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Avian Archipelago

Birdwatching on The Scillies

The Isles of Scilly are sandwiched between sea and sky, rising out of the shallow waters of the Celtic Sea just 48 miles from the south-westwern tip of the mainland. Regular ferries ply the choppy expanse between Penzance and the islands, but most visitors arrive by air. The tourists scud in by the plane-load, staining the skies with Airbus vapour trails. The avian incomers, meanwhile, ride in on currents over the Gulf Stream and paint the air with their raucous squabbling. It is largely the latter which draw in the former. The islands possess breathtaking natural beauty, historical intrigue aplenty and abundant outdoorsiness. Every human, however, seems to arrives with binoculars and waterproofs, hell-bent on staring intently at the small feathered beings clustering on the horizon, rustling through the undergrowth, and bobbing on the waves. Twitchers, ornithologists, birdwatchers, birders; whatever you call them, they are everywhere. They haunt the white sand beaches, they lurk amidst rare flora, they huddle along the remains of Neolithic walls. During the middle two weeks of October when the likelihood of spotting a rare winged interloper is at its peak – so-called Scilly Season – the excitement hangs palpably in the air. Twitchers are so thick on the ground that one false step will have you muddying the Angus & Dundee Bird Club treasurer’s best notebook.

If you already have tickets booked for your annual Scilly Season birding binge, then far be it from me to tell you what to look out for. If, however, you cannot reliably tell a shag from a guillemot, then these pages are for you. While our line-up is select, it includes a few of the star-players in this gobsmackingly diverse birdlife extravaganza. We’ve included denizens of the hedgerows, the tree tops, the high-tide line, the shallows and the high seas. Some are year-round residents, some are seasonal guests, while still others – the ones the birders get most excited about – are, quite frankly, lost. Who knows, once your interest is piqued, you might be out there in all weathers with the best of them. Hint; the small end of the binoculars goes up against your eyes.

Everybody’s favourite; the puffin.
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Species: Fratercula artica

“Rrrrrr, grrrr, oooo arrrrr.”
The call of the puffin is halfway between the creak of a rusty hinge and the bleating of a flock of miniature, grumpy sheep. As the reputation of this most dearly-loved of birds is vast, its diminutive size comes as something of a surprise. Think pigeon rather than penguin. This disappointment of scale is often compounded by distance, due to the puffin’s rather self-centred habit of digging its burrows in inaccessible cliff-faces. Get past these twin let-downs, however, and it more than lives up to its promise in sheer entertainment value. Prepare for obsession; hours spent on your elbows in damp grass with only impending darkness or starvation capable of tearing you away. Our heroes quibble, kiss, and scurry, their parrot-like bills full of silvery fish in an endless seafront soap opera. There is also something about the mechanics of their flight that fascinates. Despite sporting stubby little wings apparently incapable of even basic aeronautics, they arc continuously and fearlessly out over the waves. This leads me inevitably to conjecture about hidden catapults secreted in the cliff-face and game, hardy puffins queueing up to climb aboard in order to be flung seaward in search of lunch.

More aerodynamic than most; the common tern.
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Sternidae
Species: Sterna hirundo

“Phkraaa kraaaa, pkhyeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaa pkhyeeeeeeeeeaaa!”
The cut glass cry of the common tern is almost as sharp as its silhouette. These elegant sea birds appear to have been folded from crisp, white paper by an origami master. They are most often seen winging their meandering way across the waves with slow, measured wing beats. The tern clan is tight knit and black capped; the common variety is often found in the company of its cousins, the Arctic and Sandwich terns. To ensure a correct identification and so avoid embarrassment, look out for darker wingtips on the common tern (in contrast to the pale outer wing feathers of the Arctic tern), and a bright red beak (instead of the black appendage attached to the somewhat larger, whiter Sandwich tern). Although terns are widespread throughout Europe, these beautiful birds retain an air of magic as they wheel and plunge over the shallows. What they boast in visual delight, however, they lack in ingenuity. Without an architect’s bone in its body, the common tern lays its clutch of eggs in a simple scrape in the sand.

A very rare sighting; the Caspian stonechat.
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Turdidae
Species: Saxicola hemprichii

“Psiwhispsisiiiha … psiwhispsiwhaaahaa …”
If you are lucky enough to stumble across this pert little fellow, don’t let its apparently scolding cry dampen your spirits. Tick the Caspian stonechat off on your birding dance-card, and you’re Scilly twitcher glitterati. Given that it’s about 4,345 kilometres from the Caspian Sea to the islands, you can appreciate what all the fuss is about. This charismatic chap is not enormously unlike a sparrow in size and shape, but sports a gamut of beautiful colour, including a charcoal mask, a chestnut flecked cap and a buff bib with an airbrushed splash of apricot, no less. A word of warning before gloating about your sighting to all and sundry; not every ‘small, chunky percher’ with a propensity to whirr to a prominent lookout is a stonechat, and, horrifyingly, not every stonechat is Caspian. The islands abound with boring European stonechats, and almost equally tiresome Siberian ones. Yawn. The crucial difference, so it seems, is that the Caspian variety has rather more white about the tail.

Coming to a garden near you; the song thrush.
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Turdidae
Species: Turdus Philomelos

“Whoowhit whooo skraaaaa keee pwit pwit whooo!”
This dappled crooner of the hedgerows will charm your pants off with a song as soon as look at you. They’re not particularly rare, and they are far from exclusively Scillonian, but the song thrush is a good, solid spot. Known and named for its full-throated, enthusiastic vocal habits, you will quite often hear it before you see it. In order to make visual contact, look down; this bird lives very much at ground level – or just above. It’s where it builds its nests and its where all the tasty worms are. You will most likely spot it as it sprints or springs across a pathway. As hedgerow birds go, song thrushes are fairly large and they are very bird-shaped – just like the archetypal kind of bird that seven year olds draw. Interestingly, the Latin name for the order it belongs to, Passeriformes, means just that; ‘bird-shaped’. An aside; cracking puerile jokes about this one’s other Latin name, Turdus, is really not done in birding circles.

Child of the waves; the storm petrel.
Order: Procellariiformes
Family: Hydrobatidae
Species: Hydrobates pelagicus

“P-cheh-cheh, p-chaw-chaw, p-cheh-cheh … pppppprrrprprpr.”
It might sound a little like it’s engine won’t start, but there is nothing faulty about the storm petrel’s locomotive capacities. This most glamorously named bird spends its days swooping swallow-like over the waves, often so low that is doused in sea spray or hidden from view by the bellying swell. When it puts its mind to it, speed is its speciality, and it can be seen overtaking local car-ferries. Despite this courageous bird’s apparent nonchalant in the face of the ocean’s fury, it is surprisingly tiny and fragile up close. Just five or six inches high, it is so well adapted to life on the wing that its slender legs can’t bear its weight. This unenviable design flaw means it is ungainly on land, which is attracts unwanted predatory attention – in this case, from gulls and skuas. As a result, storm petrels spend their days out over the seas and only return to terra firma after nightfall, when they check on their single, rather neglected offspring, huddled in holes in the rocks. If they make it past a rather lonely chickhood, and manage to survive either being eaten or swallowed up by stray tidal waves, they might live for up to twenty, long years.

Avian Archipelago

Atlantic puffin

Avian Archipelago

Common tern

Avian Archipelago

Caspian stonechat

Avian Archipelago

Song thrush

Avian Archipelago

Storm petrel

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