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

Posted October 31, 2013 by wildcrail 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 wildcrail 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 wildcrail 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 wildcrail 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 wildcrail 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 wildcrail 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 wildcrail in Sightings

October 16th   Leave a comment

Amongst all the rarities some other unusual Crail birds have been making more of an appearance. It must have been a good season for the magpies down at Fife Ness and I think also a second family at Kilminning (but they could be the same birds with only the golf course really separating the two areas). It’s not unusual to see 4 or 5 magpies in both areas and they seem to be less shy than usual: there are certainly some more foraging opportunities for them at Kilminning just now. I’m not seeing much of the magpies around the shore side gardens of Nethergate in Crail so they may have not been as successful this year. We don’t have anything like the magpie numbers of Edinburgh or even just a bit further west in Fife. And I still wonder about their shyness around Crail – it’s as if they are hunted but I’ve never seen any evidence of this either by humans or more excitingly birds of prey. Buzzards, for example, are implicated in corvid control in some areas, particularly Ireland. Perhaps we have a magpie specialist in the Crail area. It would only take one dangerous buzzard to make all the magpies take great care and avoid showing themselves. In Europe it is the goshawks that keep the magpies in check and behaving themselves but I can only dream of a Crail goshawk.

A Crail magpie - not quite a rarity but not as common as elsewhere

A Crail magpie – not quite a rarity but not as common as elsewhere

Posted October 16, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 15th   Leave a comment

Red-flanked Bluetail

The one that got away…hope its not 2023 before the next red-flanked bluetail makes it to Denburn,

Sadly the red-flanked bluetail in Denburn timed its visit to exactly coincide with my absence from Crail, despite me dashing back on an earlier train than I had originally planned. I had been reassured by a text on Monday evening that the bluetail had been seen well all afternoon, but also been made nervous by emerging from the train at Leuchars and seeing the moon. Migrants leave on clear nights and I felt sure I was going to be disappointed. Still I was in Denburn at dawn and I put in three hours before finally accepting that the bird really had left. I saw a lot of robins, blackbirds, redwings, a couple of blackcaps and probably saw more treecreepers than I have ever seen before in Denburn, but this didn’t make up for missing this once in decade (literally) Crail bird. The rest of the day continued in this sad vein. Everything else I went to look for eluded me – I missed a black redstart at Balcomie and then a firecrest at Kilminning. The only consolations were some redpolls flying over and my 30th or so yellow-browed warbler this autumn (their currency has been a bit devalued). I guess if you have lucky days – and I have had a few this year – you will also have unlucky days. The technical term in twitching is “dipping” – missing a sought after species. It never feels good even if I can clutch on to the fact that at least I have seen a red-flanked bluetail already for my Crail list.

If there weren’t migrants to be found there were at least plenty of birders. Some disappointed like me and looking for some consolation, others searching the area for other rarities inspired by seeing the bluetail the day before. Despite this, nothing new was turned up. The winds continued easterly and there were occasional rain showers so it should have been perfect. I don’t think this autumn’s excitement is over but there is certainly a temporary lull. Perhaps this is good thing – time to grieve the bluetail and to start looking forward to the next wildlife highlight that Crail can offer. Any day soon we should get the woodcocks in and every garden in Crail will have them bursting up for a morning or two, and in a couple of weeks we can hope for a Pallas’s warbler or a desert or pied wheatear on the easterlies.

Posted October 15, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 13th   Leave a comment

Birding has many joys but also has a dark side. I am passionate about my Crail list and nothing gives me more pleasure that seeing, or even better, finding a rare bird on my local patch. This means though that I run the risk being disappointed if I miss something. I knew that heading down to England for a meeting tomorrow was likely to cause trouble after the easterly winds of the last couple of days but I was reassured by it being fairly quiet yesterday (just a merlin and some bramblings). As I left Crail for the station I saw a group of bird watchers heading into Denburn and mentally wished them luck, but not too hard. An hour or so later as I headed south away from Edinburgh I got a text – a red-flanked bluetail found in Denburn (last one 11 years ago…) and then another hour later another – a Pallas’s warbler also in Denburn (last one about 6 years ago). So here I am moving further and further away from that special patch of woodland just 300 meters from where I usually write Wild Crail. I will come back as soon as I can tomorrow, but won’t be back in Crail until late Monday evening. I will be in Denburn at first light on Tuesday praying that these birds are 3 day birds (not a forlorn hope at this time of year and with dull and rainy weather forecast). I have seen both of these species before in Crail but still the timing makes me wonder which god of bird watching I have offended.

