For my last full day on Scilly I was back on St Agnes again, joining a group led by Will Wagstaff on a full day of exploring. Although the weather was still far from bad, today was the murkiest I’d had so far. The sun was well and truly concealed behind thick cloud, and without its warmth the wind blowing off the sea cut through my jacket and made me very grateful I’d decided to bring a jumper this time.
While most of the visitors from the boat headed towards Gugh before the sand bar closed up later in the afternoon, we went the other way, hoping to find more wildlife than people. Before long we heard the sound of a chiffchaff in the bushes, followed by a song thrush and the customary wren. We stopped at Big Pool and watched a pair of shelducks. Both male and female have beautiful and striking plumage, making camouflage on the nest impossible. To counter this, shelducks are often found nesting in burrows out of sight of predators.
Just as Will was explaining this, one of the visitors interrupted with an exclamation of “redstart!” I’d never seen a redstart, so I was keen to find where the bird was spotted. There, perched proudly on the fence, was a beautiful male; black face, burnt copper breast and a smoky blue back. It was a stunning bird, but as usual didn’t stay still for long.
After a loop of the pool we wandered through Lower Town, a tiny street with a post office and a sprinkling of houses. We passed another grove of elm trees, and I asked Will if the ivy – which was also covering these trees – had a detrimental effect on them. To my surprise he said no, and in fact ivy was an essential part of the ecosystem, providing shelter for birds, insects and small mammals. While ivy should be removed from buildings, its presence on trees was of little concern. I was pleased; having survived Dutch elm disease it would be a shame to then lose Scilly’s elms to the ivy.
We crossed the beach looking out over Beady Pool and noticed that the sand bar to Gugh was closing fast. At this angle, you could really see how flat the beach was, and Will told us how people had underestimated the tide and had gotten trapped on Gugh in the past. The ocean was a force to be reckoned with, especially out here when the land was so low-lying and water inundation was an ever-present risk.
We threaded our way through vast forests of gorse, a bittersweet combination of harsh brambles and delicate yellow blooms. A herd of Ruby Red cattle grazed nearby, mooing into the otherwise silent landscape. The sharp-eyed visitor who’d spotted the redstart alerted our attention to another bird that was perhaps even more special: a woodchat shrike. Admittedly, I’d never heard of the bird before. It was an annual vagrant to Britain from southern Europe, usually seen here from April to October. A bird is considered vagrant if it strays far from its wintering, breeding or migrating grounds. The shrike was perched quite far off, but I could still make out striking black, white and russet plumage. I managed to get some shaky photos of the bird while it remained stationary; although they won’t win any awards, they were proof we saw it.
The afternoon was racing on. The sun had failed to emerge so up on exposed Wingletang Down we all felt distinctly chilly. Incidentally, there was a café just up the hill, overlooking St Warna’s Cove. While we warmed up with hot chocolate we watched a few fulmars resting on the rocks. Unlike most gulls, fulmars don’t walk well on land, so if not flying the birds are always seen lying on rocks instead of perched on their feet. We all had a look down Will’s telescope, and saw there were distinct pairs set out on the rock. Fulmars, like many other birds, are monogamous and will mate with the same individual throughout their lives.
After we’d warmed up a little it was time to make our way back across St Agnes to the quay. We passed Porth Killier again, which looked vastly different now the tide had swelled. Will spotted a curlew sleeping with its characteristic bill tucked under its wing, and just as we reached the track down to the quay we saw a wheatear posing on the stonewall. We’d amassed quite an extensive bird list during the day, including several I’d never heard of let alone seen. It was always exciting ticking new species off the list, and on my last day in the Isles of Scilly I’d made lots of progress.