Monday, 7 October 2019

Red-throated Pipit

Every single year the hackneyed old Scilly vs Shetland debate surfaces online somewhere. Wearily and resignedly, I expect. But let's face it. When all the pros and cons have been weighed, the stats analysed...who actually cares? I would imagine many birders will at some time try both, and wind up gravitating towards whichever they most enjoy. I've been to both (though Shetland only once) and I prefer Scilly. That's not because I feel it is better for rarities. And it's not because I live in the south and feel it wins logistically. In fact it's not for any objective reason whatsoever. It is simply because I love the place. If I could afford the time and money, I would visit every year, several times. And Mrs NQS loves it too; win-win.

One of these days I want to write a post about my first ever visit, in October 1984, when Scilly captured my heart. But that was a full-on birding trip with a bunch of fellow birders, and a bit different to what I want to write about today. Today I am going to share an anecdote from my first family holiday there, in late May, 1985. I had been captivated by the islands the previous autumn, and was eager to introduce them to my wife under less feverish circumstances. A spring week seemed ideal.

The inspiration for this post appeared on Twitter earlier today...


Just look at that stunner...

So there we are on Scilly in May '85. I have just turned 26. We have a two-and-a-half-year-old toddler, and Mrs NQS is sporting a 7-month bump. Everywhere we go, we are wheeling a child's buggy and a massive bag full of kid-related paraphernalia - any parent reading this will know the score. Trailing that lot down the local park or high street is one thing, but on our first full day we cart it all onto an inter-island launch, spend an hour or two with the Annet Puffins and then land on St Agnes. Being lunch-time, everyone heads left for the Turk's Head. Being instinctively contrary, we head right, which takes us round past Porth Killier to the Big Pool. I forget the date, but it's something like May 19th, so migrants are few and far between. More precisely, there aren't any at all. But there are Rock Pipits, so I helpfully point out the salient ID features, like the greyish outer tail feathers, and the way the call sounds like the air being forcibly squeezed out of them: 'wheesp'...

Picture the scene, then. A young couple, with toddling child, wheeling a heavily laden (early-'80s!) buggy along the rough footpath past Porth Killier. It's late May. The birding is clearly going to be rubbish. They come to the so-called Little Pool (a marshy puddle) and yet another pipit flies past them. Except this one has white outer tail feathers, not grey, and instead of a feeble 'wheesp' it goes 'spzzzzzzzzzt' for about half a minute without drawing breath, and instead of being dead-boring-dull it is all stripey and contrasty, and has a stonking brick-red throat, face, super, the lot! Aaargh! It's a blinkin' Red-throated Pipit!

In my mind's eye I can see the whole scenario so clearly that it's making me smile as I type this. That Red-throat gave us such a great show. It crept about in the damp grass, it flew around calling, it was constantly on view. And we had it all to ourselves. But of course, we wanted to share this gorgeous jewel, so we scanned around for other birders. It was May. There were none. In the distance by the Big Pool we spotted a bloke wearing bins though, and I hurried over to tell him about the spanking rarity "just over there where my wife is..." "Oooh, that sounds nice," he said, and carried blithely on his way.

I had no idea how to get news out, but remembered from the previous autumn that there was a little shop on the island, so later that afternoon we called in to report it. I sensed mild scepticism. "Hmmm. We were down at the cricket pitch this morning and didn't see anything then..."

A few weeks earlier, David Hunt, the only Scilly resident birder I knew of, had been killed by a tiger in India, so that evening we asked our guest-house proprietor if he knew anyone we could pass the news to. And that was how I became acquainted with Will Wagstaff.

Needless to say, Scilly has a claim on me that surpasses any logical, objective consideration, and always, always wins.

7 comments:

  1. Brilliant post, Gavin. I went there for the first time in mid-August and loved it. Saw very little, but already longing to go back (especially this week!).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, thanks Neil. Sounds like you might be hooked! It can do that...

      Delete
  2. I've been meaning to go back again one day Gav. October or May?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Both, Ric. For three weeks apiece! And if you could do that, I'd tack on the last few days of April and September too!

      Delete
  3. retirement cannot come quickly enough

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And then you'll have the correct hair colour to qualify for a Scilly trip :)

      Delete