Archive for September 2013

September 29th   Leave a comment

There was a feeling of deflation today. Lots of yesterday’s birds moved on last night – there was no sign of the brown shrike this morning, nor any of the warblers that were around yesterday. Migrants tend to depart on clear nights and last night was the first in a few days, despite the wind blowing up from the south-east. Any bird trying to correct its course would have had to fly straight into the wind. I doubt the brown shrike got very far. There were a lot of disconsolate birders mooching around Balcomie this morning in the hope that it would reappear. I checked some likely sites nearby that were a bit more sheltered but no luck. I found a wheatear and a brambling but no yellow-browed warblers for the first time since last Tuesday. Clearly a lot of things left last night as well. This was borne out by the fact that with so many birders now around the Crail area with nothing to look at, the chances of something else being found, if it was about, was much higher than usual. But nothing else was reported today locally. Of course today’s disappointed birders may have just gone to the pub to drown their sorrows. They were not as disappointed as the small boys whose granny lives at Balcomie who belatedly thought of asking for a pound donation for the visitors to the farm. Yesterday there was much good humour and they would have earned a bit, but today the idea was a non-starter. Some twitches where the bird is on private land or parking is difficult have resulted in thousands of pounds being collected by the landowner (mostly for good causes and usually not for local children, although I had to admire their entrepreneurial spirit, if not their timing). I will get the children more organised next time and take a cut.

One of the 20 or so dunlins on Balcomie Beach this weekend

One of the 20 or so dunlins on Balcomie Beach this weekend

Posted September 29, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 28th   Leave a comment

A very poor photo of the brown shrike today - my phone put up to my telescope.

A very poor photo of the brown shrike today – my phone put up to my telescope. Puts John’s photos into perspective.

Today we had our first mega rarity in Crail for a while. I was out this morning doing a circuit from Wormiston to Balcomie when I met two birders at Balcomie Cottages. They had the very tense manner of people who had seen something really good and who wanted someone else to see it too. They were fairly sure they had seen a brown shrike – a very rare bird that breeds in China and Siberia and that winters in India and south-east Asia. The same places that yellow-browed warblers are from, so perhaps it was not surprising that some other rarities had come in with the flood of warblers. I immediately picked up their tension – a brown shrike is perhaps a once in a lifetime Crail bird – and joined their hunt.

The shrike was very elusive. Over the next hour or so we got a few fleeting glimpses and I saw enough of the features to convince me that it was indeed a brown shrike. I had to be sure – it’s a very rare bird and the first time I have ever seen one anywhere, let alone Crail. It was a young bird and they look a lot like young red-backed shrikes, as well as a couple of other very rare shrike species that are also vagrants from Asia. Little by little I got views of a thick black mask with a pale supercilium above (that’s what it sounds like – a line running above the eye on a bird), a uniform darkish brown head and back, without any white in the wings or obvious paler fringes to the wing feathers, a reddish tail, broader at the base and thinner at the tip and no very obvious scaly feathers on the underside. It also had quite a big head and bill. All these characters together allow you to identify a brown shrike from the rest. Taken together they form quite a distinctive bird. Later on in the afternoon I could appreciate this because it fed out in the open much more, but this morning it was a teasing and frustrating puzzle to piece together its identity from snatched views. When you have accumulated what you need to make an identification the process is very satisfying, but at the time it is less enjoyable. There is a constant feeling that the bird might just fly away forever at any moment and leave you with just “was it or wasn’t it?”

We put the news out on the local and national birding grapevine and soon birders started appearing. By mid-day there were probably 50 people there but the shrike was still very elusive. It was feeding low to the ground and in between perching in dense bushes. The glimpses continued. I reckon I only had about 24 seconds of views in about 3 hours. I had to leave, which was unfortunate – a buff-breasted sandpiper was sighted with some golden plovers in a field behind the cottages (would have been another Crail tick), and the shrike started being more visible. But it had been a great morning nonetheless with three yellow-browed warblers and a lesser whitethroat as well, and a great view of a merlin which on any other day would have been highlights enough.

