Archive for April 2013

April 19th   Leave a comment

The seabirds are starting to ramp up to their summer best. Gannets have been streaming by to and from Bass Rock as they start to nest, looking magnificent against the big swell of this week. Kittiwakes have been doing the same except to and from the May Island. Razorbills and guillemots are regular too. It’s still too early for the puffins to be doing this so it’s also too early to get an idea of how much the recent puffin wreck has made a difference to their numbers. One thing is clear now – the wreck was one of the largest ever recorded for puffins and at least 60% of those killed were old enough to breed, so there may well be effects. But seabird numbers do vary naturally due to events like severe storms. We only need to worry if puffins are already suffering because of things like overfishing of sand eels that will prevent them from making a recovery. And that, unfortunately, is probably the case.

Gannet

Gannet

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Posted April 21, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

April 17th   Leave a comment

It is getting quieter on the shore. I did probably my last redshank survey of the winter from harbour beach to Saucehope and back. There were many fewer redshanks, although still at least seven of my colour-ringed birds, and a higher ratio of unringed to ringed birds suggesting that some of the redshank are actually migrant strangers that are passing through on their way north. There were no curlews and only two turnstones and two purple sandpipers. The latter two species were gaining their summer plumage and may well have been migrants on their way north too. But they both breed so very far north that they may have another 6 weeks to go before they can even think about starting to breed. Roome Bay is also empty of all but a few eiders: the wigeon, mallards and goldeneye have all gone. The female long-tailed duck is still hanging around the harbour at high tide though.

Another thing that has changed on the shore is the shore itself. Have a look at the pebble beach below St Adrians and Castle Walk. It’s a beautiful sandy beach now. There were even some holiday makers thinking of building a sand castle there today and some redshanks later on feeding on the new sandy strandline like on Roome Bay. There is more sand on Roome Bay beach too. I don’t know if it makes it better or worse for the shorebirds generally: probably a bit worse for some species and better for others. That’s always the way with habitat change.

There is a very handsome male reed bunting hanging around the rough ground behind the gorse between Roome Bay and Saucehope. Despite their name, they are happy breeding in that sort of habitat rather than a wetland.

Male reed bunting - on show in the grass south of the houses of Pinkerton, between Saucehope and Roome Bay

Male reed bunting – on show in the grass south of Pinkerton, between Saucehope and Roome Bay

Posted April 17, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

April 16th   Leave a comment

There has been a ring ouzel at Kilrenny for the last couple of days. I heard about it last night and went out first thing into the gale to see if I could see it. There have been reports of ring ouzels all over the UK this week. They are an early summer migrant, just coming from North Africa and so they got caught out by the recent strong easterlies. I am lucky to see more than 1 or 2 ring ouzels in a year around Crail so I was pleased to find it in a pasture field in the lee of the wood behind Kilrenny common. There was a small flock of blackbirds, a single redwing and the ring ouzel. They are like super charged blackbirds – a bit bigger and with a bounding gait that makes them look even bigger and more powerful. They have a white breast and whitish wings so they stand out at a distance much more than blackbirds as they bound about. The bird this morning was using its size to its advantage and chased away any blackbird feeding near it. It will be on its way to the Highlands or Norway soon.

As I watched the ring ouzel I saw my first Crail barn swallow of the year hawking briefly over the field, also taking advantage of the shelter. I saw several more later moving rapidly north with the wind behind them, probably enjoying the boost. The wind might not have been good for feeding in, but it was good for migration.

Ring ouzel in the Isle of May last year - this is a male. The bird at Kilrenny this morning was a female, although a very male looking female with a brightish white breast band and very pale wings contrasting with its brownish, rather than blackish plumage

Ring ouzel on the Isle of May last spring- this is a male. The bird at Kilrenny this morning was a female, although a very male looking female with a brightish white breast band and very pale wings contrasting with its brownish, rather than blackish plumage

Posted April 16, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

April 15th   Leave a comment

I cycled to work in St Andrews today. It was rewarding despite the blustery winds and the April showers. I heard my first chiff-chaff of the year up at Brownhills on the way in and then a second (or the same bird) at Boarhills on the way back. The second bird had come close enough to make it onto the Crail list for this year: last year the first chiff-chaff was on the 7th April. I also heard several corn buntings singing. They are one of our East Neuk specialties, barely holding on in the farmland at the edge of the sea. One bird today was singing from a clod of earth in the middle of a field. Usually they like fence posts or telephone wires, but there were none handy in this field. I have often wondered what corn buntings breeding in their original habitat of steppe that lacks such perches did, and now I know. They make do.

Less cheering was a dead barn owl that had been hit by a car up at Balmashie. I saw it lying in a field, a splash of white against the bare earth, a few meters from the road. It’s nice to know they are about, but I’d rather see them alive.

