October and the birder

The October birding scene of 2013 seems a strange beast compared to those of my youth. I get the impression that the destination of choice is now very much that of Shetland, where 'armies', or 'teams', or even 'posses' of birders work the valleys, withys and headlands with a military precision, disecting every bird to give it a race, sex and religion. If the birder does not head north, a few still seem to gather in the old spiritual cathedral of Scilly, with less expectation than of old. Still more sit by their pagers, the weekend's programme not considered until all the news is in on a Friday night. The patchworker will plod on, as the patchworker always will, trying hard not to be distracted by the successes of others.

October used to mean one thing to the active birder 'of no fixed patch', and that was The Isles of Scilly. I wasn't in at the beginning, when the likes of Bob Scott and Peter Grant adopted St. Agnes and found species that were, until then, considered unthinkable in the UK. My first venture onto the islands was in 1978. The following year saw me return along with maybe 300 others. I last went in 1981. I missed the 'glory' years of the mid-80s when screaming rarities entertained up to a 1,000 birders. When I stayed, St Mary's was the island of choice, St Agnes was for the old boys and Tresco for the brave. If a birder went to Bryher it was for hopeful glory...

If you didn't 'do' Scilly, a bird observatory was a safe bet for a bit of half-decent birding. In the late 1970s you needed to book to ensure a bed. Ten years later you could have your choice of empty beds. And now? I suppose it depends on which observatory you want to stay at. Some will be more popular than others.

Even though my avid birding days are largely in the past, when September becomes October I still get a sense of anticipation. It isn't just the hope of rarity, but the promise of migration on a grand scale. I still remember a big fall of thousands of thrushes, 100 Black Redstarts and 100 Firecrests at Dungeness far more than any of the Radde's, Dusky and Pallas's Warblers that I was lucky enough to cross paths with.


I 'did' Scilly for a large part of the last ten years. It was more to do with feeling right when I was there than finding nice birds. I find it hard to think of any other place that looks so good and puts me at total ease. The locals are great too.

Despite having seen a few quality birds there, the ones that linger are Spotted Flycatchers. During one September fortnight, they were everywhere for a week or so.
Steve Gale said…
Andrew, I too have strong memories of the islands not particularly bird-based.

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