Archive for January 2011

Week ending January 30th   Leave a comment

I was talking to Roger Watson on Thursday and he remarked that he hadn’t seen any mink around the harbour in a while. The fisherman used to see up to three but none recently. This reminded me that walking my dog along the shore isn’t the painful process it used to be, with my dog getting his head under every rock and working himself up into a frenzy following every bit of mink scent. So two bits of evidence that there are lot fewer minks around Crail than there were a couple of years ago. Noticing when things are absent is so much harder than spotting things that are here.


There are still mink about – John Anderson is still getting photographs of them. But they are hard to see unless you watch the rocky shore at low tide and wait for them to cross a patch of beach, and even harder to count to work out whether they are increasing or decreasing. As otters return they have pushed out the minks from the best habitats but there is even less evidence of otters around Crail now than minks. I have seen otters at Tyninghame on the other side of Forth, but not yet on our side. So it is a mystery why there are fewer mink around. Perhaps it is just chance, populations in the wild go up and down. Probably by writing this it guarantees that they will make a reappearance at the harbour next week. But the point about not noticing species as they disappear is certainly true and worrying. Even when what might be disappearing is non-native mink that outstayed their welcome many years ago.

The male black redstart continues its residency at the base of the cliffs at Roome Bay. It looked great today, adding a vivid splash of red to the beach on a dull grey afternoon. There are a couple of purple sandpipers regularly on the rocks at Roome Bay at low tide. Fewer than in previous years and hard to spot. But purple sandpipers feed characteristically on the slipperiest rocks as the waves break almost over them. They only look purpleish in the summer when you might see them against vegetation on very close views; at a distance in the winter they look very dark greyish.

Purple Sandpiper

Posted January 30, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending January 23rd   2 comments

Common snipe

After a couple of days of mild weather at the start of the week it turned very cold again with hard frosts midweek. It was cold enough for the common snipes to turn up again in Roome Bay. They are very hard to see unless you are on their toes. They zoom straight out to sea whenever anyone comes onto the beach. Of course if they don’t move they are even more impossible to see. There is a less common species of snipe, the jack snipe which also turns up on Crail beaches in hard weather. They freeze and crouch unless approached to within a few meters. I probably walk past jack snipe every winter around Crail but I am none the wiser. Having a dog with you however will make jack snipe get up in the air a bit more easily. They only fly a short distance unlike common snipe, but again, refinding them when they are on the ground is very difficult.

The black redstart was still with us in Roome Bay all week and was showing well on Sunday. This makes it over three weeks. It looks very happy and has started to alarm call when people are about, and today it was chasing robins away from the beach. This suggests it regards Roome Bay as its winter territory. Hopefully this means it will be with us until March. It is still attracting birders from Fife and Tayside.


Other birds to look out for at the moment: goldeneyes, wigeon, eider, mallard and the occasional red-breasted merganser are all ducks that are close inshore at the moment. There are lots of wrens on the beach at Roome Bay. Usually they are hard to see but they are feeding out on the high tide strandline right in the open just now.

Sunday had a spectacularly low tide. About as low as it ever gets here. It is worth going out at low water because you can practically walk to the Isle of May. Well perhaps not that far, but you could see kelp stalks sticking out of the water several hundred meters out. A lot of waders and gulls were taking advantage of areas which normally sit under 5 meters of water.

Venus is still very obvious at about 7 in the morning, still the brightest “star” just above the Isle of May. It is now showing a half disk as it moves away from us instead of the crescent it showed before Christmas. When it is the other side of the sun to us it shows a full disk, but then it is less bright because it is much further away from us.

Posted January 23, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 18th   Leave a comment

The black redstart is back in Roome Bay, or more likely I missed it on my last two visits. It is keeping more to the gorse above the east of Roome Bay and only occasionally feeding out on the beach, so it is less visible.

Black redstart still at Roome Bay

Posted January 18, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending January 16th   Leave a comment

It has suddenly gone mild. During the last two days, day time temperatures have been above 10 degrees. It has immediately made it feel like the year is turning. This has been helped by the arrival of the fulmars back on the cliffs below Castle Walk. There are also a few gannets back in the Forth. It is a couple of months before the breeding season starts in earnest, but for long-lived seabirds like fulmars and gannets, they like to get established early. Even though some of the fulmar pairs in Crail may have been coming back for 30 or more years, they take the early stages of breeding very seriously. The key with almost all bird species, and the more experienced pairs are able to do this, is starting early. Early birds have a much better chance of successful breeding.


