Archive for September 2011

September 25th   Leave a comment

Today was warmer than many of the days this summer. The wind has gone round to the south and should remain so all week. Most of our swallows seem to have left this week, although there is still a late common sandpiper around the Harbour rocks. There were plenty of butterflies about today with peacocks, small tortoiseshells and the occasional painted lady around visiting the Buddlejas that are in many Crail gardens.

Painted lady posing on a New Dawn rose

The southerly winds brought an immigrant moth into our garden. My son Sam found a dark swordgrass moth hiding in our strawberry plants. It is big and impressive (at least within the world of Crail moths). This moth doesn’t breed in Britain and gets blown over to us from the Continent fairly commonly, although I think not very often as far north as Fife.

Dark swordgrass moth - blown in fresh from the Continent

The first pink-footed geese came over Crail this week but only in small numbers. They seem to be accumulating up in Aberdeenshire as last year and delaying their arrival with us.

Posted September 25, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 24th   Leave a comment

There were thousands of seabirds out from Fife Ness this morning. The usual kittiwakes in dense flocks out at the horizon were joined by at least tens of little gulls. Only the close in birds were identifiable. It has not been a good summer for little gulls once again. I noticed last week that were big flocks reported off the Northumberland coast so possibly the days of Fife being their late summer gathering ground are over. At one point the gulls were joined by a swarm of at least 100 gannets diving off the rocks of Balcomie. There were also one or two arctic and great skuas and a sooty shearwater passing.

Sandwich terns are much less common but are still passing south and there were a couple of common terns on Balcomie Beach. Also on the beach were the first grey plover of the winter. There are usually only one or two between Kingsbarns and Fife Ness. They prefer open, more muddy areas like estuaries.

Grey Plover on Balcomie Beach

I had a quick walk around the Patch at Fife Ness. I was lured in by a strange “suwee” call, half way between a greenish warbler (extremely rare) and a yellow-browed warbler (quite rare) that I could hear even down on the shore. I tracked the call down to a chiff-chaff. It turns out juveniles occasionally make this call rather than their more typical willow warbler-like “who-eet” (if you ever want to track down what a bird sounds like type “xeno canto” into Google – this gets you to a global database of sound recordings, where I found a hundred or so examples of chiff-chaff songs and calls). I had a very exciting few minutes anyway wondering if I had finally found a “mega”. I did find my first fieldfare of the winter, newly in from Scandinavia and on its way inland to spend the winter with us.


Posted September 25, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 22nd   Leave a comment

Female marsh harrier at Kingsbarns

John found a marsh harrier up at Kingsbarns yesterday. He then saw a second bird later in the day. I could only get out there late today and jumped off the bus from St Andrews on my way home hoping they were still there. I walked up the road towards Kippo to the barley field where John said they had been hunting. Just as I arrived at the exact spot where John had suggested I look I saw some crows making a fuss on the horizon. Crows diving down on something is always a good sign of a raptor and sure enough a female marsh harrier appeared low over a stubble field. It flew behind a wood and then came closer over the wheat field where I was standing. I have seen many marsh harriers but seeing one on my Crail patch was definitely special. I see most of my marsh harriers now in West Africa where they are a common bird over farmland. We tend to associate them with reedbeds in the UK but as an African wintering bird they are much less specialised in their choice of habitats. I watched this harrier over our fields and really felt its connection to Africa and the dry fields where I will see them again in a month’s time when I make my next visit to Nigeria. This bird might be well on its way to Nigeria itself by then. This was my first marsh harrier in the Crail area and it is a scarce migrant for us. They breed in the Tay reedbeds but this bird may well be a migrant from Scandinavia stopping with us for a few days to refuel after the storms of last week. I noticed it had a very full crop – a big bulge in its throat hanging down as it flew – suggesting it was finding the hunting good. That it has stayed with us for a couple of days or more suggests that as well. It may have been eating birds: the stubble fields are full of migrating pipits, or perhaps more likely mice and voles displaced by the harvesting of the fields at the moment.

Marsh Harrier at Kingsbarns

There are quite a few wheatears to be seen, particularly at West Braes along the grass by the shore. I have a student, Emma Blackburn, studying wheatears in northern Nigeria and she started her first fieldwork yesterday. She sent me a text to tell me there were no wheatears – they haven’t arrived yet. But she should expect to find some anytime now. The wheatears we have passing will almost all be birds of this year. The adults will have left last month and should be in North Africa by now if not further along with their journey. Emma did catch a whitethroat so some migrants have made it back already.

