Archive for May 2011

May 29th   Leave a comment

Another very windy day with very strong gusts during the afternoon. It was very blowy at Cambo, particularly in the tall sycamores by the beach. They have already taken a battering earlier in the week but more leaves and branches were being blown into the sea today. The sycamore leaves were incongruously blowing past the gannets and terns that were close in to get a small bit of shelter from the westerly wind. There were also about 20 sand martins down at the burn mouth feeding on the seaweed flies. They were coming from the colony half way between Cambo and Balcomie that is in one of the sandy banks behind the beach. This year it seems much larger, with 20 or so holes and many more sand martins to be seen flying around them in the distance from Cambo.

Just fledged starling - looking to get fed but also on the menu for the local crows

A lot of the starlings have just fledged in Crail. The brown youngsters are still hiding in trees and bushes but have left their holes in the roof tops. This makes them much easier prey for the carrion crows who are gradually picking them off now they are in the relative open. The adult starlings all make a large group and screech when a crow gets close to the tree hiding the fledglings but they can do little else. Inevitably a youngster gets grabbed. But because so many pairs have fledged more or less synchronously most of the young starlings will not get taken. Over the next few days they will get sufficiently good at flying that the crows will become no threat at all. For starlings, and a lot of other species, this synchronised fledging seems very important. Even if predators can make an easy kill, they can only eat a certain amount and so most of the prey will survive. A few predators specialise in storing prey so can get round this predator swamping (humans being the obvious example, arctic foxes another, which have natural deep freezes and even crows on occasions). But even so, flooding the market and safety in numbers is always a good strategy. Another great example of this just at the moment is the eiders. They form crèches where a group of females will pool all their ducklings together. I saw my first out at Cambo today. Two females with 14 ducklings between them feeding on the seaweed flies blown out into the shallows.

Eider creche

Posted May 29, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 28th   Leave a comment

Male Red-backed Shrike

There is a red-backed shrike out at Fife Ness. It was reported in the morning from Fife Ness Muir, but I didn’t hear about it until late afternoon. I cycled down to Fife Ness straight away, with the strong westerly making it a very quick trip (not so quick going back but then it didn’t matter). There was a note up at the ringing station at Fife Ness that the shrike was seen early in the morning but had moved on. I had a quick look around the patch anyway. A lovely evening, with whitethroats and sedge warblers singing, but no sign of the shrike. I then started working my way back to Crail slowly checking all the likely sheltered spots on the way. With the strong wind any insect feeding migrant like a shrike will have gone to the first sunny and shrubby patch out of the wind. Kilminning seemed an obvious place and I got lucky straight away at the entrance. There it was perched on top of a small hawthorn bush about 20 meters away. It looked fantastic: in immaculate spring plumage shining in the early evening sunlight. I stared at it in that brief moment of disbelief that you get when you first find a rarity and it stared at me, probably also in disbelief as I popped up by its bush. It then promptly dived into the middle of the hawthorn bush. I wandered round for another ten minutes before relocating it, more or less in the same place, but low down, and inconspicuous in the hawthorn. A lot of the migrant red-backed shrikes I have seen seem to do this. They forage within bushes often like big warblers rather than perching out in the open pouncing on large insects as they do in their usual range on the continent or when wintering in Africa. I guess we don’t have the big insects here and their best chance is caterpillars or moths that will be hiding in the bushes. I watched it perched for another ten minutes before returning to Crail. The best bird of the year so far, and I almost found it myself.

I saw my first red-backed shrike about 30 years ago in Norfolk. My first, but actually the last regular breeding pair in the UK, and the last summer they bred at the site. 100 years ago red-backed shrikes were a common summer migrant breeding in most parts of the UK. But they have been extinct as a regular breeding species here since the 1980s. Another one of our disappearing migrants.

Posted May 28, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 24th   Leave a comment

The day after the storm, although it was still pretty windy today. Last night gusts were sometimes over 70 mph and this morning fallen branches and the occasional fallen tree were evident. Lots of dead birds too, particularly newly fledged rooks that can barely fly anyway and eider chicks that wouldn’t have had a chance in the crazy seas of yesterday.

