Archive for April 2012

April 29th   1 comment

Cowslips just coming out at West Quarry Braes

The cold easterly wind was still with us all day. There were willow warblers singing at West Quarry Braes this afternoon and quite a few swallows up at Wormiston, but no new migrants. The swallows were feeding in the lee of the wood where you could almost imagine it was spring when the sun came out. The vegetation has slowed down too and is later than previous years even after the early start we had in late March. The cowslips are just coming out at West Quarry Braes for example.

It’s been a wet month. We have had 63mm of rain. This compares to just 5mm that we had in April last year. The last month that was wetter was last August (90mm). I hope this means that we are heading for a different pattern of rainfall this summer, with a dry late summer rather than the dry spring followed by a rainy summer that we have got used to over the last five years.

Posted April 29, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 28th   Leave a comment

I was out again at Cambo first thing this morning guiding a bird song walk. A beautiful sunny morning but still freezing with the bitter north-easterly wind when we came out of the woods. There were a lot of blackcaps singing this morning along with the usual resident birds of Cambo. A couple of chiff-chaffs and a few swallows being the only other summer migrants. The initially early season is now turning into a late season. There is still no sign of the whitethroats and sedge warblers that should have arrived at the start of this week.

This afternoon there was a long-eared owl at Fife Ness Muir. I spent a frustrating half an hour of glimpses of it as it shyly moved away between the dense pines before my son flushed it directly towards where I was sitting. It perched a few meters away from me and I had the best view I have had of a long-eared owl for years. Long-eared owls, unlike their very similar cousins short-eared owls, are strictly nocturnal and much more wary. But this time I was able to look straight into its bright orange eyes and admire its “ears” held up like a crest. I am always telling my son to be quieter when we are out in the field. Today I was glad of his noisy feet.

The owl is another migrant on its way to Scandinavia like the ring ouzels of yesterday. A white-fronted goose also passed by going north. Normally this would be the bird of the day but this winter was so good for geese that it was almost expected. Apart from this there was little else. The ringers in the patch were looking fairly miserable as they gazed at their empty nets. I was smiling. The long-eared owl is my first for Crail bringing my Crail list up to 204 species.

Long-eared owl - with its glowing orange eyes even if its "ears" are tucked away

Posted April 28, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 27th   Leave a comment

We have continued to have north-easterly winds all week with frequent rain showers. Swallows are now back in Crail but there are more to come and the house martins haven’t arrived yet. Last night there were 12 ring ouzels reported from the Isle of May and this morning there were other migrants there as well. I went out to Cambo first thing and found a single male ring ouzel feeding in the short grass by the main house. Ring ouzels are once or twice a year birds for Crail and I missed one at Wormiston last weekend. It was great to check what I thought was a blackbird striding about on a lawn to see the big white breast band and the whitish on the wing that made it a ring ouzel, They are also bigger than blackbirds. This one was with a fieldfare – both species heading north to Scandinavia to breed I should think – and the ring ouzel was a similar size. I expect there were one or two people in Crail with ring ouzels feeding in their gardens this morning. At this time of year it is always worth looking twice at any blackbird.

Two spring male ring ouzels - not photographed in Crail but I suspect they could easily have been this morning

Posted April 28, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 22nd   Leave a comment

The weekend has not turned out to be as busy as I might have hoped. We had a few days of easterly winds with frequent rain showers at the end of the week which always spells good birds if it happens at migration time. In any other year I might have thought it was too early, but with this summer apparently happening at the end of March and the early movement of some migrants it seemed that maybe the spell of easterlies was timed just right this year. Sadly it was wishful thinking again. Some birds turned up this weekend but not the major arrival I was hoping for.

On Friday there were five swallows on my way home from St Andrews to Crail suggesting that things were moving. On Saturday morning there were a couple of blackcaps (the first of the year) singing in Denburn. They are our best common songsters and it was wonderful to hear them again. There were also a couple of chiff-chaffs. And the rule is, as I have said many times before, if there are chiff-chaffs in Denburn, then there are other rarer things about too. But not for me – I tramped around Crail in the morning and biked down around Wormiston in the afternoon and didn’t find anything else. There was at least a ring ouzel reported at Wormiston in the morning even if I didn’t see it. I did see two singing corn buntings, one at Wormiston Farm and a second at the Yellow House.

Sea-watching from Crail on Saturday afternoon was good though. I had the first arctic skua and manx shearwaters of the year passing east. Best of all was only my second black guillemot ever from Crail. This was going into the Forth and may even have landed in the sea off the harbour. Unlike last year’s first, this bird was in full black summer plumage apart from the big white wing panels. It really stood out among the hundreds of razorbills that were passing in the opposite direction. There was also a steady northward (strictly eastward from Crail of course as they go round Fife Ness) passage of common gulls and kittiwakes.