What I am describing here is the frustration of being a twitcher. Keeping a list and not wanting to miss a bird that you can add to your list. I gave up serious twitching many years ago when I found out that disappointment at missing a bird could simply be avoided by not trying to go and see it. Birding is too much fun to ever allow yourself to be disappointed. Better to go out in hope all the time and just enjoy whatever you find yourself. But now I have my Crail list the potential disappointments are back and right now in a huge way.

There will be a lot of birders descending on Crail again. They will find more rare birds I am sure. The weather conditions remain good for more migrants to arrive. Roll on Tuesday. Those of you reading this that saw the bluetail today…I have posted John’s photo below …and those of you that didn’t can look at the photo and wish like me that they had. But it’s in Denburn right now by the wooden bridge (and all the birders) so go and have a look yourself.

Red-flanked Bluetail

Red-flanked Bluetail in Denburn today – a brilliant bird. Wish I wasn’t in England until Tuesday.

Posted October 13, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 11th   Leave a comment

What a difference a week makes. Kilminning today was very quiet. Only one chiff-chaff and it seemed very empty without any yellow-browed warblers. But there were a couple of corn buntings with the skylarks in the stubble field between the top and bottom of Kilmining. They tend to go inland during the winter and disappear from the East Neuk until April. I also saw three great spotted woodpeckers. There have been hardly any around Crail this year and quite a few have passed through the Isle of May recently so I should think these three were migrants just in from Scandinavia. It must be a tough flight over the North Sea for a woodpecker. At sea there has been a steady stream of kittiwakes passing out of the Forth past Crail. I think they are a really nice gull to look at and it is always a thrill to see them pass even though they are common.

Kittiwake

Kittiwake

Posted October 11, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 10th   Leave a comment

Dunlin on Balcomie Beach

Dunlin on Balcomie Beach

The wind is now from the north so it was cold at Balcomie Beach today and it felt like winter for the first time. I was down there to look for a little stint that John found there yesterday. As the name suggests, little stints are small and it’s a big beach on a windy day when most things were trying to keep out of the way of it. So I scanned through a flock of about 15 dunlin about 15 times but I couldn’t find the tell-tale even smaller wader. It was lively on the beach the beach though with ringed and grey plovers, turnstones and a bar-tailed godwit. On the way back I scanned the newly harrowed field on the north side of the road to Fife Ness just outside Crail. It was full of birds: starlings, linnets, gulls, lapwings and hundreds of golden plover. The black-headed gulls were spread through the plovers watching intently for one to find a worm and then a chase would ensue. After a short flight the plover would drop the worm and resume feeding: it was really too cold for it to waste energy trying to seriously evade the thief. There were about 25 or more golden plover to each gull (the technical term is kleptoparasite) so the odds were in favour of both the plovers – with a low chance of being targeted – and the gulls – with plenty of potential victims.

Posted October 10, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 9th   Leave a comment

The longer I live in Crail the more I notice the direction of the wind. Especially at this time of year when a few degrees can make the difference between a quiet or an interesting day. Tonight it is moaning down my chimney from the northeast. It has been bringing in more geese throughout the day. Almost all pink-footed geese, passing over Crail heading towards Edinburgh. They don’t seem to be calling as vigorously as usual, perhaps because they were struggling with the gusting wind. In the evening I had one flock of barnacle geese flying into the Forth, my first of the year. They always seem to arrive flying low and in ragged flocks unlike the disciplined high altitude v–formations of the pink-feet. Their black and white and greys matched the tattered sea just below them.

Barnacle geese fresh in from Svalbard

Barnacle geese fresh in from Svalbard

Posted October 9, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 8th   Leave a comment

There were flocks of pink-footed geese arriving all day today. The wind was a strong westerly with the geese coming in more or less straight into it. The same thing happened three weeks ago during the last big arrival. If these are birds straight from Iceland they may have also been blown further west than they planned. I watched hundreds of geese flying into the Forth past the May Island this evening. Below them a couple of arctic skuas were harrying the kittiwakes – too far out to really identify if they were late arctics rather than pomarine skuas which become a bit more likely into October. Much closer in there was a steady stream of juvenile gannets passing Crail in the opposite direction to the geese.

