Archive for May 2012

May 31st   Leave a comment

There is a pair of shelduck in Roome Bay at the moment. They are conspicuous, almost goose size, pied ducks with bright red bills. The male is larger than the female and has a knob on the base of its bill like a mute swan. They could probably breed successfully in Roome Bay if it wasn’t disturbed, but it is so busy during the summer that it is unlikely that the shelducks will even try. The shelducks are swimming among the eiders. Some eider ducklings appeared among the adults at the end of last week but they were soon picked off by the gulls. More should be coming over from the Isle of May this week and some of these will survive because the greater numbers swamp the predators.

Shelduck drake

It is a tough life and an early death for most bird chicks unfortunately. But this is the way of it and the reason that birds produce lots of chicks. The fledgling starlings have been particularly hard hit this week. I am convinced that there are a few pairs of crows in Crail that specialise on the starling chicks, actively hunting them for the week or two after fledging when they are very vulnerable and easy to catch. On Tuesday I watched a crow swoop down onto a fledgling starling at Roome Bay. The starling flew off chased by the crow, but it could only fly poorly. The crow caught up with it and grabbed its tail. The starling then stalled and to my surprise the crow then grabbed it with its foot like a raptor.

Crows use their bills to grab prey, they don’t use their feet. But I have always wondered why they don’t use them like a bird of prey. Crows have lethally long sharp claws that easily match a sparrowhawks – handling a crow is tricky because of them. They also manipulate prey with their feet like parrots. So the step for crows to use their feet to grab prey when they are chasing them in flight seems a small one to take. Yet in years of watching crows hunt birds they have always chased down their prey and grabbed them with their bill, often after forcing them to the ground. But not today.

The crow then carried the starling like a hawk until it dropped it because a herring gull swooped down on it trying to steal the starling. The crow chased the starling down to the ground and then grabbed it in its bill, making off quickly before the herring gull could return and finish its attempted robbery. The crow had clearly forgotten its fantastic evolutionary leap to being a raptor. Probably a good thing. The starlings have a tough enough time anyway.

Carrion crow – so nearly a full fledged bird of prey

There was another lesser whitethroat singing from the gardens on Nethergate this week, or perhaps the same bird as last week. If that is the case then it may hang around to breed. Migrants have been still trickling through though with some good ones nearby (thrush nightingale and bluethroat on the Isle of May). The rain showers of Thursday will have brought them down so this weekend is a good time to go out looking.

Posted May 31, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 27th   Leave a comment

The haar was with us for most of the morning. At one point it was hovering just over the beach, drifting in and out of Crail in a teasing way. One half of Crail was in beautiful sunshine and hot and the other was cold and grey. The haar then rolled out further and further to sea for the rest of the day. The change in temperature was spectacular – up eight degrees in as many minutes. This will have made the swifts happy at last. This evening I counted 34 over the south of Crail tonight, looking relaxed and engaging in a good bit of screaming and chasing. Good foraging over the last few days of great weather will have finally got their breeding season started.

The haar just about to engulf Crail again this morning

Posted May 27, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 26th   Leave a comment

There was a lesser whitethroat singing this morning from the overgrown Nethergate garden that borders the boating pond on Roome Bay. I heard its distinctive rattling song and had a few fleeting glimpses of it. They stick to cover and can be hard to see. My first lesser whitethroat was 30 years ago when I was a teenager. I heard this strange monotonous song all summer from my front garden. I wondered what was making it but I never saw the bird until late July when I finally had a good enough view to identify it. Ever since I have been able to find lesser whitethroats, although they are never really common anywhere. That summer of frustration has meant that forever more they seem an extra bit special whenever I hear them. Regardless it is always good to hear or see them in Crail. I missed them last year entirely and even in a good year we might only get a handful passing through. The Nethergate bird will almost certainly be a migrant, probably on its way to Scandinavia.

Lesser whitethroat

My family and I went swimming at Balcomie Beach this afternoon. The water is now warm enough in a thick wetsuit and at Balcomie the very gradually sloping beach means the water is several degrees warmer still at the end of a calm and sunny day. No seals this swim, but gannets diving in the distance and shags passing at eye level. A whimbrel flew over from the beach. Any “curlew” you see at the moment will almost certainly be a whimbrel: I saw some more passing by Crail this evening. The local pair of shelduck were also feeding on the beach. They were happy to do so as long as we were in the water but they flew off immediately when we came out. They are likely to be nesting, or trying to nest, north of Balcomie in the less disturbed dunes.