On Sunday, there was a firecrest ringed at Fife Ness Muir. By the time I got there in the afternoon there was no sign of it, with a single chiff-chaff being the only migrant I saw nearby. The sea in contrast was full of birds moving north. Mostly gulls and gannets with a single bonxie (great skua) causing panic as it cruised by. There was also a pair of shelduck shuttling between Balcomie Bay and Fife Ness, flying as walkers on the coastal path went by. They will be local birds and I think they have difficulty in finding an undisturbed place to breed. They need a rabbit burrow in sandy soil for their nest, which is not too difficult to find, but they don’t like disturbance and are vulnerable to predators, which are much harder to avoid. Otherwise it was fairly quiet. There were some more swallows around Crail, the first sand martin for me up at the flooded field pond at the crossroads, and the first house martins in Roome Bay reported by Bill Alexander.

Shelduck at Fife Ness

Posted April 22, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 18th   Leave a comment

John went to the Isle of May today where the seabirds are starting to breed

Despite the cold weather things are moving and spring has arrived. Two nights ago was one of the first evenings this year when the Firth of Forth was alive with seabirds. Streams of gannets, auks, fulmars and kittiwakes passing by from close in to Crail to the horizon. There were a lot of puffins among them. It seems like they are much more obvious (or common this year). A single great skua cruised by on its way north.

This evening the first willow warbler was singing in Denburn. There was apparently an influx in Fife today with several also singing in Kilrenny.

Newly arrived willow warbler

Posted April 19, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 15th   Leave a comment

Today was surprisingly cold when you were out in the north-east wind. Especially after spending some time in a sheltered corner like Roome Bay. The summer migrants seem understandably reluctant to come back despite the warm weather a couple of weeks ago. I did see another swallow today over the field closest to Pinkerton and sandwich terns were passing Crail all day.

One of this weekend's sandwich terns pausing to refuel before continuing on its way north from west Africa

Posted April 16, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 14th   Leave a comment

One of the Carnbee dotterels this morning - closer and in the sun today

The dotterels are still out at Carnbee. I went to see them again this morning and there was a small crowd. Apparently these are the first dotterel seen in Fife in 30 years. So quite an event, particularly for any Fife county listers. The dotterels came very close to us this morning after a bit of encouragement – they have a lovely peeping, half chiming call that is fairly easy to copy. The photographers were complaining that they came too close for their long lenses. There was also a flock of 50 or so golden plover in the adjacent field. Like the dotterel they were moulting into summer plumage with spangled golden backs and pure black bellies. And also like the dotterels these will also have been on their way to the uplands. Some goldies nest on the tops with the dotterel, although most are lower level breeders in the heather moorland.

There is a chiff-chaff singing in Denburn near the pond at the moment. They sing their name repetitively (like cuckoos) so are one of the more easy summer migrants to recognise by sound. The shore was quiet in comparison this afternoon. The redshanks and turnstones are disappearing quietly as they drift north, the goldeneyes are long gone and even the eiders are getting fewer as they move over to the Isle of May to breed. In compensation there were a couple of sandwich terns passing.

Posted April 14, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 13th   Leave a comment

I had just got to work this morning in St Andrews when I got a text via the Fife bird network letting me know that two dotterel had been seen by Kellie Law. Dotterel are not very rare birds and turn up on hills and in open fields all over the UK in spring and autumn. And of course they breed on the high flat tops of the eastern hills in Scotland, where they are easy to see if you can bear the climb. But they are special, charismatic birds associated with either the Arctic (or our bits of near Arctic we have on the hilltops) or the hot, dry salines of North Africa where they winter. I hadn’t got them on my Crail list either. So the twitch was on. I should say again, at this point, that I only twitch for my Crail list now, and any previous serious twitching was cured years ago. Twitching is when you literally twitch with excitement at the thought of getting another new bird on your life list. It’s potentially expensive (lots of travelling) and frustrating (they can fly away before you get there).The latter is why I gave it up. Birding is too brilliant ever to be disappointing and there is always something good to look at in your backyard without travelling far. But then this was my backyard. So I contacted my colleague Jeff Graves (he had his car with him) and off we went, very rapidly, towards Anstruther.

Male dotterel at Carnbee this morning - not quite in its full breeding plumage, but then it's the females that really look good

Jeff hasn’t seen a dotterel. You could say it is one of his “bogey” birds. Despite being a birder all his life (although forgivably some of this in other parts of the world where there are no dotterels) and several trips up Scottish hills to see dotterels, he has never succeeded. He, I think, will forgive me for saying, was definitely twitching. This was manifest straight away by his unusual intolerance for everyone else on the road. Jeff is a fairly laid back person but not this morning. We had somewhere to go to and everyone was in the way, driving too slowly or badly and clearly sent by someone to foil us.

