More arrivals today: a steady stream of barn swallows and the first house martin of the year at Boarhills.
I went to the May Island in the afternoon. The first time I have been in April. Usually I go late May or June when the seabird breeding season is in full swing and the island can be full of thousands of puffins. Today it was just hundreds. Still really nice and impressive, particularly for anyone who hasn’t seen puffins before, but most of the puffins were either underground on newly laid eggs or still out at sea improving their body condition for their stint at incubation and the coming frenzy when they have to work constantly to feed their chick.
Puffin touching down on the May Island
If you haven’t been to the May Island yet, then make it this year. You won’t regret it – puffins alone make it worthwhile and it is almost magical as you approach the island and start to glimpse puffins at a distance or flying by, then you realise you are surrounded by them, and when you land they really are everywhere, shooting past your head, waddling along like penguins, or popping out of burrows. Then there are all the other birds to see – guillemots and razorbills (even more penguin like – yet surprisingly aerobatic in the updraughts of the big cliffs on the west side of the island), kittiwakes, shags and later in the season terns (just a bit too early for terns today unfortunately). Everywhere you look there is a little natural history story: female eiders trying not to be noticed as they incubate by the paths while the too conspicuous males, their job done, try to find late females to bother down on the shore; great black-backed gulls on the prowl for an unwary puffin (hundreds get eaten a season, but then there are 96,000 puffins there…); newly arrived willow warblers feeding on the short turf like pipits because there are so few bushes on the island; razorbills in pairs, in synchronised slow wing beat display flights, confirming their pair bond and commitment before their lay their egg for the season. The two hours or so on the island before the boat goes back to Anstruther flash by. And on the journey back there are always the gannets – in fantastic close flybys – to enjoy.
Shag newly sitting on its nest for this year
Any trip to the May Island in spring or autumn might turn up a rarity as well. Today I failed to connect up with a common redstart that had been seen earlier – still, we get those in Crail and it’s a likely species this weekend. The rarest bird on the island was actually a common buzzard. This could have been a Scandinavian migrant off course or just a chancer from Fife out on a day trip just like me. Exciting for the warden who might only see one or two buzzards on the island every year, less so for a visitor from Crail. Rarity is always relative.
The wind was a light south-easterly overnight after some stronger southerly winds during the day. Sufficient to push a lot of seabirds close in to Crail yesterday evening. A steady stream of gannets, kittiwakes, fulmars and common gulls passing with the first puffins of the season further out. This morning there was a willow warbler singing from the Denburn sheep field – the first of the year and about a week earlier than usual. There were also some chiff-chaffs singing from odd garden locations suggesting they came in last night as well.
A newly arrived willow warbler
Last night I heard a tawny owl hooting from the kirkyard or the edge of Denburn. I could only just hear it from my house by the Co-op, but loud enough to make it onto my Crail year list. There was another tawny owl calling from West Braes last week that I heard about. I can’t believe it is the same territory, and it seems likely there are also tawny owls in the big trees around the farmhouse just northwest of Crail, only 300 meters as the owl might fly from West Braes. Tawny owls do move around fields and gardens quite happily but they must have big trees somewhere in their territory to nest in.
Things have been on the move this week, with sandwich terns passing by in small numbers from about Wednesday. I caught up with first two of the year yesterday at Balcomie Beach despite the wind shifting northerly: my last were fishing in the much warmer surf of Senegal in October. The two at Balcomie will likely have spent the winter on the coast of West Africa and will now spend the next six months with us in the North Sea. There was a chiff-chaff singing incongruously from brambles at Saucehope on my way back from Balcomie: although they are early migrants, the majority will pass through well after the first birds through Crail.
One of this week’s sandwich terns passing Fife Ness
Today there was a handsome male northern wheatear at Balcomie, feeding on the rocky shore and a bit further on my first whimbrel of the year, launching itself up with its lovely seven note whistle to tell me instantly that this wasn’t just another curlew. Despite these two today I think it is safe to say that this spring has not turned into an early one, and most migrants are still to come. There should be much more of an influx of swallows this week though and the first house martins and willow warblers.
A spring whimbrel, stopping off on the rocks at Fife Ness on its way north
Spring female wheatear
A cycle through the farms of Sypsies, Troustie, and Third Part (i.e. all the farms two fields north of the Crail to Anstruther road) turned up quite a few corn buntings today. More systematic counts will follow in May but at the moment it is looking good. I came back along the coastal path. Another swallow hawking over the sheep flock down at Caiplie caves and a female wheatear – the first of the year – on a wall just as I got back to Crail.
There are still pink-footed geese passing Crail and Fife Ness, heading north in flocks of a few tens each time. Today I had a flock of 18 whooper swans doing the same, passing Fife Ness majestically, heading towards Aberdeen. As a counterpoint I saw my first swallow of the summer (last year’s was on the 7th), conveniently over my garden after spending all morning looking for one at Balcomie and Fife Ness. A male powering along, following the coast and singing happily as it went by. This and a chiff-chaff singing below the doocote at Roome Bay were my only summer migrants today, although the pair of shelducks back again, quacking around the bays north of Balcomie are definitely another sign of summer being around the corner.
I think we have grey wagtails breeding again on the Brandyburn in Crail. They have been regularly flying past my house, following the course of the burn as it flows underground from the bus stop by the school to where it re-emerges by the old cinema on Nethergate. Birds frequently have to commute between the best areas of their territories, so I don’t suppose it phases them much that their burn exists in two separated sections. It probably bothers me more that the Brandyburn is buried: streams tumbling through seaside towns add such a lot of character and many a Cornish or Devon village is made by them. There a couple of other hidden burns through Crail and many more in the surrounding farmland; channelled into pipes and covered over when a wild landscape was just something to be sorted out, rather than valued. Still, you can see the grey wagtails in Victoria Park, in Denburn Wood and perhaps easiest of all down at the mouth of the Brandyburn. Hugely long tails and more yellow than grey, picking flies from the wet rocks. When disturbed they leave with a lovely bounding flight and a clear “tchick-tchick” call.