Continuing with my reminiscences regarding the first time that I visited iconic birding sites, say hello to... the Isles of Scilly! Dateline Friday 13th - Monday 16th October 1978.
"There's a Semi-palmated Plover on St. Agnes."
"Don't you mean a Semi-palmated Sandpiper?"
"No, plover, first for Europe. It's American."
The species that Tim Boultwood had just mentioned I had never heard of. I didn't even own an American field guide.
"I'm going down this weekend. Leave Friday night and drive back on Monday. Interested?"
As a burgeoning twitcher, the fabled Isles of Scilly had yet to appear on my birding CV. That was something that I was desperate to rectify.
Tim picked me up from outside West Croydon station Friday mid-evening. There were two other passengers - Nick Gardner and Steve Robinson. We settled down for a leisurely drive to Cornwall, taking in service stations, much birding banter, and all mixed with not a small amount of apprehension - would the bird still be there? I also got my hands on an American field guide and came face to face with an illustration of our quarry. Was that it? Looked just like a Ringed Plover! My disappointment was tempered with the thought of possibly seeing my second 'first' for the UK that year, following on from the Stodmarsh Pallid Swift back in May.
We arrived at the Hayle Estuary for a dawn vigil. We did have a reason for being here and that was the presence of a Sociable Plover. Now, this WAS a stunning wader - at least, the illustration in the book looked stunning, but the bird itself was nowhere to be seen. Never mind, we had a boat to catch, so trundled off to Penzance to board the Scillonian 3, our transportation to the promised lands. We spent all our time on the deck, convinced that rare seabirds would come our way, but had to make do with 200+ Gannet, 20+ Shag, 10+ Great Skua and 25+ Razorbill (my notebook from the time is full of + counts). As for that rare seabird? Just wait for the postscript to this particular tale...
After two and a half hours we docked at Hugh Town, St. Mary's. I was terrible excited. A middle-aged birder was lounging about on the dock, laid back and nonchalant, apparently one of the names. He exuded coolness. As we disembarked he relayed the news that he knew that we'd want to hear, that the plover was still present. In a whirl of activity, we boarded a small motorised ferry to St Agnes, and jogged from the small quay to Periglis beach, where, running along the tideline was our target. A desperately underwhelming Semi-palmated Plover. As birders did in the 1970s, we lay down on the ground, drew out our draw-tubed telescopes, balanced the far end on our crossed over leg, and focused the dim image into something approaching 'OK'. It looked like a Ringed Plover. We heard it call. It called NOTHING like a Ringed Plover, more like a Spotted Redshank. I could pretend that the fact that it was smaller, exhibited palmations and exhibited white-barring on the coverts all hit home with me (they are all noted down in my notebook), but I would be lying. Apart from its rarity, it did nothing for me. After a short while (none of us wanted to grill it for very long), we wandered off towards the vegetation around the buildings. This was better! A Red-breasted Flycatcher was sharing a weedy strip with a Spotted Flycatcher. Nearby, in the legendary Parsonage, an Icterine Warbler was on display along with two Firecrests. No time to dwell though, as we moved onto the dump, where a promised Red-backed Shrike duly performed. Our time spent watching it was cut short as a birder's shout from a nearby field had us scurrying along to share in his good fortune of a Little Bunting, creeping through the low growth. All this in half-an-hour. Our return to St. Mary's was one buoyed by our successes, where we quickly visited Porth Hellick pool to pay our respects to the 'resident' Long-billed Dowitcher.
Back in 1978, birders still slept rough on the islands (and were tolerated doing so). All four of us found a quay-side toilet/changing room and laid out our sleeping bags on wooden benches or the hard floor. I hardly slept all night, due to a mixture of exhilaration and sheer discomfort.
The following morning, after a quiet wander on Penninis Head, we took a ferry to Tresco, home to another underwhelming American vagrant, this one even more underwhelming (if that was possible) than the plover - a Black Duck. We saw it on the open sea as we approached the island and later on the Abbey Pond. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a Mallard. But, to my greedy tickers blinkers, that didn't really matter, as it was a lifer! Another tick come along shortly afterwards, as an Ortolan Bunting had been found nearby and played ball to the assembled crowd. The rest of the afternoon was spent back on St. Mary's, walking along the clifftops between Hughtown and the golf course. The weather was glorious. The islands were showing off their full beauty. It was a good place to be. Before we retired to our makeshift hotel for another nights broken sleep, news broke of a Red-tailed Shrike at Winspit in Dorset (as we then referred to Isabelline). That night, as we lay in our sleeping bags amid the dripping of taps, the realisation hit us that there wouldn't be enough daylight for us to attempt looking for the shrike on the way back home. -our boat docked at Penzance too late in the day to guarantee any birding time in Dorset. However, if we got on board an early helicopter, we would have time to burn. We decided to get up early and be waiting at the airport gates to ensure we got off the island - we already knew that there would be others attempting to do so as well.
To cut a long story short, we were first at the airport. We got the last four tickets on the first flight out. We had time to stop at the Hayle Estuary and successfully see the magnificent Sociable Plover. We arrived at Winspit with hours to spare. Hours in which we wandered around a virtually birdless valley. The shrike had gone...
Do you remember my earlier reference to rare seabirds from the Scillonian? As we were walking back along the valley footpath towards the car, we were met by a carload of birders who had driven like the wind from Penzance, on the off-chance that there would be enough daylight left for them to see the shrike. The light was just starting to go, and they could tell form our forlorn faces that the shrike was nowhere to be seen. But they were all positively beaming!
"You boys really thought you were the cat's pyjama's when you got on that chopper" one of them said, "but I tell you what, I'm really glad that you did and we didn't. On the crossing someone picked out a Black-browed Albatross sitting on the sea. Everyone on board got to see it!" And they had. Go and look in the BB rarities report for 1978. October 16th. Black-browed Albatross between Land's End and the Isles of Scilly. You couldn't make it up.