08
Nov
15

A Day on St Martins

I’d been promising the group a day on St Martins since the beginning of the week. St Martins for me is probably the best of the islands within the Scilly archipelago. There’s just something parochial but wild about it. Something familiar but foreboding. I just love the mixture of dunes, small fields, swaths of bracken and wild blue surrounding ocean. It is always on the agenda during our tour to Scillies.

An early boat had left St Mary’s Quay earlier that morning and I knew there had been some good birders on board. Maybe by taking a later boat we could ride on their shirt-tails and pick off what they had found or maybe even find one or two bits ourselves.

As we disembarked at the quay I began familiarising myself with the layout of the island once again. Familiar wonderful hedgerows and tiny charming cottages. Walking from Lowertown eastward and up the island we soon encountered the call of a Firecrest; seeing it however was a different matter. Calling distantly in the thicket above the Seven Stones pub it never did show.

As we walked on a call from the opposite side of a Pittosporum hedge made me jump it was that loud. The caller however once again remained hidden. I heard it fly off as it flew back the way we had come. I commented to my guests “That sounded like a Common Rosefinch”. This sparked a discussion. “What’s a Common Rosefinch look like?” “Where’s it from?” … everyone was keen to learn. A good team this.

I guess we’d walked another 400m when I could see finches flying in one of the tiny roadside fields. It was a marrow field. Some good ones in there too; big and long. The mild climate and rich soil is obviously good for vegetables. I suggested we would perhaps stand a while and go through the finches to see what we could find.

I raised my bins and the first bird I looked at was a Rosefinch. The ‘guide’ tripped in as I ensured everyone got onto the bird. I could then relax and enjoy the bird myself. The more I looked at it the more I started to talk myself out of the identification. A nagging doubt set in. I took some photos. The bird disappeared. I looked at the photos…   The bird was brighter than any Rosefinch I’d seen before. Ever. Not grey but tan. No drab non-descript plumage this. This thing was an avian zebra. I texted an iphone shot of the image displayed on the back of the camera to friend Andrew on St Agnes. He had Brian Bland with him. Between them they would allay my doubts.

I waited for a response. Surely it had to be a Common Rosefinch. I’d heard one call 20 minutes beforehand. It had that beady isolated eye… but it was oh so streaky … and brown. This is Scillies for Christ sake. Had I eliminated all the American Sparrows?

Andrew phoned. “Brian says if it had been greyer he would have no hesitation in saying it was a Rosefinch” – Mmmmmm. Yep, that more or less summed up what was running through my mind.

Other birders trickled by. I showed them the back of the camera too. These were experienced birders too. Lots of scratching of heads and rubbing of chins. It wasn’t until Dick Philby saw the screen that he confidently cast his knowledge … “It’s a Common Rosefinch!” he said. No doubt drawing on vast experiences of seeing variously aged birds abroad. Apparently very young birds can be a little more ’interesting’ than the drab adults.

Every days a school day… and I’m certainly not above learning. I guess looking at the photo below you may be thinking ‘what the hell is he thinking – it’s a Common Rosefinch!’ – Well maybe, but this is Scillies. Anything can pop up on Scillies.

A couple of Lapwings and Skylarks later we called at the bakery and celebrated with cakes and coffee.

I was keen to make the most of our time on the island and wanted to move on towards the ‘Day-mark’; a large landmark on the east of the island. It was here while searching for Lapland Buntings I took a chance peep at the sea. Maybe a whale would pass by?

Bang! – Minke in the scope.

It rose again and at least one other member of the team was on it. Cetaceans are always hard to share with others. Distance is difficult at sea and landmarks (or should it be seamarks) are few but the trailing fin and the arched grey body with the lack of a blow were immediately distinctive and familiar. This was to be the first of two we had this tour.

The day had been a good one. We sailed back to St Mary’s having seen perhaps the best of St Martins. However there was a Short eared Owl and a Blyth’s Pipit to greet us. Only on Scillies … remarkable Scillies.

2015 10 13 Common Rosefinch St Martins Isles of Scilly_Z5A1200 ..

 

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