I returned in the afternoon with my telescope and watched the shrike out in the open with the now big crowd arranged in an ordered line a couple of hundred meters from the bird so it could feed in peace and everyone could get a view. I also searched in vain through the golden plovers still in the fields behind for the buff-breasted sandpiper. I then checked the golf courses – buff-breasts are famous for their love of feeding on short neat turf and so they are spoilt for choice around Balcomie. Again no luck. I returned for a last look at the shrike just in case it departs with the clear skies tonight. As I finally left there were still people arriving and even running along the track to Balcomie. I had done my running in the morning and headed back to Crail slowly, in peace with another great Crail birding day. Although there is still that buff-breast to find tomorrow…

Oh, and I nearly forgot. The day had already started brilliantly with a yellow-browed warbler actually in my garden as I watched the sunrise. It fed quite happily in the bushes in my back garden and the veg patch. The 126th bird species I have seen in or from my garden. I think this weekend is probably the best time ever to look out for yellow-brows around Crail. Look out for a tiny nervous green and yellow stripy bird or listen for its “see-you-wee” three note whistle.

Lesser whitethroat - one of the lesser highlights today.

Lesser whitethroat – one of the lesser highlights today.

Posted September 28, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 26th   Leave a comment

The Crail yellow-browed warbler festival continued today. None in Denburn first thing but then again a hundred could hide in the trees when they are still fully covered in leaves. At Kilminning after lunch I found three in ten minutes, all down in the low sycamores at the sea end by the large green shed (the one that hums mysteriously all day and I never see anyone enter – but that is probably another blog). The warblers were calling and so easy to find as they picked aphids from underneath the sycamore leaves. I also found a pied flycatcher and a spotted flycatcher nearby along the entrance road alongside the airfield. There were lots of skylarks in the stubble fields as well that will also have come in on the easterlies of the last three days. They probably want to be here rather than just on their way to somewhere else.

Yellow-browed warbler - they rarely sit still for long or out in the open so it's one of John's hardest species to photograph

Yellow-browed warbler – they rarely sit still for long or out in the open so it’s one of John’s hardest species to photograph

The flycatchers are heading for West Africa of course: I’ll catch up with them again in November when I visit Nigeria. The big question is how long it takes these small birds to make it to somewhere like Nigeria. They could theoretically do it in two flights of 2-3 days each with a week or so fattening up between them. Both flycatchers today were young birds so I suspect it might take them a bit longer than that. They don’t really know where they are going, they probably don’t really how to feed very efficiently or safely and they have probably already been blown off course. It’s no wonder that most young migrant birds die in their first winter.

The sea was still quiet today with only a few red-throated divers passing into the Forth. This will have nothing to do with the winds. Thousands have probably made their way into the Forth over the last three weeks to spend the winter here.

A red-throated diver

A red-throated diver on its way into the Forth for the winter – still with its summer red throat

Posted September 26, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 25th   Leave a comment

Easterly winds the last two days, rain showers today and reports from the May Island of lots of migrants on the way. An autumn recipe for happiness despite the grey and damp start to the day. First thing I was off to Kilminning and Balcomie Castle. There were redwings passing overhead – the first of the winter – and chiff-chaffs and willow warblers all confirming that, indeed, there were birds about. And then I heard a yellow-browed warbler, making a brief but distinctive call from a dense sycamore – a special autumn bird. Although we are spoilt in Crail with yellow-browed warblers, with several each autumn, these little gems of warblers are always a thrill. The population that appears in small numbers each autumn breeds far away in the Ural Mountains in Siberia and only ever appears during special migrant conditions when other more extreme rarities occur. Yellow-brows are forever associated with good birding days.

