Tag Archives: Porthcressa

Last day on the Scillies

Saturday, October 29, 1988

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(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

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My last day on the Scillies. Time off for good behaviour. I’m not really sorry to be going home. I had four lifers. I don’t feel I’ve missed out on anything that was there and was viewable, except perhaps the Short toed Lark, about which I have exactly the same dilemma today as I had yesterday. Do I go to St Agnes or not? I chicken out, I am ashamed to say. I’m too scared of missing the last ferry back to Penzance Harbour to risk missing an inter-island boat through a twisted ankle, or a fat man’s heart attack. This will be the last Scillonian ferry back to the mainland before the end of the year, and the helicopters are all booked up until next Wednesday so I just cannot risk anything going wrong. I simply do not have enough money:

Scillonian_III-01 xxxxxx

I go back to my old friend at Telegraph, the Rose-coloured Starling, who I see very briefly, flying around with his common friends. He’s a very pale, buffy coloured individual, which I am sure is the bird in question, a fact made all the more certain by a group of birdwatchers coming from the area where the flock appeared to land and who say that they have just seen the little chap:

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I can’t relocate the bird, but I meet someone who says he’s just seen a Wryneck feeding alongside the road. It was actually on the grassy tops of the great wide dry stone walls, although it has disappeared by the time I arrive:

Wryneck%20Scilly%2 zzzzzzz

I look for about fifteen minutes, but I can’t find it, and I am just about to pack it in as a bad job, when another young chap comes over and says he’s found the bird about seventy yards away in another lane. When I get there, I find that it’s a lot more active than the previous birds that I’ve seen in Norfolk, as it moves along the base of the hedge, feeding energetically. I am always impressed by Wrynecks, which never seem reptilian to me or particularly primitive as they are supposed to, but rather I wonder at the subtlety of their camouflage, and the way they seem able to disappear into their background at the drop of a dead leaf. It’s a good padder of a bird and I’m really pleased to have seen it. Not that I’m surprised, because it’s my friend Paul’s bogey bird and I told him before I left for the Scillies that I would see one for him:

Blog Wryneck St Marys xxxxxxxxx

I take a leisurely stroll back to town, walking along the seashore where I am amazed to see a kingfisher flying out over the breaking waves, seemingly completely at home among the rocky coves and the surf,  before it finally disappears into a line of pine trees at the top of the scrub covered cliff:

kingfisher14  zzzzzzzz

I pass a field full of absolutely thousands of finches, including at least one superb full adult summer plumage Brambling, which is so bright that I think it is some weird American bird when I first see it. There’s really no need for it to be a transatlantic vagrant, since the bird is such a beautiful sight in its own right, without needing to be particularly rare:

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A hundred yards further on, I surprise a Pipit in another field at the side of the road. I try hard to imagine that it is some unprecedented rarity, but I’m finally forced to concede that it is merely a Tree Pipit.
Finally, I reach the Porthcressa Restaurant, where the magic noticeboard announces the presence of a Scarlet Rosefinch, another possible lifer, which has turned up near the airport. This is going to be a close run thing for a fat man. The boat leaves this afternoon and I need to be on the quay by half past three. It’s half past one now, so I start off at a reasonable pace, taking care to time myself for the walk, so that I can set off back to the harbour in good time. It only takes me thirty minutes, so I am left with about an hour to find the bird:

Scarlet%20Rosefinch%20 xxxxxxx

It’s apparently been showing well in a little field full of cabbages, but has unfortunately moved on by the time I arrive. I go and search the neighbouring fields where there are huge flocks of finches and lots of good big hedges for them to perch in. It is at this point that I get the closest that I’ve ever been to a rare bird without actually seeing it. Two young men poke their heads round the hedge and tell me that the Rosefinch is there. They are actually looking at it right now:

scarlet rosefinchR  xxxxxxx

In the very short time that it takes me to walk the ten yards or so, the bird flies away, never to be seen again, at least not by me. I give it a few more minutes, but time, as always, ticks inexorably away.  There is one final bit of excitement when a message comes on the CB that a Pechora Pipit has been spotted on the far side of the airport near Salakee Farm:

pechora xxxxxx

The fittest ferry passengers, and the more leisurely helicopter users, all set off, but without me, I’m afraid. I’m far too unfit to rush all the way to Salakee, find a pipit famous for its ability to skulk and hide in the undergrowth, and then get back down to the Scillonian by 3.30. At least, not without a major heart attack. I do have the pleasure though, of a nice stroll back through the town, along the main street down to the ferry:

St%20Marys%20Quay xxxxxxxx

The scene that greets me is straight out of a 1930s black-and-white documentary film about the evacuation of St.Kilda. The ferry seems to know that it is the last boat of the year and mournfully blasts its foghorn as a farewell to the tiny town.

scillonia on scillis xxxxxxxxxx

The street, with its grey stone buildings, is full of hurrying figures, all burdened with bags and suitcases, tripods and scopes, all plodding in the same direction to get down to the quay. When I reach the ferry, I have twenty minutes to drink in the scene, so I stand and lean over the side of the boat. It’s beautiful, the still, calm sea, the line of old buildings along the curve of the bay and the continuing mournful bellowing of the ship’s foghorn. Even better though, is a stream of birdwatchers, all returning at breakneck speed from not seeing the Pechora Pipit, tripods and spare wellies flying around their necks. They all seem to make it, except, presumably, the ones that don’t.
We set off across the surface of a glassy sea, as the people on the land wave their last farewells to the ship:

scillonian-day-trips-1-1180x520 xxxxxxx

It will be a long time before the Scillonian returns to the island, as the next arrival is scheduled for April. The crossing is bird free, mainly because the weather becomes so foul. In actual fact, the crossing isn’t particularly rough by Scilly standards. All I can say, though, is that, if this isn’t rough, then very rough most be unbelievable. I stay on deck, of course, in my capacity as the toughest man on the boat, and when I finally go downstairs, the bar is full of people with green faces. It reminds me very strongly of a pub in Nottingham that sells Shipstone’s beer.
One young lad that I speak to is really delighted to have been on the Scillies. He is about fifteen and he has had a lot of lifers and he is as pleased as Punch. Birdwatching here certainly does make it a lot easier to see some of the birds that on the mainland can take a lot of effort, above all if you live in the south. Dotterel, Corncrake, Red Kite, or especially, Lapland Bunting:

LaplandBuntingSteveArlow cccccc

He’s had them all in the past two weeks here. I’m still riddled with jealousy, all bitter and twisted at those people who can spend two or three weeks here at the best time of the birdwatching year, namely early October, when I have to be at work. It must have added a good thirty or forty species at the very least to their life lists, with no real difficulty and very little real effort. Perhaps an inflation rate of up to 25% or 30% of your life total. All there for you to tick off, knowing that they are birds unlikely to occur anywhere else in Britain.
I have not seen too many good birds on the Scillies, but I have met a good number of what you might call “characters”. It is, after all, “Teachers’ Week”, although I do find one teacher who has clocked up an exceptionally impressive 420 species without ever using the rather artificial aid of coming to these islands in the first two or three weeks of October. At the same time he has not lost his ability to be excited by a Red Kite or a Red-necked Grebe:

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There are some quite desperate twitchers who just hear the words “Paddyfield Warbler” and will then slit Granny’s throat for the bus fare. Some of them are very rude, unpleasant and downright boorish, including one young oaf who insists on shouting his requests for directions at you at the top of his fifteen year old voice, irrespective of how far away he is. His only interest is the extraction of any information you might have about the bird he is trying to see. I meet him once and say “Good Morning” and he says loudly, “Where? Is it showing well?”

One unemployed birdwatcher has worked out his cash supply down to literally the last fifty pence. For the last two days of his holiday (a holiday from being unemployed?),  he cannot afford accommodation, but has to walk around looking for nice warm bus shelters. The most notable of the whole lot, though, is an old gentleman who has bird watched all his life and who has seen some splendid ornithological sights in his time, particularly when birds of prey were more numerous than they are today. Honey Buzzards thronged his skies:

HoneyBuzzard xxxxxx

From his house on the north west coast of Wales, he would see a dozen migrating Merlin in a day. Now it is just one a month:

merli_juv_ ccc

He has little or no interest in twitching rare birds, many of which he has never heard of anyway. He has an outlook based solely on what he can find for himself. Not for him the new fangled Gore-Tex or plastic cagoules, but a pair of battered old boots, some comfortable corduroy trousers and a sports coat with leather elbow patches. His bird watching techniques are different to those of the present day as well. Not for him the patient wait for the bird to appear. He is deep in the bushes, energetically bashing around with his walking stick, determined to find everything that is in there, vainly trying to hide.
The real stars of the show though, are the people of the Isles of Scilly themselves. They are genuinely calm, kind and wonderful people and remind me a lot of the inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland. They will not be hurried and their entire lives are very different indeed to those of us city folk.

Certainly this week though, the birds are disappointing. I wish I’d stayed on the mainland and gone for whatever presented itself. There was every chance that I’d have seen the Indigo Bunting at Wells and a Lesser Yellowlegs at the Ouse Washes.

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On the other hand, I wouldn’t have had the total experience that I have had.