Juvenile wheatear

Posted September 22, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 18th   Leave a comment

The wind switched round to the north last night. Perhaps we will have some geese over tomorrow. There was a northern wheatear in the stubble fields and unusually two ruff with a flock of starling in a pasture field up by Wormiston Farm this morning. The bird highlight this morning though was a close in arctic skua (at last!) harrying sandwich terns over the surf at Sauchope.

Crail's commonest dragonfly at the moment - probably a common darter

We were out this morning in any case on a dragonfly hunt. Crail is not a great place for dragonflies – like our lack of ducks we can blame the shortage of fresh water. Nevertheless there are a few ponds around and Wormiston and the nearby Sea Cottage both have good dragonfly ponds. Almost all of the dragonflies we saw were red or olive bodied and medium sized. The most likely species is common darter. The red males were sunning themselves on the roads.

Rock pooling at Fife Ness turned up a squat lobster. These are not uncommon but are cryptic and are found only on the lower tides. Their tails are tucked up under their bodies giving them a crab-like appearance. When they need to escape they flap their tail out like a paddle and shoot forward at an incredible speed.

Squat lobster - not a crab - its tail is tucked up underneath

Here you can see the tail tucked up underneath the squat lobster

Posted September 18, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 17th   Leave a comment

Another day after a storm. Yesterday was a truly terrible day with driving rain and strong winds. But the winds were south-easterly and a continuation of lighter easterly winds the day before. So I watched the bad weather with hope for today and the possibility of rare migrants being grounded at Fife Ness. Watching the sea in the first hour after dawn seemed to bear out my optimism. A great skua immediately and followed by a black guillemot. My first for Crail. They are common on the west coast of course but there are only a few records from the Forth, mostly from the autumn from the Isle of May. It flew rapidly past Crail on its way to the inner Forth; a dispersing juvenile, perhaps, that was blown around the top of Scotland in the gales of the last week or so, but now heading back south down the wrong coast.

Black guillemot - an adult from the west coast but this was the look more or less of the bird past Crail today

The black guillemot was not a sign of other great things. Denburn was dead quiet, at least in an unusual sense. Its autumn soundscape of robin and wren song, with flocks of blue, great and coal tits calling to each other, was not augmented with the metallic “pick” of a pied flycatcher or the triple syllable whistle of a yellow-browed warbler. No migrants at all, not even a chiff-chaff. Without a chiff-chaff in Denburn there is almost no hope of finding something rarer. They are the best barometers of whether it is worth looking harder. We know it’s not sufficient just to have easterly winds to get migrants in autumn. The weather has to be right in Scandinavia or central Europe as well. Clearly today we were missing that element.

I went out to Fife Ness anyway. The sea was good for most of the morning. Skuas were visible all the time, mostly arctic, some great and with one or two pomarine skuas. All fairly far out and so hard to split the pomarines and arctics. At one point I picked up a chunky skua far out that I identified initially as a great skua on first glance. It then revealed itself to be a pomarine/arctic. I stuck with pomarine on the basis of its initial heavyset resemblance to a great skua, and its larger size compared to kittiwakes nearby, but at a kilometer it is a tricky call. Luckily a distinctive dark phase arctic skua started following it, looking about three quarters of its size to finally clinch the identification. This is, however, what you call technical birding. More like a puzzle. There is some satisfaction in getting a reasonably sure identification at all, but lacking any real sense of the species as something exciting. Other interesting, and thankfully closer birds were a greenshank and quite a few flocks of teal and wigeon passing. The sandwich terns are still passing in good numbers and there were a few common and arctic terns with them. Red-throated divers also continue to stream into the Forth.

The day brightened up and by the afternoon it was beautiful. There were thunderstorms out to sea towards the north. It is a wonderful luxury to sit in warm sunlight, in a gentle breeze watching a violent thunderstorm out at sea. The sky was practically black riven with lightening flashes yet bizarrely contrasting with the calm pale blue sea closer to me around Fife Ness. The gannets flying by were still in sunlight so glowed against the dark sky adding to the contrast. I stopped and watched the thunderstorm for an hour and never made it to the patch to look for migrants.