A barn owl probably killed last night by a car up at Balmashie

A barn owl probably killed last night by a car up at Balmashie

Posted April 15, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending April 14th   Leave a comment

I’ve been away in England this week so I am out of touch with what has been happening in Crail. I have come back to double figure temperatures and the warmest day of the year – 14 degrees according to my weather station. The wind is back from the south-west and the spring might now start really moving. I saw my first swallow on Thursday in Cornwall, and some more on Sunday morning in Liverpool. None at all since and certainly none as I travelled back through Fife this evening. It is probably going to be a late spring for summer migrants.

Looking back over the last few years my first swallows have been March 29th (the very warm spell last year), April 12th, April 21st, April 11th, April 16th, April 15th and April 14th. Although they usually turn up at the end of the second week in April, they can arrive over a month period. And I think it will be likely that we won’t see the swallows back this year for another week at least by the scarcity of them in England at the moment. So in two consecutive years the same swallows (which might come back to us for five years or more if they are lucky) experience two extremes of an early and a late season. Even with climate change making springs earlier, most migrants have to deal with variation between years that far exceeds this change. This doesn’t mean that climate change is not a problem for them because average detrimental change still whittles away at populations with many other problems that all add up and cause overall gradual population declines. But it does mean that there is flexibility already in the system and so we can perhaps not be so pessimistic about the future effects of climate change on migrants as they struggle to get their timing right.

Barn swallow - not yet late this year but likely to be so with only a few in England so far

Barn swallow – not yet late this year but likely to be so with only a few in England so far

Scottish migrant birds may have it a bit easier anyway because they often hang around in England waiting for it to get warmer up here so they can arrive exactly when this happens (a day’s flight following the warm winds for example). The English birds have to make more of a guess and base their arrival time on conditions in Spain and France. We know that English migrant populations are declining more than Scottish populations and it seems that our birds’ ability to wait in England is perhaps contributing to this. Put simply, a late English swallow is always late, whereas a late Scottish swallow might just not have to hang around in England so long, so it is much more likely to get its timing right in any year.

Northern Wheatear - they should be coming through Crail this week

Northern Wheatear – they should be coming through Crail this week

Another thing to think about with migrants is the sheer change in temperature they experience. Northern wheatears that leave Niger in April will leave 50 degree temperatures and then may encounter zero degrees when they get here a week or so later. It must be a huge shock to the system.

I’ll be in Crail this week so will hopefully get a bit more up to date on what is around. Then it’s my usual 12 days studying Cyprus wheatears in Cyprus. It’s the same temperature thing as with the northern wheatears, but perhaps not so extreme. The Cyprus wheatears arrived on my study site in the Troodos Mountains at the end of March where there is still snow in some parts. They trade 45 degree temperatures in Sudan for 5 degrees on arrival, although Troodos will have 35 degrees by July. I’m looking forward to some of this warmer weather next week anyway.

Posted April 14, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

April 6th   Leave a comment

I was on my way down to the south of England today and stopped at some services on the A1 in the midlands. There was a red kite above the road, being harassed by a carrion crow. It circled above me in the bright spring sunlight for several minutes above the hundreds of cars. Whenever I see a red kite I am cheered up. When I was a boy in the eighties there were only a handful left in obscure valleys in Wales, hiding from the persecution that removed them as one of the commonest birds of prey in the UK. But they have now been successfully reintroduced throughout the UK and I expect them to spread into Fife in the next few years. One was even seen a week ago near Wormit. It is a great conservation success story. It was unthinkable when I was a child that they should now be back, almost as the commonplace again.

Red kite - not back in Crail just yet but getting closer every year

Red kite – not back in Crail just yet but getting closer every year

Posted April 7, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

April 5th   Leave a comment

Male pheasant

Male pheasant

Although the wind is still chilly and from the east, things are starting to move springwards. I saw my first (alive) puffins of the year this morning shuttling past Crail. They have started to come back in to the May Island. There is already a steadily developing stream of razorbills and the occasional guillemot coming from the island past Crail as they start nesting. I also saw my first sandwich tern of the year passing by and heading north out of the Forth. Sandwich terns are one of our earliest migrants, moving up from West African coasts to arrive with us in early April. I should think they are less bothered by the cold weather than most migrants. The cold air temperature will make little difference to the sea temperature and the availability of fish. My first last year, even with its unseasonal late March warm southerly winds, was only on the 2nd of April. The only other migrants that have made it so far are the lesser black-backed gulls. There are now a few joining the herring gulls on the roof tops of Crail. They don’t breed in Crail, although they are happy to do so on other rooftops in Fife, but are probably on their way to the May. There were several with the herring gulls following the plough at Wormiston this morning too.

Pheasants are very obvious at the moment. Pairs of males strutting around each other and contrasting with the bare fields in their very bright plumage, or more often as squashed corpses on the road between Crail and Anstruther. They must get more careless in the spring when they have other things on their mind.

They are drilling and planting the fields between Crail and Anstruther. The fields have been reduced to almost perfect smooth and geometric spaces, more or less uninterrupted by any vegetation between the two towns. The curlews feeding there are the only things out of place. Like the golden plover on the driving range at the beginning of the week, making the best of the artificial landscape.

The first sandwich tern of the year flew past Crail this morning

The first sandwich tern of the year flew past Crail this morning

Posted April 7, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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