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An insect with a billion friends

This story is an extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”.

These events all took place on Friday, October 28, 1988, which was the fourth day of my stay on the Isles of Scilly:

“A late lie-in this morning, with the Radde’s Warbler ticked off, and little else to get up for, certainly not at five o’clock in the morning:

RaddesWarblerxxxxxxxx

I eagerly consume a splendid Scillonian breakfast made up of every conceivable Identified Frying Object, with the possible exception of haggis, although this could well be the single mysterious item which I cannot identify with absolute certainty. Then it’s a leisurely walk down to the Porthcressa Restaurant where the magic blackboard promises Melodious Warbler at the Garrison. With a bit of luck, I might see that, and then go over to St Agnes for the Short toed Lark. I walk up the horrendously steep slopes of the hill to the Garrison, and start looking…

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Unsuccessful after a couple of hours, I return to Hugh Town, the Big City. I find that I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity facing me. It’s not a bird, but a flying creature just as rare as any of the birds which reach the Scillies. It’s a Locust. Only the fourth or fifth ever to be blown to these rocky isles. At the moment, it is being housed in an art gallery in a backstreet. I stroll over there and find that the insect is living happily in a vivarium on the counter. It is a truly splendid and beautiful creature, far better than any of the birds that I have seen on the Scillies, including the juvenile Rose-coloured Starling:

rc starling xxxxxxxxxx

I could even imagine this magnificent insect being used as a powerful argument for the existence of God, particularly in mediaeval times.  It is constructed so wonderfully skilfully that it becomes a classic example of the Celestial Watchmaker. It has one set of protective plates inside another, and then another beyond that. It looks like a knight in armour, but instead of being as dry as dust and rusty like something in an old stately home, this is a live being and it can move. It is a child’s clockwork toy that has the gift of life.

I am surprised by two things. Firstly, the creature’s colour, or rather colours, for it is at one and the same time, both yellow and pink and orange and sandy. I am shocked too by the size. I have never seen a Locust before, and it is absolutely huge. At least to a person like me who leaves the room when the zookeepers take the tarantula out of the glass case, or somebody who thinks that ladybirds are fierce.
The gentleman in the shop tells me that the creature was found on the local beach and was brought to his gallery so it could be drawn and photographed. He quite clearly and obviously is very attached to his six legged guest and seems to be well on the way to regarding it as his very own pet, or at the very least as an attraction to his gallery. Apparently, the British Museum have already contacted him and told him that he must kill it immediately, put it in a cardboard box, and send it to them in a parcel as a scientific specimen:

scan one zzzzzzz

I am totally appalled and disgusted by this news. I cannot find the words to capture my feelings. It seems somehow so repulsive to kill this beautiful innocent creature which has had to fight so hard for life. It has crossed the Atlantic in all probability, or has perhaps arrived here all the way from West Africa. Now it’s happily munching English grass, but soon it is supposed to die at the whim of some cold hearted scientist who has taken upon himself the right to dole out life or death. It seems to be taking such an advantage of an insect’s lack of awareness and essentially innocent existence.

The gallery owner, I feel, would rather not kill the insect, but keep it. I do try to tell him that in all probability it belongs to him, and that the British Museum have no legal right whatsoever to tell him to do what he does not want to do, and still less to actually make him do it.

Strangely, it seems to be to no purpose. The  gallery owner seems overawed by the demands of an organisation as apparently so powerful as the British Museum. And presumably, the locust will have to die. It is so sad that we should be given the chance to meet such an exotic and unusual member of God’s family, but should then lack the reasoning power to do anything more creative or imaginative than to kill it.
I would hope that I personally could do better than that, if put in the position of having to look after a stray innocent. At the very least though, I will remain the only person with a framed, but not autographed, picture of a locust above the fireplace…Even if it is only when my wife is out of the house.

Years and years later and I am sure that I read somewhere that the poor unfortunate locust was not  killed for the British Museum, but instead was allowed by its admiring owner to live out its life in its little vivarium on the counter of his gallery. Unfortunately, I have been unable to substantiate this, as I have long forgotten where I read the wonderful news. Locusts continue to reach the shores of our freezing wet little island, but only on very rare occasions. Certainly, there has been nothing like the situation in 1869 when whole swarms of Desert Locusts reached England, apparently from West Africa.

Cruel scientists still insist on killing creatures to prove what they are, and there was considerable outcry a few years ago, when a Californian ornithologist, I think it was, killed the first Arctic Redpoll ever to be found in that state. This, of course, is why Bigfoot keeps such a low profile for somebody who is nine or ten feet tall. He knows he exists, so why should he get himself killed just so that other people can?

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