Archive for January 2013

January 27th   Leave a comment

Long-tailed duck doing what it does best - 2/3rds of it time is spent underwater when it is foraging

Long-tailed duck doing what it does best – 2/3rds of it time is spent underwater when it is foraging

I was out at Balcomie Beach this morning. Even though the temperature was up a few degrees on yesterday it felt much colder in the open. The wind was from the south-west and very chilly bringing showers with it. Everything must have been taking shelter. There was almost nothing to see that wasn’t out on the sea where there can be no escape from the wind anyway. The long-tailed ducks are still in Balcomie Bay. Four this morning and a few more flying along the coast. Long-tailed ducks spend more time below the water than above it so they can be hard to count. Any scan across an expanse of sea will miss two-thirds of the ducks at any one time. Another problem with counting long-tails is their mobility. At the moment there is concern that numbers of long-tailed ducks are declining seriously across Europe and particularly in the UK. But we only have wintering birds and ducks are notoriously fickle with changing weather, staying put rather than migrating if conditions allow. The Americans call this “frame bias” – where a duck counter in one state might report a worrying decline in a species where a counter in a neighbouring state might report an increase. Overall no problem if you have a big enough spatial frame for the counts and consider the two states as the same population. We also have this problem across Europe. Good counts in some places (Western Europe) and poorer elsewhere (Russia for example). So a decline in Western Europe may be simply a redistribution, with an increase not being recorded in another location. With long-tailed ducks that winter along any stretch of coast right up to the Arctic, regardless of who is there to count them, this may well be the case. Then again a rapid decline of a bird population globally is not particularly unusual these days. I hope it’s just frame bias: long-tailed ducks are one of best Crail winter birds and I love being able to see them every time I look out to sea.

There was a white-billed diver out at the Isle of May on Wednesday. I have been checking the sea regularly since then in a forlorn hope of seeing this very rare species. The last ones I saw were 11 years ago in the high Arctic of North America, and one this far south is very unusual indeed. I have only seen our usual red-throated divers in the last few days.

Red-throated diver (sadly not carrying a banana which is what a white-billed diver looks like)

Red-throated diver (sadly not carrying a banana which is what a white-billed diver looks like)


Posted January 27, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

January 23rd   Leave a comment

As I drove into St Andrews this morning I saw what I thought was a buzzard in the roadside tree at the entrance to East Newhall Farm (just before Cambo). As I passed, just meters away, I realised it was actually an adult female peregrine. I think this is the same bird I have been seeing in the area for the last week or so. The one catching the pigeon last week was also quite tolerant of human disturbance. It’s turning into a great January for peregrine watching and the area around Wormiston seems to be the best place.

Posted January 23, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

January 22nd   Leave a comment

The storms of the last two days finally started to die down this afternoon. The wind was south-east creating a huge swell and some fantastic breakers off Sauchope. Even the great black-backed gulls were sheltering in a stubble field at Pinkerton – a flock of about 30. It’s really unusual to see them in the fields like the other gull species. There were three long-tailed ducks and 14 goldeneyes on the sea close by the beach in Roome Bay– more signs of the severity of the storm. It can’t have been much fun out beyond the relative shelter of the bay.

Great black-backed gull in the storm

Great black-backed gull in the storm

As I walked past the beach I noticed all of the usual rock pipits up in the air circling about apparently aimlessly despite the wind. The reason became clear. There was a male sparrowhawk on the beach shuffling about next to one of the creels washed up on the strandline. It had obviously been hunting over the beach, disturbing the rock pipits, and I think it must have gone for one of the wrens that often feed along the strandline. And perhaps one took shelter in the creel in the absence of a bush. I didn’t find out for sure as the sparrowhawk flew off in response to me. You often see sparrowhawks hanging optimistically around bushes where their intended victim has taken cover and this looked just the same. I hadn’t thought of the many creels washing up on the beach as being anything other than junk, but they may well provide some useful cover for the small birds feeding there.

Posted January 23, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

January 20th   Leave a comment

There were some more signs of the cold weather bringing birds to us down at the airfield, north of the Kiminning entrance this morning. A flock of at least 100 lapwings joining the resident flock of golden plovers. Down at Fife Ness and Balcomie it was relatively quiet though. Ringed plovers on the beach and more cormorants than usual on the sea, coupled with a notable absence of shags. The winds had not brought any interesting seabirds in close to the shore. The stubble field adjacent to Pinkerton is still full of skylarks (and I suppose pretty much every other stubble field in the area now – there is nothing special about the Pinkerton field). There are several hundred pink-footed geese still in the Troustrie area.

Lapwing - another cold weather bir for Crail

Lapwing – another cold weather bird for Crail

Posted January 20, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

January 19th   Leave a comment

Kestrel - keeping out of the way of the peregrines

Kestrel – keeping out of the way of the peregrines

I saw a peregrine pass over my garden this morning – on its own and probably an adult female. There was a kestrel hovering over the gardens by the Brandyburn. It saw the peregrine too and responded by soaring rapidly up to the same height as the peregrine and then heading off in the opposite direction. Peregrines have been known to hunt and catch kestrels and they also rob them of their prey so the two don’t mix from the kestrel’s point of view. Lots of potential prey species of peregrines respond by trying to get above the peregrine so removing its ability to stoop down on them. The regularly hunting peregrine, or peregrines, above Crail just now will be affecting the distribution and behaviour of their prey – the gulls, waders, pigeons and starlings – but also the other “lesser” predators like sparrowhawks and kestrels that are also potential targets of a seriously hunting peregrine. The small birds that peregrines ignore, but that are usually threatened by sparrowhawks and occasionally kestrels may then have it a bit easier.

Posted January 19, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

January 17th   1 comment

There are signs that the continuing cold weather is now bringing in birds from further inland to the snow and relatively frost free Crail area. I had about 50 skylarks in the stubble field just east of Pinkerton today. You have no idea they are there until you tramp across the field. Then a whole flock will suddenly flush and the sky will be full of birds. There were meadow pipits, linnets and reed buntings there as well. And a female sparrowhawk gliding along the fence line attracted to the small birds as well. No peregrine/buzzard interactions today but I saw a pair of adult peregrines flying into Crail from the Wormiston area mid-afternoon, almost certainly the pair from yesterday. Keeping close together and flying very fast over the rooftops like a pair of low-flying fighter aircraft – they must be a terrifying prospect to everything that can fly in Crail at the moment.

The peregrine pair were back hunting over Crail today - this is an adult female

The peregrine pair were back hunting over Crail today – this is an adult female

Posted January 17, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

January 16th   Leave a comment

Male and female peregrine today watching the buzzard eating their pigeon - the female is larger. Taken with my phone through my binoculars but still fairly close to me!

Male and female peregrine today watching the buzzard eating their pigeon – the female is larger. Taken with my phone through my binoculars but still fairly close to me!

The buzzard and peregrine thieving story continued today with another exciting chapter, again out over the fields behind Pinkerton. As I walked down to road to the caravan park I noticed that a flock of curlews was flying away from the airfield very rapidly followed by immediately by all the gulls heading in the same direction. When everything heads off as fast as they can this usually means a seriously hunting raptor is on the way and sure enough two peregrines appeared flying towards Pinkerton with a fast, clearly directed flight. A flock of feral pigeons flew up from the stubble just as I saw the peregrines and one of the hawks accelerated rapidly towards them. It stooped down at the circling flock and one of the pigeons became separated. The second peregrine then dived in to head off the singleton and forced it back towards the first peregrine. Two more stoops and then the first peregrine almost lazily swooped back up under the pigeon and grabbed it a few meters above the field. The peregrine landed immediately with the pigeon and the second peregrine flew down to land nearby. It then became clear that they were both adults and a male and a female (females are larger but often this is only really clear if they are side by side as in the photo alongside), and so almost certainly a pair. Co-operative hunting by pairs is unusual but not unheard of and I have only seen it a couple of times in my life, but none as clearly coordinated and as professional as this pair.

So far so good, but then the story took on a very unusual twist. The male flew up again after the female mantled the pigeon (spread its wings to cover the prey to more or less communicate that the prey is not going to be shared) and landed on a nearby telephone pole. But then it suddenly started calling quietly as if alerting the female and I noticed a buzzard approaching from the airfield, but several hundred meters away. The male peregrine then flew quickly straight towards the buzzard and started mobbing it, stooping at it very aggressively so the buzzard was forced to turn upside down and present its talons to the diving falcon several times. This went on for a minute as the buzzard closed in on the female peregrine. The female peregrine attempted to fly off with the pigeon, but possibly did not have a good grip on its prey and landed after a few meters. The buzzard had now reached the female and stooped down on it. The peregrine flew off without the pigeon and the buzzard then claimed it. The female peregrine then started to mob the buzzard but it mantled the pigeon and simply ducked every time the falcon passed close over it. The male peregrine was still flying nearby but didn’t help this time. After a minute or so the female gave up and both the male and female peregrine flew to the adjacent telephone pole and perched watching the buzzard.

The buzzard then started feeding on the pigeon with the peregrines watching. After a few minutes a second buzzard appeared and perched on a nearby fence post. It then dived at the first buzzard and a small scuffle ensued on the ground. I think the second buzzard then got the pigeon, or at least a part of it. Meanwhile a couple of carrion crows had now turned up, and as you might be guessing, they started mobbing the buzzards to try to get the pigeon too. At this point the peregrines left, first the male and then the female in very rapid hunting style flights over Crail – probably in disgust, the pigeon was well and truly lost to them by then.

So my theory that a local buzzard or buzzards are specialising in robbing peregrines (it’s called kleptoparasitism in the scientific literature – lots of predators do it) seems to be being borne out. To see two peregrine kills and both being stolen by buzzards in such a short time is exceptionally lucky, unless it is happening quite frequently. I will keep my eyes open, especially in the fields to the east of Crail. It was certainly a very exciting 5 minutes, right up there with anything I have seen watching wildlife for 40 years, and right on our doorstep.

Peregrine 0 - Buzzard 2

Peregrine 0 – Buzzard 2

Posted January 16, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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