Birding with Bill

First published in issue 46 of Scilly Now & Then

Once upon a time you couldn’t move on Scilly at this time of year without bumping into a huddled mass of green and khaki or tripping over a tripod; the streets were a cacophony of bleeps and ringtones and the pubs were full of talk about red eyes, long ears and yellow breasts.


Birders are still here this year, but numbers have undoubtedly dropped. One man who definitely won’t be here is Bill Oddie. Here’s what he had to say when we asked him why.


What time of year do you usually come?


I remember one of the first visits being in September and it was spectacularly good although I’m not sure there have been many Septembers that have lived up to it since. Then I marched into the so called Scilly season in October, staying on Tresco. Although it was before mobile phones and pagers there were walkie talkies and goodness knows what else and every evening I’d try to stay on Tresco but I’d come back to the New Inn and find messages saying ‘ooh, you should have been on St Mary’s or St Martin’s’ and so on.


I actually couldn’t stand it. It was the first time I experienced twitcher claustrophobia and I thought I can’t bear this. Although I came for a two-week stay I went home early after one day when I did go to St Mary’s and spent most of the day chasing around failing to see things - just arriving to places where a bunch of birders looking doleful would stand around and say you should have been here half an hour ago mate. And I’ve never been back in October since.


It can be competitive...


Well it is in a perfectly harmless way, I think they’d admit that. There was a time in the ‘70s, where it was getting a bit out of hand because the islanders didn’t seem to like it and there was quite an anti-birdwatching thing. I think it’s well-documented in a couple of books that there were notices put up in places saying ‘birdwatchers not welcome’ and ‘birdwatchers keep out’ etc.


David Hunt had the unenviable job of actually policing them and he, being a man of a certain amount of temper, would get bloody furious and righteously so with people who misbehaved like blatantly trespassing or climbing over stone walls and leaving them knocked down. There was an unpleasant, frantic undercurrent like that and I think, funnily enough, it’s a good thing the technology has improved because you really couldn’t get away with that now. 


The birders are much better at policing themselves and getting organised now. People misbehaving and scaring the birds by trying to get too close certainly doesn’t happen as much. If it did those people would be very unwelcome.


Does new technology mean that people are now sitting at home waiting for the pager to go off before they come over?


Yes well it didn’t take long to get to that stage. Even relatively early, let’s say the ‘80s or ‘90s, that syndrome was already beginning. There were some long-distance twitchers, one might call them, and there were fewer of them so they were all well known. It was like the Premiership, as it were. I’ve been, ironically, at the other end of the country staying on Fair Isle in Shetland and had people there who would ring up every night to Scilly and I’d say who are you talking to and they’d say so and so in the Mermaid or whatever and they’d get some news, “Oh my God there’s a mega on Scilly” and they’d hire a plane and they’d be off. They’d leave Fair Isle to go to Scilly to see one bird and vice versa and I dare say that’s even commoner now.


They never go anywhere sometimes. I remember that syndrome starting - people basically just sitting somewhere and staring at the computer screen all the time. There have been claims over the past few years that Scilly is finished as an October destination because numbers are going down – what do you think? First of all I might well be tempted to say good; insofar as if it gets quiet again I might come back in October!


I know it hasn’t been that good over the past few years and there have been various theories as to why. I’m not being facetious but maybe it’s global warming and different currents and winds and stuff because Scilly was always a great place for American passerines, Yanks as we call them.


The theory was that the transatlantic liners came fairly close and birds that hitched a lift would come off on Ireland or Scilly and in fact the evidence suggested exactly that but it doesn’t seem to happen quite so often now and a lot more American small birds are being seen far north in the Hebrides so it may just be that more birdwatchers are going there, I don’t know, but I suspect not. There’s some indication that maybe the directions are moving round and the like. Put it this way, I’ve heard more grumbles from Scilly regulars saying they came in October and it wasn’t as good as it used to be where it was almost guaranteed you would see something. Is pricing perhaps partly to blame?


Do you find Scilly quite expensive?


If you’re staying on Tresco, yes! If you’re staying on Tresco it’s bleeding catastrophic! I mustn’t say anything. It’s not cheap. I don’t know if it still goes on but I used to know people who would doss down in gun shelters on the garrison and things like that.


I remember one of my happiest stories - I used to go with my friend Andrew years ago and I managed to smuggle him into the hotel and let him sleep on my floor until I was fortunate enough at one of the dances to link up with a young lady. I don’t think she was Scillonian but she was lovely and I said come back to my place and when I got there I said, “Andrew, get out!” It was between marriages!

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