Archive for February 2011

Week ending February 27th   Leave a comment

It’s been a much warmer week. The heronry at Kingsbarns is now much busier. The nests are in the pine trees along the main road by the entrance to the Cambo Estate, although the herons are more obvious as they loaf in the field opposite. There were ten birds taking time off roosting in the field on Saturday. The usual winter roost in the field beside Pinkerton is now pretty much deserted. Grey herons have huge nests that persist from year to year, but they add new sticks to them in the spring. The sticks are often large and so the herons carry them with their necks extended to keep them out of the way of their wings as they fly. They then look like storks or cranes that always fly with their necks extended, although the sticks are a bit of give away.

Grey Heron

There have been a lot of red-throated divers passing Crail this week. On Saturday they were joined by a great northern diver. Great northerns are much rarer but we get a few past each year: they are huge and fly like cormorants with big protruding feet. Red-throats fly like shags (faster wing beats) and have the odd habit of looking over their shoulder frequently as if they are worried they are being followed. It’s a good set of characters to distinguish them, especially when they fly by Crail quickly and usually at a distance. But on Wednesday they were easier to see with 20 or so red-throats resting on the perfectly calm sea just out from the harbour. On the sea they have a very characteristic uptilted bill; this is the best way to distinguish them from the other diver species. You can only see their red throats (when they have them during the spring and summer) in very good light.

Other highlights this week were a pair of mute swans flying over Crail on Thursday. They may be common everywhere else but here they are a good bird. There were some returning pink-footed geese on Friday. There are also a few long-tailed ducks feeding with the goldeneyes off Roome Bay at the moment.

Long-tailed Duck


Posted February 26, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

February 23rd   Leave a comment

Finally a spring day, with little wind and the temperature making 10 degrees for the first time in a month or so. The sea has quietened down and this morning there were barely any breakers. It was possible to pick out any bird on the sea right out to the May. There were at least 20 red-throated divers to be seen close to Crail. Only one was in summer plumage with a red throat, although at any distance this looks dark grey.


I met Pat Barker on my way down to the harbour to check the redshanks this morning and she told me that there is a fox visiting her garden. It has also been seen trotting down Rose Wynd. We are near neighbours so I’ll be looking out for it in my garden too. Pat commented that she also had a male pheasant visiting her garden; this I have seen in my garden. I am not sure both fox and pheasant will be long term residents though. I have always felt the pheasant was a bit vulnerable with all the cats and dogs I have as neighbours, but a fox is an altogether different prospect.


Posted February 23, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending February 20th   Leave a comment

Stairs to the sea - Roome Bay Beach completely underwater

Wild Crail didn’t need any wildlife to be wild this week. We have had strong southerly and south-easterly winds for a lot of this week, making the sea rough. It has also been a week of spring tides, with tides being further pushed up by the winds to cover every single bit of beach. The new repairs along the coast path by the Brandyburn are already being washed out as a consequence. Saturday, in particular, we had very wild seas at the high tide with some fantastic breakers out from the harbour. The redshanks were forced to retreat to the last bits of harbour beach that were left uncovered before finally taking refuge in a long line on top of the harbour wall.

The merlin has been showing well again this week. I saw it hunting rock pipits around Roome Bay, with one persistent hunt leading to the rock pipit flying into the closed toilet block above the shore. The toilet is surrounded by a metal grill above the wall and this was too fine for the merlin (small though it is) to follow the pipit. The merlin landed on the wall and I could see it looking for the pipit in the toilet. It finally found the door which has a much wider metal grille on it and then followed the pipit on foot into the toilet. I’m not sure what happened, but I saw the merlin again hunting over the nearby beach ten minutes later suggesting the pipit got away. This might not be true, however, because merlins often cache prey. When they catch a bird like a pipit, they sometimes bite the head off and then store the body under a rock or piece of driftwood for later consumption. They can then keep hunting, maximising good conditions perhaps. I have seen merlins coming back to their caches several hours later. They may forget exactly where their cache is and spend several minutes shuffling around looking in likely places before finding and eating what they had stored, or even giving up. There is always the risk that the prey it stored has been stolen by other birds of prey or particularly crows, so some of these apparently forgetful incidents of searching may be a merlin in denial.

