White’s Thrush – St Agnes, Scilly

We made the first boat-load and by 8.50am we were walking around the northern side of Agnes to Porth Killier Bay where the bird had been seen the night before. There were large groups of birders already looking, presumably those staying on Agnes, but the bird had not been seen. There didn’t seem to be much information available but it appeared that ever since arriving on Wednesday the thrush had been extremely elusive covering large areas very quickly and flying so low to the ground that even flight views were rare.

What made things even more difficult was the fact that many of the fields on St Agnes are either difficult to view or are private. The views that the bird gave on Wednesday were apparently only as a result of concentrated flushing in fields where the bird was known to have flown. Even allowing for all of this we could not have imagined how difficult this bird would be!

After half an hour of aimless wandering we found ourselves overlooking Periglis Bay waiting for news and looking through the small numbers of waders and gulls. There was a shout and almost immediately Peter and I were sprinting back across the cricket field and over the artificial wicket. As we got back towards Middle Town everyone’s momentum seemed to wane and we ended up standing around wondering who had shouted. Apparently someone had seen the thrush in the field system between the lighthouse at Middle Town and Porth Killier.

After a long wait the CBs reported that the fields below the lighthouse would be walked through and best views could be had from the steps below the lighthouse – this area gave a reasonably panoramic view. Lee Evans was organising things and was getting permission from the land owners to take a small number of people in to the private areas to try and move the thrush so that the massed ranks up on the hill could see it without there being any other trespassing.

We all assembled as requested and waited for the flush to begin. Just as we were ready to begin a boat-load of birders CB’d from St Mary’s to ask us to delay the flush until they had arrived, they reckoned that they would be about 20 minutes. There were groans of ‘why didn’t they get out of bed early like us?’, the flush was delayed until about 11am.

As the allotted time arrived a group of about 6 birders began to make their way through the area where the thrush had been seen 3 hours ago. 10 minutes later they had covered the area and nothing had shown. After our experience with the Siberian Thrush yesterday it seemed obvious that people needed to be more aggressive with their flushing or the thrush would happily sit in the bottom of a bush and just wait for people to go past. There was another half hearted flush at this site but pretty soon people began to drift away. It was evident that Lee was finding it difficult to arrange these private flushes and he reiterated over the CB that no-one should enter any private fields or the privileges that the land owners were giving us would be withdrawn. Lee promised that there would be another organised flush at the site later in the day.

With the good views that the lighthouse steps gave it was difficult to drag ourselves away although we did venture away to look for the Red-breasted Flycatcher (possible albacilla race) and to have a crab sandwich lunch at Covean Tea rooms. As a welcome diversion from the fun and games we were having chasing the White’s Thrush I decided to wander off to Covean to look for the Siberian Stonechat which had just been found near Covean Tea Rooms.

Peter and the rest of the group weren’t so keen to leave and said they would catch up with it later. Although not officially split as a separate species from ‘our’ Stonechat it seemed likely that the split would be made sometime soon and the Siberian race was certainly more subtly attractive than ours. I, therefore, made my way towards the Tea Rooms at Covean.

The bird had been present on a small area of unused and slightly overgrown land near to a farmhouse. Access was via a set of steep steps from the path just above the tea rooms. I made my way up but quickly noticed that there were a lot of birders at the top and several of them were muttering that this was private land and that we shouldn’t be this far up from the path. The field that the stonechat had been favouring was devoid of birds and I wondered whether it might be better to come back later. As a few of the birders left viewing conditions became less cramped, one of the birders claimed that the farmer had earlier said that he was happy for us to be there.

Shortly afterwards someone called out and pointed into the adjacent field, sure enough a stonechat (in whinchat-like plumage) appeared and was just viewable above the drystone wall. Fairly quickly it flew off and then reappeared in the field right in front of us. Over the next 15 minutes or so it flew between the various weed heads often low to the ground and perched giving very good extended views.I was surprised just how attractive it was with the smooth unmarked and almost red rump being particularly distinctive.

