Archive for June 2013

Week ending June 30th   Leave a comment


Herring gull chick on the High Street trying not to be noticed after falling from the roof above. If it can avoid people and cars its parents will keep looking after it.

Although it was a late spring and many birds started breeding 2-3 weeks late this year, many species have now finished for the summer. The adults may still be feeding fledged young like tits and thrushes but they won’t be nesting again until next spring. Some birds will keep on making new breeding attempts, some for two or three months still – I have seen house martins and wood pigeons building new nests this week and they might be breeding even until October. And some species will still have young for 2-3 months more like the fulmars at Castle Walk and the gannets on Bass Rock. And of course the herring gulls are still breeding around Crail. The next couple of weeks will be full of apparently lost and deserted chicks wandering around the streets below where their nest was. The gulls often nest between chimney pots and the young have no real space to wander around. So after a while they take a tumble onto the ground below. Most survive and then the parents will find and feed them wherever they end up. In more natural situations like the May Island, herring gulls nest in colonies on flattish ground. When the chicks hatch they wander around the colony, or they are forced to move to a new area because of predation risk from other gulls – often the very much larger great black-backed gulls. So a parent off foraging for several hours is used to not finding its chicks in exactly the same place it left them. In urban situations this means that a chick that falls from its nesting roof will still be found and looked after by its parents. And if it can avoid the dangers of a terrestrial existence – dogs, cars and well intentioned people kidnapping them – then it will be likely to fledge. I know that the herring gulls cause mixed feelings around Crail, but we should celebrate their being able to thrive amongst us when so many species do not.

house martin

House Martin on the ground to collect mud for a new nesting attempt. Have a look at the feathered short legs only just adequate for walking – nest building will be pretty much the only time in a year that it has to walk


There are common terns to be seen around the harbour and Roome Bay at the moment. They on first glance might look like gulls but soon stand out because they hover and dive into the water which gulls never do. Telling arctic and common terns apart is much trickier but it’s a fair bet that any tern close in at Crail is a common tern. Out at Balcomie or Fife Ness, however, it’s a different story and then you are more likely to see an arctic tern. Both species are fishing to feed chicks on the May Island just now.

On most days this week I have seen manx shearwaters passing Crail. Almost always going east out of the Forth. They carry out foraging trips that involve circumnavigating Britain over a few days. A manx shearwater I see passing Crail might even be nesting in Wales. While watching the manxies I have been looking out for storm petrels that we get for a few days every 3-4 years about this time of year. And then later on in the month I might hope to see sooty shearwaters – much more reliable than the storm petrels – but some years we only get a few past Crail and in others we have a few past every hour for several weeks. July through to September is the best time to seabird watch in the Forth as the residents like the puffins, gannets and kittiwakes get joined by the passage shearwaters and skuas. It’s an exciting time, but one that will pass most people by unless you have a telescope and put in some serious time sea watching. Not for everyone then, but for me it’s one of the delights of living in Crail and particularly so because I can do it from my house.

fulmar 3jpg


On Saturday I saw 15-20 bottle-nose dolphins passing east past Saucehope. They were close enough in that my six year old daughter could see them. It’s always very difficult pointing out dolphins or whales to anyone because they pop up for a brief instance, there are few landmarks to use as pointers and they keep on moving so you never know when or where they are going to appear next. You have to learn to move your gaze ahead of your last sighting and to try not to focus on the particular bit of sea where you last saw them – easy to explain, but hard to carry out. It’s against human nature to spot something and then deliberately look somewhere else to see it again.

Posted June 30, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending June 23rd   Leave a comment

I have been watching the puffins passing by Crail today and it looks very much like business as usual compared to previous years. Whenever I have looked out to sea from Crail over the last few days with a telescope I can count tens of puffins passing every minute, from close in to several kilometres away. And when I look at the May Island I can see swarms of them flying to the east side of the island. As we move into July and they start feeding their chicks in earnest we might expect 100,000 puffins to be flying back and forth to the island every day and it certainly looks that way still. This is despite the terrible wreck we had at the end of March when perhaps tens of thousands of puffins died in the storms along the east coast. I feel reassured now that there seem to still be many more alive.

