Day 1 Arrival - Friday 9th october
We will meet on the quay in Penzance this morning for the boat ride to St Mary's, Isles of Scilly. During the journey of a little over two and a half hours we could see a few seabirds such as Manx, Sooty, Balearic or a late Great Shearwater, European Storm Petrel, Great or Arctic Skua or a Grey Phalarope. There's also an outside chance of a Long-tailed Skua or Leach's Storm Petrel if the weather conditions are right. Upon arrival in St Mary's we will head over to our large house on the edge of Hugh Town and have lunch before setting out for our first exploratory walk or go and search for our first reported rarity. in the early evening we will return to our house for dinner and a celebratory (hopefully) glass of wine or a beer! Each evening there's a log call of the days sightings at the nearby Scillonian Club so we can pay a visit and get some up-to-date information on what's around.
Days 2 - 7 St Mary's - St Agnes - Tresco - St Martin
Exactly what we do and where we go each day depends on the latest information on sightings but we expect to spend the first day on St Mary's. It's quite a large island with a variety of habitats and we have to remember that migrants can turn up just about anywhere. There are two nearby headlands, The Garrison has dense areas or bracken and conifers where we've seen Eurasian Wryneck, Red-eyed Vireo and Northern Parula, whilst Penninis Head is rather more bleak and open with fields and a rocky shoreline that has held Corncrake, Common Quail, Blyth's, Tawny and Red-throated Pipits and Barred Warbler amongst others. Our route will take us alongside Old Town churchyard that has some big trees and plenty of cover for Wryneck, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Pallas's and Yellow-browed Warblers and more, so we should check this spot thoroughly and take our time. Lower Moors is not too far away and has a trail passing alongside and some open pools with hides good for shorebirds including Jack snipe, ducks and once a Solitary Sandpiper. There are decent patches of willows all around good for Firecrest, Yellow-browed Warbler and sometimes the delightful Pallas's Warbler, and one year a Wilson's Snipe and Northern Waterthrush shared the same pool. Working our way along quiet country lanes or following the coastal path will lead us to the airport where bracken has held Bobolink and numerous Red-backed Shrikes, whilst the open grassy areas and fields that cover the slopes here have been good for American Golden Plover, both Buff-breasted and Upland Sandpipers, Isabelline Wheatear, Richard's Pipit, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Snow Bunting and even an American Buff-bellied Pipit. From here it's a short walk along Carn Friar's Lane (and we'll check Salakee Lane too) to Higher Moors, another area of reeds with the large Porth Hellick Pool that has a viewing hide, which has seen a number of migrants and megas over the years including Ring-necked Duck, Blue-winged Teal and Blackpoll Warbler. The trail will take us in a northerly direction and into the dense cover and woodland of Holy Vale that has been the mecca for the ultimate rarity finders with Scarlet Tanager and a whole host of surprise sightings. More arable and weedy fields can be scrutinised for Common Rosefinch, pipits, and both Little and Rustic Buntings before reaching Longstone Cafe - a good place for some hot food and a coffee. There was a flock of 37 Hawfinches present in this area in mid October 2017. This northern end of the island seems pretty remote and there's usually less birders around so we could explore Pelistry Lane and Watermill Cove if time permits. From here we can follow the main road towards Telegraph via Newford Duckpond where a Black-billed Cuckoo delighted birders once, and on this highest area of the island several Swainson's and Eye-browed Thrushes have been found. It's all downhill from here back to Hugh Town either along Telegraph Road or Porthloo Lane, and there's a lot of habitat to check with numerous fields and hedgerows and tall trees that have revealed Common Yellowthroat, Red-eyed Vireo, Blackpoll Warbler etc. And we will do sections of this route throughout the week, targetting any reported migrants. But it's not only chasing rarities that can give you a buzz, as there will be ample opportunity to observe flocks of Siskins passing through, or a recently arrived Black Redstart might add a splash of colour to a sandy beach, a Mediterranean Gull or a Pale-bellied Brent Goose could be seen somewhere. There's so much ground to cover and we'll do our best to explain identification features, discuss flight calls and hopefully we can all learn something new.
A short boat ride can be taken one day to St Agnes, which has a long history of rarity finding and was once the focus of birders attentions with great birders such as DIM Wallace, Peter Grant and David Hunt making some amazing discoveries here, before the potential of St Mary's was realised. This is the island that held Britain's one and only Wood Thrush in 1987 on Wingletang Down. So, once we land close to the famous Turks Head Pub we can either follow the coastal path to the Big Pool where Baird's Sandpiper has been found, or follow Barnaby Lane that takes us past some fields that produced White's Thrush or to the Parsonage where a Red-flanked Bluetail appeared in October 2017, a Yellow-browed Bunting appeared for several days and a Western Orphean Warbler was found in October 2017 and the same year also saw a Cedar Waxwing appear, whilst there was once a Booted Warbler around for a day or two. If the tide is low we can walk over to the tiny island of Gugh, which has a few fields and overgrown areas of bracken where we once saw a stunning Siberian Thrush - and even saw the White's Thrush just under an hour later! In the right conditions, St Agnes can be full of migrants with the calls of Redwings flying over, numeorus flycatchers, warblers and buntings holding our attention and eyes straining for a sighting of something really rare. Possibly a Greenish Warbler could be seen flitting amongst the foliage of an oak tree, or a Bluethroat or Little Bunting might appear in a weedy field - who knows what we could find?