Turtle Dove at Kilrenny today

Yesterday a turtle dove was reported from Kilrenny. Turtle doves are summer visitors to England and only occasionally get to Scotland. They have declined massively over the last 30 years. They were a common sight in my childhood in England but now they are becoming quite rare. Another African migrant that is disappearing in our lifetimes. But they have always been rare in Scotland. We get one around Crail about every three years and the last one was at Kilrenny too. In fact, in the same garden, under the same bird table! I caught up with it tonight. It was feeding with tree and house sparrows. The sparrows were taking peanuts from a hanging feeder and the dove was clearing up the left overs. A couple of the tree sparrows were newly fledged juveniles; they at least have survived the winds.

Posted May 24, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending 22nd May   Leave a comment

Swallow collecting nest material

The breeding season is well under way. Blackbirds will be on their second broods and starlings and house sparrows will fledge any day soon. Migrants like swallows are building their nests or starting to lay. The fulmars, who started first still have months to go however. They will be lucky to get their chicks off by the end of August. And the Arctic breeding species are still on their way north. On Saturday there was a curlew and a whimbrel feeding side by side in Roome Bay. Both could be on their way to northern Norway to start breeding and so may be “home” in a few days more. Up beyond the Arctic Circle spring will barely be starting. The whimbrel took off strongly and flew north after a few minutes, whistling as it left. Whimbrels make flying look so easy and I think they may be the one of the most capable bird species on the planet. We know they can fly thousands of miles more or less non-stop. One famous satellite-tracked whimbrel covered 3,200 miles in just 6 days. From the tropics to the Arctic in a week. And with a satellite tag on its back. Its flock mates probably wondered why it took so long to come home.

My world champion bird - the whimbrel - it can probably cure a rainy day too

Kilrenny Common is a great place at the moment to appreciate spring passing into summer. The soundscape is the one of the best in the area with both farmland and woodland birds singing side by side. There are also always a few good species to see, whether it is a rare migrant or the resident tawny owls. On Friday it was the tree sparrows. Kilrenny is a very reliable site for tree sparrows in the gardens adjacent to the farmland and on the edge of the wood. Tree sparrows have declined throughout the UK over the last 40 years. They used to be the house sparrows’ common country cousin, but now they are rare in most places. We are lucky to still have them.

The end of the week brought some strong winds with a lively sea on Sunday. You know it must be rough when birds a big as gannets disappear behind the waves as they bank over the sea. There were a lot of manx shearwaters in small flocks passing out of the Forth all day on Sunday, about one a minute.

Posted May 22, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 15th   Leave a comment

There was a common tern in Roome Bay today. Every year we seem to get a pair fishing and displaying around the rocks at this time of year. They then disappear after a week or two. Perhaps off to the Isle of May to breed, but certainly not here. Like most seabirds they don’t do well on the mainland where there are foxes and other mammalian predators. While they are with us the male will catch a fish repeatedly and then present it to the female. She gets an idea of how good a provider he will be when the chicks hatch and also gets into condition to produce the eggs. Common terns weigh about 133 grams and lay three eggs over the course of three days, each weighing about 21 grams. This means of course that they lay nearly half their own body weight in a very short time, so this “nuptial” feeding by the male is very important for the female. Perhaps that’s why they do it in Roome Bay, even when they don’t breed here. Lots of fish, but little competition from other terns, and only a short flight back to the Isle of May (and common terns have come here from West or Southern Africa so it is definitely only a short flight to them). It’s well worth a quick trip down to Roome Bay to see. Look out for a beautiful white gull like bird, but much more elegant with a bright red bill and a neat black cap. Terns hover a lot and plunge dive unlike gulls.

Common tern

Posted May 15, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 14th   Leave a comment

Gannet with seaweed for its nest on Bass Rock

There have been some perfect evenings this week. This Friday evening was beautifully sunny after earlier rain showers so that everything was crystal clear. At Fife Ness the seabirds were shuttling by in the sunshine and the light westerly winds. Many of the gannets were carrying seaweed. Some, sensibly going into the Forth, back to Bass Rock to build their nests. But at least half carrying seaweed out of the Forth, away from Bass Rock. It seems unlikely they are going anywhere else in that direction to nest; the next gannetry is well past Aberdeen. They must therefore collect several bits at a time and make proper large scale trips out to collect seaweed, rather than just picking up bits as they return from foraging. It looked like there was a good patch for seaweed northeast of Fife Ness, about a kilometre out. Tens of gannets were landing on the sea in a relatively small area and then flying up with beaks full of seaweed.