There have been up to 15 goldeneyes in Roome Bay this week. They seem to thrive in the very rough surf as do the eiders. Both species are in very obvious pairs now and there is a lot of courtship displaying going on. The strong winds have been pushing seabirds past Crail. On Saturday there was a steady stream of razorbills and kittiwakes past.

Male Eider

A sad note. I noticed a squashed barn owl on the road to St Andrews just past the Wormiston turn off on Tuesday morning. A lot of young owls will die every winter and barn owls can produce a lot of young in a year, but nevertheless I felt a lurch as I identified it. This winter will have killed a lot of birds of course, not necessarily from direct starvation, but from accidents and predation arising because starving animals, perhaps like this owl, will have taken one risk too many to find food.

Redshanks roosting on the harbour wall on Saturday - half of them colour-ringed too! (Note also this poor photo is mine not John's)

Posted February 20, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending 13th February   Leave a comment


There is a merlin hunting along the shore. I have seen it three times this week, each time hunting rock pipits. Merlins are fairly amazing falcons. They are pocket peregrines. Just as dashing and impressive, but smaller and more agile. Merlins are more impressive I think because they are more flexible. Peregrines seem to take fewer risks and rarely chase or dive at prey very close to the ground, preferring to have a lot of space around them when they attack. Merlins seem just as happy right next to the ground as well as chasing high into the air. I have seen merlins swoop and dive centimeters above the ground and even land and run after prey that was sheltering in the grass after a long chase. They are also long distance pursuit specialists: following and stooping at the same prey for over ten minutes at a time, covering kilometres through the sky.

This current Crail merlin is a juvenile male. Male merlins are much smaller than females, which makes it only the size of a mistle thrush, although their small size is often hard to judge when they are flying. Juvenile males are brown like females; as adults, males become blue above and so are more distinctive. When merlins chase starlings or thrushes you realise just how tiny they are. But small birds are able to turn more sharply and more quickly than larger birds, so a merlin’s small size is an advantage. Although peregrines do chase small birds such as skylarks and starlings, merlins are much more successful. So look out for a small brown falcon chasing pipits relentlessly and recklessly over the shore. If there was reincarnation then it would be a lot of fun to come back as a merlin.

Thursday was a fantastically beautiful day. Perfect sunny weather. There were at least six red-throated divers at sea off the harbour. They have been passing in some numbers since then, especially during the storm the day after. Other birds of note this week were a hen harrier over the fields just north of Crail on Wednesday morning, lots of gannets over the weekend because of the storm and more red-breasted mergansers past.

Red-throated Diver

Posted February 13, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending 6th February   Leave a comment

Song Thrush

It has been a mixed week of weather. On Monday morning it was relatively mild, but then colder again with a ferocious gale and rain by the end of the week. But spring is on the way. I heard my first Crail song thrush really singing at dawn this week and the blue tits are also starting to sing. The pair of ring-necked parakeets are being noisy and around the tall beech trees behind the Kirk; if they are a breeding pair then they may start at any time now. I would be very interested to know if anyone has seen one or both parrots going into a hole anywhere in Crail. If they nest it will be in a hole 5 or more meters up in a large tree.

Other signs of spring are the increasing number of gannets to be seen in the Forth. It is now hard not to see one pass by if you watch for more than 5 minutes. But we are still a long way from Bass Rock turning white with them. Fulmars are visiting their nests more often. Snowdrops are out; there is a nice bank of them along the Brandyburn.

The black redstart probably moved on from Roome Bay mid week. I was at Roome Bay for several afternoons this week on the high tides. The beaches were full of redshanks, one purple sandpiper, lots of starlings and rock pipits all feeding on the seaweed flies that were being pushed out of the wrack by the high water but no sign of the redstart.

We can expect sea ducks like scoters and mergansers to be become more common passing to the east on their way north over the next week or so.

Posted February 6, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

February 3rd   1 comment

The weather today was spectacular, running through sunny early spring weather in the morning to a howling gale by the afternoon. I saw a dolphin – probably one of the bottle-nosed dolphins we see most often off Crail – from Roome Bay in the morning. It was chasing fish, its dorsal fin appearing out of the water only occasionally, but rapidly and erratically as it twisted and turned under the water. I don’t think it was with other dolphins, which is usually the case, but it is often hard to tell. I think the number of dolphin sightings from Crail is mostly a function of how calm it is (and of course how many people are out and about looking out to sea). In the winter the choppy sea disguises dolphins surfacing very well. You only really see a dolphin if you are looking at something else through binoculars and one surfaces in the same field of view. Today I was looking at a seal in the foreground. But in the summer when the sea gets much calmer then it is impossible for a school of dolphins not to be noticed passing Crail, even if they are as far out as the Isle of May.

Bottle-nosed dolphin

Colour-ringed Redshank

I was catching redshanks this afternoon. The tides are high this week so the redshanks have been concentrating on Roome Bay Beach in the afternoon, with thirty or so birds feeding on the wrack or on the beach. Very high water pushes out all the seaweed flies from the kelp beds at the top of the beach as even these high reaches get submerged. The beach then goes almost black from the flies. And this time of year it is cold so they are sluggish and easy for any hungry bird to pick up tens of flies in a minute. So the redshanks were feeding at a very high rate (distracted), very close together (lots of potential targets), and were prepared to return to the same area when disturbed (predictable): just perfect for catching. My traps are simple net cages in two halves. The top half is folded back, but spring loaded. A catch keeps the top folded back, but this catch can be easily dislodged if a bird steps on the string attached the catch that lies across the bottom half of the trap. Think of a giant old fashioned mousetrap, but with a harmless net thrown over the bird when the catch is dislodged. I have become a great fan of these traps for catching redshanks this winter. Quite often the redshank doesn’t work out what has happened immediately and that it is trapped, and even the other birds around it also often don’t respond. If you are quick and run down to the trap immediately the trapped bird only gets very agitated because of your approach. It is a very safe and relatively stress free way of catching birds. That said, wild birds are being caught and handled which is of course must be very stressful for the birds concerned, so any way to minimise the duration of this is good.

I had amazing luck today catching. Not many redshanks, but three birds that were already ringed. I caught an oystercatcher and a redshank both with a British ring, but most special was a purple sandpiper with a Norwegian ring on it. The purple sandpiper also had colour rings on it. Another scientist in Norway must be doing a study like mine, needing individually recognisable birds in the field as I do with my redshanks. I counted my blessing though – purple sandpipers have shorter legs than redshanks and have a crouching and shuffling way of walking so the colour-rings were barely noticeable. It would be a nightmare to have to systematically find and identify individuals in the field. And bear in mind they frequent the rocks amongst the surf far out from the shore most of the time. One of the rings was what is called a “leg flag”; you can see in the photo that these are colour-rings with a flap sticking out to increase visibility and in this case to allow a number to be put on them.  The study may be colour-ringing hundreds of birds and this is an easy way to generate a lot of different individual combinations. I use unique sets of different coloured rings but then I only have several hundred permutations before I run out of different combinations. Leg flags get round this limitation, but I am not a fan of them because they protrude out from the leg considerably. I am reasonably happy to temporarily stress birds to catch them and colour-ring them so I can follow their fortunes as individuals over many years, but I am wary of saddling them with anything that might affect their flying or foraging performance, and so their long term survival.

Colour-ringed Purple Sandpiper

I will submit the ring numbers to the British Trust for Ornithology which keeps the database of ringed birds in the UK, and also to the equivalent organisation in Norway, and they will let me know when and where the birds were ringed. Watch this space! The oystercatcher’s ring was very worn, with the last bit of the number nearly illegible – I am hopeful that this means that the oystercatcher is very old. They can live 25 years or more, so this bird may have been in Crail much longer than me. Both the redshank and the purple sandpiper were birds in their first year so will have been ringed either on their breeding ground or on passage this autumn.

Ringed Oystercatcher

The whole afternoon reminded me of how connected Crail is to the rest of the country and indeed the rest of Europe via its birds. Among the stay at home resident birds there are just as many international travellers spending a few days or a season with us. Many Crail birds live two lives, spending a season with us and then another in another part of the world – swallow in South Africa for the winter, for example, and purple sandpipers in the mountains of Norway for the summer. The Roome Bay black redstart is another example, and I think it finally has moved on, probably back to continental Europe in readiness for the start of breeding next month.

Posted February 6, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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