Another boat ride will take us to Tresco and it depends on the tide where we land. Wherever that is, our focus will be the smaller Abbey Pool and the larger Great Pool that has good viewing and even hides. The open water has held Pied-billed Grebe, the muddy edges Sora Rail, Spotted Crake, Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers, Citrine Wagtail, and even an Eastern Yellow Wagtail once. The dense waterside willows have been great for a variety of phylloscopus warblers and even Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Hermit and Grey-cheeked Thrushes and Blackpoll Warbler. The fields that have good hedgerows and stands of bracken have held American Robin, Philadelphia Vireo, Sykes's Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Yellow-breasted Bunting amongst others.
St Martin's is one of the least visited islands and is quite large and often you are out of communication from the other islands so only the brave and adventurous explore here during the peak of October's Autumn migration. But the rewards can be huge! There's always an opportunity to find aGreater Short-toed Lark, Barred Warbler, Rose-coloured Starling, Ortolan Bunting or a Common Rosefinch at least.
But obviously what we do and where we go depends on the weather and reports of rare birds across the islands, but we will work the different habitats and islands in order to unearth something good! The emphasis will be on a team effort though and in our opinion there is nothing as exciting as rarity hunting with friends in a beautiful setting. And at the end of each day we will return to our private house to relax, discuss identification features over a few beers or a glass of wine, enjoy good food and look forward to the following day.
Day 8 Final birding on Scillies - Penzance
We will be heading off the Scillies today, but we have the morning to chase anything new or simply have an easy wander up the island, checking out Old Town, crossing Lower Moors and scanning some of the many weedy fields that can hide a multitude of exciting possibilities. So once we are packed we will have to tear ourselves away from these often idyllic islands and return to Penzance, where we will begin the final part of our migrant hunting adventure. A short drive will take us to a fantastic private house with extensive gardens and set in a rather secluded location. In fact it's the perect location from which to explore the rarity hotspots of West Cornwall.
Days 9 - 11 West Cornwall
This morning we will wake up on the mainland and no doubt will be eager to head off to one of the numerous valleys that always seem to produce an outstanding list of regular, scarce and downright mega rare species every year. We know these valleys and hidden spots very well having birded here since the 80's! We can visit fabled Porthgwarra, which has an extensive area of willows, bramble and bracken, as well as fields and 'moorland-type' areas and is probably the most famous of all the valleys. Migrants can constantly appear throughout the day and you never really know what it's going to be like here, but you can get a feel for the situation if the car park trees hold commoner warblers and flycatchers, and there is a sense of 'something good' in the air. Surely by now there will be either a Dusky or Radde's Warbler around, and even Red-flanked Bluetail has become commoner over the past decade. Walking up the valley into the moorland might give us a late Wryneck, or more likely Snow or Lapland Bunting, with flocks of finches flying over and recently returned thrushes from Scandinavia could be passing in big flocks. Signs of 'vis mig' always give birders hope of something different and it's fascinating to be able to observe this happening and listen to the flight calls of passerines overhead. There could be a dashing Merlin hunting these new arrivals, or even a recently arrived Short-eared Owl perched on a rock staring balefully at us, or the odd Ring Ouzel might put in an appearance. It's not all about rarities as just seeing the commoner birds migrating can be a thrill in itself. It will also be worthwhile to spend some time staring at the willows just in case a sprite from the east appears, namely a Yellow-browed or Pallas's Warbler. And there might just be a little splash of stardust as this site has held some of the biggest rarities you can hope for in the UK with Chimney Swift, Veery, American Redstart, Northern Parula, and even Alder Flycatcher. There's always a chance of a seawatch if conditions are right, with any of the large shearwaters and skuas possible, or a stunning Sabine's Gull just to add a bit of variety to our day list.
Moving around the coast to the Land's End area and St Levan valley, we will drive along picturesque lanes with their stone walls and some typically secluded spots where Veery, Pechora Pipit and even a Grey Catbird have appeared in the past. The airfield has held Buff-breasted Sandpiper and American Golden Plover in the past, whilst Sennen can also be productive and we should have a good chance of finding something like a Richard's Pipit, or getting an 'in-off' Hen Harrier passing overhead.
Further on we can explore the migrant traps of Kenidjack valley, Cot calley and Nanquidno Valley, all of which need to be checked and each has their own character and very long list of rarities that include Varied Thrush (a very long time ago!), Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-throated Vireo and more. These sheltered valleys are often the first landfall for American vagrants in the UK and it's exciting just being here. More likely will be flocks of tits, warblers and finches, and it's going to be fun checking the trees for Red-breasted Flycatcher, maybe an Arctic Warbler, or a skulking Radde's Warbler, with Pied and Spotted Flycatchers hunting insects distracting us, or a Brambling calling nearby, or a dazzling Firecrest spotted moving through the area in company with other crests'.
For our final day together we could check out the RSPB Reserve at Marazion where sometimes the reeds hold flocks of passerines, Long Rock Pool is worth a quick check for a stray duck and we have even seen a Paddyfield Warbler here in the past. The nearby bay can be worth a scan for auks, Mediterranean and Little Gulls, seaducks, scoters or phalaropes or we can pop over to the Hayle Estuary, another site with an incredible track record of turning up scarce and rare migrants. The estuary and Ryan's Field have held Lesser Yellowlegs, White-rumped, Least and Spotted Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitcher and Franklin's Gull amongst others. We are likely to see Little Egrets, a variety of common wildfowl including the first returning Brent Geese of the winter, common shorebirds including Green and Curlew Sandpipers, and who knows what else? At the end of the day we will return to our lovely secluded house for our final dinner together with time to reminisce about the great birds seen (and found), new friends and great memories made and a longing to return.
Day 12 End of Tour - Tuesday 20th October
The tour concludes after breakfast this morning.