Archive for August 2012

August 31   Leave a comment

A gannet on a brighter day than today on its way back to Bass Rock and a big hungry chick

Sea watching this week has been relatively quiet. After the first few newly fledged gannets last weekend there has only been a trickle past Crail since. The adults are obviously still shuttling back and forth to the Bass Rock feeding their chicks probably desperate for them to fledge so that they can come to the fish rather than have it delivered each time. I watched a string of returning gannets far out this evening, a long white line, startling punctuated by the all dark brown shape of a great skua following them in. It eventually overtook them and began harrying them. There must be a thousand potential meals to steal for the great shuas at any time in the Forth at this time of year. Despite this I think this skua was wasting its time. The gannets continued ploughing on and I think the skua gave up, eventually heading back towards Fife Ness.

There were a surprising number of swifts about this evening. Today felt relatively cool – it went down to six degrees last night – and with the strong westerly breeze and rain showers it was hardly migration weather. Perhaps these were northern Scottish swifts blown over from the west coast rather than Scandinavian birds that I might expect passing at this time of year. Every time I see a swift at this time of year I wonder if it might be my last. Certainly I won’t have another day of seeing tens of swifts until mid May next year (outside of central Africa at least). When they go the real summer (such as it is these recent years) has truly gone.


Posted August 31, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 26th   2 comments

There is another pool! Perhaps the best one yet just a couple of hundred meters away from the Troustie roadside pool. The new pool is along the track up to Lochton farm, just before Troustie. It’s another depression in a field of barley, but it looks well established and quite deep. This morning there was a green sandpiper, a greenshank and a few teal on it. I disturbed both birds and they flew off to the Troustie pool. They then flew back to the Lochton pool a bit later. This probably means that some of the apparent passage over the last two weeks was just the same birds shuttling around the pools. The ruff flock is a good example. It’s been easy to keep track off with a distinctive combination of 4 females and a male. This flock has been at every pool I know off including the puddle on the airfield road just outside of Crail.

A razorbill born this summer and still being fed by its parents – listen for the whistle

This weekend has been much quieter than last. The winds have been more westerly this week and the flow of migrants has dried up. Today the wind was more easterly but we will need a couple of days more to get things going. At Fife Ness this morning there were a few passage waders – a couple of knot and a sanderling but not much else apart from the constant passage of gannets, kittiwakes and the occasional sandwich tern. But it was a lovely fresh and sunny morning so I sat on the Ness and listened to the whiney whistle of the young razorbills calling so their parents can find them after each dive and they can be fed. A plaintive, quite pleasing whistle even though it is a bit demanding. You can hear them calling on most still evenings in August in Crail, even from the middle of town. It’s one of the most evocative late summer Crail sounds.

Ring-necked parakeet back in the churchyard this morning

Perhaps the biggest news of the day (or the week) is the return of the ring-necked parakeets to Crail churchyard. There was a noisy pair there first thing this morning, but they had moved on by the time I got there mid-morning. A male and female and in exactly the same place as they were last recorded 15 months ago… All very strange. It seems too much of a coincidence that these would be a new pair, but also too unlikely that our pair could have been hiding or somewhere else nearby undetected all this time. Jaquie Herrington, a local Fife birder managed to get a photo of one of the birds.


Posted August 26, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 24th   Leave a comment

I was sea watching this morning from my house before leaving for work when a roseate tern passed by. My first definite for Crail. They are not too hard to identify at this time of year with a good view, looking like a sandwich tern in structure but with a common tern shaped head i.e. not shaped like pterodactyl – honestly have a look at sandwich terns and that’s what the head looks like), and a very obvious dark black leading edge to the wing. I had been watching common, arctic and sandwich terns pass when the roseate came by, nicely contrasting. Roseate terns used to breed in the Forth under the road bridge but they have got rarer and rarer in recent years. They are a fairly rare bird over the whole of the UK now. It’s hard to tell why they have become scarcer here. About 25 years ago the RSPB discovered that many of the UK breeding roseate terns wintered off the coast of Ghana where they often fell prey to small boys. They helped to launch an education and awareness program and solved that problem (and kicked off wildlife clubs all over Ghana as well which are still going strong). Now it’s not so simple – peregrine, gull and mink predation are all implicated. The irony is that roseate terns are spectacularly common in places like the Indian Ocean and our population, in a global sense, is insignificant. But of course it’s that sense of place that matters, the sense of your own experience. I would fight hard to see roseate terns more commonly from Crail regardless of whether they are common elsewhere. In conservation though, you have to be realistic and so perhaps I wouldn’t fight as hard for roseates here as I might for something that has a global population that really depends on the environment around Crail. Puffins on the May Island for example, or especially, the gannets on Bass Rock. There were plenty of gannets this morning and two of them were the first fledged juveniles of the year. Fairly early birds. I hope very many more will be coming past in the next few weeks.

