Archive for July 2011

July 29th   Leave a comment

The week of great seabirds has continued. There were storm petrels off Crail until the 26th. There have been thousands seen all along the north sea coast amidst great speculation why this should be so with no pronounced storms or anything else obvious to explain it. Storm petrels remain a mystery. Still, I will keep looking out for them and just hope for another bonanza, for whatever reason, mid to late summer.

All week the puffins have been streaming out of the Forth. It is probably the best time of year right now to see a puffin from Crail, either flying by or close inshore on the sea. Most are much further out though. There are also a lot of juvenile kittiwakes leaving the Forth too. They at least have fledged some chicks. Tonight they were joined with hundreds of arctic terns in flocks of 30 or so all moving east (and so probably north after they get round Fife Ness), but I only saw one juvenile with them. I don’t think the arctic terns on the May Island were alone in failing to breed this year.

But the best seabirds tonight was a couple of sooty shearwaters. My first for the year. I love these birds. The closest regular thing we have to an albatross. Big and powerful and from the southern oceans. Although when you see them there with albatrosses they then look pathetically small. Still until I see an albatross from Crail, sooty shearwaters will pretty much do. The photo below is one of my favourites of John. A perfect photo of a perfect bird passing Fife Ness.

Sooty shearwater - or Crail albatross

 

Posted July 29, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 24th   Leave a comment

There are a lot more insects about with the sustained warmer weather. I know it hasn’t felt like it but the moths definitely think it’s warm. Last night we had a reasonable catch of 9 species and 23 moths in total. Anyone catching moths with a good trap in a good bit of habitat would probably give up with this total, but for us that’s quite good. Illustrated are a couple of dark arches moths. Their back wings are blurred because they are warming up to fly. Although insects are “cold-blooded” many can warm themselves up very effectively. Moths vibrate their wings very fast to increase their temperature so they can be active even when it’s cold. When you take moths out of a trap in the morning they are usually very cold and torpid. If you disturb them though they will start wing beating and then fly off. It’s not a great escape strategy, any bird that found them would have time to have a preen and a sing and still catch the moth before it got away. Moths really have to rely on their camouflage.

Dark arches moths warming up to fly off

Ophion luteus perhaps - an ichneumon parasitic wasp anyway - watch out moth caterpillars

We also caught a beautiful ichneumon fly or wasp, probably Ophion luteus. Ichneumons are parasites, laying their eggs in insect larvae such as moth caterpillars. The ichneumon larvae then eat the caterpillars alive before emerging as wasps from the caterpillar husks. I think this is probably worse than being eaten by a bird. Both of course regulate the numbers of caterpillars and there are far fewer on everyone’s vegetable plants as a consequence of this predation and parasitism, even if it is fairly grim for the moths.

Posted July 29, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 24th   Leave a comment

The excellent run of seabirds past Crail continued over the weekend. On Saturday I had a glimpse of a storm petrel off harbour beach while watching the fishing sandwich terns that are congregating there. It was very frustrating, just the merest glimpse before the bird was eclipsed by a wave. Sunday morning was much better thankfully. There was a group of about 25 storm petrels visible feeding from my house when I scanned the sea first thing through my telescope so I dashed down to the shore to have a closer look. I sat beside the Brandyburn just up the slope to get some height above the waves and saw at least 38 storm petrels. Some were coming in to about 100 meters which through a telescope gave quite a good view of these brilliant birds. I watched then for an hour or so as they fed in a loose group before moving up to Castle Walk and counting at least 58 spread over the sea off Crail. There were probably hundreds passing and stopping to feed this morning.

Why am I so excited about storm petrels? Well the last time Crail had some visible storm petrels was June 2007 and encountering these unusual birds usually involves going far out to sea on the West coast or Northern Isles, or staking out their breeding colonies at night. Storm petrels are real sea birds. They come to land to breed, but at night, and usually only on remote islands. The rest of the time they are far out to sea and spend their lives dashing about just above the waves. And did I mention they are tiny? Just a bit bigger than swallows so they are very hard to see. Little black and white shapes weaving among the wave tops. Occasionally they dash along a wave peak so you see them for a few seconds continuously, but then they will suddenly change direction and disappear again. They scour the surface of the sea endlessly for tiny bits of plankton to eat. When they find something they drag their feet into the water (remember they are flying literally centimeters above the water already) and spread their wings like a kite into the wind. They then effectively hover and move forward by pattering their feet over the water as they peck their prey from the surface. They literally walk on water. This possibly is where they got their name – petrel may be from St. Peter, the disciple who walked on water (although less successfully than the birds that may share his name). The show lasted most of the morning but by lunchtime we were down to single figures and I saw my last storm petrel in the early evening. In 2007 we had them feeding (again just off the Brandyburn) for a few days so some may still be here tomorrow, although the lack of them last thing suggests otherwise.

