Archive for October 2011

October 23rd   Leave a comment

I woke up excited at the prospect of tracking down the American golden plover again. But that would have to wait until the afternoon. The golden plovers that roost down at Sauchope at low tide spend the rest of the time feeding in the fields between Cambo and Fife Ness so it would be a wild plover chase. In the meantime there was a strong southerly wind pushing seabirds close into shore. This brought a steady passage of kittiwakes and a few little gulls past Crail all day moving east out of the Forth. There was also briefly a pomarine skua past. Down at Harbour Beach there were over 40 great black-backed gulls. This is the most I have seen in Crail. These massive gulls are attracted to the discards from the fisherman and are probably not passing through. I think our population is resident, although they probably breed on the Isle of May.

I went out to Sauchope in search of the plover as the tide was falling mid-afternoon. The golden plover roost on the rocky shore at low tide in a mirror image of what other waders typically do. Soon a flock of about 100 golden plovers flew in from the airfield as usual and circled round gradually plucking up courage to land for about ten minutes. They all came down onto the shore directly in front of me and it took only about another couple of minutes to find the American golden plover of yesterday. This time it was very lively, chasing other goldies and changing its position in the roost with short flights. I had fantastic views of its longer black legs and slimmer shape compared to the European golden plovers and its diagnostic grey underwings. I was sure yesterday but today everything was much clearer – the light was better, the bird was closer and most importantly it was more than a hunched roosting shape. I took some slightly better pictures and phoned the bird in so that other birders would be able to find it. I hope it stays a bit longer, it is a long way from South America so might as well stay around Crail.

American golden plover (top) again at Sauchope today

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Posted October 23, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 22nd   Leave a comment

This Saturday I was walking along the shore in the afternoon checking for my colour-ringed redshanks and eventually made it to Sauchope point below the caravans. I was getting frustrated as the redshank whose legs I needed to see kept ducking behind the usual big golden plover roost on the rocky shore. But as I scanned through the flock of goldies I suddenly stopped because there was one plover roosting in the middle that wasn’t golden. Just like a golden plover, yet almost totally grey and white. It also had a prominent white eyebrow and a long primary projection. Unlike the goldies around it, the feathers covering the end of it wing were not very long, making its wing look like it projected out from behind its tail. It seemed to be an American golden plover. But this would be the rarest bird of the year in Crail so far and one of the rarest birds I have ever found myself. Although there have been a lot of American rarities this autumn in Britain (a legacy of the hurricanes over the other side of the Atlantic in September) not many have made it to us on the East coast, and only a handful of American golden plovers have ever been recorded in Fife. Despite having seen many American golden plovers in North and South America, where they are the only local golden plover species, when they are over here and among a flock of very similar European golden plover it’s a bit more of a tricky identification problem. There are a number of key features you need to see and I went through them all, mentally ticking them off. Everything fitted but because the bird was hunched up and roosting I couldn’t see the crucial slim shape of the bird relative to a European goldie, and the diagnostic grey underwings. I took some very poor photos using my phone camera down my telescope hoping I would at least capture some of the key features to convince others, despite lacking the final two crucial identification features. John is away chasing cranes in Europe so I was on my own to get a record shot of the bird. I continued to watch the bird roosting until it left because of a disturbance and then wasn’t quick enough to see the underwings. Despite me waiting until dusk it didn’t return despite most of the other goldies returning and remaining on the rocky shore. But I was 95% certain of my identification so I went back home, and after checking my photos, I reported the bird in to the birding grapevine.

American golden plover - the grey one in the centre with European golden plovers at Sauchope

Posted October 23, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 16th   Leave a comment

A really beautiful day in Crail with lots of late red admiral butterflies out in the sunshine. Birds were on the move: there were siskins passing over at sunrise and I had a late swallow feeding frantically in the garden. Denburn was full of robin song but the pied flycatcher of yesterday seems to have moved on. Out at Wormiston in the late afternoon there were more than 11 roe deer lying in the stubble fields by the yellow house. I felt guilty disturbing them as I tramped through the stubble looking for lapland buntings. I only flushed one with a handful of skylarks. A far cry from the big numbers of last year but it is still fairly early. But the fields north of the yellow house are still definitely the reliable place to see lapland bunting.

Roe deer at Wormiston

Posted October 16, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 15th   Leave a comment

There were a couple of yellow-browed warblers reported on Thursday and Friday after a spell of light easterly winds so I headed down to Fife Ness first thing with high hopes. The patch was very quiet although a flock of 25 twite flew over, distinctive with their squeaky bed spring calls. There are usually some twite around Crail every winter but they are inconspicuous and hard to find. In contrast the sea was the busiest I have ever seen it with a steady passage of thousands of kittiwakes and auks – mainly guillemots – heading south. The kittiwakes had their usual attendant arctic skuas.

