Sunday, September 19, 2004

Day 2 | Week 2 | A Speyside Wildlife holiday.

Over breakfast we decide to head for the airport to look for the Dotterel. With no scheduled flights, the runways should be clear and undisturbed. But whilst readying ourselves, my pager delivers news of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper on St Agnes. ‘St Agnes it is’ I decide. How quickly plans can change.

We have some time to spare before catching the boat, so we wander along Porthcressa front. In the Sallyport corner there is a collection of birds – House Sparrows and Rock Pipits flit around the seaweed; Herring and Black-headed Gulls pick along the shoreline; and Turnstones and two Sanderling are sat up on the rocks. A number of the Turnstone and one of the Sanderling fly to the beach and begin to feed. The Sanderling gives super close views as it picks away at the sandy patches between the patches of seaweed and rocks, running around like a little clockwork toy.


We take the Kingfisher to St Agnes and get reasonable views of several Common Dolphins leaping out of the sea behind the boat. We also see a raft of about 50 Shags as we near the island. From the quay we head straight for the cricket pitch with other birders. No sign of the Buff-breasted Sandpiper there so over to look at the adjacent beach of Periglis Cove where it was originally reported from.


A few anxious minutes until I notice a couple of birders at the other end of the beach looking at something. ‘Got it!’ I proclaim. ‘Follow me’ I add, and we hastily reposition with the other birders in gateway to view the sandpiper only a few yards away. What a little cracker. This biscuit coloured Dunlin-sized, Ruff-like, dumpy wader is trotting around beach picking at insects along the edges of the many patches of seaweed. I explain that this little wader breeds in northern-most Canada and Alaska and winters in Central and northern South America but is a regular vagrant to Britain. It usually favours short grassy areas, like the nearby cricket pitch where I saw one on last years Speyside week on Scilly.


This was the first I had ever seen on a beach or away from grassy areas. We spend an hour with ‘Buffy’ watching it move around the beach, including a fly around when disturbed. At one point it cowers and presses itself low to the sand. ‘Arial predator’ Steve suggests. Looking up I see a male Peregrine over the cove. ‘Many waders freeze and cower like that when raptors go over’ I explain, ‘they rely on their plumage to camouflage them, rather than breaking cover and alerting the predator to themselves’.

View across to Annet

We take the coastal path along the side of the campsite on to Castella Down. A handful of Curlew sit out on rocks with the gulls. We pass a field with some splendid cabbages and purple-tipped broccoli. Hmmmm . . . looks good enough to eat! We see only the off Rock Pipit, Starling, Dunnock and Wren as we pass Troy Town Maze and arrive at Long Point. The pebble beach features a ‘forest’ of pebble stacks. ‘What a lovely place for lunch’ says Marilyn, and the rest of us take little persuading! The pebble stacks are great and we all take a few photos. Dave discovers a couple of ‘pebble people’ laid out on flat rocks. I can’t help but enhance one of them in an all too obvious way! We eat lunch under bright blue skies and a baking sun looking out to sea watching six Gannets circling and plunging spear-like in to the sea after their quarry.

The stacked stones of St Agnes

Stoned people

After lunch we pass the ‘Wounded Angel’ rock (or cow on a rock according to me), round St Warna’s Cover and on to Wingletang Down. We have only a couple of Wheaters and Stonechats and Common Blue and Small Copper butterflies for our efforts. We wonder at some of the strange rock formations on the down, including a rather phallic specimen, and one huge angular rock which looks likes it is balancing precariously on smaller ones below.

We wander down Barnaby Lane where we see a handful of Speckled Woods, Red Admirals, Peacocks and Small Whites. Running out of birds and in need of a rest, we head for Covean tea-room and a well-earned cuppa.

The St Agnes old light

Refreshed we head off down past the parsonage when Marilyn suddenly realises she has left her scope at the tea-room. While Marilyn goes to retrieve her scope, Andrea, Dave and I watch the beginning of the gig race from St Agnes back to St Mary’s. Marilyn rejoins us and after a few more minutes watching the gigs head across to Mary’s we head on down to the Chapel Fields (no birds!) and arrive back at Periglis for some more views of our little friend Buffy. We shelter from a squall (from where we can still Buffy) and on coming out from our sheltered spot, we see a Peregrine lift off the beach clutching either a wader (Turnstone?) or a Starling. It heads off to nearby rocks to consume its bounty. Buffy doesn’t look too disturbed by this, but after a couple of minutes, lifts from the beach and heads off high over the island towards Wingletang.

With wander over to Porth Killier where we watch a few White Wagtails and a couple of Redshank before heading back to the quay for our transfer back to St Mary’s. Unusually, most of the passengers are islanders who have been over to Agnes for the gig racing, having spent the afternoon in the Turks Head hostelry. No sooner have we left the quay when a spontaneous singing session breaks out amongst the gig race crowd. For the next 30 minutes (I’m sure Alex the skipper purposely returns slowly!) we are treated Scilly sea shanties – some familiar (Rod Stewart’s ‘I am sailing’ and the Beach Boys’ ‘xxx’) and some not so. It was a wonderful moment of Scilly lore, with much of the boat in full, animated song celebrating the day’s gig racing and the island community. In 17 years of visiting the islands, I’ve never experienced anything like it, and its not only the best transfer I’ve ever made, but one of the best highlights of all my time on the islands.

Only one thing can match Scilly sea shanties, and that’s dinner at Juliet’s Garden. We meet up at 6.30pm and wander along the coastal path up to Seaways, picking up a couple of first-winter Mediterranean Gulls and a Kestrel on route.

Scilly sea shanty time

Gigs pulled up outside the pub – where else?

After a sumptuous dinner, we decide to walk it off in the dark, sheltering from a squall for a couple of minutes and playing ‘in the dark oral charades’ trying to guess which of the ornamental wildfowl on Portloo Duck Pond I am describing! Well – it is Scilly after all!

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