An early juvenile gannet – the first fledglings from bass rock passed by Crail this morning

Posted August 24, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 23rd   Leave a comment

Spotted flycatcher

It has been fairly quiet at the various pools and their surrounds for the last couple of days. The wind has gone round to the west so there will be fewer migrants. There was a spotted flycatcher at the entrance to Kilminning this evening, but this could be left over from the weekend.

There are a few willow warblers passing through the gardens of Crail at the moment. Most are young birds that look very yellow. They have a soft “who-wheat” call. Willow warblers are one of our commonest birds but few breed around Crail. We do get lots at this time of year as they start their migration from central and northern Scotland down to the rain forest edges of West Africa.

A willow warbler born this summer and passing through Crail on its way to Africa for the first time

Posted August 23, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 21st   2 comments

As I walked through Denburn this afternoon I flushed a teal. It’s the first time I’ve seen one there. It was in the little pool at the south end and reluctant to leave. Normally they are very shy but this one just moved a few meters. As I wrote last week, there have been a lot of teal passing Crail on migration and the tired ones look for small, quiet pools to rest up and feed in. Denburn is usually too busy for ducks, but this one must have been fairly desperate. So look out for the tiny and not too shy duck in Denburn – it’s a teal.

There was a single greenshank in the roadside pool at Toldrie this evening. I was expecting more waders because the very sharp, intense showers we had today will have brought any migrating birds down. At two points today we had nearly 2mm of rain in 10 minutes. Perhaps the showers downed the teal that is still in Denburn.

An elegant greenshank

Posted August 21, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 20th   Leave a comment

The usual pools were quiet this evening but there is a small temporary pool on the airfield road about 400m out of Crail that had 5 ruff on it last thing this evening. It is right by the road and so very susceptible to disturbance. I have checked every time I go up to Fife Ness or Kilminning over the last few days and this evening is the first time I have got lucky. John Anderson had beaten me to it though. His car was parked up right beside the pool and he had the birds literally right under his lens. I am surprised he could focus. I left him to it so I wouldn’t disturb the birds although a couple of walkers did anyway. The 5 ruff, 1 male and 4 females, are undoubtedly the group that have been a feature of every Crail pool at some time or the other over the last few days. It is easy to sex ruff. As you can see from the photo that John took this evening there is a huge size difference between the sexes. Males are much bigger than females, so much so they almost look like different species.

Ruff and reeve (the muchsmaller bird is a female ruff also called a ruff)

I continued on to Kilminning and the bushes at the sea end in another futile search for the barred warbler that was seen there again yesterday afternoon. There were tens of whitethroats though – all adults – so I suspect that they are migrants.

Another picture of one of the ruff on the airfield pool just outside of Crail this evening. Just because they and the photos are brilliant.

Posted August 20, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 19th   Leave a comment

This morning was warm and sunny without any wind. The sea at Fife Ness was flat calm and the tide was spectacularly low. The beacon out at sea was clearly on a little island of rocks rather than just poking up out of the sea, and the rocks were covered in seals. Their singing was a mournful background to the morning.

There was nothing unusual about, which perhaps was a relief after yesterday’s false alarm. There were some early winter waders: sanderling, bar-tailed godwit, knot, redshank and dunlin. With them a couple of species that only ever pass through: a common sandpiper and a black-tailed godwit. I have only seen a few black-tailed godwits in Crail even though they are common at the Eden estuary so this was the bird of the day.

