Archive for March 2014

Week ending March 30th   Leave a comment

I have been in Germany and then England some of this week where the spring is much further advanced than us. It’s always a bit like time travel to head south at this time of year. The difference in timing between us and 300 miles further south is about 2-3 weeks. It’s even greater in big cities like London, where the “urban heat effect” adds to the naturally warmer southern climate. Cities have so much concrete to absorb heat and smog to conserve it, as well as all the sources of warmth that lots of humans living together generate, that they have their own microclimate with temperatures being several degrees warmer than their rural surroundings. Some gardens in central London will already the leaves pretty much out in all the trees and will have young blackbirds out of the nest. In Germany there were lots of chiff-chaffs singing and more arriving every day. Chiff-chaffs are traditionally the earliest warbler to return to the north. Occasionally they even winter with us although I haven’t had one doing so around Crail for a few years now.

Although climate change has been discussed a lot this winter – mostly in the context of extreme rain events in England – every spring I am reminded of it by the timing of the leaves coming out on the trees, the beginning of the nesting season and the first arrival dates of each summer migrant. In my lifetime of observing, the earliest dates of all these events have shifted earlier by a couple of weeks on average. The “on average” is important because each year there is a lot of variation. Last spring was 3 weeks late and the one before 3 weeks earlier. A couple of cold springs and a cold winter and global warming recedes from people’s perception. But climate is all about long term averages, not specific events, and average temperatures have climbed steadily for the last century. It is important to remember that we are only arguing about whether we are to blame for rapid climate change, not that it is happening. In the context of Crail, our resident animals and plants have always had to put up with an uncertain start of spring – sometimes early, sometimes late – so they are perhaps already well prepared for a change. It may be harder for the migrants to adjust to the change though. A chiff-chaff coming to breed with us from wintering grounds south of the Sahara has little idea of whether the spring in Fife is early or late so there are opportunities for mismatches in timing. Summer migrants, as do most breeding birds, rely on seasonal peaks of insects and they time their breeding with them to produce the most young possible. If they arrive too late because of an early spring, they may end up with starving chicks, produced after the food peak.

Curlew - most will be off to breed soon if they haven't already gone

Curlew – most will be off to breed soon if they haven’t already gone

We always lose our wintering birds through April as the summer visitors arrive instead. Some of the Crail shorebirds have gone already. Redshanks, curlews and oystercatchers that breed locally in the west of Scotland will have gone already. Others that breed further north in Iceland or the Arctic may stay with us until mid-May. But it gets hard to say which ones are late residents and which ones are birds from further south on passage through Crail from about this time onwards. The great thing about shorebirds is that when they migrate they really migrate, covering several thousand kilometres in a flight. Stop-over birds in Crail, like sanderlings, knot and whimbrels that will soon appear in places like Roome Bay, may not have touched down since leaving somewhere like Senegal in West Africa.

I was down at Cambo on Saturday, peering through the murk that the easterlies brought in at the end of the week. The rookery down at the burn mouth is really busy with the early nesting rooks already in full swing. There were about 15 wigeon also down at the burn mouth. Wigeon are another species that will move north to breed soon – perhaps to Iceland, perhaps to Scandinavia. Out at sea there were relatively few red-throated divers. This winter I have not seen as many as usual. They have either been feeding far out or wintering somewhere else. But there has been a steady stream of them past Crail as usual as they migrate northwards too.

Red-throated diver

Red-throated diver


Posted March 30, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending 23rd March   Leave a comment

Most of my exploits with the wildlife of Crail this week has involved it, or the weather, or both together, getting the better of me. I have been trying to catch all of the colour-ringed redshanks again this winter to get a measure of their “personality”. Just as with people, animals have personalities, although anyone that has a dog will know this well already. The most obvious manifestation of a wild bird’s personality is its shyness or boldness. If you watch birds coming to a bird table you will soon see what I mean. One blue tit might fly straight up to the feeder and peck away, whereas another might approach cautiously and make a quick grab at some food before retreating to eat it in a bush. Some of this is, of course, dominance and competition. Some birds rule the roost and others must try and fit around the edges, but some of it does not depend on the social context.

