Sunday 3 October 2021


On Saturday, 13th October 1984, a morning helicopter flight arrived on St Mary's and eager birders disembarked. I find it hard to believe that it is almost 37 years since I first set foot on the Scilly Isles.

I was so excited! Was Scilly going to live up to the hype? Our party of four was completed by fellow West London-based birder Brendan Ryan, along with Geoff Burton and Martin Warburton from Kent. We were based in Silver Street, a few yards from Porthcressa and a short stagger from the evening log call. Having dumped our luggage, the next step was easy...

There was a Common Yellowthroat on Bryher.

With hindsight I am not in the slightest bit surprised at what I then did, but at the time I still had a few things to learn about myself. The other three made straight for the quay, and the next boat to Bryher. Not me. There was this sketchy rumour of a possible American Robin at Borough Farm on St Mary's, and I decided to head that way to see if anything came of it. Basically in the exact opposite direction to everyone else. On my own. I remember seeing a Red-rumped Swallow, but very little else.

The Yellowthroat showed well.

At this point I should mention that my notebook for that trip no longer exists, and I cannot recall in detail (or even roughly!) the day-to-day events. However, I do know for sure that my first trip to the Scilly Isles bagged me 16 ticks. Sixteen! And Red-rumped Swallow was the first. The next morning I was one of a small group of birders on Bryher who enjoyed terrific views of the Common Yellowthroat in its favourite little apple tree. Tick number two.

I have tried hard to remember all the species that were new to me on that trip, but can only think of 14, maybe 15. At least three of them were seen later that Sunday: Woodchat Shrike, Little Bunting and Blackpoll Warbler, all on St Agnes.

I shall just list some of the others: Ortolan and Rustic Bunting, Melodious Warbler, Short-toed Lark, Dusky Warbler, Olivaceous Warbler. In some cases not just one bird either. Rustic Bunting twice at least, Little Bunting ditto, and Ortolan on two or three occasions, including two birds together once.

One rare bird that wasn't a tick was Rock Thrush. A frantic but unsuccessful effort one evening, followed by a wonderful performance the following morning on the spectacular rocky outcrops of Penninis Head. Unforgettable.

What struck me was the seeming abundance of quality. A long wait for an elusive Dusky Warbler on Tresco was made more than bearable by the presence of Melodious Warbler, Ortolan Bunting and Red-breasted Flycatcher in the same spot.

A few photos...

The Scilly virgin, Old Grimsby, Tresco.

And the old hands. Brendan (on the left) and Geoff.

I quickly learned lessons which would stand me in good stead on future visits. Though initially bemused by birders donning full waterproofs prior to an inter-island boat trip on a dry, sunny day, well...

A lovely day. But windy!

I don't know how many birders were on Scilly in mid-October 1984, but definitely lots...

Rustic Bunting by the Garrison football pitch. Brendan with my scope. Needless to say, we had already seen it.

Rustic Bunting on Tresco a couple of days later.

In those days I carried a camera at times. A cheap Zenit B SLR and equally budget Helios 500mm mirror lens...

Super-tame Dotterel on the Golf course

Tawny Pipit on Old Grimsby beach, Tresco. I've a funny feeling that Somerset (but then West London) birder Jeff Hazell might have found this bird.

Eastern Olivaceous (but then just Olivaceous) Warbler, Watermill

On our last day, we set out in the morning with little expectation. I'm not sure what time we were booked on the chopper, but late enough that we were able to respond in a full and satisfying way to the staggering news that an Eye-browed Thrush had been found at Salakee Farm. It was a gob-smackingly gorgeous male, and liked to perch on cow pats...

Eye-browed Thrush twitchers, along the path from Salakee Farm to Porthellick

I used to dabble in pen & ink in those days but almost never used pencil, and I'm not sure why I waited three years to do this, but hey-ho...

I think it would be difficult to envisage a more thrilling finale to my first Scilly trip. Eye-browed Thrush was an absolutely mythical bird back then. When we later boarded the chopper I think most of us were already airborne.

Looking back, that one-week holiday could hardly have painted the gorgeous Scilly Isles in a more favourable light. The islands won my heart then, and have had it ever since.


  1. I'm not sure if that looks like heaven or hell but I dare say that with youth, some good mates and all that energy it was a blast.

    Nice drawing too.

    1. It certainly was a blast! And not a pace I could maintain nowadays. Nor would I want to. Definitely a wonderful introduction to magical place though...

  2. Gav, I'm certain you showed me that notebook containing the 1984 Scilly venture. I say that because a bird I remember seeing in the/a book was the Eye-browed Thrush. I could tell you were really buzzing from that outing. Took me another seven years to go there myself. A real eye opener. Unforgettable.

    1. Good memory Ric. I did a pen & ink field sketch of the bird's head. Quite a complex face pattern, and I wanted to get it right.

      Yes, that first visit hooked me good and proper! 😄

  3. Our first weeks on the islands must nearly be the same; I arrived too late for the yellowthroat but left a few days later. Great memories. Could the other tick be a semi p sand that the late Pete Grant identified at Porthloo?

    1. Cheers Ian, thanks for your comment but I don't recall any notable waders during my week. Likely it was something a bit more prosaic, like Red-throated Pipit perhaps.

      You're not by any chance the Ian H who used to bird the Staines area as a teenager in the early '80s?

  4. Goodness me that's a trip down memory lane with those scopes. The Swift Telemaster 15-60×60. That was my first ever spotting scope. Great pictures Gavin and a successful trip, I bet the buzz was absolutely palpable. I Love seeing old photos because it reminds of my youth too. Thank you very much. Looks like a pair of Swift Audubon's round your neck.

  5. Replies
    1. Hi Tony. Yes, some lovely old vintage optics on display there! You're dead right, my bins were Swift Audubons, which weren't bad at all. Not waterproof though! Upgraded to Zeiss Dialyts in 1987, which I still use. And I'm pretty sure my scope was a Mirador 20-45x60, which was okay as a starter scope.