Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Trouble With Scilly - Part 2

My first visit to the hallowed Isles was in October 1984, when I was 25 years old. Having been a relatively late starter to proper birding many of my contemporaries already had several Scilly autumns under their belts. So those who - like me - were here for the first time, were in the main hardly old enough to shave. Of course there were older birders too. Four of them.* Peter Grant, pretty elderly at about 41, plus David Hunt, Brian Bland and Cliff Waller, all of whom were ancient. Over 50, rumour had it. Notwithstanding this dollop of antiquity, the average age of birders on Scilly in October 1984 was just 23 and 4 months. Fact.

Is it possible for a birder in 2015 to visualise that scenario of more than 30 years ago? Just picture it! Approximately six thousand thrusting young birders crowded onto a few tiny islands, all rampantly eager to list, and list HARD. The presence of this throbbing dynamo of youth had inevitable consequences. Every last inch of birdable habbo got burned up, over and over again. And nothing got missed. Fuelled by an endless supply of proper cream teas, the rampaging horde squeezed out every single decent bird on the islands.

As well as the thoroughness there was another thing. Speed. Sure, birders mostly walked when they were on the hunt, but immediately a good bird was found, there was running. I learned a trick that year from my friend Brendan, a veteran of previous Scilly campaigns. He would spend only half of his time in the field actually searching for birds, because the other half was needed to scan the horizon for people running. We'd be on the Garrison and he'd suddenly go "Quick! People running! Up near Telegraph!" and off we'd go, running to join them. All that energy! It was brilliant! We saw more rare birds than you can possibly imagine!

It's all pretty logical really. That number of eager, youthful birders, well-fuelled and running everywhere, was absolutely bound to result in a lo-o-o-ng list of mega-rare birds every autumn.

Anyway, here's some proof of how it was. The photo was taken in 1987. Nobody over 30 in this pic. Just look at all that dark hair! And, I might add, not a waistline above 34".

St Agnes 1987 - roughly 2% of the birders present that day

Fast forward to the modern day...

Well, it's all rather obvious isn't it. The intervening years have taken their toll. Consider the following factors:
  • The recruitment of young birders into the ranks has fallen to about three per annum. Student loans and mobile/Netflix/Spotify etc contracts means they're skint and can't possibly afford Scilly.
  • Many of the old guard hammered the cream teas and cake so much that they've either pegged it or grown too vast for travelling.
  • Those left are all old, all slow, mostly lazy, and frequently jaded.
  • There are new birders entering the fray, but they're all retirees. Most aren't tempted to go to Scilly because it isn't that Zimmer-friendly, and those who do can't get further than Lower Moors.
Clearly there is only one inevitable outcome from all this: fewer birders + far, far less vigour = much less coverage = much less found.

The next photo well illustrates the current situation. St Agnes 2010, and the rarest bird on the islands. Every single birder present that year is there, plus several curious passers-by.

Red-eyed Vireo - 34 birders, average age 72 and 3 months

So there we are. Received wisdom has it that Scilly is a waste of time these days, and the evidence to hand strongly concurs with this view. The place is now a cream tea desert, with just a handful of hunched and geriatric bird spotters shuffling uselessly from bench to bench, barely able to lift their bins.

However, the discerning reader will no doubt realise that all this presents an interesting opportunity. More of which in a later post...

* Actually, five. I forgot about the venerable Mike Rogers, who was also in his dotage by then. So the average age in 1984 is now eight minutes older than stated.


  1. You're back! Superb, Sorely missed, and a welcome return to the blogosphere.

    Don't go away again!



  2. Thank you Jon, very kind! I will try not to. Really.