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Thursday 30 October 2014

A Scilly Sojourn (Pt.2) - October, 2014

My previous post to this blog covered the first three days of our stay on The Scillies. I now continue the story with an account of the next three days.

Thursday 9th October

Lindsay (my wife) had badly stubbed her toe whilst we were out on the Tuesday, almost completely tearing away the toenail (ooouch!!). It had been troubling her quite badly on the Wednesday, so we settled for a slightly easier day this day.

One species of bird that gave me much delight during our stay was Song Thrush. This might raise a few eyebrows, but this beautiful bird has sadly declined in my neck of the woods and I don't see (or hear) many at all these days. On the Scillies they were super-abundant and quite confiding, and were seldom away from the garden of the property.

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) - Little Porth
For me it was wonderful to be able to photograph Song Thrush, Oystercatcher, and Stonechat from the comfort of the garden before setting out after breakfast.

Oystercatcher (Haematopus australegus) - Little Porth
Stonechat (Saxicola torquata) (male) - Little Porth
After breakfast we set off for Old Town, taking a cross-country footpath route rather than the road. En-route we stopped to photograph a Song Thrush that wanted to spend most of its time too close for my lens to focus on!

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) - near Buzza Tower
Old Town churchyard is often good for interesting birds. There were none to be seen when we stopped here, but the churchyard has another speciality - Stick Insects. These have been a feature of the churchyard for a number of years. They feed on the brambles which, thankfully, the churchyard attendants leave in place. There are a few other places in the south-west of England in which these non-native insects have established colonies.

Prickly Stick-insect (Acanthoxyla geisovii)  - Old Town Churchyard, St. Mary's
Only two were seen, and these were extremely difficult to photograph due to their position. I had to use my phone for the first image! These are native to New Zealand! I originally thought that colour difference was sexual dimorphism, but I now understand that this species breeds parthenogenetically, and that all those present in UK are likely to be females!

After lunch at the Old Town Cafe, I left Lindsay relaxing on the beach, between coffees in the cafe, and went off to re-visit Lower Moors. I didn't have much success here as I couldn't get in the main hide, due to the number of people already in there. I only managed a shot of a Snipe, all my other efforts being greatly inferior and of very commonplace birds.

Snipe (Gallinago media) - Lower Moors, St. Mary's

Having collected Lindsay, we set off back towards Hugh Town, stopping off at a gallery en-route. Near to Porth Mellon I spotted a cricket in the road. Although there is not much road traffic on the island there is some, and this little fella was not going to last very long where he was! I hurriedly took a few photos, noticing that he'd already been in the wars and had lost a hind leg. I then quickly picked him up and put him in the hedge. I've searched, but I can't work out what species he is.

Cricket spp. - near Porth Mellon
It was Lindsay's turn to cook that evening, and the rest of us relaxed and enjoyed gazing out to the ever changing scenery. A Rock Pipit obliged in the setting sun on the railings at the end of the garden.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) - Little Porth
Lindsay cooked Semur Daging that night - a Sumatran dish that I cooked for her on our very first date, more than 44 years ago, and which we both cook now from time to time. The recipe came from a small booklet 'Recipes of the Orient' that was free with Elastoplast in my student days!

Friday 10th October

I'd been hoping to get some photos of the Wren which frequented the garden of the property, but this image, taken before breakfast, was the best I could manage.

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) - Little Porth
Wanting to explore more of the island, but being a little limited by Lindsay's foot injury, we opted to hire transport for the day. There's no car hire on the island, but you can hire a 'golf cart style' buggy from an outfit called The Scilly Cart Co. We were assured that the battery on one of these was good for three times round the island. I forgot to take a photo of the cart, so here's one lifted from their brochure.

Scilly Cart Co. buggy
The buggy was great fun, easy to drive, and served its purpose extremely well. Our first stop was near the northern tip of the island, and we parked in the area known as Telegraph . A gentle stroll took us to Bant's Carn Tomb, from the Bronze Age.

Bant's Carn Tomb - Bronze Age burial chamber, St. Mary's
Nearby were the remains of the Iron Age settlement of Halangy Down - and I didn't take any photos! Our walk took us past the radio mast which was being painted - so that's where the defunct EE mast is located!

A stop to investigate Newford Ponds only turned up a Willow Warbler, but a couple of birding gentlemen who arrived on the scene seemed very happy to have it pointed out to them.

Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) - Newford Ponds, St. Mary's
We then went to the Kaffeehaus for a light lunch, which was rounded off nicely with home-made Apfelstrudel. During lunch I was getting tantalising glimpses of a Clouded Yellow butterfly in the field adjacent to the cafe. Sadly it remained distant when I went to seek it out.

Clouded Yellow (Coleas crocea) - by the Kaffeehaus, St. Mary's
After lunch, we retraced our steps a little and parked the cart at the entrance to Watermill Lane. I was looking for the Yellow-browed Warbler that was being reported there. I arrived to find two people there who told me it had gone for the time being, but would probably be back. Fortunately I didn't have to wait too long before it appeared. I soon realised that photography was going to be nigh-on impossible at this sort of distance, but managed to get a record shot before it departed again.

Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus) - Watermill Lane, St. Mary's
I hung around for quite a while, hoping for it to return, and eventually gave up and went off to find Lindsay, who had made her way down to the beach at Watermill Cove. This was a wonderful beach, and ours were the only footprints! We collected shells, watched a Grey Seal, and I photographed yet another Rock Pipit - this one had me wondering for a while because of its pale legs and the extent of its lower markings.