I could watch Jeff with amusement because I have seen lots of dotterels and the stakes weren’t so high for me. I grew up with dotterels as regular passage migrants. Near the town where I grew up was a farm called Dotterel Farm, so called because it was by one of their regular staging points for birds on their way to the Highlands. Every late April or the first couple of days of May a few tens of birds would arrive and feed in the bean fields for a day or two. They were a special local spring bird. I continued my acquaintance with dotterel for many years in the central Highlands when my wife worked for Scottish Natural Heritage monitoring dotterel each summer and then when she continued this as part of her PhD studies. It was a simple equation, if I wanted to see her at all during the summer I had to go to the tops of the mountains. I saw her and I also saw a lot of dotterel. They became one of my favourite birds, both by association and because they are fantastic in their own right.

Dotterels have a number of things going for them. For a start they are waders and even better, plovers. Then they have a great plumage. They are a lovely mix of red and black and blue grey, with sandy browns mixed in and yellow legs. So they look good (even my five year old daughter said they were cute this morning). But best of all is their personality. They are tame yet full of character. The females have the brighter plumage and leave the males to incubate the eggs while they go off to seek new partners, sometimes with Scottish birds leaving their males for the later season in Norway. The deserted males are then fantastic fathers. Dotterel males are fiercely protective of their chicks and eggs. The classic broken wing display, where a bird pretends to be injured to lure a predator away from their nest or chicks is a speciality of dotterels. The males devotedly incubate their eggs on their own through the terrible spring weather that we get on the tops. When the chicks hatch they look after them for three weeks, again through the terrible summer weather we get on the tops (dotterel don’t stay in the strath when the cloud is down) and again all on their own.

Jeff and I made it to the pea field by the reservoir at Carnbee in record time and the dotterel were visible straight away. A pair of males was loafing and occasionally feeding about 30 meters from the road. As we watched them, Jeff visibly relaxing, they came closer and closer to us. As I have already said, dotterel are spectacularly tame (an old name is mossfool) and despite a stream of cars and people arriving they paid little attention to us. John Anderson arrived to take the photos you see here, and my family arrived from Crail too. My wife renewing her acquaintance with her old friends. Twitches can be quite social events in lots of ways.

Jeff and I were back in St Andrews within the hour. The dotterel are still in the pea field as I write – they were certainly there until dusk as another text on the grapevine confirmed at eight thirty tonight. I wish them well as they head up to the highlands or to Norway or possibly the really high Arctic of Spitsbergen.

One of the dotterel this morning getting some training in for the weather it can expect all summer on the tops

Posted April 13, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 12th   Leave a comment

It’s evening sea-watching season again. With the light evenings I get the opportunity to do a bit of sea-watching from my house every day while I am putting my children to bed. Well that’s what I’m officially doing, but they can pretty much manage without me now so leaving me to supervise from my telescope, stationed conveniently in my son’s room. Anyway, tonight I was rewarded with the first puffin of the year. Still a bit sooty around the face and without a very bright bill, but clearly on its way to breeding plumage and probably on its way to the Isle of May. They start turning up there this time of year although we don’t really see them commonly off Crail until May when they start foraging away from the island in earnest.

Puffins gathering by the Isle of May before breeding starts in earnest in May

Posted April 13, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 8th   Leave a comment

There is an Easter tradition that the herring gulls of Crail love as much as the children. Egg rolling down the grassy slopes above Roome Bay this morning was enjoyed by just as many herring gulls as children. After the eggs get battered and discarded, and after the children leave, the gulls then come in and clean up. They were surprisingly shy and only came down when the people move on. Usually there is an image of herring gulls being some kind of aggressive food stealer, but most of them are shy. A few “rogue” gulls can give the rest a bad reputation I think. It’s the same with gull predation on tern colonies, as on the Isle of May in recent summers. A few gulls start to specialise on one type of food, whether it’s sandwiches in Crail Primary School playground or arctic tern chicks. It’s not a gull problem, it’s a problem with a few gulls.

Egg rolling herring gulls at Roome Bay this morning - apologies for the photo, one of mine, not John's as you can probably tell

As I watched the herring gulls I saw a few migrants on the move. Meadow pipit flocks going north, a couple of sandwich terns and two greylag geese. We have had southerly or light winds the last day which has got things moving again. The week’s forecast is not great so I don’t expect the swallows to be seriously back until next weekend.

