Saturday 23 November 2019

The Scilly Hermit 21st November 2019

This year, late autumn in Britain has seen a constant stream of very rare birds being found from as far north as Shetland in Scotland to The Isles of Scilly in the extreme southwest of England and has, for me, resulted in a hectic but at the same time immensely enjoyable time of birding. 

Such goodies as Turkestan Shrike, Common Nighthawk, Yellow billed Cuckoo, Rose breasted Grosbeak, Steller's Eider and Eastern Yellow Wagtail have been added to my British list this autumn and today another extremely rare and much coveted species came my way in the form of a Hermit Thrush on the island of  St Mary's in The Isles of Scilly.

Hermit Thrushes are normally found breeding in central and southern Alaska, east across Canada, then south through the Rocky Mountains of western USA to northern Mexico. They are also found in the northeast states of the USA and range southwards through the Appalachian Mountains. They migrate for the winter to the southern states of the USA, Mexico and as far south as Guatemala and El Salvador in Central America. Some, however, remain to winter in the northern coastal states of the USA and southern  Ontario in Canada. They are solitary and shy birds that like forested areas and in winter can be found in parks and wooded areas of suburbia. Their diet consists of invertebrates and berries when in season.

Currently eight races of Hermit Thrush are recognised, based on a cline running from west to east across North America, where birds in the west are grey or grey brown on their upperparts to rich brown on the crown and upperparts of birds in the east. The bird we saw today definitely showed indications of coming from the eastern end of the cline which would make sense for a vagrant found  in Britain. In fact, based on the images I took, showing the colour tones of the plumage, I would suggest this individual could well be of the race Muscicapa gutturalis faxoni which is the easternmost race of Hermit Thrush.

Excluding this latest arrival, only twelve Hermit Thrushes have been seen in Britain to date, the most recent one being on the island of Noss in Shetland on 19th April 2017. The last one to be seen in England was on The Isles of Scilly in 1993 although a minor sensation was caused when, in 1994,  Nigel Pepper claimed he saw a Hermit Thrush in Chipping Ongar in Essex. It transpired he held a grievance at the supposed suppression of rare bird news in Essex so used a photo he took of one in Canada to make a bogus claim. He finally admitted the fraud in 2009 and was forever cast into the birding wilderness.

The Hermit Thrush on St Mary's was first discovered on 18th November, feeding in a sloping field of grass and bracken occupied by two horses and bordered by a narrow belt of mainly coniferous woodland on its far side. The field in question lay just above Porth Hellick pumping station and at the end of the Kitty Down trail which runs down one side of the field.

The Hermit Thrush would be a great bird to see as I have never seen one anywhere but the chances of it remaining were considered slim and for once I deemed it too great a risk to go all the way to Scilly on the chance of seeing it. I could only feasibly manage it the next day, Tuesday the 19th, even if I could raise the enthusiasm. Possibly I was suffering from twitching burnout after my epic twitch to Orkney to see the Steller's Eider. I was aware that other birders, some from as far away as Sussex, had decided to take a chance and go to Scilly on Tuesday but that day was one of constant rain, the birders that went got a good soaking  and the bird was not seen all day. So that was that, the Hermit Thrush had presumably gone. We could all relax. 

Wednesday came and as is my custom I was making my way to The Old Mill Cafe in Chipping Norton, near my home, for a mid afternoon coffee. All very civilised and verging on what normal people do.

A discreet ping from my phone alerted me to a message on the WhatsApp group reserved for a small group of fellow twitchers that I am honoured to belong to.  I looked and saw it was from Mark advising that the Hermit Thrush had just been seen again in its favourite field! Then shortly afterwards there was a text message from Les asking if I had any thoughts about dicing with the birding gods and going to try and see this very rare North American thrush.

I sat in the cafe and considered my options. I had to smile as I reflected I had been here before and gone through exactly the same thing with Mark, in this very cafe, not more than two weeks ago when we decided to go for the Steller's Eider in Orkney.

There were a number of potential obstacles to twitching the Hermit Thrush.

First, I could go on Thursday but had to be back off Scilly the same day as I had an unbreakable appointment in Oxfordshire on Friday morning.

