Archive for March 2013

March 31st   Leave a comment

There are not so many washed up dead puffins at all on the beaches between Fife Ness and Crail. I think this suggests that they died further out at sea, and not in the Forth, and the prevailing winds are responsible for washing them up eventually on the east facing shores like Balcomie and Kingsbarns.

It’s been a beautiful weekend but still bitterly cold. The herring gulls have beeen enjoying their annual easter egg rolling harvest. There is some sign of birds resuming breeding. There are two female blackbirds in my front garden that are constantly scrapping while the male looks on fairly ineffectually. Both females look like older birds, while the male is a first time breeder (very bright bills on the females but not on the male is how I’m guessing this). Female blackbirds are as aggressive and territorial as the males.

The frog spawn in Denburn has disappeared completely. I can’t believe it has been warm enough to hatch. There are tens of large sticklebacks so I suspect the spawn has been eaten instead.

The tides have been very high this week with the gulls and ducks feeding as usual on the surf’s edge in Roome Bay on the washed out seaweed maggots. We still have a full complement of the winter ducks in Roome Bay including the common scoters, red-breasted merganser, goldeneyes and wigeon.

Male wigeon feeding on seaweed fly maggots washed out by the high tide

Male wigeon feeding on seaweed fly maggots washed out by the high tide (you can see a couple floating to the left)


Posted March 31, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 29th   2 comments

An ex-sea parrot  - one of the 51 puffins  I found today on the beach at Balcomie

An ex-sea parrot – one of the 51 puffins I found today on the beach at Balcomie

The scale of the seabird “wreck” brought on by last week’s storms is becoming clearer. I walked from the far end of Balcomie Beach to Fife Ness and counted 51 dead puffins. That’s more or less just 1 kilometre of strandline I checked. So it is likely that thousands are along the shore from Kingsbarns to Crail. I heard that at least a hundred are to be found on Kingsbarns Beach as well. Some of the puffins were still in the process of being washed in by the tide, some were very fresh and others had been dead several days. My impression was that many had died well out to sea and they were still washing in. We think puffins do suffer mass mortalities in severe storms but this usually happens very far out in the North Sea so we don’t see the aftermath. I suspect we are seeing so many just now because the puffins were starting to come closer to the shore for the breeding season on the May Island when they were caught out by this set of storms. It’s hard to know what’s normal or not, but certainly large wrecks of puffin have happened many times before. This might be larger than usually recorded, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worrying: we might just be in a better position to count the dead birds. Interestingly, I counted just 2 razorbills and 1 guillemot amongst the puffins. They start to breed a bit earlier so perhaps they sheltered in the lee of the May Island. There were 6 shags on the beach as well, one with a ring from the May. I found one little auk, although it had been eaten by a raptor. Only the wings were left and there were notches in its keel. A sparrowhawk or a merlin had probably found it weak and floundering on the beach and caught it easily.

I also found a couple of lapwings washed up just like the puffins. As I wrote yesterday there are a load of lapwings about Crail that were probably grounded by the storm. Today I counted another 200 or so between Crail and Fife Ness. So I think my theory is correct about them being migrants driven here by the easterlies, with many others not making it and ending up in the sea. There are many more blackbirds and song thrushes in the pasture fields around the airfield as well suggesting that these are grounded migrants as well.

Balcomie Beach is also full of washed up bones from cuttlefish. They are usually a bit of a find, but not today. Shame I don’t have a budgie. There is no sign of any fresh cuttlefish so I don’t think these died in the storms, so perhaps the waves disturbed the seabed where they were lying. Certainly the beach is also full of mangled creels showing that it must have been very violent underwater as well.

Cuttlefish bone - also lots washed up on the beach at Balcomie today

Cuttlefish bone – also lots washed up on the beach at Balcomie today

Posted March 29, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 28th   Leave a comment

There is a flock of about 75 lapwing at the turn off to Wormiston on the St Andrews road at the moment. They are feeding in the weedy field on the east side of the road in between using the temporary pool on the other side of the road. We don’t often have such big flocks hanging around. I wonder if they were a migrating flock grounded by the storms. Other more obvious signs of the recent storms are puffins turning up at harbour beach (both dead and alive) and a long-tailed duck female which is now feeding regularly inside the harbour at high tide. It’s a rare chance to get a very close view of a long-tailed duck. When it’s not in the harbour it will be just off harbour beach.

