Saturday, 10 December 2016

Summer Scilly Birds

A few posts back I implied that Scilly in July was birdless. Regular readers will have recognised the hyperbole and ignored it, because Scilly in July certainly is not birdless. As at all times of the year it is heaving with extremely common birds. Millions of them. My point of course was this: in spring and autumn you have to check each and every one of them in case they are accidentally not common. In October for example, you have to make sure that the Wren's head is not attached to a Dusky Warbler's body, and that the Robin which just flicked up into the hedge didn't have a blue tail. All this is massively time-consuming. The difference in July is that you can simply ignore them all and get on with sight-seeing, because not a single one of those common birds will be rare.

However, this is not the case if you head out to sea in a boat...

As we walked ashore from the Scillonian III on 19 July I was acutely aware of two things. One, there was a realistic chance of a lifer on this holiday, and two, that chance was only viable if I was prepared to endure a pelagic.

I'm not a fan of boats. I'm not a good sailor, that's all. I have vivid memories of a boat fishing trip out of Penzance when I was about 14. They haunt me still. Waving goodbye to the rest of my family as they stood on the quay to see me off, I was brim-full of excitement and optimism, just thrilled to be on a proper charter boat with proper grown-up sea anglers. Brilliant! About an hour later I threw up for the first time, and again shortly afterwards. After that it was every twenty minutes without fail, I'd be hanging over the side wretching and gagging and wanting to die. Once you've dispensed with the solids, all you have left to offer are stomach juices and loose bits of duodenum. It's hideous. And exhausting. And something I am anxious never to repeat.

Mind you, I did see my first ever Storm Petrel that day. I expect it was investigating my special chum slick...

Which kind of brings me to the subject at hand. Wilson's Petrel. In truth I had resigned myself to never seeing one, because it would definitely involve a small boat. My good mate @birdingprof has tried a couple of times to tempt me onto a Scillonian pelagic, arguing that this is a big boat, but for me the crossing to Scilly is awful enough. No thanks. My decision was vindicated last time when the weather turned out absolutely dreadful and hundreds of birders were tossed about the ship like so many rag dolls and battered against various knobbly, unyielding bits of superstructure. Still, I imagine a lot of birders got home that night - or perhaps the next week, after they were released from hospital - totally buzzing. And, I suppose, the blood a vomit spatterings would soon wash out, and the bones eventually mend...

Nevertheless, not for me, ta.

So what on earth was I thinking, walking into a shop in Hugh Town and buying two of these:

Ticket for the evening pelagic, 25 July, 2016. On the back is written 'Spectator' which is Scillonian for idiot.

In the event it wasn't as bad as I feared. But I must point out one thing for those who have yet to experience a pelagic. You know those superb, crisp shots of rare seabirds that appear everywhere? And how they make you think "Ooh, they must get brilliant views on those pelagics"? Well, just remember it's a camera which has done that, a machine that freezes 1/1000 sec into something you can peruse at your leisure for several minutes while you analyse every subtle identification feature. What your eye gets - as the boat heaves in the swell and you struggle to keep your bins even remotely steady - is not quite the same...

Here we are heading out from the islands, St. Agnes on the left and St. Mary's on the right. Mrs NQS in full pelagic mode...

There were a few Scilly stalwarts aboard. John Higginson in action here. Note that Higgo is 'braced', with his back against the cabin, feet apart, knees slightly bent. It might look calm, but that boat was going up and down like a fiddler's elbow, believe me...

Shortly after taking that last photo I was scanning ahead, past Higgo, when I spotted two petrels. I called them immediately. Within seconds Higgo was on them too and straight away said "One's a Wilson's!" As we drew closer it was obvious that they were different, and the ID features were surprisingly easy to see. That was my lifer then. Excellent. Later we had cracking views of another, as well as one or two Cory's Shearwaters.

Just as good were the sharks. Most on the boat were either shark fishing or watching the shark fishing...

Shark on! Three or four were caught I think, all blue sharks.
Sapphire skipper, Joe Pender, takes a mean 'at sea' bird photo and knows his onions. Here he is, explaining the finer points of ID: "Note how Wilson's lacks a white bar on the underwing coverts...and look at the yellow webs between its toes here..."

Arriving back at Hugh Town harbour I reviewed the experience. I was delighted to have nailed a Wilson's Petrel with just the one pelagic. Although I effectively 'found' it I wondered if I would have identified it with total confidence? Higgo's quick shout was borne of many previous encounters, and though the species is quite distinctive it is also subtle; it was good to have experienced eyes present. Seeing sharks up close was brilliant too. Impressive creatures. Best of all though was keeping my dinner down. Absolutely superb.


  1. I seem to be lucky on boats Gav. Despite being on a few which were pitching and rolling, I've never felt a hint of nausea.
    I accept that this fact alone could get me 'thrown up' over the side in my entirety.

  2. And of course, the Wilsons is small enough to be handled as shown in your last picture, whereas the Corys being much bigger is an entirely different matter.
    I understand that where they come from, some are man eaters.

  3. Ric, you are fortunate and I envy you. On a Scillonian crossing in September '86 it was blowing a SE hoolie. Sandra stayed downstairs with the boys and everyone around her was sick. She was absolutely fine; like you she never gets seasick. Meanwhile I had to stay on deck. It was impossible to find decent shelter from the spray and rain, but I didn't care, I just hung on to a railing or something and spent the whole crossing looking at the horizon. I survived.

    Crossing to Fair Isle on the infamous 'Good Shepherd' in 1990 I likewise stayed up top. Foolishly I briefly popped below for a couple of minutes to fetch something from my luggage and instantly felt nauseous, and couldn't shake it until I was on dry land again. As I said, not a good sailor.