January 20th   Leave a comment

The waders were back on Balcomie Beach, a big flock of sanderling, with some dunlin and ten purple sandpipers in the mix. Sea watching at Fife Ness was good too. I picked up three common scoters flying by with a grebe in the front. A grebe at sea is always a good bird for the Crail patch so I had a very good look at it as it flew by with the ducks. The things to look for on a flying grebe are the neck length and the pattern of white on the wing. This one had a white patch on the forewing at the shoulder and a big white patch on the hindwing along the secondaries. This made it either a Slavonian grebe (fairly rare – one every other year) or a red-necked grebe (very rare – three in the last 20 years). Then it had a long neck – not ridiculously slender like a great crested grebe (which also have a white patch on the shoulder connecting the other white patches on the wing) but a clearly long neck. Slavonian grebes have a neck but it never looks particularly long. So, a red-necked grebe – with a final very conclusive character to clinch it. The grebe was the same size as the female common scoter behind it. Perfect for a red-necked. A Slavonian grebe is about two thirds the size of a common scoter. Red-necked grebes are always good birds to see anywhere in the UK, but they are major rarities at Fife Ness and great to get on the year list again. A great northern diver came past soon afterwards, heavy and high, heading north, and then a manx shearwater. Another unusual bird for the day – I don’t think I have ever had a mid-winter manx shearwater before. They are very common in the summer of course, but at this time of year they should all be off the coast of Brazil.

Sadly no chance of a picture of a flyby red-necked grebe at 400 meters, but a more obliging female stonechat at Fife Ness in lovely light this morning

Posted January 20, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 16th   Leave a comment

It was only after I had crossed Balcomie Beach this morning that I noticed how quiet it was. Only a few redshanks and oystercatchers. All the other waders were absent. It was mid tide and they weren’t at any obvious early roost points either. I was distracted by finding an adult Mediterranean gull in amongst the black-headed gulls: its more bandit mask head pattern the only thing really giving it away. The sea from Fife Ness was also quiet – very few auks and red-throated divers, no gannets or fulmars. The long-tailed ducks are still in good numbers. Twenty chasing each other continuously as they pair up. There was a greenshank on the rocky shore at Kilminning. The habitat there is very similar to the rocky shore they use at Fairmont (flat rocks, big rock pools and a fair number of freshwater pools by the burn outflow).

How to pick out an adult winter Mediterranean gull out amongst black-headed gulls: a blackish half mask instead of headphones. Balcomie Beach at 11 this morning.

Yesterday at Elie, Kilconquhar and  Colinsborough and today up at Lochty and Carnbee it was again boom and bust for small birds as I mapped the fields for corn buntings. I only had three large flocks of chaffinches and some single skylarks in 14km of fields yesterday. But today, after a tip off yesterday, I saw a big group of corn buntings (75+) in the cow fields of Lochty farm, a kilometer north of Carnbee. There was probably the same number of yellowhammers there too. I am quite surprised to find them up there. It is at the edge of the summer range and the habitat is all rough pasture. It is very scuffed up pasture though, with mob grazing making lots of small bare and muddy areas. Last year a similar, but even more highly grazed, and mostly bare earth field at Boghall Farm was very popular with corn buntings too.

Yellowhammer (John Anderson)

Posted January 16, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 13th   Leave a comment

Elie and Earlsferry are like another country to me – they are not part of my local patch and just that little bit too far for a cycle ride and then birding. It’s a shame because there is some stunning scenery and good bird habitats in the woods and shore around Shell Bay and the headlands. I was there this morning mapping the fields at the extreme west of the corn buntings’ range. Although I have been to Shell Bay a few times, today was the first time in 20 years of being in Crail that I climbed up Kincraig Hill. It is a good walk, through normal Fife fields (although on a steep slope), and then suddenly coming to the cliff edge with the whole Firth of Forth in front of you, and a wild sea (at least today) below. An adult peregrine flew by as I reached the top. I looked down on it briefly then it caught the updraught and gained double the height of the cliff in just a few seconds. Cliffs and sea need peregrines to complete them. On the way up, on the edge of a kale field, was a large mixed flock of finches and yellowhammers. There were over 20 bramblings, 50 or so chaffinches, lots of linnets and at least a few twite. It is always encouraging to encounter a good winter flock of finches, buntings or sparrows, but as I have tramped all of the fields in east Fife over the last month, I have found that these big flocks are not that common. Not that uncommon either, but many fields are strangely empty, so there is a real boom and bust to my mapping. It’s a shame the bramblings were off patch so I couldn’t add them to the patch year list. Last autumn there was a good number of bramblings that came in around Crail but none stayed locally past November.

