As it is such a spectacular “place” to visit, both for the naturalist and others, we booked a week around the longest day of the year. We did this as we left last year, as indeed most visitors do. The place, the Isles of Scilly and the specific break we booked – one of our favourites, the Atlantic Hotel in St Marys, the largest of the Scillies.
So, on the 19th June we rose early and headed for Penzance. Unfortunately the weather was depressing, a damp mist spread, becoming as we would expect, heavier around Bodmin Moor.
We arrived at Penzance early, parked the car as usual and made for the Scillonian III. We handed over our large cases to those packing them into a container, before it being lifted onto the ferry. We carried our smaller bags with binoculars and camera and of course our picnic. Nice and early we picked a good place to sit at the back of the ferry on the lower deck. While waiting for the ferry to start up, we looked around with our binoculars. Extremely unusually, there was a male Eider in eclipse, swimming around the outer harbour. This was a bird of Scotland and not hundreds of miles south. It also should not be in eclipse, i.e the time of losing its main flight feathers and general moult. Otherwise, we saw only Great Black Backs and Herring Gulls flying in the misty sky.
Once on the journey proper we enjoyed our packed breakfast of cold sausages, a pork pie and a hot chocolate drink. Unfortunately, we did not notice the effect this was having on a rather large passenger opposite us. He spent the next two hours, indeed, until we reached St Marys, suffering sea-sickness. Most of that time his head was spent in a white paper bag. Knowing exactly what this feels like, I knew that there was nothing we could do to help him. That is apart from eating any more cold sausages. We met his wife on one of the small inter-island boats the next day. Apparentlyshe was on her own; “I’m never going near a boat again” he had told her.
As the ferry moved on down the coast towards Lands End, Great Black Backs floated around. Manx Shearwater skimmed over the waves, flashing their white breasts one second disappearing against the waves the next. Mature Gannets flew towards the ferry occasionally and disappeared as quickly. Occasionally we saw their wonderful yellow heads and blue beaks. Huge birds flying easily in spite of the sea mist.
Between the end of the mainland and the Scillies we saw little because of the weather, other than one very good sighting of a pod of Common Dolphin. We watched as they passed by the ferry, leaping and diving in what looked like a happy fashion, sometimes completely out of the water.
We arrived in due course at St Marys Hugh Town, as the sun finally arrived. Our man in the corner looked extremely relieved although still like death.
Having booked into the Atlantic Hotel we enjoyed a quick crab lunch and then took a short walk.
Early on the next morning (20th June) we were not woken by a Song Thrush, Jackdaw, Robin and Heron as at home, but by the eerie wailing and mewing of Herring Gulls. One particular gull sat on the chimney of the house opposite the hotel.
Well rested we caught the Sapphire to Tresco, Cormorants were sitting drying their wings on rocks. Herring Gulls were feeding in shallow water off beaches. Oyster Catchers piped and argued with one another while flying over the rocky beaches.
We walked towards the “Flying Boat Café” noting the most beautiful flowers and plants, blueagapanthus just flowering Echium with huge wide spears up to nine feet high with many tiny blue flowers. Palms and succulents abound and a huge number of daisy like flowers, red, yellow, pink, orange and blue. Good breeding populations of all the common birds flourish, notably Starlings and Song Thrushes, as well as Blackbird, House Sparrow, Dunnock, Swallow, Wren, Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove, Goldfinch and Crow.
We lunched at the Ruin Café enjoying fresh scallops. While eating we watched over the bay. Swallows swerved over the sea and beach picking off flies and other insects. Cherry and I have never seen Swallows on the ground other than collecting mud for nest building. They even catch their feather lining in mid-air. But today we watched a pair that had landed on various seaweed patches and were pecking over each bunch for Sand-hoppers and flies.
They flitted from clump to clump looking slightly awkward with such short legs. On our walk back to the boat, we spotted a young rabbit eating.
Later on, having returned to the Atlantic Hotel we watched a pair of Greater Black Back Gulls feedingon the water’s edge. One bird caught a medium sized shore crab. The other immediately made an effort to wrest it from its mate. However, the first continued to turn its back to its mate, persistently frustrating all efforts to take its catch. In the end, the successful and protective Black Back swallowed the body and legs of the crab only discarding the shell.
