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

Posted October 23, 2011 by wildcrail 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 wildcrail 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 wildcrail 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 wildcrail 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 wildcrail 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 wildcrail 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 wildcrail in Sightings

October 2nd   Leave a comment

A miserable morning of heavy rain with the wind still tantalisingly from the east but no realistic way of seeing if anything was being brought in. It cleared up this afternoon although we still had a thick haar at Fife Ness. There were only a few optimistic golfers teeing off into the murk hoping that the greens were approximately where they were aiming. The patch in contrast was full of activity. Probably hundreds of goldcrests have come in since yesterday and one pine tree sounded like a hive of bees with the combined calls of at least 40 birds. My son was most impressed, however, by a common frog we found in the tiny pond (almost a bird bath) in the middle of the patch. We met a birder who put us on to a pied flycatcher up at Craighead Farm along with a chorus of another 40 goldcrests. When we met him again later he told us we just missed a ring ouzel and some bramblings as we left. You can’t win them all, but that’s at least three good migrants about today suggesting there are more to find. Denburn was however very quiet late afternoon, lacking even goldcrests.

Pied Flycatcher at Fife Ness

At sea late afternoon, after the haar had moved on, there were several sooty shearwaters, a small passage of very distant arctic or pomarine skuas and a black-throated diver past Crail. During the warm weather the sea was practically dead despite the southerly winds that usually bring seabirds closer in to Crail. Anything far out would have been unidentifiable in any case because of the heat haze. I am glad we are back to business as usual. I’m not sure a heat wave suits Crail.

It has been an unusually warm week weather wise. I had a look at the number of days that we have had above 21 degrees in the 154 day period from 1st April to October 1st to put it into perspective. Why 21 degrees? Purely arbitrary but I reckon this is about the point you shift from thinking it is just a warm day to a hot day (at least in Britain – apologies to anyone from genuinely hot countries who will find this laughably cool). Anyway, we have had only 7 days above 21 degrees this summer and three of them were this week. The hottest day this summer was the 3rd June (25.3 degrees) with the second hottest (22.4 degrees) on Thursday of this week.

Posted October 2, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 1st   Leave a comment

It was much cooler today in contrast to the heat and sunshine of the last three days, with the haar coming in later to really make it feel autumnal again. With the high pressure dominating over much of northern Europe this week it has been perfect conditions for migrants to set off south. Last night the wind moved round to the east so there was a chance that some of these migrants might start arriving with us. Things did begin to pick up later in the day but this morning at Fife Ness there was only a willow warbler and a couple of chiff-chaffs. As I left the patch it was clear that some skylarks were coming in from the sea. By the afternoon there were more skylarks and pipits coming in along with the first flocks of redwings, and there were flocks of goldcrests in most patches of trees.

I had a walk around the stubble fields of Wormiston Farm (just north of the Sea Cottage – the oasis in the middle of the farmland). This was where the lapland buntings were last winter. A stomp through the stubble did flush one lapland bunting, the first for this winter. The sighting was sufficiently unusual for me to report this onto Bird Guides. This is a web based bird information service where we post rare bird information and relevant local sightings get texted out. Using the web and texts to spread local information quickly was more or less first developed and used by birders: you have to get your information quickly if you want to catch up with someone else’s rare bird. I feel a bit superior when people talk about social networking and twitter as a recent revolution. Birders did this a decade ago when we first adopted the means to get rare bird information out to everyone instantaneously. This replaced an older and more friendly system. Two decades ago we were relying on a very unsophisticated  means of social networking. There is a famous (or it used to be famous) café in the birding heartland of the Norfolk coast called Nancys. In the middle of the café there was a table with a large logbook containing the latest bird news, and next to the book was a phone. If the phone rang when you were having a cup of tea between birds you answered it and read out what was in the logbook and then added whatever news the caller had into the book. You might answer the phone to someone in Northhumberland who had seen a rarity, you would record their details and then pass on details of perhaps another rarity in Yorkshire that the caller could go for. I miss those days a bit. It may have been less efficient than me sending a text that is instantly available to all birders in the UK, but there was the transferred excitement of contact with a real person with direct news of a rarity, even if they were on the other side of the country.

The walk over the stubbles at Wormiston turned up some other unusual birds. The rarest for Crail was a very unexpected flock of 26 canada geese feeding on a damp corner of one of the field. Scourge of English reservoirs, canada geese are one of our rarest regular geese in Crail and really nice to see here. Everything is relative. I flushed up a couple of common snipe and enjoyed a flock of several hundred linnets. Best of all was a short-eared owl. This may have been a migrant in today. It was flying about in the haar trying to settle in the stubble but was constantly being displaced by a posse of crows and gulls that was harrying it. I lost it as it disappeared up into the fog with a flock of lapwings circling above it, trying to keep safely ahead of the owl.

Short-eared owl (from Orkney) - yesterday's haar not being conducive for John's photography

As I cycled back into Crail I reflected on the shift from summer to winter birds like the owl. There are only a few house martins and swallows left in Crail, and there are still a couple of wheatears up at Wormiston. At sea there is only the occasional sandwich tern now. Despite the warm weather of this week, winter is on its way.

Posted October 2, 2011 by wildcrail in Sightings

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