In the background to the petrels were hundreds of puffins again, quite a few manx shearwaters and the first great skuas or bonxies of the season. Bonxies are usually the star of a sea watch, but not today. Still it is great to have them passing by again. They will now be pretty much regular (about 1 an hour past Crail if you really scan the sea with a telescope) for the next couple of months. And don’t forget the sandwich terns which are now very common. The usual view is of an adult being pursued by a very noisy chick. These birds may have bred in the Farne Islands and certainly away from the Forth, but they come here as family groups with the fully grown and flying chicks still being fed. The chicks eventually learn to fish and feed themselves over the next month or two but not before they run their parents ragged. The worst of it is their insistent shrieking call as they beg continuously. It’s annoying to an observer but what it must be to the parent bird. I am not surprised they keep working so hard to keep their young quiet with a large fish stuffed in its bill.

Sandwich terns - adult on the left and constantly begging chick on the right

Posted July 24, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 21st   Leave a comment

Although the sea is back to its usual choppy self making the seabirds less visible we still have thousands of seabirds on the sea out from Crail. This evening there were probably thousands of puffins including newly fledged birds. They are mostly far enough out that you need a telescope to see them (and even then they just are black and white puffin like dots), but some are in close enough to appreciate. There are a lot of other seabirds with them: guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, herring gulls and gannet being the commonest with the occasional manx shearwater past. Today there were several sooty shearwaters reported passing Anstruther and there was an arctic skua close in at Crail early evening. These will become commoner as we move into August.

Puffins

Posted July 22, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 19th   Leave a comment

After the rain early this evening the sea was very calm and the visibility good. There were guillemots and razorbills, both chicks and adults, spread out all over the sea. Probably thousands, disappearing into the distance. They are perhaps there most days this time of year as the seabird islands of the Forth fledge their chicks and they leave for the North Sea. But when the sea is choppy only the close in birds are visible. The gannets and the occasional manx shearwater were having to work hard in the absence of wind and their frantic wingbeats were a stark contrast to the auks sitting calmly on the almost flat sea below. Nothing about seabirds really makes sense without wind. They must endure calm days in the same way we endure storms.

Razorbill and chick

I think a buzzard has been picking off the gull chicks on the rooftops of Crail for the last few days. Certainly there has been a buzzard flying regularly low around the centre of Crail and the gulls are not happy. It makes sense. The chicks don’t really have anywhere to hide on the rooftops. They may be above ground predators like foxes but they can’t escape aerial hunters. Occasionally I hear people mentioning that there are too many buzzards. I don’t agree, but perhaps it’s worth pointing out that they may be doing a service in discouraging the gulls from nesting on people’s rooftops. The buzzards might have an easy meal in a chick in one sense, but they do have to put up with a lot of harassment from the gulls to get one. Gulls are only a step away from being birds of prey themselves. Don’t let their chip eating ways fool you: an angry gull is quite formidable.

Common buzzard with herring gull chicks on its menu

Posted July 19, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending July 17th   Leave a comment

On early Sunday there was 30mm of rain between 3 and 4 in the morning. It woke me up which is not surprising considering that we often have months with less than 30mm, never mind that falling in an hour. The Brandyburn must have been a torrent. This morning there was the usual fan of soil washed out into the sea for several hundred meters. This brings our rainfall total to 76mm which is my highest monthly total ever for Crail and the month is only half done. It’s been warm and sunny between the showers at least.

The sand martins are still at Roome Bay and apparently still breeding. In contrast the grey herons in the churchyard have probably given up. I didn’t see any sign of activity this week. The nest was very late and was never likely to succeed but hopefully it will get started nice and early next year. Song thrushes and the occasional blackbird are still singing so they are still breeding.

