Archive for January 2012

Week ending January 29th   Leave a comment

There are ten pairs of mallards out in Roome Bay, feeding in the shallows at low tide and loafing around the old bathing pool at high tide. Once again they are spending the winter in the sea rather than in the limited small ponds around Crail. In the summer when they split up into pairs, they can manage with only a small amount of fresh water. They use the ditches along the St Andrews road for example, that barely have a trickle of water in them. Often with tragic consequences: I see male ducks squashed on the road come the spring. In the winter, however, they like to flock up. There is safety in numbers. And a small ditch really won’t do for more than a couple of ducks. So they end up in Roome Bay, although they will be thinking about moving back fairly soon. The mallards are all in obvious pairs and the males are very aggressive if a lone male turns up. Most of the ducks that winter at sea – goldeneyes, red-breasted mergansers, long-tailed ducks, scoters – all use freshwater to breed. Eiders are actually one of the few ducks that use salt water both for wintering and breeding.

Drake mallards

I was reminded some more about safety in numbers when watching the goose flock, which is back again at the co-op at Anstruther. There are 1000-2000 pink-footed geese there in the same potato field as before Christmas and this Sunday morning it also had 8+ taiga bean geese, 3 European white-fronted geese and 10 or so barnacle gees among them. Quite a wild goose search to find the others amongst the pinkfeet, although the barnacles stood out somewhat as black and white amongst the greys and browns. The geese were very vigilant. Usually such a large flock allows individuals the luxury of not having to put much effort into looking for approaching predators. The chance is that at least one individual somewhere in the flock, or indeed several individuals, will be looking up at any one time is pretty high. But the geese today did not look very laid back. Perhaps the proximity of the busy road and the co-op has made them more wary, or perhaps more likely the prospect of being shot at.

Kilrenny common is a great place to visit just now for a good range of small birds. On Sunday morning around the playpark were 30 or so yellowhammers, a mixed flock of tens of tree and house sparrows and the usual good mix of several finch species. Kilrenny is a bit of an oasis. When you walk out into the fields between it and Anstruther the numbers of small birds dwindle to nothing. Good job there are the geese to look at.

I had a beautiful view of a male sparrowhawk this week flying just above the ground over the field behind the graveyard extension. It was doing a classic sneak attack, barely flapping its wings and then a final rapid glide into the gardens of Bow Butts. I think it shot straight into John Anderson’s garden. He feeds the birds so always has a good lot of finches in his garden, and so John also feeds the sparrowhawks. A lot of people are unhappy with this equation, but sparrowhawks have a living to make like any other species. I just enjoyed the flash of blue and red as it passed and its skill at approaching the garden undetected by all except me who just happened to be looking in the right direction at the right moment.

The fulmars have been back on the cliffs now for a couple of weeks but seem to have got more serious. Pairs are obvious and birds are sailing around Castle Walk and the harbour cliffs all day now. If you ever wonder about that sea-gull flying with strangely stiff wings, look again, that’s a fulmar. They never bend their wings at the wrist like a gull so are distinctive even miles away at sea.


There are plenty of roe deer still about Crail. Every walk, particularly out towards the airfield seems to disturb some. They bound away showing off their pure white bottoms. It’s handy for identification – pure white and no tail – it’s a roe deer. If its buff and no tail it’s a red deer. Not that we have red deer around Crail but then if you never check the common you never find the rare.

Roe deer - the pure white bottom and not much tail identifies it



Posted January 29, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 22nd   Leave a comment

Today was a fantastic day, feeling like the year had really turned with warm sunshine and the cold wind of yesterday a pleasant breeze. I had my first shelduck of the year passing down the coast towards Fife Ness. The pair or two that breed in the area become more elusive during the winter.  It’s always nice to see these handsome and distinctive ducks, although they really are much more like geese in size and shape as you see them flying by

Shelduck - more of a goose really

I was out looking for colour-ringed redshanks again. We caught a few more in the harbour during the very low tides of a couple of weeks ago and it was nice to see a couple of the new birds in Roome Bay. One of the birds I caught on the beach at the harbour in December was seen on the Isle of May last week. I saw it 2 days after I caught it, still around the harbour, but since then nothing, presumably because it had moved. It was a first year bird. I am beginning to wonder if they are more likely to leave Crail after I catch and ring them. It makes sense. If I catch an adult, it already has an idea that Crail is a fairly safe and benign place – after all it has survived just fine for at least one winter, and probably many winters, here. A first year bird, however, still hasn’t really made its mind up about the place. This theory is hard to prove, and if correct causes some problems. If young birds are more likely to leave when they are caught for ringing, this means we are less likely to see them again compared to adults. This means that young birds will appear to have lower survival than adults. Anytime one of my ringed birds disappears I pretty much assume they have died, but of course they only need to move somewhere else for me not to see them. I got lucky with this one juvenile being seen on the Isle of May. I really have no idea whether other disappearing redshanks through the years have actually also gone somewhere else rather than dying. It will be interesting to see if the Isle of May bird comes back though.

RYBG (Red Yellow Blue Green) in the harbour at low tide (as of the last 5 years)

Posted January 22, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 22nd   Leave a comment

There were 30 or so ringed plover out at Fife Ness today in clusters along the beach at Balcomie. Kingsbarns beach is also a good place to see ringed plovers. They flock up, as with many waders, on the high tide to roost. They are much more scattered, singly or in pairs, at low tide and are much harder to see, spread out all along the coast between Kingsbarns and Crail. Ringed plovers really bear close inspection with their neat bib and eye mask.

Ringed plover

Out at sea in the distance there were several gannets. They are starting to come back now. They must be one of the earliest signs of spring for us. The snowdrops are well up in Denburn as well, but then everyone has snowdrops popping up. We have 50,000 gannets to come back before April.

One gannet doesn't make a spring

Posted January 22, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 17th   Leave a comment

Bullfinches can be seen around Crail and Kingsbarns at the moment; I can go for months without seeing any in Crail. I had two in my garden today feeding on buds. I don’t think these were immigrant bullfinches from the continent that tend to be larger and with a deeper whistle. I hope they are local birds and that they are getting commoner for us. Bullfinches are another species declining in some parts of the UK. It’s been a long time since they were considered a pest species stripping fruit trees of their buds in the spring. They are a truly beautiful bird close up, both the males and the females.

Male bullfinch - taken at Boarhills on the weekend

Posted January 18, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 15th   Leave a comment

Beadlet anemones - in a range of colours

Today was a perfect winter day. Close to freezing all day, but beautifully sunny and with no wind so it just felt cold, rather than uncomfortable. I went out to Kingsbarns beach at lunchtime for low tide with my family. The last few days have been good low tides with the passing of the full moon and the tide was out as far as the kelp at Kingsbarns. We had had a tip off that Kingsbarns was a good beach to find sea urchins, on more sandy shores than Crail and near the kelp. We didn’t find any urchins in the rock pools but found the largest sea lemon (a yellow sea slug that looks pretty much like a lemon) we have ever seen and some good sea anemones. We found the usual species, the beadlet anemone, although in a range of colours. But best of all was a bizarre camouflaged anemone that sticks small bits of broken shell and sand to itself in camouflage and has red and blue striped tentacles. It doesn’t have a common name (its Latin name is Tealia feline).I think “striped-shell anemone” would be a good one though.

Tealia felina - a sea anenome that sticks shells and sand to itself for camouflage

Tealia felina in camouflaged form when the tentacles are retracted - the stripes give it away

There were some long-tailed ducks and eiders out on the perfectly flat sea amongst the gulls. Just inland along the road to the beach carpark where the stubble fields meet the first of the woodland of the Cambo Estate there was a flock of 50 chaffinches and 40 or so yellowhammers. A proper large winter flock of small birds, that is now unusual to find on farmland. This is always a good spot – partly because the fields here stay as stubble all winter and partly because the Cambo Estate is organic and much less intensive than many of the adjacent farms.  .

Although it was a cold day today, and still only January, there is a slight indication of spring. There were great tits, wrens, robins and song thrushes all singing today. They will be joined by the blackbirds as soon as it goes back to being mild again.

The geese continue at Anstruther or Kilrenny. There was also a short-eared owl reported over the golf course at Fife Ness today. Golfers always get to see this species more than the rest of us. Short-eared owls love the rough and hunt in daylight. Any owl seen in daylight around Crail will almost certainly be a short-eared owl. After dark it will most likely be a barn owl. I saw one last week on the main road between Wormiston and Crail at about 5:30 in the evening. It was completely dark but was unmistakeable as a ghostly white shape in on a fencepost by the road. The calm moonlit nights of the last week will have helped the barn owls. Windy weather and rain make for terrible hunting conditions for them. They can neither hear nor see the voles and mice. After a run of very bad weather nights then you may see a barn owl hunting in daylight.

Barn Owl

Posted January 15, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 14th   Leave a comment

Roome Bay and Saucehope point are very good for red-throated divers at the moment. There are at least five or six offshore looking like pale grey and white cormorants. They, as their name suggests, spend a lot of the time underwater looking for fish. Closer in, sometime even in the surf, are goldeneyes that also spend a lot of time underwater. I think there are about 6 this winter, perhaps 3 or 4 less than last winter.

Red-throated diver - several visible at Roome Bay just now

Posted January 15, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending January 8th   Leave a comment

There are still plenty of geese at Kilrenny. Probably 1500 pink feet this Sunday and flocks occasionally over Crail. Any species seems possible just at the moment. I had a Bewicks swan with a whooper last week; only my second record for Crail. Bewicks were much more common in Fife 20 years ago but like whitefronted geese have become much less common as they stay on the Continent instead of coming to us. But not this winter despite it being relatively mild still.

Pink-footed geese - a sky full of them at Kilrenny

It’s been spectacularly windy over much of Christmas and New Year. On the 3rd we had one of our windiest days and certainly the windiest since the storms on May 23rd (60 mile an hour gusts on both days). My shed roof was blown off into a neighbour’s garden, thankfully in the direction away from my weather station that is attached to the side of my shed otherwise that high speed gust would have been the last on record. Overall it’s been a windy and mild winter, back to the more typical climate warming winters compared to the previous two cold one. But we still have a couple of months to go.

I was at Kilrenny this Sunday and it was a treat to walk through the woods on one of the few recent days without wind. I could actually hear the birds – lots of great and blue tits working their way through the trees with the odd goldcrest; tree sparrows flying over and a few siskin. And always with the pink-footed geese honking in the distant background.

Posted January 8, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 1st 2012   Leave a comment

Happy New Year. And with a new year, a new year list. I saw 155 bird species in the Crail area (between Kingsbarns and Anstruther) in 2011. My best year so far, beating 2010 by 10. This probably reflects more time spent birding rather than a particularly good year. There were no real rarities in Crail apart from the American golden plover in October, and the 10 other new birds for my Crail list probably turn up every year in small numbers. You just need to be in the right place at the right time, or spend a lot more time out there looking.

And why a new list for each year? It helps keeps a relative track of the common versus the unusual and a focus on what you haven’t seen. Remember the ring-necked parakeets from last winter. I recorded them on January 1st last year – they were the 19thspecies I saw – but not today. I haven’t seen one in Crail since March so they have probably gone for good, but I am doubly on the lookout for them now because I haven’t seen them recently. It is the missing things in a list which perhaps tell you the most. Other notable absences last year were common redstart, garden warbler and lesser whitethroat. All were seen by other people around Crail so they haven’t disappeared but because I didn’t see them it makes me wonder whether there were fewer to see. And all three species are African migrants with evidence from other areas of declining populations, particularly the redstart. The unexpected things on the list also tell you a lot. Today it was mistle thrushes. Lots of them all around Crail including a flock of 11 on the golf course at Balcomie. Sometimes I don’t see mistle thrushes until late January and never more than one or two at a time. So this year something unusual: either an influx of migrants or perhaps a good breeding season last year. Because each new year every species again becomes a new bird worth seeking, the differences in the occurrences of commoner species become noticed. But perhaps I am trying to over justify this. A new list for the new year because it is fun. How many birds can I see today? 70 is the answer, including such gems as 20 white-fronted geese flying over Crail, 3 tundra bean geese with the 2000 plus pink-footed geese at Kilrenny this morning, 4 moorhens (a major Crail rarity!) at West Quarry Braes and a flock of siskin at Fife Ness.

Mistle thrush - commoner around Crail this January 1st than last

Posted January 1, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

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