Linnet – the commonest small bird on Fife farmland

Posted January 13, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 9th   Leave a comment

Another 32 km through muddy farmland looking for corn buntings this morning and yesterday. They are very clumped: still flocks at Kingsbarns and along the old railway line to the north, and I found an unexpected flock of 50 in a stubble field just beside the parkland of the Balcaskie Estate (and another jay!). Perhaps not that surprising – as the corn bunting flies, this flock was only a couple of kilometers from the at least 150 corn buntings at Coal Farm between St Monans and Pittenweem. But otherwise, just flocks of yellowhammers, skylarks or chaffinches. Highlight was a female or juvenile (ringtail) hen harrier at Dunino. One was seen just 30 minutes before, and 2.5 km away beside Boarhills Kirk so I should think it is just one, wide ranging bird. Probably the same one I had at Boghall before Christmas and that has been seen a few times in the East Neuk this winter. The habitat in the East Neuk could happily support ten hen harriers – there are lots of small birds and mammals (ask the buzzards, sparrowhawks and kestrels). I wish they weren’t illegally persecuted.

Female hen harrier – half hawk, half owl (John Anderson)

Posted January 9, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 7th   Leave a comment

The cold weather has continued, but with a couple of days of contrast. Yesterday dull and stormy, and today, much brighter and clearer. It felt fairly raw on Balcomie Beach yesterday. The sanderling were roosting on the beach at mid-tide in a compact flock. There will be a trade-off: when running around looking for food loses more energy than can be gained. Then it is time to go to roost. A cold wind will make sitting tight in a flock a much more appealing thing to do. Not all of the sanderling were roosting – like all trade-offs, the point that they kick in is individual and context specific. Some sanderling will have run down their reserves, or will be poorer competitors and so could not afford to stop feeding. Overall there were about 60 sanderling on the beach, twenty purple sandpipers (perhaps avoiding the big waves along the rocky shore), and some dunlin and ringed plovers. There were a lot of gulls too. Mostly black-headed and common gulls hovering into the wind and picking up washed out invertebrates, their feet dangling into the water as they kited into the wind.

Two scenes from a wild Balcomie Beach yesterday – the sanderling conserving energy by roosting and the black-headed gulls doing the same by kiting into the wind so they could feed with little effort on the invertebrates being washed out by the tide

Today was quieter, with beautiful late afternoon sunlight. I spent the last hour of daylight at Balcomie. The beach was already deserted as all the waders had gone for an early roost again, except for the redshanks. Redshanks, for some reason, don’t tend to put on much in the way of fat reserves in the winter and so keep feeding all day and often all night when conditions are harsh. I saw a red-breasted merganser at Fife Ness making a creditable 91 for the year list after the first week of 2022. Through the week I added some easy ones: ringed plover, common scoter, gannet and song thrush, plus, not to be taken for granted yet, a group of four ravens flying over Coal Farm at Pittenweem on the 5th. Ravens have now been early birds on the year list for the last three years reflecting their colonization of the East Neuk. As long as they are left alone they should be here to stay. Another corvid (not covid) – the jay – is also becoming more common. I had my third this year (and my 4th in a month) squawking away in the wood at Dunino Church today. It is becoming too much of a coincidence: I think we have a few more jays around at the moment.

One of the highlights of my week was a male kestrel hunting over the Crail to Anstruther road at Caiplie. It was there in the morning and then still there at lunchtime when I came back to Crail. What made it special was the fact the kestrel was hovering over the middle of the road just above the height of the cars, as it scoped the hedgerow base alongside the road. Despite cars passing beneath it so close you could have touched it if you were in an open top (not likely this chilly week), it remained hovering, absolutely motionless except for its flickering wings, resolutely concentrating on the ground beside it. The view from my car was fantastic – passing just a meter below the kestrel both times. I could see the highlights on its claws. If you were on the road that day you can’t have failed to be impressed.

