Archive for August 2014

August 30th   Leave a comment

There was still a bit of hopefulness for something interesting left over from the winds of mid-week this morning. I tracked down a juvenile wheatear on the beach at Balcomie and a few willow warblers at Fife Ness but nothing else. I just missed an osprey at Fife Ness by about 30 minutes: one apparently came in from the sea and drifted westwards. You really have to get lucky to connect with an osprey in Crail. There were reports of the pied flycatcher and three tree pipits from Kilminning as well showing that, although minimal for now, the autumn migration season is now on. For the swifts of course it is pretty much all over already. I saw one lonely, late bird hurrying over Crail this evening – perhaps my last for this year.

The highlight of the day was a juvenile knot on the beach at Balcomie. This seems to have taken up a bit of a residence – John saw it and photographed it a few days ago too.

The juvenile knot down at Balcomie Beach at the moment

The juvenile knot down at Balcomie Beach at the moment

Posted August 30, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 28th   Leave a comment

The wind continued easterly last night and then there were heavy rain showers early this morning – a perfect recipe for some migrants this morning. I went out after lunch after it had brightened up to see what had come in. Sadly not much. Nice to be outside in the returned warm sunshine but nothing really to find in the end. I checked out Balcomie and Kilminning and only saw one clear migrant, a pied flycatcher in the rowans at the top end of Kilminning. Lovely to see (and hear) and my first for the year, but not the tens of them I might hope to see in a good fall of migrants, and of course not quite the rarity that I was hoping for. A willow warbler got me going briefly because I was hoping so much. The bright sunshine made me think it looked very bright and a bit greenish – I was hoping for a very rare greenish warbler which is a classic east coast August fall bird and one I have only seen once in my time at Crail. But no, expectation is the mother of invention in birding and I came to my senses. It really had nothing going for it to be a greenish except my desire for it to be one. I wasn’t the only hopeful birder out and about but nothing else turned up during the day. Once again I think we were just a little too far north and a little unlucky. Still it’s early autumn days and by next week who knows what might be about.

An August willow warbler

An August willow warbler

Posted August 28, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 27th   Leave a comment

The dead red squirrel near Boarhills this morning. Such a shame but at least there are some about.

The dead red squirrel near Boarhills this morning. Such a shame but at least there are some about.

Some good news and some bad news…The good news first. There are still some red squirrels in the area. There was one up by the main road bridge over the Kenly Burn at Boarhills. The bad news is that it was dead on the road – killed yesterday by a car. I recognised its poor squashed shape – with bright red fur and bushy tail as I drove to work this morning. I stopped and picked it off the road to double check. It’s always such a shame when a mammal gets hit by a car and even more so when it’s something rare like a squirrel or the otter of last year. The only consolation is that there was at least one to be hit. I haven’t seen a red squirrel in the Crail area for maybe ten years, the last one I saw was on the edge of the Cambo Estate. I have only seen grey squirrels since, although they are not particularly common either.

There have been easterly winds for the last three days. And rain showers forecast for tomorrow. The recipe for some early autumn migrants I hope. The seabirds have been good already, pushed in close to Crail by the wind. On Monday I had a red-necked grebe past and today a couple of black-throated divers; skuas and manx shearwaters too. Fingers crossed for tomorrow.

A more cheerful red squirrel

A more cheerful red squirrel

Posted August 27, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 23rd   Leave a comment

The seascape from Crail has changed completely in the last couple of weeks. In the last three days of my usual seawatching from the back of my house in the evening I haven’t seen a single auk. The scurrying puffins of last month have completely gone – I might not see another one until late winter storms push them past Fife Ness. Tens of thousands of puffins make a crowd on the May but they disappear when they spread themselves out into the middle of the North Sea. Today the sea is dominated by gannets and kittiwakes. The juvenile kittiwakes have fledged and a good number are fishing in the Forth with their gentle swooping, almost tern like flight. The gannets won’t fledge seriously for another month so they are passing backwards and forwards in long lines as the puffins were a month ago. And among them, like a shadow or a gull in negative, the arctic skuas are back , wraith-like as they patrol powerfully low over the sea. I have had one every evening for last few days – a juvenile and the rest dark phase adults. Arctic skuas are declining as a breeding species in the UK, probably as climate change makes Britain less suitable for this well named arctic species: great skuas are doing much better though. Ecological change is always about winners as well as losers, although having both species as fairly common breeders is a definite British plus. Arctic skuas are everyday birds in the Forth in August and September, but I never stop getting a thrill when I see one. For a start you need to double check that they are not one of the rarer other skua species (both long-tailed and pomarine skuas can occur too) and then their falcon like domination of their airspace makes whatever species of skua it is well worth watching.

Arctic skua - Johnny Depp eat your heart out, this is the real thing

Arctic skua – Johnny Depp eat your heart out, this is the real thing

There have been a few flocks of lapwings turning up in the fields around Crail in the last week. They are obvious when they stop in a stubble field or when a flock gets up in the air, flashing like huge black and white butterflies, but in a field of brassicas their green backs make them disappear. I had a lovely game of “where’s lapwing” in a cabbage field at Balcomie this morning. One of the cabbages started moving, resolving itself into a lapwing on closer look, and then its neighbour, and its neighbour and so on as I got my eye in – more lapwings than cabbages in the end.

