Archive for March 2011

March 31   1 comment

Puffins were passing by Crail today in small numbers all day. Presumably they were on their way to the Isle of May, and blown a bit closer to Crail because of the strong winds. The gannets were flying by as well, but in the opposite direction, perhaps also on their way home but to the gannetries further north.

Puffin on the way to the May

Posted March 31, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 26th   Leave a comment

Everything is looking very spring like today with continued sunshine, although a much colder south-easterly wind. Lesser celandines are flowering out at West Braes. There is a lot of bird song and everything is in showy plumage: even the cormorants are looking fantastic, particularly in the strong spring sunshine.

Cormorant - not quite in full breeding plumage but stunning nonetheless

Out at Fife Ness this afternoon there was a good passage of seabirds in the brisk south-easterly, but nothing very unusual. Lots of guillemots, gannets and kittiwakes came past, although almost all of the kittiwakes were young birds, born last year, rather than adults.

Posted March 27, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 23rd   1 comment

Today was a beautiful day, the warmest of the year so far with fifteen degrees. It was also the best day so far for rare birds in Crail with Ben Woolf seeing a hoopoe briefly in his garden on Marketgate first thing in the morning. I heard the news a couple of hours later and despite talking my way into as many gardens as I could around Marketgate I couldn’t relocate it. Hoopoes are the spectacular birds you see in Southern Europe, like huge butterflies with outrageous crests and long curved bills. They are early migrants and late March is one of the best times for them. The last hoopoe in Crail was seven years ago, seen by my neighbour Bill Alexander down in the caravan park at Sauchope: I didn’t see that one either. I’ll just have to wait another seven years. Even so it was very exciting searching Crail in hope.

A consolation were the ducks in Roome Bay. Both goldeneyes and red-breasted mergansers are displaying at the moment, the mergansers outrageously so. The pictures below taken a few days ago at Balcomie show a male red-breasted merganser trying to impress a female out of shot. They look fairly reptile-like anyway, but when they extend their neck in display they look like some heraldic dragon.

Red-breasted merganser starting to display to a nearby female

The full display

Posted March 24, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 18th   Leave a comment

The end of the week was a massive contrast to the start. We had 15mm or so of rain during Tuesday; the Brandyburn sounded like a jet engine on Wednesday and the delta of soil washed from the many just ploughed fields extended out from Crail a kilometre. But the second half of the week was sunny with some perfect Crail weather particularly on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. Still unseasonably cold though. Although many birds are singing up a storm I don’t think any blackbirds or song thrushes, which are usually the earliest to get going, have started building nests yet. The exceptions are the rooks (and of course the herons which started rebuilding weeks ago). There is a huge rookery at Wormiston and a much smaller one in Beech Walk Park. Rooks have been busily carrying sticks to rebuild their nests all week since it stopped raining. They may have been building in the rain too but I wasn’t out to check…


There has been a bit of early spring passage this week. There was a teal, atypically roosting on the rocks by the harbour at mid tide with the redshanks on Thursday, and at least 6 in the flooded field corners up at Ragfield (the start of the old railway track just north of Crail) on Saturday. There have been a few meadow pipits over but their main passage hasn’t started yet. Further south the first few summer migrants have arrived in England, but it will still be a week or so for us before the first wheatear or sand martin shows up.


Denburn Wood has had a pair of treecreepers for most of the week. Hopefully they will stay and breed. They are relatively easy to spot at the moment, feeding on the smaller tree trunks at about eye level. The frog spawn clump in the Denburn hasn’t hatched yet, perhaps not surprising considering how cold it has been. It is forecast to be much warmer next week though.

The old paddling pool down at Roome Bay had 10 purple sandpipers feeding on the sloping rock plates on the shoreward side on Wednesday. They were unusually very close in and relatively easy to see. I think this is always a good place to check for purps as you walk along the shore path. But even here they scurry around more like mice than birds so you need to look out for them.

Posted March 19, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 12th   Leave a comment

There were a lot of gannets passing today – some very close in. John has a spectacular photo of one diving from a couple of days ago (when the sun was shining…).

Gannet diving

I was asked by Peter Salkeld today as to my thoughts on whether a wind turbine on Fife Ness would affect birds. Well that depends on where the turbines might go, but if, for example, there was a turbine at Kilminning as was proposed recently, I don’t think there would necessarily be a big problem. Overall the site is an area of poor scrub woodland, hard standing and grass, which is of low biodiversity value. This reflects its current and historic use. It is however of relatively good biodiversity value compared to the intensive farmland surrounding it on the landward side, and has the potential to be much improved as an area for biodiversity with sympathetic environmental management. In my opinion, location of a wind turbine on the site would not further degrade the site’s biodiversity value (access infrastructure is already present) and much of the site is tarmac or “urban” grassland. In contrast, if the turbine location is coupled with environmental improvements such as reduction of hard standing and tree planting then the site is likely to be greatly improved for biodiversity. This is really key – if we can combine siting turbines with improving the habitat then biodiversity might actually improve .