The best way to measure personality is to catch a bird and put it in a cage and then give it a chance to explore its new environment or to feed from a new feeder. A shy bird will take a long time to look round and a long time to start feeding. A bold bird might be straight out there within seconds. And if you tried them again in a new cage, they would show the same pattern. Now doing this with a set of wild Crail redshanks is out of the question. But we can have a look at their personalities in the context of their feeding decisions. Do individuals take risks and feed in the harbour close to people whereas other are much shyer and feed elsewhere whenever people are around? And if we catch them, as we do anyway to measure their mass and of course initially to put the colour rings on them, then we can see how they behave in the ten minutes we have them, and then how they respond to being released. After we have caught a redshank and measured them, we put them in a cardboard box on the beach for five minutes and see how active they are. Some individuals shuffle about constantly and try to get out, others stay fairly still the whole time. Then we lift up the side of the box and time how long it takes the redshank to escape. Some, as you can imagine, are straight out in a rush. Others may take a couple of minutes to poke their head cautiously out. They then walk out slowly, and look around before they fly off. The personality appraisal is perhaps a bit rough and ready compared to a laboratory test but it is as far as I am prepared to go in terms of disrupting the redshanks’ lives.

Now that is the theory. The practice relies on catching the redshanks first. And that has not been going well the last couple of weeks. Catching either involves a trap on the beach that they are now pretty much all wise to, or a net at night down at the harbour at low tide. Nets are not great when it is windy and unless it is dark they don’t work at all. So this restricts me to a calm night, usually very late, at low tide. I often put the net up across the harbour mouth but they have learnt to avoid it so this week I tried the net actually down in the harbour. One small problem – it is full of very smelly, very thick mud that will swallow you up very quickly if you walk in the wrong place. Last Monday night was typical of how much fun you can have in such a situation. It was blowing a gale and my net was behaving more like a sail: putting it up had already involved mud down one welly and losing all feeling in my hands. A redshank arrived and I gently disturbed it so it flew up into the net. It bounced out of the inflated net and then flew straight back into the net. I sprinted down the quay, well tried to sprint – it is nightmarishly slippery – just in time to see the net blown taut by a strong gust ejecting the redshank again which promptly flew off. And that was that for the next half an hour. The tide obviously waits for no man, so then the net had to come down. I was frozen, very smelly and with nothing to show for the evening except another redshank now well trained to avoid my nets and probably the harbour itself for the next few weeks.

Redshank - shy or bold?

Redshank – shy or bold?

Perhaps I should mention the why. Why would you do this just to measure a bird’s personality? Imagine a world full of shy redshanks. Crail would be a nightmare, far too disturbed and so unavailable as a habitat for them. So understanding how shyness and boldness allows animals to coexist with us in an increasingly disturbed world is important to predict how populations might be affected. The redshanks we have in Crail are a pretty tolerant bunch I think. They have to be. But was this learnt, or do we have all the brave ones? And further down the coast between us and Anstruther, for example, where it is much less disturbed, are they all shy birds? So I will keep trying – we have caught 14 out of about 25 so far and another 6 would probably be enough. They will all be off to breed in the next 2-4 weeks so time is running out. But next time you see a redshank down in the harbour think about it as an individual – either a sensitive soul, or a risk taker – trying to make ends meet just like any other Crailer.

The blackbirds have started breeding and spring is definitely still on the way, although the temperatures this week have paradoxically been some of the coldest of the winter. I have seen a few more lesser black-backed gulls and many more gannets but still no sign of the first birds back from Africa. I think they will be early this year so predict a chiff-chaff by the end of next week and a swallow not so long after that.

Male blackbird - they have started breeding in Crail already

Male blackbird – they have started breeding in Crail already

Posted March 23, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

March 16th   Leave a comment

A great spotted woodpecker

A great spotted woodpecker

There is a great spotted woodpecker drumming in Beech Walk Park. One in the woods at Kilrenny Common too. A drumming woodpecker is a background sound. Until you really listen out for them, their drumming is easy to overlook. Unless you are right under the tree it is almost subliminal: if you find yourself thinking strangely about woodpeckers you probably have just heard one but haven’t consciously identified it. A great spotted woodpecker’s contact call is much more loud and obvious but much harder to identify as coming from a woodpecker unless you know it. It’s a hard, sharp “specht” call. Woodpecker wise we only really get great spotteds in Crail – it’s starling sized, and black and white with bright red on its head and vent if you see it well. The other woodpeckers are green woodpecker – only very occasionally in Crail, and obviously quite green and larger than a thrush, and with a mad laughing call rather than a drum – and lesser spotted woodpecker, which is a sparrow sized version of a great spot, now very rare in the UK and almost never found on Scotland. Basically, any woodpecker in Crail is going to be a great spotted woodpecker.

