The rain event seems to have moved through without being quite as dire as predicted so I’ll finish the Ark later. The yard needed the rain after having to rely on dew for weeks and the farmers are no doubt delighted. The almost constant precipitation made birding tricky but the Grand Caravan tailgate makes a fine shelter, just remember that the well holding the number plate tends to fill with water which then rejoices in playing the old gravity game and, upon closing, wetting through the unwary!
My forays have been local, Daniel’s Head and The Hawk mostly and I spent a few hours rooting around the disjointed sparrow flock (means they were widely separated, not a new species) looking for a Dickcissel. My reward was not the hoped for grassland inhabitant but some confiding Nelson’s Sparrows. Winning the Battle of Trafalgar and having a sparrow named after him, kismet I suppose.
The yard was the obvious place of respite from the rain, watching from the office window is limited but enhanced by my placing all of the feeders in front of the window. The carpet of Mourning Doves can be a little distracting and their good friends, the Song Sparrows, tend to be the only small birds consuming the seed. Most days I’m sure the doves just walk somewhere handy and out of the way in order to digest the extra couple of kilos they are carrying, ready for the next day. On October 3rd and on only my tenth scan of the yard, a damp but enthusiastic Dickcissel attracted my attention.
I spent the rest of the day trying to get a decent shot, but the weather was dire and the bird a bit skittish. Mike MacDonald popped round to get it on his Nova Scotia list and it sat tight in the hedge for 30 minutes, only deigning to do some hopping about in the open as he was hoisting his rubber boots back on. Since then it has been quite showy and today the brighter skies allowed me to get a few better shots.
Now we have a period of ‘anything can happen’ as late overshoots, reverse migrants and transatlantic waifs begin to (hopefully) appear. Hurricanes seem to be collapsing before they get to do any deliveries although Joaquin might just buck the trend, although the weather models suggest it will head east and The Isles of Scilly may well end up with more rarities than we do. For those of you who do not know, those isles were once the place to go at the end of September and into October if you wanted a Nearctic vagrant for your British list. I’ve been there five times for trips of varying duration. Readers of my old Quebec blog can go back to what they were doing now, new readers, here is an excerpt from my eBook ‘Twitching Times’ a piece about a long weekend on Scilly back in 1985 which will long live in the memory.
Scilly 12th to 14th-October 1985
‘Jammy bastards’ was the description given to those birders who arrived on the Isles of Scilly on the golden weekend of 12th-14th October 1985. Many had endured weeks of meagre helpings, only for those who had remained on the mainland to show up and tick the lot in one, glorious weekend. By luck rather than judgement, I was one of the jammy bastards, along with the rest of our group, Gill Webb (now Woodhead), Steve Keller and John Hopper. We didn’t feel jammy until we got there, but jammy we certainly were.
The trip started out from Nottingham and would be undertaken in my ageing Renault 5. We’d drive down overnight, sharing the pleasure. On the way, we planned to look for a Black-headed Bunting in Cornwall, and there the fun started. The bunting had been in fields at Porthcothan, north of Newquay. Porthcothan sits at the top of a steep Cornish hill and the Renault had a problem there, it didn’t particularly like hills (well, the up part at least). The only answer was for three of us to get out and walk, and one to coax it to the top, supplemented by shoving as necessary. Coming down was not an issue, what with gravity taking a firm hand.
We went up, we searched the field and we dipped and so we gave up and continued the last bit of our steady journey, to the small airfield at St Just. We later discovered that the bunting had held out until the day before we got there. It is fated that I won’t ever get one for the UK now; no matter, I’ve seen it on Cyprus and in India anyway.
At St-Just airfield, the small plane we’d booked passage on was ready for us when we arrived and we boarded with our limited carry-on set of optics and clothes, ready for an intense few days twitching. Discipline was to be the key and we had a plan, see everything!
Yellow-rumped Warbler Setophaga coronata
Scilly St Mary’s, 7th to 22nd-October 1985, (10/4).
12th-October 1985: We had a pleasant little B&B booked in Hugh Town and, once the bags had hit the floor, we were off. Our first port of call was the trees by the school. It was easy to find the Yellow-rumped Warbler as it fed with Goldcrests and a Yellow-browed Warbler. It was our first yank for the trip, a rudimentary term meaning a bird of Nearctic origin. The Yellow-rumped Warbler was new for us all and we spent a fair while enjoying it, but time was a creeping on, so we set off to target #2.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak Pheauticus ludovicianus
Scilly St Mary’s, first-winter, 9th-28th-October 1985, (14/3).
12th-October 1985: Moving off along the main, circular road on St Mary’s we arrived at Longstone and the favoured patch of blackberries. There it sat, eating a bit, preening a bit and resting a bit but in virtually full view for the whole time. We were part of a crowd but it seemed strangely surreal to be seeing these so highly prized ticks, so easily. The time to move on came when the bird had a good stretch and we were able to see well the crimson underwing; next!
Red-eyed Vireo Vireo olivaceus
Scilly St Mary’s, First-winter, 4th-17th-October 1985, (21/12).
