Archive for December 2010

December 27th   Leave a comment

The thaw set in today. A whole day and night above freezing. The first for about a month. You can feel the birds relaxing. As I walked down to Roome Bay you could hear birds calling and even some brave robins singing for the first time in weeks.

Greenshank - note this is one of my own photos not John's - hence the poor quality

The wader show at Roome Bay continued today. Joining the snipe, woodcock, redshank and dunlin down at the tide’s edge was a greenshank. Most greenshanks winter in Africa and most will be well south of the Sahara in places like the Niger delta all the way down to Cape Town. But some individuals save the enormous energetic expense and hazard of migration by remaining in Scotland. There are probably only a few hundred individuals that winter in Scotland compared to the two thousand or so birds that breed here. They have probably become more common here in winter as the climate has warmed (it is still warming despite the recent month’s weather). Today’s bird was my first winter record from Crail.

Greenshanks are quite similar to redshanks as you can see from my (admittedly) poor photos. But they have green legs (the green shanks) not red legs and longer slightly upcurved bills compared to redshanks. And also as you can see they are much greyer and paler than redshanks. I knew there was probably a greenshank in the bay from Castle Walk because I could see one of the “redshanks” was a much paler grey than the rest. On migration they often call – a ringing whistle repeated three times “tew – tew – tew”. This is usually the best way to pick up on a greenshank passing through.

Redshank on left, greenshank on right (and a common gull and two turnstones)


Posted December 28, 2010 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 24th   Leave a comment

It was a clear and sunny, beautiful day. A proper Crail day, snow notwithstanding. The temperature climbed to just above freezing although there was not much obvious thaw. But south facing grassy banks are thawing in the last days’ sunshine and the woodcocks and song thrushes are taking advantage.

I walked from Cellardyke back to Crail this morning along the coastal path. The snow is still down to the high tide line and the birds were concentrated along the shore and particularly at the pig farm. The skylarks there were very obvious against the snow and with them a single lapland bunting. At last I had a decent view of one on the ground. It was completely unconcerned, feeding just 20 meters away. Again I was surprised at how difficult it was to pick out amongst the skylarks. Unless you really check each skylark out in a flock (and this is usually impossible when it’s not snowy) you will overlook them.

Grey Partridges in the snow

There was a covey of 20 grey partridges at Caiplie, and another 12 just by Crail. They, like the skylarks, usually don’t stand out in the fields, but they can’t hide in the snow. I usually never see such large groups and I think this is a consequence of the snow. I studied grey partridges (along with a PhD student of mine, Mark Watson) a few years ago. We found out that larger groups lead to higher survival rates for individuals, probably because they can share vigilance for predators and so allocate more time to feeding. In cold winter weather then the partridges need to feed as long as possible and so will prioritise this by grouping, rather than maintaining their territories.

There were a few bramblings at Caiplie at a bird feeder there. There are also quite a few fieldfares around Crail now, and a flock of redwings eating holly berries in Bow Butts. These three winter visitors are usually only here on passage but the cold weather has brought them back to us from further inland, as with the woodcock.

There are more wigeon along the shore at the moment. These ducks have bulbous looking heads and the males have an orange crown, so they are fairly obviously different from the mallards with which they are usually mixed in with.


Posted December 24, 2010 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 22nd   Leave a comment

The past few days have been the coldest I have experienced in Crail. I have a weather station in my back garden that logs things such as temperature and wind speed every hour. Every so often I download the data so that I have a record to relate to what the redshank and other birds are doing as part of my day job (which fortunately is not too different from what I do anyway). I have just been looking at the temperature plots for the last month. You don’t really need me to tell you that it has been cold, but in Crail terms it really has been exceptionally cold. We hardly ever get below freezing here. The sea is like a warm bath on three sides buffering us from really low temperatures. But yesterday and today the temperature has not gone above freezing and on the night of the 20th it went down to minus 5. On 21 days out of the last 31 the minimum temperature been below freezing and the maximum temperature has been less than 4 degrees. Last year in the same monthly period (which we thought was cold at the time) we had just 4 days with a minimum temperature below freezing and 25 days had maximum temperatures above 4 degrees. And the year before that (2008 – which was what I call a typical Crail winter) there were just 2 days with temperatures below freezing and all days had highest temperatures above 4 degrees. So it’s officially a cold year even in mild and sunny Crail.

