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Isles of Scilly

Vagrant Migrant
Red-eyed Vireo Vireo olivaceus ©Martin Goodey Website

Birding the Isles of Scilly

The Isles of Scilly are an archipelago off the south western tip of Cornwall comprising five inhabited islands (six if Gugh is counted separately from St Agnes) and numerous other small rocky islets (around 140 in total). One of the islands, St Agnes, is the most southerly point in both England and the United Kingdom, being over 4 miles (6.4 km) further south than the most southerly point of the British mainland at Lizard Point.

The islands' position produces a place of great contrast - the ameliorating effect of the sea, greatly influenced by the North Atlantic Current, means they rarely have frost or snow, which allows local farmers to grow flowers well ahead of those in mainland Britain. The chief agricultural product is cut flowers, mostly daffodils, although this has declined in recent years and some success has been achieved by diversification. Artisan crafts and specialist foodstuffs are good examples of this, e.g. ice cream and wine. Exposure to Atlantic winds also means that spectacular winter gales lash the islands from time to time. This is reflected in the landscape, most clearly seen on Tresco where the lush Abbey Gardens on the sheltered southern end of the island contrast with the low heather and bare rock sculpted by the wind on the exposed northern end.

They are known locally as the Fortunate Isles and lie twenty-eight miles to the south-west of mainland Cornwall, acting as the first and last landfall for many migrant birds. Over the years Scilly has developed an enviable reputation as Europe's premier rarity locality, being a magnet for birds originating from all points of the compass. To date almost 450 species have been recorded (447 in accordance with the IOC list which was adopted on 1st January 2018). New species continue to be added - Eastern Orphean Warbler in 2017 for instance. This total beats any other single site in Europe (as far as we are aware!) being made up primarily of vagrants.

The islands are accessed by sea or air and are well established as a popular destination for autumn birders, once polarised around the first two weeks in October but now more widely spread from late September to early November. In the 1980s approximately a thousand birders nearly outnumbered the locals as they searched for rarities among the small enclosed flower fields and tamarisk bushes, but numbers have been lower in the 21st century. Each morning, boats set out from St. Mary's for the off islands of Tresco, St. Agnes, St. Martin's and Bryher. The first two usually have a few birders staying on them, and St Agnes and St Martin’s have resident birders, but the other islands still provide a challenge for the determined.

It's not just about October however. A visit to the islands at most times can be rewarding. The summer sees internationally important numbers of seabirds breeding on the islands, including Puffins, Manx Shearwaters and Storm Petrels. Populations of seabirds in Britain have been declining everywhere and Scilly is no exception, but a project to remove Brown Rats from St Agnes and Gugh was successfully completed in 2017 and Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel pairs are increasing significantly (as are Lesser White-toothed Shrews or “Scilly Shrews”) now that these islands (and Annet) are rat-free. The problem with seabirds is that even with so many birds they are nigh on impossible to see unless you are in a boat! Luckily there are many boat trips in spring and summer that give opportunities to get close to them. In spring many species overshoot from the south with Woodchat Shrikes, Hoopoes and Red-rumped Swallows being regular along with southern herons such as Night Heron and Little Bittern. Long hours of daylight, warm weather, blooming flowers and few birders can make this a particularly memorable time. Contrary to popular belief there are opportunities to get away from the crowds and find your own birds at whatever season.

How to find out where the birds are: Scilly is an impossible place to divide up in any coherent way. The whole archipelago is a glorious place to go birding! So, visiting birders head for the ISBG bird board outside the back door of the Pilot's Gig restaurant next to the quay in Hugh Town. This board displays all the information recorded for that and the previous day, specifying the birds and their approximate locations. It generally functions very well and everybody drops in to check on the latest info. People are very good at passing on news via mobiles and from pagers etc and it all gets put on the board, which is good news for all those of us still without the technology! Even in this day of almost instant mobile phone communication, the most useful means of finding out what’s where is still the constant updates by CB radio and pager. Mobile phones are of mixed value on Scilly due to the variable signal quality. The other reliable places for the latest bird news are, of course, the local pubs - home to many a tall tale in the evenings! Every night during October a log of the day’s records is called at the Turk’s Head on St Agnes and at the Scillonian Club in Hugh Town at 21.00, where all can socialise and plan the next day’s birding.

Contributor

Martin Scott

(updated in 2018 by John Headon, ISBG Recorder - see below)

County Recorder

John Headon

Hivernia, Jackson's Hill, St Mary's, Isles of Scilly TR21 0JZ

01720 423540

recorder@scilly-birding.co.uk

Number of Species

Number of bird species: 447

County Bird - Common Nighthawk Chordeiles minor

Useful Reading

Best Birdwatching Sites in Cornwall & The Scilly Isles

by Sara McMahon and Nigel Hudson - Buckingham Press 2008

ISBN: 9780955033957

Buy this book from NHBS.com

Birds of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly

by David Chapman | Alison Hodge | 2008 | 96 Pages

ISBN: 9780906720554

Buy this book from NHBS.com

Essential Guide to Birds of the Isles of Scilly

Bob L Flood, Nigel Hudson and Bryan Thomas 528 pages, 152 col plates, b/w illus.

ISBN: 9780955343025

Buy this book from NHBS.com

Isles of Scilly Bird & Natural History Review

The Isles of Scilly Bird Group, in association with the BTO, publish an annual Review each September, which is available directly from: Ms Carole Cilia, Hivernia, Jackson’s Hill, St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly TR21 0JZ or contact Carole via e-mail mailto:carole.cilia@btinternet.com.

Scilly Birding: Joining the Madding Crowd

by Simon Davey | Illustrated by Amanda Davey | Brambleby Books | 2013 | 162 Pages | Paperback

ISBN: 9781908241177

Buy this book from NHBS.com

Guides & Tour Operators

Click on WAND for tours, guides, lodges and more…

Isle of Scilly for birders

Tour Operator

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.

NatureTrek

Tour Operator

An 8-day birdwatching holiday to the relaxing and beautiful Isles of Scilly.

Scillonian Pelagic Trips

Tour Operator

Warmed by the Gulf Stream, buffeted by the Atlantic, relying on sea and air links with the mainland, the unique Isles of Scilly are a world apart. Populated by a friendly community of just over 2000 islanders, sub-tropical Scilly has tranquillity and a quality of life long lost to less isolated places. Exotic plants and wild flowers, ancient cairns and crumbling castles, sparkling white sands by an azure sea - all just 28 miles from Land’s End in the south-west corner of the UK.

Trip Reports

Click on WAND for tours, guides, lodges and more…

CloudBirders

Trip Report Repository

CloudBirders was created by a group of Belgian world birding enthusiasts and went live on 21st of March 2013. They provide a large and growing database of birding trip reports, complemented with extensive search, voting and statistical features.

2008 [October] - Anser Birding

Report

Isles of Scilly and Cornwall 16th to 20th October 2008…

2008 [October] - Philip Andrews

Report

Lying 28 miles off Lands End, this beautiful archipelago of 150 islands (only 5 of which – St Marys, Tresco, St Martins, St Agnes and Bryher are inhabited) have for many years been viewed as the “mecca” for British birding. Since the 1960s the islands have produced a remarkable list of birds from both the East and particularly the West, including many UK firsts…

2015 [October] - Christopher Hall

Report

...We found a Greenshank in Porth Hellick and then with Pectoral Sandpiper and a bouncy Jack Snipe showing well on the pool at Higher Moors, we took it in turns to squeeze into the hide for a look through the scope at these two star waders. Moving north along Holy Vale, we found several Chiffchaffs and briefly saw a Yellow-browed Warbler. Returning to Hugh Town via Porthloo and Town Beaches we added Curlew and Turnstone to the list, with a Water Rail seen by lucky Iris from the hide at Lower Moors. Finally we found several Sandwich Terns in the bay off Porthcressa Beach, so not a bad list for a quiet day.

Places to Stay

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Carn Ithen - St Mary's

Accommodation

Situated in quiet Old Town, Carn Ithen has an enviable location less than 100 m from Old Town beach, Lower Moors nature trail and a few minutes stroll to the solitude of Old Town Church. Run by Danielle and Nigel Hudson (Recorder)

Isles of Scilly Tourist Board

Accommodation

This site, provided by the Isles of Scilly Tourist Board, the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, Scotia Helicopters and the Tresco Estate, aims to offer essential information and a flavour of the Islands to anyone interested in visiting.

Scilly on line

Accommodation

All sorts of links to commercial sites including a where to stay section.

Organisations

Isle of Scilly Bird Group

Website

This is the official website of the ISBG. The website is updated on a regular basis with bird sightings from across the islands. Please use the contact form to send us any of your sightings, trip reports, articles queries etc.

Isles of Scilly Bird Group

Facebook Page

The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust

Website

The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust is a local independent charity which looks after more than 60% of the islands. With the help of volunteers, grants, donations and legacies the small, professional staff team restores and maintains habitats for the benefit of people and wildlife on Scilly.

Blogs

scilly spider

BLOG

Other Links

Sennen Cove - Cornwall

Website

Bird sightings from Sennen Cove & the Scillies.

Photographers & Artists

Photographer - Joe Pender Wildlife Photography

Gallery

I am a born and bred Scillonian and have been running a passenger boat in Scilly since 1992 when I took over from my Dad who had the Lily Of Laguna. I now have the Sapphire, which I had built in 2000, which is a 15.5m Kingfisher. Most of my Photos are taken on the pelagic trips I have been running for over 15 years I have become a proficient sea birder and photographer…

Photographer - Martin Goodey

Gallery

Born in the Isles of Scilly in 195.. Surrounded by nature; it would have been hard not to develop a love of wildlife. With the late David Hunt as a friend and mentor I soon appreciated Scilly's uniqueness as a place to watch birds and in particular witness the spring and autumn migration.