Goldcrest - hanging out with a yellow-browed warbler today

I didn’t connect up with a yellow-browed warbler until the afternoon. A couple were reported from Kilminning in late morning and so I went looking after lunch. There was a minor circus in the currently unoccupied travellers site near the shore with about 10 birders all looking for the elusive warblers. It took a bit of searching even with exact directions to the tree where one had been seen a few minutes ago. Yellow-brows are tiny and are easily hidden by the sycamore leaves where they find insects. They also tend to hang out with goldcrests which behave in the same way, so your eye is often drawn to the wrong bird: although goldcrests themselves are well worth looking at of course. The warbler wasn’t calling much either which is the main help to tracking them down. As I tramped below the sycamores I flushed a woodcock: the first of this winter. We should expect an influx of them any day soon and the gardens of Crail will be full of woodcock for a couple of days before they disperse inland.

But the best bird, or rather birds, of the day were two merlins hunting over the High Street. I had just got home when I saw a female merlin making a dash at something above the co-op. It had spotted a single, late swallow. It climbed above the swallow and then started stooping at it, with the swallow diving and climbing above the rooftops to try and evade the merlin that was chasing right on its tail. On the second stoop a second female merlin appeared and the pair of them then continued to chase the swallow for a couple of minutes. The swallow tried to find some cover in the sycamores of Beech Walk park but was chased out over the gardens of Marketgate. I lost sight of them all shortly after a vertical stoop by one of the merlins. When you don’t see anything come back up from that type of dive it usually means a successful hunt. I expect someone in Marketgate will find a pathetic pile of swallow feathers in their back garden. Good for one of the merlins that may have come in from the North Sea today, hungry after a flight from Norway or similar, but not so good for the swallow that will never see Africa.

Posted October 15, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 9th   Leave a comment

The sea was very busy first thing this morning. Great and arctic skuas, long-tailed ducks and scoters, auks and red-throated divers all passing. I watched both a merlin and a peregrine coming in off the sea. I was watching an arctic skua stealing a large fish from a lesser black-backed gull well out to sea when I noticed what looked like a tiny all dark shearwater – less than half the size of the skua – banking in to have a look. Very likely a leach’s petrel. But it was gone in seconds and the view was not good enough to be sure. Sea watching is always to some degree frustrating. There were more barnacle geese past and later in the day a flock of greylag geese that were easier to identify.

Yesterday there were swallows all over Crail including, I think, most of our local birds. There is one swallow around my garden that has been missing some of its wing feathers for the last month so I can recognise it individually, and it was still part of the flock over the High Street yesterday. But not today. I haven’t seen a swallow all day. It is easy to see when a migrant first arrives, harder to say when it finally leaves. But the contrast between yesterday and today is striking. The house martins also seem to have left as well.

This afternoon I had a walk around Kilrenny common. The tawny owls that are resident in the strip of wood immediately north of the playground were visible as usual. A pair were cuddled up together in the top of a spruce tree, trying their best to look like part of the trunk. There were no swallows at Kilrenny either, although surprisingly there was a singing chiff-chaff.

On harbour beach there is a well rotted angler fish. It looks like something out of a nightmare and not as gentle as its commercial name of monkfish implies.

Angler fish skeleton rotting on harbour beach

Posted October 9, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 9th   Leave a comment

Barnacle geese have been passing by Crail all week and this morning was particularly good with flocks of 50 or so passing every twenty minutes. Many were low over the sea in straggling flocks but others were in beautiful V formation. They are all probably on their way from Svalbard to winter at Caelaverock on the Solway.

Barnacle geese arriving from Svalbard

At Fife Ness this morning it was relatively quiet. The goldcrests and redwings of last week have spread inland. They are now all over the back gardens of Crail. Robins too, that must also have come in less obviously last week. They are fighting it out with the resident robins who are not very pleased to see the immigrants. A highlight at Fife Ness, along with the barnacle geese, were a pair of pale bellied brent geese. They too have come all the way from Svalbard.

Pale-bellied brent geese - also from Svalbard

Posted October 9, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 4th   Leave a comment

Look out for short-eared owls! My neighbour Bill Alexander had one flying through his garden at head height last week. I had one at Wormiston Farm at the weekend. And now John has had them coming in off the sea today. Short-eared owls hunt by day, aren’t particularly shy and are very obvious as they fly on stiff wings with a very clear flat faced owl silhouette. They will be over Crail again in broad daylight. Look out particularly for crows or the gulls making a fuss and look at what they are chasing.

A short-eared owl coming in to Crail off the sea today, probably from Scandinavia

Posted October 4, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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