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Monday, 19 September 2011

Further comments on the demise of Scilly Birding

Visiting numbers of birders to the Isles of Scilly in autumn has been in freefall since probably the best-ever year in October 1999. That particular autumn saw just under 5,000 individual birders either visit or twitch (remember one single day's package included Short-toed Eagle and both White's and Siberian Thrushes).

Incredibly, the following year saw a slump to about 700 people and in the following years in the noughties a dramatic fall. Since about 2008, there have been little more than 350 individuals visit between the end of August and first week of November - perhaps just 20% of these being old-timers or suitably qualified to locate rarities (compare this to about an average of 3,000 birders per October in the 1980's and 1990's and 65% qualititve observers)

Alex Lees is correct in his prognosis though and Adrian Kettle hints at other reasons for the decline. The facts are that the number of migrating birds is very much reduced in number to what they once were and the habitat on Scilly has very much turned for the worse and far less attractive to migrants. Take the number of Hippolais warblers now turning up annually in Scilly - a fraction of the numbers that once did - a situation mirrored by the Hippolais migrant capital of Portland Bill in Dorset. Furthermore, North American breeding species such as Dendroica Warblers and thrushes are now in steep decline and this too has a bearing on UK occurrences. Couple all of this with the drop in observer coverage and the number of rarities or scarce migrants found will be very much less.

The magic of Scilly has gone and its attraction to the UK's twitchers in this internet age of instant news dissemination has killed its appeal for most. Where once all of Britain's finest trampsed the well-worn muddy paths of Porthellick and Holy Vale, this has now been replaced by local patches in October or worst still just waiting at home. A few intrepids prefer the tranquility of Shetland or the Outer Hebrides in their quest for that dreamt-of find.

But yes Adrian - Barry's taking over and subsequent departure from the 'Cressa did have repercussions and relocation to the Scillonian Club has never had the same vibe or the room to accommodate us all. The constant stream of birders wanting to check out my daily log for sightings is now a far-distant memory. And prices - never been so high - £89 by boat or around £129 by air just to cover the 27 miles of sea to get there is one thing, but then £35-75 per night to stay and £8.40 per trip to visit an outlying island - and all of this before you get oneselves to Penzance. And eating is another matter - if you do find a restaurant willing to serve you, there will be little change from 20 notes for little better than a packed lunch.

But despite all of this, I am still mightily saddened by the demise in interest and really miss it from a personal view. There will always be very good birds to find and what we are seeing there at the moment is just a tiny fraction of what is almost certainly present there following all of the Atlantic gales. It was one place where experts and relative beginners could share a birding platform side by side and many relationships could bloom and prosper. It was a great place to serve your rarity apprenticeship and iron out the many teething problems we see today.

Best wishes

Lee Evans