Archive for July 2014

July 31st   Leave a comment

I’ve been away on the West Coast – white-tailed eagles, black guillemots, pine martens, dragonflies and common lizards in abundance. There is such a huge difference in the numbers of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects between our intensively managed and farmed east and the more laissez-faire west. It’s a shame the price we have to pay for efficient food production. There are many more ticks and midges, of course, which I am not missing at all now I am back. There is a lot to be said for a summer evening where you can actually venture out of doors.

It’s been a great year for breeding terns on both the west and east coast. The May Island has fledged a large number of arctic terns this year and there were juvenile common terns everywhere along the coast at Ardnamurchan last week. The fate of our seabirds is up and down a lot at the moment, with doom and gloom coming out of Shetland, so it’s really nice to see the thousands of seabirds that look like they are doing OK off Crail as well as off Mull last week. The seabird spectacle off Crail is at its height just now, with the puffins finishing soon. Last night there were a lot loafing on the water a kilometre or so out. They may have had some chicks with them, though they tend to leave at night without any trace.

Juvenile arctic tern

Juvenile arctic tern

Posted July 31, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 11th   Leave a comment

Swift - the sound and sight of the summer

Swift – the sound and sight of the summer

Another sound of that makes this time of year special is the sound of the swifts, particularly at dusk. This evening it was beautifully still and warm, with a huge near full moon over the May Island yet still light at 11 with the swifts screaming overhead. They are the sound of a summer evening to me. It’s hard to know quite what they are doing. The adults should be hard at work feeding their growing chicks rather than chasing each other and apparently trying to impress each other with their aerobatics in the gloaming. Perhaps it’s the birds that are trying to attract a mate to start breeding the next year. Whatever they are doing it’s a free air show every fine evening. It wouldn’t be a summer without them.

This afternoon at high tide there were 10 redshanks roosting with about 25 oystercatchers on the rocks out from the furthest point of West Braes (that’s about two of the small bays along from the harbour). Six of the redshanks had my colour-rings on them and I ticked them off from the list of birds that left Crail at the end of last winter. Two of the four birds I recorded back in July last year were among them: not only do redshanks come back to the same place where they winter, every winter, but they seem to follow the same timetable as well. My “early birds” are likely to be Scottish breeders that have had their three month breeding season – a day’s flight to and the West or North, meeting their mate again on the same bit of marsh or field, efficiently laying and incubating a clutch over a month and then keeping an eye on their chicks for three or four weeks before returning to Crail. The chicks of most shorebirds look after themselves from hatching although they need sheltering and warming from damp weather until they get their feathers. Then the parents are free to leave them and to head back to their winter homes. The juveniles will take longer but will leave their breeding area to find their wintering area in a month’s time. They then take even longer to arrive in somewhere like Crail because they don’t actually know where they are going and have to find a suitable place. Once some do find and settle on Crail then that will likely be them for the next 10 or 20 years if they are lucky and Crail does indeed turn out to be the right choice of a winter home – safe and with plenty of food. And so it goes on with our adult Crail redshanks. I’m always glad to see them back.

The redshanks were roosting in the afternoon sunshine. The days are long and warm and there is plenty of time for them to find sufficient food under these benign conditions. So they take it very easy. The adults all take the opportunity to moult their wing and tail feathers at this time of year. I find these feathers washed up on the strandline until October. It’s good they can be so laid back at this time of year – the beaches are very busy with people and there is very little space they can have to themselves, particularly at high tide. As the season gets harsher and the visitors leave, then they have more opportunities as their foraging needs increase.

One of my colour-ringed redshanks in summer plumage - this one GRRR (Green, red, red, red - the rings top to bottom, left to right, above the knee) is not back yet but I will be looking for it over the next month or so

One of my colour-ringed redshanks in summer plumage – this one GRRR (Green, red, red, red – the rings top to bottom, left to right, above the knee) disappeared in January this year rather than leaving normally in April so probably won’t be returning this year

Posted July 12, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 9th   Leave a comment

This evening I heard the shrill repeated whistle of a distant whimbrel flying high over Crail, heading west along the coast. It was too high up to see – but I whistled back. Maybe it was a coincidence but the whimbrel called again as if answering me. It was almost certainly a failed breeder heading back to Africa. It will have been looking down at Crail from 500 meters or so, the coastline and fields spread out below it in the fading evening sunlight, unable to see me but knowing I was there whistling too. Whimbrels can fly for days non-stop when they want and this one might be in Africa tomorrow. Whimbrels are absolutely brilliant because of this casual globe-trotting. Everything that makes birds interesting and exciting is captured by a whimbrel. One flying over my garden at the end of a perfect summer day, whistling to me as it goes, links me to the Arctic and to the tropics, and everything in between.