I continued on to Fife Ness Muir as the rain resumed. Despite the weather I found another yellow-brow straight away. This time a bird that was calling non-stop and so easy to locate. I had several minutes of it feeding just meters away from me. And then I heard another, and then possibly another. I was beginning to lose track of how many yellow brows there were – certainly three and maybe five. Somewhat less than the 20 reported from the May Island yesterday but not too bad. As I left Fife Ness reluctantly to head to work I had a couple of bramblings flying overhead – again like the redwings, the first of the winter and indicative of migrants on the move.

This evening it brightened up and I could check the sea for birds: this morning and yesterday I couldn’t even see the sea. Lots of kittiwakes passing and a few little gulls but no obvious movements in response to the winds. I may have missed it all in the fog yesterday.

The winds are forecast easterly until at least Sunday. I’ll be out first thing tomorrow as well.

A young northern wheatear brought in by the easterly winds of the last two days.

A young northern wheatear brought in by the easterly winds of the last two days.

Posted September 25, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 23rd   Leave a comment

In the last week I have heard grey wagtails around Crail. They breed in some years but not this summer. It was fairly dry and the Brandyburn maybe did not have the stream flow to sustain them. But they are now back for the winter. They have a metallic clear “sip-sip” call as they fly over and when you see them they are very obvious with very long tails, bright yellow patches and a very distinctive habit of feeding on the slippery rocks of the burns or the shore.

Grey Wagtail - a brilliant splash of yellow along the Brandyburn

Grey Wagtail – a brilliant splash of yellow along the Brandyburn

Posted September 23, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 2nd   Leave a comment

Common tern on its way to African shores

Common tern on its way to African shores

This weekend the gannets have been fledging from Bass Rock in a big way. There have been dribs and drabs of juveniles for the last week but on Saturday morning the exodus from the Forth started in earnest. In the morning about 10% of birds flying east past Crail were young ones, by lunchtime this was up to about a quarter and by mid-afternoon half. And then by the evening back down to about 5%. It makes sense – if you are going to fledge then see if the day is developing into a good one, but don’t leave it too late. Saturday was a calm and fine day with little wind so any unconfident fledglings would not have been challenged. Today there were many fewer young ones passing so most may have already gone. I wish them well as they move into the North Sea and learn to fish and look after themselves in the next couple of weeks. I don’t think the parents stay with them after fledging so they only have their (extensive!) fat reserves and their instincts to help them. There were a couple of new fledglings fishing with some adults off Fife Ness this morning. There was a flock diving into shallow water so only doing dives from just above the water and at a shallow angle. It seemed like a good training event for the youngsters. I couldn’t see if any were successful but I would expect the young ones to have a much lower success rate than the adults probably for many months. Lots will starve before they gain the necessary skills to allow them to fish in all conditions and all weathers.

It was very warm today for late September. Up to 20 degrees and with a big heat haze over the sea as a consequence. Out at Fife Ness anything interesting was lost in the shimmer in the distance. Closer in there was a steady passage of sandwich, common and arctic terns with a single juvenile arctic skua on hand to hurry them on. There was also quite a considerable passage of swallows coming in from the sea. Perhaps birds that had taken a short cut from the Aberdeen coast to the north-east. Everywhere you looked you could see the flickering of swallow wings just above the waves. The swallows have been leaving in earnest since the middle of the week coincident with it getting much colder from Monday onwards. Today must be a bit of a reprieve for them.

A barn swallow also now on its way to Africa. Flocks were passing over Crail all weekend.

A barn swallow also now on its way to Africa. Flocks were passing over Crail all weekend.

Posted September 22, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 18th   Leave a comment

The geese have continued to stream in. I was wrong-footed yesterday when a low-flying flock of geese over Boarhills turned out to be canada geese not the pink-feet I was expecting. Canada geese are migrants when in Canada, but not here. When I was ten I lived in America and I remember the canada geese passing over my garden every year, their deep honking a contrast to the shrill calls of the pink-feet I am more used to now. Canada geese are an introduced species to Britain and like many introduced migrant species they don’t migrate. Whether introduced species don’t migrate because those that did never came back, and we are left with those that stayed here, or the introduced population was non-migratory to begin with is uncertain. I suspect a bit of both. But we do tend to see canada geese around Crail only in the autumn and winter which suggests they are wandering a bit. Perhaps there is a little bit of migration lust left in them.