Lapwings - a big flock just outside Crail today

Lapwings – a big flock just outside Crail today

Posted March 28, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending March 24th   Leave a comment

It has been another wild week of weather with blistering easterly winds for much of the end of the week combined with freezing temperatures. This time last year, on the 27th of March, we had a maximum of 21 degrees as part of some more equally unseasonal weather, but in the opposite direction. It is always interesting living in the UK and it really is no wonder that we talk so much about the weather. Last year the unseasonally warm temperatures brought migrants like swallows up to Scotland much earlier than usual and then they were caught out as the temperatures dropped again at the beginning of April. At least this year things can only get better and the migrants are largely out of it.

A fulmar in the storm - at least they are enjoying it

A fulmar in the storm – they will be enjoying it

There have been a smattering of migrant sightings from England so far – early migrants like wheatears and sand martins, and even some later ones like swallows. But the majority will not have been tempted to northern Europe just yet. Which is a very good thing considering that even the residents will have found this week tough. Any early nesting attempts by song thrushes and blackbirds will be firmly on hold. And all the careful rebuilding of the heronries and rookeries will have been undone again. The frogs were tempted to lay some more spawn in the Denburn on the slightly sunny and warmer days earlier this week. But it won’t be developing much this week and so the period of vulnerability of the eggs to fish and other predators will be extended. So this early spawn may be largely doomed. It will be interesting to see if more appears. Certainly any later spawning frogs will have the advantage this year.

The seas at the end of this week have again been mountainous. Even if we have not had the snow, the spume being blown inland has been almost as good. Divers and grebes have been moving into the more sheltered waters of the Forth. Even big, tough seabirds like great northern divers will move inshore in storms like this. I have spent the end of the week in Southern Ireland. The southwest of Ireland is sharing the very strong winds, if not quite the cold weather, and I saw more great northern divers on Saturday than I have seen in the last 10 years in the Forth, in the many sheltered inlets and firths along the coast of Cork.

Great northern diver - a bird to look out for from Crail after the storms

Great northern diver – a bird to look out for from Crail after the storms

One of the other residents that will have put nesting on hold this week is the dunnock. Dunnocks (also called hedge sparrows, or by the bird naming police – yes they exist – hedge accentors) are one of the commonest birds in Crail, but they are often completely overlooked. For a start they are dull brownish and grey, and they creep around on the ground often in the company of house sparrows where they blend in. Their song is also an unexceptional dry, dull warble. They are so unremarkable that we have the phrase “as dull as a dunnock”. I don’t agree, as you might imagine (there is no such thing as a dull bird of course). They are worth looking out for, not least because you often see them in threes. This is because females will quite frequently have two males on the go, both of which contribute to fathering her chicks and then to feeding them. This arrangement might be good for the female, but is problematic for the males and there is intense competition for the opportunity to mate just before an egg is laid, because this is their best insurance of being the father. The female however can’t show favouritism so it can sufficiently convince both males that they are the father to enlist both of their help. Have a look at the dunnocks in your garden over the next couple of weeks as the weather warms up. The goings on are anything but dull as the males try to get exclusive rights to the female while the female does her best to get them to share. You will see a lot of scrapping and wing flapping and chasing. There are other things that go on but I will leave those for you to discover!

As dull as a dunnock?

As dull as a dunnock?

Posted March 24, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 17th   Leave a comment

Two species of thrush are singing in the early morning around Crail. Both have very nice musical songs but their tones are completely different. Song thrushes have very loud, insistent and repetitive songs, whereas blackbirds have more thoughtful, musical phrases. The only other musical singer at the moment is a robin but it has a flatter and more twittery song. It’s hard to describe bird song in words. But now is not a bad time to learn these three common singers because there won’t be anything else singing well just now – the summer warblers won’t be here for a month. And all three species sing from the top of a bush, tree or house so it’s easy to associate the song with the singer.

