Isles of Scilly

Red-eyed Vireo Vireo olivaceus ©Martin Goodey Website

The Isles of Scilly are an archipelago off the southwestern tip of Cornwall comprising five inhabited islands (six if Gugh is counted separately from St Agnes) and numerous other small rocky islets (around 140 in total). The population is around 2,200 people. One of the islands, St Agnes, is the most southerly point in both England and the United Kingdom, being over 4 miles (6.4 km) further south than the most southerly point of the British mainland at Lizard Point. It is part of the ceremonial county of Cornwall, although it is mostly administered separately. The Duchy of Cornwall owns most of the freehold land on the islands.

The islands’ position produces a place of great contrast – the ameliorating effect of the sea, greatly influenced by the North Atlantic Current, means they rarely have frost or snow, which allows local farmers to grow flowers well ahead of those in mainland Britain. The chief agricultural product is cut flowers, mostly daffodils, although this has declined in recent years and some success has been achieved by diversification. Artisan crafts and specialist foodstuffs are good examples of this, e.g. ice cream and wine. Exposure to Atlantic winds also means that spectacular winter gales lash the islands from time to time. This is reflected in the landscape, most clearly seen on Tresco where the lush Abbey Gardens on the sheltered southern end of the island contrast with the low heather and bare rock sculpted by the wind on the exposed northern end.

Birding the Isles of Scilly

They are known locally as the Fortunate Isles and lie twenty-eight miles to the south-west of mainland Cornwall, acting as the first and last landfall for many migrant birds. Over the years Scilly has developed an enviable reputation as Europe’s premier rarity locality, being a magnet for birds originating from all points of the compass. To date almost 450 species have been recorded (447 in accordance with the IOC list which was adopted on 1st January 2018). New species continue to be added – Eastern Orphean Warbler in 2017 for instance. This total beats any other single site in Europe (as far as we are aware!) being made up primarily of vagrants.

The islands are accessed by sea or air and are well established as a popular destination for autumn birders, once polarised around the first two weeks in October but now more widely spread from late September to early November. In the 1980s approximately a thousand birders nearly outnumbered the locals as they searched for rarities among the small enclosed flower fields and tamarisk bushes, but numbers have been lower in the 21st century. Each morning, boats set out from St. Mary’s for the off islands of Tresco, St. Agnes, St. Martin’s and Bryher. The first two usually have a few birders staying on them, and St Agnes and St Martin’s have resident birders, but the other islands still provide a challenge for the determined.

It’s not just about October however. A visit to the islands at most times can be rewarding. The summer sees internationally important numbers of seabirds breeding on the islands, including Puffins, Manx Shearwaters and Storm Petrels. Populations of seabirds in Britain have been declining everywhere and Scilly is no exception, but a project to remove Brown Rats from St Agnes and Gugh was successfully completed in 2017 and Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel pairs are increasing significantly (as are Lesser White-toothed Shrews or ‘Scilly Shrews’) now that these islands (and Annet) are rat-free. The problem with seabirds is that even with so many birds they are nigh on impossible to see unless you are in a boat! Luckily there are many boat trips in spring and summer that give opportunities to get close to them. In spring many species overshoot from the south with Woodchat Shrikes, Hoopoes and Red-rumped Swallows being regular along with southern herons such as Night Heron and Little Bittern. Long hours of daylight, warm weather, blooming flowers and few birders can make this a particularly memorable time. Contrary to popular belief there are opportunities to get away from the crowds and find your own birds at whatever season.

Available from the Isles of Scilly Bird Group

How to find out where the birds are: Scilly is an impossible place to divide up in any coherent way. The whole archipelago is a glorious place to go birding! So, visiting birders head for the ISBG bird board outside the back door of the Pilot’s Gig restaurant next to the quay in Hugh Town. This board displays all the information recorded for that and the previous day, specifying the birds and their approximate locations. It generally functions very well and everybody drops in to check on the latest info. People are very good at passing on news via mobiles and from pagers etc and it all gets put on the board, which is good news for all those of us still without the technology!

Even in this day of almost instant mobile phone communication, the most useful means of finding out what’s where is still the constant updates by CB radio and pager. Mobile phones are of mixed value on Scilly due to the variable signal quality. The other reliable places for the latest bird news are, of course, the local pubs – home to many a tall tale in the evenings! Every night during October a log of the day’s records is called at the Turk’s Head on St Agnes and at the Scillonian Club in Hugh Town at 21.00 hours, where all can socialise and plan the next day’s birding.