Whimbrel - already passing over Crail on their way back to Africa

Whimbrel – already passing over Crail on their way back to Africa

Posted July 9, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 6th   Leave a comment

Peak time to see puffins flying past Crail on their way to and from the Isle of May as they are feeding chicks

Peak time to see puffins flying past Crail on their way to and from the Isle of May as they are feeding chicks

The best thing about Crail at this time of year is the seabirds. It’s still not too late to go out to the May island to enjoy the tens of thousands of puffins now at their most visible as they have big and hungry chicks to feed. Even if you can’t get out to the May, scanning the sea from Crail at any time you will see hundreds of black dots moving past, fast and low over the sea – trust me, they are all puffins. The much larger gannets are more easily recognisable but even so most are only visible as larger white dots far out as they head back and forth to the Bass Rock. Borrow a telescope on a quiet evening and then the dots become more identifiable. And also then you notice the more unusual things – this week it’s been manx shearwaters passing. On Thursday and Friday particularly there were flocks of tens or so passing every quarter of an hour. This month is the best time to see storm petrels from Crail. They only come every few years – 2006 and 2011 being years when we had a few days when hundreds were passing and feeding, sometimes close enough in to appreciate without binoculars. I check particularly for stormies every evening at this time of year, looking for tiny black specks zooming in zigzags low over the sea and occasionally showing the flash of their white rumps and white underwings. More guaranteed are great skuas (or bonxies as the Shetlanders call them) which should start passing any day soon for the autumn. Look out for gannet sized, chunky dark brown gulls which have an unmistakeable predatory look about them. If one does start chasing a gannet they are unmistakeable.

Speaking of gannets, there are many more immatures about just now. I suspect they come up to investigate the Bass Rock when breeding is in full swing to begin to learn the ropes as well as to start looking for nest sites and mates in anticipation of when they will start breeding themselves the following year. The same probably applies for the swifts which also take a few years to mature and to breed for the first time. It’s harder to tell if some of the swifts in Crail at this time of year are immatures because unlike the gannets their plumage is just like an adult. But I suspect many are – the numbers seem to increase at this time of year well before any of this year’s fledglings will appear, and there is a lot of prospecting of nest sites to be seen now well after the adults that arrived in May have settled on their breeding site for the year. Regardless, enjoy the screaming swifts now – they will only be with us another month.

Near adult gannet - this may be in the Forth just now prospecting for a nest site for next year

Near adult gannet – this may be in the Forth just now prospecting for a nest site for next year

The numbers of goosanders are building up. There were four down at Balcomie Beach fishing together only a few meters offshore this morning. One caught a large butterfish and was chased by the other three. The fish was too big to swallow easily and it was soon dropped in the fight that ensued. Another goosander grabbed it and the chase and fight restarted. And so on with the butterfish being grabbed and lost by all of the four before one finally had the time to open its mouth wide enough to get the fish down. Straight away the other three settled down and the four started fishing cooperatively in a line together again. Most of the time the fish they catch are small enough for a quick swallow so the arrangement usually seems more amicable. In group feeding situations though, you do get some individuals that specialise in looking out for an opportunity to steal another’s meal (“kleptoparasites”), particularly if the prey being caught is large and worth stealing. There was no evidence of specialisation this morning with the goosanders. They were all having a go. It actually looked like they were just having fun. They can’t be that short of food at Balcomie and indeed they spend a lot of the day roosting and preening. At the end of the fight it also looked like there were no hard feelings either and they all just got straight back to cooperating again.

There seem to be buzzards everywhere at the moment. Young have fledged over the last week or so. I have seen a few hovering to hunt this week. Any very large dark bird of prey you see hovering around Crail will be a buzzard. However, if it is very large and hovering but pale like a gull  then it will be an osprey. Some individuals will start passing back down to Africa this month so it’s always well worth keeping an eye out for them overhead. Ospreys are perfectly happy feeding at sea so one over Roome Bay is a distinct possibility.

Hovering buzzard

Hovering buzzard


Posted July 6, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

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