Second, the only way to get to Scilly at this time of year is to fly as the ship, The Scillonian, does not sail there in the winter months.

Third, the planes that fly to Scilly are tiny, carrying eleven passengers at the most and I assumed they  would be all booked by birders going to see the thrush.

Fourth, if we did go by the plane it would require a five hour drive overnight from my home to get the first plane out of Lands End on Thursday, at 0815 in the morning, and then another five hour drive back from Lands End, at 1800 the same day, to get home by midnight on Thursday. A veritable marathon of endurance.

I looked at an image of the Hermit Thrush on my phone. It looked so nice. 

My resolve was wavering. I rang Les.

'I can go for it on Thursday Les, but at such late notice we will never get a flight and anyway I have to be back the same night'.

Les told me he also had to be back for Friday but not in the morning. 

'Can you ring the Isles of Scilly Travel Company and see if they have any flights available to get us on and back from St Mary's on Thursday? I asked.

Les said he would and then ring me back. I sat and drank my coffee and felt relaxed as I was confident there would not be any availability on tomorrow's flights to accommodate us and the quandary would be taken out of my hands. I could tell myself I had done my best but circumstances had been against me.

Half an hour passed and Les rang me.

'They have flights available'

They do?

'Yes, we can get over on the 0815 from Land's End and come back on the 1655 from St Mary's. Shall I go ahead and book for both of us?'

A micro second passed before I said. 'Yes go ahead. Where shall we meet?'

Les resides in Essex and me in northwest Oxfordshire, so in the end we resolved to drive to Lands End independently and meet at the tiny airport there.

Les rang back ten minutes later.

'We're on! See you at Land's End at 7am tomorrow morning'.

I went home, packed some essential things such as waterproofs, camera and bins and went to bed. The idea was to get some sleep before leaving home for Cornwall, at just after midnight. I should have known better. It always happens. I cannot get to sleep as I get too excited. I tried reading a book, sort of dozed for half an hour and then tossed and turned, fretting about not getting any sleep before my long journey and in the process wound myself up even more, so sleep was totally impossible.

Somehow it got to eleven in the evening and I gave up any idea of remaining in bed, got dressed, loaded the car, left home and headed west. The night enveloped me in a cloak of familiarity as I steered the Audi along a switchback of deserted rural Cotswold lanes around my home, heading for the M5.  Remarkably, in the first half hour of driving and before  reaching the motorway I  saw  three owls; two Barn Owls and a Tawny Owl, the latter sat in the middle of the road and only flying at the last moment as my headlights illuminated it. A lucky escape. I was to see one more Tawny Owl later that night, also on the ground, sat on the hard shoulder of a fortunately deserted M5 motorway. It too flew off before anything unfortunate could befall it but it set me to wondering how many must be killed on our roads if this is typical of how they behave. I assume they are hunting mice that they see running across the road.

I joined the motorway and settled back for the long haul west, something that seems to get ever longer and more tedious each time I make this journey to Cornwall. Normally it is Radio Three that accompanies me on these jaunts, the classical music providing a soothing, comforting background but tonight I was feeling more anxious than usual, even lonely and felt the sound of cheerful human voices would be a better option. I switched to the radio commentary on the cricket Test Match between England and New Zealand from Mount Maunganui in New Zealand. A surreal conversation was being conducted by the commentators about the musical The Sound of Music and the fact it was always on the television at Christmas in Bloemfontein, South Africa and how it was really odd to see Julie Andrews singing the words dubbed in Afrikaans. You can say that again! The conversation was based on the commentators prospects of having to spend another Christmas in South Africa away from their families, commentating on England playing South Africa at cricket. The discussion then went on to ponder whether there would be any turkey available for Christmas dinner,  flying light aircraft and various other pastimes and interests of the commentators. The current cricket score in New Zealand seemed to have become irrelevant. More to the point the bizarre conversation certainly kept me awake and entertained.

The cricket commentary came to an end and this stimulated a visit to a motorway services for a coffee in the death hour of three am, which was, as expected, a totally depressing experience. It always is. Like some half way house to hell these places in the early hours exude a malignant loneliness and sense of hapless abandonment that makes you want to run from the unforgiving glare of the neon, get back in the car and disappear into the comforting anonymity of the night and the motorway as quickly as possible.

On the border of Devon and Cornwall it commenced to rain which was expected but still unwelcome. The forecast, to be fair, had predicted occasional showers in the southwest. At first it was just the predicted showers but soon it became full on pelting rain, beating a relentless tattoo on the car's windscreen and driving a spear of anxiety through my heart. The Hermit Thrush would never put in an appearance in such heavy rain if it persisted. Was I on a loser even before getting to Scilly?

I could do nothing about the rain and drove onwards down the long lonely road that runs like a spine through the centre of Cornwall to its very tip at Land's End. The rain varied from light to heavy but was a continued presence and there was nothing to do but hope by some miracle the rain would cease. I tuned to the BBC shipping forecast and weather report at 5.30am to be told that the southwest could expect regular rain while the rest of Britain would be dry. No miracles today then.

Thoroughly depressed, tired, dishevelled and with nerves fraught from driving through the rain I drew up outside the tiny air terminal at Land's End. I had arrived at just after six am but there was no sign of life as the terminal did not open until seven am. I put the car seat back and grabbed some rest but not for long.

Les arrived at 6.30am, having had an even worse journey than mine due to the M25 motorway being closed for repairs, now no longer an uncommon occurrence on motorways at night.

At seven we entered the terminal and checked in for our flight, then sat to wait for the flight to be called at eight. We were joined by one other birder who had come to see the Hermit Thrush and was thoroughly prepared with a map and precise directions on his phone as to where the Hermit Thrush had been seen and presumably could be found if still present. We agreed to stick together and share a taxi to Porth Hellick pumping station when we arrived on St Mary's.

A coffee and something to eat in the cafe at Lands End airport revived me a little but a glance out of the window soon put paid to that as I observed sheets of rain stair-rodding down onto the tarmac. Our flight was called and we walked out into the rain falling from leaden skies and boarded the Twin Otter plane for the fifteen minute flight to St Mary's.

Miracles do happen or I would like to think so, for my wish for a miracle was granted, as on stepping from the plane at St Mary's we were greeted with no rain, weak sunshine and almost clear skies. The weather front causing all the rain must have moved through earlier than predicted. At least we were in with a chance now of seeing the thrush, presuming it was still there. Dare I say I was almost optimistic?

The taxi took us to the pumping station at Porth Hellick and we got out and walked up a very muddy and waterlogged short track by the pumping station to where the Kitty Down trail began or ended, depending on which way you chose to look at it. 

The horse field where the Hermit Thrush was first discovered.The top right hand corner looked just the place it would favour and was where we concentrated our efforts. The Kitty Down trail is running up on the right side of the field.
The field favoured by the Hermit Thrush was obvious and we settled in by a hedge to watch the field and hope the Hermit Thrush would appear. I had the distinct feeling I was wishing for a second miracle.

An hour later and any optimism had long departed and spirits were beginning to flag, as nothing remotely resembling the Hermit Thrush had shown itself. In fact there were hardly any birds to see at all and the only birds to visit the field were two Robins, which flew out of the narrow belt of conifers to perch on some fence posts surrounding the field. A couple each of Song Thrush and Redwing fed in a waterlogged daffodil field on the other side of the hedge behind us but that was all. At least the sun was still shining.

We were certain we were in the right place but doubt inevitably crept in with the continued non appearance of the Hermit Thrush and we began to question our judgement. Two hours had now passed since we had arrived at Porth Hellick, at just before nine. Graham Gordon, who found the Hermit Thrush, joined us and his upbeat attitude and advice raised our spirits. He told us that the bird could appear not only in the field we were keeping such a close eye on but also around the tiny pumping station nearby.

He showed us a track by the pumping station where the bird had been seen yesterday and our search consequently widened to there but I still felt the field where the thrush had first been seen was the place to look and concentrate on as it just looked right, especially in the top right hand corner where the conifers swept down to the edge of the field

We continued to stand around looking at the field, becoming  disconsolate and bored as there was still no evidence of the Hermit Thrush.

Yet more Robins, or probably the same two as before, perched on the distant fence posts at the top of the field, making one's pulse go just a little faster as they suggested something rarer but they were only Robins and far too small to be anything else.

