For nature lovers, the Isles of Scilly are synonymous with birds, in particular the autumn migrants that land on the islands in September and October, opening a spectacular catalogue of rarities. So it was a first for me to see the place in spring when a very different experience awaits. I’ll come on to the floral beauty in a subsequent post, but for today I’m going to look at the resident breeding birds.
With around 140 islands, all bar 5 of which are uninhabited, it’s no surprise that the coastal regions dominate. Birds such as petrels and shearwaters, as well as auks such as puffins, see the islands as a safe space to breed. Shags outnumber cormorants here, as they often do in the seabird cities of the mainland.
There is a high density of gull species that are otherwise threatened, such as herring, black-backed, kittiwake and more.
On the shores, birds such as oystercatcher and ringed plover breed. The oystercatchers in particular are thriving and their agitated peeping proves an auditory backdrop well into the night, welcoming you again in the morning.
But the birds of the Scillies are more accustomed to people, so while these shorebirds engage in elaborate or even aggressive defences on the mainland, here they take a slightly more relaxed yet watchful approach (there are exceptions as I will come to later). We accidently positioned ourselves within feet of an oystercatcher nest, and while the birds kept an eye on us, there was no dive-bombing as I’ve experienced elsewhere.
It’s not just the seabirds though. The heathland (called downs), moors, grasslands and pools prove a home to a number of wonderful species.
Thrushes and pipits are numerous. In fact, the islands may be home to the highest density of song thrushes of any English region. The birds are much tamer too, and we were often accompanied by song thrushes whenever we sat down to eat.
Both meadow and rock pipit breed on the islands, and we became accustomed to the rise and fall of the rock pipits song flight.
Rarer, surprisingly, were robins. I never saw one on Bryher were we stayed, and only on Tresco and St Mary’s did I see the occasional bird.
But another chat was far more common, the stonechat. These glorious little birds were very numerous and could even be seen from our garden, even by the kitchen window at times!
They are a very alert bird though, and if they can see you, they are up on the nearest bush ‘chatting’ at you in alarm. No matter how quiet you are, or how long you linger, they never ease up. So after a while I made a point of passing relatively quickly to leave them in peace to feed their young.
While goldfinches and greenfinches are present, probably the most omnipresent finch is the linnet, breeding in the gorse and heather. I love linnets, and while I’m not someone who applies human morals to animals, there is nonetheless something charming about their faithfulness. Where you see a female, her partner will be close by too. They don’t seem to like to be separate, and they share parenting duties diligently.
They were another bird we often saw in the garden, even hopping up the garden path on occasion.
There are a few duck species around too, and we saw mallard, gadwall and shelduck.
You may notice few references to birds of prey; that’s because, outside of a couple of glimpses of a peregrine, there were none to be found.
There were fewer rarities to be seen at this time of the year, and based from an off-island like Bryher it was hard to chase anything that wasn’t on the same landmass! So despite the appearance of Great Reed Warbler and Red-Footed Falcon on St Mary’s, neither were there when I visited. I did however spot a Purple Heron on Tresco that later showed up on St Martin’s (presumably the same bird anyway). But a spring visit isn’t about spotting unusual birds, it’s about enjoying the beauty of the islands, which we will see in the next post.
If you missed Part One, in which we see dolphins, it’s right here.