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 wildcrail in Sightings

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