Short-toed Eagle – St Martin’s, Scilly

On Tuesday 5th October a Siberian Thrush had been found in the abandoned fields on Gugh, just over the sand bar from Agnes. The next day it was still present and a White’s Thrush was found in fields near Troytown! The two zoothera thrushes had probably arrived together and for many lucky birders Wednesday provided the unique chance to see these two enigmatic vagrants within walking distance of each other! As we feared and expected the White’s Thrush had gone by Thursday morning but the Siberian Thrush was still present and almost unbelievably at about 1pm a Short-toed Eagle drifted over St Agnes and appeared to be hanging around the Islands. Thursday night was almost unbearable as I packed my stuff ready for the Scillies the next day. I was desperate for the Siberian Thrush and Short-toed Eagle to hang around and if so that we could get to both before dark.

Nigel, Peter, Richard, Linda, Martin and myself all met at Exeter Service Station at just after 7am. Stuart would be coming the next day as it was his daughter’s birthday party.  Thanks to Peter’s devious scheming I had hatched a plan which enabled me to hang on to the Clio for a few extra months after starting my new job at the end of May. As I got out of the car at Exeter I was horrified to notice that the Escort keys were in my pocket, Sara would be without a car! She needed them that night to get to Salisbury and so posting them wouldn’t really help. I borrowed a Yellow Pages and phoned some courier services, they were all over £60 and one was £100+!! I rang Sara and gave her the bad news and then I went back into the café area to ask for the gang’s advice. Sara then managed to find a spare set and paged me to say don’t worry, unfortunately my pager was in the car and so I continued to make arrangements to book a courier! Just before finalising the arrangements I phoned home and was relieved to find that I didn’t need to bother.

After this hitch we hit the road again and via a quick stop on the Hayle Estuary we headed for St Just Airfield. By now the pager had reported that both thrush and eagle were still present, the excitement began to build. We decided that the safest approach would be to try and get the eagle first and then get the 2:15pm boat to Agnes. The timings meant that it would be safer to try and see the eagle from St Mary’s at 2 miles range and this way we wouldn’t run the risk of failing to get back from Martins in time for the St Agnes boat. The Eagle was flying over the Eastern Isles and we joked about trying to get the Skybus pilot to detour low over the Islands!

Our group was split across two flights and by chance I was on the first flight with the other six on the second. I arrived at St Mary’s airport and had brief views of the Upland Sandpiper. I declined a lift in the Skybus taxi and waited for the gang. I waited for about 30 minutes for their flight but no sign. It turned out that they had convinced the pilot to detour to the Eastern Isles and they were making several passes to try and see the eagle! Eventually they touched down; they hadn’t seen it. We quickly jumped in the next Skybus taxi and having dropped our stuff off at the flat we headed towards the golf course with the intention of scoping the eagle. On the way we arranged for a taxi to pick us up from the golf course at 2pm to ensure that we made it to the Quay for the 2:15pm boat to Agnes.

We arrived at the golf course and decided that we could get a better view of St Martins by venturing across several of the fairways. Once we had settled on a suitable location we sat down and began to scan with telescopes. The tension was building and we were conscious of the time. After several false alarms Richard finally picked it up as it rose above a distant farmhouse on the St Martins horizon.Immediately obvious was the large size and the pale patches on the upper wings. Although I subsequently calculated that we were approximately 2¼ miles away the conditions were good and at 60x magnification views were satisfactory. We watched the eagle for a short while before heading back to wait for the taxi.       

It seems likely that this bird had headed north from its breeding areas in Spain rather than south to its wintering grounds south of the Sahara. There are no reptiles on Scilly and the Eagle was probably unable to feed. Having realised its mistake it headed back south on Monday 11th, the start of a 2,500 mile journey back to the Sahara.

Ever since we had met at Exeter some 6.5 hours ago the tension had been building, the sight of the magnificent eagle was a fantastic relief but we realised that this was just the first (and easiest) half done – the Siberian Thrush was next and we headed off to meet the taxi for the journey to Gugh.

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