Situated 28 miles off the coast of Land’s End, Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly is famed for it’s diverse, beautiful and often rare wildlife. For decades, birders and lovers of nature have flocked to the archipelago, keen to immerse themselves in the striking landscapes and catch up with the wildlife – both that lives here and that turns up accidentally on our shores.
Whenever anyone writes about the Isles of Scilly, one word is always repeated: “magical”. The atmosphere, the light, the lull or crash of the sea (depending on the weather), the sweet smell of narcissi, wet pine or seaweed, the taste of salt in the air and the genuine freshness as one inhales, all come together to create an immersive and wild experience. Lichens and mosses blossom, stark granite looms up around the headlands, fierce waves break around (or over) the rocks. Here on the Wild Atlantic Edge, serenity and drama combine to peacefully lull you or enliven all of your senses. This is a land ruled by the tides and the weather, and the wildlife reflects this great meeting of the elements.
There are relatively few birds that actually breed here, but those that do benefit from traditional farming methods, a lack of disturbance, few predators and obliging tearooms. Birds that are declining elsewhere in the UK – Song Thrushes for example – thrive on the Isles of Scilly, singing from every bush, garden and tree. The spring can also strike big for a rarity or two, including the Belted Kingfisher of 2018, as well as birds like Night Heron, Little Bittern or Subalpine Warblers.
In the summer, the famed pelagic season, seabirds both common and rare will wheel across the surf, and a boat trip is rarely a wasted opportunity. Storm Petrels and Manx Shearwaters both breed here, and have benefited enormously from conservation projects like the Seabird Recovery Project. Puffins are a firm favourite with visitors, along with other auks, and Shags are one of our most common breeding seabirds. We also see a fantastic shearwater passage every July and Autumn, along with regular sightings of skuas, petrels, gulls and more. Out at sea, or even close in to shore, you can have a close encounter with one of the many marine mammals that are seen here. Atlantic Grey Seals breed on the islands, pupping in late autumn, whilst Common Dolphins, Minke Whales and Harbour Porpoises are often spotted. Special trips to catch Blue Sharks run regularly in the summer, part of a conservation project to tag these engimatic creatures.
Autumn sees an annual influx of birders from across the UK and beyond, keen to find and see some of the rarities that end up on Scilly during migration. In recent years, we’ve been treated to Red-eyed Vireos, White-rumped Sandpiper, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Blyth’s Pipits, Grey-cheeked Thrush, and plenty more, and even a quiet day can turn up some more common migrants, like Wrynecks, Redstarts, Yellow-browed Warblers or Little Buntings. Even as the year progresses into winter, Scilly can strike lucky, with Hermit Thrush, Royal Tern and Killdeer all putting in an appearance.
No matter what your area of interest, the Isles of Scilly promises an amazing, wild experience. The flora is exceptionally diverse, supporting a thriving insect population, and we even have our own subspecies of shrew: the Lesser White-toothed “Scilly” Shrew. Down on the coast, rockpools burst with wildlife.
There are so many ways to enjoy the islands, so whether this is your first trip or you’re a returning visitor, there will always be something new and exciting to see. You can self-guide using handy maps, keep up with sightings here, or explore guided walks and Scilly Pelagics for a more targeted experience.
Common Dolphin © Joe Pender