Archive for February 2014

February 23rd   Leave a comment

Another gale this morning blowing in from the south. The redshanks at Roome Bay were all hunkered down in a tight group on the north side of the rocks despite it being prime feeding time. Winter is always a trade-off for birds between having to feed and exposing themselves to the wind and cold. The temperature was up to 11 degrees this morning so the redshanks were probably much more comfortable out of the wind, ticking over, rather than trying to collect energy when they would lose a good proportion of whatever they gained. And there is always the issue of sparrowhawks and peregrines. They gain the advantage in a wind because everything is moving so their approaches are disguised and any alarm calls are lost in the wind noise. So if a redshank can afford it, then it should definitely stay out of the way in a gale.

And speaking of sparrowhawks, yesterday I saw a female popping out of a garden by the harbour with a thrush or a starling, and then immediately saw a male soaring over Castle Walk. It got me thinking about how many sparrowhawks there are in Crail. Somewhere between 4 and 8 I would think, although some individuals might pop in to Crail from the surroundings only occasionally. But I really have no idea. I might count 6 sparrowhawks in a day around Crail but I can’t really tell if they are the same individuals. Without marking them and then seeing how often you resight a marked individual relative to unmarked birds, there is no way you can gain an accurate number of how many there are. It’s perhaps less of an important question, surprisingly, for the small birds that really do want to know about sparrowhawks. From the point of view of a blue tit, it really doesn’t care how many sparrowhawks there are, just whether it is likely to meet one. In our terms it is like crossing the road – we don’t know how many different cars actually use a road, we just know from experience whether it is busy or not, or is close to a concealing bend and take appropriate care. And there only has to be one sparrowhawk around to make everything potentially very dangerous so a blue tit probably doesn’t change its behaviour much if there are ten sparrowhawks or just the one.

A male Crail sparrowhawk - one's enough

A male Crail sparrowhawk – one’s enough to have to pay attention

Every evening down at the harbour at dusk quite a few rock pipits come to roost. They squeeze into the cracks of the stones that make the harbour wall. The same places where they nest in the summer. It must make a very cosy and secure place to spend the night, especially as the gales continue.

Rock pipit - always down at the harbour, feeding, breeding and even roosting

Rock pipit – always down at the harbour, feeding, breeding and even roosting


Posted February 23, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

February 20th   Leave a comment

I have been catching redshanks down at the harbour this week during the night. On the low tides there is a chance to put up a net just outside the harbour where the redshanks congregate to feed under the harbour lights. It’s hit and miss and the gales haven’t helped. Over the weekend there were some relatively calm nights where we caught a few. Mostly old friends including two birds 7 or so years old, at least, that more or less live in or around the harbour all winter. But most of the time the redshanks go over the net or leave the harbour in the wrong direction. The compensation on those nights is the soundscape and an insight into the nocturnal life of the shore. Lots of the shorebirds are active at night. There are the kleeps of oystercatchers and the soft whistles of ringed plovers. The redshanks in contrast fly up in front of you if you shine a torch at them but never make a sound at all. It’s like they have a nocturnal mute. Every so often you hear the grumpy kronk from the herons that regularly feed at night as well. Highlights are when there is a moon and skeins of geese come over, or best of all the solemn trumpeting of whooper swans. On Monday night I had a real highlight. I heard a very familiar honking call that at first I couldn’t place. Geese or even cranes passed through my mind before I realised it was a coot. My first coot actually in Crail, passing straight over the harbour, calling every so often. I checked my bird handbook and sure enough, coots migrate at night. In fact they are famous for it. I also found lots of references from wildfowlers about flocks of coots passing at night. I had no idea, but it makes a lot of sense. I have never seen coots pass Crail despite them being common nearby, and the fact that many freshwater species that share the same habitats, that I have seen in Crail, like grebes and ducks, will move from site to site by passing along the coast. Now I know that they do pass – just in the dead of night – honking away as they do.

Coot - a nocturnal visitor to Crail

Coot – a nocturnal visitor to Crail

Posted February 20, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

February 16th   Leave a comment

Venus visible first thing over the May, then a beautiful sunrise, sun all day and only a breeze from the south-west, and finally a sunset. I’ve mentioned this many times but these are proper Crail days, not the endless succession of gales and rain. It’s been colder temperature wise this weekend than the last three weeks, with a frost in places last night, but it hasn’t felt so. It’s the wind and the damp that really get to you.

A roe deer close to Wormiston

A roe deer close to Wormiston

Crail has remained fairly quiet this week. I long for the spring and when I can write about something other than the weather. I cycled off around the coast path to Fife Ness and back by Wormiston this morning in hope of early excitement. But late winter business as usual. There was a nice flock of 9 male long-tailed ducks all in breeding plumage showing off their long tails to each other. Wormiston still remains the place to see lots of roe deer – often the only thing you can see in the bare fields apart from the rooks. They are getting more focussed around the rookery and some will be breeding in only a few weeks. Other signs of spring are the heads of the black-headed gulls: some are just turning brown now. I know it’s confusing but black-headed gulls have brown hoods, little gulls and Mediterranean gulls have proper black hoods, and there is even a brown-headed gull in China (although this has the same colour hood as our black-heads …). I blame the museum taxonomists who named these species. Clearly it was Friday afternoon or Monday morning when these species crossed their desk.

A black-headed gull getting it's brown hood for the spring

A black-headed gull getting its brown hood for the spring

Posted February 16, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

February 15th   Leave a comment

The redshanks at Roome Bay today resorting to the cliffs in the absence of anywhere else to roost

The redshanks at Roome Bay today resorting to the cliffs in the absence of anywhere else to roost

Last night we had about 17mm of rainfall. We can have months where this is the total rainfall. A month’s rainfall in a night has been a theme throughout Britain. But at least we haven’t had 170mm which is the story in some places. It was a relief this afternoon for it to be relatively still and spring-like, with the house sparrows chirping away and robins tuning up. There were a lot of gannets passing far out flying out of the Forth, probably blown in by the strong southerlies of yesterday, which is another sign of spring.

The storm of yesterday left a huge swell coming straight into the shore. It was a zero beach high tide again and the redshanks were roosting halfway up the cliffs. As with two weeks ago it is well worth a trip down to Roome Bay on the high tide to watch the gulls and ducks feeding in the crashing surf. The goldeneyes are pretty spectacular diving through the breaking waves. My daughter commented that they must all be feeling cold, especially after we both got our wellies full of water after a foolish attempt to walk on the rapidly disappearing beach. I’m not sure birds do feel cold as such. If they have enough food then they can keep warm, so I bet they just feel hungry as it gets colder. Feathers are great insulation anyway and the ducks are all waterproof. Their feet are another matter but there is little flesh to get cold on a bird’s foot and they have a clever “counter-current system” of adjacent blood vessels so the warm blood descending heats up the cold blood returning to the body. I think the goldeneyes were enjoying the waves this afternoon.

I’ve been watching the eiders in the harbour. Roger Watson has now got almost all of them trained up to feed on fish scraps from his hand. He says they now come up and tap on the side of his boat to get fed.

Drake eider - they are at their most handsome at the moment

Drake eider – they are at their most handsome at the moment

Posted February 15, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending February 9th   Leave a comment

It has at least been a week where the gales were broken up by some proper bright and sunny Crail winter days. Friday was actually a nice day. We had one of the few frosts this winter with a clear early morning. Venus was spectacular before dawn, shining above the May Island. You can almost make out a crescent with the naked eye and through a telescope it looks like a proper tiny crescent moon. It must be very close to us at the moment: I haven’t ever seen it so obviously a planet rather than just a particularly bright star. It should be there for the next few mornings, at about 7am is best – if we get lucky with the weather again.

The continuing rough seas have taken their toll on the seabirds. An email came round at the start of the week asking people to look out for dead seabirds all along the east coast. There have certainly been a few shag corpses on the beaches by the harbour and at Roome Bay, and even a pair of wings from one of the juvenile little gulls blown in last weekend, but not huge numbers so far.

Shag in stormy seas

Shag in stormy seas

After a long break there is a fox or two back in Crail. Denburn smells particularly strongly of fox and even along the sea front despite the scouring from the high tides of earlier in the week. I hardly ever see the foxes in Crail so they must be very nocturnal. When I lived in Edinburgh an early morning walk in the middle of the city would often result in seeing a fox or two, sometimes spectacularly close and unconcerned trotting past me on the pavement. I would stop and stare, the fox wouldn’t break its stride.

I had a classic quiet late February walk through Kilrenny on Saturday afternoon. Parts of the woods provided a welcome shelter from the incessant southerlies but there were few birds to be seen. The pond in the middle is still amazingly dry, apart from a puddle, despite the rain of January. In contrast, the depressions in the fields between Kilrenny and Crail have filled up even with the farmers’ works last year. It’s such a shame that the water won’t go where it is supposed to. It’s a bit of the national problem at the moment, in miniature.

One cheerful sign of spring this week. The fulmars have started to get more active around the cliffs. Every time I have walked along Castle Walk this week there has been a bird sitting on the cliffs or soaring around. They have a long season, but it’s nice to see them getting started and reeling in the spring.

A fulmar back already on the nesting cliffs at Castle Walk

A fulmar back already on the nesting cliffs at Castle Walk

Posted February 9, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

February 2nd   1 comment

Adult (above) and first winter little gulls in Roome Bay today

Adult (above) and first winter little gulls in Roome Bay today

There were three little gulls on the high tide at Roome Bay this afternoon. John sent me a text mid-afternoon while I was up at Carnbee Reservoir. Lots of tufted ducks and some moorhens for my year list, along with 20 or so goldeneyes and coots and a single mute swan. It was a lovely afternoon up there despite the bitter wind. The view over the Forth from the May Island to the Bass Rock was spectacular. Everything seems brighter and more beautiful on the first proper sunny day after a long period of dull weather. But the text got me hurrying away from a more rounded view of the world back to the closer focus of the birds of Crail. John had gone by the time I got there and initially I thought I had missed the gulls too. The swell was much less than yesterday and there were only about 25 black-headed gulls in Roome Bay. Luckily the little gulls were still there, tucked right into the shore below the footpath. There is a huge pile of kelp in the far corner of Roome Bay below the cliffs and this was being pulverised by the waves making a thick soup. The gulls were kiting like yesterday over the water and dipping down to pick up the seaweed fly maggots and other invertebrates washing out of the kelp. There was still a sliver of sunlight and the little gulls were shining just below me so it was one of the wildlife highlights of the year for me so far. Adult little gulls as you will see from the photo below are absolutely beautiful, and especially as they flutter just a few meters away from you above wild surf. There were two first winter birds with the adult so it was also a master class in their plumage variation. I cycled home as the sun set with a big smile on my face hoping John has had a similar experience and managed to capture some of it. I wasn’t disappointed later as you can see. But if you do get the chance pop down to Roome Bay tomorrow at about 15:45, I bet they will be back, just below the path when it is closest to the shore before it zigzags up to the back of Pinkerton. Little gulls are much smaller than black-headed gulls and the adults have no black on their wing tips at all, and, of course, look for the delicate fluttering.

little gull1

The adult little gull at Roome Bay today, kiting and pattering like a storm petrel

Posted February 2, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

February 1st   Leave a comment

This morning the sun rose. Perhaps not the biggest Wild Crail news, but we haven’t seen the sun properly for two weeks now. It was a beautiful Crail winter’s day until mid-morning. Then the wind got up again and it clouded over: back to the standard issue dull grey that has marked this year so far. The rainfall for Crail this January was over 70 mm. A typical month in Crail has about 20 mm of rain, so January was officially pretty wet for us. Checking back for last year I notice that we also had about 76 mm last January, although the year before was more “typical” with only 15 mm. Still, this is nothing like what has fallen in the south-west of England, with 500 mm in some places.

It was fairly bracing out at Balcomie this morning. There were the usual few long-tailed ducks diving in the big swell. I flushed a woodcock from the grass behind the beach at Fife Ness. Whether this was a bird in from the continent because of much colder weather there, or from further inland in Fife for the same reason I couldn’t say. Damp weather suits woodcocks and our winter has been fairly mild so I think probably the former. The wind made it uncomfortable to do more than glance out to sea. I saw a pair of dark-bellied brent geese fly past the Ness followed by a pair of velvet scoters. Both nice birds to see and my first for the year. But it wasn’t a day to seawatch and I headed back to Crail after a few minutes.

Velvet scoter passing Fife Ness

Velvet scoter passing Fife Ness

This afternoon the tide was spectacularly high. Six meters or so and with the very strong southerly wind blowing the waves right up the shore. Even an hour before high tide Roome Bay beach and Harbour Beach were getting completely covered. The redshanks and oystercatchers were spending most of the time in flight dodging the waves before eventually giving up and roosting on higher ground well above the beach. I was pleased to see two redshanks down at the harbour in with the flock. A new bird ringed on Thursday, looking very handsome with its new double black, double lime combination rings. It is an adult and I think one of the unringed harbour regulars that has been evading me for the last few years. It’s an individual now and I will be able to keep track of it. The second bird was Red-Yellow/Blue-Green. This was one of the first birds I ever caught in the harbour, in October 2007: I’ve caught it 4 times since then. It was already an adult and it has been in the harbour or nearby ever since – that’s 8 years old at least. I’m rooting for this bird to survive another 15 years. It’s a big bird so probably Icelandic. On Thursday night it was very heavy even considering its large size, suggesting that feeding is not too good at the moment and it has laid down some fat reserves as insurance.

RYBG - one of my oldest redshanks that I recaught last Thursday night. It was scampering about again on Harbour Beach this afternoon

RYBG – one of my oldest redshanks that I recaught last Thursday night. It was scampering about again on Harbour Beach this afternoon


The big waves on Roome Bay attracted the usual large group of gulls. The wind was so strong that the black-headed gulls were kiting into the wind with their legs dangling to patter on the water’s surface for stability just like storm petrels. Among them was a single immature little gull doing the same. This will have been blown in from further out to sea. There may be hundreds of little gulls wintering near Crail but they are usually kilometres out.

A fulmar at home in the rough seas of today

A fulmar at home in the rough seas of today

Posted February 1, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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