Cream-coloured Courser – St Mary’s, Scilly

I didn’t renew my pager subscription in March 2004 and I hadn’t twitched a bird since the Cornish American Robin in January and so I was really looking forward to Scilly. There hadn’t been anything rare to get me anxious, that was, until early afternoon on Tuesday 28th September when my Dad texted me at work to ask me if it would hang around! He meant would the rare bird that he was referring to hang around until we visited the Islands together for a week from Friday 8th October. I checked rare bird alert on the internet to see what bird he was talking about and was amazed to see that a Cream-coloured Courser had been found on St Agnes, Scilly! The nearest breeding grounds are North Africa and there hadn’t been a British record since 1984. It seemed unlikely that the bird would hang around for the 10 days until we travelled on Friday 8th October.

I was very busy at work and so I ruled out twitching Scilly immediately, at around £110 each it is also an expensive business. I rang Peter who was already on his work land line to Richard Baatsen, they were discussing possible arrangements to head South West. I said to Peter that I wouldn’t be going although it seemed likely that there would be a car heading down from Gloucester and Swindon. I could hear Richard on the land line and it seemed that with work commitments they would be travelling on the Friday.

The bird had come down in the fields at the end of Barnaby Lane on St Agnes. At 3:45pm it was flushed by a cow and flew off strongly and wasn’t relocated by dusk. It was, however, relocated on St Agnes the next morning and with that news more than 500 birders travelled across on the Scillonian, Skybus and Helicopter. Unfortunately, there was no further sign by 5pm and most birders had departed the islands. However, the bird was relocated early that evening on St Martins and several birders managed to get there on chartered boats before dusk.

The next day, which was Thursday 29th, the Courser was still present in the sheep fields on the north side of St Martins and on the Friday morning it was obviously still present as at 9:05am I received the dreaded text from Peter saying that he was watching a ‘mythical bird and fingers crossed that it would stay another week’ – no chance I thought. I asked Dad to text me each morning if it remained on St Martins. At about 9am on Saturday morning I received a ‘still there’ message from Dad and over the subsequent days I received a regular 9am ‘still there’ text message. The message on the morning of Thursday 7th was greeted with a punch of the air as I knew that the journey down on Friday morning would be exciting.

On the morning of Friday 8th we drove down to St Just and flew to Scilly and then we got on the first available boat from St Marys over to St Martins. We made our way up to the sheep fields with 100 or so other birders. The Courser had been on St Martins for the last 8 days and so we were gutted as it slowly dawned on us that it appeared to have gone!

Later in the day we got the welcome news that it had been relocated on the airfield on St Mary’s, just where we had come from!!!! This was both a relief as the bird hadn’t ‘gone’ gone but it also meant a desperate and nerve-wracking dash back to the airfield. We ran back to the boats and returned to St Mary’s and we then made the 15 minute jog up to the airfield. We were exhausted but we finally had great views of this major rarity! 

The bird was a sandy colour with a lovely bluish tinge to the back of the head and a black drooping eye-stripe and white supercilium lines which met at the nape. The Courser remained on the airfield until Sunday 10th October when it flew to the golf course. From then until the end of October it showed exceptionally well on the fairway, adjoining bunkers and rough.

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