'It was just phenomenal': Record rare seabird sightings cause both delight and concern

A record number of rare birds are being spotted off the Isles of Scilly, something that is causing concern for bird watchers, ITV News Correspondent Ben Chapman reports

The Isles of Scilly are, at the best of times, a birdwatcher’s paradise. But even by those lofty standards, this year has been something special.

Whether it’s the perula warbler getting tongues wagging, or a red-footed booby attracting hundreds of pairs of binoculars, there have been a record number of rare, exotic birds being spotted.

Along with a huge pod of dolphins, the treat for those aboard the Sapphire bird-watching boat with us was a frenzy of feeding seabirds - that included the Cory’s shearwater, a seabird that was once few and far between.

Now, they’re staying in UK waters for longer and in huge numbers. The likely cause is rising sea temperatures pushing their food further north.

This Bobolink has been carried over to the Isles of Scilly by a huge storm. A storm that will have killed hundreds like it. Credit: Dick Filby

“Normally you see one or two in the distance, and they’re just a brown blob,” says Louise Wells, who visits the islands for the birds every autumn.

“To see them today, so close up was just phenomenal.”

But while there’s no doubting the excitement among twitchers, experts are worried about the long-term trend.

The changes are particularly stark on the Isles of Scilly, which are a unique crossroads for migrating birds: the first or last stop between here and America.

The Isles of Scilly are a unique crossroads for migrating birds - the first or last stop between here and America. Credit: ITV News

Dr Bob Flood, a leading expert in seabirds, who helps run the tours, has witnessed the change in migration patterns over just a few years, and questions nature’s ability to keep up.

Feeding grounds are being pushed further away from where the birds breed.

“If we’re seeing the beginning of a trend of warmer waters,” he says, "the oceanic habitat here will continue to change and the food that these Cory shearwaters prefer goes further and further north.

“The question is whether over time, these birds are going to be able to adapt to these sorts of changes.”

It’s not just exotic seabirds that have been dropping in on the islands.

Onshore, there’s great excitement around a pair of bobolinks, the first time two have ever been seen together in the UK.

It’s an American songbird, blown across the ocean by an Atlantic storm.

But the ones in the birders’ binoculars are merely the last survivors. Hundreds more will have perished in the water, leading to mixed feelings among the admirers.

One of the most seasoned twitchers, Dick Filby, who’s on his 49th consecutive season, is concerned climate change could make the storms more frequent

Dick Filby Credit: ITV News

“It does make me quite sad to think that the population of north American birds has just taken a tumble,” he says, while awaiting an urgent alert for sightings on his walkie-talkie.

“If these things continue and get more intense then we’ll see a lot of birds dying that wouldn’t have done in the past.”

For now it’s unclear whether the changes being seen on Scilly is part of a natural cycle, or another ominous sign of climate change.

But those who travel here each year to find the birds will also be among the first to spot the trend.

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