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 aboutcrail 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 aboutcrail 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 aboutcrail 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 aboutcrail 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 aboutcrail 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 aboutcrail 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 aboutcrail in Sightings

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