Tuesday 29 October 2019

Last day on Scilly

My third and last day of a short trip to the Isles of Scilly saw me resist the temptations of island hopping to stay on St Mary's. The day began as had the previous two with a quick trip to the Garrison for views of the Blue Rock Thrush. From there I meandered around Peninnis for the first time in years, reminiscing as I went about seeing my first Siberian Stonechat, a Short-toed Lark and an ill-fated Chough which spent a few days in the fields on the flanks of the headland in 2012.
Female Stonechat, Peninnis
Male Stonechat, Peninnis
From Peninnis I sauntered through the idyllic Old Town churchyard and on to the Standing Stones field where a male Brambling had joined the House Sparrows at the feeding station set up by the Isles of Scilly Bird Group. After this I strolled through Lower Moors, gaining another brief view of Monday's Spotted Crake, and up the road to Salakee, where the Citrine Wagtail which turned up on my first day was still hanging out with the cattle.
Teal, Higher Moors
Greenshank, Higher Moors
Continuing to Higher Moors there was time for a chat with some birding pals from the mainland and, bird-wise, nothing more exciting than a small flock of Greenshank. My energy levels were flagging at this point and with just 90 minutes to go before last check-in on the Scillonian III, I figured a return to Hugh Town was probably my best option.
Male Brambling, St Mary's
Song Thrush, Old Town churchyard
At this point my phone alerted me to news of a Spotted Sandpiper on the islands - I assumed the St Agnes bird which I had failed to see the previous day had returned but on looking again this time it (or another) was at Watermill, a 15 minute walk from where I was standing. Quickening my pace, I took the direct route through Holy Vale, where we spent several happy October holidays when the children were younger, past the refurbished Borough Farm, and down Watermill Lane towards the cove where the Sandpiper had been reported.
Spotted Sandpiper, Watermill
Juveniles of this species resemble Common Sandpiper but have more yellowy legs, shorter tails and plain tertial fringes
As I approached the beach I heard a Sandpiper calling, and on reaching the strandline the birders assembled there informed me that this must have been the Sandpiper flying off around the corner to the next cove! With just 15 minutes to go before I had to leave to board the Scillonian, I was not optimistic about it returning, but after 14 minutes it did just that, giving me a minute to take some quick pictures before a brisk walk back to town. It was a poetic ending to the trip as this was the only target bird I had missed up to that point - and a reminder of the promise and beauty of the islands which provided many happy memories of my previous visits.
The Spotted Sandpiper picked insects off the rocks in the background
A good bird to end a successful trip

Sunday 27 October 2019

Island hopping

Day two of a short trip to the Isles of Scilly saw me heading to St Agnes, an island with a legendary record for hosting rare birds. A few minor rarities had been reported there the previous day, including a Spotted Sandpiper from the Americas, which was enough to tempt me into making the journey.
Red-throated Pipit, St Agnes
Red-throated Pipit in this plumage shows strong black streaks on a white breast...
On arrival there was no sign of the Sandpiper but St Agnes certainly held promise, with a larger number of common migrants than I had seen on St Mary's the previous day. I headed inland to search for an apparently photogenic Lapland Bunting which I saw, but only in flight as it headed back to the beach I had just left. Retracing my steps the Bunting continued to elude me so I headed back up the slope to where I had first seen it in the hope that it would return, as indeed it did.
..and normally whitish mantle stripes but these were not so prominent in this individual
Note the short, spiky bill with yellow base
In the intervening period news had broken of a Red-throated Pipit, a top drawer rarity which breeds in the most northern parts of Europe, on the island. As is often the case, the report concerned a bird heard calling in flight, and in such circumstances that is usually the end of it. As I was watching the Lapland Bunting with a small group of birders, a shout went up that the Red-throated Pipit was in the field behind us less than 100 yards away.
The whitish mantle stripes more visible from this angle
Red-throated Pipit
Approaching the field and peering over the dry stone boundary wall, there was the Pipit, parading in the grass at close range with Meadow Pipits conveniently close by for comparison. It flew around a couple of times, giving its distinctive call, before moving off after just a few minutes. It was a very fortunate encounter, illustrated by the fact that a friend from Dorset who was staying on the island missed the bird in the short time it took him to walk up from nearby Porth Killier.
Lapland Bunting, St Agnes
Lapland Bunting, St Agnes
I had resolved to get the 1415 boat back to St Mary's so headed for the quay where breaking news of an Isabelline Wheatear on Tresco caused a re-think. Initially I didn't think I had the energy for a yomp the length of Tresco, but was talked into it by the promise of seeing only my second individual of this species. The Guiding Star returned to St Mary's but the same launch took us straight to Tresco, removing any need to disembark. We would have only a couple of hours before the return trip which would leave from the 'wrong' end of Tresco, so a brisk march was required to get to King Charles's Castle at the north-western tip of the island where the Wheatear was being watched.
Pink-footed Goose, St Agnes
This Pink-footed Goose shared a field with the Red-throated Pipit
On arrival we saw the pale Wheatear straight away, standing out like a beacon against the dark heather. Initially distant, it was flushed closer by some castle visitors, enabling us to get a few record shots - not easy in the light of that Scilly speciality, a late October heat haze!
Isabelline Wheatear, Tresco - sandier brown upperparts compared to Northern
Isabelline Wheatear, Tresco
Despite the no-show by the Spotted Sandpiper, a good second day then with two high quality breaking rarities seen in T-shirt weather, and without the usual stresses of island hopping on Scilly in October.
Isabelline Wheatear, Tresco - note broad black band on the tail
Northern Wheatear on St Agnes for comparison