Rock Pipit (Anthus petrosus) - Watermill Cove
Having rejoined our cart, we set off to the northern entrance to the Higher Moors nature trail. A stop at the first hide revealed very little, but the second hide had a real treat in store for us. We arrived to find three Greenshank in the distance on our right, at rest with their backs to us. Suddenly one of the other two people in the hide said "Water Rail", and a Water Rail duly appeared at a short distance in front of the hide. At first it stayed close to the reeds on the tiny 'island' that it had emerged from.

Water Rail (Ralus aquaticus) - Porthhellick Pool, St. Marys
It then did what Water Rails don't usually do - it walked right out into the open! and then walked past the hide, left to right, at only about six metres distance. Sadly, photography was rather difficult as, although the sun was shining brightly behind us, it was in the deep shade of the hide itself for most of the time, but the light was reflecting brightly on the water! As portrait photos of a Water Rail, these next images aren't up to much, but I'm including a number of them because I just love the light on the water.

Water Rail (Ralus aquaticus) - Porthhellick Pool, St. Marys
After this visit we made our way back to base, with me dropping off Lindsay at our abode, and returning the cart to its base.

That night, we returned to the excellent 'The Galley' for dinner. I'd been so delighted with what I'd had there two days earlier that I had the same again - and it was every bit a s good!

Saturday 11th October

All four of us were down at the quayside in time to catch the first boat to the neighbouring island of St. Agnes. It seems that the birding fraternity had all had the same idea as they had to put on a second boat to accommodate us all. We managed to get on the first boat. The crossing was uneventful, if a bit choppy at times, but it's a short journey. Once on St. Agnes we two couples split up, with Lindsay and I heading off along the north side of the island.

We saw our first Turnstones of the holiday in Porth Killier, although they stayed in the shade.

Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) (juvenile) - Porth Killier, St.Agnes
Near Big Pool there were several Meadow Pipits on the grass.

Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis) - near Big Pool, St. Agnes
We then headed up the hill, stopping for refreshments at the Coastguards Cafe. There being reports of Short-toed Lark on Castella Down, we went there via a circuitous route which took in the Troy Town Creamery for one of their excellent ice creams. The views from Castella Down are wonderful! You can also see why the waters round the islands are full of shipwrecks!

Castella Down views - St. Agnes
It wasn't difficult to find the location for the S-t Lark. There must have been at least twenty birders there already. However, the bird spent most of its time in grass that was just a bit taller than it, on the far side of the field. It did, briefly, venture into the middle of the field (which is when I got the following two images) before returning to the far side again. Anyway, I'd got my third 'life bird' of the holiday.

Short-toed Lark (Calandrella brachydactyla) - Castella Down, St, Agnes
Convinced that I wasn't going to do any better than that with the lark, Lindsay and I set off again, pausing briefly at a rock which I believe is known as Nag's Head.

Nags Head (?) - St. Agnes
A stroll up Barnaby's Lane brought us to Wingletang Down and here we sat on a rock and had lunch by another amazing rock which I think may be Boy's Rock.

Boy's Rock (?) - St. Agnes
After lunch we headed east, ending up at Cove Vean. As we approached the cove, another amazing rock presented itself! I've no idea if this one has been named.
Cantilevered rock - St., Agnes
 Not far from this rock I tried to photograph a Curlew. It was a bit too far away, really.

Curlew (Numenius arquata) - Cove Vean, St. Agnes
Back near civilisation we bumped into Roger who woefully told us that he'd managed to drop his CB radio somewhere. He'd made a few enquiries, but to no avail. We parted company again and did a bit of shopping for gifts for those back home, after which we went back to the Coastguard Cafe. My wife went into the cafe to place our order whilst I sat outside in the cafe's garden. Lindsay was accosted by a gentleman who asked if her husband had lost his radio as, apparently it had been put out on the CB that a tall white-haired person, aged about 60, had lost one, and he'd found one. Lindsay explained that we would be seeing the owner and, having asked a couple of questions, the gentleman handed it over. Both Roger and I were flattered that we'd passed for 'about 60'.

After refreshment we headed for Big Pool again, as a Richard's Pipit had been reported there, and Lindsay insisted that it was appropriate that I see it. I did see it, but at an extremely great distance. After about half an hour it wasn't getting any closer, and we had to get back for the return boat to St. Mary's, so I left with a couple of extremely distant record shots, which I'll include as this was also a 'life bird' for me.

Richard's Pipit (Anthus richardi) - near Big Pool, St. Agnes
Roger was delighted to get his radio back, particularly as it had been a present from Lynne. We were on the first boat back to St. Mary's, which left fifteen minutes early as it was completely full, with people waiting at the quayside.

On the way back, we crossed with Scillonian III, but that photo will serve to illustrate our return journey to the mainland. Roger and I waited for the second boat so that I could point out to him who had found his radio.

That night, Lynne cooked a superb meal of Salmon with a crispy savoury crust. After dinner, we reflected on how lucky Roger had been to get his radio back. It wasn't the honesty of the birding fraternity that surprised us (they're a pretty good bunch in general), but that it turned out that he'd dropped it in a rather remote, and little visited, location and he was lucky that it hadn't sat there undetected for weeks!

Thus ended day six on the Scillies. The serious birders were still complaining that little was being seen, and I was still having the time of my life!

Thank you for dropping by. The next (and last) instalment of my account of our Scilly Sojourn will follow sometime next week.

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.