There is one very important consideration however. During autumn (very occasionally spring) migration periods, particularly during sustained easterly winds in the period of late August to mid-November, Kilminning acts as an important area for passerine migrant birds. These use the scrub woodland at the site for feeding or shelter for short periods before resuming their migration. In any one year there might be 10-15 days where there are significant populations of migrants at the site (i.e. tens of birds of a variety of species). On about 3-5 days a year (sometimes more) when we have heavy rain or fog coincident with sustained easterly winds there may be falls of thousands of passerines and the site may have thousands of birds (usually redwings and blackbirds) using the site during the course of a day. Once on the site and in daylight a turbine will present no problem to these birds, but their arrival is often during the night and in disorientating weather conditions and so a turbine may present a collision risk. Lighting of a turbine would likely increase the problem as nocturnal migrants are often attracted to lights. Whether any problem would arise from a relatively small, unlit turbine, is not certain, however, there have been few studies of this. But in light of the precautionary principle, it would make sense to locate the turbine (i) as far away from the shore as possible, (ii) provide increased tree and scrub cover closer to the shore and (iii) to avoid lighting the turbine in any way, or light a safe area well away from the turbine to draw migrants away from the turbine at key times.

But overall I don’t think turbines sited on any already degraded land or farmland of low biodiversity around Crail are a problem for birds, only for the views. Global warming in the long run will be a much bigger problem on bird populations, particularly migrant birds, than wind turbines (when sited away from sensitive areas and species). And we won’t be able to undo global warming as easily as taking down wind turbines in the future.

Away from the serious; I saw my first lesser black-backed gull of the summer today. They are one of our earliest summer migrants. Although they are common in the winter in southern England, our lesser black-backs disappear completely during the winter. They may winter as far south as Tunisia or Morocco. They might not be swallows, but they cheered me up on this cold and sleety day because at least something is convinced that spring is on the way.

Lesser black-backed gull

Posted March 12, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 8th   1 comment

John found two snow buntings down at Fife Ness this morning. Snow buntings, like the much more abundant (at least this winter) lapland buntings, are another unusual artic breeding small bird that we only get occasionally during the winter. Fife Ness is usually the best place to find them, just behind the beaches by Balcomie, feeding on the short grass of the fairways. John’s pair was beside stinky pool, the rather unfortunately named tidal pond just after the road to the Coastguard station cuts over the golf course. They are well worth looking out for, with a brilliant blaze of white in their wings when they fly up.

Snow bunting

Posted March 8, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 7th   Leave a comment

I received news of the purple sandpiper I caught at Roome Bay on the 3rd of February. This was when we were out catching redshanks on the high tide and accidentally caught a colour-ringed purple sandpiper, which also had a Norwegian metal ring on it. I submitted its details via the European ring recovery site ( and got a report back today. The “purp” was ringed as a young bird on the 31st of August last year on Spitsbergen (the Norwegian island that is part of Svalbard). It would have been born sometime in July and may have been preparing to migrate south when it was caught by someone like me on the beach of the main town Longyearbyen. The purple sandpiper then probably flew directly to Scotland, or possibly staged down the Norwegian coast to spend the winter in Crail, arriving sometime in the late autumn. The total distance between its ringing to my recovery is 2,537 km. A fantastic journey for a bird that weighs about 60gm. It was very thin when we caught it, but I hope it has survived this cold winter and will make the return journey to Svalbard in the next couple of months. Then we might even expect to see it again in Crail next winter (and potentially for 20 or so further winters if it can avoid predation or starvation along the way). We might not ever get polar bears in Crail, but many of our wintering waders will have seen them on their travels and they bring a touch of the real Arctic to us.

A Crail purple sandpiper - from Svalbard, its official!

Posted March 7, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending March 7th   Leave a comment

There are definite signs of spring now. There is frog spawn in the Denburn pond in two large clumps. Each year frogs lay their eggs in Denburn but very few seem to hatch and I have never seen any froglets later in the summer. The adult frogs keep coming back every year though, so somewhere in Crail tadpoles do make it.


There have been a lot of auks moving past Crail this week. Both razorbills and guillemots have been passing on their way north to breed after spending the winter in the southern North Sea. There are hundreds of auks passing every hour visible from Crail and probably many thousands more further out and out of sight. At any distance it is hard to tell whether they are guillemots or razorbills; most this week seemed to be guillemots. Puffins don’t appear until April and then they go straight to the Isle of May. I only see puffins on passage past Crail after big winter storms when they are leaving the Forth after being blown in. Gannets are also moving north and can be seen whenever you look out to sea now.

Although the weather is getting better, the legacy of the winter storms is still obvious. Roome Bay has lost a huge amount of sand below the cliffs. There is now almost entirely bare rock, with a few new fossil ferns exposed. The cliffs have subsided in a couple of places as well although not as spectacularly as the huge slip at Harbour Beach that happened earlier this winter.

A couple of whooper swans flew over Crail on Sunday. Any swan making a honking noise while flying over will be a whooper – mute swans, as their name suggests, don’t call in flight. We should have a big passage of meadow pipits in the next couple of weeks. They move north following the coast and come over Crail low and in big flocks making weak “tsip-tsip” calls. They are always the first definite signs of spring bird migration for Crail, with the summer migrants from Africa starting to arrive a week or two after.

Posted March 6, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 6th   Leave a comment

There is a white wagtail down at Anstruther harbour. The bird is feeding on the strandline seaweed just down from the Royal Bank of Scotland, by the bus stop, and has apparently been there for a week or so. White wagtails are the continental form of pied wagtails which are only found in Britain. We get a few migrant white wagtails passing through spring and autumn and occasionally there can be several on Balcomie Beach in late March when they have peak passage. It’s a bit technical but they differ from our pied wagtails by being paler and more uniform grey on the back, particularly on the rump and flanks.

White wagtail

Posted March 6, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

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