12th-October 1985: The inhabitants of the Isle of Scilly had become familiar with the autumn arrival of twitchers and, thanks to the negotiations by local birders, would open trails on their land. One such spot was the Silver Trail near Holy Vale, short but through promising habitat. Another canopy denizen was our target here and, very soon after arrival, we watched as the chunky vireo gleaned bugs from the underside of leaves. It was active and showy, and, in terms of the rarities on offer, a relatively minor player. We pressed on.
Bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus
Scilly St-Mary’s, Female or immature, 9th-21st-October 1985, (11/1).
12th-October 1985: Another bramble patch, another mega. Again there was no waiting as the bird gorged itself on the ripe fruit, oblivious to the optics trained on it. We were up to lifer #4 in less than two hours, but more awaited. Then the shout came up, there was a mega squared up the road. It had just been found and the good fortune that had placed us on Scilly for the weekend, continued to smile on us.
Black-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus erythropthalmus
Scilly St Mary’s, First-winter, 12th-October 1985, (7/1).
12th-October 1985: We had to work for this one and it was Gill who eventually found it, sitting quietly, deep in cover. It was a case of identikit birding until it emerged into view. We were over by the golf course and the thwack of the odd ball being bullied was audible over the hushed and very reverent tones of the gathering mass. The bird was lethargic, it seemed exhausted and well it might have been, having just made land fall after a particularly long flap. The crowds gathered and those of us that had had their fill drifted off to make space at the front for new arrivals. What next?
Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus
Scilly St Mary’s, 12th-13th-October 1985, (19/4).
12th-October 1985: The CBs were positively buzzing and we heard of another cuckoo, this time Yellow-billed and very close to where we had been watching the Red-eyed Vireo, earlier. Birds were literally dropping in as we moved around and there was a bit of shell-shock going on. We got there in the vanguard and had great views as a much livelier bird hopped about feeding and making short flights. The two vagrant Nearctic cuckoos were truly prized ticks and we felt collectively privileged to be seeing this happen. Our day was just about run and we repaired to the B&B to unpack and find food. Tomorrow, the show would continue.
Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius
Scilly Tresco, 4th-21st-October 1985, (71/1).
13th-October 1985: We boarded the inter-island boat ready for a morning on Tresco. We knew that a European Bee-eater had been present there for some time and that was to be our target bird. The golden rule is always to go for what is showing on Scilly and we thought we might luck into something, given the prolific spell we were in. Less rare for us was the Spotted Sandpiper and we didn’t spend so long on looking at it. There were other things to keep us busy.
Bee-eater Merops apiaster
Scilly Tresco, juv, 23rd-September to 1st-November 1985, (180/26).
13th-October 1985: Although the Scilly Bee-eater had been long-staying, it was still a tick for many. Mainland birds, for a long while, had tended to be short-staying or one observer birds – nothing to twitch. Now we were walking the lanes down to its favourite wires. As if to conform to the spirit of the weekend, the Bee-eater was there when we arrived and was much appreciated as it flew repeated sallies for airborne insects, perhaps even bees. It was not a full adult, but that didn’t distract from its beauty and we spent some time watching it. Eventually, we dragged ourselves away and started to make our way back to the quay, ready for the return to St Mary’s. As we walked along we were part of a strung-out group, all following the same circuit as us and all with similarly full notebooks. We were around 50m from the quay when a shout behind us alerted us to a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that had come in off the sea and had flown into cover. We looked but didn’t see it; still, it wasn’t a tick!
Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator
Scilly Tresco, Juv, 9th to 21st October 1985, (366/8).
13th-October 1985: We hadn’t quite finished on Tresco and took advantage of our remaining time, seeing the Woodchat that had been reduced to a bit part in the rarity extravaganza.
Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla
Scilly Tresco, 9th to 13th October 1985, (240/14).
13th-October 1985: We also had a look at a Short-toed Lark, briefly but enough, we were to see a couple more during the weekend but they were well and truly eclipsed by the rest of the Scilly show.
Back on St Mary’s, we split up and some of us revisited the previous day’s rarities. The rest just took time to wind down a bit. It had been a hectic two days, mentally both thrilling and exhausting in equal measure. We were to leave the next day but first we had one more serious target, another yank.
Northern Parula Setophaga americana
Scilly St Mary’s, 3rd-17th-October 1985, (6/3).
14th-October 1985: It would be wrong to call this the big one, they were all big but the parula was up there with them and it had been missing, presumed gone, for the duration of our stay. Now the eager searchers had re-found it and we were soon under its tree, eyes wide in sheer admiration. For birders used to warblers that don’t dress up for the occasion, the parula was something else. It was very confiding and came too close for even the closest focussing bins.
The rest of our short trip was spent catching up on a few birds that we’d had to walk past briskly. A Tawny Pipit, some more Yellow-browed Warblers and quite a few commoner scarce migrants, commoner they may be but no less pleasing on the eye.
We got back to the resting Renault at St-Just and started the drive home. With the Earth being round, our drive north was naturally uphill, something that impacted on the car’s performance, but it blew its way steadily along and we all arrived home weary but well satisfied with our jammy weekend on Scilly.
All drawings by Sandra Dennis.
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