The Scillies had been fairly quiet this year. There had been a good collection of supporting birds but following a relentless passage of depressions from the Atlantic the big American bird had not appeared as hoped. After the Yellow-breasted Bunting on day one the closest I had come to a tick was a possible Isabelline Wheatear at Giant’s Castle. By Saturday morning and with our flight due to leave at 3:15pm Peter & I had been reduced to playing snooker, all of the rest of the group were out birding.
At 11:21am a Mega Alert reported that a Paddyfield Warbler had been found near the Hospital on St Mary’s. This was a tick for both of us and within a minute or so we were on our way down the snooker club stairs. I ran back to the flat for my binoculars and telescope while Peter waited for me, we then ran up the hill to the hospital. This was the first time I had run for a bird since the Blue Rock Thrush in ’99 and as usual it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. I rang Dad and he said he was nearly there.
We arrived at the top of the hill to find that a large crowd had already assembled and it became clear that news must have been circulating on the CBs for some time. Just as we joined the large crowd Peter asked whether I realised that a Rose-breasted Grosbeak had also turned up, on Martins! I immediately began to panic.
If the Paddyfield Warbler didn’t show fairly quickly then we might find it difficult to get to Martin’s and back before the Airport Taxi was due to pick us up at 2:35pm. People were already leaving having seen the Paddyfield so that they could get to the grosbeak as soon as possible.
Fairly soon Dad appeared behind us and several people began to shout out where the bird had last been seen. It wasn’t long before I noticed a movement in the longish grass and I called out directions. Sure enough the bird appeared and gave good but brief views at a range of about 25 yards. The pale sandy appearance was very striking and the strong eye stripe and supercilium were also evident. Rather like a long tailed Booted Warbler with a strong face pattern it skipped along the vegetation tops before perching on a fence on the edge of the allotments.
In view of timescales I suggested to Dad & Peter that we should leave now and head down to the Quay. They agreed and we began to jog down to the boat. We took the coastal route down passed Porthcressa Bay and then down the High Street to the boat. There was already one boat full and on its way. We bought our tickets and got on the second boat.
It certainly seemed as though the fog which was beginning to thicken and was threatening to delay our flights was also the reason for these birds starting to drop in. It wasn’t until we had nearly arrived at the furthest quay on Martin’s that the island began to loom out of the mist. We were already assuming that we would be getting the boat back home later that day. One of the birders sat opposite me on the boat had already been in discussion with birders on Martins and reported that 6 birders had seen the grosbeak at 11:30 but no sign since, it was now nearly 12pm.
As we docked the skipper called out the return times, they would be 2:30 and 3:30 from the other quay. This meant that whatever happened we would miss our 2:35pm taxi to the airport and if flights were on time then we could well miss our slot. At this stage I didn’t worry too much, particularly when there was a potential tick awaiting me. We ran from the quay and several minutes later joined the first group of birders. The finder of the bird explained to Dick Filby that it had been with Greenfinches and they had seen it enter a large pittisporum bush but had not seen it fly out.
We all gathered in the general area of the bushes and waited. After about 15 minutes there was a call from the other side of a bracken ridge and we all started running. Several people lost balance and fell into the bracken and gorse at the edge of the path. Despite shouts of ‘stop running you’ll flush it’ people just kept running and they flushed it.
I didn’t have time to raise my binoculars but it did look a little different and was certainly stocky. The bird flew right back over our heads and must have landed right in front of the slowest runners! I quickly turned around and headed back, the herd instinct is very strong at times like these and the mad rush was causing several people to involuntarily leave the path and wade through chest high gorse and bracken.
As I ran back along the path I noticed Peter and the rest of the gang, they appeared to be watching the bird through telescopes and sure enough as I approached they moved aside to let me have my first good view, what a relief! Two ticks inside and hour!
The stocky appearance huge bill and overall pied appearance were immediately obvious. Within a minute or two the bird flew towards us but out of view. After a few minutes it flew again, this time directly away from us and low down to the ground. We picked up our scopes and headed off after it again.
Thankfully someone saw where it had landed and we trained our scopes on the area of gorse and bracken. Within a few minutes the grosbeak appeared again and gave us our best views yet . The grosbeak showed right out in the open for several minutes before flying off again away from us and over the ridge of bracken. Apart from a few brief claims by one or two individuals this was the last sighting of the bird. In fact several birders twitching it from Agnes as soon as news broke arrived too late. This late double of major rarities made this one of the best Scillies ever.
Once back on St Mary’s we booked a taxi to the airport and were disappointed to see the large number of flights which had been backed up due to the fog. It seemed likely that we would have to get the boat off as expected. The fog lifted slightly and some flights did take off and so we waited at the airport and watched the Scillonian leave. If the back log of flights didn’t continue to shift then we would need to stay overnight on the Scillies. Once again we were lucky and one of the last flights to leave before dark was ours.