Champions of the Flyway!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

St. Agnes, October 2010 (1)

a three-part journal...(scroll down for parts 2 & 3)

Part one - 2nd to 6th October

After a fine two weeks on Martha's Vineyard (and elsewhere in Massachusetts, trip report to follow), less than a day back in London to un/repack followed before boarding the Midnight Riviera out of Paddington for a fortnight on another island in the Atlantic, this time on closer shores.


After innumerable modes of transport and a sleep-free 48 hours, St Agnes 2010 began on the afternoon of the 2nd, far beyond tiredness and too stoked up about being back on the beautiful isle to crash just yet. Hooking up with last year's team, who'd already been aground for a week – Laurence (Pitcher), Paul (Derbyshire), Lee (Amery), (Peter) Brash and Agnes resident Graham (Gordon), by all accounts there was little to report, despite very favourable preceding Atlantic weather systems; fears of another legendarily quiet year remained buried however, with 14 days of idyllic forensic island-combing ahead.

Northern Wheatear

A seemingly ideal low pressure system and associated front a day or two before had resolutely failed to dispatch any glittering prizes, and the best on offer was a scattering of Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps amongst residents; but by just being there, it was hard to care.

Not a great deal of sleep later, and wide awake by 0630, the morning of the 3rd began as each morning would - a quick breakfast and coffee and out by the time the light was good enough. Staying anywhere on Agnes means birding begins as you open the door, and we're lucky enough to inhabit a farmhouse between the lighthouse and the Coastguards - ten steps and potentially fruitful habitat begins.


And each day's routine remained generally constant; in the field til lunchtime, a half an hour or so to refuel in the middle of the day, and back out until dusk. Where a combination of excessive alcohol abuse the preceding night and particularly quiet days occurred, early afternoon naps were an occasional luxury, as were Troytown Farm's unspeakably fine organic ice-creams and the odd Covean cream tea (the latter two consumed without breaking up the birding).

Each of us typically wandered off in different directions, meandering the island (and Gugh) during every daylight hour and instinctively dousing a different route every time, resulting in multiple scrutinies for the vast majority of the island on a daily basis.

Wilson's Snipe, Hudsonian Whimbrel, Great Blue Heron and American Kestrel - no doubts

The 3rd was uneventful, with settled conditions and just a sprinkling of migrants, including four Reed Warblers, a Pied Flycatcher in the lighthouse garden, a few Spotted Flycatchers, the first three Siskins over, a trickle of Swallows, Peregrine and Merlin, and small numbers of Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers, Blackcaps, Wheatears and Goldcrests.

Much the same for the 4th, although a Garden Warbler, a Redwing (both St Warna's), a Greenshank, a Lapland Bunting, and 30 Common Scoters offshore were all new for the notebook. A shopping trip to St. Mary's took care of the middle of the day, and the warm and bright conditions gave way to a blustery SW and heavy cloud by mid-afternoon. While checking the Parsonage canopy, a call from Graham provided the first star bird - a Rustic Bunting on the path by Porth Killier.

Rustic Bunting

Five minutes later and there it was, feeding happily in full view with a flock of Linnets in thickening drizzle - right place (close by, and with mobile reception), right time, with only fleeting views apparently gained later. Wingletang had been attracting Lapland Buntings in the preceding days, and a very accomodating flock of eleven allowed close approach along the eastern path - a species which became an overall trip highlight, brightening many a quiet walk between Horse Point and Covean.

The 5th produced a little more alongside a dusting of expected common migrants - catching up with Wryneck, two Firecrests and a Marsh Harrier on Gugh was a pleasure, while Agnes held little of note, despite the usual countless rounds from us all. The 6th, meanwhile, was even quieter - single Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, a few Golden Plovers and Wheatears were a stark return, and the flock of Lapland Buntings on Wingletang (thirteen today) were more than welcome respite.

Marsh Harrier

Four days in and with comparatively little to show, it seemed the Anti-American deflector shield over the islands (likely an invent of Shetland or Hebridean origin) was once again at maximum power; word of neartic passerines making landfall on seemingly every other available isle and headland along the east Atlantic seaboard from roughly the 6th to the 9th and beyond at least provided further inspiration - which in truth was far from required.

Lapland Buntings

The popular belief endlessly trotted out in recent years of Scilly being 'dead' and 'over', the rise in popularity of other migratory honeypots and outposts, and the subsequent near-desertion of the islands by the pagered masses went a long way to convincing me that it was just the right time to get acquainted with Agnes; combined with the beauty and serenity of the island, and the opportunity to join a committed team of Agnes faithfuls (all of whom are razor-sharp in the field and fine company out of it), it was an easy and timely decision.

And last year's relative drought only served to strengthen the faith, which would surely be rewarded in the coming days.....

St. Agnes, October 2010 (2)

Part Two - 7th to 11th

The 7th began with blue skies, becoming increasing warm with a moderate SSW, veering S; several circuits, including a couple of hours on Gugh, again revealed very little fresh-in. A few Wheatears, Whinchats, common raptors (including Merlin and Peregrines), and the usual sprinkle of Blackcaps, Reed Warblers and Chiffys were as good as it got during the morning session, excepting a couple of always beautiful Firecrests on Gugh and a memorable half hour alone with the buntings on Wingletang - by approaching very slowly and sitting on the grass, they soon ignored my presence and hopped to within a metre of my boots for minutes at a time. Wonderful.

more Laps - because they're worth it

Back at the house, news reached us of a Black-headed Bunting feeding on the path along the shore of Porth Coose - once again, five minutes later and there it was, allowing relatively close approach and, in subtle immature tones with a yellow-washed vent, a very smart little bird (and another smart bunting for the trip). While mulling around before going our seperate ways again for the afternoon session, a Common Redstart appeared, fresh-in, on a nearby fence; hardly a headline-grabber, but surely another sign...

