Archive for April 2014

April 27th   Leave a comment

It has been really nice in and around Crail this weekend because so many migrants have been about. At times today there were up to ten swallows hawking low over the shore at Roome Bay, there were newly arrived house martins over the centre, willow warblers and blackcaps passing through the gardens and my first common whitethroat of the year tuning up in the scrub at the bottom of the garden above the old paddling pool. There were three wheatears together in the lapwing field opposite West Quarry Braes nature reserve in the afternoon and a flock of 15 golden plover, all looking very handsome in summer plumage. Golden plovers are particularly striking with their gold spangled backs and their pure black underneath. Their summer plumage always takes me back to the highlands where their plaintive “peeuu” calls as they alarm at you for being near their chicks is an integral part of the bleak, upland summer soundscape. Our highland goldies will already be in residence so these birds were probably on their way to Scandinavia where the season is later.

A golden plover on its way north to breed

A golden plover on its way north to breed

At West Quarry Braes reserve itself I finally saw the little grebe that is usually resident there. Little grebes really are little and are great at hiding. Only after really scouring the pond did I see it frozen and half submerged in a clump of vegetation. It was with a moorhen. Both looked like they had been building the islands of vegetation that they nest on. As I left I saw a flock of four fieldfares dropping down into the trees. More migrants on their way further north.


Posted April 27, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 26th   Leave a comment

Third time lucky with a ring ouzel today. I chased one reported from Balcomie yesterday evening early this morning. It was still misty and raining. I could barely see the opposite end of the field where it had been seen so perhaps it was not surprising I didn’t find it. There was a flock of six bramblings high in the sycamores at Kilminning as a consolation. These finches were heading north to breed in Scandinavia and nearly in their full handsome black and orange breeding plumage. They were feeding alongside a couple of willow warblers and a blackcap – winter and summer visitors fuelling up together. I finally found the ring ouzel in the afternoon in the same field I had checked in the morning. It was a handsome male, occasionally obvious when looking for worms just like a blackbird in the middle of the field, but then very inconspicuous after flying to perch on the stone wall around the field or bushes in cottage gardens when disturbed.

Male ring ouzel

Male ring ouzel

Ring ouzels are good Crail birds. Some years we only have one or two. But today’s star bird was a raven. My first for Crail and a major east Fife rarity. There are a couple of pairs in west Fife, maybe one in the northeast, and of course they are fairly common in the Lothians and further north and west. But not around here: a legacy of the same persecution in intensive agricultural areas that removed buzzards from much of the east of Scotland until quite recently. I have been hoping for a raven in Crail for 11 years now and I was so thrilled to see one over the cowfield opposite the airfield this afternoon. When their huge size can’t be appreciated, their lanky more angular wings and long diamond shaped tail make them very distinctive. I watched it fly over with a huge grin on my face. A carrion crow was less thrilled and began chasing it as it flew off towards Wormiston. I look forward to pairs of ravens breeding back with us sometime in the future. In Scandinavia where they were not persecuted you find ravens all over farmland like Fife, along with red kites, another victim of the last two misguided centuries in Britain. Both are on their way back to Crail at last – I now look forward to my first Crail red kite.



Posted April 26, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 25th   Leave a comment

The murk and the rain was back today but the wind is still easterly so this is good news. There was a ring ouzel reported from Kilrenny yesterday afternoon. Like the wryneck of Tuesday, no luck again for me this evening. But my time will come this weekend I’m sure. I did see a moorhen in one of the sheep fields by the common. Rarer in the Crail area than ring ouzels, but I would have still preferred the ring ouzel.

Moorhen - rarity is in the eye of the beholder

Moorhen – rarity is in the eye of the beholder

Posted April 25, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 24th   Leave a comment

There was a good passage of seabirds past Crail first thing this morning. Flocks of common scoters, red-throated divers in ones and twos and the first flock of arctic terns of the year all moving east. When I say east I am being literal. The birds are all heading north and as soon as they pass Crail and Fife Ness they will change direction. That’s why sitting at the tip of Fife Ness is so good. The seabirds sometimes even cut the corner trying to get back on their intended direction past the diversion of Fife. You can enjoy their impatience as they pass just a few meters away instead of kilometres away.

