Archive for December 2013

December 22nd   Leave a comment

I went for a walk on Kingsbarn’s beach this morning. For the first time ever my family had it to ourselves. Perhaps the other things to do on the Sunday before Christmas, and the very cold wind had something to do with it. We timed it perfectly between the showers and had a sunny walk to the end and back before, finally, others joined us. I think Kingsbarn’s Beach is one of the best things we have on our doorstep. Even if you have little interest in the natural world, you can’t fail to enjoy a walk along it, whatever the time of year. And if you do look about you, and notice the other things using the shore and the sea then your walk will be all the more special.

At this time of year there are a lot of things going on. This morning the usual quartet of sea ducks were there: red-breasted mergansers closest in, then goldeneyes and eiders diving in slightly deeper water and finally, beyond them, long-tailed ducks. Every one of them glowing in the low sunlight and flashing black and white as they bobbed. There were a few red-throated divers out with the long-tailed ducks. In some years there can be 20 or so off the beach, but they seem to be less common this year. I have seen plenty passing Crail this week, but not many actually sitting on the sea. Well beyond the ducks and divers were large flocks of kittiwakes all along the horizon. They are usually much further out at this time of year and I associate such big flocks with Fife Ness in late August and September. And skuas as well, of course. As I thought this today I saw a dark brown shape shearwatering on the extreme horizon: even through my telescope it was tricky but I was fairly sure it was an arctic skua, despite never having seen one in Scotland in December before. They should all be in warmer waters or even the south Atlantic by now. Luckily it reached one of the flocks of kittiwakes and then started chasing so I could get a size comparison and a better impression of the tail shape as it banked and dived in pursuit. And then I noticed the gannets passing very far out – not the September crowds true but also unseasonally far north. I’ve no idea what this means. Climate change, chance, freak weather or me just being more observant this year. It makes life interesting though and was a nice reprise of the hectic late summer seabird days that make living in Crail so much fun for me.

Arctic skua chasing a kittiwake - these are September birds and much closer in than today's action

Arctic skua chasing a kittiwake – these are September birds and much closer in than today’s action

Robin - Happy Christmas

Robin – Happy Christmas

It being Christmas I think I should mention robins. As I chopped wood this afternoon, the first year robin that is resident in my front garden for the winter was foraging companionably around my feet. Hoping I would disturb insects and slugs as I scurfled around. My log pile is not a bad bet for a wintering robin – full of spiders and grubs, and with plenty of crevices for safe hideaways and even for roosting. I put some live mealworms out for it as an early Christmas present and to thank this little scrap of Scandinavia for transforming my fairly bleak and lifeless front garden.

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Posted December 22, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 14th   Leave a comment

It gets harder and harder to find the time to get out and see what is happening around Crail as Christmas approaches. The shorter days, the bad weather and today the strong winds all conspire to make observations difficult. I am minded that this is the same problem that the birds face except they have more serious consequences of failing. We have had strong southerlies all day today, with big seas and seabirds pushed in close to the shore. I had a great northern diver going east past Crail this morning. Its usual laboured flight was quite inspired in the gale. Unusually for the time of year there have been gannets passing close in all day – I have had Decembers with only one or two for the month – the birds today were mostly first winter birds.

First winter gannet past Crail today

First winter gannet past Crail today

A winter male house sparrow with time on his hands

A winter male house sparrow with time on his hands

Denburn was very quiet this morning. Somewhat sheltered from the storm but bare and small feeling now that the leaves have gone and the houses can be seen crowding round. On winter days like these when there are strong winds and it has been relatively warm (the last 4 days have only had minima of 11 degrees or so) birds just hunker down in a bush and rest through the day, conserving energy and only feeding for a small part of it. The house sparrows epitomise this, gathering in daytime roosts after feeding in the early morning. There were tens gathered in a big Thuja bush behind my garden even by 11 this morning. I could hear them cheeping away but they were all invisible. Every so often they would go silent, probably in response to a potential sparrowhawk or cat passing, before resuming their chorus. Sparrows loudly cheeping from a daytime roost in the middle of a winter’s day must be one of the best indicators of a happy, well fed population: time and energy to spare.

There has been the usual winter flock of oystercatchers feeding on the short grass lawn above Roome Bay this week at high tide. Oystercatchers are surprisingly versatile and can feed happily on worms in turf and on ploughed fields. In some populations only the younger birds or poorer competitors feed away from the shore during the winter. There is a greater risk of predation and even parasitism. I think more or less all the oystercatchers that winter in Roome Bay feed regularly on the grass so I don’t think it is a desperate strategy for them. They frequently get disturbed by dog walkers but this probably keeps down much more serious disturbance from predators. When back on the mud oystercatchers take either molluscs or worms. There will be individuals that specialise on either and for those that feed on molluscs there are even specialists that hammer open shells and others that lever them open. These specialisms are a consequence of early selection of a particular feeding area where one type of prey might be more common. As an individual gets more practiced and efficient at harvesting one particular prey type it then makes sense for it to keep playing to its strengths. And because oystercatchers like to flock together, if one or two birds favour turf feeding at Roome Bay each year then others may pick up the habit too. It’s not quite transmission of a cultural trait, but something a bit like it.

Oystercatcher with a cockle

Oystercatcher with a cockle

Posted December 14, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 8th   Leave a comment

The mighty worm hunter

The mighty worm hunter

The big field between Hammer Inn and Crail was being ploughed today. As well as the usual explosion of gulls following the plough there were three buzzards. These mighty hunters were happy terrorising the earthworms. The gulls were keeping their distance despite: last winter at least one of these buzzards was specialising in killing black-headed gull on the fields. Raptors are fickle and attack what is easiest. Buzzards really typify this. It makes them cursed on pheasant rearing estates that provide thousands of dippy young prey that are impossible for a buzzard to ignore. But in other circumstances they can be blessed as they account for hundreds of rabbits, rats or squirrels. I grew up in the south-east of England where there were no buzzards because of persecution and poisoning. It was brilliant in my early twenties when they started recolonizing from the west. Now they are everywhere in the UK and every day is made more special by their presence, soaring above the fields and woods, or lumbering after the plough. I hope it won’t be too long before we have red kites doing the same around Crail.

Buzzard following the plough

Buzzard following the plough

The goldeneyes are back in Roome Bay, diving in the surf for almost anything from molluscs to worms to fish. One adult male, an immature male and three or four females today. I was watching them for a while this afternoon trying to work out whether they synchronise their diving with each other like mergansers and goosanders. Probably not, suggesting that they are after small invertebrates rather than fish that would benefit from a group attack.

Male goldeneye

Male goldeneye

I saw three little auks this morning fluttering past Crail on their way into the Forth. These tiny seabirds are only blackbird size and wobble from side to side as they fly like puffins but even more so. They are erratic from Crail in the winter. Sometimes we can have thousands blown past with north-easterly storms, other times a few past like today with no apparent cause, and in some winters, none at all. They hardly ever come in close and most of the time they are a technical – I know they are little auks because they are tiny and their wobbly characteristic flight. But it’s not quite the same as seeing them up close when their subtle blacks and whites make a very beautiful bird: a zig-zag of white on their black wings and their white eyelids add to the effect. Seeing them close up is always tempered by the fact that this only really happens when little auks are in trouble and blown inland after severe storms. Bizarrely one of the best ways to see a little auk close up is to look for them on a very stormy rainy night around the back roads of Crail. The little auks seem to get confused as they get blown over the peninsula and occasionally try to land on the wet tarmac. They are then dazzled by the lights of the cars. If you think you have seen a little penguin in your headlights it may not have been your imagination after all.

Little auk scooting past Crail

Little auk scooting past Crail

Posted December 8, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 6th   Leave a comment

A redshank dodging the waves at high tide

A redshank dodging the waves at high tide

I was expecting a much larger effect on the birds after the storms and very high tides of yesterday. I was down at the harbour yesterday afternoon two hours before high tide and already Harbour Beach was practically gone. The redshanks will have had to roost on the harbour or the cliffs at Roome Bay and will have had several hours of normal feeding time taken away. But today they seemed fine and if anything they may have benefitted with lots of easily available sandhoppers that were washed up by the storms. It has got colder though so they will need this bonus.

Every so often John posts a photo which stops me in my tracks. The red-breasted merganser one below is one of these. Red-breasted mergansers are always beautiful but they are also part of the wild seascape: this gets at both.

rb merg 2

Male red-breasted merganser – occasionally in Roome Bay and always off Fife Ness during the winter

Posted December 6, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 1st   Leave a comment

Crail has slipped into its quiet winter phase. The gannets have gone and apart from a few late winter migrants like grebes and snow buntings to look for, there will be little turnover in the birds for the next few weeks. The redshanks down at the harbour have settled into their usual grooves – a small bit of the inner harbour at low tide, a piece of harbour beach at mid tide and a cluster of rocks at high tide. Their world has narrowed to a few tens of meters until the spring. I see resonances with the whinchats I have been looking at in Africa last week. Both are globe trotters but spend their winters in a tiny bit of the planet, returning faithfully to their hundred meter patch for as long as the live, baring a catastrophe like returning and finding a house or marina built there. I think it’s all about information. Better the devil you know, if you like. They may not be in the best area, but it works for them – they have survived after all. They all took a leap into the unknown as juveniles on their first migration and found a reasonable place to spend the winter, but most of their cohort will have not been so lucky. It is then better to stick with what you know than take a chance on the unknown again.

Redshank - if you see a redshank in the same place during the winter it's probably the same bird each time

Redshank – if you see a redshank in the same place during the winter it’s probably the same bird each time

I watched one of the new juvenile redshanks (as yet unringed – a job for December) trying to carve out a piece of territory on harbour beach. One of my existing redshanks (YWRR – yellow white left leg, red red right leg) was having none of it. They weren’t fighting, but whenever the new bird tried to feed in a particular place the adult would pace alongside it preventing it from doing so. YWRR is a long time harbour bird, always down on the beach at the slipway or in the harbour itself when the tide allows. Each winter it has to exert its authority to prevent the new birds from taking over. Adults tend to have precedence, with the serious fights only between juveniles. It is a dilemma for the juveniles. They need to find a good site to winter in and when they arrive at a new site like Crail their best guide to good, safe spots is the presence of adults. But then those spots are already taken so they have to find the gaps left by adults that haven’t returned, or attach themselves to the periphery. I would love to understand these dynamics a bit better but I have a major problem. If I catch a juvenile to put colour-rings on, so I can track them as individuals, they are understandably a bit stressed by the process and associate this with Crail being a dangerous place to settle in. Their response (and this is difficult to prove) is then to leave and find a “safer” area. I think about half the juveniles I catch do this moving on trick. If I catch an adult they have a broader view of the nature of Crail – my capture of them is a blip in the otherwise relatively safe environment. They will then stay put.

The night sky is good this week. Even if the comet doesn’t make a reappearance on Monday (check near the moon at about 07:00), then there is Venus and Jupiter showing well early and later in the evening respectively. Venus is so bright that it dominates the sky towards Edinburgh in the early evening.

There are still lots of pink-feet around Crail although mostly in smaller flocks. I would expect us to get more if the weather turns colder and there is more frost and ice inland, pushing them out towards the East Neuk.

Pink-footed goose

Pink-footed goose

Posted December 1, 2013 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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