Archive for December 2011

December 31st   Leave a comment

The local goose spectacular is still going although it moved to Kilrenny a few days ago. Today there were at least 3,500 pinkfeet in a field about 1 kilometer north northeast of Kilrenny Common. I didn’t do a very serious count – only from one vantage point and in blocks of fifty – so my estimate may be low by a thousand or two with many birds being obscured by other birds. I was mostly on the lookout for a Greenland white-fronted goose reported in the flock yesterday. It took about 45 minutes of scanning before I found it. I haven’t got that much experience with whitefronts so I was looking out for the white blaze at the base of the bill. A great feature but perhaps not so good when you have thousands of geese to check, and when almost all have their heads down in the dips of a ploughed field. One advantage to the geese of being in such a big flock is that there will always be several geese looking up to spot approaching predators. This means that individuals can keep their heads down feeding continuously for literally minutes at a time without compromising their own safety. So my chance of looking at the right goose in 3,500 just when it looked up was fairly remote. What finally gave it away was its white rump. Greenland whitefronts are much darker than pinkfeets on the back, tail and on the belly so this makes their white rump really stand out. Once I realised I should be looking for the white contrast at the tail end rather than at the head end it suddenly became a fairly conspicuous goose. The whitefront was also spectacularly dark on its belly with thick tiger stripes of black. So much of birding is working out what is distinctive. Then what previously seemed the same suddenly becomes different: not just sparrows, but tree or house sparrows; not just gulls, but herring and common gulls. Your world has suddenly become richer – like learning to read.

A greenland white-fronted goose (taken on Islay, amore usual haunt than Kilrenny)


Posted December 31, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 24th   2 comments

It is a good time to look out for grey wagtails either on the shore below the Brandyburn, on the beach at Roome Bay or more or less anywhere around the damp rooftops and tarmac of Crail. If you get a good view of one you realise that grey wagtails are one of our star birds. They are more yellow than grey, but the striking thing for me is their very long tail. Which they wag, of course, as they feed. Having such a long tail makes grey wagtails very manoeuvrable which must be very useful when they are in their main habitat of narrow gorges, cliffs and waterfalls. A rainy town is not a million miles from this habitat which is perhaps why they have started to become more common in urban areas in recent years.

Grey wagtail

Posted December 24, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 18th   Leave a comment

Cold and frosty all day even in Crail. It’s proper Christmas weather. I saw a snipe down on the rocky shore at St Monans. It’s camouflage doesn’t work as well against the dark seaweeds. It reminded me of last winter with all the woodcocks and snipes moving to the unfrozen shore. A few more icy days and we will start to see more of the same again.

Common snipe on the rocky shore - a sure sign of cold weather inland

This week’s wildlife highlight has been the huge flock of pink-footed geese just behind the co-op at Anstruther. They were still there today. Over 7,000 of them. I didn’t count them but that looked about right, or even a few more than that. John Anderson also found four bean geese among them which must have taken a lot of careful and patient scanning. I had a quick scan through and only found a barnacle goose, but no cigar for finding a black and white goose among the greys and browns of the pink-feet. It is a great spectacle particularly when the flock takes flight in alarm. The noise is then incredible too. Definitely the highlight of some Christmas shopping at the co-op. You can then also take in the whooper swan flock on the way back to Crail. There were seven birds there still today in the same field behind the pig farm. A bit easier to count than the pinkfeets.

Pinkfoot - one of 3,000 or so at the co-op at Anstruther this week

It’s worth keeping an eye out for waxwings. I had four over the High Street heading for Market Street last Thursday. They look very much like starlings in flight but their peachy buff colour then gives them away.

Posted December 18, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 12th   Leave a comment

I have been looking out for little auks for a few weeks now. I was surprised however to see my first of the winter in a shoebox down at Crail harbour. One had been found flailing around in a garden and had been brought to my house for “rescue”. My wife then carried it down to the harbour where I was catching redshanks that afternoon (two birds caught and two wellies full of water because of the high tide but worth it). It was an early Christmas present opening a box and finding a beautiful little auk inside. They look like miniature penguins: black and white and with short wings. Little auks can fly, but barely, and their response on being grounded, even on land, is to attempt to swim away. Consequently when one turns up in your garden, blown inland by strong winds or disorientated while flying along the coast at night, they can look helpless and injured. This bird was typical, actually in good health apart from a scratch on its wing, and just desperate for the sea. We released it from Harbour Beach and it swam strongly away – last seen heading well out to sea in the Firth of Forth. With more northerly winds forecast for the end of the week I think we will be seeing more little auks, but hopefully passing safely along the coast well out to sea.

Little auk

Posted December 16, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending December 11th   Leave a comment

The big wild Crail event of the week was the storm on Thursday. We may not have had the strongest winds in Scotland but some of the gusts we had were still scarily strong. I think it was the contrast between the relatively quiet periods and the incredibly strong squalls that made it particularly memorable. Wind speeds literally doubled from quite windy to storm force in a matter of seconds. The highest gusts of wind I recorded from my garden behind the High Street were about 23 meters per second (that’s 51 mph in old money). This perhaps puts in perspective the conditions in other parts of Scotland that had gusts of double this speed. I think we got off fairly lightly although it didn’t seem so at the time. Some branches down in Denburn and a five hour power cut on Thursday night. There was much more damage to trees in the storm we had in May this year.

Whooper swans and starling (sorry about low res this week due to broadband problems) )

The whooper swans have continued their residence in the fields between Crail and Anstruther. There were 34 there still this Sunday lunchtime. One of the swans has a rusty orange neck and head contrasting with the glorious white of the other birds. It looks like it has been dipped in Irn Bru. In a way it probably has been. Some whoopers breed around iron rich pools in Iceland and get their necks stained as they continually submerge their heads to feed on the bottom. The whoopers have been sharing the field with the hundreds of starlings that are usually in the fields of the adjacent pig farm. It has been a great spectacle to watch them swirling around the swans.

On Friday evening I had a magical moment when a flock of whoopers flew over my house. I heard their gentle honking so rushed outside. They came over at rooftop height, shining in the moonlight. Swans flying by the moon, gently calling, don’t seem of this world. Despite the magic of the moment I still couldn’t stop myself counting them (16) and wondering if they were part of our current resident flock or new arrivals from Europe.

There was a big flock of fieldfares in the stubble fields behind Crail on Sunday. We don’t tend to have fieldfares much except when they are coming through in the autumn and spring, so these may be birds fleeing colder weather on the Continent.

Fife Ness is great at the moment for sea ducks. There are red-breasted mergansers, goldeneyes and long-tailed ducks all close in at Balcomie Bay. There was a grey plover on the beach on Sunday morning. You can identify grey plovers most easily when they fly because they have very distinctive black “armpits” (axillaries in technical bird plumage terms). They also have a lovely human-like whistle “whee-you-whee” call. Like whimbrels they are easy to imitate and a lonely single grey plover flying by will sometimes come and have a closer look if you whistle their call at them.

Grey plovers - look for the black armpits

Posted December 11, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending December 4th   Leave a comment

Winter has come at last. The second half of this week has been chilly with night time temperatures down to about 1 degree and several nights of frost. At sea the gannets have all but disappeared. They are now mostly down off the coast of France and Spain until March.

I am seeing sparrowhawks hunting through the gardens of Crail on most days. They move very quickly through an area, from Roome Bay, for example, through Pinkerton to the Balcomie Caravan Park in less than a minute, causing panic as they go. The sparrows stop cheeping and dash into cover while the starlings take off and form a dense flock above the flight path of the hawk. If they are all lucky of course. A panic of birds not followed by a sighting of the hawk often means that it has been successful. In these circumstances it is often worth watching for some extra minutes to see the sparrowhawk flying up and carrying away the small bird it has just caught. Sometimes it is possible to identify what they have got, but most of the time it is just a limp shape. Sparrowhawks usually eat their prey in cover to avoid the attention of crows which might steal their prey. So after catching it and spending a minute or so killing it (they squeeze them with their talons) they will usually move to a favoured secluded place to pluck and eat. Sparrowhawks don’t fly far in the winter though to do this, other raptors will try to steal their prey as well as crows. Merlins are particularly good at this being much faster than sparrowhawks. I have seen them catch up an apparently oblivious sparrowhawk before rolling onto their back at the last minute to grab the prey from below the sparrowhawk. The sparrowhawks may try and chase but they have little chance of getting back their prey. But this is rare, and mostly a sparrowhawk will make the cover of a dense bush and reduce the bird it has caught to a neatly plucked pile of feathers with perhaps the odd leg and bill part discarded beside it. These dramas are happening daily in Crail. On Sunday there was a merlin hunting over the High Street, and if you watch your garden for 30 minutes or more you will be pretty sure to see a sparrowhawk passing through. Or at least the panic that they cause to the other birds even if you are not quick enough to see the hawk.


I spent Sunday afternoon in my back garden preparing to plant some fruit trees – I was drilling some wire stays into a wall. While I was working I kept thinking about waxwings and in the quiet after stopping the drill I realised I could hear them calling. Behind me there was a flock of 16 waxwings. The first I have ever had in the garden. They were only there for 2 minutes before flying off towards the High Street. I have been searching Crail for them for the last month and I should really just have stayed at home.

There are some whooper swans in the flooded stubble fields along the Anstruther to St Andrews road at the moment. But the mixed goose flocks seem to have moved on into West Fife. There is also an itinerant white stork in the county. So far it too is in West Fife but it may make its way over to the East Neuk in search of milder weather. White storks are increasingly wintering in southern Europe rather than migrating to East Africa, but Fife is definitely not a regular stopping area. A white stork would be a fantastic bird to round the year off with, so I will be keeping a hopeful lookout. That’s the best thing about birding around Crail – you really never know what is going to turn up, and it might even be in your own garden.

Whooper swans

Posted December 4, 2011 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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