26 years ago, half-term, Saturday 19th October 1985, I got off the ferry on my first visit to the Isles of Scilly, aged 16, with three school-friends. We walked straight up to the Garrison camp site. While I was pitching our tent and Gareth Richards was checking in and paying, a birder with a resplendent beard walked up to me and asked “Can I interest you in a Booted Warbler?”. He’d just found it and within a minute I was onto it – the first tick of the trip! Gareth never did see it but we couldn’t give it long as we had bigger fish to fry that day. First stop was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo giving awesome views from the Garrison Walls looking down into a Sallyport garden where it was perched on a rotary washing-line! Then to the Incinerator to watch a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak scoffing blackberries. Moving quickly on to Old Town churchyard for UTV of a Red-eyed Vireo in the high elm canopy. Across the road to the school for fabulous views of a Myrtle Warbler (as it was then; Yellow-rumped Warbler now) creeping around on lichen-covered elm boughs. Up to the airport for an unbelievably showy Bobolink crawling around in the grass at point blank range. Final rarity of the day was a juv Night Heron roosting in sallows on Lower Moors. But I had one more tick to come – Brambling!
On Sunday we took the boat to Tresco for another deluge of ticks: a Radde’s Warbler in the Great Pool sallows which is still the best one I’ve ever seen; Spotted Sandpiper, Ring-necked Duck and Richard’s Pipit all at the Simpson’s Field end of Great Pool, and then a Woodchat Shrike in some big pines and a stunning Bee-eater at Borough Farm (later to become my favourite place on Scilly!). Back on St. Mary’s I saw my first Jack Snipe and Lapland Bunting, got better, but still untickable, views of the REV and then yomped to Newford Duck Pond for a Pallas’s Warbler in failing light, my 9th tick of the day!
We had gone for quantity over quality on Sunday by going to Tresco, hoping the best of the lot would stick on St. Agnes for another day. And it did … we yomped straight from the quay to see a male Parula Warbler showing beautifully in a couple of apple trees two fields up from the chapel. To this day, one of the best birds I have ever seen in my life. An American Wigeon on Big Pool was yet another new yank for me. And back on St. Mary’s we re-located a Wryneck on Peninnis Head – another stunning new bird.
We had a day to catch our breath on 22nd and then a male Sardinian Warbler turned up at Higher Moors. It gave us a long wait but in the meantime we were there when Chris Heard called an Olivaceous Warbler at Lunnon Farm on 23rd. We eventually saw the Sard well on 24th and had time to cross over to Bryher for a Rose-coloured Starling. Attempts to see the bird were abandoned after a hostile islander dispersed the twitchers by firing his shotgun. To this day, landing on Bryher gives me a feeling of trepidation. We sailed back to the mainland the following day, leaning on the Scillonian’s railings chatting to the late, great Peter Grant about bird ID. The cost of the entire trip including tubes, trains, ferries, camping, inter-island boats and a week’s worth of Kavorna pasties was £80. I’ve been back to the magic isles many times since but 1985 can never be bettered – I’m so glad I was there!