The wind over the weekend has got me down again. The weather last week was really shaping up nicely for the spring but its back to gales now. A strong wind just makes it hard to concentrate on anything. I saw almost nothing on Saturday in Kilrenny (apart from some woodpeckers) and the same on a circuit around Fife Ness today. There was a pair of grey partridges at Kilminning. The coveys of winter break up in March to form territorial pairs. I hope they have a bumper year like last year and really get the numbers up. Many areas have lost their grey partridges but they hang, fairly well I think, around Crail. The only noticeable new arrivals, or passage birds, were meadow pipits that move north and inland during late March, and lots more gannets back to breed. It is now getting to the point that gannets are common again and indeed, Bass Rock is looking much whiter as more and more birds have come back.

More and more gannets are back every day

More and more gannets are back every day

As I cycled back into Crail this morning, very slowly straight into the wind, I was passed by a peregrine shooting over the airfield with the wind behind it, very low. It jinked a little higher to cross the road but continued like a bullet about a meter above the ground. What potential prey can do to avoid a peregrine moving like this – probably at about 50 miles an hour – as they hunker into, or fly against the wind I don’t really know. But then again the peregrine might just have been enjoying itself, as I had been on the way to Fife Ness at top speed with wind behind me a little earlier in the morning.

Posted March 16, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

March 13th   Leave a comment

I have seen a few lesser-black-backed gulls this week, with my first on Sunday 9th, the same date as last year. They may not be as obvious a summer migrant to most people as, for example, a swallow, but they are pretty much the earliest. They only have to migrate up from North Africa: their arrival with this spell of warmer weather from the south is probably no coincidence.

Lesser black-backed gull - the first summer migrant back to Crail this year

Lesser black-backed gull – the first summer migrant back to Crail this year

Posted March 13, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

March 9th   Leave a comment

At this time of the year I get impatient for the spring to come. In less than 4 weeks I will be looking for the first swallow but I feel ready for them now. The frogs in Denburn also seem to be as impatient. There are three lots of frog spawn in the pond, laid sometime this week. Looking back at the last few years, I see that the frogs aren’t early at all though. This last week has been the time the frog spawn has always appeared, sometimes a week earlier in mild springs (2 years ago) and sometimes a week later in cold springs (like last year). So far, so average for this spring. The herons and rooks are on their nests, having refurbished them this week. I’m not sure if they have eggs yet. The volume of bird song is also increasing every day. Now is the easiest time to get the dawn chorus experience – it is between 06:30 and 07:30 in the morning so not too hard to get up for. You get another shot at coinciding with it when the clocks go forward at the end of the month of course.

I did a circuit around the fields to the north of Crail this Sunday morning, coming back through Wormiston. Late winter business as usual bird wise, but a nice sighting of four roe deer crossing a late stubble field for our version of the Serengeti. I took a great deal of perverse pleasure in seeing the pond nicely reinstated in the fields at the crossroads. The farmer spent a fair bit of effort putting soil into the hollow to get rid of it, but the late winter rain and the inevitable topography of the field have undone the work. With a bit of luck the pond will stay wet through April providing an oasis for migrant waders and some exciting times to look forward to. I also visited the permanent, proper pond at the West Quarry Braes nature reserve nearby. There were four pairs of teal there, the males looking splendid. Teals are nervous and they all took off circling around the fields until I left.

A handsome drake teal

A handsome drake teal

As I returned a blue tit flew past me on its way over the open fields from one patch of trees to the much larger clump at Wormiston. The issue of crossing open spaces can be a big one for woodland birds. Not for most things around Crail of course – any sensitive species have long been lost – but certainly for real forest specialists. It can be a huge issue in the tropics where patches of forest become isolated from each other trapping species as effectively as if you transplanted them onto an island in the middle of the Pacific. For these species, corridors or stepping stones of forest are part of the answer. Even in Fife, the small patches of trees and the rare hedges are still important to allow dispersal of birds and mammals between the remaining islands of good habitat stranded in the sea of fields. We hardly ever get long-tailed tits or bullfinches (that really don’t like crossing open spaces) in Crail because of our relative isolation.

