Scilly 2021 (Week ending 23rd June)
Sadly, we missed our trip to Scilly in 2020 because of Covid. But at last we are here this year. The trip over on the Scillonian III was very calm and arrived on time. On the way we saw a number of gannets and manx shearwaters. The weather started dull but was bright sunshine by the time we arrived. As always, we planned our trip to include the summer solstice. It was very pleasant to be welcomed back by the manager Neil and some of his staff who had not seen us for two years.
They were keen to tell us that they had recently had visits from an Egyptian Vulture and a walrus. It turned out that the vulture had been seen only twice before leaving the islands but the young walrus was still there damaging boats in an attempt to move out of the water to rest. Sadly, this young animal was harassed unnecessarily.
Although we saw pictures by a fellow traveller, we did not see it ourselves.
Very sadly it is probable that this young creature was hit by a boat of some kind and this upset its navigational ability.
On our first morning I was awoken by herring gulls. Their vocabulary is enormous. They yelp, bark, mew, laugh and utter a variety of single calls as well as a well developed repetitive yodelling. It makes a change from being woken by argumentative jackdaw families and peacocks uttering sudden screams in the early morning quiet.
The sun was up. The tide was out exposing much weed covered sand in front of our hotel. The boats of all kinds, rowing boats, ribs, sailing boats were joined by the ambulance boat and RNLI orange and black sea going boat pointing in the same direction according to the effect of the tide. The large commercial carrier the Gry Maritha which came in late yesterday, has already moved off. By the locals, because of its ugliness, this work horse is known as the GRIM REAPER!
We decided to visit Bryher on our first day so we caught a boat early and had lunch at the Hell Bay hotel – a pleasant first day with a really nice lunch, crab is a must in the Scillies.
After a delicious breakfast we caught an early Boatman’s Association boat to Tresco.
Arriving at Old Grimsby we were sad that the rather superb islands peace is most certainly damaged by the number of golf buggies used by the visitors and other vehicles used by the workers on the island.
It is all the more annoying that so many of these vehicles are carrying nothing and the journeys appear pointless.
We visited Tresco for several reasons. It is a very tidy island with an amazing number of wild flowers, as well as cultivated flowers in every colour – red, mauve, yellow, blue, orange.
I bought some collected seeds at the Abbey Garden shop – watsonia, Echium pininana, Puya chilensis, Senecio glastifolius, Acacia longifolia – to try to grow at Tredivett Mill.
We enjoyed a lunch at the Ruin Beach Café, which is another reason for the visit. We enjoyed fresh scallops and a really good pizza speck, gorgonzola and mushrooms, rather unusual.
The third was that over the years the island proved a bird watchers delight. Cuckoo calling, wheatears and stonechats flying about. Oyster catchers, ringed plovers, curlews on the shores. Skylarks singing from on high. Sadly no longer, a great disappointment that there are so few birds.
No cuckoos, no skylarks, no wheatears, curlews or ringed plovers. No terns fishing between the islands. Nobody seems to know why. It should be such a wonderful environment.
The only birds we saw were; one stonechat on the island and a puffin and a shag in the water. The others were common birds seen at home daily. Of course, there were as always, a number of racing pigeons hanging about. These birds tend to become blown off their planned routes and then spend their lives picking over the land. Used to being treated well with good corn, grit and water, many of these bords die on more meagre natural diets. Unfortunately, their owners do not seem to care. When we left our hotel this morning there were two in bad shape, such that they could simply be picked up.
The sunrises are amazing from our hotel window over the bay at Hugh Town. A very high tide made for wonderful sparkling reflections. I took photos as a memory jerker. This particular day we decided to take a boat trip to the Eastern Isles, very much a nature trip. As we came to these wonderful rocky outcrops the first birds seen were a few cormorants, some holding their wings out drying them after swimming trips. The three common gulls; herring, greater and lesser black backed were much in evidence. We saw a few razorbills in groups and the odd guillemot. Gannets plummeted into the water and fulmars skimmed the sea.
But, the highlights of this trip were the very good number of shags, hundreds were on their breeding grounds, many with youngsters in advanced plumage and the Atlantic grey seals. They bobbed up all around the boat. Some hung in the water poised like a bottle upright in the water. This is known as ‘bottling’ for obvious reasons and the creatures simply sleep hanging in the water. Often it is clear that this has been for an hour or more as the hair and fur on their heads has dried out and often appears a gingery brown colour. Seals popped up all around us, very curious, but would suddenly become aware of how near they had come and there would be a loud splash and they would leave behind a white fountain of water and where calm, a ring of bright water. There were some very large bulls who kept their distance with their big heads and sloping foreheads, they would watch until we came close. Some youngsters, even more curious, would pop up in every direction. It is good to know that the herd of Atlantic grey seals is at its highest number for some years.
Whereas seal watching had been carried out on a lovely sunny day, the next day was damp and grey. That day we went to Annet.
Annet is an off lying island, cleared of rats and a permanent bird reserve.