Male kestrel (John Anderson)

Posted January 7, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 4th   Leave a comment

A cold day! Overnight there was a frost and this morning, with the wind chill, it was below freezing. But some sunshine, which makes a change from the very grey last December. I walked around the fields by the shore at Kilrenny Mill this morning. There are now over 50 corn buntings in the forage rape field there. I put up four common snipe from the damp grassy bank that forms the old eroded cliff face above the shore. Perhaps snipe from further inland looking for unfrozen ground today, or perhaps the birds that are always there. I usually walk along the coastal path rather than through the grass above: good snipe habitats are very wet and uncomfortable to walk through. Snipe have ridiculously long bills and they use them to probe deep into damp soil. When you handle a snipe or find the remains of one (they are quite often caught by sparrowhawks), you can feel that their bills are quite flexible at the tip. There is a central bone, but the covering and the last couple of centimeters is quite rubbery. Snipe can open and close just the tip (like a finger and thumb) and can even bend their whole bill a little. Good for grabbing and extracting worms from underground. But no good for frozen ground.

Common snipe (John Anderson). You can just see that the bill tip is more bulbous and this is the flexible bit.

Posted January 4, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 3rd   Leave a comment

You need a big stage to appreciate a peregrine. I was up at Upper Kenly – one of the highest points on the patch – and looking out over the East Neuk right round to the Aberdeenshire coast, with the North Sea and snowy Highlands in the background. A peregrine approached from the west. At first, it was just a falcon shape in the distant sky – with no point of reference for scale I had that Father Ted moment of not being sure if it was a small merlin close or a large peregrine far away. But as it came closer, the heavier wing beats and the chunky anchor shape of a female peregrine became clear. And as it came closer still, the black hood and moustachial stripe, and a blue-grey back became visible, making it an adult. I watched it from Dunino to Pitmilly. A transit of a minute – the peregrine not visibly hurrying. I lost sight of it but could still track it as the woodpigeon flocks in the fields responded to it, flying up in dense clumps to get above it. Then I picked the peregrine up again in the middle of a flock splitting rapidly into two. It was in full attack mode, gaining height and then power diving, wings beating strongly after a feral pigeon that was separated from one of the main groups. It swooped up behind it but missed. A pigeon may not be able to out accelerate a peregrine, but they are more maneuverable. The peregrine was back round in a second and aimed at a second pigeon. It seemed to have already lost heart and began pacing the pigeons rather than chasing. And then it was gliding and slow flapping again. Heading off towards Kingsbarns where it could regain the element of surprise.

Peregrine (John Anderson)

Posted January 3, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 2nd   Leave a comment

I saw two jays today. One at the secret bunker woods and a second up at the small oak wood at Hurlmakin (a kilometer north of Carnbee). Some years jays are very hard to find around Crail (few woods and even fewer oak trees). But I saw a jay at Hurlmakin in June, and the Secret Bunker Woods used to be my go-to place on Jan 1st to find a jay. They seem to be back, and hopefully they will be breeding as well. I picked up some other missing species from my Jan 1st bird list: a great spotted woodpecker and a redwing with the second jay, some grey partridges calling at Ovenstone, a flock of meadow pipits over one of the stubble fields I was mapping today. But I still haven’t seen a song thrush or a collared dove this year.

Great spotted woodpecker (John Anderson)

Posted January 2, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 1st   Leave a comment

