The Isles of Scilly are one of the best-known birding locations in Britain but this was not always the case. The majority of birds recorded on the islands during the 1800s and early 1900s were those identified after being shot, the saying at the time being, ‘ What’s hit is history, what’s missed is mystery.’ Things began to change with the advent of the tourist industry and a growing interest in the birds that reached the islands. Improved binoculars and the arrival of portable telescopes meant that even distant birds could be identified. Although by no means the first person to write about the islands, Hilda Quick highlighted the variety of birds on the islands to a wider audience through her books and other writings. Living on St Agnes, she aroused a wide interest in the birdlife of the islands.
Birdwatchers who came to stay on St Agnes in the late 1950s and early 1960s found that spring and autumn migration are excellent times to see and find rare birds. Initially, this phenomenon was thought to apply only to St Agnes. So much so that my predecessor, the late David Hunt, went on holiday to St Agnes from his new home on Tresco in the late 1960s. Amongst others, he was responsible for finding many rare birds. Many birders stayed in one of the self-catering buildings on St Agnes that became known as the observatory. The first bird reports were produced biannually from 1957. They contain notes on the many rare and scarce species that reached the islands. Publication of a report became an annual event from 1969 and has continued to this day.
Originally, it was thought that the prime month to stay on the islands was September. However, more and more people wanted to stay on St Agnes and so those who could not get accommodation during September stayed on into October. They found that although there may not be as many common migrants about, there was an even greater chance of seeing rare birds. The numbers of birders wanting to stay on the island became such that the overflow had to stay on St Mary’s and, unsurprisingly, they found that rarities could turn up there as well.
The majority of birders who visit the islands today stay on St Mary’s and St Agnes with a few brave souls staying on the other three inhabited islands. October on Scilly has now become an annual part of many a birdwatcher’s calendar. The numbers of birders visiting the islands reached a peak during the late 1980s and have declined since but many still visit, as much for the islands as the birds.
Nowadays there are not as many birders on Scilly during mid October as there are seen at a major twitch on the mainland. Improved transport links mean that many birders can stay at work safe in the knowledge that they can be on Scilly next day. All they have to pray is that their quarry stays more than one day.
The majority of rarities do hang around a few days, but there are those that vanish overnight. The most memorable of those was the Caspian Plover in May 1987. Those who came next day will never forget the rough boat trip to the islands that they had to endure, ultimately only to dip on the prize bird (and have had to listen to me talking about how good a bird it was ever since!)
Advances in technology with the advent of CB radios in 1984, and now mobile phones and pagers, mean that the days of listening out for a shout in the distance, informing one of the discovery of a rare bird, are long gone. This can mean that the numbers of birders appearing at the site of a new bird increases very rapidly and viewing space becomes tight. On the other hand it does mean that you can go for a walk around the islands without worrying no other birders have been seen for several hours.
Over the years the October nightly log call on St Mary’s has become an institution. During the 1970s Mike Rogers called the log in a variety of pubs in Hugh Town. In 1981, at the instigation of David Hunt, the cellar bar of the Porthcressa Restaurant (Inn) became the home of the log call, until 2000 when it moved to its new venue in the Scillonian Club. Mike, David, other volunteers, and myself called the log until David died in 1985. I took over calling the log in 1987 when Mike moved back to the mainland. In recent years many members of the ISBG have shared the job of log calling, local as well as visiting but I still like to do my share. In over twenty years of residence on the islands I have seen birders come and go. It is nice to see that there are more birders than ever as we enter the new millennium, and yet I bet there are still birds flying in and out without us being aware of them. This is certainly the case in spring as there are still comparatively few birdwatchers on the islands. Although the number of birds is lower at that time of year, the islands have been temporary home to some classy spring birds, such as two Calandra Larks, Pine Bunting, almost any southern European heron one could wish for, and many more. With over four hundred species having been recorded on this small group of islands, the Isles of Scilly certainly live up to their reputation as a bird magnet without parallel in Europe.