A juvenile gannet passing Fife Ness

A juvenile gannet passing Fife Ness

Posted October 8, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 6th   Leave a comment

Kilrenny Common and the woods behind were full of flocks of tits and goldcrests this morning and probably all this week too. I heard the now obligatory yellow-browed warbler among them. I’m up to 16 now found in separate locations around Crail in the last 10 days. There were two ring ouzels in the rowans in the north-west of the common (behind the swings). They were reported there mid-week but I have been too busy chasing other things. Any other time these would have been star birds. Ring ouzels are late season migrants (and so early in the spring) because they only are going as far as North Africa where they winter in the mountain juniper forests of Tunisia and Algeria. They are super-charged blackbirds: a bit bigger and with a harsher chacking call like pebbles ricocheting against a cliff.

Juvenile ring ouzel

Juvenile ring ouzel

Posted October 6, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 5th   Leave a comment

The wind went back round to the south-west overnight and everything calmed down a bit today. The yellow-browed warblers were still around in the Patch at Fife Ness and at Kilmininning this morning, but there was no sign of any of the other extra special migrants of the last few days. Other migrants replaced them however, but from further north in Scotland rather than the East. There were flocks of meadow pipits and pink-footed geese coming in all day from the northeast. The highlight of the day was a flock of 50 tree sparrows shuttling between Fife Ness and Kilminning: the usual autumn flock of tree sparrows dispersing from further inland brought up short by the North Sea.

Tree sparrow - a flock of at least 50 at Fife Ness this morning

Tree sparrow – a flock of at least 50 at Fife Ness this morning

Posted October 5, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 4th   Leave a comment

A complete change in the weather today. Very little wind and by this afternoon up to 18 degrees. Much better conditions for finding birds. I went down to the Patch at Fife Ness first thing this morning. It was full of chiff-chaffs and blackcaps which is always a good sign. There were robins everywhere: the resident birds singing up a storm to discourage the newly arrived migrants from hanging around. And of course a couple of yellow-browed warblers. I think my suggestion that they left over the weekend was a bit premature. Perhaps many did but today there were at least 14 reported around Crail and I saw or heard 6 of them. Then on to Kilminning which was very busy, again with blackcaps and robins but also blackbirds that have started to arrive for the winter. In the corner where I found the firecrest yesterday there were still a couple of yellow-brows and a brief view of a common rosefinch. It was a young one so all browns and no hint of rose, but it was my first for Crail and so a good bird to find. There were small flocks of redpolls and siskins passing over. Not so very rare migrants but indicative of everything being on the move.

Barnacle Geese passing Fife Ness yesterday - one of John's best ever photos

Barnacle Geese passing Fife Ness yesterday – one of John’s best ever photos

I was back at Kilminning later in the day grateful that my Friday afternoon was not filled with essential tasks. A red-breasted flycatcher was reported just after lunch from the sea-end of Kilminning – again by the mysterious green humming shed. I am beginning to think that its function might be to manufacture rare birds. The flycatcher was very elusive and I didn’t find it for 30 minutes. There were several other birders looking too and a rumour began to circulate that it had been eaten by a sparrowhawk just minutes before my arrival. A sparrowhawk had been seen diving into a bush nearby but that’s what sparrowhawks do and it would have been very bad luck for it to have got the only red-breasted flycatcher in the east of Scotland today. Still, having said that, there are many true tales of rare birds being killed by sparrowhawks. It’s a combination of lots of observers watching the rarity to see the even rarer predation event and rarities generally being a bit tired, bleary and lacking experience of the local perils. I finally glimpsed the flycatcher in a sycamore. It was mostly favouring the inside of the dense rose bushes and willow trees so didn’t show itself much: maybe it had had a brush with the sparrowhawk after all. Even when I knew where it was it would disappear for minutes at a time. One of the birders commented on the impossibility of ever first finding such a bird. Such recluses always make me appreciate their finders but it also makes me appreciate that for every one that is found we must overlook many more. I left Kilminning happy after a good autumn migrant day, and with the calls of a couple more yellow-browed warblers piping me back home to Crail.