Here there was a good number of shags, the smaller bottle green cousin of the cormorant, with lovely crests in the breeding season.
There were about sixty manx shearwaters skimming around the slip in a tight flock. They seemed simply to be enjoying flying together. These are the birds that make ungodly moans at night in the breeding season and are wonderful masters of winds and air currents.
A few guillemots and razorbills flew into their breeding places with fast moving wings trying hard to avoid the black backs and Herring gulls for ever haranguing them on their return from fishing trips. Fulmars wheeled around beside and above us with stiff wings and their peculiar snubbed bills. When disturbed at their nest they are quite happy to sick up their last meal over whoever and whatever disturbed them.
Just as the seals were the stars yesterday, puffins were the stars today. They flew to and from the island with their huge bills, colourful and crammed with fish on the inflights. Like other auks they have a short stubby wings and fast flight. We watched them in good size rafts sitting on the water washing and fishing and skimming near to and over our boat. They were a joy to watch.
The summer solstice started dull with a steady drizzle. No boats went out that day. We enjoyed a quiet restful day with pork pie and cheese ploughmans at the Atlantic. The rain cleared soon after and I went for a walk inland to see if I could find more birds. I did see a wren and heard a chiffchaff, but overall saw very few species.
Again, we visited Tresco on our penultimate day. This followed a spectacular sunrise as different as yesterday as day and night. Cherry and I having landed, decided to make a real effort at bird watching and noting flowers and butterflies on our way, very slowly, to lunch again at the Ruin Beach Café.
Birds seen were:
Greater Blackback gull
Lesser Blackbacked gull
blackbird with a beak full of worms
Song thrush eating at our table oystercatcher calling
Rock pipits flying around
Robin following us
carrion crows on the airfield
dabchicks, coots, mallard on the big pond
a goldfinch eating
wren bursting with song
Just twenty-one birds. No more than we can often see from our bedroom window in the early morning.
We noted a few butterflies:
hedge brown and small tortoiseshell and no doubt many were unidentified.
Wild flowers abounded:
large wild daisies
Privet in flower
We enjoyed a wonderful sunny day again with a splendid lunch.
On the day we travelled home we spent most of the day simply relaxing until the Scillonian III arrived. That day the walrus was spotted in St. Mary’s harbour and some kind soul persuaded it onto his rubber tender, towed him away from the busy area. The walrus was so tired it rested on that tender from 8.30am to 4.30pm when we finally left the Scillonian, blowing three blasts to say “goodbye”.
Unfortunately, the walrus in the Scillies has unwittingly caused a lot of damage to boats and other craft.
I suspect from the scars on its body, that it was hit by a large boat and has probably lost its instinctive navigational apparatus. Of course, it should never be in these temperate areas.
Most people know what a walrus is because it was often to be found in children’s alphabetical encyclopaedias – ‘W’ for walrus, ‘Z’ for zebra etc.
Few people however know it is the sole living member of a family called Odobenidae. They weigh up to two thousand kilograms, that is to say nearly two tons, and are truly enormous.
They live around the North Pole in the Arctic Ocean and sub Arctic seas of the northern hemisphere. The species in Scilly would be the Atlantic sub species as opposed to the Pacific sub species. Only the Elephant seal in the southern hemisphere is larger with the family of Pinnipeds (seals, sea lions etc.).
The walrus was widely hunted to almost extinction but has made a remarkable recovery, being now protected.
They live to up to thirty years and the males are productive from fifteen years on. The female is pregnant for up to sixteen months. They spend much time resting on ice floes and beaches.
Unfortunately, people treated the Scilly walrus as though he were a whale, forcing it back to sea which is why it became tired and fractious. They feed on crabs, shrimp and molluscs, especially bivalves; mussels and clams. Here in the UK it would ruin clam beds, probably scallops and would not only be bad for our particular ecosystem scrubbing up the seabed, but would quickly be hated by fishermen.
Most people assume it eats fish, but they are not fast enough for this type of prey.
The Scilly walrus’s only hope is it finds its way north again to bond with a group. They are herd animals and cannot live alone happily.
The other unusual visitor to Scilly this year was the Egyptian Vulture, a relatively small old world, vulture also called “Pharaoh’s Chicken,” and is ENDANGERED. The nearest we are normally likely to see it is the tip of Spain and North Africa, but spreads as far as India. They normally migrate south in the winter if breeding in more temperate areas.
The bird is characteristically scruffy usually off white with black edges to its wings, a bright bare yellow skinned face and a Rod Stewart punk hair style.
It feeds on carrion, eggs, small birds and animals, almost any animal matter it can.
It is particularly interesting as it will use tools when necessary, particularly if it comes across large eggs such as ostrich, it will hurl pebbles at the egg in order to crack it.
Two very interesting creatures, sadly neither having much hope of survival, although it is more likely that the vulture will find its way to Spain as it does not appear to be damaged, probably simply blown off course by a winter storm.