The low temperatures are really tough on the birds. It doesn’t matter so much if it is cold, but the continuous freezing temperatures prevent easy feeding for most species. If birds can’t feed, they can’t stay warm and many will be dying at the moment. There is not a lot we can do about it except put lots of food out for them. If every household in Crail put out some food twice a day (if only bread crumbs or cheese crumbs) then it would make quite a difference.

Black-tailed Godwit

The birds are congregating in gardens where they are being fed and in sheltered areas where the snow is less thick. Anywhere by running water, including the shore, is a magnet because the ground is not frozen. Down at Roome Bay today, for example, there were about a hundred starlings, and many song thrushes, wrens, rock pipits and blackbirds along the beach. There were also a lot of waders, including several that don’t usually turn up there: grey plover, golden plover, snipe and woodcock. Best of all were two black-tailed godwits. This is only my second record for Crail. Hard weather makes birds move around a lot as they look for better feeding conditions. Crail, although cold, is still relatively warm so we should accumulate birds. Hence the woodcocks and the geese have now come back after leaving us during the slightly milder weather last week.

Posted December 22, 2010 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 19th   Leave a comment

The snow is back. Heavy snow showers were frequent with the temperature hovering about freezing all day. The woodcocks were very obvious around Crail again. The best place to see them is around the sheep field below Denburn. Every few minutes one will fly between a less snowy garden or wooded patch. There were lots of skylarks passing back over to the east also looking for the less snowy fields around the coast. I expect the geese to come back as well.

Posted December 19, 2010 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 14th   Leave a comment

I checked out the stubble fields around Wormiston again, this time walking through them more systematically. The geese were all gone but this time I found several groups of lapland buntings. At least 10 and likely more than 20 mixed in amongst the skylarks. Even 10 lapland buntings at this time of year is exceptional in the UK. I bet there are many more, but because even the skylarks are inconspicuous and not flushing until you are 20 or so meters away, they are almost always overlooked.

Little Grebe

Down at the shore by Balcomie there was a little grebe. Another hard weather movement; I suspect its pond inland will have frozen forcing it out to the sea to forage. A juvenile hen harrier was also hunting along the shore – probably the same bird as two days ago.

Posted December 19, 2010 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 12th   Leave a comment

Pinf-footed Geese

I walked through the fields around Wormiston this morning. There were at least 1500 pink-footed geese spread between a harvested potato field, a stubble field and a winter wheat field. They were fairly tolerant of me walking about a field away although they eventually moved one field along to all end up in the winter wheat field. I felt a bit guilty when someone then had to trudge out from Wormiston Farm to put them off again to stop them trampling (or eating) the crop. As the weather is getting a bit milder I expect them to move back further inland so the farmer will get a respite in any case.

I was walking over the fields looking for the lapland bunting flock that was present up until the end of October. I haven’t looked since and there are still plenty of stubble fields so there is no real reason for them to have moved on. True to form I found them in with a large skylark flock. Only 8 or so Lapland buntings this time instead of 80, but I only checked one of about 4 potentially good looking stubble fields in the area where the flock has been present. I finally had a good view of one on the ground. I am still amazed at how hard they are to see even when you know they are just 20 meters away in the stubble.

Another highlight of the morning was a flock of 9 mute swans flying over Crail. We see more whooper swans than mute swans around Crail; this is only my third or fourth record. There was also a juvenile hen harrier and a couple of brambling at Wormiston House: both are unusual. Bramblings are more common on passage but there are plenty of beech trees at Wormiston to keep a few bramblings happy through a winter. On my walk from Denburn to Wormiston I also put up 19 woodcock. They are everywhere at the moment along the edges of wooded areas by fields.

Posted December 19, 2010 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 11th   Leave a comment


The cold weather finally shifted on Thursday. We had a shift of 11 degrees within 24 hours, from minus three to plus eight degrees. These kinds of temperature shifts are characteristic of Scotland in winter. Animals really have to be flexible day to day here. Most of the snow around Crail was gone by Saturday. You can see it lying still inland and in the hills to the north but we are back to winter business as usual. I should think there are a lot of relieved small birds now.