Red-throated divers moving north

Red-throated divers moving north

Posted April 25, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 23rd   2 comments

I was expecting a good day today. It’s been easterlies for about 5 days now and we had rain yesterday which then brings the migrants down. It’s still a bit early in the season for really rare birds but even so a wryneck was seen in Anstruther late yesterday afternoon. I was there an hour later in the rain and the fog. I spent an hour looking along the Dreel Burn where it was first seen, and the allotments where it was last seen, but no luck. It was a fairly miserable evening and I could easily imagine the wryneck nicely tucked up early in a bush out of sight. Wrynecks eat ants and I can’t imagine there were many about last night. Still if you don’t look you certainly won’t see. I did enjoy seeing the 20 or so tiny mallard ducklings at the mouth of the Dreel Burn as I left to catch the bus back to Crail.

This morning it was still foggy and not the best conditions for seeing anything. I walked around Denburn, Kilminning and Fife Ness during the morning and was rewarded with quite a few willow warblers and chiff-chaffs: maybe 25 in total with about three willow warblers for every one chiff-chaff. The only more unusual migrants I found were a northern wheatear on the beach at Fife Ness and a lesser whitethroat at Kilminning. The latter quite a good bird – I might only see one or two a year around Crail. I suspect there are better things about but I was the only birder out at Fife Ness today and I certainly missed a lot in the fog. The winds remain easterly for the weekend with further showers so it may yet get more exciting this week.

There were a lot more swallows about today and yesterday I saw my first house martin of the year along Roome Bay Avenue.

Male northern wheatear

Male northern wheatear

Posted April 23, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending April 20th   1 comment

The summer migrants have been coming in steadily over the weekend. On Friday I had four swallows in Kingsbarns, then six on Saturday between Crail and Fife Ness, and then on Sunday swallows were every ten minutes or so in Crail. There were swallows back in Triangle Park, the old garden centre and even over my garden. I watched a male and female swallow perched side by side on the wire above the Denburn sheep field singing to each other quietly. Pairs don’t migrate together as far as we know, so this may have been an old couple from last year meeting again for the first time since last summer. Anthropomorphism is frowned on in my line of work, but I can’t help feeling that they would be elated under such circumstances. They have made it back for another year, they have met up again in Crail and the sun was shining.

The first willow warbler I saw came in on Saturday. It was singing quietly in Denburn. There were more about on Sunday at Kilminning and West Quarry Braes nature reserve. Again only little bursts of quiet song suggesting that they were all tired migrants on their way somewhere else. There were more blackcaps in during the weekend as well. They have been much more vocal, with some birds singing their hearts out as if they are back home for the summer.

Willow warblers back in Crail this weekend

Willow warblers back in Crail this weekend

Sunday was a lovely sunny day and there seemed to be buzzards everywhere over Crail. At one point I saw 3 pairs from my vantage point above the playground in Roome Bay. I was egg-rolling with my children for Easter. Enjoying the gulls swooping down for the remains and the buzzards displaying to each other above them. Every so often a buzzard would come down a bit lower and all the gulls would divert to chase them off. Every time you hear the gulls really get going with their calling it pays to look up: there will be a low flying buzzard or even better osprey or a sea eagle (then they really kick off). One “buzzard” caught my eye soaring distantly behind Denburn – I don’t know why I really looked at it. I would like to think my subconscious was identifying it as something special but I tend to scan every raptor I see anyway just in case. This “buzzard” turned into a male marsh harrier through my binoculars. Only my second one from Crail in the last 11 years. It’s passage time and the marsh harriers are heading up into northern Europe from West Africa just like the willow warblers. This one drifted over to the airfield before gaining height in a thermal over the main runway (the car boot sale must have been generating a nice lot of heat). Then it started gliding fast towards the east – next stop Denmark if it continued straight out to sea as it appeared to do. Going via Crail is perhaps not the most sensible migration route for a marsh harrier bound for Scandinavia, but accidents happen on migration. A lot of such raptors must pass over us unseen. I felt really lucky today. Often my best birding moments in Crail are the unexpected ones, particularly when I am doing something else. Waxwings in my garden when I am gardening, a pair of grey phalaropes in the sea beyond where my son and I were looking for shells on the beach at Saucehope, a glaucous gull flying in to check out a picnic on Roome Bay beach, and now an Easter egg rolling marsh harrier. It’s why I almost always have my binoculars with me.

Male marsh harrier

Male marsh harrier

On Sunday afternoon I cycled around Crail via Kirkmay and Troustie. There are no pools left in any of the fields now because of the drainage work in many of the farms over the last couple of winters. With the dry April we have been having they would probably have been dry even if they had been left alone. So no migrant waders to look for inland this year unless it we have a very rainy summer – it will be a consolation for me at least. I did count at least four pairs of lapwings that were acting as if they were planning to nest in the fields that used to border the pools. They can manage in a completely dry field. Lapwings nest colonially when they can and three of the pairs are in fields next to each other. The advantage of this is clear when a crow flies over. One lapwing after another flies up, bombarding it until it leaves. A lapwing pair on its own cannot be nearly as effective as a crowd in deterring such would be egg predators. As lapwings continue to decline this creates a real problem for them. It’s a dreadful negative feedback loop with lower and lower densities of lapwings producing fewer and fewer chicks as the nest predators get more and more successful.

Lapwing - several pairs are breeding around Crail this year

Lapwing – several pairs are breeding around Crail this year

Posted April 20, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 13th   Leave a comment

I saw my first swallow of the summer this morning flying along the coast just off Kingsbarns. It was doggedly heading north, keeping low to sea to minimise the gusty wind from the west. Last year my first was the 16th April, the 12th in 2011, 21st in 2010, 11th in 2009 and in 2012 spectacularly early on the 29th of March. So a fairly average arrival date today. But barn swallows are far from average. We have the most ringing recoveries from swallows so we know better where they winter than for most species. They can be caught in large numbers at their evening roosts, which may contain millions of birds in some areas of Africa. Some of these are in South Africa where there are more ornithologists to catch them, but there are also a few dedicated people catching swallows at roosts in West Africa. This ringing has revealed a pattern of movement of British barn swallows through West Africa right down to South Africa and back again. It’s over 20,000 km there and back as the swallow flies. But to be a swallow is to fly. Even when they are here in Scotland they will be flying more than a 100 km every day as they catch insects. Flying back and forth over a field, or straight ahead to Africa must be the same thing in terms of effort.

Almost straight afterwards I saw my first sand martin of the year. Another migrant from Africa, although our sand martins winter “only” in West Africa. This bird will have been in Senegal or Ghana six weeks ago. They are another early migrant and some will have already started prospecting nest holes behind the beaches between Kingsbarns and Fife Ness.

Yellowhammers really are glowing yellow at the moment and obvious everywhere on the field edges around Crail at the moment

Yellowhammers really are glowing yellow at the moment and obvious everywhere on the field edges around Crail

This afternoon I had another very windy walk around Kilrenny. Everything was taking cover from the gale apart from a few yellowhammers. But I did finally connect with one of the tawny owls roosting in the wood. They can be very hard to see but today it stood out as a lovely brown shape against the dark green branches of the conifer it was roosting in. If you are walking past the pond at Kilrenny, heading north, look for the large owl nest box to the left of the path. Then check close to the trunk of each conifer on the right hand side of the path at about 6-8m high. Sooner or later you will see a tawny owl. I love the way they stare at you sleepily, relying on their camouflage even when it must be obvious that it is blown. But if they do fly off to a more hidden site then they will inevitable get chased and mobbed by noisy tits, chaffinches and blackbirds, so making it even worse. It’s tough being an owl in daylight. At night, of course, the tables are turned and absolutely anything, bird, mammal or amphibian is on the menu. Then the mobbing makes sense: if a blackbird can make a tawny owl uncomfortable enough to move on then it will be safer during the following night. How this works with a breeding bird, like the one at Kilrenny, that will not leave the area is not clear. Perhaps such resident birds get mobbed much less because there isn’t much point. Another theory about mobbing is that it “attracts the mightier” such as a goshawk or an eagle owl which make short work of tawny owls. But again that is unlikely to be a big issue in Kilrenny, but I live in hope.

Posted April 13, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 12th   Leave a comment

Still no sign of swallows and nothing new in Denburn Wood this morning. I did hear my first blackcap of the year singing above Kenly Water at Boarhills in the afternoon though. There were also a couple of dippers along the burn as usual, acting as if they had a nest close to the metal bridge. The easiest place to see dippers locally is probably from the road bridge over the Kinness Burn in St Andrews along Langlands Road. I think they nest under the bridge there and you only have to watch for a few minutes to guarantee a very close view. But Kenly Water, as you walk from Boarhills to the sea is also pretty good to guarantee close views of dippers.

