to eat. We had a couple of false starts and then found the Eastern Empire Chinese restaurant in Hayle. We all agreed that the food was excellent and I had what was probably the most delicious squid that I have ever tasted!

A few days before, I had renewed my lapsed subscription to Birdguides. I'd been miffed at going away just as a Snowy Owl was being regularly seen in Norfolk, within the scope of a day trip from my home. I was, therefore, quite excited this night to see that a Snowy Owl that had been on the Scillies a few weeks previously had been seen that afternoon on Bryher.

Monday 12th March        flight from Land's End to St. Mary's, Isles of Scilly - Porthcressa

We were booked on the 09h46 flight from Land's End for the long haul (just kidding) to the Scillies. We set off in good time and were glad that we were able to park the car less than 100 metres from the terminal entrance at Land's End Airport. Our flight was in 19-seater De Havilland Twin Otter G-BIHO, and the flight took less than 20 minutes! A novelty is the open view to the flight deck.

Flight Deck - G-BIHO
We'd been a little concerned that it was rather windy, but we didn't experience any discomfort. I had a good view of the Longships Lighthouse shortly after take-off.

Longships and Lighthouse
We were taken to the property by minibus and left our baggage in the kitchen as we were somewhat too early to take possession and the cleaner was still in, but were told that all would be OK by mid-day (normally it would be 14h00). We then took a stroll around Hugh Town to show Melanie around and have a bite to eat in a café.

Returning at 12h00  we quickly settled ourselves in and then I went off to check out the scene behind the property whilst Melanie and Lindsay went for further exploration and some shopping.

I found the situation on the beach at the end of the garden was a little different to our visit at the same time two years ago. The Rock Pipits were still there, probably in greater numbers, but I wasn't seeing the hoped-for Black Redstarts. 

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) - Porthcressa
The sea was rather rough, probably because of the wind, and I can't resist shots with water action.

Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) - Porthcressa
Occasionally one would leave the water. I'm used to seeing these birds inland at freshwater lakes, and to see them by the sea in winter plumage was a bit of a novelty to me.

Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) - Porthcressa
The real treat was to find an Iceland Gull there. I don't know my gulls, but suspect that this was 1st winter, moving into spring. This one stayed all week! I hid myself amongst the rocks on the beach to take these shots.

Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) - Porthcressa
I'm not sure I have seen Greenshank on the Scillies before, but certainly not at Porthcressa. This one was also present all week. Again I was shooting from a place of concealment in the rocks. 

Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) - Porthcressa
The final avian treat for the day was the appearance of a Great Northern Diver out in the bay. The light was fading by now, but I was pleased to see it catch a crab - even if it was rather far away!

Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer) - Porthcressa
That night we had an enjoyable dinner at the cosy Bishop and Wolf pub.

No boats had run from St. Mary's that day, due to the strong winds, and so there was no update on the Snowy Owl on Bryher.

Tuesday 13th March                 to Bryher in search of the Snowy Owl

A boat, the Seahorse, was booked to go from St. Mary's to Bryher and Tresco at 10h15 and return from Bryher at 15h30. After breakfast I headed down to the quayside with a picnic lunch in my bag as I was told that only the shop would be open on Bryher that day, and then only for a few hours. 

As I waited on the quayside, several people, prompted by my camera, asked what I was intending to photograph, and where. I explained about the owl, and one gentleman offered to point me in the right direction once we got to Bryher. We called at Tresco first and then approached Bryher, passing a Shag in the water, and another on a rock, on the way in. Around  the Scillies, the Shag is the most common of the Cormorant family.

Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) - near Bryher
On landing on Bryher, at The Bar, the gentleman that said he would show me the way introduced me to a local birder (I regret that I did not make a note of your name - sorry!), and persuaded him to take me up onto Shipman Head to see if we could find the Snowy Owl. It turned out that this was the person who'd reported seeing it on Bryher on the Sunday!  We made our way up onto the head and I stopped to grab a few shots of a Stonechat.

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (female) - Bryher
We searched for some time on Shipman Head, and came to the conclusion that it was not present, before parting company as my companion had other places to visit. 

I took a few photos of the scenery from up on the head, before heading downhill. Many places on the Isles of Scilly have some interesting rock formations, and Bryher has its share!

view over Kitchen Porth to Tresco

Hangman Island
In that last image you might just be able to make out the gibbet on the highest point of the island.

Having come off the head, I made my way along a muddy track until I reached a road by the Bryher shop. This was open for a few hours that day, so I called in and bought myself a snack bar and a drink before heading towards Pool, and the Hell Bay Hotel which was closed. I wanted to have a look to see if there were any birds on Great Pool., and one of the gentlemen painting the outside of the hotel suggested I try their sun deck. This turned out to be a sheltered piece of decking, just large enough for a table and two chairs, at the pool's edge. I sat down and immediately noticed a nearby Greenshank. There was also a distant Little Egret.

Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) - Great Pool, Bryher
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) - Great Pool, Bryher
From here, I walked south to Rushy Bay and then round the south end of the island and up the eastern side until I got to Church Quay, where the boat back to St. Mary's would pick up. En route I stopped to photograph a few birds, but without too much success.

Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer) - Bryher
I didn't attempt much photography on the boat (the Seahorse again) back to St. Mary's, but did get a shot of a Shag having a wash.

Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) - near Bryher
We were back in St. Mary's by about 16h00, and I set off back to base. I had a quick check to see what was in the bay and took some more shots of the Greenshank, and tried for some shots of Gannet, but they stayed very distant.

Gannet (Morus bassanus) - Porthcressa
That evening, we ate in, had a relaxing time, and pondered the dire weather forecast for that night and the following day - torrential rain and gale force winds!

Wednesday 14th March             the Storm

We managed to sleep though most of the violent wind in the night, and I volunteered to venture out in the morning to get some needed provisions. I found that the main road through Hugh Town was closed off due to bits falling off the front of the Post Office. Other than that, all seemed OK although it was far from pleasant outside.

Effectively, most of the day was a write-off. The rain and wind was battering the conservatory windows so that it was difficult to see out.I spent time looking through my photos to date, and reading a book. Things had eased off a bit by lunch time, but it was still a bit wild as I hope you can see from this video, taken with my phone thought the glass of the conservatory (that's as much salt water from the sea as rain, running down the window).

Later in the afternoon the rain disappeared, and I headed to the path at the bottom of the garden to check out the situation. Huge mounds of seaweed had been deposited on the beach, and there were unprecedentedly large numbers of gulls around. There was also a worrying amount of 'plastic dross' that had been cast up onto the shore! I was relieved to see that the pre-storm 'regular birds' were still present, including the Iceland Gull. The sea was still rather rough. Here are a few shots (one of those Oystercatchers looks as if it had had a rough night!).


Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) - Porthcressa

Gulls - Porthcressa

Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) - Porthcressa
Whilst on the beach-top path I had an interesting chat with local wildlife enthusiast and talented artist Ren Hathway, who describes himself as a Draughtsman. It was a while later that I suddenly realised that, although I was staying relatively dry, my camera was getting covered in salt spray - not a good situation! - so I gave up and came indoors.

That night we had a good dinner at the Atlantic.

Thursday 15th March             Porthcressa - Lower Moors and Old Town Bay - Porthcressa

We woke to a relatively fine day and I spent an hour or so, before the girls surfaced, washing the dried salt and gull poo that the conservatory windows were opaquely plastered with after the storm. 

After breakfast, I spent a little time on the Porthcressa sea front before heading up Buzza Hill. It was good to get some action shots of the Iceland Gull.

Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) - Porthcressa
From the path up to Buzza Hill I took a shot of Porthcressa beach  - the yellow line indicates our base for the week.

Porthcressa beach
From Old Town, I visited Lower Moors. Having had some good sightings in this area in the past, I was disappointed by how little I found on this occasion. The most interesting part of the visit was watching a behaviour that I've not noticed before. Various gulls were coming to the pool with, apparently, the sole objective of taking a few minutes washing themselves in fresh water and then immediately departing again.

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) - Lower Moors
I didn't spend a lot of time here, and then stopped to take a few very distant shots of a Little Egret in Old Town Bay.

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) - Old Town Bay
After this, I headed back to base to join the girls for lunch.

As the action on Porthcressa Beach looked potentially interesting that is where I spent most of the afternoon. The bay was looking decidedly more attractive this day!

view from Porthcressa to Peninnis Head
I had the good fortune to meet local wildlife enthusiast Bob Dawson as I stood on the beach-top path, and benefited immensely from this encounter - both at that time, and subsequently. Bob had spotted a gull that was puzzling him - it had a bill colouration which did not quite fit with the plumage. I have since sent a couple of images to Bob, who has consulted with gull experts, and the conclusion is that it's a rather odd Herring Gull! Here's a shot of it:-

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) - Porthcressa
A Little Egret was a bit more cooperative than they usually are at Porthcressa.

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) - Porthcressa
Turnstones are relatively usual fare for the harbour side of the narrow isthmus occupied by Hugh Town. However, they are not that usual on the southern side. These next two images show that the sea was still a bit rough at times!

Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) - Porthcressa
There were three Iceland Gulls in the bay that afternoon. Two were quite pale and unmarked on the head, but a third was rather darker than the other two. In this first image, you should be able to spot the two paler specimens.

gulls, incl. 2 x Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) - Porthcressa
Here's a couple of shots of the darker bird:- 

Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) - Porthcressa
And here's a closer shot of one of the paler birds:-

Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) - Porthcressa
It seems that what was attracting so many birds to the beach were the many thousands of Sand Hoppers (Talitrus saltator) which were supplying an endless source of food. 

Other birds seen feeding included the following:-

Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) - Porthcressa
Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) - Porthcressa

Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) - Porthcressa
It wasn't just the water birds that were making the most of the Sand Hopper harvest.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) - Porthcressa
Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) (female) - Porthcressa
Chiffchaff ( Phylloscopus collybita) - Porthcressa
I'd identified that last bird as a Willow Warbler due to the pale legs. My thanks to Bob Dawson for pointing out the differential between the primaries and tertials, identifying this as a Chiffchaff.

