The summer season might be drawing to a close, but people continue to flock to Scilly hoping to catch a glimpse of the islands’ very special visitors: rare migrating birds on their annual journey south for the winter.
Scilly has become a hotspot for birdwatchers in the autumn months, as there’s a real chance of spotting something unusual. It’s also a social time of year, with so many birders travelling to the islands at the same time. Speaking of which, the crossing over on the Scillonian passenger ship is a fantastic opportunity to look out for seabirds.
For thirty years, Will Wagstaff (Scilly’s resident ornithologist and naturalist) has been taking visitors on guided walks around the different islands, exploring the coastal landscape and keeping an eye out for rare birds. We caught up with him to find out what visitors can hope to spot during October.
Hi Will! Is this a good time to visit Scilly if you want to do some bird watching?
Yes, Scilly is one of the most famous places in the UK for rare birds and October is when they stop here as they migrate south – you never know what you’ll see.
Why is Scilly so popular with migrating birds?
Birds always prefer flying above land. So when they migrate south they follow the coast of Cornwall and then they have no other option but to fly here, as they will always take the shortest crossing.
Where do they come from?
In October we get birds all the way from North America and Siberia. It depends on the winds – an easterly wind will bring birds from further afield. Back in 2007 a Great Blue Heron was spotted here, it was the first one recorded in Britain.
Where are the birds going?
Some come and stay, some refuel and move on. Most will be heading to land above the Sahara, but the swallows will be going all the way to South Africa.
What can you typically spot during this time?
I’ve spotted Red-breasted Flycatchers, Yellow Wagtails, Yellow-browed Warblers and Shrikes – they’re a strange bird! The Woodchat Shrike comes from Southern Europe and has distinctive black and white patterned wings. We’ve seen a Whiskered Tern on Tresco this year, which was only the 2nd we’ve ever spotted here. You might spot a Wryneck – they’re as big a song thrush but they are well camouflaged, so you need to look out for them. Actually, last October there was a sighting of a Fea’s Petrel from the deck of the Scillonian – there are only a handful of those on record.
You’ve been leading wildlife tours for thirty years – has bird watching changed on Scilly in that time?
Yes, we used to see lots of Turtle Doves, but now we see hardly any. On the other hand, I remember rushing the see the first Little Egret on Scilly in the 1980s – I’ve now seen hundreds!
Is there a particular island that’s ideal for bird watching?
Everyone used to think St. Agnes was the place to go, but they can pop up anywhere. My walks take me to a different island every day.
Is there a certain time of day when you’re likely to see lots of birds?
They’re active most of the time as they’re feeding up, especially if the weather’s good. It’s lovely when people find what they’ve been looking for – I saw 20 Spotted Flycatchers the other day!
Is there anything else we should be on the look out for?
The ivy is flowering at the moment and so the butterflies (Red Admirals) are around. The daffodils have just started coming up and you might spot Bermuda Buttercups and Scarlet Pimpernels too.
Cruise or fly to the Isles of Scilly…
Flying to Scilly by Skybus is an opportunity to see the beauty of the islands as the bird’s do, from above! Alternatively you can immerse yourself in nature from the get-go by travelling on the Scillonian III passenger ferry. Enjoy the breathtaking ocean views and look out for Manx Shearwaters and dolphins from the deck. Our passengers spotted a Minke Whale just a couple of weeks ago!