Wednesday, 11 November 2020

It's a flippin' Greenfinch!

Day 5 (Wed 14th October)

The day began with another of my scrambled egg mish mash on toast extravaganzas, swilled down with coffee brewed strong enough to kill aquatic life. In all honesty, the mish mash really could have done with some diced red pepper, tomatoes and chilli powder, but we lacked those. Once again The Ghost declined to join our feasting, preferring to stick with the safety and comfort provided by a cigarette and bottle of fizzy pop. His finger still looked decidedly bruised, battered and broken, but he seemed in better spirits than yesterday. Eventually we were ready to hit St Agnes in search of rare plants and adventure.

The Ghost had red hot gen for Argentine Dock on Gugh and the tide was sufficiently low upon our arrival that we could casually saunter across the temporarily exposed sand bar from Aggie to Gugh. But no sooner had we set foot on the bar than Tiny spotted some rockpools. "Do we have time to quickly check these?" he asked, striding purposefully away from us towards the sea. Ha, I guess so buddy! 

Within no time at all, Tiny was busily finding stuff. So busily finding stuff, in fact, that he couldn't tear himself away from the pools long enough to even take a photo of our findings. Luckily, his big hairy entourage fella was there to help out. Personally, I was glad to see the oafish brute put to use at last, the freeloading so and so...

Two-spot Goby, as modelled by Gary. Or Gerry. Or something. Nice scarf...

Eventually Tiny finished messing around in the rockpools and we were allowed to continue along the sand bar and onto Gugh itself. 

My first time on Gugh was way back on the 19th October 1991. That was a great day! A dozen or so of us had Britain's sixth Isabelline Wheatear flying circuits around our heads, then landing and running between our legs. To this very day, it remains a beautiful faded-piss-coloured delight in my mind's eye. Afterwards, back on St Marys, I ticked Red-breasted Flycatcher, Golden Oriole, Richard's Pipit and Rose-coloured Starling. The previous day I'd ticked Eye-browed Thrush, Grey-cheeked Thrush and Sora. The following day it was Tawny Pipit and Yellow-browed Warbler, soon followed by Little Bunting and Red-throated Pipit. Blimey, that was my first time on Scillies - no wonder I love it here! My second time on Gugh was sometime in the early 2000s and I missed whatever bird it was I'd gone across for. I'm not entirely sure I'd been back since, hence this was effectively new territory for me. We walked across the bar where I was shocked to discover...houses! Like I said, Gugh is effectively 'new' territory for me.

Tiny was suction-sampling the sand, or so it appeared. I found some small rocks and unearthed a few carabids which turned out to be Calathus melanocephalus and Nebria salina, the former a lifer for me. Lifer for The Ghost too, except he didn't see them due to my sneakily shoving them into a pot and straight into my pocket. 'Rampant suppression' was the precise phrase later used, I do believe. Anyway, he was supposed to be searching for Argentine Dock not beetles, the dozy knobber... I also found an impressively large staphylinid which keyed through to Ocypus aeneocephalus, a lifer for all of us.

Hey, so who wants to see a magic disappearing trick? This is the spider Arctosa perita, freshly suction sampled from sandy soil and popped into a pot for viewing. Keep your eye on the spider

Now you see it... you don't!

It's a very cool spider, one which I've only seen once before some years back on a sandy Dorset heath. Straight after one very cool spider came another, the crazily named money-spider Walckenaeria unicornis, the male of which exhibits disproportionately large pedipalps (boxing gloves) as seen in this image

He also has a tiny curved 'horn' on its head, hence the name unicornis. You can just about see the 'horn' in this massively cropped image

Seeing as the entire spider is a mere 2mm long, I'm quite happy with these images. Quite why this particular genus exhibits weird head adornments/protuberances is a mystery to me but I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation. This isn't the first unicorn I've seen, in fact it's my third, the others being a bryozoan and a staphylinid. Who'da thunk it?

Our main objective of the day was Least Adder's-tongue, which grows on the fancifully named Wingletang Down on Agnes. With this in mind, we quit messing about and headed uphill to find the Argentine Dock that The Ghost was so keen to see. He was already heading off into the distance, I ran to catch him up. 

The grid ref in his gen indicated that we needed to be in an open area the other side of a huge bank of gorse. We could see a tractor slowly driving back and forth in the general area we needed to check for dock. Eventually we worked our way around the gorse and found, to our horror, that the tractor was fitted with a mowing blade and was busily reducing our search area to inch tall sward!!! Tiny hailed the driver and was soon chatting at length regards mowing regimes, the wildlife trust, the colour of the sky, who even knows? Meanwhile, Ghost and I found a shedload of dock spikes interspersed throughout the ever diminishing grassland 

Argentine Dock? I don't think so, no. 

The Ghost stripped fruiting tepals from several spikes in the hope that some may conform to Argentine Dock and, chatting now concluded, the tractor soon put paid to further hopes of our finding the plant. To firmly nail the lid of that particular coffin shut, the pager burst into life: Common Rosefinch east of houses - Gugh! No sooner had the words been spoken than Tiny was off at a run, "I need that!!!" being the last we heard/saw of him for quite a while. The great big tart. I looked at The Ghost, who just shrugged in response, before we too gave chase. Though not quite as rapidly as had Tiny. A few minutes later and we emerged besides the houses. I saw a couple of birders a few hundred metres away, then spotted Tiny stood west of the houses, lol...

We scanned all around the houses, noting a few Greenfinches, Dunnocks and Song Thrushes. Then I had it, a juv bird with blackberry juice splattered across its upper breast in true grotfinch style. "Got it! It's with the Greenfinches in the bushes over there" I said, before sudden doubts hit my mind. Umm..."I'm just gonna move over here and get a bit closer" I cautioned as Tiny started high-fiving himself in celebration. From my new vantage point I could see that this bird was, in fact, a young Greenfinch. And a pretty drab one at that. "It's a flippin' Greenfinch!" was my sharp response. Tiny finally stopped high-fiving the air and landed with a sudden "Huh?" The Ghost just shook his head in resignation, that old timer had seen it all so many times before. We moved around a bit more to get the light behind us. Yep, definitely a Greenfinch. Tiny was still enthused, "But it could be with the Greenfinches, couldn't it?" Poor, na├»ve lad. We spent a pleasant enough twenty minutes examining each and every bird to fly through the area. Lots of Greenfinches... Eventually Tiny went off to chat with some birders, but they were clueless (his words). Then the finders themselves slowly worked their way through the bushes and eventually met us at our vantage point. "Yes, it was definitely a Rosefinch" proclaimed the finder. "It was calling often, a young bird associating with the Greenfinches. Easy to spot due to the blackberry juice across its breast" quick look to his friend "Definitely a Rosefinch". Ah. Tiny finally gave me a significant look, penny having dropped. The 'finders' wandered off. Tiny had just experienced his first Scillies String, a weird phenomenon but not uncommon here, particularly on quiet days. "Calling often huh?" I mused. "I've never heard a Rosefinch call and I've seen quite a few over the years. I have heard young Greenfinches call though. Often". Hmmm. 

Luckily, we were saved from wasting any more time on Gugh by another pager message: Buff-bellied Pipit - Horse Point, St Agnes!!  I looked at The Ghost. "Crap birds, quite probably the most boring bird in the entire world" he sagely advised. "I need that!!!" screamed Tiny. Needless to say, we were soon scampering across the sand bar back towards St Agnes. I quietly noted that Tiny studiously ignored the rockpools...

The Ghost had the map. "Horse Point, that's down by Wingletang Downs innit? " I asked. "Yup". "Cool, coz we need to go there anyway for the Least Adder's-tongue, right?" "Yup". Fair enough, no need to worry we might not have time to target the plant. With that thought in mind, I trudged along behind The Ghost and Tiny, who by now was scampering ahead like a puppy keen to be free of the lead, in order to see my fourth British BBP, quite probably the most boring bird in the entire world, by all accounts. We entered Wingletang Down and walked straight by a huge rock that sort of resembled a giant dick. Hang on! I remembered that rock, firstly it's the one that my wife and her sister used to sit under when they lived here. Secondly, isn't it where the fern grows? But the Boys didn't slow down, so I followed as we rapidly approached Horse Point. Suddenly we spied ten or so birders stood by a jumble of huge rocks, all staring in the same direction. Some had cameras too. TWITCH ON! Increasing our pace, we hurtled across the heath and were soon on site. Almost immediately I spotted movement between the rocks - Meadow Pipit. Then more movement, another Meadow Pipit. More movement, a Water Pipit. Huh?? I did a quick double-take. Water Pipit? Nooo...this was our bird, this was the American Buff-bellied Pipit and it was walking around between rocks no more than a hundred feet away from us - get in! 

It's just behind the middle-distance rocks - honestly!

Happily, it wasn't in the slightest bit bothered by the gathered birders as it wandered between and over the low rocks, providing us with excellent views. Which soon became even more excellent when it suddenly took flight, uttering a very Grey Wagtail-like call (a ringing swiii-wiii-wiii, according to my notebook - think of the song rather than the call), circled our heads, before landing maybe 35 feet ahead of us! My digi-binned efforts below

None of them precisely award-winning shots, but I was pretty pleased all the same! Then I had an idea. Why not take a bit of video footage too? I did this by holding my camera up to my binoculars and just hoped for the best

Again, hardly award-winning quality but not too shabby for a handheld compact! We enjoyed this bird for quite a while. Even The Ghost was heard to mutter something along the lines of "It's actually quite a nice bird. You know, for a pipit I mean". Bless his enthusiastic cotton socks. Richard Thewlis arrived pretty much as we were departing, undoubtedly the most gifted bird artist I've ever seen at work. We once stood next to each other with a Blackpoll Warbler moving through sallow canopy just above our heads. To watch him precisely replicate a moving bird onto paper via the medium of soft pencil was just stunning, I have no idea how folks do that. But today we were already heading off, so I didn't manage to see him in action. He seems to have moved onto paints now. 

We hurried back to the large rock shaped like a huge dick. Ghost was first on scene, having left Tiny and I to our 'nanoscopic spiders' vacuumed up and tipped into the sieve tray. Hence, by the time we arrived he had already found our target! 

"Better come over and look at this" he advised. Holy cow, that was it!!! Top work, Ghostie!

It's pretty feckin amazing, eh!

After I'd finished squealing, hyperventilating and ever so slightly peeing myself in excitement at FINALLY seeing Least Adder's-tongue, I looked around and noticed several more plants beneath our elbows and bellies. More stunning images below

I found two plants maybe fifty feet away from the main cluster that The Ghost had found. Suddenly a yell, followed by pandemonium, as a solitary spike was discovered! Holy crap, I may have wet myself just a little bit more - this was just incredible!!!

Least Adder's-tongue has been right up there near the very top of my PSL Hitlist for many years. I had presumed it was dormant until about November, that the spike wouldn't be up until December, that my chances of clapping eyes on this incredible rarity were effectively zero without a midwinter expedition to these beautiful isles. Ghost had scoffed at this, telling me we had a fighting chance in October. Secretly I had doubted him, certainly I never for a second thought we'd see an actual fruiting spike! THIS was species of the trip for me, a magical moment to be forever cherished in my memory.

Then Tiny went and ruined it, blasphemous loon that he is 

FFS TinyPerv! Is nothing sacred?

After our elation at finding Least Adder's-tongue, we took a slow wander around the top end of the island, finding Lesser Quaking Grass for Tiny, noting a sudden pulse of several hundred Swallows pushing through above Big Pool, plus I 'rampantly suppressed' a Calathus mollis that I found beneath a stone, potted and shoved into my pocket. Unlike the huge adult female Dysdera crocata which I also found beneath a stone. I was definitely not putting that into my pocket. With chelicerae like that, she could probably rip her way out of the tube and do some serious damage to my nether regions. I showed her to Ghost and Tiny and carefully popped her back beneath her rock. What a fantastic day we'd had. Least Adder's-tongue, American Buff-bellied Pipit and a stringy grotfinch too! Marvellous.

A female Myathropa florea sunning itself on German-ivy

A female Calliphora vicina also sunning itself on German-ivy


  1. Nice. And some of it even happened, although the claim that I had anything positive to say about the pipit is an utter lie and should be retracted immediately

  2. "AND SOME OF IT EVEN HAPPENED"?!?!? *Cough!Splutter!RighteousOutrage!Splutter!* Tis a true and entirely factual account. How very dare you :D :D :D

  3. Magic day! It's funny that you've not seen Least Adder's-tongue before. I have seen it pretty much every time I've been to Agnes in Sept/Oct for the last 20 years, usually by Bell-end Rock. You definitely don't have to go in December for it! A few years ago, it was pointed out to me that there's loads of Orange Bird's-foot growing with it too.

    1. It was a magic day, Mark - but then they all were! I hadn't realised you were there straight after us until I read about your finding a REV via Spider's blog, class find, I bet you were grinning from ear to ear!