Archive for February 2012

February 26th   Leave a comment

Balcomie Beach at low tide is a treat at the moment. Twenty each or so of sanderling, dunlin and ringed plovers along the water’s edge. The sanderling scurrying backwards and forwards as the waves lap in, the dunlins probing more sedately behind, and the ringies further back still, on the dryer sand, walking sedately and picking prey from the surface. There were a couple of grey plover and bar-tailed godwits on the beach as well today. One of the godwits was just starting to turn orange on its underparts even though its breeding season in the Arctic is not until mid-summer.

A bar-tailed godwit at Balcomie

Our local breeding season is a lot closer though. I met Jim Cobb on the way down to the patch and he told me his chaffinches that he rings through the winter are all territorial now and so impossible to catch, and that the robins in his garden are building nests. The blue tits in Crail are also looking very interested in breeding with a lot of song, obvious pairs and territorial chases to be seen this week. It certainly has been a lot milder and seems to be shaping up for an early spring.

Posted February 26, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 25th   Leave a comment

There is a female black redstart up on the rooftops at the top the Hen’s Ladder just now. I heard a soft repeated “huit” call which made me stop and look around as I walked down to the harbour this morning. I didn’t immediately recognise it but I knew it was something unusual. I then spotted a plain grey head poking up from the gable of 16 Westgate and realised that it was a black redstart. I might hope to see one or two a year in Crail. They are early migrants passing through in very small numbers in March, and of course we had a lovely male spending a couple of months with us last winter below the cliffs of Roome Bay. This bird is feeding on the rooftops much as black redstarts do in Germany and France where they are a common garden bird. It looks like a dull greyish robin with a rusty brown tail which it frequently shivers drawing attention to itself.

Female or young male black redstart

Posted February 25, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 24th   Leave a comment

Starlings going to roost

If you have some time in the next few days go up to Bow Butts between 17:15 and 17:30. There are about 600 starlings coming into roost in the Leylandii bushes scattered along the street. They are doing their classic wheeling about in dense shape-shifting flocks before they descend to roost. It never fails to impress. There is something so mesmerising about the flocks as hundreds of birds act as if they are one animal. But do go and see them soon – the evenings are drawing out and many of the starlings will be heading back to Russia to breed any time soon.

Posted February 24, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 19th   2 comments

Song thrush - singing a lot at dawn at the moment

We have had a mixed week of temperatures. Last night went below freezing and today was below five degrees all day. On Wednesday and Thursday it was up to 12 degrees and there was a bat around my garden at dusk. Mid-week you would have been sure that spring was just around the corner, and on Sunday sure it wasn’t. The birds were apparently convinced by the warmer temperatures though, with blackbirds, song thrushes, robins, chaffinches and blue tits now all singing at dawn in my garden. But dawn is actually the real cue, rather than simply temperature. Change in day length is hard-wired into most birds to allow them to get ready to breed when the temperatures reliably get high enough. So even on a very cold day like this morning the birds were still singing because they know that spring is round the corner and that territories have to be maintained. As the days lengthen the birds also have more time to feed so they can afford to use more time and energy singing. Although they will have stopped singing sooner this morning, than on Wednesday.

We are gaining 4 minutes of daylight every day at the moment, with it being noticeably lighter later every day. Because the world wobbles we have little change in day length at the points when the earth reaches the top or bottom of its wobble and starts tilting in the opposite direction (the winter and summer solstice). But as we approach the spring equinox, in a month’s time, the earth is changing its angle to the sun fastest and so we have the most rapid increases in day length. The same applies in the autumn, although in reverse, when the dark winter nights suddenly seem to rush in. The change in day length in the spring doesn’t quite affect us in the same way as it does birds but I think it certainly cheers most people up.

Living in a seasonal and variable climate is one of the great joys of Crail. It is terribly dull at the equator with no change in the day length, no long summer nights or very short winter days, or best of all the feeling of a constantly changing environment. This week with the obviously lengthening evenings and the sharp contrasts between winter and spring temperatures has been a daily celebration of our seasonal change.

The sea today from Harbour Beach was lively this afternoon. I counted 20 or so red-throated divers, lots of gannets and constantly passing razorbills. Razorbills seem to be the earliest auk to get ready to breed with many now in summer plumage and in obvious pairs. The puffins are still far out in the North Sea and I don’t expect to see one of another month or two.

Razorbill in spring breeding plumage

Posted February 19, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 18th   Leave a comment

Pale-bellied brent goose eating sea lettuce

There is a pale-bellied brent goose down at Roome Bay, between the Brandyburn and the old swimming pool. It is not particularly shy, which is unusual, and is feeding on the sea lettuce on the flat rocks at the tide edge. This morning, close to the high tide, it was directly below the swings, only 30 meters from the main path and several dog-walkers went by without disturbing it. It eventually flew out to land on the sea when I stopped specifically to look at it, but swam back when I moved on. Bill Alexander has seen it since Wednesday so it is likely to stay in Roome Bay for a bit longer. It’s a rare chance to get a close view of this handsome goose. If you go and see it you might be surprised at how small it is – not much bigger than a large duck.

Posted February 18, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 12th   1 comment

Today it was clear that the summer migrants are on their way. At least in human terms. The harbour and beach was full of people this afternoon. It reminded me that the resources that a lot of birds like redshanks rely on in the winter are pretty much unavailable to them during the spring holidays. But today was mild, or at least felt mild with sun in the afternoon and practically no wind. So the redshanks were roosting all afternoon anyway, safe on the rocks out from harbour beach. As they were pushed onto the beach by the rising tide, so the crowds were pushed off by the setting sun. It’s a different story though when it’s really cold. Then disturbance along a beach can have fatal consequences for waders hard pushed to meet their soaring energy demands as they struggle to keep warm (for a bird warmth = food). But of course then there are few people about and certainly no-one actually hanging around on the beach for any length of time. Still, today was the start of the switch from just birds on the beach to just people.