January 1st and a new year, and a new year list. I spent all day doing my traditional bird race to see how many species I can see on the local patch. Today it was 76 – the record is 85, and last year it was 84. So not so good today. The reason? Not lack of effort – I was out 30 minutes before there was any hint of light, and kept going until dusk, covering Boarhills, Kingsbarns, Kippo, Carnbee, Denburn, Fife Ness, Kilminning and many places in between. The weather was to blame I think. Windy, very mild (thirteen degrees) and barely light until 11 this morning. Most birds spent the day roosting. I have never had such a slow start to the day, with only 25 species in the first hour. I got lucky with some species: a great northern diver and a goosander on the sea at Kenly, a water rail at the pond at Boarhills. But this didn’t compensate for the easy birds I missed: song thrush, meadow pipit and collared dove being bizarrely elusive. The first species of the day was a robin singing at 7:30 from a distant Crail garden as I headed off to Boarhills for my usual start. The last species was golden plover, flying in to Sauchope to roost after sunset, as I scanned the airfield in vain for another of today’s missing but usually easy species – grey partridges. I expect they will all pop up tomorrow. As always it is a very positive start to the year. Appreciating the commonplace properly again, and really looking hard at everything.

No. 43 for the day – a grey wagtail on the farmhouse roof at Kenly, at 11:10 when the sun finally came out
Nos. 70 and 71. Sanderling and a three purple sandpiper at Balcomie at 13:30

Posted January 1, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 31st   2 comments

It is officially the darkest December since 1956. It has felt like a nuclear winter of low cloud and little daylight all month. I went out to a grey and damp Kingsbarns this afternoon. There is still a flock of about 30 twite in the usual spot at Boghall, even though the forage beet and sheep field of last year is now pristine grass. The twite and everything else disappear when they are on the ground. I heard a skylark frantically singing above the field and then saw a female merlin chasing it up into the sky. A long hunt ensued, with the merlin and skylark ending up well over the sea, still stooping and evading and climbing three minutes later when I got tired of watching them, now in the far distance. At sea there were several flocks of very handsome long-tailed ducks. Many of the males in full breeding plumage, and a couple of females too. There was a lot of displaying and chasing, although it looked like the female was chasing the males, rather than the usual duck way round.

Long-tailed ducks (John Anderson)

It is now dark, and short of chasing a tawny owl (which has eluded me this year, as has barn owl) for my Crail patch list, I have reached the end of my year list. I am on 176 (the complete list is here), breaking last year’s record of 173. It was a lot of irregulars that made up this year’s list – species that are not too hard to get anywhere else but I don’t get very often like red kite, wood warbler, grey phalarope, hen harrier, wood sandpiper, little ringed plover, osprey, curlew sandpiper, white-fronted goose and Slavonian grebe. The real rarities this year were Icterine warbler, dotterel, Sabine’s gull and dusky warbler, although none of these made their first appearance on the overall patch list. This overall patch list now stands at 236, unchanged from last year. It could have been much higher. I missed a lot of birds this year. The patch now has more regular birders, particularly sea watching very intensively at Fife Ness, and so the potential to miss birds has greatly increased. In previous years, most of what I missed was completely unknown – I am not quite sure which is better – to know or not to know. Probably the former because it makes me look out more and also gives me hope that these species are possible again. But the latter does add a layer of disappointment, which should never be part of birding, especially when I have such a good local patch and have had a record-breaking year. But for the record I missed – sometimes by only a few minutes – the following patch ticks: common crane, alpine swift, nuthatch, avocet, woodchat shrike (one at Balcomie House during the height of lockdown this spring and only seen by the owner), great shearwater, Fea’s petrel, pallid harrier (this one hurts the most), surf scoter and white-billed diver. I might hope to eventually get most of these but a Fea’s petrel, alpine swift, woodchat shrike and pallid harrier could well be once in a lifetime patch birds. Still, I have another 30 years or more if I am lucky to make these species back. And the new year starts tomorrow, with a new year list, and all to play for.

And my favourite birds this year? Well, always the ones that I am looking at, at the time. But I enjoyed the scarcer patch species becoming widespread for a time: yellow wagtails, grasshopper warblers, cuckoos, great northern divers, little auks. I enjoyed the corn buntings and going absolutely everywhere in the patch mapping them. I enjoyed finding the dusky warbler just on its call, and learning how to pick out roseate terns from a flock of arctics by their glow. Overall though, I think the dotterels at Pittenweem this spring come top. I have a soft spot for these waders as the highlights from my teenage birding when they came through my local Hertfordshire fields (at Dotterel farm), at the start of May (Dotterel day) like little treasures in an otherwise very bland, intensively farmed landscape. And from my wife’s ten year study of them in the Cairngorms: if I ever I wanted to see her during the summer I needed to climb a mountain and find the dotterels. They are just brilliant birds as well. Happy New Year.