The starlings have fledged over the last couple of days as predicted. The local cats are making inroads to the dopey new fledglings that bumble about for a couple of days after leaving the nest before they get good at flying. The adults are understandably frantic at this time, constantly screeching as their young get approached by cats or crows or people. The local sparrowhawks have probably just hatched their chicks in time for the fledgling bonanza. Certainly I have seen a couple of male sparrowhawks carrying prey today back to nests somewhere in or near Crail. They will be very busy for the next few weeks as the sparrowhawk chicks head for fledging themselves. Sparrowhawks have what we call hatching asynchrony meaning that there is a range of ages in the nest. The first chick may hatch a day or two before the next and this may continue for up to five chicks. Consequently there is a range of sizes in the nest and when an adult brings food, the littlest chicks only get some if the bigger chicks are no longer hungry. Of course this means that if food is scarce the smallest chicks die, and this happens pretty much in every nest. It is a tough life for a sparrowhawk. Unlike the local cats that can catch fledglings or not, and regardless, can head home afterwards to a certain dinner.

Newly fledged starlings being fed – they will be really obvious all over Crail in the next few days when they learn to fly well and stop skulking


Posted May 26, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 22nd   Leave a comment

Things are beginning to pick up. Today as I cycled out of Crail towards St Andrews I was greeted by at least four sedge warblers, a couple of whitethroats and a chiff-chaff all singing frantically from beside the road. There were about 10 swallows as well. Most migrants that should be here are probably back now, but because they are two weeks late at least they seem frantic to catch up.

The east winds continue so rarer migrants should be about. Yesterday there was a cuckoo and a black redstart at Kilminning reported. They weren’t there this evening, but there were at least five whimbrels and seven wheatears on the adjacent golf course and fields. I searched the usual locations for a red-backed shrike but with no luck. I would almost bet £50 that one is about Crail somewhere just waiting to be found. Maybe tomorrow. My best migrant today was a grasshopper warbler singing near Boarhills. They are very furtive and for every one I have ever seen I have heard ten. They have a constant, far carrying reeling song much like a cricket or grasshopper. It really doesn’t sound like a bird but it is very distinctive.

Grasshopper warbler – usually heard and not seen.

Posted May 22, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 21st   Leave a comment

Velvet scoters have been passing by Crail on their way north for the last few days. They are easy to identify – all black ducks with a big white blaze of white in their wings. Females are browner but at any distance look blackish. Scoters passing this time of year are probably on their way to the far north, to the Siberian Arctic, where breeding won’t be starting for another couple of weeks when the snow melts.

Velvet scoters – usually passing in small flocks of less than 10. Late May is the best time of year to see them from Crail. A male is on the left and a female on the right.

Posted May 22, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending 20th May   Leave a comment

I returned from Cyprus yesterday to a very cool Crail. Even without the contrast of the Mediterranean, the last week’s weather has been unseasonably cold and wet. The swifts returned the week before last but fled again in disgust this week. On Sunday, for example, even as the weather turned sunny, the swifts did not return until the evening.

Whimbrel at Balcomie – on Sunday May 20th there were 7 on the golf course

At Fife Ness on Sunday morning, at least, there were signs of spring and summer. There was a spectacular group of seven whimbrels feeding on the golf course. They moved from fairway to fairway dodging the golfers, feeding up for the next leg of their journey. I have said this before, but can’t help but mention it again. These incredible travellers were probably in North Africa the day before yesterday, and might well be in the Arctic in the next two days. There are now lots of whitethroats and sedge warblers singing. Last visit, before my trip away, there was only a single individual of each.

The seabirds were very busy past Fife Ness and will remain so for the whole summer. Guillemots, razorbills, puffins, kittiwakes and gannets streaming by in both directions. There was also a big passage of arctic terns. These are one of the last migrants to arrive. I guess they have the excuse that they are coming the furthest, all the way from Antarctica. I always forget each winter just how perfect arctic terns are. They have such fantastic, light and easy flight, beautiful pure plumage, and gorgeous long tail streamers. On a more technical level – you tell the difference between arctic and very similar common terns (none today although reasonably common in the forth as well) in flight by their proportions. Arctic terns look neckless with their wings right at the front of their body, whereas common terns have their wings more in the middle of the body. I spent years and years confusing them before this feature clicked and now I can split them even when they are well out to sea.