Up until Thursday it was still a woodcock week. You couldn’t fail to bump into them during any walk around Crail, particularly in the less snowy areas of Denburn or in the sheep field below the wood. The pink-footed geese are still in many of the fields around Crail. They have been quite nocturnal this week; I have heard geese flying around Crail every night whenever I have been listening.

There has been a magpie in Crail this week. I think this may have moved in with the colder weather as well. It is moving between the Kirk and the school. You only notice that we don’t usually have magpies when they actually appear. I love magpies’ calls – their slightly ominous rattling call has been used as a soundtrack on so many old films that wanted to create an atmosphere of bleakness or disquiet (think of the graveyard scene in Great Expectations, the version with Alec Guinness in it). Hearing a magpie consequently always transforms my sense of place: lovely Crail becomes something a bit more sinister for a brief moment. Poor magpies, they really do get a bad press.

Barn Owl (demonstrating how nocturnal it is...never generalise in biology)

On Wednesday evening I saw a barn owl along the main St Andrews road between Hammer Inn and Crail. It was flying over the car I was a passenger in. That I was a passenger is relevant because I didn’t crash the car as a consequence. It is hard to pay attention to the road when a barn owl is passing just over the windscreen. They are fantastic birds, but sadly they are strictly nocturnal in Fife. I only ever get similar fleeting glimpses when I am travelling at night around Crail. Where I grew up, in Cambridgeshire and East Anglia they are often active during the day, and particularly so in winter. Nothing beats the sight of a barn owl hunting over a frosty sunlit field. They are often so intent on finding mice and voles that they will fly right up to you. But because they are so nocturnal here they are rarely seen and it is hard to assess how common they really are. I think there are several pairs in the area. The closest is at Wormiston and this pair will come into the centre of Crail – although often people will mistake night flying gulls for barn owls so I am not sure if this is a common occurrence.

Posted December 11, 2010 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 5th   1 comment

Pink-footed Geese

It was a really cold day today. The temperature stayed about freezing all day and the wind made it feel colder the moment you stepped out of the shelter of Crail. There were about 3,000 – 4,000 pink-footed geese in the first pasture field on the left towards Fife Ness, and other much smaller flocks in many of the other fields around.

I had a brief walk along Balcomie Beach at high tide at mid-day. There were quite a few waders roosting on the beach. When disturbed they barely flew any distance before settling again further up the beach. I curtailed my walk so I wouldn’t put them up any further. This type of behaviour is a sure sign of cold weather problems for birds. During cold weather many birds on well walked beaches will have the added problem of wasting energy to stay out of people and (particularly) their dogs’ way. No such problem (apart from me) at Balcomie today. Even the golfers were away: the redshanks had the greens to themselves. There were a nice mix of waders on the beach: golden plover, dunlin, redshank, sanderling and lapwing, with a couple of woodcock in the grass behind the beach.

Posted December 5, 2010 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 4th   1 comment

A very snowy week. There has been snow on the ground since last Saturday, and since Thursday the night time temperatures have been going down to about -4 degrees Centigrade. As predicted there have been woodcocks coming into Crail to take advantage of the milder temperatures (everything is relative). Many areas of ground by the shore are unfrozen in contrast to even a few hundred meters inland.


There are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of skylarks in the fields around Crail at the moment. They are doing the same thing as the woodcocks – they are in search of milder conditions. The fields inland must be empty. I expect the birds of prey to follow them, particularly merlins.

This morning the whole village was full of the sound of pink-footed geese that must have been in the fields just to the north. Unlike everything else I shouldn’t think they notice the snow much. None of the fields have a particularly deep covering when you are the size of a goose and able to eat the shoots protruding out of the snow. But it’s a different story when you are the size of a skylark and the seeds you are looking for are buried, or you are a woodcock and the ground is too frozen to put your bill in to find worms.

Both of the Crail ring-necked parakeets were flying above the centre this morning. They are still mostly to be found in the garden to the west of the Kirk, but occasionally they fly around screeching. And they sound just like Disney’s idea of parrots: next time you think the cold weather has got to you and you are imagining hearing parrots in Crail, have faith, and look for them. They really do exist and their flash of brilliant green against the wintery sky is the perfect antidote to the cold.

Posted December 5, 2010 by wildcrail in Sightings

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