A female dotterel in late evening spring sunshine at Pittenweem this year – one of the best birds this year

Posted December 31, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 24th   Leave a comment

If you visit the co-op and have noticed the hedge opposite is very noisy and full of house sparrows, then the explanation is both that there is a dense hedge (house sparrows love this because it offers protection from sparrowhawks) and we have a bird feeder hanging from this hedge. The sparrows empty it in the first couple of hours and a few other species pick up the bits that get tossed on to the ground as the 40-50 sparrows scrap over access to the feeder. Dunnocks, a robin and a blackbird are the regular foragers below the feeder. All three species are not big seed eaters, but they are flexible generalists. One blackbird – an adult male – has got very tame and waits patiently by the feeder for it to be refilled first thing in the morning. It comes to the seed as I am doling it out and seems happy to feed very close – it would probably jump onto my hand if I stood still enough. Blackbirds are particularly flexible in their diet and seem to eat almost everything, animal and vegetable. This makes them a good urban species. Their original habitat is open woodland but sometime in the mid-19th century they started moving into towns and cities. Now they are found at some of their highest densities in suburban and urban areas. Their tameness also serves them well. Humans in cities are not threatening and most don’t even see the blackbirds at their feet. It is a big evolutionary step for a species to discount humans appropriately (although it is complicated because migrant blackbirds need a different set of rules if they head across France, Spain or Italy in the autumn…). And it is a necessary step for a species to be successful on a planet with 9 billion people.

When you see a blackbird up close you realise how beautiful they are – the males are really black all over except for their contrasting bright yellow bills and eye-rings.

Posted December 24, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 22nd   2 comments

I was field mapping today – dull but worthy. Recording which fields have been ploughed, which are stubble, which still might be good habitats for corn buntings over the winter. I covered 20 km but only encountered corn buntings in the usual main site this winter at Kingsbarns. But only a flock of 30. Where the rest have gone just now, I don’t know: once again they may have been dispersed through the stubbles and not flushing. I heard and then saw a raven flying out of the woods at the Secret Bunker. If there is still pair resident, they will be thinking about nesting in the next month. The highlight of the trip was at Boghall. I was on the Drony Road working out which fields were which when a female or juvenile hen harrier flew up from the turnip field in front of me (or out of the pines near me) and quartered briefly over the field before disappearing into a stand of conifers on the other side of the field. Once again Boghall Farm comes up trumps for raptors. The mixed farming and the game cover crops make the farm great for small birds and so for the birds of prey. To emphasise this, no sooner had the harrier disappeared when I saw what I thought was a male merlin doing its characteristic mistle thrush like, undulating flap-flap glide attack flight over the field. It was targeting two skylarks at tree top height. One dived down to the ground and the other went up. The raptor used its momentum to gain height above it and then with a tiny stoop, plucked the skylark out of the air. Then the size of the raptor became clear – the skylark was tiny in the bird of prey’s feet – it was a male peregrine. A superb adult male with a very blue cast to its plumage as only the oldest and brightest males get. Male peregrines also use a thrush mimicking flight to approach prey, so my initial mistake wasn’t too dire. It was another very dull, grey day today with a lot of damp – almost misty – making size even harder to judge.

As John says – a record shot, but it captures the atmosphere of the day. Ringtail hen harriers are easy to identify by their long wings and tail and very prominent white rump. This is my first hen harrier on the patch since 2015. They should not be so rare – but their numbers are kept very low in Scotland by illegal killing associated with grouse moors. This is number 176 for the Crail Patch list – a final bonus to add to a record breaking year.

