St Ives Island

(Previously published in Birdwatch Magazine)

The coastguards watch at St Ives Island

Where and Why?

St Ives Island is a 20m high rocky outcrop north of St Ives in Cornwall known nationally for its spectacular Autumn seabird passage. It commands stunning panoramic views across St Ives Bay towards Godrevy and beyond to the north and the rugged west Cornwall coastline to the south west. Depending on the weather conditions St Ives can easily rival the better known west coast seawatching hotspots of Porthgwarra and Pendeen. The platform and rocks around the coastguard watch-point allow some shelter from the elements, but be prepared for strong ‘in your face’ winds!

Route Planner

St Ives is well signposted from the main A30 at Hayle. Once in St Ives town, head along the main street via the harbour front before turning left up Fish Street. At the top turn sharp right then sharp left and the car park is located at the far end. Access to the Island, which is not actually an island, is through the car park. As already mentioned, the rocks and Coastguard Lookout building allow for some shelter from the wind but for most parts the headland is exposed and north facing. It can get busy too as it is a popular hotspot for local birders so best to get there early to claim your sheltered position! During August the passage will mostly be westward and best conditions are on a west or north–west wind after a southerly Atlantic depression and prolonged south or south westerlies. The birds are often close in at St Ives, on occasion passing right above your head or behind you over the town itself! The sheer number of birds can be spectacular, with Sabine’s Gulls in small flocks and hundreds of both Arctic and Great Skuas. The latter are often accompanied by smaller numbers of Pomarine and Long-tailed Skua. Common and Sandwich Terns pass in large numbers too, with a few Black, Arctic and Little Terns amongst them. Apart from regular species such as Gannets, Fulmars and Auks, Manx Shearwaters can be the most common bird seen on a seawatch here and Balearic and Sooty Shearwaters are usually amongst the passage, occasionally in good numbers. Large Shearwaters are rare but Cory’s and Great have both been recorded. Later autumn tends to be better for Phalaropes, mainly Grey but Red-necked is also possible and Storm and Leaches Petrels can occasionally be seen at close range. Waders are usually seen during seawatches and can include Purple Sandpiper, Whimbrel, Black and Bar-tailed Godwits and Turnstone. Other species that maybe encountered are returning ducks such as Wigeon and Teal, sea ducks, including Common and Velvet Scoter, Mediterranean and Little Gull and Kittiwake, the latter often in huge numbers.

Balearic Shearwater, Carbis Bay (S.Williams)

The day after a big storm can be productive too, with many birds choosing to shelter in St Ives Bay before heading off the next morning when the winds have died down. A keen eye will often pick out a real rarity amongst the masses and past sightings have included Little Shearwater, Wilson’s Petrels, Bridled Tern and Black-browed Albatross.

The island itself also attracts the occasional passerine and it is well worth checking the local Starling flock for Rose-coloured Starling. Wheatear, Rock Pipit and Stonechats can sometimes be found on the surrounding rocks and an early Snow Bunting or Black Redstart may be present on the grassy areas beside the path to the coastguard watch.

From the Island looking across the bay withy Godrevy lighthouse in the distance

Sites and Access

Parking is at a premium in August due to the sheer amount of holiday makers and whilst there is a pay and display car park on the island, it is often full. There are other car parks signposted in the town though which will require you to walk a short distance to the site.
Public transport is a great option and the park and ride scheme which starts at Lelant, will not only allow you to take in the Hayle Estuary while you wait for the train but the train journey itself has been voted one of the most spectacular short journeys in the UK!
The actual headland is a slight uphill walk from the car park and town but is accessible to wheelchair users.

Paul Freestone (c) Cornwall Birding 2017