Black-headed Bunting

There was a communal sense of a corner being turned, and with the winds steadily moving into the south-east and fronal systems due, possibilities once again widened. If the gods deemed Agnes once again unfit to host a neartic wanderer, then palearctic activity would do just fine.

The 8th was like a fresh start, and with plenty of newly-arrived migrants across the island, made for a very entertaining day in the field. The personal tally of commoner species included 20+ Chiffchaffs, a small arrival of Willow Warblers, a minimum of five Firecrests, a trickle of Swallows, Whinchats, Goldcrests, Reed Warblers, five Pied Flycatchers, several Yellow Wagtails, a Common Redstart in the Parsonage, and fantastic views of a Wryneck on Castella Down - the same site rounding off the day beautifully with a Long-eared Owl perched on an outcrop in the golden evening sunshine.

Long-eared Owl

Overnight showers and fierce ESE's promised more for the 9th, and while the windy and gloomy conditions made it more of challenge, it was another entertaining day. A sprinkling of commoner migrants - warblers, flycatchers, chats, hirundines, Siskins, Redwings etc. - were augmented by a dumping of Chaffinches, the first two Red-breasted Flycatchers of the trip, more Wrynecks, and a Common Rosefinch giving excellent views in the fields behind the house. No killers, but more than enough to keep spirits high and minds focused.


Sunday the 10th was full of birds. Numbers of commoner species sky-rocketed - one of the largest falls on the island in recent years - with all available habitat littered with new arrivals, making for a very enjoyable day in the field, and numerous circuits of the island between us.

Pied Flycatcher

Amongst the highlights: no less than seven Red-breasted Flycatchers (two in the Parsonage, one in the Fruit Cage, one fresh-in along Barnaby Lane and three on Gugh), at least eight Firecrests, several Wrynecks (often giving close views), a Quail flushed in a field just behind the house, and an extraordinary arrival of Ring Ouzels.


From messages exchanged early on between us, they were evidently everywhere - singles, pairs, trios, five and six together, from across the island; an incredible spectacle. Allowing, very conservatively, for duplication, we estimated '30+' in the evening log, but in reality it was probably many more.

Ring Ouzels

With scarcities liberally scattered and Ring Ouzels around every corner, commoner species were barely registering - in stark contrast to the previous week, when we knew each migrant by its first name..... they included hundreds of Robins, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds, many dozens of Chaffinches, House Martins, Chiffchaffs and Skylarks, good numbers of Blackcaps, Reed Warblers, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Wheatears, Redwings, Black and Common Redstarts, Goldcrests, Swallows and Siskins, plus various others (Whinchats, Yellow Wagtails, Hobby, Common Whitethroat etc.).

Black Redstart

A Lesser Whitethroat eventually showed well after a little encouragement at the southern end of Barnaby Lane, feeding in bracken and bramble-covered dry-stone walls on the northern edge of Wingletang - and with good views became more and more interesting. Showing concolourous underparts, a poorly-defined (almost non-existent) facial 'mask', obvious white outer-tail feathers and, most strikingly, warm sandy brown upperparts, extending fully up over the nape and onto the crown. Halimodendri seems like a realistic option, especially given the prevailing conditions and supporting cast (as well as e.g. Pied and Black-eared Wheatears just a couple of km away on St. Mary's...).

Lesser Whitethroat showing characteristics of ssp. halimodendri

While photographing the above, a group of House Martins appeared over Wingletang - with a Swift sp in tow..... Aware of the possibilities, I diverted the camera skyward and frantically texted the team as the bird headed towards Covean. Despite initial internal excitement it became steadily obvious that the bird was a very late Common Swift, confirmed by Lee and Laurence as it appeared above their cream teas for extended views. Close, but no cigar (shape).

Common Swift

It was the kind of day when anything could appear, and as the sun set over Castella, I took a walk towards St. Warna's, down the footpath beyond the coastguards. With the light almost gone I heard an oddly familiar call from within the vegetation-covered dry-stone wall; a minute or so later, no sign, and so a last-gasp pish on the off-chance. For all of four or five seconds, the bird appeared, close to, within the crown of scrub - bizarrely, a Cetti's Warbler.

Cetti's Warbler

Completely off the radar when meticulously searching for skulking sibes or asian wanderers, it was, technically, the rarest bird we found (with only a couple of previous records for the island, and therefore much scarcer than, say, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Grey-cheeked Thrush etc) - scant consolation, but another close call and further inspiration.

High hopes for the 11th, which dawned clear and remained sunny and blue-skied all day. Plenty of activity once again, with migrants well scattered (including e.g. a sudden appearance of Garden Warblers, a new RB Fly, a Common Gull, a few redpolls), and a promising start, when two Spoonbills headed east over the north of the island.


Aside from several Wrynecks and various other species previously arrived however, nothing stunning appeared, and the bird of the day was a Nightingale, which showed superbly (when left alone by the visiting crowds) near the old obs in the sunshine.


A quality few days, which were about to get even better......

(click on the 'older posts' link, below right, for the last Agnes Post)