Saturday 26 October 2019

A short trip to Scilly

Time off between jobs afforded me the luxury of a few days on the Isles of Scilly earlier this week. My last visit was a two day stay in 2017 with David Bradnum, the highlight of which was seeing a Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush on St Martin's. That bird was a riot of red, white and blue - red tail and breast, blue head and a white blaze on the back. So as I booked tickets for the sailing of Scillonian III on Monday there was a certain symmetry in knowing that the rarest bird on the islands this time was the closely related Blue Rock Thrush, a species with which I became very familiar on our summer holiday to Mallorca.
Blue Rock Thrush on the Garrison
The Blue Rock Thrush could often be seen from distance thanks to its habit of perching on prominent boulders
The Blue Rock Thrush was aged as a first winter, looking quite brown in certain lights
Scillonian III made good time with a largely uneventful crossing being punctuated by a pod of Common Dolphin and, as we approached St Mary's, a small group of Harbour Porpoise. On arrival I headed straight for the Garrison where the Blue Rock Thrush had been seen earlier in the day. It was reportedly moving clockwise around the Garrison, and after not too long I caught up with it between the Woolpack Battery and Steval.
I had never seen Harbour Porpoise this far out of the water before
A snub nose and small dorsal fin identify this as Harbour Porpoise
Harbour Porpoise
I had read various horror stories about visiting birders taking days to see this bird so I was perhaps fortunate to walk straight up to it. It was, however, clearly a very skittish bird, but as we sat quietly at the end of the bay it was feeding in, it paid us the courtesy of flying towards us at one point, enabling a few passable photos to be taken with the aid of a teleconverter.
Citrine Wagtail
Note the complete pale border around the cheek and broad wing bars
Just a hint of yellow on the vent of this bird
My other main target for the day was a Spotted Crake which had been giving good views at Lower Moors. I spent an hour there without success before breaking news of a Citrine Wagtail saw me heading off in the direction of Salakee Farm. This newly discovered rarity didn't play ball at first, feeding in long grass at the feet of cattle at the back of a field on a convex slope which made viewing difficult. For no apparent reason though it took flight, calling distinctively, and landed just in front of the assembled birders.
Spotted Crake, Lower Moors
Very long toes on this bird!
On the way back to my B&B in Hugh Town I called in at Lower Moors again where, thanks to a shout from Pete Aley, I enjoyed extended views of the Spotted Crake preening out in the open at close range. So an excellent start to the trip, with both of the main target birds seen well and a bonus breaking rarity thrown in.
The Spotted Crake preened out in the open
This went on for several minutes
A rare view of the underwing of a Spotted Crake

Saturday 19 October 2019

Mallorca day 13: let's get this done

The title of this post refers not to the topical political news of the day but to the much delayed final post from our Mallorcan summer holiday. The important business of getting it done has been rudely interrupted by some other important business lately, but with that now resolved, I was determined to rediscover the time and space to gather some words and pictures from our last day, despite it being all the way back in August.
Eleonora's Falcon
The trip was in danger of fizzling out on a low as, having packed ready for an early morning departure the following day, we had done little more than mooch around Port de Pollenca looking for somewhere shady to shelter from the searing heat. Fortunately we found a tree on the beach beneath which there was enough space to park a towel.
Eleonora's Falcon
Just as we were starting our second gallon of Fanta Limon, a vision in brown and sunburst orange floated past: although I had never seen one before, I knew instantly it was the upperwing of a Two-tailed Pasha butterfly. Unfortunately it didn't linger, rendering any attempt at photography impossible. It seemed a fitting end to the holiday, especially as I had wasted quite a few hours making banana skin and booze concoctions to attract this species to stake-outs in likely looking locations on several days without success.
Eleonora's Falcon
Despite this undoubted highlight, after a couple more hours trying and failing at being a beach bum, I was going stir crazy again, and decided to nip down the coast to Cala Sant Vincent behind whose pretty beach I was fairly sure I had seen a colony of Pallid Swift skimming around a distant crag on our previous visit. Parking above the town I followed a dirt track around the coast on foot. Before I got anywhere near the distant crag, an Eleanora's Falcon appeared around the corner of a low cliff above me and stooped after an unseen insect. I had camera at the ready and fired off a few shots but it was always looking away from me. To my surprise it then repeated the manoeuvre, this time jinking half way through the dive in my general direction before resuming the hunt for food.
Eleonora's Falcon
It was the best view I'd had of an Eleonora's Falcon in the whole fortnight, despite spending many hours in suitable habitat, so after the good fortune with the Two-tailed Pasha it definitely felt like my lucky day. I posted a back-of-the-camera shot on Twitter and, Twitter being Twitter, there was a suggestion from some that I had somehow 'provoked' this bird to acquire the image. I'm not sure what they thought I was doing - swinging a songbird on a lure? - so, for the record, it was a brief, chance encounter with a bird nowhere near a potential nest site which was far more interested in food than it was in me! That aside, the final day's bonus butterfly and bonus bird made for a fitting crescendo to an excellent trip.
Leaving Mallorca for home, 13th August