Co-ordinates: Lat: 49*56.40’ N, Long: 006* 16.81”W
Weather: bright, sunny, fresh southerly wind
Air Temperature: 14C
I woke this morning buzzing with excitement as we were anchored just off the eastern side of St. Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, an archipelago I have been visiting every October for the past 16 years. Why? As part of the ‘Scilly Season’, when hundreds of British birdwatchers converge on the islands to try to add rare American and Siberian birds to their British List. Last night I had fired up some of the keener birdwatchers amongst the guests with tales of past ornithological exploits, and a number had enthusiastically signed up to go on a guided birdwalk with me in the morning and afternoon.
A boat from the St. Mary’s Boatmens’ Association was alongside at 9am and guests and the Expedition Team bundled on, and disembarked at Hugh Town harbour on St. Mary’s at 9.40am. On the ride in, I caused a bit of a stir by alerting all to the presence of a Great Northern Diver and 4 Razorbill in the Roads (the channel between the islands). Gannets fished around the boat, plunge-diving just 20 yards away, to gasps of appreciation from all of us. As I said in my ‘Seabirds’ lecture yesterday, they are a ‘stonking’ bird!
On the quayside, some guests elected to take a walk through Hugh Town; others took a shuttle bus to the Isles of Scilly Museum in Church Street; others walked over to beautiful Old Town Church to visit the grave of former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson; whilst I took the birdwatchers off and away…
First stop, the Council tip to look at the various gull species there. From a respectful distance, I gave a quick gull ID class, and then we went over to Old Town Bay, and then along Lower Moors nature trail to add more birds to our trip list. Sedge Warblers chattered at us, Willow Warblers trilled down the scale, and a pair of Gadwall showed well on the pool by the bird hide. At 12 noon all headed back to the ship for a hearty and well-earned lunch, and I added Kittiwake and Fulmar, and a bull Atlantic Grey Seal to our species list, the seal being a particular favourite, lolling about in the water close to the boat, and gazing with curiosity as we sailed by…watching us, watching him!
At 2pm we headed over by boat to Tresco, the sub-tropical English island, famed for its Abbey Gardens and white sandy beaches. I have spent many happy weeks on Tresco in the past, and was able to share stories, of past and present, with the guests. The island was leased in 1834 from the Duchy of Cornwall by Augustus Smith, a Hertfordshire squire, who immediately set about changing the fortunes of the inhabitants. He was both benevolent and tough as a landowner, but he had a vision of a prosperous island, and later members of the Smith and Dorrien-Smith family have carried forward those ideas and ambitions. Generations have been passionate about gardening and plant collecting, and the Abbey Gardens reflect the flora of southern lands (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), set in an English rural landscape. I took a small group birdwatching around the Great Pool, looking a ducks, waders and hirundines. Many guests emerged from the Abbey Gardens, after a fully guided tour, delighted to tell me of their own new plans for their gardens at home. We also welcomed on board as part of the Expedition Team, the celebrated garden historian and horticulturalist, Dr Toby Musgrave. After this visit to Tresco, plant collections and garden design could become just as important as birds on this voyage. But I have an ace up my sleeve, because as we journey north up the west coast of Scotland, we will encounter some of the finest seabird colonies in the world, veritable ‘seabird cities’, and it will prove a hugely memorable natural history encounter for all.