Posted December 22, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 20th   Leave a comment

Long-tailed tits did well this summer and the legacy is several flocks in the Crail area this winter. Each one is a related family party: families stick together. When nesting, siblings that have failed nests will then help their brother or sister to raise their chicks. There might be up to eight helpers. Then long-tailed tits have big clutches – up to 15 eggs. The end result may then be a flock of 25 birds, all related, and all working closely together for each other’s survival over the winter. They look out for each other, share information about food they find and they roost together. When you are as small as a long-tailed tit, and temperatures are sub-zero, making a tight bundle with your flock mates makes the difference between surviving the night or not. I was watching a flock of about 20 long-tailed tits this morning working their way through Denburn. They moved from Bow Butts end of Denburn Wood down to Roome Bay Avenue in about 20 minutes. They are always on the move. Other tit species (coal, blue and great), goldcrests and treecreepers join them for a bit, but they drop in and out as the long-tailed tits move over a much larger scale. Every Crail garden will get a long-tailed tit visit this Christmas.

Long-tailed tit (John Anderson)

Posted December 20, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 19th   Leave a comment

There was a pomarine skua passing Fife Ness as I sea watched this morning: no telescope and it was a long way out. I thought it was a great skua to begin with on its bulky proportions. But as it came just a bit closer I could see it was a pomarine: an initial id of a great skua that turns into a pomarine or arctic is a good sign that it is the bulkier and heavier former. Winter skuas in the North Sea are rare but are often pomarine, although I have had all three commoner species on the Crail patch in December and January. Most skuas spend their winter in the tropical Atlantic.

There are some female (or juvenile) common scoters at Sauchope and Roome Bay this winter. Common scoters are very common around Crail, but usually only passing by. Common scoters have no white on their wings, and males are completely black: they lack any other character (at a distance) than being a black duck. The females are actually a bit more distinctive because they also have a paler face and a slightly darker cap. These characters stand out quite well on flying birds, or birds on the water, giving you that initial bit of confidence that you really are looking at common scoters, if you are not familiar with them. Once you have got your eye in you don’t have to look out to sea very long before you see a line of them – black (or very dark) ducks, some with pale faces – flying by.

Three female common scoters at Sauchope this morning – this photo shows how the whole dark duck, with paler face thing works at a distance making them quite easily identifiable when you know what to look for

Posted December 19, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 18th   Leave a comment

We had the haar in today. A cold winter fog hugging the coast and barely clearing by the afternoon. There is high pressure sitting on top of us, and instead of the bright sunny day that it will have been inland, it was dreich. A walk out of Crail across the fields to West Braes and back along the shore was a low visibility affair. Yellowhammers and skylarks flying up out of the stubble, but straight back down again a few meters away, completely invisible again. Some golden plovers flying over unseen, only their mournful whistles giving them away. Stonechats chacking along the coastal path, barely discernible on the dead cow parsley stems. There was a female kestrel perched on one of the clifftop trees at Harbour Beach, looking damp and miserable. I doubt it could hunt by hovering. Kestrels are good perch hunters when they need too, but even so it will have been a day in the voles’ favour.

The female kestrel at Harbour Beach making do in the fog – just a few meters away but still disappearing into the gloom

Posted December 18, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 17th   Leave a comment

It was back to Kingsbarns today, with good weather – sunshine and no wind. The buntings were dispersed but I was able to check out a few flocks of corn and reed bunting and yellowhammers. I had no further luck with colour-ringed corn buntings or rarer species. It is a little bit like a needle in a haystack: there are a lot of big stubble fields around Kingsbarns. I had about 60 corn buntings this morning and fewer linnets, twite and tree sparrows so half the birds were somewhere else. But it is the best birding when you are looking for something rarer – things you normally don’t give a second glance to, like yellowhammers, need a proper look at. It was a nice day to be out to. I saw the sunrise and watched some of the corn buntings coming in from their roost, landing on the wires to have a stretch and a preen before starting to feed. There were flocks of pink-footed geese going over from their roosts close to the Eden. And a big flock of fieldfares – they have become much more common in the last week. Lapwings too. Perhaps finally indicating movement of birds in Europe away from the increasingly harsher winter conditions there as the season progresses.