Long live the puffin - still 46,000 pairs on the May, hooray!

Long live the puffin – still 46,000 pairs on the May, hooray!

I was also reassured by an email from Professor Mike Harris who has spent every year on the Isle of May, for the last few decades, counting and monitoring the seabirds there, including, of course, the puffins. He sent out a bulletin to all the people who had counted and reported in dead puffins washed up on the beaches in March. He says “The good news is that the puffin is not extinct in this part of the world. Indeed, a count on the Isle of May came up with a population of about 46,000 burrows – identical to that in 2009.  There has been an unexpectedly high return rate of colour-ringed adults – 83% of those known to be alive in 2012 have already been seen. Actual survival of birds will of course be higher than this (possibly about 89% based on past experience) but probably slightly lower than normal (92-93%). We think that the population had increased somewhat between 2009 and 2012 and this has gain was wiped out by the wreck. Breeding is terribly late but it remains to be seen how successful, or not, this season will be.” So a disaster but the puffin remains in huge numbers.

We should still keep our fingers crossed for a good breeding year. Possibly there will be more sandeels to go round with the lower numbers so that the chicks get better fed and so survive better. These so called “density-dependent” effects make sense. A population can recover quickly if competition is reduced, then as numbers build up breeding success declines reducing the growth of the population. In this way populations reach eventual stability.

The goosanders are starting to come back for their summer moult along the rocky shore between Kingsbarns and Crail. There were about a dozen at the mouth of the burn at Cambo on Friday night, and also surprisingly a pair of red-breasted merganser still in breeding plumage. Once again the quandary of whether these are summering birds, or failed breeders or even incredibly late migrants remains. Normally we have goosanders along the shore from July to September and red-breasted mergansers from October to April. Female goosanders and red-breasted mergansers look very similar so it can be confusing but the temporal separation is a good guide. Then double check by looking for a distinct white collar neatly separated from the brown head to clinch the bird is a goosander (the brown blurs indistinctly into dirty cream in red-breasted merganser females).

Female goosander

Female goosander

I also walked past the sand martin colony on the beach just south of Cambo on Friday. There are probably three times the number of active nests compared to last year. Sand martins come and go so this may not mean much, but there may be 25 nests there this year. I have been seeing sand martins more between Crail and Boarhills over the last two weeks, often with them joining the house martins and swallows feeding around the cows.

Posted June 23, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 16th   1 comment

At Balcomie this morning I disturbed two shelduck from the beach. They were very agitated and then I saw why. Five newly hatched ducklings were with them. There have been at least two and maybe three pairs of shelduck between Cambo and Fife Ness this year, which is probably one more than usual. But they rarely get to even the duckling stage so it was a really nice surprise. The weather is continuing to be good and certainly the eider chicks seem to be doing OK so I’m hopeful for the shelduck too.

Shelduck with newly hatched chicks (although this is a Balcomie brood from 2010)

Shelduck with newly hatched chicks (although this is a Balcomie brood from 2010)

Further along on Balcomie beach there are now 25 sanderling and a single dunlin. I’m beginning to think these are probably non-breeding birds now. They should be getting scarcer not commoner. At Fife Ness the whitethroats are feeding chicks now and some of the guillemots flying by were carrying fish. It will be midsummer next week and everything is now moving towards the end of the breeding season, although this year I think it will go on for another 4 weeks even for the small birds, and the gannets won’t be done of course until September. A big factor for the breeding season continuing for the smaller birds, which can have two or three broods in a summer, will be whether it stays dry. Dry weather is great for fledgling survival but not so good for there being enough food to sustain a new breeding attempt.

A male whitethroat - most are feeding chicks now after their late start

A male whitethroat – most are feeding chicks now after their late start

Posted June 16, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 15th   Leave a comment

Denburn was full of small birds this afternoon. All the tits – great, blue and coal tit fledged earlier this week and now there are four times the usual number. The new fledglings are very conspicuous, chasing their parents noisily for a feed. Down on the beach it was the same thing with the young starlings, but now they are more or less independent. They have passed through their clumsy, new fledging stage when many were lost to crows and sparrowhawks (as will happen, of course, for a lot of the tits in the coming couple of weeks).

A young starling - now independent and capable and out of the very vulnerable period of a 2-3 weeks after fledging

A young starling – now independent and capable and out of the very vulnerable period of a 2-3 weeks after fledging

There was a spotted flycatcher also in Denburn today. An unusual bird for mid-June and perhaps the latest migrant of a very late year.

Posted June 15, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 12th   Leave a comment

Third time lucky. I finally saw the ruff on Balcomie Beach this morning. It was with the turnstones again picking amongst the wrack. It had the makings of most of its ruff – a big black collar of feathers that the males have for a couple of months when breeding. This varies in colour dependent on the individual. It can be white, cream, orange or even black as in this bird. Ruffs have a communal breeding system, where the males gather at traditional display grounds called leks. They parade around and compete for the best central spots and the females come window shopping to find the best ruffed male in the best position. A good looking male will end up fathering lots of chicks because the males don’t take any part in the incubation of the eggs and wader chicks then pretty much take care of themselves. The story gets a little more interesting because there are some males that look just like females, without ruffs or any contrasting feathers. These males, called faeders, loiter around the leks camouflaged like females and then when a male tries to mate with a female they slip in between and take their chance. The eager male with a ruff gets confused, transferring its affection to this apparently eager female, while the apparent female takes advantage of the equally confused real female. Some of the males of both types will carry out their performance at leks in central Europe and then migrate up to the Arctic to perform again as the season starts up there a few weeks later. Whether the male this morning is on its way further north or has finished for the year is impossible to tell. I would like to think he is having a recharge of his batteries with us before heading off to some more glory in Vladivostock.

The male ruff at Balcomie this morning

The male ruff at Balcomie this morning

Posted June 12, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 11th   Leave a comment

Two trips out to Balcomie Beach today chasing waders. Last night a little stint and a ruff were seen there and both are pretty good Crail birds, especially a little stint. First thing this morning there was no sign of either, but there were four summer plumage sanderling running with the surf. They are the extreme high Arctic wader but these four were probably running late on their journey to hit the very brief window of summer up there. They were in the company of at least 25 turnstones also probably on their way north. But waders live a long time and some of them take a breeding holiday, or are just unlucky. As the summer progresses my opinion on these birds will probably change – another week and they will definitely be summering birds – and in three weeks’ time they will be joined by the first failed breeders on their way south for the winter.

Turnstone - a candidate for bird of the year - making a good living on every shore on the planet

Turnstone – a candidate for bird of the year – making a good living on every shore on the planet

John Anderson saw the ruff in the afternoon. I followed in the evening but no luck again for me. The turnstones were now feeding on the high tide line in the rotting piles of wrack washed in by the storms of a few weeks ago. They were digging holes in the wrack to get to the seaweed fly maggots. Some of them in pits so deep that I could only see the debris flying out of them, not the source. Turnstones are legendary for their flexibility in feeding. Any opportunity on the shore is exploited from feeding on whale (and even human) corpses to feeding on sewage as well as the usual worms and shellfish. I like to think that no matter what we do to the seashore, turnstones will always find a niche and will always be there.

The male ruff at Balcomie today - sadly the one that got away from me

The male ruff at Balcomie today – sadly the one that got away from me

Posted June 11, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 9th   Leave a comment

All this week there has been a growing feeling of spring having faded into summer. Some of the trees are not quite in full leaf yet and there were some turnstones on their way to the Arctic still at Fife Ness this morning. But otherwise the franticness of spring is being replaced with the steadiness of summer. For me the focus shifts from searching for migrants to appreciating the birds that are now here for the summer, and the seabirds that make Crail really special at this time of year. At Fife Ness this morning there was the constant passage back and forth of puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and gannets, spiced up with terns and the very occasional manx shearwater.