Black-tailed godwit, still in summer plumage

The sea was full of birds as usual at this time of year. Far out were some arctic skuas harassing the kittiwakes and an occasional great skua passing closer inshore. There were three species of terns fishing for their juveniles in Balcomie Bay. Mostly common and sandwich terns with a few arctic terns, the shrill calls of their young competing with the wails of the seals.

Juvenile common tern

Posted August 19, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 18th   Leave a comment

It has been an up and down day. The unidentified bird at Kilminning got identified twice. The first time as an extremely rare eastern olivaceous warbler, which was exciting and took a lot of painstaking observation of the difficult to see bird of Thursday. The second time was later in the day when some good photos were available to actually reveal the bird as a chiff-chaff. Sadly not a very rare species. A manky, moulting chiff-chaff lacking almost every feature that a chiff-chaff should have. Most importantly it was missing feathers around its bill so it had an atypically long and broad based bill making it look like a Hippolais warbler. These things happen. The second identification was a bit of a come down. I had put the identity of the mystery bird out on the birding grapevine as a definite olivaceous first thing in the morning after spending a painstaking 90 minutes accumulating all the relevant characters (bar one). I got out to Kilminning by 6:15 and found the mystery bird fairly quickly. It was in exactly the same place as on Thursday and gave occasional brief good views. I was joined an hour later by a couple of others and a consensus about its identity began to emerge. I decided to stick my neck out and report its identity as definite. The bird had also been seen late yesterday afternoon and several others thought it was a possible olivaceous warbler too, they then made the sighting public, but only as a “possible”. Even so many birders won’t come out until a sighting is confirmed, and sometimes that only happens when it is too late. These vagrants are only passing through and a few hours can make a difference in connecting with them or not.

Looking like an olivaceous warbler

About 50 or so people turned up to see the putative olivaceous warbler and most went away happy. But gradually some good photographs emerged and it became clear that the bird had yellow underwings and a tinge of yellow on the vent that rules out olivaceous. Then with a bit of lateral thinking, a chiff-chaff in a poor state of moult seemed likely. With missing and old feathers then many of its features could be blurred and similar to olivaceous. This with the lack of some feathers at the bill base to exaggerate the size of its bill made the common place seem plausibly exotic. Without the photos, given the relatively poor views of the bird feeding quickly in dense vegetation it would have been impossible to see the features that might suggest a chiff-chaff. Even so I was left with a feeling of kicking myself. Particularly because one key character for an olivaceous warbler is a regular dip of the tail when feeding – the mystery bird showed this feature. But this feature is shared by chiff-chaffs so this should have put them in my mind much earlier. Never mind, better to have loved and lost. I learnt more today about splitting Hippolais warblers – some of the hardest birds to identify as vagrants – than I have I have in last few years. And also about the pitfalls of moulting chiff-chaffs.

Looking like a manky, moulting chiff-chaff

There were other migrants about at Kilminning. A couple of spotted flycatchers, a pied flycatcher, a few garden warblers and lots of willow warblers. Some tree pipits and a flock of snipe passed over. It has been a good week for migrants in Crail all in all despite the disappointment of the mystery warbler.

I consoled myself later in the evening by connecting up, at last, with one of the many wood sandpipers that have been passing through Crail this week. There was a single bird in the Troustie House field pool. It was a beautiful evening and lovely light to see this wader from northern Europe on its way to West Africa. As I was down there I bumped into the owner of Troustie House who wanted to know if her house was on a twitchers’ map because she had noticed an increase in traffic down the usually pretty deserted farm roads over the last few days. I explained what a great habitat her house, with its marginal land and pools, presents to migrants in the inhospitable farmland surrounding it. Pretty much like the May Island stuck in the sea. I was preaching to the converted. I learnt that Troustie House is stuffed with nest boxes put out for the tree sparrows and a good chunk of the land is set aside for a nature reserve. I’m glad that we have such an enlightened person managing some land on the outskirts of Crail for the benefit of birds and other wildlife, and birders like me (although the last was probably not intended).