Canada geese and one greylag

Canada geese and one greylag

Tonight I watched a beautiful sunset making a deep pink to ultraviolet glow in the sky over the May Island. And a flock of geese making their way into the Forth. Perhaps directly from Iceland. They were mostly pink-feet with a good scattering of greylag geese among them. With a full moon above it all.

Pink-footed geese - not a full moon like tonight but not far off

Pink-footed geese – not a full moon like tonight but not far off

Posted September 18, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 16th   Leave a comment

The first pink-footed geese of the year came in today. I saw small flocks labouring in from the sea from Crail to St Andrews this morning. I suspect they set off a couple of days ago from Iceland with the light winds at the end of last week and got caught up with the westerly gales of Sunday. Consequently they probably got blown over the North Sea and so now are coming in from the east rather than the north as usual.

Pink-footed Geese

Pink-footed Geese

Posted September 16, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 15th   Leave a comment

Bottle-nosed dolphin

Bottle-nosed dolphin

This weekend has been one of contrasts. Saturday like the last day of summer and today like the first of winter. The sea was flat calm yesterday but today full of white horses in the westerly gale. And a huge contrast with last weekend as well. Then the winds were from the south-east. Looking out to sea today, all I could see were gannets screaming by, propelled by the winds out of the Forth. Anything else had already been blown out to sea far from Crail. Last week everything was being blown into the Forth and close in to Crail. You need to pick your winds for sea watching from Crail.

Yesterday with the flat seas, it was very easy to see dolphins. I saw a few passing Saucehope after lunch. My third sighting this week. They have been continuing to keep the kittiwakes company, all presumably feeding on shoals of fish out in the Forth. One feeding group was relatively close in yesterday morning. There were about a hundred kittiwakes hovering and swooping over the surface of the sea, moving in slow wave over the water, with birds at the back of the flock leapfrogging those in front. Every so often I could see black and white flashes of little gulls and lighter, more hovery arctic and common terns also dipping down to the water amongst the kittiwakes.  In between them, manx shearwaters and guillemots were diving from the surface, with the manx shearwaters really only visible when they flew occasionally to rejoin the flock as they got left behind. And then suddenly the whole flock of gulls and terns would head straight upwards with frantic wing beats as an attendant arctic skua took off from nearby and started to chase a hapless kittiwake or arctic tern that had just caught a fish. I couldn’t really see the dolphins below them all but an occasional dorsal fin gave them away. It’s a fantastic spectacle – not quite as up close as you see it on the BBC – but just as exciting, and best of all happening right on our doorstep, rather than in some obscurely named current off the coast of Africa.

There have been a lot of red-throated divers passing Crail this week. Most coming into the Forth for the winter. Divers have a very hump-backed silhouette as they fly and relatively small wings making them very distinctive.

Red-throated diver

Red-throated diver

Posted September 15, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 12th   Leave a comment

The last few days have been marked by a lot of seabird activity a few kilometres out from Crail. Hundreds of kittiwakes with quite a few sooty and manx shearwaters have been milling over the sea. They are barely identifiable through my telescope and frustratingly far away. There was a report from the May Island on Monday that there may have been as many as 160 sooty shearwaters in the group. This morning I could see several sootys leaving the area, and considering how many came past last weekend, I can well believe it. As well as the seabirds I probably saw a pilot whale in the area a couple of days ago (again frustration – a classic cetacean 2 second tantalising glimpse of the hooked, long dorsal fin, but then nothing else to confirm the sighting) and tonight a bottle-nosed dolphin. There must be a lot of fish about in the Forth just now to attract everything in, although just not close enough to Crail for my liking. Oh for a boat.

There are lots of juvenile willow warblers in the gardens of Crail at the moment. Look for small, quite yellow birds and listen for their distinctive soft “hoo-weet” calls.

Juvenile willow warbler

Juvenile willow warbler

Posted September 12, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 8th   Leave a comment

The winds blew themselves out overnight so first thing this morning Fife Ness was a sea of calm. Barely anything passing at all, not even the gannets. There were quite a few meadow pipits on the rocky shore and the golf course, along with a wheatear to show that some small birds had been brought in by the winds, but nothing else. I searched the top of Kilminning and Balcomie mid-afternoon just in case – there were barred warblers brought in yesterday at Barns Ness across the Forth from us – but again it was very quiet. A chiff-chaff and a willow warbler were the only obvious migrants. It was a nice afternoon though with the sky full of house martins and swallows enjoying the renewed calm and sunshine.

A migrant meadow pipit on the beach at Fife Ness

A migrant meadow pipit on the beach at Fife Ness

Posted September 8, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 7th   Leave a comment

The winds moved round to the south-east overnight and strengthened. By morning there hundreds of seabirds passing Crail close in every few minutes. I went out to Fife Ness after lunch and estimated that 700 manx shearwaters were passing every hour, with many more fulmars. There was a continuous stream of manxies, so many that it was hard to spot the sooty shearwaters passing with them. Later from Crail I estimated 230 manx shearwaters, 600 fulmars and at least 23 sooty shearwaters passing in an hour. A day like this is almost as good as it gets sea watching from Crail. The passage was missing unusual species – there was only the occasional arctic and great skua, a couple of black-throated divers and a little gull – but this was more than made up by the spectacle of shearwater after shearwater powering past. Later still, as the number of shearwaters declined, they were replaced by hundreds of kittiwakes.

Sooty shearwater - hundreds must have passed Crail today

Sooty shearwater – hundreds must have passed Crail today

Posted September 7, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 6th   Leave a comment

First winter little gull

First winter little gull

Great north-easterly winds today. The sea-birds were streaming out of the Forth all day, hugging the coast close to Crail to minimise the effect of the wind as they headed north. Thousands of kittiwakes, hundreds of manx shearwaters and the occasional great and arctic skua (about one every ten minutes). There were common scoters, teal and wigeon passing too and three sooty shearwaters. Only one little gull though. This Fife Ness specialty has become rarer over the last few years. There was a single juvenile off Crail this evening. Superficially they are like young kittiwakes sharing the same black W pattern on their upper wings. One advantage of having watched the thousands of kittiwakes today was that it stood out a mile despite. A much smaller and more clearly marked gull.

Posted September 6, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 5th   Leave a comment

I saw my first newly fledged gannets of the year this evening, labouring just above the sea and heading out of the Forth. They have much heavier wing beats than the adults because they have big fat reserves to tide them over the first few weeks as they learn to fish. There were only two dark brown young among the hundred or so white and black adults passing Crail in about 10 minutes. This ratio will change as the month goes on and more and more gannets fledge.

A newly fledged gannet - the dark one in the middle, with an adult in front and a 3 year old behind

A newly fledged gannet – the dark one in the middle, with an adult in front and a 3 year old behind

There was a young sanderling on the beach at Roome Bay at high tide today. They are usually on the sandier shores of Balcomie Beach, but young birds are much more likely to turn up anywhere. Particularly so if they have just arrived from their first big migration from the Arctic and don’t know the area yet. The same thing probably applied to the young wheatear also in Roome Bay but among the rocks. It was being chased occasionally by the resident pied wagtails who weren’t keen on it muscling in on the high tide seaweed fly bonanza.

A young sanderling

A young sanderling

It’s a good time to see an arctic skua passing Crail. The two I saw today were a long way out but occasionally one will pass close. If a skua starts chasing a gull or a tern then they become very obvious even at a distance: a dark falcon like bird persistently chasing another agile white bird over the sea will always be a skua.