That evening we dined in.

This post is probably already way too long, so I'll save the rest of my account until my next blog post. It will include two owl sightings and a bit more besides!

Thank you for your visit.


  1. Apart from the rainy day, it looks like you had a very productive time. Fantastic photos and I love the 6th photo of the gull 'surfing'. We used to have a number of black redstarts here, but just recently I have not seen so many. Looking forward to part 2 and especially of the owl sightings.
    Have a good week and take care, Diane

    1. Hi Diane. I do love the Isles of Scilly. They would even be wonderful without the birds, but the birds just make it a perfect place. I'm looking forward to returning next year.

      Part 2 is already in the can, and should be published next week - I like to space them out a bit.

      We're currently having a rather wet week. I hope it improves soon, and that your weather is better than ours!

      With my very best wishes - - - Richard

  2. Amazing photos of birds in different ankles...
    Love the stone structure. It looks like giant snake face...

    1. THank you for your visit and your kind words. Best wishes - - - Richard

  3. Fantastic images Richard. I think that you had a great time on the Scilly Isles. Beautiful birds, the Rock Pipit, Iceland Gull, Greenshank, and the Shag to name many.

    1. Thank you, Bob - we had a really great time, and are very much looking forward to a return visit next year. I could happily live on St. Mary's, but Lindsay isn't so keen as she says she would feel a bit isolated - I can understand her point of view.

      Take good care. With my very best wishes - - - Richard

  4. Great series of images, Richard. You can really see how the Greenshank gets its name! I had not realized that Iceland Gull could be found so far south and having seen the rocky shores there I am wondering whether Purple Sandpipers can be found. It looks to have lots of suitable habitat. Will look forward to the next instalment. I will be back home this weekend and will start to work on the account of this trip.

    1. THank you, David, Iceland Gull is considered a rarity in UK - more rare than Glaucus Gull - but there have been a few more sightings than usual this year. To put it in perspective, two years ago friend Roger, who is a dyed in the wool birder, was very keen to find an Iceland Gull that had been spotted on Tresco.

      I can't answer your question about Purple Sandpiper. They are not uncommon in UK and, I believe, can often be found round harbours on the north-east coast. However they are one of my bogey birds - I have never seen one!

      I am looking forward to your account of your Vancouver Island trip.

      My love to you both - - - Richard

  5. Just great observations! Congratulations!!! Greetings

  6. Well that was a read, my tea got cold!! A lovely write up backed up by some lovely photos Richard.

    1. Sorry about your tea, Marc, and thank you for your kind words. I'm afraid that Part 2 will be just as long!

      I hope your weather is better than ours. It's been wet and misty for too long.

      Best wishes - - - Richard

  7. What a superb adventure! Planes, boats, storms, surf, boulders, scenery and even birds!

    All of that and you tease us there may be a Snowy Owl in our future ...

    Simply wonderful photography and narrative, Richard. Thank you so much for sharing it all. Hope your camera survived the salt spray. We're also happy that you can't resist taking "shots with water action". That image of the "surfing Gull" is certain to become a crowd favorite!

    Gini and I hope you and Lindsay will have a wonderful weekend! All the best.

    1. Thank you for those kind and encouraging words, Wally. I suspect there may well be a Snowy Owl coming up sometime - I'll see what can be arranged.

      I don't get many opportunities to shoot 'water action' - it's hard to get any further from the sea in UK that the location of my home!

      With my very best wishes to you and Gini (I hope that you are both well) - - - Richard

  8. Outstanding photography Richard,lovely place to Holiday as well as birding,looks like you had good light,which is a bonus.
    Love the flight shots,great action captures,your Greenshank shots are a delight to see,stunning images.

    1. Thank you, John. The light was not too good for most of the time, and I had had to do a fair bit of adjustment to the white-balance in many of the shots. I have to admit that I was more than a little captivated by the Greenshanks - particularly the one on 'our beach'. I must have taken two or three hundred shots of it!

      With my very best wishes to you and Sue - - - Richard

  9. Can't believe how strong that wind was!!
    Glad you caught up with a Black Redstart though.
    Its weird I've never seen a Greenshank on the beach before, seen every other type of wader but not a Greenshank.
    One thing that comes across in the post is how friendly people on the island are.

    1. The Greenshank stayed faithful to that beach all week, Doug. It was a highlight (but not THE highlight ;-} ) of my stay.

      The Islanders are extremely friendly and helpful people. There's a real community spirit there, but they seem happy to extend this to visitors.

      Best wishes - - - Richard

  10. Hi Richard,
    separate images from the airplane :-)
    Your birds are very beautiful. Nice to see the seagulls and the ice diver is great.
    The green-legged rider has also been shown in the picture as well as the little egret.
    A beautiful series with lots of different birds.

    Kind regards, Helma

    1. Hi Helma. Thank you so much for your visit, and your kind words. With my very best wishes - - - Richard


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