Higgo, a well known Scilly birder joined us, together with another couple of locals but it was still no show as far as the Hermit Thrush was concerned. They told us about a Surf Scoter and a Ring billed Gull currently at Porthloo Beach. Maybe later we could go and see them but for now it was the Hermit Thrush that took priority.

Higgo furthest, then Les and local birder Chris Langsdon
Les was getting ever more despondent, convinced we had dipped. It was now 1115 am and I too was questioning whether we would ever see the thrush but reasoned there was no way it could have departed last night as it had rained so hard. It was here somewhere, I was convinced and my bet was it was in the tangle of conifers at the top of the field. It looked absolutely the right habitat and the ideal place for a woodland loving thrush to hide in. The sun, now warm on the sheltered field would surely tempt it out if it was there. After all it had been reported feeding in this very same field on  the first day it was seen.

Five more minutes passed. I was getting fractious and for the umpteenth time I scanned the distant fence posts at the top of the field. A bird flew out from the conifer branches and briefly perched on the furthest fence post from us. Jaundiced by constantly looking at Robins I still made the effort to check what I thought would be another Robin. In my bins I could see the bird had a white breast covered in spots. It was a thrush but it was too small to be a Song Thrush and definitely was not one of the ubiquitous Robins we had been admiring for the last two hours. It raised and slowly lowered its tail. It could only be one thing.

I said quietly to Les. 'There it is'

'That's it. I am sure'.


'The Hermit Thrush'.


I gave Les directions and the others followed them too.

The Hermit Thrush was first seen on the furthest post to the right before going back into the
conifers.It then came out and fed in the field
Higgo looked and agreed with my identification and everyone else looking saw the Hermit Thrush too but only very briefly, as it flitted back into cover before flying back out onto another post and then back into the conifers once again. All this took place in the space of thirty seconds but it was enough. Everyone had seen the diminutive thrush and it was handshakes and congratulations all round. The ease of tension and sense of relief was palpable and life felt very good at this precise moment.

Higgo put the news on the local Scilly WhatsApp birding group and soon three or four local birders arrived to join us.

The Hermit Thrush had not re-appeared after ten minutes of waiting and Higgo told us to ignore a sign marked 'Private' by the hedge and suggested we should all walk up along the hedgeline to put us in a position opposite and nearer the fence posts, situated further up the hill and on the far side of the small field.

Higgo, being local, obviously knew what we could get away with by mildly trespassing so we all followed him up to the top of the incline and stood in line along the hedge hoping the thrush would fly out again onto the fence posts opposite. 

We followed the 'private' track on the right to view from the hedge at the top across the field to
 the conifers.
Unfortunately a Robin appeared on the fence posts and that was the kiss of death as Robins, being territorial and aggressive, will not tolerate an interloper, even one larger than themselves. We roundly cursed the Robin which had previous form as it had been seen to chase off the Hermit Thrush yesterday.

Nevertheless we stood and waited. Hoping. The Robin flew off further down the fenceline. Good. A Raven flew over us pursued by a Carrion Crow, the size difference between the two remarkable and obvious.

A small bird, looking slightly rufous, flew fast and low from one bit of cover to the other in the conifers and dead wood opposite us.

'Was that it?' someone enquired. 

No one really knew but a minute later his query was answered as the Hermit Thrush flew out and settled in the field right in front of us. 

It was almost too good to be true. I could not find the words to express my delight, nor could anyone else  at the fact that the only bird in the small field in front of us was a mega rarity, hopping around in the open and behaving in very much the manner of a Song Thrush, picking up invertebrates from amongst the grass and bracken. Often the thrush was partially obscured by the bracken and thick grass but it was constantly on the move, so sooner rather than later it would re-emerge to give us a clearer view.

I was totally and utterly transfixed as it fed in the field. Superficially it looked like a miniature Song Thrush with rufous tinged, brown upperparts, spotted cream breast and white underparts but with these vital differences from a Song Thrush.

Its tail, uppertail coverts and rump were a rich chestnut as was a panel on its closed wings formed by chestnut fringes to the brown secondaries. Its undertail coverts and belly were pure white and its cream coloured breast rather than spotted all over was irregularly streaked with brown whilst a few random spots were visible on the lowest part of its breast and on flanks that were suffused with greyish brown.

The upperparts were  brown with a distinct rufous tone and its eyes were dark and lustrous. It exuded nervous energy, flicking its wings constantly, regularly raising its chestnut tail and then slowly lowering it, a very distinctive characteristic. 

It also had the curious habit of trembling its foot on the ground to create a vibration, presumably to attract or disturb prey. I have seen gulls and waders do this but never a passerine. I remarked about this and a fellow birder told me he had seen a White's Thrush perform the same action.

The Hermit Thrush extending its right leg and foot to 'tremble' it on
the ground in order to disturb potential prey
The thrush moved across the ground by means of short hops on its longish pale legs, covering much of the field in the process, constantly looking for prey of which there seemed to be no shortage. It showed little alarm at our relatively close presence although it was obviously aware of us. 

Half an hour had passed since we first saw it and it was still feeding in the field. I could not believe our good fortune. A few seconds or a couple of minutes viewing this very rare visitor  would have been sufficient to make us all very happy but here we were half an hour later and it was still performing in front of us. 

The sun is shining and some happy and relaxed birders, including the finder Graham Gordon 
in the light blue jeans, are watching the Hermit Thrush.
Eventually it flew up onto a drystone wall and dropped into a similar field on the other side. All of us went down the sloping track and watched it in the second field with the horses. An hour passed and still it was on view, constantly on the move, feeding all the time.

There were only nine of us present to see the thrush. I did not understand why there were so few and out of the nine, only three of us were not local. Where were all the other birders? Surely many others  on mainland Britain wanted to see this ultra rare bird? Was it the distance, logistics and uncertainty that deterred people? I would never know but settled back to simply enjoy this sensational moment and rejoice in having surmounted all the odds ranged against us. I knew the time would be all too brief.

Towards the end of our observation the Hermit Thrush was feeding fairly close to a Song Thrush in the field and this gave excellent opportunities to compare the two species. Superficially they look similar from distance but with closer inspection there are many differences apart from the obvious fact the  Hermit Thrush is smaller. The two images below provide a comparison.

Song Thrush

Hermit Thrush
The Hermit Thrush finally flew out of our sight at around 1245. We had been watching it for at least an hour and a half.

No one could possibly ask for more.

With time on our hands before our flight back to Lands End we decided to go and try to see the female Surf Scoter that had been found at Porthloo Beach and followed Higgo down the road. After a pleasant walk past fields already full of daffodils waiting to be picked, we arrived at the beach.

Daffodil Field

Porthloo Beach
Sure enough, there was the Surf Scoter, swimming not too far offshore. Hardly looking remarkable in its dull brown plumage except for its huge outlandish bill and two prominent white patches on each side of its head.

Surf Scoter-female
The beach was busy with birds and we found both a Siberian and Common Chiffchaff, a Black Redstart, a female European Stonechat and Rock Pipits amongst the seaweed, rocks and dunes. A flock of around a hundred Sanderling, ghostly grey and white in their winter plumage, sped on blurring black legs along the sand, right by the sea's edge and were joined by a few Ringed Plovers. Further on a Kittiwake looked none too well, squatting on the sand. We left it in peace.

European Stonechat - female

Black Redstart

We walked into Old Town and found a cafe that was open. This provided a welcome chance to sit down and recap on this morning's wonderful experience whilst having 'a cuppa' and a bite to eat and then, eventually, we took a leisurely amble back to the airport for our flight to the mainland.


  1. Fantastic stuff as always Ewan - so glad you saw it after putting so much effort in - 500 is looking easy peasy now!!

  2. Blimey you've some stamina. Good for you. Always enjoy the summaries of status, biology and field marks too.

  3. Supplementary to the main story (excellent as always, thank you). I saw a Tawny Owl sat in the road near Wendover (in the dark) on my way to work recently, nice to have it confirmed as something they do

  4. A really good account Ewan. What a star performer that little bird was eh. We were all a bit glum when it eventually left. You managed some great shots that day. I was delighted to see you managed to catch a colour ringed Sanderling at Porth Loo. I wonder if it would be possible for us to have a copy of the photo for Bob Dawsons' colour ringing article in this year's review. All the best Martin Goodey.