Archive for February 2013

February 24th   Leave a comment

Fulmars getting readyfor spring  on the cliffs at Castle Walk this week

Fulmars getting readyfor spring on the cliffs at Castle Walk this week

The gannets are back. I had hundreds today passing Fife Ness and Crail in small groups. Most a long way out, but some heading into the Forth. There were kittiwakes as well. I heard that the cliffs on the May Island have now started to fill up with kittiwakes, fulmars and razorbills. Our own mini seabird cliff at Castle Walk was busy too, with six or seven pairs of fulmars. So despite the return of the cold weather, spring is still on its way.

I went to visit my best snipe patch this morning. There is a pond and an adjacent very damp field corner just at the start of the old railway line by Ragfield. I flushed a record seven snipe. They sit very tight relying on their camouflage and only fly up when you are a few meters away. When one loses its nerve and goes up, often the rest do, so suddenly an apparently empty bit of pond is full of snipe as happened this morning.

I had four magpies flying over the high street yesterday, their dry rattle giving them away as the shuttled over. They are becoming more common around Crail. We are still not in Edinburgh’s league but I think we now have as many as three pairs in Crail with three pairs at Fife Ness and Kilmining and another at Wormiston.

A highlight today was a weasel running across my path behind the golf course at Kingsbarns. It was carrying something as big as itself. I couldn’t see what it was – it was white and fluffy and could have been a mouse or a small bird. They live at super speed and I barely had enough time to take in its distinctive tiny weasel/stoat shape and the lack of a black tail tip to its tail (that identified it best as a weasel – sometimes stoats seem tiny too) before it was gone into the grass.

This is a stoat but it could just as easily be a weasel without any size reference or sight of its tail.

This is a stoat but it could just as easily be a weasel without any size reference or sight of its tail.

Posted February 24, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 19th   1 comment

There was a scaup up at Carnbee reservoir today. We only get occasional scaup flying past Crail along the coast so they are a good bird to see. They were much more common in the Forth when the sewage was simply piped out, eating the shellfish that favour fertilised waters. In some parts of Scotland they feed on the waste grain from distillery outflows so they probably have a taste for malt as well.

Female scaup - this one moulting out of winter plumage. The one at Carnbee today was much greyer on its back and flanks

Female scaup – this one moulting out of winter plumage. The one at Carnbee today was much greyer on its back and flanks

There was a stonechat also up by the reservoir. Even with the recent cold weather the winter hasn’t really been very cold overall and the stonechats will have survived well. They should continue their comeback after disappearing, more or less, from the East Neuk, after the very cold winter of a couple of years ago.

I passed the former pool at the crossroads just north of Crail. A new, fair sized pool just alongside the bit that was filled in at the end of last summer has now reformed thanks to the wet winter. The farmer will be frustrated but there were three ringed plovers happily feeding on it. These may well be early migrants. Bizarrely, there was an adult male peregrine perched on the pile of earth in the middle of the former pool only meters away from the plovers. Despite them being handy prey for the peregrine, neither species seemed bothered with the other. Fair enough for the peregrine to ignore the plovers, but the other way round? I watched the peregrine for a while and it didn’t do anything so perhaps it wasn’t hunting. But how did the plovers know?

Posted February 19, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 17th   Leave a comment

It has been a week of weather contrasts. From the snow of Wednesday to the perfect almost spring-like day today. The sea has been almost flat calm for the last couple of days as well. It has been easy to see the pairs of razorbills that are now gathering offshore in anticipation of starting breeding. There was a female long-tailed duck very close in to the shore below the cliffs at Roome Bay this afternoon. It was practically glowing in the sunshine. It was close enough in that I could see it scanning for prey before each dive, its head following things moving below the water. Long-tailed ducks eat absolutely everything – mussels, fish, crabs, insects, plants, eel-grass – and this female must have been eating small fish judging by how quickly she was tracking things underwater.

Female long-tailed duck

Female long-tailed duck

Posted February 17, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 15th   Leave a comment

LLLR in Cellardyke - one of my Crail redshanks showing divided loyalty

LLLR in Cellardyke – one of my Crail redshanks showing divided loyalty

I had a tip off that one of my colour-ringed redshanks had been seen in Ansrututher harbour on Wednesday. I went down to have a look today to see if I could find out which one it was. All my redshanks have 4 unique rings, two on each leg above their knees. They also all have two tall dark blue ones below the knee which are my scheme identifier. Even with a good view it’s tough to see all of the crucial four rings above the knee that I need to identify it as an individual. I finally tracked the bird down at Kilrenny Mill on the shore at Cellardyke. It was LLLR (lime above lime left leg, lime above red right leg) a bird I hadn’t seen in Crail since last November. Normally the adult redshanks in Crail stay put over the winter and I think this may be the case here, just that this bird has two winter homes. I caught the bird as an adult in a net across the harbour mouth on the 10th January 2012. I then didn’t see it again until July last year, and I then saw it regularly up until November, when it disappeared again. I think LLLR may spend half the winter in Crail and the second half in Cellardyke. I will have to see if it does the same next winter. This bird does complicate my estimates of survival a bit – when an adult redshank disappears from Crail mid-winter I usually assume it has died, but if some have sites outwith Crail that they might visit during the winter then they may just be somewhere else. As long as they come back to Crail though, I will see them so I just have to keep watching.

Posted February 16, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 14th   Leave a comment

Crail has been smelling a bit foxy for the last couple of weeks. Foxes have a very distinctive smell and several areas of Crail (Roome Bay, Pinkerton and Denburn) have had this very strong smell. But even though it seems to be everywhere I haven’t seen a fox in Crail for months. I finally saw one crossing the road just outside of Crail in the car headlights this evening. A fox can have a very large range – several square kilometres so it could be one very mobile individual. It’s always brilliant to see a fox: one of the few mammal species that thrives no matter what we do, getting on with it right under our noses, but usually invisibly.

Fox - one or more at large throughout Crail at the moment

Fox – one or more at large throughout Crail at the moment

Posted February 14, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 11th   Leave a comment

A sparrowhawk waiting for an opportunity in Roome Bay

A sparrowhawk waiting for an opportunity in Roome Bay

Another fantastic sea thanks to the strong easterlies and a high tide. Roome Bay was very short of beach and the redshanks were having a job roosting anywhere away from the waves. They were resorting to sitting at the base of the grassy bank above the beach. And as I watched them a female sparrowhawk shot past me just above the surf at the back of the beach. The redshanks had almost no visibility of it as they were tucked so far in to the bank. Luckily for them the oystercatchers were further out and flew off calling in alarm with the redshanks following immediately behind. The sparrowhawk passed through where they were roosting about a quarter of a second later. A very narrow escape. The sparrowhawk then flew on about 50m and perched on the rocks below the cliffs at the far end of Roome Bay. The redshanks meanwhile circled round and came almost straight back to the only bit of land available, the same spot where they had been trying to roost. A minute later the sparrowhawk was back with another rapid low attack and another near miss. The odds are really against the redshank on a very high tide when there is nowhere safe for them to go, and there is a professional sparrowhawk that knows this. I followed the sparrowhawk along the shore in the direction of the harbour. It was the same story there – no beach at all, but no redshanks. I don’t know where they had gone, but sensibly it was away from the harbour where there was definitely nowhere safe to roost.

The strong winds brought my first gannets of the year. A few were passing by Crail, moving out of the Forth where they will have been pushed. There is nothing better to see on a wild seascape than a big seabird like a gannet – albatrosses are perhaps the best, but gannets are not a bad second.

A gnnet and a big sea - perfect

A gannet and a big sea – perfect

Posted February 11, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 10th   Leave a comment

The walk down from Boarhills along the Kenly Water to the sea is guaranteed to turn up dippers. This morning there were 3-4 birds, with three having a small dispute involving chasing and calling suggesting that there are two territories now between the village and the sea. Last year I think there was only one. Working out dipper territories and densities is relatively easy. You just walk along the stream until any dipper flying away in front of you suddenly reverses direction, flying back past you, indicating the border has been reached. You are then in another territory if you see another dipper flying away from you again as you keep on walking. As well as fast flowing streams like the Kenly Water, dippers also need rocky overhangs so they can place their nests above the flowing water. This is one of the reasons they often nest under bridges. I spotted quite a few good natural nests sites along the burn this morning where slabs protruded from the steep, cliffy sides. Dippers are early nesters and will be starting to build in three or four weeks.



There was the usual flock of wigeon down at the mouth of the burn. The Brandyburn, the Cambo burn and the Kenly Water all have their flock of wigeon at the mouth. The wigeon feed mostly on the shore but obviously like their peck of fresh water. There were a pair of mute swans in the pond just north of the burn mouth. I think this must be the nearest potential nest site to Crail.

Mute swan - probably a pair resident and potentially breeding at Boarhills

Mute swan – probably a pair resident and potentially breeding at Boarhills

Posted February 10, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 9th   Leave a comment

There are signs of spring in Denburn. As well as the snowdrops and aconites there is quite a lot of bird song now despite the continuing cold weather. Today there was robin, great tit, wren, goldfinch and starling song, with a stock dove also doing its hooting (a song in intention if not in execution).

I was out at Fife Ness in the afternoon. Surprisingly there were no red-throated divers there at all, despite the numbers visible from Crail yesterday. I scanned the sea from St Andrews to the May Island. Perhaps they are all further in the Forth. There was a good flock of 10 or so sanderling on Balcomie beach, running along the tide edge and picking amongst the washed in wrack.

Sanderling picking through the wrack on Balcomie Beach

Sanderling picking through the wrack on Balcomie Beach

Posted February 9, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 8th   Leave a comment

I was out first thing tramping across the stubble field behind Sauchope looking for the lapland bunting of yesterday. Half of the field had been ploughed since yesterday lunchtime but it was still full of starlings, linnets, yellowhammers, skylarks and three corn buntings. No Lapland bunting but an unexpected female merlin hunting across the field in between perching on the fence posts on the edge. I noticed it initially because I heard a snatch of skylark song. Whenever you hear a skylark singing in the winter, you look for the merlin, because skylarks that are able to, sing when they are being chased. The merlins get put off by the clear evidence of the vigour of the skylark – able to sing while being chased straight upwards – and they often give up, saving both the skylark and the merlin a long and fruitless chase. The merlin was causing chaos, putting up the birds in the stubble but without any success over the half an hour it made forays over the field.

I went back in the afternoon and the merlin was still there along with a kestrel. With so many small birds concentrated in one small stubble field (and with the ploughing, getting smaller) it wouldn’t have made sense for the merlin to move on. It may have been using the plough to help its hunting. Merlins often follow behind people or horses or vehicles that might flush up otherwise cryptic birds like skylarks. Once, when I was in Kazakstan and in a van travelling through some dry steppe we had two merlins, one on either side keeping pace with us. They were just a few meters from the windows, dashing at the lesser short-toed larks we were disturbing as we passed.

The brent goose is still in Roome Bay just below the swings. And a flock of ten wigeon now at the mouth of the Brandyburn. That makes eight species of waterfowl in Roome Bay now: mallard, wigeon, goldeneye, long-tailed duck, eider, common scoter, red-breasted merganser and of course the brent goose. They are all there and easy to see. And if you have a telescope then farther out there are lots red-throated divers. I counted over 12 in one scan out from the bay today.

A proper photo of a brent goose - this one from the Eden estuary, last week but the one in Roome Bay is just like this

A proper photo of a brent goose – this one from the Eden estuary, last week but the one in Roome Bay is just like this

Posted February 8, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 7th   Leave a comment

The brent goose down at Roome Bay this afternoon enjoying the algae

The brent goose down at Roome Bay this afternoon enjoying the algae

There is a pale-bellied brent goose down on the weedy rocks just below the play park at Roome Bay. Last year there was one there for a few days around the 18th Februrary. I bet it is the same goose. Wintering birds are creatures of habit and go back to the same sites each year, whether it’s a whitethroat to the same bush in the middle of Nigeria, or a redshank to Crail harbour. It’s a bit wary but tolerant of people walking on the path above it, so it’s a great opportunity to see a brent goose at close quarters.

The stubble field just north of Saucehope caravan park was full of birds this afternoon. Hundreds of starlings and linnets, and a full set of buntings: yellowhammers, reed buntings, a couple of corn buntings and probably a lapland bunting. I had a couple of tantalising views of what was probably a lapland bunting but the other species made it difficult to keep track of the bird in question. Later in the afternoon one was reported from the same field so that seems a bit too coincidental for me not to have seen one today. But it doesn’t really count on the Crail year list unless I’m sure so I will try to track it down again tomorrow.

Posted February 7, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending February 3rd   Leave a comment

The eiders are very busy down at the harbour making the best duck noises on the planet, although the male’s call doesn’t sound very ducky. The males make a soft, human like “whoar-whoar” call while the females respond by saying “no-no-no-no-no” in a much more, matter of fact duck like way. The males throw their heads back to show themselves off as they call – most duck species make this courtship gesture. The sex ratio down at the harbour is about 50:50, but still the competition seems intense with males occasionally having a scrap. The females are looking out for the best plumaged and most vigorously displaying males. This will indicate whether they are good foragers and in good health, which will in turn indicate whether they have good genes for their ducklings. This will be all the males will contribute. Whether the males might be good providers or not is irrelevant. The females do everything themselves after mating and the drakes leave them totally alone when incubation starts.

A handsome eider male hoping to impress

A handsome eider male hoping to impress

The males may perhaps refind their females again in the winter, and eiders can live for 15 years if they are lucky. I suspect our Crail eiders are the same birds every year, so females are likely to be back next door to their males in the harbour or Roome Bay after their breeding period on the Isle of May. Aberdeenshire breeding eiders, however, winter in the Firth of Tay, so this might not necessarily be so. More ringing and marking of eiders is needed to be sure whether our wintering birds stay local all year round. But I’m not sure how you would go about catching them. There is a story from Iceland that if you lie on your back and waggle your feet in the air in a breeding colony then the females will come close and investigate and you can catch them then. I’m not sure I believe that because the eiders on the Isle of May are so tame on their nests that it would simply be easier to just put a large butterfly net over them, or even just pick them up directly from the nest. I have done this with ptarmigan on the Cairngorms (with the proper licence I should add). They will stay sitting even as you tilt them gently up from their nest so you can count their eggs underneath, and after gently lowering them down again. Maybe picking an eider off the nest is too easy and the Icelanders are giving themselves a challenge.

There are at least 5 purple sandpiper now on the large rocky outcrop just out from the play park in Roome Bay. You really do need to look hard to see them creeping around at the water’s edge but they are there fairly reliably most mid-tides (low tide too I suspect but then they really do disappear into the maze of revealed rocks). They are quite tame so if you go out onto the rocks (easier at Fife Ness) you can get quite close if you put the time in as John’s photos show.

Purple sandpipers are easy (or as easy as they ever are) to see in Roome Bay just now

Purple sandpipers are easy (or as easy as they ever are) to see in Roome Bay just now

I was down on Kingsbarn’s Beach again on Sunday morning. There are still plenty of long-tailed ducks out on the sea and a flock of wigeon down at the burn mouth at Cambo. The rooks are getting ready to start breeding in the rookery there. They have been cawing and scrapping over nests since the New Year but it is getting more earnest. They lay eggs in the middle of March which is still a long way off, yet many birds seem to be spending hours at the nests every day. I also saw a flock of goldcrests and a treecreeper on one of the rookery trees. Goldcrests are often elusive in the Crail area outside the autumn migration period and they get hammered by the very cold weather because they are so tiny. So these were my first for the year for Crail.

Rook - a noisy, colonial early breeder

Rook – a noisy, colonial early breeder

Posted February 3, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

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