A wwod sandpiper, finally on my Crail list

The evening was finished perfectly watching the visible migration of swifts passing over Crail and the surrounding fields in the last of the warm evening sunshine. They were all heading to the southwest. They may have been thinking with some regret that now it was time to head south the Scottish weather was finally suiting them.

Posted August 19, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 17th   Leave a comment

There were 5 ruff at the Toldrie roadside pool first thing this morning. They didn’t seem too bothered by the heavy rain this morning, they were knee deep in a chilly pond anyway. They were with three teal. The teal are migrants as well, probably not going as far as the ruff, but possibly going as far as north Africa for the winter. There have been a few flocks of teal passing along the coast past Crail over the last few days. With the heavy rain showers of last night such passing birds look out for a safe place to sit out the bad weather. Some will sit it out on the sea but others will end up in tiny ponds like the Toldrie pool.


After the rain this afternoon I went looking again for the barred warbler and the unidentified Hippolais warbler at Kilminning. Both were seen again today – there were a few people out looking – but only one or two got lucky (not me). And the unidentified warbler remains unidentified. There was a whinchat there as consolation.

This evening was the first without swifts over Crail since May 20th. They came late this year and have stayed maybe a week later than usual.

A highlight today was my son Sam finding a large common frog in our back garden. It was the first frog we have found in our garden, excluding the hundreds of tadpoles that have passed temporarily through Sam’s fish tank. It’s always possible that this frog was one of Sam’s tadpoles a few years ago on its way out from Denburn for the winter.

Posted August 17, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 16th   Leave a comment

The tale of two pools unfolded further this morning. There is a fourth pool one field away from the soon to be filled in crossroads pool. This pool is tucked in a field corner right next to the road and is large enough to be a really star wader pool. My failure to connect up with any of the wood sandpipers recently becomes clearer: this pool is perfect for sandpipers.

Green sandpiper

This morning there were two green sandpipers there, with three ruff, three snipe and a greenshank. Green sandpipers are one of my favourite birds. Ever since I started birding they have been special birds because they are always a surprise. They turn up in unexpected places, in small pools when you least expect them, suddenly bursting up with a flash of black and white, and with a shrill, totally distinctive call. Then they are gone, totally gone, even before you have quite realised they were there. Of course, having romanticised them, today everything flew off except the green sandpipers. They looked atypically placid and stayed put even as I watched them from the car at less than 15 meters away. In fact I had my best views ever. Perhaps it has been worth missing this pool so far this summer just for today.

During the afternoon there were various migrants reported from Kilminning. A pied flycatcher and a barred warbler. I went looking for them late afternoon. Barred warblers are always very difficult. They skulk and even when you know which bush they are in you then might only have glimpses of them. So my hopes of seeing one was were low, and as it turned out, realistic. No sign of it despite another four people looking. The pied flycatcher was located however, the first of the autumn. A male on its way to Ghana or Guinea. On the way out I saw a very frustrating Hippolais warbler (a group of European and Asian warblers that are only vagrants to the UK). The most likely species would be an icterine warbler, considering the time of year and the other migrants about. We get a couple of icterines in Crail every year and so they are good birds to find. But a few things were not quite right with it being an icterine. Any alternatives, however, are seriously rare and need good views and a lot of careful attention. Sadly this bird wasn’t showing well so unfortunately I have no real idea. Perhaps tomorrow I or someone else will re-find it and it will become clearer. In the meantime it’s unidentified and best left at that.

There were about 50 common swifts drifting over Kilminning to the south-west. I think they were birds from further north on their way back to Africa. The swifts apparently still left in Crail might well be birds like these on their way south rather than our residents.

Ruff at the new roadside pool yesterday

Posted August 16, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 15th   Leave a comment

The mist this morning made it fairly difficult to see anything, especially in pools in the middle of fields. I probably missed a few things but there were six snipe in the Troustie House pool. They will be enjoying the very wet weather this evening.

