My decent(ish) finds in Feb 2012: 1 Yellow-browed Warbler Carnon Downs 04/02, 1 Water Pipit Carnon Downs 04/02, 1 Smew Loe Pool 01/02

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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Shetland versus Scillies: that old chestnut

Before I start, a quick update on the controversial Wheatear. Steve has written an excellent account of for Birding Frontiers. Could we have inadvertently been looking at something much rarer?  Probably best to put the whole thing behind us, but I for one would be interested in what these beasties look like as 1st winters.

Those of you who occasionally frequent Birdforum will be familiar with the usual complaints about the demise of Scillies birding relative to Shetland and will no doubt have picked up more than a whiff of less than sweet grapes. People are of course entitled to their own opinions and all I offer on here is a personal perspective. This year I chose not to visit Shetland. Instead I spent a week on the Isles of Scilly, mainly on St Agnes with Rob “I’ve already found a White’s Thrush” Curtis and Graeme “Cillit Bang” Garner.  Despite being present on “Aggie” when the White’s Thrush turned up yet failing to see it and despite relatively modest finds (RB Fly, a Sab Gull and a smattering of Yellow-browed Warblers), I loved every minute of my time on the Islands. Stunning scenery, friendly people, nice pubs and constant feeling that a rare bird could be just around the next corner (although more likely in the bush I just passed).  To me, the Scillies and Shetland offer a fundamentally different birding experience and require a different mind-set and approach, yet each have their merit.

Spotted Crake. Not a find, but magical to see one of these so close.

Shetland: wind swept, cold, rainy, with scarce or rare migrants clinging to any scrap of vegetation.  A visit to the plantations on Unst have a likelihood of turning something good up and even the smallest patch of nettles can hold tired, weather-beaten migrants. Birding tends to be more predictable. Easterlies spell numerous migrants and westerlies spell hard graft. Birding tends to entail visiting hotspots (areas with some cover) and generally necessitates getting around by car. The experience itself can often be quite grim: howling, cold winds and rain, but the rewards can be exceptional.

Both the birds and scenery on Shetland can be first class. Top: view over to Unst from Yell. Bottom: Black-headed Bunting. One of the birds I found in 2011

Scilly: while I confess not to be much of a fan of the peak-season twitching of every scarcity scene on St Mary’s, St Agnes  has a special feel about it. £20 a night for a nice room in a 3 bedroom self-catering cottage seems pretty cheap to me. I loved being able to do the whole Island on foot. While the amount of cover and inaccessibility of some parts of the island can make for a frustrating experience at times,  this also gave me the feeling that many places were less well covered than may parts of Shetland (notably Unst and South Mainland), so the potential for finding something good is always high.  More than that though, the birding experience itself, even when there  is little to be found, is enjoyable. The scenery is stunning and even towards the end of October the weather can be warm enough for shorts and t-shirt. It’s easy to pop out for a couple of ours and then zip home for a cup of coffee. While the rewards may not be as constant as on Shetland when the east winds blow it certainly has much potential. It certainly punches above its weight. This piece offers a nice perspective from the early 1970s and for anybody who visited in 1999, the close proximity of Siberian and White’s Thrush must have been a memorable experience.  I for one will be visiting again soon.

Red-breasted Flycatcher was probably my best find, but sometimes other things are nice to look at too. 

This bird, found by my birding companion Thor Veen on St Mary's when I last visited, is a reminder that the rewards on Scillies can also be high. 


  1. A great blog post summing up the virtues and pitfalls of both archipelagos! Having been fortunate to have been birding in both, the only thing I would add is the fact that we are all so fortunate to have the dilemma of choosing where to go!

  2. Thanks Andy - you are of course entirely correct!

  3. Really enjoyed ths post. I have just written a similar one for my blog (unpublished as yet). I done Scilly again this year after 2 years of Shetlanding!! Didn't quite work out as planned but I can't help but love the place. I think you are spot on. Lovely photos too by the way. (

  4. Thanks Martin - cracking photo of the albatross on yours!


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