In the evening, we followed the ladies gig race from one of the local boats. The winner was the favourite Nournour with Bonnet coming in second. There was also a rookie team racing for the first time. Although they finished many, many lengths behind, all the locals and visitors applauded them home past the end of the pier, congratulating them on their enormous effort. It was great fun and quite exciting.
The 21st June, the longest day, the Summer Solstice and the sky was blue with lazy white clouds. We were woken again by the mewing and wailing of Herring Gulls dancing in the sky with Greater Black Backs soaring singularly or in pairs taking advantage of the strong breeze. The mist was gone because of this breeze. The Gulls seemed to share our relief that the weather had turned for the better.
After a breakfast of kippers and cereal we made our way to the pier where we boarded the“Sapphire” boat with a local naturalist, Will Wagstaff, who was leading a bird watching cruise around the islands. Thoroughly enjoyable but still breezy and therefore quite rough in some areas, the cruise revealed the following sightings:
- Atlantic Seals Cormorant
- Oyster Catcher
- Lesser Black Back Gull
- Greater Black Back Gull Shag
- Herring Gulls nesting with some chicks
- Blackbird and Swallow feeding on sandy beaches Heron
- Peregrine Falcon chasing a Gull
- Common Crow
We landed on Bryher and enjoyed lunch at Hell Bay. Walking to and from the Hotel we watched Stonechat, Goldfinch, Song Thrush and House Sparrow, Collared and Wood Pigeon. 23 bird species in the day.
Friday 22nd June. Last night we went for a meal with Tanya and Mark who currently work here at the Atlantic – lovely company but the food was not quite as good as the renovation and fittings in the restaurant, which was rather a shame as the property had been well put together.
Awoke good and early after a sound sleep, I am sure we sleep better after being out on the boats each day. This morning, we were woken by the gentle warm cooing of Collared Doves, together withgulls’ harsh braying like demented donkeys. We caught a boat to St Agnes on a beautiful blue-skied day, although still a bit breezy.
As we walked up the hill from the quay we popped into the Turks Head and I ordered a pasty for lunch-time and while we were there enjoyed a brandy and hot chocolate, both of which they are famous for.
This was certainly the best place so far for butterfly watching and we spotted a pair of Speckled Browns spiralling up and down in the air. We saw small Tortoiseshells and Large and Small Whites. Our last sighting was a beautiful male Brimstone.
Saturday 23rd June
Absolutely fabulous blue sky, no wind and equally blue sea. We travelled to St. Martins. A perfect sky, breeze dropped and water calm. Bright sunshine all day.
We decided to go to St. Martins and visit the Karma Hotel. Originally, this hotel was built to look like a small village of fishing cottages, which sits beautifully in the cove. There is a charming natural landscaped garden in front which Cherry feels is one of the most beautiful places in the world, just to sit and enjoy a glass of wine. I must say I concur.
We did our usual ambling walk admiring and taking photographs of flowers and plants and decided that again we would try to spot as many butterflies as possible. They really do appear to be in decline.
We actually saw:
- Small Brown
- Meadow Brown
- Large White
- Small White
- Small Tortoiseshell
- And by far the most prolific: Speckled Brown.
Birds seen were the large gulls, Oyster Catchers, calling and bickering, Swallows hurtling along the pathways, our first Linnets, Goldfinches and Wren.
A solitary seal greeted us from the boat.
In the Atlantic Bar in the evening, a gentleman, for no apparent reason, wrote out the ingredients for a Dar Es Salaam curry he had the details of. He must have overheard Mark and me talking about food.
It goes as follows:
Kir and Rand Fit 1972
- In teaspoons , 1⁄2 Curry Powder Standard, 1 Turmeric, 2 Gara Masala, 1 Salt
- 2 Large Chopped Onions
- Thumb sized piece of Root Ginger 3 Cloves Garlic Crushed
- 14oz Tin Chopped Tomatoes
- Sun Flower Oil
* Beef then no Onions, * Lamb add Coriander, * Chicken add a Bay leaf
Build up heat with chilli powder to taste or presumably fresh chillies.
