This spring, my British birding has largely been curtailed by fieldwork planning for my first PhD field season and a ten day trip to California in mid-March (not that I’m complaining). As Easter was our last weekend before we both left Cornwall for our respective field seasons, Kali and I decided to daytrip Scilly on the Saturday as she’d been wanting to visit the magic islands since arriving last autumn and the prospect of some spring overshoots meant that the potential for good birding was high. When a spanking adult male Rock Thrush, a real gap in my list since missing the Spurn bird in 2013, turned up early last week on St Martin’s the deal was further sweetened and each day confirmation of its continuing presence ramped up my excitement levels by another increment. Saturday morning saw us making a sluggish start, sleepily boarding the 06.46 train to Truro in order to make it to Penzance in time to board the Scillonian. Having done some research on day boats to St Martin’s the night before, I wasn’t feeling particularly confident about making it to the bird and back to the Scillonian on time, and when the no sign message came through on Birdguides as we steamed towards Scilly, the twinge of disappointment I felt was softened by a flood of relief. I quickly settled into a relaxed crossing, enjoying my first Manx Shearwaters of the year and a pod of 3+ Common Dolphin which briefly interacted with the boat as we approached the islands.
As we pulled into St Mary’s harbour, anticipating a relaxed wander around the island followed by a pint or two at the mermaid, the inevitable happened when a phone call from Sam Viles confirmed the bird’s continuing presence. Waves of panic washed over me, however after a brief discussion with the ever tolerant Kali it was decided that we had to give the bird a go. I spoke to a couple of birders on the quay, made a quick call to Tresco Boats (01720 423373) and had soon arranged a jet boat to pick us up from Lower Town quay on St Martin’s at 15.30 for the very reasonable price of £7.50 a head. Factoring in the c40 minute walk to the opposite end of the island, this gave us over an hour at Bread and Cheese Cove and our best chance of connecting with the bird. After a brief wait, we soon boarded the Meridian and chugged across to St Martin’s, getting some nice views of fishing Sandwich Terns as we worked out the fastest route from the quay to the bird.
After what felt like an eternity, the boat docked at Lower Town and we were off, powering across the island in a display of athleticism never previously witnessed by Kali. After a half hour slog we arrived at Bread and Cheese Cove where Higgo and Dave Viles provided the classic twitching greeting, informing us that the bird had disappeared five minutes prior to our arrival. Stomach sinking deflation set in and I sat down to catch my breath, settling in for a long and nervous wait. My fears were short-lived however as after less than five minutes Higgo picked up the bird on the rocks below us and I was treated to scope views of this absolutely stunning bird. The deep blue head and wings contrasted with the dazzling orange underparts making this far and away one of the most beautiful birds I’ve ever seen. The bird spent the next hour and a half constantly on show as it fed on caterpillars around the rocks on the northeast side of Bread and Cheese Cove, frequently perching up to give stunning scope views. The bird was particularly smart in flight, showing the rufous tail for which it was named as well as a large white t-shaped patch across the back which I’d never noticed in field guide illustrations.
Sitting amongst some off the most beautiful scenery in Britain whilst watching such a magnificent bird was pure magic and further reinforced for me the unique birding experiences that Scilly can still produce. Following the Great Blue Heron in 2015 and the Sora last year, this was my third successful day-twitch to the islands, each of which has produced incredible memories that have further connected me to this truly magnificent place. Kali was also incredibly taken with the beauty of the islands and thoroughly enjoyed watching the Rock Thrush in what was perhaps the perfect introduction to twitching for her. I still haven’t managed to break it to her that they aren’t all quite as enjoyable. As the afternoon drew on, we were forced to drag ourselves away from the Rock Thrush and begin our slow walk back to Lower Town, picking up two smart female Ring Ouzel and several Wheatear on route. The jet boat pulled up to the quay as we arrived back in Lower Town and with the sun shining down on us we raced back to St Mary’s to meet the Scillonian where we enjoyed a celebratory Tribute in the afternoon sun. The crossing back was quiet birdwise but it was good to catch up with Sam and David Viles, without whose help I wouldn’t have connected with such a cracking bird. Another fantastic day with Scilly producing the goods and providing a fitting last hurrah birding in Cornwall before heading north for the field season. Hopefully, the isolation on Walney Island will give me more time to get things done and I’ll finally get a write up of my California trip done whilst the memories are still fresh!