Dipper - easy to see on Kenly Water

Dipper – easy to see on Kenly Water

The summer seabird season is starting up. This morning there were a lot of razorbills in pairs passing Crail or sitting in the sea in small flocks. Behind were kittiwakes and gannets that will now be a constant backdrop until October.



Posted April 12, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 11th   Leave a comment

I got an email from Susan McNaughton today. She was taking photographs at dawn when she spotted a badger in the cliff edge gardens above the harbour. An hour later she saw it again trotting over harbour beach. Badgers are common around Crail but they are strictly nocturnal and I have never seen one here in daylight – at least one that isn’t dead at the side of the road. I wonder if the discarded crabs, fish and lobster bits that are often on the beach there are an attraction.

Badger on the beach

Badger on the beach

Posted April 12, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 6th   Leave a comment

No sign of the hoopoe this morning. That’s the 3rd or probably the 4th I have missed to date. Just like the last times I am resolved to really work Crail during the next period of easterlies at the end of March. I did go round Balcomie and Kilminning with a renewed sense of hope of maybe turning something else up. But I found only a chiff-chaff and a fieldfare that were obvious passage birds. The corn buntings are back again along the airfield road with two territories so far being established between Crail and the airfield.

There are three pairs of kestrels between Crail and Fife Ness. This morning two of them were displaying. One at Kilminning soaring tightly together and a second at Roome Bay doing the same interspersed with the male trying to impress the female. The male looked like a juvenile and so not very expert. At one point he perched on a tiny ledge on the cliffs and started to make a sharp repeated “kip” call that I have never heard before. I think he was trying to suggest to the female that this would make a good nest site. Even I could tell it was wholly inappropriate. The female stayed soaring over the cliffs and then started stooping vigorously at the male when he eventually flew back up to join her. Must try harder was the message I think.

Kestrel - they are in obvious pairs at the moment soaring above Roome Bay and Kilminning

Kestrel – they are in obvious pairs at the moment soaring above Roome Bay and Kilminning

Roome Bay is becoming much quieter bird wise even as it gets busier with people on holiday. It’s a convenient arrangement. As the disturbance increases and there is less and less space and time of the birds to feed in, so there are actually few birds that use the beach. There is now only one pair of mallards still around in Roome Bay and today a single goldeneye and a red-breasted merganser. I only saw a couple of redshanks and a handful of oystercatchers: the rest of the winter resident wader species have more or less gone. There will still be plenty of passage visitors through in the next 2 months in the quiet moments but everything has somehow shifted from winter to spring in the last couple of weeks. We can hope for our first swallows this week and Denburn to fill up with blackcap song, which is some of the best to be heard from any bird.

Red-breasted merganser - one of the few remaining winter birds in roome Bay today

Red-breasted merganser – one of the few remaining winter birds in roome Bay today

Posted April 6, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 5th   Leave a comment

At last a break in the clouds and even a hint of spring sunshine this afternoon. I had my first sandwich tern of the year flying north past Balcomie Beach which also cheered me up. A flock of curlews flew over heading north too, really high up and obviously on the move to the breeding grounds somewhere in Shetland or even Iceland. They were talking to each other as they flew – otherwise I wouldn’t have spotted them – a companiable “coor-leeing” which seemed to convey the excitement of the coming spring that we are all feeling.

Sandwich tern - another summer migrant back to crail today

Sandwich tern – another summer migrant back to crail today

I picked up an email this evening from a colleague – a hoopoe in Pinkerton this afternoon. Another near miss. I’ll be out first thing tomorrow with my fingers crossed.

Posted April 5, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 4th   Leave a comment

It’s been a very murky few days with the easterly wind bringing in the haar. I glimpsed my first chiff-chaff in Crail this afternoon through the fog. It was feeding frantically on a bare sycamore behind Castle Walk. This spell of easterly winds has come a bit early: if this was the beginning of May or better still June we could be hoping for all sorts of rarities. Still there are some early species like ring ouzels or even hoopoes that we might get lucky with. Hoopoes are notorious for just a few hours’ visit through Crail gardens and I have never managed to connect with one in the 11 years I have been here. If you see a hoopoe please let me know right away.

Chiff-chaffs are coming through Crail this week

Chiff-chaffs are passing through Crail this week

Posted April 4, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

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