header - Pied Kingfisher header by Nigel Blake
Home make surfbirds my homepage
email this page to pals
(Ross's Gull header by Dave Hawkins)

The Scilly Isles

Steeped in birding folklore the Isles of Scilly are one of the 'must visit' places in the UK. Shallow waters, golden sands and a climate often more akin to the Mediterranean, it's a fabulous place to be when birds are on the move. Lying 28 miles south-west of Land's End, the Scillies are in prime position to receive migrants heading south and also storm driven vagrants from all directions. Birders visiting the islands since the 70's have been responsible for finding a number of 'British firsts' particularly those of Nearctic origin. The birdwatching can be fantastic and with a roll call of such 'megas' from recent October visits including Blyth's Pipit, Dusky Thrush, Caspian Stonechat, Pallid Swift, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Red-flanked Bluetail, multiple Red Eyed Vireos, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, Sora, American Herring Gull, Caspian Tern plus Britain's second Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler. Prevailing weather dictates which rare/scarce birds arrive, no one year is the same. Expect to see plenty of passerines and land-birds on their way south plus regular scarcities. It's a holiday where truly anything is possible!

Fancy a birdwatching holiday on the Scillies. Visit Heatherlea who kindly provided this text

Chris Button

Chris Button, birding with a sketchbook

Chris Button got in to birds when he was just 17. He had just purchased his first bird book, Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, and he was hooked. There then followed long distance twitches to see rare birds – starting with a Pied-billed Grebe at Kenfig National Nature Reserve in South Wales in the late 1980's. Since then, twitches have returned Double-crested Cormorant, Golden-winged Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pallas's Sandgrouse, Black-browed Albatross, Ancient Murrelet, Black-billed Cuckoo, Cedar Waxwing, Siberian Thrush, White's Thrush and Grey Catbird.

Chris has always been in awe of bird artists, people like Ian Lewington, Killian Mullarney, Szabolcs Kokay, Juan Varela, Richard Johnson and Barry Van Dusey. Chris' approach is to fully finish the field sketches in pencil while out in the field and then apply some watercolour (from colour notes made at the time) when back home. After various pauses from birding, Chris returned to birding more seriously in 2018 picking up pencils and paint brushes and sketching again.

In October 2019 Chris visited the Scillies where he saw/sketched his 250th bird of the year. Here, he shares some of his most memorable moments with surfbirders.

I had last been to Scilly in 2005. But this year I decided that another visit to the Scillies would really help with my year list target of 250.

Our first target was the Red-eyed Vireo which had been found in Old Town Churchyard on Tuesday 8th October. Unfortunately, there was no sign in a two-hour search but we heard that the Yellow-billed Cuckoo was showing at the Dump Clump near the school, having not been seen at all the day previously. We dashed off there.

We joined around 30 other birds along the track through the Dump Clump. Viewing conditions weren't great with little room for each person and a very overgrown set of trees to look into. After about 15 minutes we had brief views of it as it moved through the canopy.

My first views were of the chestnut primaries, the long black and white tail and the clean white underparts. On the second view, about 10 minutes later, I saw the head and the hooked yellow bill. The third view was equally brief as it flitted through the sycamores. I made a simple single pose sketch based on the short views I'd had.

I've only seen Yellow-billed Cuckoo once before and that was on Tresco in 1999.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, The Scilly Isles, October 2019, sketch by Chris Button

There have been around 75 records of Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Britain.

Our first target having got onto the islands had been the Red-eyed Vireo. which had been found in Old Town Churchyard. The problem with going to see a bird which has been around for a while already is that fewer birders may be looking for it, maybe only birders who had just arrived like us. We had walked down the track to the churchyard and as I feared there were very few birders on location. From chatting to people, it appeared that the vireo was pretty mobile covering a large area. Unfortunately, there was no sign in our two-hour search.

So, I tried for the nearby White-rumped Sandpiper at Toll's Porth. Having seen the American sandpiper I had decided that this was a good end to the day. However, at 4:30pm the Red-eyed Vireo was seen again in the churchyard at Old Town. I decided to head south as quickly I could and hope that there were some birders watching the vireo when I arrived. There wouldn’t be much time before the light started to fade.

I arrived pretty exhausted. Soon afterwards another birder reported that it was now in the top of the sycamores on the boundary line between the churchyard and the fields.

I thanked him, shouted it out for the other birders and dashed up the track to view the sycamores. Thankfully it was still there, and I quickly got it in the scope and had great views particularly of the lovely blue crown, black eye stripe and white supercilium. This had been a really good first afternoon on Scilly!

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo, The Scilly Isles, October 2019, sketch by Chris Button

There have been more than 200 records of Red-eyed Vireo in Britain.

Having seen the Spotted Crake and Blue-winged Teal we continued on to the Dump Clump for our third attempt for the Red-breasted Flycatcher and with the added hope of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

The flycatcher wasn't on show when we arrived, but it had been seen within the last few minutes. We spread out slightly along the path and then someone called out that the flycatcher was in view. We all got onto it and had good views.

The white tail patches were visible especially when it flew away and also the large domed head with a white eye ring. The throat and upper chest were buffy and there was an obvious pale wing bar across the greater coverts. The primaries were long with the wings held low and the tail often cocked.

Red-breasted Flycatcher

Red-breasted Flycatcher, The Scilly Isles, October 2019, sketch by Chris Button

A regular passage vagrant, seen in small numbers in Britain each year.

WhatsApp messages over the last few days had suggested that the Rose-breasted Grosbeak was very mobile and proving very difficult to connect with. Some people had missed it altogether and others had to visit three times. While we were having breakfast, news came through of a possible Yellow-throated Vireo on St Martin's and that an early boat would be going at 8:45am. The vireo might not come to anything, but it seemed likely that there would be quite a few people going to Martin's and so seeing the grosbeak might be easier as a result.

The advice had been to stick round the bakery area, the fields above the cricket pitch and the shrubs and bushes which ran alongside the path down from the quay to the bakery. Within 10 minutes a message on WhatsApp reported the grosbeak was currently viewable from the bend in the main path down to Higher Town quay. Within two minutes we joined a small group of birders and they got us onto the grosbeak which was sat quietly preening on an exposed branch. Immediately obvious were the huge bill and head, the striking white supercilium, the white wing bars and white tertial spots. The grosbeak then spent the next few hours evading us as it bombed around the various stops on its circuit.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, The Scilly Isles, October 2019, sketch by Chris Button

There have been around 40 records of Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Britain