Having had good views of the Siberian Stonechat I returned to join the group again. There had be no other sightings of the White’s Thrush since the early morning shout. The second flush attempt at 2pm was less well attended and even less eventful, things were beginning to look a bit bleak although we did have the consolation that maybe, just like the Siberian Thrush, this bird may show better in the evenings. The Siberian Thrush, however, had probably gone as it hadn’t been seen today and it looked likely that Stuart who was fog bound on the mainland wouldn’t see it. At just before 3pm Peter and I walked to the Post Office shop and ordered a pasty, they would be ready at about 3:15pm so we walked back to the lighthouse and joined the others.

At exactly 3:15 the CBs reported that the Thrush was on show near Covean Tea Rooms, we all legged it. I ran in to the shop and shouted for 2 pasties for Cranswick, fortunately they were ready and we ran the rest of the way with pasties in hand. The bird was showing from one of the narrow tracks around the eastern side of Agnes, between the Gugh Bar and the cove to the south. We ran down the track and were horrified to see that there were birders crammed in ahead of us for as far as the eye could see. The track was only 4 foot wide and was bordered on the east side by a thin line of tallish trees through which you could see the water channel between Agnes and Gugh.

On the western side of the track the ground rose slightly and was dominated by a complex system of small private fields. Each side of the track was bordered by a drystone wall and only occasionally did the trees open out to allow a view on either of the sides. Where we stood, and we couldn’t move back or forward, the trees stood tall on both sides allowing virtually no viewing. Just up ahead, probably only 5 yards the western side of the track was clear and hundreds of birders could stand jammed in together watching 2 or 3 of the fields without any obscuring foliage. We could see the birders watching these fields but we couldn’t see the fields ourselves. It was obvious from the tense atmosphere that some of the birders in the crowd had seen the bird very recently and they were shouting out instructions as to where they had last seen it.

Soon there were hysterical cries of ‘there it is, in the tree!!’ The crowd surged forward but we were already too tightly packed to move very far. There was a sudden deafening cheer as a hundred or more birders celebrated. We were still a few feet away from being able to find a suitable viewing position, we could watch the ecstatic birders but not the bird. Unless a lot of birders moved out very quickly then we had no chance.

Peter suggested that we retreated back down the track up around past the tea rooms down a parallel track around the cove at the bottom and try and join the group of birders from the other side. We had no better suggestion so we moved out as quickly as we had moved in. Things were no better from this side and by now the bird hadn’t been seen for 10 minutes. We were actually only about 20 yards from where we had been standing earlier although it had taken us 10 minutes to get there.

Pretty soon a nearby CB reported that the bird had reappeared down at the cove where we had just been. By the time we got there people reported that it had flown off inland towards Barnaby Lane. Things were getting very frustrating and I began to think about that cheering crown which had been only 5 yards from me. As we walked back up the track towards the main path through Higher Town we heard a loud whistle from Barnaby Lane and felt sure that the bird had been relocated there. We began jogging again but sure enough the bird was long gone by the time we got there.

It appeared that you needed to be in the small group of people who relocated the bird to have any chance, as soon as it had been seen it seemed to disappear. Reports suggested that the Thrush had flown off in the direction of St Warna’s cove and knowing that there were some fairly panoramic views from that side of the island we headed off. We felt that if we kept trying we might get lucky, the boat wasn’t leaving until nearly 7pm and if necessary we would be back tomorrow. After 30 minutes or so we left the cove and headed back to Barnaby Lane, this would be our last site and last attempt of the day. At the end of the lane where it widens out there was a large gathering of birders, this was the site of the last confirmed sighting some 45 minutes ago and this is where we met Stuart. He had been fog bound at St Just but had miraculously managed to get on to the Scillonian, he was the last person on to the boat! He had already seen the Short-toed Eagle and amazingly he had also seen the White’s Thrush!! He had seen the bird on a drystone wall and had been with the group who gave the loud whistle! – he had only been on Agnes for an hour or so! As the light began to fade so our hopes disappeared, the bird had eluded us and hundreds of others for 9 hours. We would be back tomorrow!

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