Archive for January 2014

January 26th   Leave a comment

If you look at birds regularly, and particularly if watch them through a pair of binoculars, sooner or later you will see one with a set of colour-rings on their legs. It’s not hard in Crail, of course, with half of the redshanks carrying 6 colourful rings as part of my long term study, and what seems like nearly all the shags from the May Island carrying a large numbered colour ring. But every so often you spot a bird that wasn’t ringed here and so the opportunity to find out where it has come from. John spotted two such individuals before Christmas and the original ringers have got back to us now with their details.

The sanderling at St Andrews ringed in Iceland

The sanderling at St Andrews ringed in Iceland

The first was a sanderling on the beach at St Andrews. You can see it has a whole raft of colour rings on its legs. You would report this by specifying whether the ring is on the left or right leg and whether it is above or below the knee. Then its colour or its type, the ring size and its order on the leg. So this sanderling is: left leg below the knee (it’s really the ankle but everyone calls it the knee), green flag (you can see the ring has a flap sticking out) over yellow over green; right leg above knee, metal ring; right below knee, tall yellow ring. This type of detail can be tricky to get in the field so a photo like John’s makes it easy. The person who marked this bird can also see that our sighting and information is reliable. I have been looking at marked birds for over 20 years and I can take a mental photograph as I watch one but even so without a reasonable view, often with a telescope, it’s easy to make mistakes. No problems here though, and indeed less so as more and more of these types of sightings are backed up with photography that is now accessible to any observer with even a basic camera. And with one of John’s photographs we can almost read the number on the metal ring (these are all unique and what you use if you recapture a bird of course).

This sanderling was ringed on the 18th May 2007 on a beach near Reykjavik, Iceland. Not it’s home, just another beach on its journey to breed probably in northeast Greenland – sanderlings breed spectacularly far north and it might not start laying its eggs until the beginning of June. There is no mention of its age at ringing – I suspect an adult. Regardless it is, at least, in its 8th year and maybe much older. Sanderlings live at least to 20 if they get lucky and I would suspect even longer, despite them being smaller than thrushes. The sanderling was then seen on the Eden on the 6th January 2008, close to where John saw it this winter. Between then and now the sanderling has been seen every year, at the same time of year, either near Reykjavik or near St Andrews, usually on exactly the same spot on the scale of a few kilometres. I love this constancy and individual connectivity. The sanderlings we see on the beach at Balcomie for example, live there, some of them for decades, and have a few other such homes scattered over the planet between their breeding and wintering site. When we disturb them or worse sacrifice their beach for development it’s not a bit of readjustment needed, it’s a whole new home.

The Svarlbad purple sandpiper at Kingsbarns

The Svarlbad purple sandpiper at Kingsbarns

The second colour-ring sighting was a purple sandpiper just below the car park at Kingsbarns Beach. Reporting this one is easier – it’s got a numbered flag on it. But seeing the number definitely requires a good photograph or a telescope. The purple sandpiper was ringed on the 9th June 2009 on Spitsbergen, at 2am in the morning. How evocative is that? At that time of year, that far north, it’s full daylight. No catch in the dark, but probably a bird caught incubating on its nest in the Arctic sunlight. Purple sandpipers are fairly tame on their breeding grounds as they are around Crail in the winter. It’s straightforward to put a little cage with just a tiny entrance in it over the nest. A returning bird putters around the cage until it finds the entrance and then settles down to incubate. You then run up to the nest in the direction of the entrance and if you are lucky the bird retreats late and away from you, missing the entrance in panic, and stays in the cage. The bird can be caught, ringed and back on its nest with only its feathers ruffled (and a story to tell its chicks) within a few minutes.

Unlike the sanderling, John’s sighting is the first for this bird. But our purple sandpiper has probably been shuttling between Spitsbergen and Kingsbarns since 2009 and probably long before. Again a 20 year life span might not be particularly unusual for a bird that makes it through the first couple of years and establishes safe places to breed, stage and winter at. I will be looking out for it from now on – not just a purple sandpiper at Kingsbarns Beach car park, but THE purple sandpiper there.


Posted January 26, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

January 22nd   Leave a comment

I have been lucky enough to bump into a couple of peregrines over the last few days. On Monday I was at Roome Bay and an adult female (big and blue) came over my head straight towards the beach. I watched in anticipation as it hurtled towards the waders there. At the last second with only the barest twitch of its wings it shot over the cliff over to the fields by the airfield and out of sight. I had been mistaken and it was using the cliffs as cover to approach something in the fields beyond. Peregrines might be very capable of chasing down prey but they typically attack by surprise like this. They even have a particular cryptic way of flying where they barely beat their wings, holding them mostly closed with the barest rapid flick just to keep them flying at their attack speed. It is an effective disguise – viewed from head on the rapidly approaching peregrine barely looks like a blob rather than a bird. It was a typical attack with a typical outcome. The peregrine reappeared a minute later and soared over Roome Bay, nothing visible in its claws so nothing had been caught. I watched it drift off over Pinkerton probably already lining up its next attack.

Today I watched another peregrine, also an adult female, flying over the road between Dunino and Anstruther. It may have even been the same individual. Peregrine by name and peregrinations by nature. A peregrine can hunt from Dunbar to Tentsmuir within the same hour or so. This time the peregrine was just cruising, in a slow steady flight that you imagine it can sustain for ever, until it suddenly shifts several gears and turns into the blur I saw at Roome Bay.

An adult female peregrine on the move - a photo I have used before but well worth repeating

An adult female peregrine on the move – a photo I have used before but well worth repeating

Posted January 22, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

January 19th   Leave a comment

Normally when I write Wild Crail I try to stick to the basic idea: it’s about Crail and its wildlife. But as I spend the second day of this weekend looking out at the driving rain coming in on a south-easterly and the dusk sky at midday, with no hope of getting out there to see anything, I need cheering up. So I will write about sunnier places. Last weekend I was in mid-California on a short road trip looking for birds after a conference. California as you will know has a classic Mediterranean climate. Rainfall occasionally only during the winter, but mostly dry, warm and very sunny. At this time of year it’s a perfect climate. Probably far too hot in the summer and in fact probably too dry if you want to grow anything sustainably. Birdwise it’s a great place. I have been to the north in Canada and Alaska but never to California. Despite this it’s eerily familiar from a lifetime of West Coast TV programs and Hollywood films. And many of the birds, despite me not having been there, were old friends from Crail: whimbrels, turnstones, grey plover, sanderling, common starlings, collared doves, and even the occasional osprey. But of course most were not and I had one of my greatest pleasures, of finding new birds and not knowing instantly what they were, having then to check the book, work out their identification and learning a whole range of species. It’s like going back to when I was a teenager each time I go to a new place in the world. I have to start again. True it gets a lot easier and many of the birds I know from photos and looking at books in hope that one or two of them might make it to Crail and I might then know what they are from perhaps only the two second opportunity you might get onto a vagrant. Still, laying eyes on any new bird is one of the highlights of my birding, as is seeing a whole range of different species. And California provided both.

Whimbrel - on beaches from California to Crail to Australia

Whimbrel – on beaches from California to Crail to Australia

I won’t bore you with lists of species that will mean little to you unless you too have been birding in California, although some of the names are great: California thrasher and California towhee, Say’s phoebe and mountain bluebird. The last really is special. One of my less-birdy companions described it as being better than the real thing – meaning the bluebirds from the Disney films. Male mountain bluebirds are ridiculously, gorgeously blue, indeed like an idealised cartoon version of themselves. And added to the blue, they occur in huge flocks flycatching above the dry vineyards making sweet chirruping flight calls that perfectly match their lovely plumage. Anyway there were many such highlights for me, and I will tell you about just one in detail.

An acorn woodpecker storage tree (coincidentally at the entrance to a famous Californian winery)

An acorn woodpecker storage tree (coincidentally at the entrance to a famous Californian winery)

I first heard about acorn woodpeckers when I was at University doing a course on behavioural ecology – which is now what I research as an academic. Here you try to work out why animals behave as they do in light of the ultimate function of their behaviours. Put more simply, this is finding out why it is better for a bird, for example, to lay 12 eggs for two years of its life compared to two eggs for 12 years of its life. Perhaps the first species lives in a tough, unpredictable environment and so it is better to live fast and die young, whereas the second lives in a gentler place and so can afford to invest more in its fewer offspring and conserve its resources to breed over a much longer life. Essentially its understanding how evolution results in the diversity of species and their behaviours and so how whole ecosystems function. My granny would never get this as a legitimate field of study and used to ask me when I would get a proper job. It wasn’t until I asked her how she thought that nice man on the telly, David Attenborough, actually knew all that stuff about animals that she was convinced I did something worthwhile. But back to acorn woodpeckers and their behavioural ecology. Acorn woodpeckers are famous in my field because they have very interesting social and cooperative lives and explaining why these woodpeckers do what they do, rather than shuffling around trees in a solitary way like most other woodpeckers is a challenge.

Acorn woodpeckers do two really special things. First, although acorn woodpeckers can breed as a typical pair, in parts of their range they have all sorts of arrangements. Several males, one female; several females, one male; several males and several females: all helping to raise each other’s chicks. The extra helpers at the nest are sometimes related individuals – perhaps the young of last year helping their parents – sometimes unrelated individuals perhaps hoping to inherit the territory when one of the dominant breeding birds dies. It’s always better to raise your own chicks rather than help someone else even if you are related in some way to them, but ecological circumstances such as shortage of territories or high population densities (the same thing really) might mean you have to do the best you can, and it’s the same with the acorn woodpeckers.

Acorns in storage and room for more

Acorns in storage and room for more

Second, they store food cooperatively and manage their food stores as a group in a highly conspicuous way. All during my trip I would stop by the lovely oak trees that occur on the edges of the fields, vineyards and sides of the road and notice that each was pockmarked with hundreds of little pits, and in most of these pits were acorns. The result in some trees was if they had grown there, such is the number and regularity of their placement. Instead the resident acorn woodpeckers have drilled each pit carefully and then stuffed an acorn in each one. These trees with their many carefully constructed food stores then obviously become a huge resource. Acorn availability and so food supply can then be controlled through the winter, as long as the resident woodpeckers keep an eye on the trees – which with their large cooperative groups they can do so more easily. The acorns can be eaten and removed as and when needed, and the pits can be used again and again for storage, making the trees and their pits themselves a very valuable resource worth defending.


An acorn woodpecker – shot through my telescope with my phone – John’s in the Falklands chasing penguins so it’s my sorry efforts I’m afraid

Knowing something from reading it and seeing it yourself is a completely different thing. Acorn woodpeckers and their interesting lives as an example of how ecology shapes the behaviour of an animal are now very real to me. And thinking about watching them pushing acorns into old cork oak trees and flycatching (another story there – American woodpeckers seem to be big flycatchers, but why them and not European woodpeckers..?) against the clear blue Californian sky is a definite antidote to a very miserable winter’s day in Crail.

I’ll be back on the case in Crail this week and will find some things despite the weather. The evenings are getting lighter and with the more typical warm springs of late (apart from last year) we may only be 2 months away from the first blackbird nest.

Posted January 19, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

January 4th   1 comment

Since New Year’s Day I have been trying to track down a few more species to add to my year list. A walk along Kingsbarn’s Beach on the morning of January 2nd turned up wigeon at the mouth of the burn. They are absent from the Brandyburn mouth this winter but there are about 30 at Cambo at the moment. The pair of stonechats between the burn and the car park are still present. We still need another few mild winters before they get back to the high numbers of 2011 when there was a pair every few hundred meters along the coastal path between Kingsbarns and Anstruther. In the afternoon I was at Cellardyke and found a grey wagtail (at last) and saw a sparrowhawk harrying the linnets and starlings still associated with the now much reduced pig farm there. But still no pied wagtails…

Male stonechat

Male stonechat

Today Chris Smout found a couple of snow buntings in the stubble field in the middle of the airfield. Chris is one of the area’s best bird watchers and naturalists finding many great birds as well as writing beautifully (his recent book on the natural history of the Forth is well worth reading). I duly cycled off at lunchtime to search for the snow buntings: I haven’t seen any in Crail for a couple of years. I zig-zagged across the only stubble field at the airfield and after flushing skylarks and meadow pipits, a single snow bunting flew in front of me and landed close. I had a lovely view before it took off flashing the white patches on its wings that make it so distinctive in flight, and to me like a flurry of snow, although its name comes from its arctic habits and liking of harsh snowy conditions. It circled around the field a couple of times and was joined by a second bird before both flew off high over Crail.

Snow buntings

Snow buntings

I continued my quest for pied wagtails, but there were none at Balcomie Castle. There was a single greylag goose there, in the same place as on New Year’s Day. It started to rain again so I headed home via Crail primary School – a guaranteed spot for pied wagtails. But not today. The phrase “bogey bird” comes to mind. This is an old twitching phrase to refer to any species that you repeatedly go looking for, but fail to see. I think it generally refers to rarer species than pied wagtails, but where are they?

Juvenile shag - a lot have starved over the Christmas period during the almost constant gales and so rough seas

Juvenile shag – a lot have starved over the Christmas period during the almost constant gales and so rough seas

The tides are very high again this weekend. Yesterday the waves were piling into Roome Bay and there were no beaches at all in Crail at the top of the tide. Ironically the redshanks in the harbour had a quieter time than usual during the holidays because people couldn’t get onto the beach because of the high water. Today the sea was much calmer, one of the first calm days for a fortnight. A lot of seabirds have suffered. Certainly over Christmas there were a lot of starving shags that were finding it impossible to fish successfully in the stormy, turbulent waters.

Posted January 4, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

January 1st 2014   1 comment

With a New Year comes a new Year list. Each year I keep a tally of all the birds I see within 10km of my house – the range I might walk or cycle to normally – my local patch list. Any first time ever birds then go onto my overall Crail list. Last year for example the yearly total was 139 species – quite a bit short of the record from 2011 of 157. But I was away in Tanzania for a month so the lower total probably reflects a lack of local effort rather than a poor year. And there were two new species for the overall Crail list – the brown shrike in September and the common rosefinch in October – bringing the total now to 213.

Jackdaws enjoying the warmth of a chimney pot: the first bird of the year

Jackdaws enjoying the warmth of a chimney pot: the first bird of the year

But it all starts again on January 1st. I like this ritual because then every species becomes special again and sought after, if only for a day. It helps you focus again on what is about you and what is missing. My list for 2014 started in my kitchen before dawn: not such a feat of early rising in Crail, it was barely light at 08:00. As I had my breakfast I could hear the herring gulls and jackdaws on my roof, their calls echoing down the kitchen stove chimney. The jackdaws, at least, spend the winter nights and much of the day wedged in the top of the chimney enjoying the warm air from below. I left the house as soon as I could see but the next few birds were calls only: house sparrows in my front garden and a carrion crow sounding like a horn in the distance. And then the common birds of Crail: feral pigeons on top of the Golf Hotel and a blackbird, starling and dunnock along Marketgate. I heard a mistle thrush rattling from the Kirkyard and flushed the resident pair of stock doves from behind the Kirk – the first 10 species of the day.

Then into Denburn and new birds appeared rapidly, one after another – a flock containing blue, great and coal tits with a treecreeper going up the huge dead ash in the centre of the wood. Woodpigeons, robins and wrens everywhere, and the occasional chaffinch, greenfinch and goldfinch going over: 20 species and the sun hadn’t risen yet. I headed out of Denburn and up over the fields to Wormiston. There was a distant buzzard perched over by Sypsies and I flushed a few linnet and skylarks from the winter wheat fields. The usual huge flock of rooks was circling low over their rookery at Wormiston cawing as the sun rose. It was now a brilliant and relatively still morning contrasting with the very dull and windy days that have marked this Christmas. And then I had a great spotted woodpecker flying over. There have been a few around Crail this winter and this one was heading bravely out from Wormiston and heading straight for Crail. Great spots are very mobile and can cope with long flights between patches of woodland. A good job considering how scattered the trees are around Crail.

I then traipsed across the only remaining stubble field, just behind the airfield. Stubble fields are always good for birds and this remaining island of cover, seeds and weeds was particularly good. It contained tens of yellowhammers and meadow pipits and as I flushed them a merlin came up behind them, swooped through the flock and then continued on towards Wormiston over the trees. A distant calling curlew and magpies over at Kilminning completed 30 species. In one corner of the field I flushed a covey of 28 grey partridges. I knew they had done well this summer but this is a really big partridge flock. Again they were probably concentrated by the lack of other suitable fields between Crail and Fife Ness. To round off the now epic field there were 60 or so tree sparrows and reed buntings, along with some pheasants.

I headed over to Kilminning. I heard a goose honking and then a pair of geese flew over. A greylag followed by a pink-footed goose. The only geese I saw all day and such an obliging mixed flock. I think they were waiting just to make my new year’s day list. At Kilminning there was a small flock of tits with some goldcrests and a siskin flew over calling, but only two new species in half an hour. It was time to head to a different habitat. Balcomie Beach and the sea produced a flurry of new species: oystercatchers and redshanks to make a total of 40, then turnstones, a couple of bar-tailed godwits, and rock pipits also on the beach. At sea, great black-backed and black-headed gulls, eiders, cormorants, and further out kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots passing: 50 species. Further on towards Fife Ness there was a flock of common scoter, lots of long-tailed ducks, shags and the occasional red-throated diver and common gull. A grey heron flew off from a rock pool at Fife Ness and roosting on the rocks were a mixed flock of ringed plover, grey plover and a dunlin. I headed down the coast path back to Crail accompanied by a kestrel hovering at eye height just ahead of me, keeping always just a few meters ahead, wary but not really shy. It was so close to me I could see the feathers around its eye and bill fluttering in the wind as it kept its head perfectly still, watching for voles below. A great bird and number 60.

Female common scoter: number 53

Female common scoter: number 53

There was nothing new until Roome Bay with its goldeneyes, red-breasted merganser and the mallards at the boating pond. And then the star bird of the day. I was watching out for fulmars on the way to the harbour when I saw a dark shearwater shape shooting back towards Roome Bay. It was a juvenile arctic skua, another one not in the South Atlantic. I watched it chase down a common gull. And then at last a single fulmar perched on its nest site below Castle Walk. It regarded me and I regarded it: the same bird undoubtedly that I always see there. I wished my neighbour a happy new year. Time for lunch with 65 species in the bag.

Sanderling - the last bird of the day along with a purple sandpiper making number 73

Sanderling – the last bird of the day along with a purple sandpiper making number 73

In the afternoon it was time again for a change of habitat to add to the list. The day had turned back to the gales and early twilight of the last two weeks so the conditions weren’t the best. A walk around Kilrenny Common barely turned up any birds let alone a new species, but a flock of lapwing flew over and there was a collared dove in the village. Sometimes even the commonest species are elusive on a listing day so it was good to finally see what is usually one the first species of the day. Another habitat was needed so off to Carnbee reservoir. The gale was really blowing now so everything was hiding in the vegetation at the side apart from two mute swan (they never get the hang of hiding). I managed to see a couple of teal and coot and a single snipe flushed from the side of the loch. The weather was now really closing in as it came on to rain. One final stop at Kingsbarns Beach for the high tide got sanderling and a purple sandpiper just below the car park. It was practically dark and the rain had become horizontal so it was time to stop: 73 species in total. My best day list for the new year ever, beating 69 for 2011 (when I had 6 goose species and it had seemed like a great day). I had missed a few obvious common species – where were the pied wagtails? And I was a little unlucky not to have seen a sparrowhawk or a grey wagtail, but then this was balanced by the luck of my two goose flyby, the merlin and the arctic skua.

Any listing exercise is perhaps a bit tedious to recount in detail, you really have to be there, but I hope this give you an idea of just what’s around Crail mid-winter if you really look. Happy New Year.

Posted January 3, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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