Long-tailed tit - we only get a flock in Crail every other year or so because we are effectively an isolated island to a real forest species

Long-tailed tit – we only get a flock in Crail every other year or so because we are effectively an isolated island to a real forest species

Posted March 9, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

March 5th   Leave a comment

A first winter shag - many don't make it

A first winter shag – many don’t make it

Red SWE's journey from chick in Sutherland to corpse in Crail

Red SWS’s journey from chick in Sutherland to corpse in Crail

Sometime in January one of the fisherman gave me a couple of rings from a dead shag he had found by the harbour. I found out its history this morning. The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Penicuick is running a large scale, long term study of shags. All the shags we see with colour rings from Crail are part of this study and most of these are local birds ringed on the May Island. But not this dead shag. It was ringed in Sutherland last June as a chick and it has been shuttling up and down the East Coast since then. Because it had a conspicuous colour-ring with three large letters on it (red SWS) it had been several times from Fraserburgh to the May Island and back again. I have mapped all the sightings and you can see that it has moved much of the length of Scotland. Many birds die in their first year, still it seems such a shame that this brave traveller didn’t find a good home after covering so much ground.

Posted March 5, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

March 2nd   Leave a comment

The din in Denburn this morning was fantastic. Wall to wall wren song. Perhaps 8-10 birds singing at the same time. Even for their size wrens have a very loud song and it was hard to hear anything else, even though the chaffinches and blue tits were also singing at the tops of their voices as well. Spring really does seem a possibility this weekend.

Fulmar - a Crailer or not? It's only been here about 75 years

Fulmar – a Crailer or not? It’s only been here about 75 years

The fulmars have been very noticeable on the cliffs this week. Even a pair defiantly sitting on a ledge above harbour beach just above the last landslide. As nesting sites go it can’t be the best suggesting that there might not be that many to go round. As I was watching the fulmars on Saturday I was reminded that they have not always been here. When you first come to a new place you get to know its residents and you assume they have always been here. It’s always then a surprise to find that many of the residents are incomers too, just beating you by a few years. True for many Crailers and also some of the birds, and particularly the fulmars. There will be many Crailers, born here, that will have walked many years along Castle Walk with no fulmars there at all. One hundred years or so ago, fulmars were only found on a few West Coast islands, with a huge colony on St Kilda being their only stronghold. Then something happened – sea warming, the expansion of discards from an increasingly mechanised fishing industry, perhaps a change in foraging behaviour – that then led to a huge population expansion for fulmars. They spread around the whole coast of Britain within about 50 years. Even in my lifetime I watched them change from rareish winter visitors to Norfolk in the early 1980s to nesters all along the coast as they adopted even the feeble sandy and crumbling cliffs there. They are now ubiquitous and one of our commonest seabirds. I even used to see them from my flat on Easter Road in Edinburgh as they commuted from the Forth to nest on cliffs up at Salsibury Crags, a mile or more from the sea. And most bizarre of all, I have even seen one sailing above the A9 at Kingussie, perhaps taking a short cut across Scotland from West to East.

The fortunes of fulmars may be shifting back now. There numbers have been declining for about a decade and their productivity has also been declining for 20 years. Fulmars live a long time – 50 years or more – so any change in the number of chicks they produce will take a long time to show itself. But that fulmars will become less common as the century rolls on seems fairly likely now. Again the reasons for this reversal are not clear – changes in fishing practices, shortages of sandeels, declines in plankton that feed the fish that feed the fulmars as a consequence of global warming are all possibilities. So enjoy the fulmars on Castle Walk and don’t take them for granted: they may just be temporary residents. Although having written that, it’s probably my grandchildren who might miss them so perhaps no need to rush out there to appreciate them just yet.

Another species that has only been a relatively recent arrival to Crail is the collared dove. Again it’s hard to imagine that they haven’t always been here if you grew up anywhere in the UK in the last 50 years, with their soft cuckoo like “who – who – whoooo” as a constant soundscape in every suburban garden. Collared doves only made it to Fife in the mid-1960s. They used to be a rarity to the UK and subject to as much excitement as a red-flanked bluetail in Denburn. Now they are one of our commonest garden birds. They are currently repeating their incredible expansion across the United States. When I was in California in January I saw them everywhere, even though according to my bird book they should have been limited to small areas around Los Angeles. My book was already out of date in the face of this incredibly successful dove. Unlike the fulmars, the numbers of collared doves are still on the up and they have been increasing particularly in the West and in Ireland as they continue their sweep across to the last bits of Europe.

Everything changes in ecology as conditions change, with winners and losers shifting through the years. Whether we like it not, we live in interesting times.

Collared dove - another incomer - only in Crail from the late 1960s

Collared dove – another incomer – only in Crail from the late 1960s

Posted March 2, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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