This juvenile dunlin was on the beach at Balcomie with the thunderstorm behind it this afternoon

Posted September 17, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 14th   Leave a comment

After the storms yesterday there was an air of things trying to get back to normal today. All day there were flocks of meadow pipits moving east along the coast and over Crail. I should think thousands passed over. Their migration was probably halted for a couple of days by the strong winds that would have just blown them out to sea had they attempted to move. I expect a few were still blown off course and are now passing south down the Dutch coast after crossing the North sea. There were small groups of red-throated divers coming back into the Forth all morning. They were probably blown out to sea yesterday as well. The swallows spent all yesterday feeding in tight groups in the lee of big trees, but today were back patrolling over the fields. Beech Walk park is always good place to see large groups of swallows on windy days because of the shelter it provides. Tonight there was a single swift feeding there as it got quite dark. It really is quite late for swifts. As the season goes on late swifts actually become more likely to be pallid swifts that migrate in September and October from Southern Europe. But you need very good views and bright light to distinguish them from common swifts. Not a chance at dusk. Still nice to see something I thought was gone from Crail until next May.

Juvenile black tern trying to get to West Africa but being blown backwards

Yesterday John was out at Fife Ness braving the winds. He was rewarded with a black tern attempting to battle its way into the Forth but going nowhere. Another rare migrant for Crail with only 2 or 3 recorded every year passing by Fife Ness.

Posted September 14, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 11th   Leave a comment

Female pintail

At Fife Ness this morning there were more migrants, although only what might be expected with the prevailing south-westerly wind. We need it to be easterly or south-easterly to get really good. There were a 2 or 3 northern wheatears on the rocky shore where the flycatcher was last night. Their rumps are very conspicuous when they fly as they flash white against the dark rocks so they are initially easy to find, but when they land they disappear. There were two ruffs flying past briefly – it has been a good autumn for ruffs now with a total of 5 so far. At one point a flock of about 50 house martins and 20 or so barn swallows flew over. I am not sure whether they were local birds because they drifted off to the northwest, but in any case they will be migrating soon, if not now. There were quite a few ducks passing: small flocks of teal, common scoter and velvet scoter, and best of all a pintail. This is only my third or fourth Crail record. All have been similar single birds passing along the coast. Like the shoveller a couple of weeks ago, these ducks are not rare, but with the East Neuk’s lack of freshwater we are only ever going to get them passing through quickly.

Posted September 11, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 10th   Leave a comment

Today dawned very murky with rain showers and mist over the sea. I could just about make out a great skua and a sooty shearwater passing close by Crail during my before breakfast scope out of my son’s bedroom window. Sometimes it definitely isn’t worth seawatching. I’m fairly sure of my skua and shearwater but anything further out than 200m wasn’t really identifiable. It was a shame because I had those two great birds in two minutes. What I couldn’t see passing was probably exceptional. It has been a frustrating week sea watching. The gales earlier in the week pushed a lot of birds past Crail but much of it was far out or passed by very quickly with the wind behind it. I probably had three pomarine skuas on Tuesday but they shot by leaving me with only their apparent chunky shape to point to pomarines rather than arctic skuas. And in a gale apparent size and shape gets distorted quite a lot.

I went out to Fife Ness this evening. I picked up a spotted flycatcher and a whinchat flycatching on the rocky shore straight away. Both are reasonably scarce migrants. Spotted flycatchers are more usually to be seen in woodland but on migration birds will feed anywhere there is food. The rocky shore on the ness is sheltered from the westerly wind and full of seaweed flies so is often a good place to find migrants. Balcomie Beach had a large roost of sandwich terns on it and about 10 bar-tailed godwits. Out to sea I picked up a nearly adult mediterranean gull passing in a flock of kittiwakes. There is a bit of a med gull fest in Fife at the moment with tens being recorded daily – there are over ten at Buckhaven, Leven just now (where John took the photo below). Med gulls are really nice gulls with nearly pure white plumage and a little half mask of black behind their eye in winter plumage. They used to be very rare British birds but now they are pretty common with hundreds in Southern England. They are beginning to be more common in Scotland. I saw my first in Scotland in 1989 and had to submit a description to the Lothian bird recorder to have my record accepted because of its rarity. I shouldn’t think they bother now. There are some winners in the bird world in the face of climate change and mediterranean gulls appear to be one of them. I look forward to when they are a common Crail bird – to date I have only had 3 records in the last 8 years.