There were some later season migrants at Fife Ness as well. A flock of eight or so sanderling with a single dunlin were on the rocks. Both were in summer plumage and were probably heading up to the very far north where breeding won’t start for at least another three weeks. There were two female northern wheatears on the beach. Again they are probably high Arctic breeders just stopping with us for a few days to refuel before attempting the next part of the remaining 1000-2000km of their migration. That these birds will have been in somewhere like Mali or Niger or Senegal two months ago, and are still nowhere near the destination is incredible. The same is true for the sanderling, although they were perhaps on a beach in Namibia in March, and are heading for the far east of Siberia.

Sanderling in summer plumage

Posted May 14, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 8th   Leave a comment

The weekend was a bit disappointing for migrant birds. A lot of heavy rain overnight (perfect) and south-easterly winds for the last few days (perfect again) did not bring anything beyond the usual. There were swallows still arriving and blackcaps singing more or less everywhere, but no flycatchers or even shrikes. I walked around Cambo on both Saturday and Sunday morning despite the rain with only a possible garden warbler singing that was out of the ordinary. At Fife Ness Muir on Saturday morning there was a common whitethroat and a chiff-chaff, but again this is not unusual. Spring passage in the spring at Crail seems much more uncertain than the autumn. I think I need a few more years watching the weather and the birds before I work out what makes good conditions for rare birds in the spring here. But of course there is always tomorrow, and the next few weeks of May and early June for it all to get better. For example, two years ago we had a collared flycatcher in Denburn in the middle of May that attracted several hundred bird watchers from all over the UK.

There were four sand martins still around Roome Bay this evening which bodes well for them breeding. There are, however, lots of swallows now breeding in Crail. There seem to be more than last year with several pairs around the old garden centre this year, where there was only one or two last year. The swifts have started screaming as they start breeding, although I don’t think all of our birds are back yet. We maybe have 15 or so pairs of swifts in Crail, and there seem to be only about 10 birds hawking high overhead this evening.

The prevailing southerly wind is still bringing the seabirds in close to the shore, especially in the evening. This is a real spectacle and well worth a trip to Castle Walk with a pair of binoculars any such windy evening over the summer. Scan out to sea and enjoy the hundreds of seabirds passing. The lines of gannets passing from horizon to horizon shining in the late evening sunshine are themselves worth it.


Posted May 8, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 5th   Leave a comment

Common swift back for a brief summer

The swifts are in. There was a pair of swifts over the high street this evening, coming in on the front from the south. They will only be with us for the summer – late arriving and gone by the middle of August. Swifts are such a characteristic sight and sound of the summer, especially when they start their aerial chasing and screaming in the next few days as they start breeding immediately.

You can feel it getting warmer as the prevailing easterly wind of the last week or so has shifted more to the south, bringing rain and hopefully more migrants. We are now having the first rain, more or less, for about 5 weeks. There was only 4mm of rain during April in Crail and none in St Andrews at all in April.

The strong south-easterly wind of the last few days that has brought us the sunny but cool weather has also brought in the seabirds close to Crail. Yesterday evening, for example, there were hundreds of seabirds passing by Crail at any one time. Mostly the gannets, gulls and auks that are breeding on the islands in the Forth, but also some passage migrants such as a few manx shearwaters. On Tuesday night the first arctic terns of the year came past. Strings of them flying rapidly round Fife Ness and heading north to the Arctic to complete their passage from Antarctica. It always astounds me, every year, to watch them passing – some may have made the journey, effectively around the world, 20 or more times. I haven’t made it to Antarctica yet, but at least they have.

Arctic tern back from Antarctica

The weather at the weekend is still setting up for good rarer birds turning up in Crail. As a taster (I hope) we had a couple of common redstarts at Fife Ness on Wednesday, and there was a whimbrel passing over tonight. The rain tonight and forecast for Friday should bring the migrants down. I can’t wait for Saturday!

Posted May 5, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

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