Archive for August 2011

August 25th   Leave a comment

Fife Ness had a small fall of birds yesterday so I went out there this morning. A “fall” is when migrating birds hit some bad weather and are forced down. We have had steady light easterlies for a few days and occasional rain showers, so we have migrants being blown our way, and migrants forced down to land as they hit the showers. That said it was a small fall and there was little sign of the scarlet rosefinch and barred warblers (Isle of May) that were reported yesterday. I did find a male shoveller amongst the eiders on the sea. Shovellers have large flattened bills which make them very distinctive even though at this time of year the males are in brown eclipse plumage, as they moult their plumage (this a duck general trait hence we have the special term eclipse). The males have pale yellowish eyes which is also a very distinctive feature, especially when they are in their dull brown August plumage.

Male shoveller in eclipse plumage

Most of the seabirds from Fife Ness were distant. There were hundreds of kittiwakes, manx shearwaters and gannets about 3km out with the occasional great and arctic skua visible among them. Sooty shearwaters were passing about 1 every 20 minutes or so. Now is really the best time to look out for skuas (the next few weeks are the window for all four species) and sooty shearwaters. We only need a bit of a south-east wind, or strong northerly and they will come past Crail close in.

The pools in the farmland up at the crossroads behind Crail (see July 9th for directions) are getting more overgrown with reeds but are still good for waders. On the pool south of the road at midday there was a greenshank and a ruff.

Small copper butterflies are now pretty much everywhere, around hedgerows, the coastal grass and in open gardens in Crail. They are very handsome and easy to identify – no other British butterfly is this rich copper colour.

Small copper



Posted August 28, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 23rd   Leave a comment

With all this rain the fulmar chicks below Castle Walk have not been doing terribly well. I think there are only one or two still alive. I have certainly seen a couple of bedraggled bodies below the cliffs. The adults take long trips away to find food so a very rainy day will soak and chill the unprotected chicks all day. A series of rainy days, and we have had a few of these, will weaken the chicks further, particularly if the adults are making irregular trips back. At least one chick looks like it might make it though. It has a lot of its adult feathers and only has to survive a week or two more before it fledges.

A surviving Castle Walk fulmar chick - soon hopefully to be a thing of beauty, but not quite yet

Posted August 24, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending August 21st   Leave a comment

I spent most of last week in Vancouver, Canada, returning on Friday to warm, sunny weather. The barn swallows are clearly enjoying it with family groups all over Crail feeding on the now very abundant hoverflies and flying ants of late summer. When I left Vancouver the last bird I saw from the plane window was a barn swallow. It seems strange to have birds in common half way across the world, but barn swallows are pretty much everywhere, summering in the northern hemisphere of both the new and old world and then flying across the equator to winter as far south as they can possibly go in both South America and South Africa. Swallows are massively declining in Canada as they are here too, down by about 40% in the last 30 years. They blame declines in the number of insects on farmlands on the use of pesticides which directly kill swallows’ prey, or through the use of herbicides which do the same indirectly by destroying habitat for swallows’ prey. It is a shame that we have this in common with Canada as well. These declines must represent literally millions of birds globally. What is common today becomes rare as we watch. There are still many swallows in Crail and Vancouver each year, but 50 years ago they may have been two or three times as common.

Barn swallow

A week away makes the decline of summer much more obvious. There are only a handful of swifts left over Crail and it is now getting dark by nine. Migrant birds are becoming more common. Some of the swallows (again) over Crail are clearly flying in small groups from east to west along the shore, heading south eventually as they follow the coast. It will become harder and harder to distinguish “our” birds from migrants like these as the autumn approaches. Late swallows and swifts now are much more likely to be migrants from further north stopping with us for a day to feed up than our local birds which leave largely unnoticed as the migrants fill their shoes. Birds that winter with us are also increasing. There are now about 30-40 redshanks back, many with colour-rings from my study population that have survived their breeding trip to the Hebrides or Iceland. I will have to wait until October until I can be sure that the ones not back yet are probably not going to make it.

Willow warbler

I was on Kingsbarn’s beach on Sunday afternoon when I heard a spotted redshank flying over. This is a new bird for my Crail list. They are uncommon passage migrants and even rarer in Fife where we don’t have many good sites for passing waders. But the Eden has unusually had a few this week and I got lucky with one passing over. Like many migrating waders (think whistling whimbrels) spotted redshanks call frequently – a loud clear “chew-it” – so they are easy to identify as they pass overhead. I saw the bird as it flew high over the beach in company with a common snipe. Both birds might well have been in Sweden the day before on their way to Africa after breeding in arctic Finland perhaps. The spotted redshank take my Crail list over the last eight years up to 194.