The swifts have been very noisy this week, with a flock of 10-15 screaming around Crail, especially in the evening. These are probably sub-adult birds. Swifts probably take several years to get breeding and I think the younger birds move up from Africa in late June and July to prospect for mates and nesting holes. These screaming parties are perhaps the equivalent of the thrash and dash that goes on at Crail airfield – lots of noise and speed in the hope of getting noticed. Although we don’t know this for certain (remember these birds may not land at all for 3-4 years after fledging) we certainly have the most swifts in Crail from late June onwards, well before any young are fledged. One of the most impressive things these screaming parties do is to ascend every evening to roost on the wing. A tight flock will circle above Crail with periods of screaming and chasing interspersed with quiet periods as they climb. Gradually the screaming gets fainter and fainter as the flocks get higher and higher. I have watched these flocks at dusk until they disappear as tiny black specks above me, with my arms aching from holding my binoculars. If you look away for a second you can never find the flock again. They then sleep on the wing very high. This we do know from records from pilots and also watching them come down again at dawn the following day. Swifts are just brilliant. Enjoy them now because they will be mostly gone in three weeks. They are one of the earliest migrants to leave.

The lapwing chicks are doing well at the wader pools up at the crossroads. The two chicks are now growing feathers and looking much more like adults. I am hopeful that they are going to fledge successfully. There are a lot of whitethroats up in the hedges nearby as well indicating that they have bred successfully.

Well grown lapwing chick

Posted July 17, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 10th   Leave a comment

It might seem like mid-summer to us but its autumn for a few species already. There are four redshanks at least back for the winter. The four I saw yesterday were all part of my colour-ringed population so it was like welcoming back old friends to Crail who have been away on a long holiday. John has had a few passage waders including whimbrel on their way to Africa over the last few days.

Whimbrels migrating past Fife Ness on Friday

At Roome Bay this evening I had a pair of common crossbills flying over. They call constantly as they fly so they are easy to pick up overhead. They disperse for the winter in July and August being very early breeders. In some years we get hundreds over Crail at this time of year as they leave Scandinavia in search of pine trees. These are the species with the parrot like bills that are crossed over to make a pair of pliers to lever open tough pine cones. You can’t see this as they fly over and the males never look bright red in flight, but nevertheless they are an exciting species and always a thrill when they pass over Crail. Look for a flock of chunky finches flying by making a constant “chip – chip-chip…” call.

Male crossbil - you can't appreciate their wacky bill or their redness when they fly over on passage, but the do make a great chipping noise

There are a lot of ringlet butterflies about at the moment. They have distinctive white bordered velvety brown wings, although look much like any other brown meadow butterfly unless looked at closely.

Posted July 10, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 9th   Leave a comment

We have had 23 millimeters of rain since the start of July, but the bright side of this is the pools up at the crossroads (of the B940 and the B9171) have been topped up with water. They are still proving good for waders. There has been a green sandpiper on the pool north of the road for the last couple of days, and a greenshank popped in briefly to the pool to the south this morning. I heard a greenshank calling passing high above the pool (they have a clear ringing whistle “tew – tew – tew”) and whistled back. Within half a minute a greenshank dived down to land in the pool obviously hoping for company. Unfortunately the resident lapwings (still with at least one chick) then chased it and it left after a couple of minutes. It all bodes very well for later in the season when wader passage really gets going.

Greenshank - this one is on the rocky shore. They are at home on freshwater pools and the seashore alike.

Posted July 9, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 7th   Leave a comment

The wind has gone round to the south-east for the last couple of days bringing seabirds closer into Crail. This evening there were several large flocks of kittiwakes about half a kilometre out diving down to pick small fish from the surface of the sea. They were joined by the occasional arctic tern and at least two little gulls. These are a Crail late summer specialty. We can have hundreds of little gulls out in the sea beyond Fife Ness from July through to about October. They are usually just out of sight and only get seen when the winds blow them into the Forth, or feeding conditions are good inshore. Last year was odd though. I didn’t see a single little gull all year from Crail, even on days with good winds and lots of other seabirds. I am glad they are back this year. Little gulls are fairly distinctive and well named. They look about two thirds the size of a kittiwake and adults have an unusual blackish underwing contrasting with their pale greyish but otherwise unmarked upperwing. This is a great feature when they are miles out at sea creating a flash of blackish as they swoop down to the water amongst uniformly pale kittiwakes. On the ground they are very beautiful with perfect black hoods although they lose these as the summer wears on.

