Girton Birdwatch - October 2013
The autumn edition of Bird Watching magazine got me thinking about the nature of 'rarity' when it comes to birds. Several pages were devoted to the Isles of Scilly which as 'we all know (are) a twitcher's paradise'. I have been visiting Scilly for 46 years now but, because of the nature of my work (until recently!), have never been able to go in the early spring or in late September and throughout October when some of the most rare and scarce birds turn up - more than 400 different species have been recorded here, higher than any other comparably sized area in the rest of Europe - although, if I'm honest, I'd need a great deal of help in identifying many of them. One of the birds featured was that member of the woodpecker family, the wryneck, which, in this country, is in dangerous decline as a breeding species. In 1909 it was described as 'plentiful and generally distributed throughout' but by 2003 failed to produce a nesting record for the first time ever. I have only seen this bird twice and both times that was on Mallorca. However on Scilly it is described as 'a reliable scarcity'.
It is not the wryneck that is my primary concern here but a much rarer bird of the same family: the green woodpecker. Yes, the noisy 'waffling' bird which you'll see most days on the Rec. and which you might have been lucky enough to have visit your garden in search of ants. On Scilly the green woodpecker is an extremely rare vagrant with a single bird reported killed on Tresco in 1872 (this being an accepted way of identifying a bird in those days before the development of sophisticated optics), another killed on St Mary's in 1901 and an unconfirmed bird seen on Bryher in 1962. Indeed the green woodpecker is such an extremely unlikely visitor to Scilly that it is said that if you thought you'd seen a green woodpecker on the islands it was probably a golden oriole (an annual migrant in small numbers, largely in spring). This has proved true often enough to cast reasonable doubt on any single-observer sighting reported by people unfamiliar with the islands.
The great spotted woodpecker has been recorded a little more frequently, with 11 occurring from 1943 to 1997 for example, but 11 arrivals in 11 different years means that what elsewhere in Britain would be considered a common bird is less likely to be encountered on Scilly than bobolink, or blackpoll warbler or rose-breasted grosbeak (yes, exactly!). The jay is another common mainland bird which is very unlikely to be found on Scilly despite the fact that it breeds as far west as Land's End as well as in Ireland and the Channel Islands. Jays seem to have developed a habit of reaching Land's End before turning around and heading back inland. Will Wagstaff, the RSPB representative on Scilly, reports that the first jay on Scilly occurred as recently as 1961 and was followed by 6 others up to 1993, but none has been recorded since. Some people have put this absence down to the relative shortage of trees for breeding purposes. Most of the trees are on the family-owned island of Tresco which harbours pheasants, woodcock and red-legged partridge, and jays would have been shot in the past to protect these (only themselves to be shot at a later date). A more likely explanation is their marked reluctance to cross open water - the Scillies lie a mere 28 miles off Land's End - although some jays have been known to 'island hop' from Sweden to Denmark.
Before leaving the subject of 'rarity' I was surprised to read, when on holiday in Mallorca one spring, that any sightings of starlings would be welcome as starlings were considered very unusual at that time of year. I had been in Mallorca one October and had witnessed millions of these birds passing through on their way south to escape harsh winters elsewhere. Their dramatic manoeuvrings over the Albufera marshes made a magnificent sight well worth witnessing, but one which so alarmed the authorities of Palma, for example, that they had to take measures to scare the guano-dropping birds from their streets and buildings.
As I write our own local 'rarity', the great white egret, is still at Fen Drayton and difficult to miss. People have seen it from the guided bus and my daughter and I had excellent views without having to dismount from our bikes when on the way to St. Ives (it seems to have taken up temporary residence on Moore Lake). There also seem to be good numbers of whinchat about, not a common bird around here, and they have been seen on the Cam Washes and at Bassingbourne and Burwell, for example, so are well worth looking out for. They are probably coming from Scandinavia, on their way south.