Male blackbird

Male blackbird

Posted March 17, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 16th   Leave a comment

Yesterday when I was out checking my colour-ringed population of redshanks around Crail I noticed that one of the harbour birds, GRRR (Green over red left leg, red over red right leg), was well on its way to full summer plumage. Redshanks are grey and plain in the winter but are brown and quite heavily, if subtly, streaked darker during the breeding season. The pattern on the back of some birds, GRRR included, can look almost stripy like a tiger. I tend to find that if a redshank gets is plumage earlier than the others then it also leaves earlier, suggesting it is a more local Scottish breeder rather than an Icelandic bird. Scottish birds are also smaller and GRRR is one of the smallest birds I have caught in Crail, with short legs, short wings and a short bill. So I think GRRR will be off to Sutherland, or the Highlands or the Hebrides very soon. It certainly left early last year, in March, rather than staying well into April as many of the other redshanks do. Spring comes later further north so there is no point the Icelandic redshanks hurrying into their summer plumage or leaving early. It’s fairly likely that the Icelandic redshanks can make the journey in a couple of flights – possibly even just one so it won’t take them more than a day to get there. Even so, there is always an advantage for a bird to get onto its breeding territory as early as possible, particularly for males, so the Icelandic birds won’t wait a day longer in Crail than they have to. The trick is to arrive at just the right time when conditions have improved so they can recover quickly from their migration and capitalise on their existing body condition to get a head start with breeding. Many Arctic breeding waders arrive when there is still snow on the ground if the season is late and they have to literally cool their heels, wasting energy while they wait for the thaw and the flush of food that makes breeding in the Arctic worthwhile.

Summer plumaged redshank

Summer plumaged redshank

I got a bit paranoid after seeing GRRR in such good plumage that I might be missing it in my other redshank, but I checked over 30 yesterday and it was the only one looking summery. Today at Cellardyke and Anstruther I checked another 50 redshank and again there was only one in summer plumage (so darkly striped it looked like it had a chocolate coloured face). So these are the early birds. I will keep checking the redshank over the next 6 weeks to see the order of birds gaining summer plumage and their disappearance dates.

Other birds are gaining their summer plumage. Some like the redshank grow new summer body feathers to replace their winter feathers, but in others the tips wear away to reveal different coloured feather bases. Many of the black-headed gulls around Crail are gaining their summer plumage black heads just now. Some have just started and others already have completely black hoods. Again like the redshank there will sex, age and breeding distribution differences that mean different individuals will be on different timetables. And again like the redshank the black-headed gulls will be off to breed in Scotland or further afield in Europe in the next few weeks.

Black-headed gull gettings its summer black hood

Black-headed gull gettings its summer black hood

Posted March 16, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 14th   1 comment

It’s a quiet time of year with the tail end of the winter and before the summer migrants start coming back. But I had to post because of one of John’s photos today. A group of sanderlings but also a work of art.



Posted March 14, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 10th   5 comments

Grey heronat Cambo  on a better day than today. Back to the drawing board for nest repair next week I think.

Grey heronat Cambo on a better day than today. Back to the drawing board for nest repair next week I think.

The sea was still fairly wild today. Out at Fife Ness the eiders were all sitting it out on the sea. Heads tucked under their bills bobbing easily in the waves. None of them were feeding. I imagine the visibility underwater is nil with the breakers churning everything up. I should think they were cosy enough roosting on the water with their famous down jackets and a big duck like an eider can afford not to feed for a day or two. Elsewhere at Fife Ness it was very quiet – hardly any small birds to be seen or heard. All taking shelter from the snow showers rolling in from the North Sea.

The grey herons have been busy for the last two weeks putting sticks into their nests at Cambo. Although they use the same nests from year to year, they need to rebuild them each spring. Winter gales like the one this weekend wreak havoc to the large structures. I should think they will be back to rebuilding in a couple of days when the weather settles down again.

Posted March 10, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 9th   Leave a comment

Tree sparrow - easy to see at Kilrenny at the moment

Tree sparrow – easy to see at Kilrenny at the moment

Despite the continuing gale and cold two signs of spring. Frog spawn in Denburn (probably laid at the end of last week when it was admittedly a bit warmer) and the first lesser back-backed gull of the year off Castle Walk.

I walked around Kilrenny this afternoon to get some shelter from the wind. I was lucky enough to see a long-eared owl. They are great skulkers but one and possibly a second a bit later flushed from the dense birch and gorse scrub just to the north of Invergellie Wood. I had a brief view of the long orange and pale ginger speckled wings as they flew silently away into a denser bit of cover. A pair at this time of year might suggest possible breeding a bit later on. The habitat is not too bad for them there: dense marshy woodland to hide in with adjacent open areas to hunt in.

There are a couple of bird feeders that have been put out below the old railway bridge at Kilrenny. There were at least eight tree sparrows there today. Kilrenny is a great place to see tree sparrows and the feeders make it really easy. Just peer down from the railway bridge.

Long-eared Owl - one or maybe two at Kilrenny Common today

Long-eared Owl – one or maybe two at Kilrenny Common today

Posted March 9, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 8th   Leave a comment

A brilliant sea today with the south-east gale blowing huge waves in. Harbour beach was shifting from low to high tide with single waves. The mallards and wigeons were nowhere to be seen in Roome Bay, they had left it to the eiders, the goldeneyes and a few common scoters – the real sea ducks.



Posted March 8, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 7th   Leave a comment

The tufted duck by the boating pond today

The tufted duck by the boating pond today

The waterfowl show is expanding down below the swings at Roome Bay. Today as I walked past I noticed a black and white duck roosting by the boating pond. I crept up to it closer and closer before it finally woke up and lifted its distinctive head up. A tufted duck. My first actually on the ground in Crail rather than passing by at sea. Instead of it flying away it shook itself and swam toward me. Probably a duck that has had a hard life chasing bread in one of the town lochs of West Fife rather than one from the continent escaping French hunters. We have had an easterly wind for the last couple of days so I was expecting something blown in today. Black redstarts in particular. They are early migrants and March is the best time in Crail. But a tufted duck was a nice addition to the eiders, wigeons, mallards and goldeneyes in the bay today.

Posted March 7, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 4th   Leave a comment

The brent goose is back below the swings in Roome Bay

The brent goose is back below the swings in Roome Bay

The pale-bellied brent goose is back in Roome Bay. It was feeding on the algae at the mouth of the Denburn in its usual place this afternoon.

Posted March 5, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending March 3rd   Leave a comment

Corn Bunting

Corn Bunting

We have had several days of brilliant weather this week. Spring was inching forward even as the temperature stayed cold. On Sunday the skylarks were singing their proper spring song. No merlins chasing them this time, just the season.

There was a proper flock of farmland birds up at Wormiston on Sunday morning. Over a hundred small birds, with reed and corn buntings, yellowhammers, chaffinches, goldfinches and linnets in a small bit of weedy stubble left at a field edge and next to the garden at Wormiston House. The trees provided shelter for when the flock was disturbed and the stubble food. It’s not a complicated set of requirements for small birds in winter but most of the farmland in Fife is missing either food or shelter. This was a flock as I remember them from 30 years ago, just missing the tree and house sparrows. There were 14 corn buntings in the flock which is fantastic for this time of year near Crail. I’m hopeful there will be a good number breeding this year. Corn buntings used to be a common breeder throughout Fife (and much of the UK) but have declined hugely in the last 40 years. They cling on to a few strongholds with the East Neuk holding on to about 100 pairs. We have about seven of them around Crail and Fife Ness in a normal year. They don’t mind the lack of shelter, preferring open short grass steppe so huge wheat fields aren’t a bad substitute for them. But their chicks do need insect food so very intensive farmland isn’t all good even for them. Perhaps, despite everything, there will be more this year.

The herring gulls are getting much noisier and territorial. Every time a buzzard comes over Crail the noise level goes up a notch. The gulls don’t have everything their own way. The rooftops may provide a safe haven from mammals on the ground but are no protection from aerial predators like buzzards. There is growing evidence that buzzards are very important in controlling mid-level predators like gulls and crows. With the extermination of buzzards, along with many other top predators one hundred or so years ago, the whole dynamics of predation was changed. Crows and gulls have had a free rein without predators for such a long time that we regard their occurrence and effects as normal. With buzzards back, and sea eagles on the way and perhaps even goshawks set to return, it will be all change again.

Buzzard above Crail

Buzzard above Crail

Posted March 3, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

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