The black redstart probably left Roome Bay on Thursday. There was no sign of it on Friday or on Saturday. The rock pipits seem to have left Roome Bay as well. Whether it is the change in the availability of seaweed flies that they were both feeding on or a change in the wind direction making it more exposed, both may have made Roome Bay less attractive. Alternatively the sparrowhawks may have got too much. Even today when the beach was practically deserted of birds I saw a sparrowhawk making an attack. It swept down vertically from the top of the cliffs, diving vertically and narrowly missing, I think, a wren that was still feeding on the wrack. I don’t think it was aiming for anything in particular when it started to attack, it was probably relying on the fact that during the past week the beach has been full of probably hundreds of potential victims and it started attacking blind. This would have made sense if the birds hadn’t moved on: sparrowhawks are more or less only successful if they make a surprise attack and any time spent scoping out targets would have probably led to one of the birds on the beach seeing it early, so losing its crucial element of surprise.

Denburn Wood is still full of redwings. Today there was also a treecreeper. Other birds to look out for are purple sandpipers on the rocks at the low tide line at Roome Bay.

Posted January 16, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 8th   Leave a comment

More snow last night although after an hour it turned to rain so there was little trace today. But it is still cold with a bitter south-westerly wind and a lot of ice about. Despite this it was a nice sunny Crail winter’s day again starting with a lovely sunrise. Venus is still very visible an hour before sunrise, still over the Isle of May as the brightest star in the morning sky.

The black redstart is still in residence at the east end of Roome Bay feeding on the shore, the cliffs and for the last couple of days up in the gorse. There has been a steady stream of birders visiting it all week, perhaps 50 in total I would estimate. When we have a really rare bird here we can have hundreds in a day. The black redstart is the only bird of above average interest reported in Fife at the moment. There are bound to be other interesting birds about but most of the rest of Fife is still much colder than us, and with a new dose of snow most birders are probably not out looking for new birds.

Why the black redstart likes it in Roome Bay: lots of seaweed flies to eat!

Moving higher up the food chain: the flies attract the smaller birds which in turn attract the birds of prey like this common buzzard

Also at Roome Bay there was a small flock of dunlin feeding; they are there most days at low tide at the moment. These are greyish waders half the size of redshanks with longish fairly decurved bills. Roome Bay is a great place to be just now – a whole variety of waders and lots of rock pipits, grey and pied wagtails, starlings and of course the redstart. This attracts in the birds of prey – I have seen kestrel, buzzard, sparrowhawk, peregrine and merlin all hunting the smaller birds that are gathered there this week.

There were some lapland buntings reported from the airfield at Kilminning on Thursday so I went up there this morning to see if they were still about. It was the usual trek over the stubbles keeping faith until a couple popped up a few meters in front of me. There were a few birders also looking for them so I was able to bring them over to the right area where I found another flock of 9. I was really pleased to be able to produce the birds for them; for a couple of the birders these were new birds. It really has been a fantastic winter for lapland buntings around Crail and it was a real pleasure to be able to share them.

As I tramped over the stubbles I flushed a single woodcock. We may see a return of them to Crail if the snow stays inland. There were also some fieldfares.

Posted January 8, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 6th   Leave a comment

Ring-necked Parakeet

John finally had one of the Crail ring-necked parakeets in his garden allowing him to get a photo. This is a male because it has a black and pink neck ring; females will show just a green nape. So if anyone gets a good view of one of the parrots that lacks the neck ring then we might expect breeding this year. John is not happy with this photo and describes it as a “record shot”. Nonetheless you can see just how brilliant these birds are.

Posted January 6, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 3rd   Leave a comment

A walk around Wormiston turned up a few good birds this morning. There was at least one lapland bunting in the same stubble field that has had them in it since September. They are now only flushing at eight meters, and the skylarks as well. I probably walked right past several. But if you have faith and stump over the stubble fields northeast of the yellow holiday house just past Wormiston Farm sooner or later you will put up a lapland bunting.