Common snipe

Posted August 15, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 14th   Leave a comment

My predictions of the weekend came true. Things have developed into a minor fall of migrants. First thing this morning there was a ruff and a couple of dunlin on the pool at Troustie. On the field margins I saw a couple of whinchats and wheatears. Both are indicative of good migrant conditions at this time of year, particularly whinchats. Just earlier there had been a yellow wagtail in the area – this is a very scarce migrant for Crail and I was sorry to have missed it.

The whinchats were still in the area in the evening but there was only a sleeping golden plover around the pool. The whole Troustie House area was alive with birds. It acts as an oasis in the intensive fields. There were tens of tree sparrows there chirping away in the evening sunlight.

I walked around the yellow house down at Wormiston Farm in the last hour before sunset. It was a beautiful evening, still warm and with no wind at all. It was so still I could hear the guillemots in the sea down at Fife Ness. There were a few signs of migrants. A yellow juvenile willow warbler in the garden of the sea house, and a pair of whimbrels flying high overhead occasionally giving their fantastic whistles – next stop Spain. Bizarrely there was a very early fieldfare flying over being chased persistently by a swallow. An unusual pairing and perhaps the swallow was reacting to a species it had never seen before.

I’m writing this with the doors to my house wide open as it finally gets dark. Sadly now as soon as nine thirty. It’s rarely warm enough to do this in Crail because of the wind. There is a bat hawking outside, occasionally nearly flying into the house. It is there most summer evenings although I am rarely outside to see it. Probably a pipistrelle but I really have no idea in the gloaming.

A ruff – one of today’s migrant highlights. They have very distinctively undersized heads for their body and this is their best identification feature.

Posted August 14, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 13th   Leave a comment

A digiscope (camera phone through my telescope) shot of the little ringed plover today (slightly smaller than the adjacent dunlin) – another example of why I use John’s photos. LRPs are actually really nice to look at as John’s proper photo shows below.

After weeks of checking the pool to the west of Crail for waders and finding not much at all, then three good species turn up at once. First thing this morning there was a little ringed plover feeding on the crossroads pool with a dunlin. Very handy, the dunlin, because ringed plovers are about the same size as a dunlin and little ringed plovers, as you might have guessed are a little bit smaller. This plover was smaller than the dunlin next to it. But with any identification of a new bird (for my Crail list) you need a few more characters to clinch its identity. The main one is a yellow eye-ring, and this was just about visible through my telescope. The bill was a bit slimmer and all black compared to the much more common ringed plover, and the more domed head without any whitish above the eye was also another good feature. It’s good fun piecing characters together to get a firm identification even when I knew instantly that it was a little ringed. All of the features I have mentioned gel into an impression of a slim and almost “babyish” ringed plover making little ringeds stand out when you have got your eye in. That said it took a lot of years birding in North Norfolk in the autumn to get them down pat. The best feature of all, though, was taught to me during those long hours in hides at Cley sifting through the 20 or so wader species that you might get there on an August afternoon. Little ringed plovers feed by taking a couple of slow steps and then delicately picking whereas ringed plovers take long rapid runs before snatching prey from the ground. It’s not infallible but any ringed plover doing one or the other consistently gives its identity away. And the best thing is that this character works under any light or wind conditions or at any distance.

Little ringed plover – this is a spring adult and a bit more distinctive than the first winter I saw today but you get the idea – a “babyish” ringed plover

Never mind new waders turning up, two new pools also turned up today! The pool at the crossroads is close to Troustie House, but apparently two other pools are even closer. So other birders have been reporting waders from “the pool near Troustie” and they have been meaning somewhere different from the crossroads pool. No wonder I have been missing wood sandpipers by 20 minutes…It’s been a spatial problem, not really a temporal one. John Anderson set me straight when I phoned the little ringed plover in to him. So I then set off in search of the other Troustie pools. I found one later that morning by Troustie House – almost a duck pond with grass and sedges around it, and indeed a large family of well grown mallards doing their best not to be seen round the edge. On the way home in the evening I found the other. Literally just a bare muddy depression in the middle of a fleeced field, one field northwest of Troustie House. This had 8 greenshank and a ruff on it. Both excellent Crail birds, with 8 being more than the number of greenshanks I have seen around Crail over the last couple of years. The greenshank, the ruff and also the little ringed plover are all on their way back to West Africa after breeding, probably, in Scandinavia.