Sunday 24th June, beautiful sunny day, clear blue skies and virtually no breeze.
We visited Tresco again, landing at Near Carne. We walked slowly to the gardens watching Stonecat and Goldfinch on the way. The harsh calls of the gulls and the squabbling piping of the Oyster Catchers were ever a backcloth. We admired the plants and flowers outside the gardens, not actually entering this time. On our way through the wooded area, Chaffinches sang and we saw Robin and Dunnock as well as Song Thrushes and Blackbirds picking through dead leaves.
As we neared the Big Pond, Moorhen chucked. Canada Geese and Mallard were idling their day away and we heard Reed Warblers singing.
We enjoyed a gin and tonic at the Flying Boat Club and went on to the Ruin Café, where we enjoyed a spell binding meal in a spell binding place with spell blinding weather and views. We shared twodishes; the first was “dressed Bryher landed white crab meat” this was served as a circle of meatabout half an inch thick in a three-inch circle. The tiniest amount of tomato, pickled onion and cucumber was mixed in to it. It was served with brown crab mayonnaise and frial sour dough croutons in the shape of crisps.
At the Ruin, they cook with the most marvellous wood oven. One of their specialities is pizza. I personally do not normally indulge but here they prepare a most unlikely mixture on the dough. Although they serve a more truly Italian, simple mozzarella and fresh basil, the particular evolution we choose and always do, is a magic mix of gorgonzola, mozzarella, wood mushrooms and truffle oil, covered with thin cuts of speck.
We sat idle in this idyll for hours until we left to catch the boat at Old Grimsby Quay.
We returned to the Atlantic where we sat on the top balcony in the sun, reading and supping wine.
The night before had been a superb sunset, which unfortunately we missed. But, not tonight. We prepared in advance and whilst enjoying it took various photos of the sun going down and sinking below the horizon.
During the day we had particularly tried to spot butterflies and mainly on Tresco we spotted:
- Small Brown
- Large White
- Speckled Brown – the most common seen Small Tortoiseshell
- Meadow Brown
- Painted Lady
- Small Blue
A couple from Millbrook and Cornwall again left a curry recipe on the bar, this time for curried potatoes and whatever vegetables chosen:
Enough vegetable oil to cover base of medium saucepan
1⁄4 Chilli powder
1 Jeera seed (Cumin seed)
1 Black mustard seed
1⁄2 piece grated fresh root ginger (difficult to know how much this is)! 2 Tomatoes (tinned)
Peeled and sliced fresh potato about 1” cube
Monday 26th June, again a beautiful sunny day.
Again visited Tresco, collected some plants from a local gardener, and enjoyed lunch at the Ruin Café again.
Added a couple of birds to our list; Curlew calling near Big Pond and Swifts flying over Smith Sqaure.
The last two evenings had delivered the most amazing sunsets. Red blusher, greens, blues, oranges, all washed in together overlaying light cloud. Particularly our last night – it was so still that after the sun had set and before all light finally faded, the sea was so calm it looked as though the boats were sitting on a field of snow, pearly white. Unfortunately, the camera did not pick up those nuances, but the previous night I took some wonderful photos.
Our last day we enjoyed a quiet morning buying a couple of gifts and then lunch in the Atlantic Hotel.
On our return crossing on the Scillonian , we saw two groups of Dolphins, one feeding quite far off under a large flock of 30 odd Gannets, plummeting into the sea with their folded arrow shape. The other was a few, much closer, passing the boat fast. We just noticed their shiny backs.
A real surprise was a tiny Storm Petrel, no bigger than a Sparrow dancing over the water. I would not have noticed this bird unless I had been watching a dozen or so Manx Shearwaters scything through the air just above the water. A super end to a superb week.
List of Butterflies and Birds seen, additionally we saw a Wood Ants nest:
- A collection of short stories -
Tony is a passionate writer as well as an active conservationist. He is currently working on a number of books and we are delighted to be able to share a few stories from them.