Adult mediterranean gull at Buckhaven, Leven

Other good birds this evening were a merlin hunting along the same rocky shore that the flycatcher and whinchat were on – good food there for them and so good food for the merlin. There were a couple of red-throated divers flying over the ness making a short cut into the Forth. Further out were at least 3 arctic skuas harrying the feeding flocks of kittiwakes. It was a lovely evening after the earlier rain and it felt like anything was possible. I think I will go out again tomorrow and see.

Migrating red-throated divers past Fife Ness

Posted September 10, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 6th   Leave a comment

This morning the sea was flat calm. Like earlier this year after the puffins fledged it was easy to see that a lot of gannets have been fledging over the last few days. There were probably a hundred or so young gannets resting on the sea spread out in front of Crail. I suspect they made their first flight out from Bass Rock yesterday and then spent their first independent night sitting on the sea. A lot of these birds will have moved on as the wind got going today. I think calm weather is good for them for their first night out, if not their first flight. If it is stormy then many of them get washed onto the shore and some don’t make it back out to sea again.

Newly fledged gannet resting on the sea

Posted September 5, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending September 4th   Leave a comment

I spent a few days away at the start of the week and coming back to Crail it felt like autumn had really started. The summer seabirds have more or less gone. There are almost no auks to be seen out at sea and we won’t really see any puffins now until next April. Out at Fife Ness most of the terns have gone although there are still sandwich terns passing Roome Bay and the harbour. The swallows have been passing south as well. On Friday there were large flocks passing over Crail, joining our swallows briefly and then continuing on along the coast. On Saturday morning at Fife Ness there was no wind at all and the commonest birds to be seen were swallows again. They were hawking over a perfectly flat sea along the shore as they do over inland lakes. I should think they were taking advantage of the perfect conditions to fatten up a bit on seaweed flies for their continuing migration.

On Friday and Saturday there was a little stint at Balcomie. A new Crail species for me taking my Crail list up to 195. John Anderson found it on Friday and took some absolutely stunning pictures. The picture below brilliantly captures the scale of this bird. Little stints are well named – imagine a shorebird the size of a house sparrow. But it takes no concessions for its tiny size. It breeds in the Arctic – maybe this bird was born in July in Novaya Zemyala – and it winters in West Africa. I caught up with it on Balcomie Beach on Saturday morning feeding high up on the beach, occasionally with some dunlin. Dunlin are usually the tiny waders on the shore, but they look much bigger when they are in company of a little stint. The stint was hard to spot amongst the seaweed and the small rocks on the beach and it took twenty minutes or so. It is a great feeling to finally see a bird when you have “twitched” it (twitching is when you go for a rare bird that someone else has found). My serious twitching days are long over, but I still twitch for my Crail list. I had seen a couple of little stints on Thursday in Sweden, and there have been some on the Eden estuary all week, but not in Crail, and not at least for the last eight years. I am finding there is nothing more satisfying than getting a new bird for Crail, even if it is not particularly rare. But regardless of its status on my list, little stints are brilliant birds. I hope this one makes it safely to Africa where it will find lots of other little stints, rather than dunlin, to flock with.

Juvenile little stint at Balcomie Beach on Friday - small enough to hide behind a wrack holdfast

It looks like the Castle Walk fulmar has fledged at last. My wife Sue saw the chick looking more or less like an adult midweek and it was gone on Sunday. I hope it is healthy and happy somewhere in the North Sea just now. Perhaps it will be back to breed in Crail in 7 or 8 years. If it doesn’t meet an accident it will probably outlive me – fulmars can live more than 50 years, and probably much longer than this. The gannets at Bass Rock are also fledging. I saw my first on Saturday and they were regularly past Crail, leaving the Forth on Sunday. Newly fledged gannets are dark brown, with fine white spots on a close view so stand out compared to the nearly all white adult. They fly more heavily than the adult, almost like cormorants. Young gannets fledge with a lot of “baby” fat to tide them over until they learn to catch fish.

Three ages of gannets - left to right, adult, first winter and third winter

Other birds this week included a marsh harrier passing through Kilrenny, a probable short-eared owl up at Wormiston, a common sandpiper around the harbour on Sunday and both pomarine and long-tailed skuas past Fife Ness on Saturday. I only connected with the common sandpiper. I have been looking for skuas all weekend but no luck. Long-tailed skuas as their name suggests have long tails – very long tails – and fly like terns; pomarine skuas are more like great skuas in build and have strange twisted central tail feather extensions like spoons. Both often migrate in flocks and should you encounter one it is quite spectacular.

Posted September 4, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

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