Monday, 4 October 2021

The Scilly vs Shetland Question

With rain forecast to arrive around lunchtime I squeezed in a quick late-morning walk at Cogden. Atlantic-style weather is dominating at the moment, so my expectations were very low. But you never know...

The first field I tried yielded a trio of Whinchats, which was a delightful surprise...

Two of today's three Whinchats

The other, more cooperative one

Factor in 4 Chiffchaffs, 25+ Meadow Pipits, at least 11 Skylarks, 55+ Swallows and a Sand Martin, and it was an enjoyable walk. I scanned the sea many times, hoping the brisk SW might offer some thrills, but saw not so much as a single Gannet.

Yesterday's blog post was fun to write. Scilly always comes to mind at this time of year, and the current output of Twitter keeps it there. Shetland also. The birders on both archipeligos regularly post photos of the star birds, and very gripping they are too. At the moment it appears that Shetland has the lion's share of rarities, and already (on October 4th!) we have seen one or two tweets in the 'Yep, Scilly's definitely had its day' vein. Always makes me chuckle. I've written on this subject before, but as it seems topical...

Unless the only criterion that interests you is the total number of rare and scarce birds, the Scilly vs Shetland argument is a classic exercise in comparing apples with oranges.

When you arrive on Scilly, you are faced with roughly 16km² of well-vegetated habitat. Assuming you are physically capable, you can walk from one location to the next. If you fancy twitching a bird found at the other end of your island, you can walk there in less than an hour. If it's on another island, you walk to the quay, catch a boat, land on said island and walk some more. Arriving on Shetland though, your playground is somewhat larger. With some 1,466km² to go at, accessing it all is a very different game. If you are based near Sumburgh in the south, and fancy twitching a bird at Skaw on Unst, you've got an 80-something mile journey ahead, including a ferry crossing.

When it comes to Scilly and Shetland, the question 'which is better?' is a bit meaningless unless you take into account a lot more variables than the rarity count. For most birders a visit to either is a holiday, so perhaps a better question would be 'which will I most enjoy?' And clearly there is only one way to find that out for sure.

But yes, obviously Scilly is better.


  1. Having done both, I'd can't say one is better than the other. Both good, but very different. On Shetland you can pick a 'local' patch for the trip and do that first thing every day, then maybe drive to the rarities that had been found elsewhere. That one never quite worked for us, we never found anything 'local'. Scilly let's everyone do their own thing, no need to stick together so you can follow your own hunches.

    1. Thanks for taking the trouble to comment, Wheatearlp. I very much get what you're saying. I was spoiled by my first trip to Scilly, which was brilliant. Apart from Fair Isle, my first (and only) trip to Shetland, not so much. But that aside, Scilly suits my style of birding much better than Shetland, which is just too huge.

    2. My first Scilly trip in 1999 gave me 14 (I think) lifers, so every incentive to return. I did nine times with various others before the lack of lifers sent us to Shetland for five years. First Shetland trip gave me 6 lifers so, again, incentive to return. Sadly I've not been to either since 2014.

    3. My last trip to Scilly was 2016, in July. It was a holiday rather than birding trip, but still managed a new bird: Wilson's Petrel! 😄

      To be honest I would happily plod round Scilly year after year without ever seeing another lifer. I guess the place has got under my skin. And I'm sure there are plenty of birders could say the same about Shetland...

  2. A holiday indeed Gav. Much as I'd like to spend a couple of weeks on Scilly again, I have yet to rationalise how it costs as much or more to go to Scilly pro-rata than it does to go to New Zealand.

    1. Yes Ric, it's never been the cheapest option! 😄