Posted April 8, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 7th   Leave a comment

There was almost no wind this morning so it barely felt cold. But better still it was one of those rare Crail days when you can hear everything singing. I walked through the woods at Kilrenny Common and enjoyed hearing goldcrests and tree sparrows singing, my first local chiff-chaff of the year and best of all a great spotted woodpecker doing some proper drumming on the dead trees behind the ruined house. Great spotter woodpeckers are not that common in Crail. I think they have probably bred in Denburn, but more usually you have to go to Cambo to be sure. I am not sure if they breed regularly in Kilrenny. Every bit of woodland in the spring should have woodpeckers drumming and it’s a shame Crail doesn’t quite have a large enough wood. It’s a very evocative sound and if you haven’t heard it in a while (or even at all) it’s worth the trip to Kilrenny.

Great-spotted woodpecker - they really do make a proper drumming sound like woodpeckers are supposed to

If you do go to Kilrenny, watch out for the sign by the old railway bridge that says “Sea-eagle tree”. As I looked out from the sign I saw three trees all with a single buzzard in them, but no eagles today (they only turn up every so often at Kilrenny). How do you tell the difference between a sea-eagle and a buzzard? If there’s any doubt you are probably looking at a buzzard. Sea-eagles really are huge and have huge bills – noticeable on a perched bird whereas you don’t notice a buzzard’s bill. If an eagle is flying it is usually the apparently tiny crows or gulls following it, plus its resemblance to a flying barn door that makes a sea-eagle obvious. There was a sea-eagle past Crail today (missed it sadly) so watch out for them. Easter does seem a good time to see them passing along the coast.

Posted April 8, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 3rd   1 comment

It’s an obvious thing to say but I will anyway. This time last week we had 18 degrees in Crail and today 2 degrees. A fantastic contrast. A real storm today with huge waves at sea. The gannets were doing their seemingly impossible trick of moving slowly forward against the wind without moving their wings. I’ve seen albatrosses do it too. There is something about big and heavy and having long wings in a gale which makes this possible. There will be an aerodynamic explanation but I’m content just to think this is some kind of magic that seabirds can do. Gannets are just like that. John caught the mood of today perfectly with a photo of a red-breasted merganser pushing into the wind with the waves behind. I didn’t see any mergansers trying to go north today but there were a lot of guillemots and red-throated divers resting on the sea off Crail in the late afternoon that had given up trying.

A red-breasted merganser going north into the wind today - it probably helps being effectively an avian arrow

Posted April 3, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 2nd   Leave a comment

Sandwich tern back early from West Africa

I saw my first sandwich tern of the year flying past Crail this morning. Two weeks earlier than any previous years and presumably part of the warm weather overshoot of last week. Those early migrants may be regretting their haste just now.

Posted April 3, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 1st   Leave a comment

Spot the missing field boundary - at least I won't need to check this bit for migrant shrikes any more

In keeping with the date I would like you to have a look at the photo above and see if you can tell me what it contains. Yes, that’s correct absolutely, nothing. And indeed even less than a few weeks ago. You may have noticed recently, as I did, lots of bits of pipe lying in fields between Kingsbarns and Crail and a fair bit of heavy equipment apparently digging random holes. I’m not sure what the purpose of it all was but one consequence was another field margin got destroyed. Ever since I have been here the fields have been getting larger around Crail. Fences removed, scrubby bits of vegetation taken out, pathways alongside and between fields gone. Between the two fields in the photo (now one big field) was a scrubby ditch and a wire fence. I remember watching a pair of red-backed shrike feeding from the lost fence a few years ago, and the local yellowhammers and reed buntings will not now have the option of breeding along it either. Little by little the farmland gets further industrialised. From Crail to Balcomie, via Wormiston Farm this morning turned up just 2 singing skylark, a couple of pairs each of yellowhammers and reed buntings, and some pied wagtails. It does make sense to concentrate our farming efforts in one place so that we can spare pristine land for biodiversity in others, but it hurts sometimes to live in one of the former areas. Chris Baines put it well in the context of the row down south of building on Green Belt farmland: “How do you improve farmland for biodiversity? Put a housing estate on it”. Farmland is now so impoverished in many areas that there is little worse that can happen for biodiversity, and a change of use (golf course, wind farm, housing…) may actually result in more wildlife. Indeed the only oases in the farmland of Wormiston are Wormiston House and the yellow house (see photo below). Both were the only places that were alive with birds this morning.

The garden of the yellow house is an oasis in the farmland - at least this is still there for the shrikes

The shore saves Crail from being a desert of course. Along the fringes even the farmland birds can find some space. There was a corn bunting (actually a big fan of wide open fields as long as it can find a perch) singing at the end of Balcomie Golf Course. My first of the year and the highlight of this morning’s walk. No further early summer migrants unfortunately although there were meadow pipits and siskins moving north along the shore and a steady passage of red-throated divers.

Posted April 1, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings