Saturday 8 September 2018

Scilly Seabirds - Part Four 27th August 2018

So Monday arrived bringing the impending prospect of our fourth and final pelagic adventure but it would not be until 5pm in the afternoon. I duly met Andy at the Kavorna Cafe where we indulged ourselves in a coffee and a slice of cake each. We now had most of the day ahead in which to occupy ourselves and mercifully the weather was now pleasant again, with sunshine and a light wind. Originally we had planned to go to the nearby island of Tresco to look for a Solitary Sandpiper, North America's version of our Green Sandpiper, which would be another lifer for Andy but it was not to be as the sandpiper had now gone.

I suggested we visit Lower Moors again to see if the Citrine Wagtail had returned but Andy preferred to wander the surrounding lanes looking for migrants which was understandable and in hindsight sensible but I persisted on going to Lower Moors where I fancied sitting quietly, probably because I was tired but unwilling to admit it, photographing, in the wagtail's absence, the Common Snipe we had seen here on Friday but my plan was to be frustrated as there was just one Common Snipe now, fast asleep on a muddy scrape in some reeds and showing no signs of moving. I consoled myself with the hope a Water Rail might show itself from the reeds but it was a forlorn hope that was unrealised although I did hear one.

A little later I received a text from Andy informing me he had found a Pied Flycatcher at a place called Telegraph. I relayed this news to the only other occupant of the hide, a young birder and he told me that he had found two there yesterday. I did not bother to ask why he had not thought to tell me. It is an unwritten code that birders should share any intelligence about good birds and a Pied Flycatcher certainly falls in that category. I called Andy back and told him I was on my way.

Half an hour's pleasant walk later and I found Andy standing at the junction of two roads and motioning me to hurry, to see, presumably, the Pied Flycatcher that he was obviously watching in some conifer trees on the opposite side of the road. I was loathe to run in case I scared it off but then a car came along the road and did the job just as effectively, so I missed it. No matter, I had plenty of time to wait and so we did, for quite some time unfortunately, before it suddenly appeared in the middle of the road snatching an insect from the tarmac .It then flew up into the lower branches of a conifer before flying across the road to perch on the top bar of a metal gate. A couple of minutes later and it was gone.

Pied Flycatcher
Andy headed off to look at other places but I remained and eventually was fortunate enough to get another few minutes in the company of the elusive flycatcher before it disappeared and after a further hour's fruitless wait it looked like it had found somewhere else to feed.

I walked back down the road noticing a Song Thrush sat close by. It did not move and showed little alarm at my presence. This was typical of its kind on Scilly, for not only were there seemingly plentiful numbers of Song Thrushes but they all, without exception, appeared very confiding. The same could be said for House Sparrows and Wrens both of which were much more plentiful and obvious than on the mainland.

Song Thrush
Coming down the hill I looked out to sea and saw The Scillonian was just arriving from Penzance which told me it was already 1230. Lunchtime! 

The Scillonian arriving at St Mary's
I met up with Andy in Hugh Town and we had a relaxed lunch in the Kavorna Cafe and afterwards returned to the hide at Lower Moors but even the single Common Snipe had now gone. The walk through the small nature reserve of Lower Moors to the hide was enlivened by many Speckled Wood butterflies. They seemed to be everywhere, rising from the path in front of us or cavorting in sunny glades. I even rescued one from a spider's web.

We gave up on Lower Moors and as it was now mid afternoon returned to Hugh Town and got ready for our final pelagic. We walked slowly through the town to the quayside to sit on a bench in glorious sunshine and await boarding time for the MV Sapphire.

It was very much an end of term feeling aboard the Sapphire this evening, the last birder's pelagic of the year with only a comparatively few birders on board which allowed space for some local shark fishermen to come along with us. I should add that these fishermen intended no harm to the sharks they might catch, which are usually Blue Sharks but were intending to catch them for the purpose of attaching tags to them for research purposes.

We set off in very pleasant conditions and headed out from the busy harbour, once again going north of St Martins but there was no sign of the tuna nor any congregations of birds. The regular Gannets, gulls and Fulmar Petrels soon commenced circling the boat and as we got further out beyond St Martins a few Manx Shearwaters swept past us.

Northern Gannet
The clouds moved over the sun and the light began to fade as the evening sky softened towards night. It is almost dark by nine at this time of the year so with no concentrations of shearwaters to look at Joe stopped the Sapphire and joined the two shark fishermen, each with a rod and line over the side to catch bait for  the sharks. The bait were Pollack, and sizeable ones at that which they hauled in and chopped up into sizeable chunks to bait the hooks for the sharks.

Joe Pender skipper of the MV Sapphire with a Pollack


We floated gently on the swell but it was slow going for both birders and the shark fishermen. 

Looking for seabirds
Only two Great Shearwaters were seen on this trip and half a dozen Sooty Shearwaters while a couple of Ocean Sunfish betrayed their presence by their flapping pectoral fins, the fins feebly waving like a drowning person above the surface of the sea.

Great Shearwater
I was hoping that a shark would be caught as  I have never seen a Blue Shark but it did not look likely. Jim methodically ladelled chum over the end of the boat and a long slick of foul smelling fish oil trailed downwind across the surface of the sea. European Storm Petrels began arriving regularly and aplenty, scudding across the grey sea but there was no sign of a hoped for Wilson's Petrel.

Joe and his friends finally gave up on the sharks, hauled in their lines and Joe started up the Sapphire's engine and we slowly cruised back along the mile long fish oil slick, checking on the petrels feeding in the slick. They were all European Storm Petrels, present in large numbers and quite a thrilling sight in their own right as they fed along the slick smoothing the grey waters.

The light had almost gone now, photography had been futile  for some time already so we turned once more and headed for Hugh Town Quay. I sat quietly and in contemplation , watching the last of the light sink slowly below the horizon, halo of pink and yellow in the west and the darkened waters of the  Atlantic slide past. Gulls, silhouettes above us against a magenta sky, overtook us in effortless  flight, keeping in formation and heading for quieter waters to roost.

Tomorrow we would leave for home on the Scillonian. Four days of intensive birding on The Scillies had made it seem as if we had been away for much longer and it would feel strange to be back on the mainland.

The End

This is what we saw on this pelagic

Great Shearwater 2

Sooty Shearwater 6
Manx Shearwater 40+
Great Skua 1
European Storm Petrel 30+

Ocean Sunfish


Also seen but not counted

Northern Gannet

Fulmar Petrel
Great Black backed Gull
Lesser Black backed Gull
Herring Gull

Please click on any image to view a larger version

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