As I was reading my daughter a bedtime story this evening I glanced out of the window and saw a goose-like shape flying over the Marine Hotel. A frantic dash to my son’s room and the telescope confirmed it was indeed a goose – the first brent goose of the winter. The pink-feet and barnacles will be here soon and then the autumn proper.

Posted September 5, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 1st   Leave a comment

Out at Fife Ness this morning there were a few waders: dunlin, ringed plover and a couple of bar-tailed godwits. I have written before about bar-tailed godwits being globally flight capable superstars and I can’t help revisiting this again after hearing a talk about them earlier in the week. The title of the talk was “There are no poor quality bar-tailed godwits in New Zealand”. I should probably add this was as part of the program of the European Ornithologists Union biennial conference (in sunny Norwich this time) where such an obscure talk title sits quite happily. Anyway, bar-tailed godwits have been studied by Jesse Conklin for the last 6 or so years and his population is the one that migrates non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand – 12 days or so flight to do 12,000 km. All the way over the Pacific from one end of the planet to the other. They have been tracked so we know that it is only the occasional bird that has to bail out and stop over on a Pacific island like Fiji. This incredible journey is the norm for these birds, not an exception. And they do it every year for 20 years or so. But the really impressive part of the journey is that the young birds do it when they are only 3 months old and they do it more or less independently, the adults having left earlier. The young feed up on the Alaskan coast after fledging – and not even the most southerly point in Alaska – and then head off for this incredible flight hoping to reach New Zealand nearly two weeks later. The navigation to do this is in itself incredible let alone the endurance. So you have probably guessed why there are no poor quality bar-tailed godwits in New Zealand. All the poor ones never make that first journey. They have to pass through the eye of a needle and any not up to scratch will simply die on the way with only a very rare second chance if they encounter one of the tiny islands scattered occasionally on the way. The population of fledglings goes through a huge selection immediately and only the fittest survive. Jesse has realised this after looking unsuccessfully for variation in the population. Normally when you study birds you find, just like people, there are individuals who are less fit than others, and so those that do better than others. But imagine if you studied the Kenyan Olympic running team: you wouldn’t really find much evidence for fitness problems, they’d just come first, second and third in any race they took part in. The New Zealand bar-tailed godwits are the elite track team of the bird world. The two out at Balcomie Beach today will not have come as far as a new Zealand bird has to, but they may have come from Taymyr in Siberia in a single flight. And when they took off in front of me as I walked on the beach they looked like every other bar-tailed godwit I have ever seen, capable of flying forever.

Bar-tailed godwit - the all time elite athlete of the bird world

Bar-tailed godwit – the all time elite athlete of the bird world

Another talk at the conference highlighted the fallibility in the incredible capability of the godwits. Such huge flights require good areas in which to fuel up. On their return journey to Alaska the New Zealand godwits take a different route. They do two flights this time, one non-stop to the Yellow Sea in China, before their final non-stop flight to Alaska. The logic of this is the godwits get to Alaska with spare energy to get breeding quickly, whereas they would need a month to recover if they flew direct from New Zealand. But the reliance on the Yellow Sea is their Achilles heel. Without this crucial link in the chain, the entire population will never reach Alaska. And the Yellow Sea is being reclaimed for industry by land hungry China at a fast rate with 30% having been lost or about to be lost already. Other wader species, such as great knot staging through South Korea, have already lost large populations as their stop-over sites have been taken away. I hope that enough habitat survives in the future for these fantastic godwits so others can wonder at their incredible journeys.

Sea-watching in the evening I saw my first sooty shearwater of the year flashing past Crail, heading round to Fife Ness and around the top of Scotland. Another global traveller passing through but linking us to the southern Atlantic rather than Siberia. My travels are over for the summer but I can watch the world coming to Crail for the next three months as the migration season really kicks in.

Sooty shearwater - I've posted this photo before but it's my all time favourite photo that John has taken - captures this exciting bird brilliantly

Sooty shearwater – I’ve posted this photo before but it’s my all time favourite photo that John has taken – captures this exciting bird brilliantly

Posted September 1, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

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