Arctic tern back at the Isle of May and passing by Crail in big numbers just now

Some of the resident birds will have fledged their first brood of chicks already and we should expect the first starlings to fledge any day soon. It always catches me out. Even as the last spring migrants are still passing, there are some residents, like blackbirds, which might be already finishing their second lot of chicks (although perhaps few this year with the continuing cold weather).

If anything very rare is going to appear in Crail this spring, then the next couple of weeks will be the time for it. The Isle of May has been getting blue-throats, a thrush nightingale and on Sunday a red-backed shrike, so things are looking promising. It’s always an exciting time of year as old friends like the terns and swifts come back and there is always hope for something really special.

Posted May 20, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

Belated May 5th   Leave a comment

There was a white wagtail amongst the pied wagtails of Balcomie Beach today. An unusual migrant on its way up to Iceland. They look very similar to pied wagtails so they are easy to overlook. We get quite a few in Crail, especially in the spring. They have pale grey backs and a diagnostic grey rump. Even pied wagtails that have pale grey backs have a black rump, not contrasting in any way with the black tail.

Posted May 7, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending May 6th   Leave a comment

There has been a black-winged stilt on the Isle of May since Wednesday. John was there on the Thursday and got some great pictures. I am amazed the stilt could find any water deep enough for its legs. True to form it left on Friday night. There is a long history of rare birds turning up in the working week and then departing on Friday night, much to the frustration of twitchers. There were a few frustrated birders displaced to Fife Ness on Saturday who had travelled to Anstruther for the boat, but who had bailed out at the last minute when the stilt wasn’t reported as present first thing. I feel a bit better now it has one on its way. Every time I looked at the May Island over the last few days it was with a gnawing regret that I hadn’t gone to see it.

Black-winged stilt on the Isle of May this week – so near yet so far from Crail.

It’s official. This season has now turned into a late one because of the continuing low temperatures and north-easterly wind. Only on Saturday have a lot of species turned up around Crail, where in a normal spring we might expect them 1-2 weeks earlier. The more regular summer migrants have been trickling in this week, with a pulse of swallows, house martins and swifts arriving on Thursday morning. They didn’t stay because it was still too cold. They will have moved immediately to wetlands (and of course Crail doesn’t have any nearby) where there will some insects despite the cold. By Saturday there were swallows and some house martins more obvious around Crail drawn back by the sunny (and warmer in sheltered areas) weather. They were still concentrated along the shore and in the lee of big trees so it is still far from ideal for them. The swifts will be back properly in Crail any moment the temperature gets above 10 degrees or so.

I went from Cambo along the coast path back to Crail on Saturday morning. We finally had a proper sunny day all day that felt spring like despite some frost inland first thing. I saw my first sedge warbler and whitethroat of the year. Both birds I haven’t seen since November when I was last in West Africa where they spend the winter. One of my students still on fieldwork in Nigeria is just seeing the last of these species as they leave on their several week journey north, even as I welcome the first of them back here. There were several whimbrel resting along the strandline at Balcomie. These spectacular long distance migrants, in contrast, could have been on an African beach only two days ago. They are of course much larger and faster flyers than songbirds like whitethroats. Consequently they are probably much more resistant to the changes in habitat and climate that are besetting many of the smaller migrants’ populations. Small birds require many more functional links in their chain of connectivity that allows them to get from Africa to here, and back each year. There was also a common redstart out at Fife Ness Muir. This is a more unusual migrant for Crail, although 50 years ago there would have been 20 for every one we see now. Redstarts were probably the first migrant species to start really declining because of changes in their wintering and staging grounds (as well as in Europe of course).

There are blackcaps singing everywhere just now. On Saturday there were probably 4 singing in Denburn. As you walk through listen for out for scratchy phrases leading into rounded beautiful – and very musical phrases. If you want to see the singing bird, which is all grey with a neat black cap, look lower and closer than you might think. Blackcaps usually sing from 1-2m above the ground and from dense vegetation.

A migrant blackcap out in the open on the Isle of May last week. They are usually heard rather than seen. There are a lot of them singing in Denburn this weekend.

Posted May 6, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

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