Liz and I were walking along the bank of Agden Reservoir when a male flycatcher alighted on a branch just a few metres ahead of us. He looked very handsome in his striking black and white livery.
This sighting brings my total count for the Public Transport Bigby to 124 species. Despite spending a couple of weeks down in the south-west of Britain, I'm afraid I am still lagging well behind my friend John M. He has clocked up a far more impressive total just by taking day-trips from Sheffield by bus and train.
In birding circles, the Isles of Scilly are famous as a stopping off point for rare migrants. An amazing variety of species have turned up over the years, including short-toed eagle, Siberian thrush, cream-coloured courser and ovenbird. The Isles of Scilly Bird Group publishes an annual review if you want to know more.
Liz and I didn’t notice any rarities during our recent visit to Scilly. That’s not to say that there weren’t any about. On Bryher we were approached by a rather manic-looking twitcher who asked if we knew where the ortolan bunting was. He seemed reluctant to believe us when we said “no”. I’m sure he thought that we were keeping it a secret, just to spite him.
Whilst I enjoy seeing rare or unusual birds, I have no desire to spend my vacations chasing around after them! Sometimes I find it more more relaxing to spend time appreciating the commonplace.
According Rosemary Parslow, the five commonest passerines on Scilly are song thrush, blackbird, wren, rock pipit and dunnock. When I first read this, I was surprised that house sparrow didn’t feature in the top five. We saw large numbers of them on all the islands that we visited: St Mary’s, Tresco, St Agnes and Bryher. They are presumably confined to the larger, human-inhabited islands, whereas rock pipits probably occur on even the tiniest uninhabited islets.
Close to where we staying, scores of sparrows could be seen dust-bathing in the dry soil around the margins of the flower fields. Watching them made me realise just how much the species has declined on the British mainland. When I started birdwatching in the early 1970s, it was not unusual to see flocks of several hundred spugs foraging on farmland. These days it’s remarkable if you see more than half a dozen.
The song thrush is another declining species that is still doing well on Scilly. In the late evening, the hedgerows were alive with their song. I noticed that they often mimic the calls of the oystercatcher, an indication that you’re never far from the seashore on Scilly.
Blackbirds also seem to be much more abundant on Scilly than they are on the mainland. We noticed that they occur in a wider range of habitats too. For example, it was not unusual to see them foraging on the strandline, turning over seaweed in search of insects. We also noticed that some of male blackbirds have bright orange bills, very distinctive compared to the banana-yellow beaks of the birds back home. I have no idea whether this is due to genetics, diet, climate or some other factor.
Since we returned from Scilly and Cornwall I haven't found time to update my list for the Public Transport Bigby. However, it was particularly pleasing to spot two new species from the train on the way down: gannet (over the sea near Dawlish Warren) and little egret (near the mouth of the River Ex).