Lesser Kestrel (plus an unexpected bonus!!) – St Mary’s, Scilly

At 8:36am on Wednesday 15th May a Mega Alert at work confirmed that a Kestrel which had been seen on St Mary’s the previous evening was indeed a Lesser Kestrel. The clinching feature, pale claws, had been seen well and the bird was also wearing a metal ring, presumably from a Spanish ringing programme.

I texted Peter to say I was keen on going but that I couldn’t go the next day, Thursday, because of a meeting in London. I texted Dad to see if he was up for a trip to Scilly on the Friday. I also texted Nick & James. Peter was not sure of his arrangements, Richard Baatsen had already been in touch and they were possibly going together, perhaps with Stuart Langsbury and Mark Coller. Dad was in the Caravan at Calshot and said that he and Dave Harrison would go if I went. James was in China and there was no response from Nick although I knew he would have difficulty getting time off work.

On the way home from work I texted Peter to get the latest and he confirmed that he, Richard, Stuart & Mark Coller were going on the boat the next morning. At this stage I had decided that I wouldn’t be going and I sort of hoped that the Kestrel wouldn’t be seen again although this would mean a wasted trip for Peter and I didn’t really want that either. At home that evening I spoke to Dad and he read in my voice that I wasn’t particularly keen, we decided to speak again the next day although I felt it was only putting off the inevitable decision not to go.

My reasons for reluctance were the awkwardness of arranging a day off from work at short notice (Dad and Dave couldn’t go on Saturday), I was halfway through a Credit Proposal at work, I had a dental appointment on Friday, the cost of the trip and the sheer time involved (8 hours driving plus 5 hours on the boat). The Kestrel was also fairly mobile and there was no guarantee of seeing it in the 12:30pm to 4pm window which the boat schedule presented.

My meeting in central London finished at around 1:30pm and I surreptitiously checked my mobile and pager. The Kestrel had been seen around Peninnis Head, Old Town and the Golf Course for much of the morning. Peter had already texted me to ask me to ‘amend your spreadsheet’. I caught the 2:30pm train from Waterloo and once I was settled I began to think about going. The continued presence of the bird and the fact that Peter had seen it made up my mind and I began to make arrangements for the trip. By the time I got home I had booked 3 tickets on the boat, arranged a days holiday with Andrew at work, rearranged my dental appointment and left a message on David Davidson’s mobile about arrangements should he need to speak to me on Friday about his proposal.

While booking the tickets Peter texted me, as a wind up, to say that the Scillonian was doubtful the next day due to poor weather, a low pressure system was on its way. This was bad news and I rang the Steamship company straight back as our tickets were non-refundable. They said that the winds weren’t going to be bad although it might well be wet. The weather forecast was for lightening and heavy thunderstorms but with clearer patches. I went to bed at 9pm with the alarm set for 4:10am.

Dad and Dave arrived at 4:45am having had a scare getting out of the Caravan Site, the gates were locked! Thankfully the warden saw them on the cameras and let them out. At 5:45am we passed through a horrendous thunderstorm at Chideock and another one on Bodmin at 6:45am. The Bodmin storm completely blacked out the daylight and night fell once more. Near the wind farm above Truro I pulled over and Dad took over and we got to Penzance at 8am. We detoured via Marazion and saw the smart 1st summer male Citrine Wagtail. The boat left at 9:15am giving us good views of a Basking Shark in the harbour, it appeared that the worst of the weather had passed.

After a brief sleep below deck I came back up and was pleased to hear that the Kestrel was still present, it seemed to be hanging around the Porthellick area. The boat docked at 12:05pm and 50 of us piled into a prearranged vintage double Decker bus and we were dropped off by the Health Centre at the beginning of Peninnis trail. We walked swiftly to Peninnis Head, the bird had been seen there at 11:55am. We followed the group of birders around the corner and headed back north along the west side of Peninnis.

Observers already present believed that it had landed on a kill and that it hadn’t reappeared from the stubble field they were looking into. After 45 minutes there was still no sign and we headed off back to it’s favourite spot, Peninnis Head, by the lighthouse. We weren’t very confident at this stage and with the weather threatening to worsen we were worried that this might keep the Kestrel on the deck. It was 1:15pm, the boat would leave at 4:30pm.

We were in a group of about 30 birders and fairly soon a lone Kestrel was picked up over the airfield, then a second towards Telegraph and a third, also over the Airfield. One of these birds appeared smaller with a bluish tail and a black blob at the tip, it could have been the Lesser Kestrel but we were really too far away to be certain. I felt sure that one of them must have been the bird particularly with there being only two Common Kestrels on the Islands. Over the next hour we had further distant views, would I tick it if the views got no better?

It was now 2:30pm, the next two minutes were incredibly dramatic. I was facing North East looking towards the Airfield while stood on Peninnis Head. I heard Gary Bellingham mention that a hirundine was coming in off the sea over the lighthouse. I thought it a little odd that he should mention it because there had been a steady stream of hirundines all morning. The reason he mentioned it, however, was that he thought it might be something very good. Seconds later, in an almost questioning tone, he called out ‘it’s a Little Swift!’ In shock and disbelief several other birders shouted out ‘Little Swift over the lighthouse, coming this way.’ I then felt that frantic desperate feeling, I had to get onto this bird quickly. I raised my binoculars, if I missed it in the few seconds available it would be a dreadful feeling that I would never forget. To be in a small group that found a Little Swift but not see it yourself would be appalling.

I focussed the barrel of my binoculars sharpening up the blurred image of a hirundine. As the image formed I first noticed the white throat, the bat like fluttery flight and the chocolate brown underparts, this was clearly the bird. I then saw the broad white rump extending onto the flanks, the atmosphere was electric.

One birder called out ‘what else do we need to check?’, the answer came back ‘square ended tail!’ and sure enough the tail was square ended. The Swift passed directly overhead not 10 feet above me, it drifted on into Old Town before the Mega Alert reported the news.

Just as I was trying to contact Peter he texted me to ask whether I’d had any luck. From the pager he’d know that sightings of the Lesser Kestrel had not been confirmed for some time. I texted back to say ‘2 ticks’ and followed up with a phone call, he was absolutely staggered but was very generous in his comments. About then someone claimed that the Lesser Kestrel had been found on the Golf Course, most of the birders left but we delayed for 20 minutes thinking that it might well head back this way. We were about the last to leave and whilst heading passed Harold Wilson’s old house a birder on a bicycle pointed out the Little Swift over the church. We detoured to Buzza and had further good views. From this panoramic viewpoint we could see a large group of birders on the Golf Course, they began running and it was evident that they were watching something, presumably the Lesser Kestrel. This would be a long walk and we delayed for a further 20 minutes.

While at Buzza, Spider commented that the Lesser Kestrel had come in with an influx of at least 6 Common Kestrels! This was rather unsettling and put a little more doubt in my mind about our earlier sighting. The next message reported that the Kestrel was now on rocks below the Airfield, this was much closer and I set off immediately it was 3:14pm and I was now desperate to see the Lesser Kestrel well. At 3:26pm we were within sight of the rocks at the bottom of the Airfield and another pager message reported that the Kestrel was on rocks by the Golf Course, not the Airfield!!! A couple of choice expletives followed, we couldn’t be further away and with only 60 minutes before the boat left we had to use a taxi.

We turned back and in Old Town we found a Taxi who would come back and collect us once he had dropped his fare off at the quay. Five minutes later we were in the taxi and on our way to the Golf Course. At the Clubhouse we jumped out of the car and I jogged down the fairway, passed a Woodchat Shrike which several birders were watching, over a green and to the edge of the course where birders were looking towards the large rocks on the waters edge at Carn Morval Point.

After a few seconds I was scoping the 1st summer male Lesser Kestrel. We were only 50 yards away and the image filled the scope. I could easily see the relatively unmarked chestnut mantle, the grey head without moustachial stripe, the metal ring on the right leg and the yellow claws.

What a relief! It was 4pm and I rang the taxi, he returned and took us to the quay. The boat left at 4:30pm, we arrived in Penzance at 7:20pm and I was back home by 10:50pm.

My first attempt to twitch Scilly had been more successful than I could have ever imagined!

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