Redshank - starting its timeshare with Crail's other beach visitors today

Posted February 12, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 11th   Leave a comment

This morning I walked from Balcomie, north along the shore to the end of the golf course and then cut back to Crail along the track from Wormiston Farm, past the yellow house and through the now all ploughed and empty fields. Although it was quiet inland – almost a desert, with only flocks of finches (linnets, greenfinches and chaffinches) in the farmhouse trees – the sea and shore was very busy as usual. The highlight of the morning was a couple of pale-bellied brent geese flying along the shore (bird species number 86 for my Crail year list and usually a September bird. John tells me that they have been regular between Fife Ness and Kingsbarns recently. I did have them early in year, last year as well so I wonder if they are starting to regularly winter along our stretch of coast rather than just being passage birds. I also counted ten red-throated divers out from the golf course with one of them starting to get a ghost of a red-throat in anticipation of the spring.

Brent goose (pale-bellied form so probably from Svalbard)

Posted February 12, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 7th   Leave a comment

I walked from the harbour to Roome Bay looking for my colour-ringed redshanks. Apart from it being beautiful and sunny after the recent grey and rainy days, it was typical for the time of year. Lots of good birds to see but in a familiar and understated way. First it is the eiders in the harbour. They were displaying to each other. The males make a quiet “whor-ah” to the females who then make a firm, repeated “no–no–no-no” back. You can sense the females’ disapproval and easily imagine them shaking their heads from side to side as they call back to the males. The males may be handsome at the moment but they are having to work hard to impress nonetheless. The fulmars are the next thing to look out for. They are back on the cliffs and soaring around Castle Walk. Some sit on their prospective nests as if on eggs even though they won’t appear for another 3 months. Then it is the gulls and ducks down at the mouth of the Brandyburn. Mostly herring, common, black-headed and a few great black-backed gulls bathing in the freshwater pools that form as the burn passes over the rocky shore at low tide. Today there were 4 wigeon with the usual mallards dabbling in the pools. The highlight of the Brandyburn, at least for me, is a grey wagtail, usually seen as a flash of yellow undulating away as I disturb it crossing the bridge over the burn. Then the old bathing pool at the mouth of the Denburn for purple sandpipers – three today roosting at the edge of the water. It is often an act of faith to find them, but this is a great spot for them. They blend in so well with the rocks that you really need binoculars to scan the water’s edge to be convinced that the lumps there really are “purps”. Finally Roome Bay and the goldeneyes diving in the surf, with the oystercatchers and curlews feeding along the shore. It’s a short walk along the sea front of Crail but there is always something interesting to see.

A male eider - desperate to impress

Posted February 12, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending February 5th   Leave a comment

I was out in Denburn Wood on Thursday to help out with the newly formed Crail Primary School Wildlife Watch Club. The plan was to show the thirty children who had signed up for the club some wild birds, so Denburn has been baited since last weekend with suet and seeds and dried mealworms. There is a lot of bird feeding that goes on in Denburn from several keen Crailers anyway, so there is a very receptive audience of tits, finches and thrushes that are ready to come out to any food you put down. Some of the robins and blackbirds will even feed from your hand, particularly if you use live mealworms. I also put a single mist net up in the more wooded east side to see if I could get some birds to show the children very close up. So far so good. Except the logistics of getting 30 children all in one piece from the school to Denburn, trying to get them to be a little bit calm and quiet on arrival and the vagaries of the birds themselves appearing either at the bait or the net made it all a bit stressful. But in the end it worked out. The cold weather this week made the birds even tamer than usual and at the last minute I had a couple of blue and great tits and a single robin fly into the net.

blue tit

Tits are perfect to show small children. They are tough little birds while being instantly recognisable and beautiful to see when close up. They demonstrate their toughness by having a really good peck at you when you hold them. Great tits in particular can give you a really hard nip as they bite you with their sharp bills. If you ever get a tit pecking you under your nail it can be excruciating. This is all fair enough of course. Although we know mist-netting and proper handling by an experienced bird ringer for a few minutes makes very little long (or even short) term difference to a small bird, it must be a shock to them and far from comfortable. So it is poetic justice to have a small measure of this revisited on the ringer. But it is all worth it to enthuse children and give them an opportunity to see birds really close up. Many will have never been a few centimetres from a wild bird, able to look at it right in the eye and see a glimpse of the detail and intensity of its life.It’s hard not to care about things that you feel a connection for and so many of us lack that connection with the natural world. And this is despite birds being really easy to connect to. They are beautiful, around us everywhere and with lives we can observe and understand as they visit our bird tables in cold weather, come and go with the season or as they struggle to keep their chicks safe.

great tit

I hope seeing the birds in Denburn last Thursday will make a small bit of difference for many of the children and maybe even a big difference to a few of them. I don’t quite remember what started me off on birds and wildlife but it was early close contact with it of some sort and most of all meeting enthusiastic adults to explain it all, or perhaps more importantly to share their wonder. There were a lot of smiling children afterwards in any case. And the tits and the robin flew off safely after being waylaid for just a few minutes. I hope the food we put out in the woods over the last week was a consolation for the birds’ time and discomfort. The best consolation will be, of course, if the next generation cares enough to look after Denburn for them.


There has been a short-eared owl around the club house out at Balcomie for the last couple of days. It’s well worth looking out for. Sparrowhawks are getting more obvious at the moment with males displaying and pairs soaring together above Crail. As always use the panicking starlings below them as prompts to search for the hawks.


Posted February 6, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

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