Common sandpipers, perhaps as the name suggests, a more common migrant wader, are still to be seen on the rocks off West Braes and the harbour: on Saturday there were two close to the harbour. Bar-tailed godwits, whimbrel, sanderling and knot were all continuing to pass over Crail this week. Watch out also for willow warblers. Crail gardens get inundated with them in late July and August as the inland breeding birds disperse. They are small and yellowish warblers with a soft “who-wheet” call.

Posted August 21, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending August 14th   Leave a comment

Arctic skua chasing a sandwich tern

On Monday there were many common, arctic and sandwich terns off Fife Ness. Further out were also hundreds of kittiwakes. They were feeding in dense flocks just above the water. Every so often a flock would suddenly bunch together even more and fly rapidly straight up. There would then also be a black shape among the white gulls indicating an arctic skua had started chasing one of the kittiwakes causing the flock to panic. The skuas sit on the water close by the feeding flocks and then launch an attack every few minutes. The chases aren’t very long because the chosen kittiwake soon regurgitates its fish to make the skua leave it alone. The skua then catches the fish before gliding down to the water again. The kittiwakes come down shortly after and resume feeding. The kittiwakes are often feeding so far out that it is only the skua chases that make them noticeable. The arctic skuas come in closer when they chase the sandwich terns that are still feeding their noisy young. Then you can appreciate why the victims drop their fish so quickly. There were several great skuas passing but I didn’t see them chase anything. It’s very impressive when they start harassing a gannet. Gannets may be huge but so are great skuas.

Migrant waders are increasing. Knots are now fairly common passing at Fife Ness. There was another ruff down at the shore by the pig farm on Tuesday and a couple of common sandpipers between Crail and Caiplie.

Migrant knots - adults are still pinky red and the whitish ones are juveniles

I saw my first Crail stonechat in nearly two years close to Caiplie Caves on Tuesday. The last two years’ hard winters have more or less wiped them out. This stonechat was a bird born this year. It was moulting into what will be its handsome adult plumage. It must be a dispersing bird looking for a vacant area to colonise. Well it has found one – there is room for several pairs between Anstruther and Fife Ness; I am really pleased to have at least one back.

Posted August 15, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 7th   Leave a comment

Six-spot Burnet Moth

It was very rainy overnight. Hard not to notice. We had 20mm in about 16 hours. Half a month’s rainfall, although last month was very rainy when we had 85mm in total. There was a gully across harbour beach this morning cut by the stream which is now a torrent.

There are a lot of 6-spot burnet moths around West Braes at the moment. They are fairly conspicuous being day flying and often associated with the ragwort along the coastal path.

Posted August 7, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 6th   Leave a comment

Gannets - quite large and heavy birds

Balcomie Beach is the place to go to at the moment. This morning there was a great range of waders including a ruff, presumably the same bird that John saw yesterday. There was a flock of dunlin, ringed plover, sanderling, the ruff, turnstone and a couple of knot on the muddy lower part of the beach, and a bar-tailed godwit with the oystercatchers and redshanks further along by the north end rocks. During the morning occasional knot, whimbrel and bar-tailed godwits went over going south. The grey seals are in fine voice. They were singing all morning with about 40 hauled up on the rocks at low tide.

We also found a newly dead gannet washed up on the beach. It was unmarked and looked in good condition. Perhaps it had an accident diving. When you see them dropping into the water from tens of meters height at very high speed you realise there can be little room for error. Accidents, particularly when there is a dense flock of seabirds milling about over a school of fish, must be a real possibility. When you get to pick up a gannet you realise how big and heavy (for a bird) they are.

Scalloped oak moth

Moth trapping is quite good at the moment with the run of warm and moist nights continuing. We have caught several scalloped oaks this week which are as pretty as butterflies.

Posted August 6, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

July 5th   Leave a comment

Migration is starting for quite a few birds. John Anderson had the first bar-tailed godwit at Fife Ness today on its way back from Siberia. There was also a ruff and a close in little gull. There was a couple of pairs of common terns with young birds of this year off the harbour this afternoon. Their young make a short squeaky toy call unlike the more shrieking and constant calls of the sandwich terns (still lots of them around too).

Little gull at Fife Ness today - just losing its black hood for the winter

Posted August 6, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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