My wader and pool excitement was somewhat tempered by the farmer’s decision to fill in the crossroads pool today. When I passed it this evening the crop had been flattened and a truckload of soil had been dumped in the pool. Another one of Crail’s marginal habitats destroyed. So gain a pool, lose a pool, although we all lose as farming around Crail becomes more and more industrialised.

Another bit of wild Crail on the way out

Posted August 13, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending August 12th   Leave a comment

I have been on Islay for the last week enjoying the wildlife of the West Coast. But it’s nice to be back: I will miss the spotted flycatchers but not the midges. We are very fortunate on the east coast to miss the midges completely except a few days in the autumn, and then only if you hang out in Denburn looking for migrants.

The wind has been blowing a strong southerly for most of the weekend bringing the seabirds in close. The first sooty shearwater of the season was reported from Fife Ness on Saturday and there will hopefully be many more to follow in the next couple of months. I only watched the sea for a few minutes on Sunday morning before seeing a great skua. August is the best month in the Forth to see long-tailed skuas as they cut through the Forth and Clyde valley from Scandinavia through to the Atlantic. Having said that though, I have only ever seen two long-tailed skuas from Crail. I think I have just been unlucky and perhaps this will be the year. As the skuas arrive, the auks that have been shuttling past Crail for the last three months have now gone. The gannets are still going strong and won’t fledge their chicks for another few weeks. Sandwich terns are a constant sight and sound of Crail now. They are invariably in pairs – an adult followed by a noisy and demanding chick.

Sandwich tern with a fish for its chick that follows it for several weeks after fledging

The summer is starting to come to an end. There are still some swifts over Crail but they will be here only for the next week. If we get some easterly winds then we will have the first serious autumn migrants of the year. August is best for whinchats, tree pipits and cuckoos passing through. Every three or four years we have “falls” where a spell of easterlies in August coincides with some heavy thunderstorms resulting in lots of grounded migrants. Then there will be literally hundreds of warblers, flycatchers and redstarts along with some rarities like wrynecks.

The golden plover are back congregating down on the rocks at Saucehope on a low tide. Some still have bits of their summer plumage. The few early turnstones that are back with them also have a lot of their breeding plumage, some are almost bright orange. Despite this they are still well camouflaged on the shore amongst the occasional splashes of reds and oranges of the seaweed.

The golden plovers are back on the rocks of Sauchope

Posted August 12, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 2nd   Leave a comment

I’m going to finally get to Bass Rock in a couple of weeks. I have been watching the gannets passing Crail and anticipating what it is going to be like to get really close to 50,000 pairs. Noisy I expect but very exciting. We are incredibly fortunate to have Bass Rock so close. We take gannets for granted but it is just brilliant to have such a large, beautiful and exciting bird everywhere. The summer is an endless procession of gannets past, gannets diving, gannets soaring. There really is never a dull moment. And they look absolutely gorgeous in bright sunlight. Go out to Fife Ness on a sunny day and sit on the most easterly rocks. It might not be Bass Rock but you will get gannets diving right in front of you.

A gannet on a sunny day – the former more reliable in Crail

Posted August 2, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 1st   Leave a comment

The winds were fairly southerly tonight so despite the poor visibility there were a lot of seabirds to see passing close in to Crail. It was really noticeable how many newly fledged kittiwakes there were. They were outnumbering the adults indicating that the local birds have probably done well this year. I heard today that even the arctic terns fledged some chicks this year on the May island. This might have something to do with a little bit of strategic gull control, but I have only heard rumours. But both species getting chicks off means that there are sand eels about and all is not as dire as it might be this summer. There are a couple of very fat fulmar chicks on castle walk that also should make it. There are also many empty nests. One or two have pathetic squashed chicks at the bottom that will have got soaked and chilled in the many rainstorms we had in late June and early July.

Newly fledged kittiwake – just as beautiful as the adults and the most distinctive gull around Crail at the moment

Posted August 2, 2012 by wildcrail in Sightings

%d bloggers like this: