Archive for May 2013

May 31st   Leave a comment

There have been tantalising birds on the May Island all week – bluethroats and a woodchat shrike among them. There was also a little egret reported from Kilrenny Mill yesterday. So I have been going out hopefully the last few days. But it all seems fairly quiet in Denburn and out at Kilminning and Balcomie. The swallows and whitethroats are enjoying the warmer weather at last, but with no rarities to join them. The lapwings and their chicks are still showing well at Toldrie Pool, and still bizarrely a pair of shelducks. They can nest inland but it’s a long way to the shore or any bit of water that would suit their chicks, so I am not sure what they are doing there.

One of the parental lapwings and some of its chicks getting a bit of a brood up at Toldrie Pool

One of the parental lapwings and two of its chicks getting a bit of a brood up at Toldrie Pool


Posted May 31, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 28th   Leave a comment

I got a call from John while I was washing up this evening. There was a wood sandpiper up at Toldrie Pool. Sink happily abandoned, I was up at the pool in about 4 minutes. The wood sandpiper was uncharacteristically relaxed. John was parked up right next to the pool about 10 meters from the bird and I parked behind him with the sandpiper barely lifting its head. I watched it for 30 minutes with it coming so close that I could see the tiny flies it was picking from the surface of the water and the reflections in the drops on its bill. I have seen hundreds of wood sandpipers but none as close and as undisturbed as this bird. And of course it is only my second Crail wood sandpiper which makes it very special indeed. It will be on its way to Scandinavia or possibly even the Highlands where a few pairs breed every year.

Wood sandpier at Toldrie pool this evening

Wood sandpier at Toldrie pool this evening

There were some newly hatched lapwing chicks at the pool as well. The adult lapwings were a little bit wary of us watching the sandpiper and froze the chicks. They give a special call when there are predators and the chicks respond by freezing down into cover. But after ten minutes or so they relaxed and the chicks started feeding in the open on the muddy fringe of the pool. One adult lapwing then turned its attention to the wood sandpiper chasing it away from its chicks.

Lapwing chick - one of a brood of four also at Toldrie Pool tonight

Lapwing chick – one of a brood of four also at Toldrie Pool tonight

Posted May 28, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 26th   Leave a comment

On the birdsong walk at Cambo this morning the highlight was a starling . As well as its typical scratchy and drumming notes it was imitating a buzzard, jackdaws and a male mallard duck (they go “qweep” rather than “quack”). All three species were in the background as well as real echoes in the soundscape. Most of the other starlings weren’t singing. They were too busy looking after their newly fledged chicks. But there are always some late individuals, or renests after an earlier nest failure. Starlings usually only do one brood in a season, whereas thrushes and robins, for example, may do several regardless of initial successor failure. As the season goes on everything gets less and less synchronised.

A young Crail badger - John has had better luck than me seeing them alive this weekend

A young Crail badger – John has had better luck than me seeing them alive this weekend

Posted May 26, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 25th   Leave a comment

I was out at Cambo this morning doing a reccy for a bird song walk on Sunday. It’s a bit later in the year than usual, but with the late spring everything was still singing. There was a spotted flycatcher in the parkland. A decade ago this would be a breeding bird, but these days it will almost certainly be a migrant left over from last weekend and off to Scandinavia any day soon. Even so it might be worth seeing if it is still around in a week or so. The park in front of the house at Cambo is perfect habitat for them.

There was a dead badger on the road between Cambo and Crail, probably hit last night. Not a very nice sight – this one was as big as a Labrador. Just like the barn owl of a few weeks ago, it is good to know they are around, but I wish I was seeing them alive.

Balcomie Beach was nearly perfect this afternoon. Sheltered from the south-westerly wind the temperature was up to 18 degrees. The only small flaw was the huge piles of seaweed washed up on the high tide line after gales of a couple of days ago. There was a dunlin perched on one of the mounds. It had the black belly and reddish brown back of a bird ready to breed. Perhaps it was only one two-day flight away from the Arctic and the start of its breeding season. Other birds still on their way north were about 50 common scoters a hundred meters out from the surf. Further out still was a big flock of arctic terns. A single wheatear along the airfield road was the only obvious songbird migrant left over from last week.

A dunlin in breeding plumage

A dunlin in breeding plumage

Posted May 25, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 24th   Leave a comment

Crail is alive with the sound of angry starlings defending their chicks. They fledged a couple of days ago but are still hiding in thick bushes. They are very vulnerable and the crows and sparrowhawks are making the most of it. First thing this morning I watched a sparrowhawk taking a fledgling from my garden. It was surrounded by a cloud of noisy parents but there was little they could do. There are so many fledging at the same time that most will make it though. I saw my first fledgling flying with an adult this evening. It still looked a bit unsteady. It will be a proficient flyer in a couple more days and then the sparrowhawks will have to move onto another set of fledglings for an easy lunch.

There was a female red-backed shrike recorded from Kilminning this morning. I couldn’t find it at lunchtime but it was fairly windy and any shrike may well have been hunkering down and feeding less conspicuously in cover. The strong north-east wind was making the seabirds more conspicuous however. Lots of razorbills, guillemots and puffins were passing by Crail relatively close in to take advantage of the shelter of the land to make better headway as they headed out of the Forth to feed. The trick with identifying puffins in flight at a distance is that they look like a bit like bumble bees in shape and flash distinctively black and white as they wobble from side to side. They barely look like they can stay in the air and only seem to do so because they are hurtling along.

Puffin - a bird barely in flight at any time

Puffin – a bird barely in flight at any time

Posted May 24, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 19th   Leave a comment

An impressive but unidentified orchid at Kilminning - perhaps an realy marsh orchid?

An impressive Early Purple Orchid at Kilminning

There have been easterly winds coupled with heavy rain showers for the last couple of days. Great conditions at this time of year for migrants. The Isle of May had a couple of red-backed shrikes yesterday and there were other good birds all down the east coast. So expectations were high today despite the heavy haar for most of it. I went out to Kilminning in the morning. The entrance to Kilminning just between the golf course and the airfield is the best place to find a red-backed shrike when the conditions are right. If shrikes still bred commonly in the UK they would breed there. It was fairly quiet but I did see a merlin being mobbed by swallows – a very unusual bird for Crail in May and a great indicator that there were migrants around. Then I found a pied flycatcher down at the coastal end of Kilminning. Again a great indicator species. There was a beautiful orchid down there as well. Perhaps an early marsh orchid, but even my UK orchid guide has nothing vaguely like it. It’s an early flowering species at least. (NB: thanks to Catherine Erskine who later identified this for me as an Early Purple Orchid).

Despite having a good look round earlier, I must have just missed the hoped for shrike – one was found there at midday an hour or so after I left. I headed straight back and was rewarded with a fantastic male catching bees and perching nicely out in the open. The haar made everything a bit flat but the male was glowing despite. The shout then went up that there was a common rosefinch up at the cottages behind Balcomie. I raced over there. A scarlet rosefinch would be a Crail tick for me so I was very keen to see it. Sadly I was 5 minutes too late. Despite searching the area for the next hour and finding a second red-backed shrike (another brilliant male), the rosefinch had disappeared.

I was determined to see the rosefinch so I headed out from Crail again mid-afternoon. No sooner had I cycled out of Crail when I flushed what I initially thought was a corn bunting with shoulder stripes from the side of the airfield road. It was a wryneck – my first Crail bird for nearly ten years, and only my second. I see them in Africa every year and they are a thrill there, but to find one in my own patch is the best of all. Wrynecks are woodpeckers that have gone for camouflage stripes and a ground feeding habit. This one was grubbing about in the side of the footpath, probably digging out an ant nest, periodically flying into the rape field opposite when it was disturbed. I continued on to Balcomie with a happy heart. No rosefinch again but the male red-backed shrike was showing even better and the haar was less heavy.

I headed back to Crail via the Fife Ness coastal path. I was hoping for a bluethroat. There will have been some around today with all the other good migrants. But it’s a difficult, skulking species. The path is now lined with singing whitethroats and sedge warblers as it should have been much earlier in any normal year. The temptation in a late year is to panic and think the migrants aren’t coming back at all. They are safely back now. I saw an arctic skua passing along the coast in a break in the haar; they have been scarce this spring. I headed inland at Kilminning and back along the main road. The wryneck was still there on the footpath to finish off the great migrant day – two out of three very good migrant species, with a great supporting cast of minor characters.

I finished the day off watching the swifts over the centre of Crail. Most seem back now and there was even some screaming. The noise of the summer.

A male red-backed shrike from a few years ago but worth repeating - sadly John doesn't have a picture of a wryneck yet

A male red-backed shrike from a few years ago but worth repeating – sadly John doesn’t have a picture of a wryneck yet

Posted May 19, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 15th   Leave a comment

There was a passage of arctic terns past Crail this morning and a few manx shearwaters as well. The coast path up to Fife Ness had a few more whitethroats and sedge warblers singing along it this evening. And a couple of swifts today, including one over the high street. Little by little summer is coming, all we need are some temperatures above ten degrees.

A whimbrel - there are still lots about and I can't resist another brilliant picture of one of my favourite birds

A whimbrel – there are still lots about and I can’t resist another brilliant picture of one of my favourite birds

Posted May 15, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 14th   Leave a comment

The whitethroat is back at the Brandyburn. There was a male singing there at lunchtime. They have a pleasant but scratchy warble and occasionally launch themselves for a short song flight, up and then down with a bouncing flight. The bird today was song flighting away, clearly happy to be back in Crail and probably thrilled to discover that despite the lateness of its arrival that it is actually one of the first birds back this year. It may well be the same one that has been there for the last 3 or 4 years. I should probably stick a colour-ring on this bird to be sure.  Most small migrant birds don’t make it past their first birthday, but if they do they can live for several years. And they will pretty much always come back to the same bush, or tree or meadow, whether it’s in Africa or Scotland, each year of their life.

Male whitethroat

Male whitethroat

Posted May 14, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 12th   Leave a comment

Sedge warbler

Sedge warbler

At last a sedge warbler singing at the patch on fife Ness and a couple of whitethroats as well. Perhaps they were there yesterday but not singing. One thing that is characterising all the migrants this year so far is that they are barely singing. I think this must be because of the cold weather. Today was more like the 12th of April with its cold wind. The arctic terns had moved on apart from a pair much closer in, perhaps local, Isle of May birds.

Posted May 12, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 11th   Leave a comment

The pied flycatcher was still in Denburn this morning. It was a bit more visible feeding lower down in the sycamores. It was with the same company of willow warblers, chiff-chaffs and blackcaps as yesterday. Out at Fife Ness there were hundreds of arctic terns passing, stopping only to feed with the kittiwakes in a cloud of dipping and swooping to the surface of the sea. But the lateness of the spring goes on. There were no whitethroats or sedge warblers at Fife Ness at all. In previous years the latest the sedge warblers have ever been is the 10th May and in some years they are back by the 20th of April.

Arctic terns on their way north

Arctic terns on their way north

Posted May 11, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 10th   Leave a comment

There was a stunning male pied flycatcher in Denburn today. A good migrant for the year and I think probably the first male in proper breeding plumage I have ever seen in Crail. We tend to get pied flycatchers on passage in August or September when all birds are in brownish non-breeding plumage. The pied flycatchers I see in Africa during the winter are also brownish. But not this male. It was beautifully black and white, with a white forehead and wing bar contrasting with its black cap and wings. It was flycatching from the very tops of the big sycamores by the rope swing so was hard to find initially. Other migrants in Denburn today were a willow warbler, a chiff-chaff and a couple of blackcaps.

Male pied flycatcher similar to the one in Denburn today (this one from the West coast where they breed in oak woods)

Male pied flycatcher similar to the one in Denburn today (this one is from the West coast where they breed in oak woods)

Swallows are now everywhere and I think most are back in Crail now. I helped a neighbour to let a swallow out of their house at lunchtime. It was a male that had undoubtedly flown in through an open door looking for a nest site. Leave a window open and a room unoccupied for the spring and you will pretty much get a swallow in. We opened a window, covered up the other windows and the swallow flew straight out. Generally a bird trapped in a room heads for the brightest point. It did look good perched on a central lampshade though. Almost worth putting up with the mess for a summer. I’ll see if I can persuade my family to let out the spare room to a swallow this year.

But it is still fairly quiet in terms of other migrants. At Kilminning today there was my first whitethroat of the year singing. They should be everywhere by now, and only a couple of willow warblers.

The ratio of male eiders to female eiders has gone right up. There are only a few pairs to be seen and the males are on their own. Most females are now on the May Island on their nests.

Eider on its nest on the May Island two days ago

Eider on its nest on the May Island two days ago

Posted May 10, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 8th   Leave a comment

The winds have been south-easterly for the last two days. It’s a shame the visibility today was so poor. These winds bring the seabirds in close and at this time of year there are usually skuas on their way north. None this morning through the murk of the haar but I did see the first manx shearwater of the year passing Crail. And later, the first swift of the year over Crail School. This isn’t particularly late for us, swifts usually arrive in the first week of May. But swifts are incredible migrants covering hundreds of kilometres in a day so probably haven’t even noticed it has been a late spring, leap frogging the other stalled species in England.

Posted May 9, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 7th   Leave a comment

Male blackcap - now back in Denburn. One of our best singers.

Male blackcap – now back in Denburn. One of our best singers.

The best weather day of the year so far. The sea looked like the Mediterranean. There were lots of spring highlights today. There was a steady passage of common terns all day past Roome Bay. I watched a male sparrowhawk displaying to a female flying over Denburn. He circled above the wood, spreading his white under-tail feathers out so his back suddenly became glowing white in the sunlight. I was impressed but the female just kept going. Starlings were feeding chicks all over Crail. Several were down at the tideline on the sand at Roome Bay picking up sandhoppers washed in for their chicks. The first blackcaps were in Denburn at last. At least three males, although only one singing sporadically. But the best spring highlight today was being able to sit outside in the garden with the whistles of whimbrels passing high overhead.

Posted May 7, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 6th   Leave a comment

I went west today to the Lomonds. Fife is now full of swallows and the cleuchs between the Lomonds were full of willow warblers. Highlight was a pair of ravens on West Lomond. It is brilliant to see ravens coming back into Fife. They like buzzards were persecuted out of existence on the east coast and are gradually coming back, with the ravens maybe a decade or two behind the buzzards. They are easier to persecute and still have a bad name. A farmer at lambing will find a couple of dead lambs  and a pair of ravens feeding on the corpses and put two and two together. But the answer is not four: the raven is predominantly a scavenger and the lambs were going to die for any number of reasons, if they were not already long dead by the time the raven arrived. It’s a shame because Crail should have a pair of ravens croaking over it. But they are getting closer with a pair at Tentsmuir now and the occasional sighting from the Eden estuary.

Raven - sadly not in Crail just yet but on their way

Raven – sadly not in Crail just yet but on their way

On the way back I had a bizarre sighting of a pair of shelduck by the roadside pool at Toldrie. They do breed occasionally inland but not in ponds in field corners. Possibly these were migrants?

This evening as I came out into my back garden I got quite excited because there was a yellowhammer singing, and I have not seen one in (or flying by) my garden. They are not big users of typical gardens so it was a surprise. Excitement was soon punctured as I saw the singer – a starling on a nearby rooftop. I should have known. This starling (probably it is the same bird) is a brilliant mimic – last year it was lapwings and greenfinches and this year it is a perfect yellowhammer song.

I had my first common tern of the year past Crail this morning. Arctic terns should be here soon too.

Common tern

Common tern

Posted May 6, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 5th   Leave a comment

Male wheatear on migration past Crail

Male wheatear on migration past Crail

The temperature climbed to 16 degrees today. The first butterflies were out with a few small tortoiseshells flying. Migration resumed with the south-westerly breeze. Swallows were passing along the coast northwards all day in groups of three or four, and my garden swallow was back, I think just this afternoon. Certainly there was a swallow circling around my house, happily singing away. There were some sand martins passing with the swallows. Northern wheatears were also on the move, with a few on the beach at Fife Ness and in the fields around Crail. There were several whimbrels and lots of sandwich terns as well. It all seemed more like the middle of April however: we are at least a couple of weeks behind. There are still no blackcaps in Denburn and I only saw a couple of house martins today. But there is much more on its way at least.

At Fife Ness this morning there was the usual spring pair of shelduck. They try to breed between Balcomie and Cambo every year but I think they are almost never successful.

Shelduck at Balcomie

Shelduck at Balcomie

Posted May 5, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 2nd   Leave a comment

I came back from Cyprus early this morning where all the summer migrants are well into breeding and was surprised by the continuing late spring here. At Kilrenny there were a few willow warblers and a chiff-chaff but no other warbler species. There was an unusually large spring flock of 20 whimbrel in an adjacent wheat field, and a further two with some curlews out at St Monans. These should be in Iceland by now, but the cold weather has kept them with us. Number of black-tailed godwits – also on their way to Iceland – have been spectacularly high in Fife over the last week because of the delay. I know of a colleague studying their population who has been waiting in Iceland in vain all April for their return.

Whimbrel - lots around Crail just now held up on their way north to Iceland

Whimbrel – lots around Crail just now held up on their way north to Iceland

The late spring is affecting the residents as well. I was out in Denburn today and found a few nests to show to the children of the primary school Wildlife Watch club. I found three blackbird nests – one without eggs yet and two each with four eggs and a sitting female (at least up until the children became a bit noisy). If you cross the wooden bridge over the Denburn by the well and look over into the dense bush below on the north side you should just see one of the nests in the top part of the bush, level with bridge decking about 40cm away. If the female is sitting look for the tell-tale straight dark tail that sticks up and that often gives them away. Normally blackbirds are fledging their first lot of chicks by now. There was a robin building a nest in the nearby bank. Again they should on eggs by now.

Posted May 2, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

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