Adult little gull

Posted July 7, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 3rd   Leave a comment

A beautiful day and perfect to go rock pooling. Today we found a sea lemon on the lower shore of West Braes beach. This is a sea slug – bright yellow and shaped like a lemon – so perfectly named. If you look carefully at the photo below you can see it has little horns at the front (eye stalks) and at the back a series of fluffy gills.

Sea lemon

Posted July 5, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 1st   Leave a comment

I went to the Isle of May this afternoon on the May Princess from Anstruther. It was the usual fantastic spectacle. 45,000 pairs of puffins this year and most just on the point of fledging their young. Hundreds of puffins were in the air at any one time, with bills full of sprats or sand eels. They almost crash land by their burrows because they approach so fast and immediately scurry down and disappear. They have to do this or they will lose their hard won fish to one of the prowling herring or lesser black-backed gulls which chase until the puffin drops its catch. It’s heart breaking to see a puffin lose their fish which may have been caught tens of miles away and the result of many hours hard flying and fishing.

A puffin waiting for the photographer to move out of the way of its burrow: it doesn't matter where you stand on the Isle of May you will be in the way of a puffin.

But the puffins are doing better than the guillemots and razorbills. The violent wind storm of a few weeks ago blew many guillemot chicks and eggs off their precarious ledges. The puffins will have been perfectly safe in their burrows. There were no obvious chicks remaining on the cliffs for either guillemots or razorbills, although many that survived the winds will have fledged and gone already. In contrast, the kittiwakes seem to be doing well with many nests with a couple of well grown chicks in them. Large enough that they look in constant danger of falling out, which of course happens to a few of them. They will all be safely fledged in the next couple of weeks and then we can look out for the very characteristic black “W” wing pattern of the juvenile kittiwakes as they pass Crail and head out to the North Sea for the winter. It’s a great signal of a successful breeding season, but one that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Many kittiwake colonies to the north are not fledging any chicks, year after year, because of low fish stocks due to over fishing and climate change.

Kittiwake chick

Another breeding speciality of the May Island is the arctic tern. The large colony down at the landing stage has failed again this year. A couple of specialist predatory gulls took most of the eggs laid a few weeks ago. This is despite the artic terns’ ferocious defence of their nests. One of the highlights of any trip to the island is their aerial bombardment if you stray close to their nests. This is particularly intense when they nest next to the May Princess’s landing stage. But not this visit. The terns have now moved up onto the top of the island where you are not allowed to walk. They still have problems with the gulls up there though and it is uncertain whether they will have a successful breeding season after all. The highlight of my visit was the very close views of a pair of terns nesting about 15 meters from the path. Just far away for them not to try and mob passers-by, but close enough for the terns to circle just above my head, with the sunlight glowing brilliantly through their wings. One of my ambitions is to see an arctic tern in a similar way in Antarctica and to wonder whether it is an Isle of May bird.

Arctic tern - possibly the most superlative bird in the world

Posted July 3, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 29th   Leave a comment

Wood Sandpiper

There are a couple of rainwater pools in the wheat fields just past the first junction on the secret bunker road as you go from Crail. They are temporary and shallow with muddy fringes as they dry out between the showers. This makes them great for waders. John Anderson had a wood sandpiper on the pond on the south side of the road (the B940, just past the junction of with the B9171 in case you are lost) at 5am this morning. He was up early in search of the barn owls he photographed recently. Wood sandpipers are good vagrants, but turn up regularly on small pools on the east coast in late summer. Crail doesn’t have too many of these, although with our increasingly wet summers this might change. It’s a silver lining if we do keep up the heavy rain through July. Waders start moving south in July and a thunderstorm in late July or August can bring down several exotic species to random pools like the one John was watching this morning. John also had a snipe. I went to check out the pools late evening but with no luck. The wood sandpiper was probably already in southern England or France, on its way back to Africa. But as always there were consolations. There were a lot of young hares up there and although no rare waders there were a couple of newly hatched lapwing chicks along with their watchful parents along the edge of the pool. And I heard a brief snatch of quail song.Hare

Posted July 2, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings