Archive for May 2014

May 31st   Leave a comment

The red-backed shrike from last night

A male red-backed shrike – not the bird from last night, but it looked just as good

It’s a beautiful day and last night was perfectly clear with light winds. Perfect migration weather so perhaps it’s no surprise that the shrike and redstart from yesterday haven’t been found again this morning. The next week is traditionally the best for finding something very very rare in the UK. There are more rain showers forecast for Monday and Tuesday and light south-easterlies so there is some small hope for us.

I have posted a  a picture of the red-backed shrike from John’s collection, taken in Bulgaria, to show just how superb looking they are.


Posted May 31, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 30th   1 comment

Another perfectly timed text at 4:30 this afternoon started Friday evening perfectly. A male red-backed shrike reported from the road half-way between Crail and Balcomie that runs up to the north part of the airfield and eventually Wormiston. It was a beautiful evening and the shrike positively glowed as it caught insects tucked in the rank vegetation alongside the wall along the main road. Yesterday’s disappointment at missing the female red-backed shrike totally washed away. They are a top bird and sadly missing as a breeder from the UK apart from a couple of pairs recolonizing Dartmoor. One hundred years ago they were a fairly common bird in Britain. They are massive long distance migrants with a loop migration taking them through the middle of Africa down to Angola for a spell at the start of the winter and then East Africa for the rest, then through Saudia Arabia and back into Western Europe. 22,000 kilometers in total, with the detour through the Middle East adding a quarter to the distance. They do this probably to take advantage of the tail winds that favour that route. It shows how important the wind is to small long distance migrants and why easterly winds result in us getting rare birds in.

A birder also at the shrike mentioned that he had just seen a black redstart at the house being built up at Craighead and between Crail and Balcomie golf courses. The evening was getting even better. Another annual Crail rarity like the shrike and another handsome bird to see glowing black and red in the evening light. It took a few minutes to find but like the shrike it was a hungry migrant so not staying still for long. It soon attracted attention to itself amongst the scaffolding, fences and debris of the building site. This is what black redstarts like. Bare, rocky and barren areas. Famously they colonised Britain as a breeder in the bomb sites of London after the war and every nuclear power station has a pair or two. We had a long stayer in Roome Bay in January 2011, again enjoying the bare rocks but in a slightly more scenic environment than today’s bird.

Male black redstart - this is the Roome Bay bird from 2011 - much like the bird this evening, but easier for John to photograph

Male black redstart – this is the Roome Bay bird from 2011 – much like the bird this evening, but easier for John to photograph

Posted May 30, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 29th   Leave a comment

It’s been a day of highs and lows. The expectation that some exciting birds were going to turn up has been building up for a week. Several great birds have turned up on the Isle of May: red-backed shrikes, a red-breasted flycatcher, icterine warblers, a rosefinch and even a hawfinch. Any one of those would make the year in Crail. I have been looking out of my window at the island and hoping. We have had easterlies more or less for 10 days now and all we were lacking was some heavy rain showers. These turned up yesterday so it wasn’t a huge surprise when a red-backed shrike was reported from Kilminning last thing after the rain had finally stopped. So now to the lows. I was up at 6 to try and see the shrike. I lacked the crucial information that it was half way between the upper and lower parts of Kilminning, and actually on the airfield, so I missed it as I searched the usual shrike haunts in the hour I had. I must have passed right by it, but perhaps it was down in cover, or perched motionless. When I got to work later and cheked the bird news I felt even more disappointed as I realized I was so close to seeing it. I consoled myself with the fact that it would probably stay put until the evening when I could try again. But sadly not, it wasn’t reported again after late morning.

I’m an academic so I can work fairly flexibly. Some days however are not negotiable and we had the external examiners in today to check the St Andrews’ exams. I got a text as the last meeting of the day drew to a close with perfect timing: a possible marsh warbler singing at Fife Ness. I was there 30 minutes later after picking up my bike, my binoculars and my playback speakers from Crail on the way. So now to the highs. A marsh warbler is a new bird for Crail and after only a few minutes of searching in the patch it was firmly on my Crail list. I suppose it all averages out, and so much better to have had the warbler rather than the shrike today.

I need to digress a bit and explain about marsh warblers at this point. And also this will explain why there is no photo of it. Marsh warblers are notorious for being both brown and skulking, almost indistinguishable from more common reed warbers even on a good view. If you have one in the hand, splitting the two species involves a mathematical formula or two involving the ratios of feather lengths. I did see the marsh warbler’s eye peering at me through dense vegetation and saw it flicking between bushes: it was a warm brown warbler much like tens of other species. So, true to form, not much of a looker and not very showy. What makes marsh warblers special is their singing. I remember first hearing about them in a zoology lecture as an undergraduate about communication in animals. Marsh warblers have been recorded as imitating 99 European species and 113 African ones. I should think they are over the hundred mark in Europe by now if anyone is still counting, it was a few years ago. Anyway their song is a fantastic cocktail of everything they have heard on their travels from central or Eastern Europe down to East Africa. Sometimes you can pinpoint where a marsh warbler may have bred or wintered by the birds it includes in its song. Because they are visually so undistinguished, I have always been slightly ambivalent about seeing marsh warblers and have been expecting one to turn up in Crail in the autumn, with an identification frustratingly only guessed at but never confirmed. But this one was singing, and when I tried some playback to unsuccessfully coax it out of cover, it sang its heart out. I didn’t recognize 212 (and counting) individual species, but I recognized a few. It was as distinctive vocally as a macaw is visually.

A reed warbler but this could have been the marsh warbler tonight, except much less visible...

A reed warbler but this could have been the marsh warbler tonight, except much less visible…

John Anderson was away giving a talk to the Fife Bird Club about his recent trip to the Falklands so was spared the frustration of trying to photograph the bird tonight. I have posted one of his record shots of a migrant reed warbler to give you a feel of what I am talking about – the photo could easily be labelled as a marsh warbler and only a few people would question it. But I wish I could convey the song – even a recording wouldn’t do it justice – it was a magical moment this evening. One of Europe’s top songsters in a one night special, adding itself to the Crail list in style. That’s the 215th species.

Posted May 29, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 24th   Leave a comment

A male sparrowhawk - taken in February but shows how vivid their plumage can be and how scarey their eyes are...

A male sparrowhawk – taken in February but shows how vivid their plumage can be and how scarey their eyes are…

The chiff-chaff is still singing in Denburn so it may be trying to breed rather than being a migrant as I thought last week. As I listened to it today I noticed a shape moving silently in the canopy, flying up to perch motionless against the trunk of an alder. If I hadn’t seen it moving up there out of the corner of my eye I would never have seen it. It was a sparrowhawk hunting through the wood. I usually notice sparrowhawks because the birds it eats make loud alarm calls whenever they spot one. But not this time, the sparrowhawk had got into Denburn undetected. It sat without moving like a spectre waiting for its best opportunity to surprise a blackbird or a robin feeding unaware on the ground below. It was a beautiful adult male – orangey-red below and blue above, but with its killer, piercing yellow eye. It will have been hunting to feed its female now sitting on eggs somewhere in or near Denburn. The sparrowhawk eggs will hatch as the song birds of Denburn fledge their chicks. The starlings and tits are all going to fledge over the next two weeks and will provide lots of food for the young sparrowhawks. Timing is everything. The tits time with the caterpillars and the sparrowhawks time with the tits.

The abandoned railway line between Crail and Kingsbarns is a lifeline of greenery and diversity through the otherwise fairly sterile fields. This morning I passed a continuous line of whitethroat territories, with sedge warblers about every 200 meters where the vegetation was a bit lusher or wetter. Both species were singing their heads off and carrying out song flights where they fly up in a circle about tree top height followed by a parachute glide back down. It’s noticeable that every year I often find the sedge warblers and the whitethroats in exactly the same territories as the previous year. For example, there is always a sedge warbler singing just outside of Crail as you head out on the St Andrews Road and there is always a whitethroat singing in the overgrown garden just above the boating pond on Roome Bay. It makes sense on two counts. At least half of the returning birds have bred here before and are coming home. And birds that were born last year are looking for good habitat which will mean they are likely to end up in any empty territories from last year. Without marking individuals I can’t tell whether it’s the same bird back in a territory or a new bird, but it is a 50% or more chance that it’s the same individual, and it’s possible that it’s the same sedge warbler that has been singing to me just outside Crail for the last 5 years.

I passed through Cambo looking for spotted flycatchers which bred unusually, but successfully, last year. No sign of them but it’s early in the season and spotted flycatchers are much less obvious than sedge warblers or whitethroats. They barely sing and can spend long periods motionless high in the canopy.

I saw a few hares today and also during the week. They might be called mad March hares but I reckon that they can also be mad May hares. Six were chasing each other and trying to knock each other over in the field behind Hammer Inn yesterday. Hares can get pregnant anytime apart from mid-winter and they have a peak of breeding in April and May so this is not very unusual. Perhaps it’s harder to see them as the crops get higher in the summer so their boxing seems to happen more early in the spring. Hares, like everything else, are much less common than they used to be, but like corn buntings and grey partridges, they seem to be hanging on around Crail.

Mad May brown hares chasing each other near Crail

Mad May brown hares chasing each other near Crail


Posted May 24, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 18th   Leave a comment

Every year Chris Smout from Anstruther organises the local birders to record breeding corn buntings in the East Neuk. Corn buntings used to be much more common but have declined through most of the UK. The annual total is usually about 100 pairs scattered between Elie and St Andrews but considering they used to be all over Fife they seem precarious. The RSPB has put a lot of effort into stabilising the decline recently and encourages winter feeding in a couple of farms towards St Monans. This morning as I cycled around Crail looking for them it seemed like maybe things are getting better. Corn buntings are big, clunky buntings with a wheezy distinctive song that they often give from a wire over big open fields so are not too hard to detect when they are present. They nest semi-colonially so you might find a field with several and another apparently very similar one with none. I found 6 singing birds between Sypsies and Troustie, with one field having a singing bird on each side. Then a couple at Balcomie and another two at the airfield. It’s still early in the season – they sing until July – but this is a great start for the Crail total for this year.

Corn bunting

Corn bunting

There were whitethroats singing everywhere this morning and also a few sedge warblers. I missed their arrival while I was away last week but I don’t think they are back in full numbers yet. The winds have been southerly or south-westerly for the last few days so I didn’t expect anything unusual: there was a wheatear at Balcomie and a chiff-chaff singing in Denburn that were the only things that stood out as obvious migrants. The winds are predicted to be easterly for next week so things should improve. The next week is Crail’s peak period for a spring red-backed shrike or something even rarer. I live in hope.

Posted May 18, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 13th   Leave a comment

There was an impressive thunderstorm directly above Crail today that sounded like a bomb exploding through the town. Not such a common thing for Fife compared to further south. We expect a more gentle rain rather than tropical downpours.

The showers lingered into the evening but the sun fought back and everywhere had that perfect May green and freshness. Kilrenny was alive with bird song: willow warblers, blackcaps and whitethroats now common. There was a flock of 18 curlew preening and snoozing in the pasture field, perhaps brought down by the earlier thunderstorm as they made their way north. I found a single whimbrel in among them – looking like a young bird among the larger, more long-billed curlews. It was noticeable that it had its head down feeding almost constantly while the curlews were much more vigilant. It may have come further and have further to go and so needed to get its energy reserves back up more than the curlews. Or perhaps it was just taking advantage of the protection and alertness of the larger birds around it.

Curlew Fife Ness 30th August 2006

Curlew – a migrating flock at Kilrenny this evening also had a whimbrel with them

Posted May 14, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 12th   Leave a comment

Male Cyprus wheatear wearing a geolocator backpack to record its location over the next few months when it heads back to Africa. Nowhere near Crail I suspect.

Male Cyprus wheatear wearing a geolocator backpack to record its location over the next few months when it heads back to Africa. Nowhere near Crail I suspect.

I have been in Cyprus for the last two weeks on fieldwork and only came back to Crail on Sunday. This is now my 5th year of following a population of Cyprus wheatears. They are handsome black and white migrant birds that breed only on Cyprus and that winter in East Africa. They are everywhere on Cyprus making them an ideal migrant species to study. Rare birds might be more worthy but you can’t really get to grips with understanding a range of general problems if you spend all your time looking for them. And Cyprus wheatears are very easy to catch. A little bit of their song played back through a small loud speaker in a territory brings in both the males and the female and then a maggot-baited spring trap does the rest. I and my students caught and colour-ringed 60 or so new birds and resighted another 45 birds returning from previous years’ ringing. It’s always a thrill to see an individual bird back again that you know well from a previous year, after its wintering adventure in Africa. This year we were also putting on geolocator tags on some of the wheatears. These log sunrise and sunset times so you can work out approximately where the bird has been if you can recapture them the following year. 60-70% of the Cyprus wheatears come back each year so hopefully next May I will have a better idea of where these birds winter – Sudan to Somalia, I predict, but the devil is in the details. We need to know the routes and the timings that they use to get there if we are to understand how the 5 billion birds that breed in Europe that winter in Africa can continue to do so as we change their habitats and climate.

But now back to Crail and the migrants here. I am always slightly nervous of being away at this time of year because even though I get to see lots of other great birds when I am away it is always disappointing to miss a new bird on my home patch. I saw 45 eleonora’s falcons on Saturday on my way to the airport– possibly one of the best birds on the planet – think of a peregrine squared and then add colonial breeding and group hunting…but this would not have compensated for a bluethroat for example, turning up in Crail last week, or even worse in my garden. I am thinking these thoughts because as I was cutting my neglected lawn this evening my neighbour popped her head over the wall to tell me about a strange bird in her garden. I often hear such stories and can do nothing but speculate that I might have missed something special. Luckily five minutes later the neighbour popped up again – the bird was back. I climbed over the wall and was rewarded with a female northern wheatear. Not quite a bluethroat but only my second ever in my garden – OK, in my neighbour’s garden, but clearly visible from mine as it perched on a fence so it counted. My last northern wheatear was exactly a week ago, on the top of a mountain on Cyprus. Also a female, also feeding in the hurried manner of a hungry migrant still with a long way to go to its breeding grounds: the Cyprus bird perhaps to Siberia and the Crail bird today perhaps to Greenland. So many links to the rest of the planet from a single wheatear in my neighbour’s garden on a beautiful May evening. I rounded off the day watching the swifts that are now back in Crail for the next three months. They were in the Congo and then perhaps Burkina Faso as they staged through West Africa only a few weeks ago: we know this from geolocator studies. Perhaps next year I can find out such details for the Cyprus wheatears.

Another Cyprus special: a male masked shrike. This species has been near Crail - one turned up in Kilrenny a few years ago.

Another Cyprus special: a male masked shrike. This species has been to Crail – one turned up in Kilrenny a few years ago.

Posted May 12, 2014 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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