There are several flocks of lapwings in the fields of the East Neuk at the moment (John Anderson)

Posted December 17, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 14th   Leave a comment

I went looking for more colour-ringed corn buntings at Kingsbarns this morning. Interestingly the big flock of last week was dispersed: smaller groups were spread over several stubble fields. The skylarks and linnets the same. I put up one mixed flock of buntings (corn and yellowhammers) with some linnets among them. The corn buntings called, the yellowhammers too, but then in the middle a loud and clear robin like ticking, repeated for about ten seconds as the flock flew away and then doubled back over my head. It sounded just like a rustic bunting (or perhaps a little bunting). Either way a bird well worth finding on the patch. Trouble was the wind was getting up and it started to rain: I tramped around a bit but the flock had moved to another bit of the stubble field and I couldn’t refind it. Things were only flushing at short distances – there had been a male merlin hunting through the field just a few minutes earlier – and the weather wasn’t great for scanning. Fairly frustrating, except that if there is a rare bunting there it is not going anywhere, and neither am I. My corn bunting business this winter will be taking me back to these fields a lot and I will be checking each bunting there closely for colour rings anyway. I think I will find it again. I trust my ears – perhaps more than my eyes. And I have been listening to buntings flying away from me calling all year.

I am going to provocatively post a picture of a rustic bunting (taken by John Anderson in Japan) to put my hat in the ring that there is likely to be one with the other buntings in the Kingsbarns stubbles at the moment. There were a couple of sightings of one there last winter but it was never properly nailed down. Stranger things have happened than rare buntings turning up in the same sites in successive winters (i.e. they are returning to their adopted wintering area). Game on.

Posted December 14, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 11th   Leave a comment

It was one of those very dark mid-winter days where it didn’t really get light, and the spring seems a long way off. On Balcomie Beach there were several purple sandpipers mixed in with the dunlin and sanderling. As the winter goes on they seem to use the beach more. From Fife Ness there were a few red-throated divers, long-tailed ducks, guillemots and a little auk passing. With the rain coming on I headed back through Kilminning. I stopped by the airfield as I saw a merlin chasing a skylark up, closely followed by a sparrowhawk. I think the sparrowhawk probably put up the skylark initially and then the merlin took over. The sparrowhawk peeled off as the skylark and merlin got higher and started the sequence of dive and stoop, climb and chase. Each time the merlin got close to the skylark during a stoop, sometimes just a few centimeters away, the skylark gave a little burst of song to try to convince the merlin to give up. It finally did after a couple of minutes and drifted back down to the stubbles of the airfield to wait for another, weaker skylark. It is always a thrill to see a merlin hunting, especially when well matched with a skylark.

A purple sandpiper on Balcomie Beach (John Anderson)

Posted December 11, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 9th   Leave a comment

The corn buntings are back in the stubble fields west of Kingsbarns, between the village and the old railway line. I counted 125 in three flocks, although they were quite mobile, merging and separating over three big fields. And if I counted 125, there will be quite a few more. The moment they land in the stubble they disappear. As I counted a new group in a bush I noticed some colour-rings catching the light. MWRY – the corn bunting we ringed in March this year, having moved the epic distance of 524m away since then. But this is why I am studying corn buntings. They move on a scale I can keep track off. It looked very happy 9 months on. Above it were a couple of twite, and on closer look another 30, keeping as a distinct unit even when flying off in the company of over 200 linnets. The fields had over 500 small birds in them: tree sparrows, yellowhammers, reed buntings and another couple of hundred skylark. So many skylarks that their flight calls blurred together to sound like distant burbling bee-eaters. The stubble fields by Kingsbarns are brilliant and I hope the ploughing there stays as late as last year. A final bonus was a very angry jay calling from one of the pine shelter belts. Always a special local bird and never guaranteed on the patch in a year (although this is my third or fourth this year).

MWRY taking it easy after its epic movement. Spot the two twite too.

Posted December 9, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 8th   Leave a comment

There were 55 sanderling on Balcomie Beach this morning – with a few dunlin, ringed plover and a purple sandpiper. At Fife Ness it was surprisingly quiet considering the storm of yesterday and continuing south-easterly this morning. The swell was impressive though. Even the few gannets were largely invisible as they passed in the troughs. The best birds were a few fulmars like mini albatrosses over the huge waves. They have been absent for weeks, far out to sea while everything else has been close in. Another great northern came over as I left, adding to this year’s total.

Fulmar (John Anderson)

Posted December 8, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

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