I found a gannet on the beach at Saucehope this afternoon. It was alive and looked fine in all respects except I could catch it easily as it sat in the sand. It was possibly a bit skinny. They are fantastic birds to see up close despite the circumstances. They have a line of bright blue scales down the feet and down between each toe contrasting with the black webs. I have never noticed this before, perhaps not surprisingly as I always see them in flight or on the water. Apparently females have blue lines on their feet and the males yellow. So this bird was a female. I left it on the beach – maybe it had a bit of a rest and even now it is back in business out in the Forth. But thinking about it – if we have 150,000 gannets on the Bass Rock then even if they are very long lived – and its decades rather than years – then every week there will be few gannets dying near us. I also consoled myself by watching plenty of vigorous gannets flying past.



Posted June 9, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 6th   Leave a comment

There are more Eider chicks around now spread between the harbour and Saucehope. The weather is being kind to them. There were a group of sandwich terns fishing from Saucehope in the midday sunshine. I think they were May Island breeders as one caught a sandeel and then headed off to the island. It seems a long way to go with just one sandeel, but it’s the reality for most of the May’s seabirds. They usually have to commute kilometres to feed and these distances are what determines whether it’s a good breeding year or not.

Sandwich tern with sandeel

Sandwich tern with sandeel

Posted June 9, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 4th   Leave a comment

The sea has been flat calm all afternoon. Everything moving above it or on it was in in stark contrast to the stillness below. On days like these you can see every seabird from here to the Bass Rock. And you realise that there really are thousands of gannets and puffins and kittiwakes shuttling back and forth all the time. This evening I could even see the flotillas of puffins as tiny specks on east side of the May Island taking time off from incubation. With a calm sea there is always the best chance of spotting dolphins too. I had a group of about 25 bottle-nosed dolphins off St Monans at lunchtime. They were chasing fish up and out of the water, even jumping after them every so often. The fish were caught between the dolphins and a group of gannets diving down from above.

Bottle-nosed dolphins

Bottle-nosed dolphins

Posted June 4, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 3rd   Leave a comment

The first eider chicks are appearing in Crail. There are four females with at least 7 small chicks on the shore between the Brandyburn and Roome Bay. They probably paddled across from the Isle of May at the start of last weekend. It’s a formidable journey for such tiny chicks. I hope we have good calm weather this week so more can make it across safely.

Eiders and chicks from the same time last year - several females pool their broods into creches for greater safety in numbers

Eiders and chicks from the same time last year – several females pool their broods into creches for greater safety in numbers

Posted June 3, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 2nd   Leave a comment

A great tit nest (the dark triangular hole) in a wall in the Kirkyard

A great tit nest (the dark triangular hole) in a wall in the Kirkyard

This weekend has been beautiful with temperatures finally in the high teens and not much wind. Spring is beginning to give way to summer, although the ash trees still have to gain most of their leaves. I watched a flock of 30 or so swifts feeding over the rape field just to the east of Crail this morning. They looked like they might be enjoying themselves for the first time this year, in the warm sunshine, surrounded by insects rather than just getting by. Young birds are popping up everywhere. The tits will fledge in a week or so. They are at least two weeks behind. I found a great tit feeding chicks in a hole in a stone wall in the Kirkyard. Tree holes are always in short supply, which is why things like tits readily take to nest boxes. This hole didn’t look second best to a tree hole – hard to get at by a weasel and certainly secure from any passing woodpecker.

At Fife Ness this morning there were lots of sandwich, arctic and common terns. The arctic terns were courting. One bird – the male I think – catching sandeels and bringing them to a second bird waiting on the rocks or the water. Thus the male gets to show his worth and also invests in the clutch of eggs that will be developing shortly. There was a flock of 9 turnstone roosting on the rocks, taking a rest on their way north. They were in beautiful, bright breeding plumage. Like the dunlin of last week, just a day or so’s flight from the Arctic where even now the last of the snow will be melting.

Turnstone in breeding plumage - on its way to the Arctic

Turnstone in breeding plumage – on its way to the Arctic

Posted June 2, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

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