Archive for September 2012

September 28th   Leave a comment

My garden is full of ticking robins. I usually only have one in my back garden but first thing this morning there were three or four. All grumpily ticking at each other and trying to assert their authority. Yesterday I noticed that there were robins everywhere. More of the storm’s work although the robins were probably on their way here anyway from Scandinavia, they just got here a bit quicker. This robin song and dance is a feature of Crail every year as the winter migrants slot into the spaces between our residents for the winter.

Robin – Crail had many new arrivals today for the winter

The sea was nearly flat calm today until the, now westerly, wind got up again. It seems almost impossible to imagine what it was like two days ago. There are still lots of guillemots in Roome Bay taking it easy and a steady passage of sandwich terns. Otherwise the sea was quiet today with even the gannets in short supply.

Juvenile gannets passing Crail in the storm on Tuesday – I couldn’t resist posting this brilliant photo as a reminder


Posted September 28, 2012 by aboutcrail in Sightings

September 27th   Leave a comment

A bluethroat was seen down at Balcomie first thing this morning. We used to get a lot more bluethroats here and the numbers on the Isle of May were legendary, but in the last ten years they have got fewer and fewer. Bluethroats, unusually amongst migrants are doing OK overall in Europe, so their near disappearance from Crail seems to be something to do with either changing weather during migration, or their populations changing. Certainly the Swedish population has been in decline while populations in Holland have increased. The Swedish birds that start their migration well to the northeast of us are much more likely to make it to Crail on their way down, whereas the Dutch birds start of to the south of us. The result is that bluethroats are now much harder to see around Crail. And this is on top of the fact that any that turn up are really hard to see anyway. Bluethroats are skulkers favouring ditches and long grass. You can see where I might be going with this. Bluethroats are special birds to see, I haven’t seen one in Crail and I didn’t manage to see the bird this morning. Chasing birds has its disappointments sometimes. I stumped around the cabbage field and grassy edges of Balcomie for an hour this morning but no luck. Later on I tried to see a barred warbler reported from Fife Ness at lunchtime with the same result. Not so much pressure for a barred warbler and as I have written before, they are even worse skulkers than bluethroats, so my expectations were low. Even so, a contrast to the highlights of the last two days.

Lesser whitethroat – a new migrant seen at Balcomie today

There were the remnants of the winds still around today – the bluethroat and the barred warbler for example. I did see a spotted flycatcher and a lesser whitethroat at Balcomie. And, bizarrely, a guillemot in the cabbage field as I searched for the bluethroat. There will have been a lot of other auks blown inland (“wrecked”) by the storms and a lot of them will also wash up on the beaches over the next few days.

Guillemot – there have been a lot close in at Roome Bay, some of them will be damaged and poorly after the storm


Posted September 27, 2012 by aboutcrail in Sightings

September 26th   Leave a comment

Arctic skua chasing a sandwich tern – as if the winds weren’t bad enough for the terns, they still have to evade the skuas

I was out at Fife Ness at dawn to see what the winds had brought in. The winds were still strong and from the north-east, the sea wild, and there were a couple of heavy showers. So not perfect for looking for small birds. I didn’t have much luck in the patch at first, but there were a lot of goldcrests that were probably migrants. I sat and sea watched for an hour and had more luck. There was a steady stream of little gulls, kittiwakes and sandwich terns leaving the Forth. An occasional great and arctic skua were doing the same, both species chasing any sandwich terns that had a go at fishing in the still very rough sea. The highlight was a red-necked grebe labouring by around the Ness and very close in to minimise the effect of the head wind. Red-necked grebes are more common in the inner Forth in the winter but are very good birds from Crail – only one or two every year. They are common in northern and eastern Europe but a rare winter visitor for us.

At lunchtime a red-breasted flycatcher was found at Kilminning. I went down there as soon as I could. The signs were excellent as I parked, a male redstart in the bush next door to me, and then as I walked over to the small crowd gathered under the sycamores I heard a pied flycatcher. The storm’s small bird migrants at last. The red-breasted flycatcher had been showing well just before I arrived but I had a few twitchy minutes of not seeing it. This would be the first for me since 2004. Suddenly there it was perched just a few meters away. A lovely bird and a great view. John was beside me and got his first ever good red-breasted flycatcher pictures as it perched relatively motionless in front of us for half a minute. It was a first year bird. Like many chats and thrushes, including robins, first year birds have a distinct buffy wing bar. It could be the same bird that was seen on Saturday, it was only a 30 second flycatcher flight from Balcomie Castle. I doubt it though, the storm brought in red-breasted flycatchers all along the east coast yesterday.

The red-breasted flycatcher at Kilminning today

Denburn later in the afternoon still had a spotted flycatcher or two in it along the now sunny graveyard edge. The little gulls have mostly gone from Roome Bay – only one juvenile with the gulls bathing at the Brandyburn. I imagine the gulls feel very salty after such a storm. Even if they didn’t land in the sea, flying above it must have been almost like swimming through salt. By the evening the sea was calm, the little gulls only passing Crail far out in ones and twos, and no shearwaters or skuas. Back to normal tomorrow, although I hope a few migrants will hang around to the weekend and more may well be found left over from the storm.