A juvenile red-breasted flycatcher - the one from last year at Kilminning that was a bit more showy than the one today and certainly impossible to photograph well

A juvenile red-breasted flycatcher – the one from last year at Kilminning that was a bit more showy than the one today and certainly impossible to photograph well

Posted October 4, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 3rd   Leave a comment

The strong south-easterlies have continued with heavy rain last night and this morning. Again that perfect recipe for good birds in Crail. Kilminning at lunchtime was still full of redwings. In one corner by the entrance there was a small flock of blackcaps that were obvious new migrants. With them were some goldcrests and among them at least two yellow-browed warblers. I then heard a firecrest. A great Crail bird – we might get one every 1 or 2 years (or at least that’s the frequency they are found – firecrests are very easy to overlook among the thousands of goldcrests we get through Crail in the autumn). It took about 20 minutes before I finally got a clear view of the firecrest. Their call is not totally distinctive and firecrests are stripy greenish birds like yellow-brows. Every time I thought I had spotted it turned out to be a yellow-brow so I was starting to doubt myself. And then it popped out into clear sight. A real beauty, much more striking and colourful than a goldcrest, bright greens and an orangeish shoulder. Firecrests are as small and fragile looking as goldcrests (equally our smallest UK bird species) but are always associated with bad weather when I see them in Crail so they must be much tougher than they look. There is better weather tomorrow so I am hopeful that more good birds will be found. The supply may be switched off as the winds go round to the south-west but we might be able to actually find those that are already here.

A firecrest

A firecrest

Posted October 3, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 2nd   1 comment

The dead adult female otter hit by a car last night just outside of Crail

The dead adult female otter hit by a car last night just outside of Crail

I got up at first light this morning. Not so hard for the next couple of weeks before the clocks go back. There were 4 ring ouzels reported from Kilminning yesterday so I headed out there in hope on my way to work. No ring ouzels but hundreds of redwings dashing about in the high winds. Not perfect birding conditions so I certainly missed more than I saw. I heard a yellow-browed warbler so there are still some left over from last week: my 11th I have found this autumn. I am definitely heading for a record.

As I drove out of Crail towards St Andrews I was suddenly brought to an abrupt halt by a familiar shape I passed lying on the road. I hoped I was mistaken but as I reversed back and got out I realised to my horror that I was looking at an otter. A big, beautiful but sadly lifeless otter that had been hit by a car sometime last night. I picked it up. Its fur and every detail of it was just beautiful. I have been very close to wild otters but in your arms they are even more fantastic from their stiff bristly whiskers to their thick rope of a tail. Its neck had been broken but otherwise it looked as if it might wake up at any time.

I have been looking out for otters in Crail for as long as I have been here. And since the minks disappeared suspiciously a few years ago it seemed likely that there were some otters about. Like the road-kill barn owl earlier this year – the only consolation is that I now know they are definitely here. The worst of it was when I picked it up and turned it over – it was a female and I thought initially, from its baggy tummy, it was pregnant. Otters can mate late summer and gestate for a couple of months so it is possible if not likely. The alternative is even worse though. Probably it gave birth in the last month and there are some small cubs starving to death tonight.

I put the otter into the boot of my car and took it to the University. After a few phone calls I tracked down Andrew Kitchener from the National Museum of Scotland at Chambers Street who was interested in having the corpse. There is a lot you can tell only from a dead body – age, and body condition for example, and when you have a few, you can tell things like population size and even whether the population is increasing or declining. And road kills are at least fairly random. They are more representative of the whole population than when you draw conclusions from a dead animal you have just found lying about. That’s a bit like trying to infer the health of a town by visiting its hospital.

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The paws are beautiful with their webbing

A female otter - either pregnant or just having given birth

Either pregnant or just having given birth

I put the otter in a chest freezer in my department (the Biology department has a lot of this kind of stuff in its freezers as you can imagine – might be more of a problem if I worked in the catering department of St Andrews University though) and I will take it to the museum when I next pass through Edinburgh in a couple of weeks. I feel fairly sad about the whole episode. But it does give me hope that maybe the next wild otter I see will not be on the West Coast but right here.

The otter was over a meter in length and probably weighed about 6-7 Kg

The otter was over a meter in length and probably weighed about 6-7 Kg

Posted October 2, 2013 by wildcrail in Sightings