August 17th   Leave a comment

The gull season is nearly over. The herring gulls are still making a racket at dawn and whenever something disturbs them (like overflying buzzards) and there are still a few young ones whining from the rooftops. But the noise is becoming less and less by the day and most fledglings are now out of town in the fields or on the shore. Some are even making an honest living now, looking for worms as the harvested wheat fields get ploughed, scavenging fish bits out at sea or trying to steal food from other gulls and terns. I suppose the last one is not quite an honest living and there are of course some Crail youngsters that are developing their chip foraging skills on the High Street. It is a risky strategy and one by one they are getting hit by cars. The adult herring gulls that specialise in discarded rubbish and chips are very adept at dodging cars that can only have come from long years of practice and natural ability after natural selection of the unobservant and slow reacting individuals.

A young herring gull chasing a sandwich tern – gulls are often kleptoparasitic, so stealing a few chips on Crail High Street comes naturally

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Posted August 17, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 14th   Leave a comment

People are mostly negative about magpies. They are too common, too crafty, too opportunistic. They thrive on chaos and pillage the other birds around them. Altogether too much like us for comfort. The more successful a species, the less we seem to like it. Better a panda, barely able to reproduce without help than a fox that will exploit any opportunity we present to them, or worse still compete with us. It’s not really fair: the few wildlife winners around us get little appreciation. Magpies are very beautiful birds: they’d be as popular as puffins if they were endangered. They are intensely social and very loyal to their mate and their kin, taking risks and watching out for each other. As socially interesting as meerkats, probably more intelligent, and they would never try to sell you insurance. The world would be a much duller place without magpies.

A Crail magpie in need of appreciation

Although almost all the swifts went at the end of last week, a pair has remained around the High Street, chasing and screaming around the old bank. They seem like a courting couple. I wish they were individually recognisable so that next May I could know that it is the same pair going into the roof of the bank, probably breeding for the first time, but with the difficult business of getting to know each other dealt with now, when they have plenty of time. It’s a nice swift coda to soften the blow of their major departure last week.

Posted August 14, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 12th   1 comment

There is a slight easterly today and so conditions at Fife Ness were good for a sea watch, despite the poor visibility caused by the drizzle. Hundreds of gannets and quite a few fulmars were passing out of the Forth, and the more unusual seabirds were all passing south. In an hour this morning there were about 100 manx shearwaters, a great and arctic skua, lots of common, arctic and sandwich terns, (with only a handful of the arctic and common terns being juveniles), lots of kittiwakes, a couple of puffins, a few razorbills and a juvenile (going into first winter plumage) Mediterranean gull. August is turning into the time for Med gulls around Crail. This year they are particularly numerous in the inner Forth, with a count of 30 at East Wemyss. I wonder if Mediterranean gulls come over to the Forth from the Continent after breeding to hang about for a month or two like the sandwich terns.

Mediterranean Gull

On Balcomie Beach there was a flock of 35 dunlin – mostly juveniles when they have been mostly adults up until now. There was also 10 sanderling, a couple of turnstones and a common sandpiper dashing between sandy pools on the lower rocky shore. That, the dreich weather and a juvenile northern wheatear, also on the rocky shore, made it feel just a little bit like autumn passage is on the way.

Juvenile dunlin on Balcomie Beach

Posted August 12, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 11th   Leave a comment

The swifts have gone. From over 50 on Wednesday night screaming over the High Street at dusk to none today. I was in England on Thursday and Friday so I’m not sure which day they left, but I didn’t see any there either. It is a fantastic synchronised departure: we really have no idea how they do it. The timing varies annually and doesn’t seem correlated with any particular cue or weather conditions. Somehow they all decide to leave at the same time, although birds from further north and the odd straggler will be passing through Crail for the next two weeks.

Crail is full of young willow warblers softly making their soft “who-wheat” call from garden trees and bushes. When you see one they are tiny, quite yellow and delicate looking. They are learning to forage efficiently and getting to know the neighbourhood before their migration to West Africa in September. This period spent getting to know the area around where they were born is investment in in rapidly finding a good territory when they return next April.

Juvenile willow warbler

Posted August 11, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 9th   Leave a comment

The most likely falcon you might see every day in Crail is the kestrel. There are pairs likely breeding at Kilminning, near Saucehope and towards Caiplie. This means that sooner or later you will come across a kestrel hovering along the coastal path, looking for a mouse or vole in the grass below. At least some of the pairs have bred successfully this year so there are more kestrels about now than usual. The only other falcons we regularly get in Crail are peregrines and merlins. Peregrines are large, bulky and short tailed, whereas merlins are small, very dashing and often reminiscent of a sparrowhawk on initial view. Merlins are commonest around Crail in August because of dispersing juveniles and hunt occasionally through gardens right in the centre. But if your falcon looks light and leisurely, and if it hovers then it will be a kestrel. They are often so concentrated on the ground beneath them when they are hovering, watching for the slightest movement below, that you can approach them within a few meters. They will pounce right in front of you and then suddenly shoot off, surprised themselves, when they shift attention from the hunt to their surroundings.

A Crail kestrel hunting along the coastal path this week

Posted August 9, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 6th   Leave a comment

Even if you never look at insects you won’t have missed that there are a lot of hoverflies about. Crail is full of them and if you stop for long enough you can get covered by them, particularly if you are wearing a bright or flowery shirt. They mimic wasps and bees but they are very gentle and perfectly harmless. They are often the victim of mistaken identity. This is a shame because they are very beautiful close up and their hovering and flying is second to none. And ecologically they are great – pollinating things and as larvae, many species eat aphids and thrips that are major plant pests. Some of the species in Crail are migrants as well. Spreading northwards as the summer progresses and arriving from the Continent. It’s one thing to be amazed at a goldcrest, at 6 grams, crossing the North Sea, but something else to contemplate a hoverfly at a few tens of milligrams doing the same.

Three species of hoverfly in my garden this evening and a wasp – easy to tell the difference. Hoverflies have fly eyes, short antennae and don’t have wasp waists

Posted August 6, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 5th   Leave a comment

There were four shelduck juveniles down at Balcomie this morning. They were in a tight flock and not that long fledged so I should think these are locally produced birds and hopefully indicating that the pair that was around Balcomie earlier in the spring bred successfully. The adults are away just now moulting in huge flocks – perhaps locally in the inner Forth or possibly as far away as Heligoland on the opposite side of the North Sea. They undergo this “moult migration” for safety in numbers when they become flightless while regrowing their flight feathers. The juveniles have just grown their flight feathers of course so don’t need to go anywhere to moult.

Juvenile shelduck – this one on the Eden Estuary by St Andrews

At Fife Ness I saw my first skua of the autumn – a great skua flying right over the point. It is worth checking out any brown, large seabird in August. Before the juvenile gannets fledge in September any all dark seabird is very likely to be a skua. Arctic and great skuas are not that uncommon around Crail at this time of year but unless you look well out to sea with binoculars, or sit out at Fife Ness for an overflight by birds cutting the corner off as they pass along the coast, you will not see them.

Great skua passing Fife Ness

Posted August 5, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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