Archive for October 2013

October 31st   Leave a comment

John Anderson found a snow goose among a large flock of pink-footed geese just outside Crail last thing yesterday afternoon. It was too late last night for me to go and see it after I got the news. Luckily the flock came back again today and spent the day in the stubble fields at Ribbonfield (between the B940 and the A917 just to the north-west of Crail). I caught up with it in the afternoon. There were about 200 pink-footed geese and a single pure black and white snow goose. Snow geese are pure white – very much like a farmyard goose, although with black wing tips – and tend to stand out amongst the greys and dull browns of a pinkfoot flock. It was nice to turn up to see a bird and to see it straight away: no dusky warbler experience this afternoon. Just a big, conspicuous, easily identifiable white goose. The last snow goose I saw was near Vancouver in Canada five years ago (an impressive flock of several thousand) where they are a bit less unusual, so this is a good Crail bird. Only my second in the Crail area in the last 10 years as well. I scanned through the flock for other grey geese – a bean goose or a white-fronted which are much less conspicuous but they were all pinkfeet apart from the snow goose of course. I did see a merlin jinking over the flock barely making the geese react at all – that would be some sort of monumental David and Goliath – but some nearby gulls and woodpigeons did start to fly up in panic as it approached before settling down when they finally realised it was a merlin. It is very difficult to split merlins and peregrines on rapid flight views when they are coming towards you and most prey will err on the side of caution.

The snow goose at Ribbonfiedl just northwest of Crail this afternoon with a pink-footed  goose flock

The snow goose at Ribbonfield just northwest of Crail this afternoon with a pink-footed goose flock

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Posted October 31, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 27th   Leave a comment

One of the blackcaps at Kilminning this week - females have a brown cap

One of the blackcaps at Kilminning this week – females have a brown cap

Although most of the blackbirds have now gone from Kilminning there are still quite a few blackcaps. These warblers used to be entirely summer visitors but now we have a large wintering population in the UK. This has been a change over my lifetime as they swopped wintering in North Africa with Britain. Blackcaps are quite flexible in their diet and will eat fruit and scraps from bird tables as well as insects and spiders so are able to deal with even severe UK winters. I suspect most of the blackcaps at Kilminning will move eventually further south, but we do have one or two in Crail in most winters. They are most likely to be seen midwinter in a garden at a bird table.

I went out to Balcomie Beach and Fife Ness this morning. The visibility was excellent with the rain showers keeping it clear and heat haze free. I could see the hundreds of kittiwakes feeding on the horizon with the occasional manx and probably one sooty shearwater. A single great skua passed going north. With the strengthening westerlies a lot of seabirds will be going past but too far out to see properly unfortunately. The usual winter wader crowd was on the beach, dunlins, ringed plovers, bar-tailed godwits, redshank, oystercatcher and turnstone. As I left I saw a swallow bravely feeding in the lee of the hill of the golf clubhouse. My last swallows were 2 weeks ago so this is a late bird indeed. A last reminder of summer as the season heads inexorably into winter.

A dunlin feeding on the strandline at Balcomie Beach

A dunlin feeding on the strandline at Balcomie Beach

Posted October 27, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 25th   Leave a comment

Yesterday I saw a flock of 18 grey partridges crossing the pasture field by the airfield. This is one of the largest I have ever seen around Crail. Grey partridges form flocks in the winter, the size being dependent on how successful they were at breeding in the previous summer. If all goes well they have many chicks and so go into the winter with a large group size. This then makes it easier for them to survive the winter. With the many eyes of a large group, an individual can spend much more time feeding out in the open winter fields and can rely on its companions to spot sparrowhawks, harriers or buzzards. It’s a double gain of more feeding time and a less chance of being surprised by a predator. The partridges will keep this advantage right through until March when they split their coveys into pairs and become territorial. The gains of avoiding predators are then not outweighed by the costs of sharing everything, and the spring vegetation provides more cover. But during the winter flocking may be the only way they can survive. If the local partridges have a bad breeding season and go into the winter with a small group then they may be further reduced because they can’t share the vigilance and so maintain their feeding rate. It’s a spiral downwards in numbers that may lead to local extinctions. The root cause of the decline may well be poor breeding conditions – a wet cold summer or too much spraying so there are few insects, but the final nail in the coffin may be predation. Or due to a final twist, starvation in cold weather because the partridges cannot maintain body condition and so cannot exploit more exposed areas for fear of the predators. A flock of 18 looks well set for the winter – I think the Crail grey partridges will be alright.

Grey partridges set for the winter in a good size covey

Grey partridges set for the winter in a good size covey

Posted October 25, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 24th   Leave a comment

There were at least a couple of ring ouzels with the blackbirds at Kilminning this afternoon. The hawthorns were alive with the chacking of blackbirds and then the occasional deeper more rattling chack of a ring ouzel. I had to wait a few minutes before they started to venture out in the open to grab some rowan berries and I could get a view to confirm their identity. There is still a chiff-chaff at Kilminning but no yellow-browed warblers. It seem strange after the last month of having them everywhere.

I had another small flock of whooper swans past Crail late afternoon. This time they were close in, cutting the corner over Fife Ness to pass into the Forth over Roome Bay. There were 6 birds in the flock and two of them were juveniles of this year (a bit grubbier looking than the adults – a concept well known to any parent of any species of course). Swans are unusual in birds because they migrate in family parties. The young of each year get shown the migration route so that the knowledge about stop-over sites and migration strategies gets passed on. In contrast, most young birds have to work this out for themselves guided only by a genetic direction to fly in which changes with time of year. Of course once they have done their first migration they can repeat their successful route and they can also find good wintering sites by looking for adults when they get there so it’s not all chance where they end up. But which is the better strategy: to be guided by your parents as in swans or geese or cranes, or to have a scatter gun approximate approach to finding a wintering ground? I bet you think the former because after all it takes the guess work out of it. A swan will always end up in a good place. But I think in a changing world the latter is best. At least a small migrant’s eggs are not in one basket – some of its young might get lucky and find good places. The swans will only find good places as long as they stay good. If one key site disappears then the parents will just be leading the whole family into disaster. Perhaps it’s not as bad as that. Following the parents is associated with bird species that are large so there is probably a degree of safety margin in their migrations. If a site goes wrong then there is plenty of fuel in the tank to keep going or to search for a new site. The swans this afternoon were flying steadily and purposefully, and looked like they could fly forever. I watched them until they passed the May Island and began to blend in with the sea and the sky.

Whooper swans - again past Crail today

Whooper swans – again past Crail today

Posted October 24, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 23rd   Leave a comment

I did just five minutes of sea watching when I came home from work today and was rewarded immediately with a great northern diver beating powerfully into the Forth. The strong westerlies were slowing it down a bit but they are really huge – like black and white cormorants with faster wing beats.

A great northern diver - they are always great, but  "great northern diver" is its proper name

A great northern diver – they are always great, but “great northern diver” is its proper name

I then got onto a flock of 12 whooper, or possibly even Bewick’s swans 2 or 3 kilometres out, glowing white in the last of the evening sunshine. They were strung out in a line flying steadily a few meters above the waves. We almost always have whoopers as our winter swans in the Crail area but at this time of year any small flock of swans could also be the other winter species, Bewick’s. At three kilometres I can’t split them. It didn’t detract from the sight of the first wild swans of the winter over the wild sea.

Whooper swans

Whooper swans

Posted October 23, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 20th   Leave a comment

It was much quieter today. The blackbirds have moved on making it all seem a bit less frantic. The dusky warbler at Fife Ness remained elusive all day. I checked every chiff-chaff there a dozen times today but none turned into a boldly marked dusky. It was busy birder wise though, with probably 30 people spending an hour there today and some us several hours. In total there was only about a minute’s worth of sightings of the bird giving an indication of just how difficult it was to see. There was a lesser whitethroat and a few bramblings to liven up the hours, and I have certainly gained a lot more experience of looking critically at chiff-chaffs.

The winds are now southerly and although there are some more easterlies forecast for this week I think it will remain much quieter. It’s getting to that point when it will be a relief to enjoy the commonplace again and not to spend too much time worrying about what might be out there to be find.

Lots of migrant chiff-chaffs around today

Lots of migrant chiff-chaffs around today

Posted October 20, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 19th   Leave a comment

The remains of a redwing that met one of the Denburn sparrowhawks at the end of its migration

The remains of a redwing that met one of the Denburn sparrowhawks at the end of its migration

There were blackbirds everywhere this morning – sixty or so at one time in Denburn but with a steady passage through all morning. They came in from Balcomie direction and left through Beech Walk Park, moving inland. Everywhere there was the sound of alarmed blackbirds and explosions of dark darting shapes from bushes. It’s hard to count birds like this but probably hundreds of blackbirds passed through Crail every hour. It gives a real feeling of winter, especially because there were a lot of redwings, a few fieldfares and the occasional brambling with them. The thrush passage is a bonanza for the local sparrowhawks. Newly arrived migrants are invariably a bit confused, lack experience of the local safe areas and where to feed safely, and so many succumb. I found a neat pile of redwing feathers by the rope swing in Denburn to remind me of this.

With the winter thrushes coming in I was looking out for woodcock as well. I finally found one, not in Denburn or Kilminning, but on my patio. It hurtled out of a neighbour’s garden, landing in a confused state right in front of me. Even its legendary vertical take-off didn’t allow it to levitate out again when it saw me looking at it, and it took a couple of attempts before it cleared my roof. What it did when it got to the High Street I can’t say but by now it will have found a nice damp bit of woodland, or quieter garden to settle down in and recover from its migration. Woodcocks are pretty much nocturnal, hiding in cover during the day and feeding out in the open only when it is completely dark.

I spent a couple of hours in the rain and an hour at dusk in the Patch at Fife Ness trying to see a dusky warbler found there yesterday. Another very rare bird, and a bit of a skulker. I probably had a brief glimpse in the morning through the rain and I also heard it calling briefly. With clearer skies and light winds tonight I am not too hopeful for it remaining to be seen better tomorrow. It would be my first dusky warbler so I really would like to see it properly, rather than just this very brief encounter.

A young male migrant blackbird refuelling in Denburn

A young male migrant blackbird refuelling in Denburn

Posted October 19, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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