Yellow-breasted Bunting – St Agnes, Scilly

Back in February when Stuart had tried to book a flight to the Scillies he had been told that all Friday flights were full. In the end they agreed to put on an extra flight for the 8 of us but this meant that we weren’t due to fly out until 2.50pm. My Dad was coming for the first time since 1995. Now that he had retired he could choose which week to come. I had decided to move out of the flat where there had been seven of us and I had booked accommodation for me and Dad in the middle of Hugh Town. The rest of the Group had arranged for one of Richard’s friends (Paul Taylor) to take my place in the flat. Paul had booked his flight separately and he was due to fly out at 11am. Richard & Peter were going to take him down from Gloucester and so they would need to get to Exeter for breakfast at around 7am.

I arranged to meet them there and Dad & I got out of the car and walked into the services at just after 7am. Peter, Richard & Paul were close behind us. After breakfast we drove on down to St Just in the hope that we could all get on an earlier flight, this was entirely possible because of the Grey Catbird that had turned up on Anglesey. The presence of a bird this rare could mean that many birders might delay flying on to Scilly.

Fairly soon after getting to St Just Aerodrome it became clear that fog might be a problem. The weather forecast was for very strong winds and heavy rain but it is usually fog which is the greater problem. Paul’s flight got off OK at 11am and soon afterwards the rest of the Group arrived. Our flight at 2.50pm was the next one out (Fridays are a reduced service) but despite the fact that we were all there and that the fog appeared to be worsening they would not bring our flight forward. This was very frustrating and by the time our flight was due to go the fog had worsened and made flying impossible.

It looked very much like we would have to arrange accommodation in St Just on Friday night and either get an early flight on Saturday morning or, more likely, get the Scillonian at 9:15am from Penzance. This was not a pleasant prospect particularly with the terrible weather forecast for tomorrow. I rang 3 or 4 guest houses, they were all full.

The hill which is the air crew’s guide had completely disappeared in the fog and meant that they would not attempt to fly out. Frustratingly things were clearing on the Scillies but we needed good visibility at both ends in order to fly. At about 4pm news came through of a Yellow-breasted Bunting on Agnes, this made the frustration even more acute. Had we got the 2.50pm flight then we would have had just enough time to unpack our things before the pager reported the Bunting and then a quick boat over to Agnes and the first tick of the holiday.

Just as things looked at there bleakest the fog appeared to lift and the staff rushed us through the safety video and our luggage was packed on board. It was now about 6pm, miraculously we managed to fly in to St Mary’s through the fog and the murkiness of dusk. It was a great relief not to have to find accommodation locally or having the prospect of the boat trip in the morning. We went to bed that night hoping that the bunting wouldn’t disappear in the rather clear night skies.

Early next morning, while sea watching from Peninnis Head news came through of the continued presence of the bunting and we headed off to the quay to get the next available boat to Agnes. We arrived on St Agnes to find that viewing conditions were cramped, the bird was frequenting the hedges around a small overgrown field. The only viewing was through occasional gaps in the tall dense hedges, not surprisingly all the best vantage points were already taken.

Soon, however, I managed a quick glimpse of the bird through binoculars at the bottom of the field. It wasn’t a great view and it was a long time before I had a better one. Thankfully, however, the land owner allowed us to walk through an adjacent field and we had excellent unblocked views of the bird.

Yellow-breasted Buntings are rather non-descript. The underparts are slightly yellow and it shows a pale crown stripe, supercilium and ear covert spot. It also shows pale tramlines down the mantle.

Although one of the most commonly occurring species not yet on my list, they usually occur on the Northern Isles and so are very difficult to catch up with. In 2000 I had finished a week on the Scillies with no ticks and so whatever happened during the rest of the week I wouldn’t be too disappointed.

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