Another little gull – just because they look so brilliant

Posted September 26, 2012 by aboutcrail in Sightings

September 25th   Leave a comment

What a day! There have been strong easterlies since Sunday evening and they turned into a full blown gale by yesterday afternoon. The wind peaked early this morning with gusts of 60 miles an hour, although mostly it was about 40. There are several trees or large bits of trees down in Denburn. The sea watching has been brilliant. The visibility has not been great though, with the winds blowing up so much spray that it was like a thin fog. As it began to die down mid-morning I could finally see what was passing. Almost all of it going east and back out of the Forth after being blown in. It has been a constant spectacle since then. Perhaps not as exciting as the Inner Forth has been today, where everything was concentrated, but pretty good nonetheless. I try to avoid just listing but it seems unavoidable today. Sooty shearwaters, manx shearwaters, great skuas, arctic skuas, a great northern diver, guillemots (thousands) razorbills, gannets, puffins, two slavonian grebes (very good Crail birds), little gulls, kittiwakes, velvet scoters, common scoters, teal, wigeon, fulmars, a pink-footed goose, red-throated divers, red-breasted mergansers and sandwich terns. The thing about good sea watching is that you stay still and a conveyor belt of birds comes by, every so often a really good one, dipping in and out of sight behind the tall waves and then gone. But always followed by something else. It’s very addictive, you just want to wait for the next bird, and today waiting was constantly rewarded. Just shuffle the list above, with another 20 other species in a never repeating sequence. And all to a back drop of a breath taking sea with huge waves dwarfing the two meter wing span gannets.

Guillemot, one of thousands passing Crail today and trying to leave the Forth

All the time the easterlies are bringing in migrants as well. There wasn’t much point looking for them today. Far too windy and they will keep coming in tonight and more will be brought down by tonight’s rain. Tomorrow, however, will be a different story. As I sea watched out of my window I did see a wheatear in my garden. A new garden bird for me bringing my garden list up to 123. Wheatears normally like open places, but I think a bit of sheltered foraging was in order today even for a wheatear. I did have a quick walk around Denburn. I saw a couple of spotted flycatchers and a chiff-chaff on the sheltered side of the wood by the churchyard. There will be much more in there to find tomorrow.

Roome Bay had about 10 little gulls feeding there. One or two were very close in and feeding like storm petrels. Hovering into the wind like a kite just above the surface of the sea and then walking on the water with their dangling feet, occasionally pecking the surface. I think they may be my favourite gull (although kittiwakes are pretty special too). If you are down at Roome Bay tomorrow check the black-headed gulls carefully. Look for a smaller gull without black in its upperwings contrasting with a smoky grey underwing. Little gulls feed far out at sea off Fife Ness at this time of year but the strong winds have blown them closer today. I have never had such good views of little gulls in Crail, usually they are a technical far out identification based on the flashing black and white of their under and upperwing patterns. It was the same with the puffins today. I never see them at sea after August, but today a lot must have been blown in to us from far out in the North Sea. All the birds I saw were young of this year and all hurrying as fast as the headwind would allow back out to sea

A little gull, passing by Crail, looking even tinier than usual against the monstrous seas


Posted September 25, 2012 by aboutcrail in Sightings

September 23rd   Leave a comment

I was up at first light this morning and was rewarded with the sunrise over the sea as I cycled out to Balcomie. It has been another beautiful but cold day today. At dawn there was no wind and little cloud. Ideal conditions for seeing and hearing rare migrant birds, but not so good for them still being there. Migrants tend to depart on clear still nights. Rainy and windy weather keeps them around. So perhaps it was no surprise that both the yellow-browed warbler and the red-breasted flycatcher were not to be found at Balcomie this morning. Still it was a lovely day with pink-feet passing in the distance and a big mixed flock of tits (including the 10 or so long-tailed tits from yesterday still around and not as predicted in Crail today), goldcrests, a few chiff-chaffs and a willow warbler to maintain interest as I searched. The winds are going to blow much more strongly from the south-east and east from this evening onwards so hopefully there will be more migrants on the way to make up for this morning’s disappointment.

House martin fledglings – some still in the nest even though its late September

I think a lot of our resident swallows left this week. There are still a lot of swallows about, but all congregated in odd places as if they are passing migrants. Our house martins are still here, and indeed some are still breeding. They are notoriously late breeders sometimes  broods right into October. There are a couple of pairs up at Balcomie Castle still feeding young in the nest today for example.

The green sandpiper has been around most of the week as predicted. I should think it is the same bird shuttling between the pools because nothing else at all has been passing through this week. John got some excellent photos of it a couple of days ago at the Troustie House pool. Green sandpipers winter in the UK in relatively small numbers so it could stay around a lot longer.

Green sandpiper at Troustie

Posted September 23, 2012 by aboutcrail in Sightings

September 22nd   Leave a comment

A first winter peregrine – to be seen hunting out at Balcomie and Wormiston at the moment

The wind has moved easterly and then north-easterly since Thursday afternoon. As a result a common rosefinch turned up on the May Island yesterday. So today looked fairly hopeful for Crail for some unusual migrants. I started in Denburn but all was quiet apart from the now very many singing robins and the usual flocks of tits and goldcrests. I had a tramp over the stubble fields at Wormiston Farm looking for an early lapland bunting, but again all was fairly quiet. Only a few skylarks and as the two species go together there was little point in searching hard. I did see a peregrine stooping at a small bird over the stubble. Probably one of the skylarks. It went to ground and the peregrine gave up. Skylarks are more usually hunted by merlins and a common response on being chased is for the skylarks to land and freeze. This doesn’t necessarily work against merlins that simply land too and then start running over the ground until they flush up the larks again. But for peregrines it is a winning response. Peregrines never land (or at least I have never seen them land) to pursue prey on the ground. The unsuccessful peregrine flew strongly up and began to soar, gaining height rapidly. I lost it as a dot against the clouds as it drifted towards Cambo.

Balcomie and Fife Ness were much as last weekend. Perhaps more sandwich terns. There was a single whimbrel on the beach at Balcomie. As I got to Fife Ness I met a birder who told me that he had seen a red-breasted flycatcher (a once in every 5 years bird for us) and a yellow-browed warbler (an autumn regular but still only a handful every year) at Balcomie Castle. So the chase was on. I cycled up the Balcomie straight away. I didn’t manage to find the red-breasted flycatcher, even after expanding the search into Kilminning. But they are small and often elusive and it was resighted briefly by someone else later in the afternoon pretty much where it was first seen at the castle. I will try again tomorrow. It should be less windy which will make it easier to find in the tops of the elms and sycamores that it is frequenting. I did refind the yellow-browed warbler. Always a great bird to see and this one was even better than usual. Often they are high above in a dense sycamore and rarely give good views. This one was feeding in the deserted cottage garden just north (directly behind) the castle and the bushes there are only a couple of meters high and without many leaves. I was spoilt by watching the warbler at a distance of a couple of meters, often in full view. At one point it caught a largish caterpillar and so the warbler stopped its flitting to get it under control. And all directly in front of me. I was able to see its lovely large eyestripe, the very faint crown stripe, the double wing bars and its white tipped tertials (innermost wing feathers) just as in the field guides.

Yellow-browed warbler – not today’s bird but John is working on it. He should get that fantastic photo tomorrow if the bird today is still doing the same tomorrow

On my search for the elusive rb fly (that’s birder shorthand for red-breasted flycatcher – much easier to text) I bumped into a flock of long-tailed tits. These are one of those species that is common everywhere else but rare in Crail because of our near island status on the edge of Fife. They are always very noisy and gregarious, staying in their big family parties right through the winter. They were working their way along the sycamores on the road between Kilminning and Crail. They are probably in Crail this evening so look out for them in your garden tomorrow if you are here.

Long-tailed tit – rare in Crail

Posted September 22, 2012 by aboutcrail in Sightings

September 18th   Leave a comment

Grey plover on Balcomie beach

I was working at home today so sneaked off for a quick walk around Fife Ness at lunchtime. There was an interesting gathering of waders along the high strand line, far above the water’s edge. A grey plover, ringed plovers, dunlin, bar-tailed godwits, redshanks and oystercatchers. I can only think they were feeding on sand hoppers from the seaweed. Waders tend to stay away from the top of the shore except when the tide forces them close. The chance of a merlin or a sparrowhawk sneaking up on them is much greater. But today the feeding may have been too good up there to forego. The tides are spectacularly high this week (the equinox) so all the sandhoppers will have been forced up to the very top of the beach and so are probably very concentrated and easy to find.

There was a single female wheatear on a fence post next to the golf course, probably making a day or two’s stop with us before continuing on its way down to the Sahel. I was reading a paper about wheatear migration this week. Three wheatears that had been tagged with minute light recording loggers (and so that record latitude and longitude) had returned to Alaska a year after tagging with a complete record of their autumn and summer migration. All the way from Alaska to east Africa via Asia and the Middle East. The longest migration recorded for any small bird. On the way south they go half as fast when they return in the spring. There are penalties for arriving late to breed – like the knots I was talking about on the 16th– so speed is important then, but there is probably no problem arriving in Africa late for the winter. Autumn migrating birds can afford to take their time. Consequently the migration season is much longer in the autumn and also rare birds stay around a bit longer before moving on.

First winter (born this summer) wheatear at Balcomie today

There are still some young swallows about. An adult was still feeding some fledglings at Craighead Farm today. The young have been sitting on the short grass of the nearby golf course waiting to be fed. They look very odd on the ground.

Young swallows waiting to be fed on the first tee at Balcomie

Posted September 18, 2012 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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