Located in the North Atlantic Ocean some twenty eight miles off the western tip of the county of Cornwall in England, lie the Isles of Scilly, a collection of one hundred and forty tiny islands. On Monday 14th June 2021 the attention of serious birders from around the United Kingdom was drawn to St Mary’s Island where a number of sightings of an Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) were announced. St Mary’s Island is the largest island of the group at just over 2.5 square miles (1,625 acres) and the bird was first seen at the Peninnis Head peninsula. From there it moved to the second largest island of the group, Tresco, where eleven further sightings of the vulture were confirmed the following day.
The Egyptian Vulture is a relatively rare bird at the best of times but there have only ever been two recorded, confirmed, sightings within the British Isles ever! The first was at Bridgewater Bay in Somerset in the southwest of England in 1825 and the second at Peldon in the County of Essex in 1868. It is therefore easy to comprehend the excitement these sightings have caused to bird enthusiasts across Britain.
The Egyptian Vulture, sometimes called ‘Pharaoh’s Chicken’, is the smallest vulture found within Europe with a wingspan of up to 175cm (5’9”) and a maximum body length of 70cm (2’4”). It is distinctive in looks with a yellow face and bill and a predominantly dirty white body with dark brown to black tipped primary and secondary flight feathers and white forewings. The crown, throat, nape and lower neck are covered in what is best described as an untidy mess of spiky feathers.
Egyptian Vulture in flight
There are three sub-species of the Egyptian Vulture with the nominate occupying the largest range which encompasses Spain, Portugal and southern France, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The second sub-species occupies a range across sub-Saharan Africa into Saudi Arabia, and the coastal regions of Yemen and Oman and the final group are restricted to the Indian sub-continent. Many of the birds who breed within the European and central Asian range (nominate) migrate south during the winter months returning to their breeding grounds in the Spring.
It is believed that the vulture spotted in the Isles of Scilly had in all probability arrived from its home in either southern Spain or France and may have been blown off course whilst riding high thermals, although it is possible that the bird became lost during an earlier migration northwards due to weather or navigational error. Within ornithological circles, birds who appear in regions outside their normal geographical range are listed as ‘Vagrants’. Rare bird alerts which are posted for birders within the UK are classed into four categories; uncommon, scarcity, rarity and mega rarity. Suffice to say the wandering Egyptian Vulture of the Isles of Scilly rates as a Mega Rarity (a once in a lifetime find) and is likely to attract huge numbers of enthusiastic birdwatchers to this small group of islands until it decides to move on!