Down at the shore I saw a merlin and then later a pair of peregrines hunting. There are skylark and wader kills all over suggesting that both species are there more or less all the time. I am certainly seeing them down there every visit. The little grebe was still in the bay at the north end of the golf course.

The black redstart is still in residence. John got down there today and got a really nice picture of it. It is well worth the short walk down the beach to see it.

The black redstart at Roome Bay for the last 3 days

Posted January 3, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 1st 2011   Leave a comment

A new year. Last year I recorded 145 bird species around Crail (Kingsbarns to Anstruther). This has been my best year so far since I started “year listing” for Crail in 2006 (140, 132, 127 & 132 for the last 4 year totals). To put this into context, today I saw 49 different species, and my best day total is about 75 (it’s best in the spring when you get the summer migrants as well as the winter residents). Overall, in the seven or so years that I have lived in Crail I have seen 190 different bird species in the “parish” so far. In the first year I saw, as you could predict from the average year lists above, about 140 species, the following year another 21 new species, the next 10 more and the next another 8. This is to be expected – you see the common ones every year, the rarer ones every few years and the really rare ones gradually accumulate over many years. But as the years go on the chance of recording new species goes down – you can only record a species as new the first time you see it of course. For 2010, for example, I only added four new species to my overall Crail list. But why worry about a list at all? Well you might as well ask why people keep score in any game – it’s a marker to measure how you are doing. But it also acts a record of what we have in our environment and what we don’t, and perhaps most importantly of all, what we are losing. This year I will be aiming for 150 species, so only another 101 to go.

Black Redstart

A great bird to start any year list was down at Roome Bay below the cliffs this morning. There was a male black redstart. They are very handsome birds; rare breeders in the UK and fairly rare winter visitors. They like very rocky barren areas and are famous for breeding in urban wasteland sites in the south of England or around rooftops. Sea cliffs are a favoured wintering habitat in the UK so it may stay in Roome Bay for a while. The black redstart, however, had to avoid the rock pipits it was competing with for insects on the strandline. I saw one rock pipit chase the redstart so savagely that it ended up pushed onto its back by the rock pipit’s violent pecking. The redstart looked shaken for a few seconds afterwards before it resumed feeding higher up the cliffs away from the pipits.

Another highlight today was a flock of six brent geese flying east along the shore. They are more usual in autumn.

Posted January 1, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 31st   Leave a comment

Mute Swan

There were a pair of mute swans around harbour beach this morning. They were in Roome Bay last night: we only have mute swans visiting Crail about once a year. The pair were clearly from somewhere where they get fed, approaching anyone who wandered close to the water’s edge. I saw the pair persistently following a family on Harbour Beach looking for a hand out until the protective father chased the swans back out into the sea. My dog (a grumpy mongrel terrier) was also intimidated by the swans. He rushed out into the surf at them but soon came back as the male swan puffed itself up and hissed at him. Mute swans are fairly large birds but their ability to do harm is mostly bluff. When you handle swans they are usually fairly docile and they are incredibly light for their size. I shouldn’t think that the pair will stay around Crail. They are fairly happy on coastal waters, but I think the lack of ready bread will cause this pair to move on.

Woodcock kill

Denburn Wood is now empty of woodcocks. They disappeared with the snow. They have left behind a few piles of feathers and a few corpses to show that they were probably the most popular item on the buzzards’ and sparrowhawks’ menus in the last few weeks. Their camouflage will have been ineffective in the snow and their habit of feeding on the ground will have made them particularly vulnerable. I found three woodcock kills today, including one (pictured right) on the shore below Castle Walk. Because the wings are intact but the body has been eaten, this was probably killed by a peregrine.

There has certainly been a lot of peregrine activity around Crail in the last few days. I think at least a couple of peregrines are coming in daily to hunt the starlings that roost around Marketgate and Pinkerton. If you see some starlings dashing around in a panic at dusk then look for the peregrine. One of the peregrines is missing some of its left flight feathers so its wing looks like it has a hole in it. This must affect its flying ability although I couldn’t detect any reduction in speed or intensity during its attacks and the starlings didn’t seem to be more relaxed either.

Peregrine with feral pigeon prey

Posted January 1, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

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