  • Martin Scott

County Recorder
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 455

    County Bird - Common Nighthawk Chordeiles minor
  • Isles of Scilly Bird Group Species List

    Below is the species list for the Isles of Scilly in January 2023, when it stood, provisionally, at 455 species, plus three species groups or pairs that could not be identified to species.
Useful Reading

  • Best Birdwatching Sites: Cornwall & Scilly

    | By Sara McMahon & Nigel Hudson | Buckingham Press | 2008 | Paperback | 208 pages, Illustrations, tabs, maps | ISBN: 9780955033957 Buy this book from
  • Birds of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly

    | By David Chapman | Alison Hodge | 2008 | Paperback | 96 pages, 162 colour photos | Out of Print | ISBN: 9780906720554 Buy this book from
  • Essential Guide to Birds of the Isles of Scilly

    | By Bob L Flood, Nigel Hudson & Bryan Thomas | Nigel Hudson | 2007 | Hardback | 528 pages, 152 col plates, b/w illustrations | Out of Print | ISBN: 9780955343025 Buy this book from
  • Scilly Birding: Joining the Madding Crowd

    | By Simon Davey | Illustrated by Amanda Davey | Brambleby Books | 2013 | Paperback | 184 pages, 10 b/w illustrations | ISBN: 9781908241177 Buy this book from
  • The Birds of the Isles of Scilly

    | By Pete Robinson | Out of Print | ISBN: 9780713660371 Buy this book from
  • Where to Watch Birds in Devon and Cornwall

    | (including the Isles of Scilly and Lundy) | by David Norman & Vic Tucker | Christopher Helm | 2009 | Edition 5 | Paperback | 384 pages, B/w illustrations, maps | ISBN: 9780713688146 Buy this book from
  • Where to Watch Wildlife in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly

    | By David Chapman | Tor Mark Press | 2019 | Paperback | 216 pages, 276 colour photos | ISBN: 9780850252002 Buy this book from
Useful Information
  • Isles of Scilly Bird & Natural History Review

    Isles of Scilly Bird Group (ISBG) Bird & Natural History Review
  • Isle of Scilly Bird Group

    The Isles of Scilly Bird Group was formally founded in 2000, but organised birdwatching activities had been happening on Scilly since the 1950s, when St Agnes became an autumn birding hotspot. Scilly’s fame and reputation as a rare birding destination grew, in part thanks to the writings of naturalist Hilda Quick. The first bird reports, exclusively about birds on St Agnes, were published biannually from 1957, with the current annual format adopted in 1969 covering all of the Isles of Scilly.
  • Isles of Scilly Bird Group

    Facebook Page
  • The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust

    We currently employ fourteen staff who are responsible for delivering our Strategy. Our CEO, Julian Branscombe, is responsible for ensuring that the charity is run smoothly from day to day, and he is supported by Senior Managers Rob Carrier and Jaclyn Pearson, who manage the conservation and engagement teams respectively.
Sightings, News & Forums
  • Isles of Scilly Bird Group

    What's been seen...
Guides & Tour Operators
  • Isle of Scilly for birders

    Tour Operator
    Steeped in birding folklore the Isles of Scilly are one of the ‘must visit’ places in the UK. Shallow waters, golden sands and a climate often more akin to the Mediterranean, it’s a fabulous place to be when birds are on the move.
  • NatureTrek

    Tour Operator
    An 8-day birdwatching holiday to the relaxing and beautiful Isles of Scilly.
  • Scillonian Pelagic Trips

    Tour Operator
    Warmed by the Gulf Stream, buffeted by the Atlantic, relying on sea and air links with the mainland, the unique Isles of Scilly are a world apart. Populated by a friendly community of just over 2000 islanders, sub-tropical Scilly has tranquillity and a quality of life long lost to less isolated places. Exotic plants and wild flowers, ancient cairns and crumbling castles, sparkling white sands by an azure sea - all just 28 miles from Land
Trip Reports
  • 2015 [October] - Christopher Hall

    ...We found a Greenshank in Porth Hellick and then with Pectoral Sandpiper and a bouncy Jack Snipe showing well on the pool at Higher Moors, we took it in turns to squeeze into the hide for a look through the scope at these two star waders. Moving north along Holy Vale, we found several Chiffchaffs and briefly saw a Yellow-browed Warbler. Returning to Hugh Town via Porthloo and Town Beaches we added Curlew and Turnstone to the list, with a Water Rail seen by lucky Iris from the hide at Lower Moors. Finally we found several Sandwich Terns in the bay off Porthcressa Beach, so not a bad list for a quiet day.
Places to Stay
  • Air B&B

    Top-rated holiday rentals in St Mary's
  • Carn Ithen - St Mary's

    Situated in quiet Old Town, Carn Ithen has an enviable location less than 100 m from Old Town beach, Lower Moors nature trail and a few minutes stroll to the solitude of Old Town Church. Run by Danielle and Nigel Hudson (Recorder)
  • Isles of Scilly Inclusive Holidays

  • Isles of Scilly Tourist Board

    This site, provided by the Isles of Scilly Tourist Board, the Isles of Scilly Steamship Company, Scotia Helicopters and the Tresco Estate, aims to offer essential information and a flavour of the Islands to anyone interested in visiting.
Other Links
  • Sennen Cove - Cornwall

    Bird sightings from Sennen Cove & the Scillies.
Photographers & Artists
  • Sharing your photos - Isles of Scilly Bird Group

    Do you have photographs of wildlife and landscapes taken on the Isles of Scilly? We need you!

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