A flock of migrating lapwings - several in the fields around Crail just now

A flock of migrating lapwings – several in the fields around Crail just now

Posted August 23, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 18th   Leave a comment

There are almost no pools left in the East Neuk this year to attract the August passing waders. 2012 was a very, very wet summer and there were several even just around Crail so I had an enjoyable time checking them out in hope. There has been less rain this year and the farmers have been hard at work draining all the boggy field corners and filling in the dips. The result is a much duller landscape and much less hope. But Chris Smout let me know last Friday that there was still one pool left, just past the Kenly farm turnoff when you turn off the St Andrews road by Boarhills. It’s a fairly modest pool – no more than wheel tracks filled in with water at a field edge. But that’s enough. There are four dull looking male mallards there looking for the quiet life as they moult, and this morning a green sandpiper. They don’t need much, any quiet inland pool will do. As sandpipers migrate they must see even these tiny pools as conspicuous flashes of silver far below them. The green sandpiper was feeding in the wet wheel ruts and took off as I approached for a closer look. They look like a bit like bats with jerky wing beats and wings held half closed when they fly. It circled round for a bit and came back to the pool as I left to continue its refuelling before resuming its journey south.

Green sandpiper

Green sandpiper

Posted August 18, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 17th   Leave a comment

There is no denying that it felt like autumn this morning with the cool temperatures and the westerly gale. A characteristic of this summer has been the lack of wind, making it feel much more summery. It feels back to “normal” now, although with the climate changes predicted over the next few years what normal is, is hard to say. I found another two of my colour-ringed redshanks back this morning, making 12 back out of the 22 that were still alive in February this year. I don’t give up hope until the middle of October – some come back early straight from wherever they breed (Orkney? The Hebrides?), whereas other take a more leisurely return and stopover at Montrose (I get regular sightings of the Crail birds from there in August and September).

A redshank born this summer and spending its first winter (and probably all subsequent ones) with us at Crail

A redshank born this summer and spending its first winter (and probably all subsequent ones) with us at Crail

Posted August 17, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 16th   Leave a comment

It was much windier down at Fife Ness today. Proper breakers and seabirds screaming past. Gannets are so much more agile and capable when the wind gets up: seabirds only really make sense on a windy day. No chance of seeing whales but I think my luck there has been spent for a few years. Hundreds of gannets and kittiwakes passed Fife Ness during the hour and a half that I spent there this morning, but only a handful of manx shearwaters and one great skua, indicative that anything very interesting was passing well out to sea, blown out by the strong westerlies. There were a lot of sandwich terns passing close by however, coming round the Ness and heading north. At one point a flock of 8 tree sparrows flew over my head out to sea before losing their nerve and heading back. Every year they seem to try to disperse, but every year they reach the edge of Fife, accumulating at the Ness for a few weeks before they give up and head back inland.

Sandwich terns passing Fife Ness

Sandwich terns passing Fife Ness

Posted August 16, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 14th   Leave a comment

One of the tiny spiders that were everywhere this morning

One of the tiny spiders that were everywhere this morning

I had the day off today for my birthday – with the weather settling down at last and switching back to summer. I checked out the terns again at Kingsbarns this morning. About half the numbers of the weekend and no roseates, but still plenty of arctic and commons with a handful of sandwich terns. Two greenshank flew up from the beach – my first for this year and always a welcome sight. There were tiny spiders everywhere – parachuting on silken threads – and landing on every surface in sight (including my neck which is very distracting when trying to scrutinise terns through a telescope). The swallows and swifts were enjoying them though, even nearly landing on the leaves of the trees as they scooped them up. When I got back to Crail they were everywhere too, so there must be a simultaneous release of young spiders today just like the flying ants of last week.

I spent mid-afternoon seawatching at Fife Ness. The sea was flat calm and the earlier rain showers kept it cool so there was barely any heat haze. Just perfect conditions for seeing seabirds a long way out, although perhaps not windy enough to get them moving. It’s a trade-off and I can’t really complain because no waves and no wind are perfect for seeing cetaceans and today I hit the jackpot. Within a minute I picked up a minke whale. I got lucky and it surfaced in the patch of sea I was just scanning with my telescope. I tracked it for a couple of breaths – no visible spout, a long rolling back and then a large (larger than usual it seemed) back swept dorsal fin appearing before it disappeared completely under the water. I saw it, or another, two more times in the following hour. I suspect one was feeding in front of me all the time and those three occasions were just when where I was looking and the whale surfacing coincided. It’s always a bit mixed watching a whale – tremendously exciting to see this massive wild animal – but also a bit technical and frustrating – you only see the tip of the iceberg and then only for a fleeting second or two. But any whale, and on my birthday, is not bad. The birds were okay too. A couple more greenshank, a great skua, a whimbrel and 100 or so manx shearwaters.

Greenshank at Fife Ness

Greenshank at Fife Ness

Posted August 14, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 10th   Leave a comment

There were some roseate terns among the hundreds of arctic terns at Kingsbarns this weekend. The terns are all roosting on the beach when not disturbed by dog walkers and can be seen best early in the morning before the beach gets too busy. The rest of the time the terns are out on the rocks and it’s tricky to tell the different species apart – even with a telescope. This morning I saw at least two roseates, including a distinctive juvenile. Although it was difficult seeing them I could hear them calling much more easily – a clear “kee – wick” – obviously a tern but quite different from the squeaky calls of the arctics or longer drawn out complaining calls of the common terns. Roseate terns are rare breeders in the UK and are more usually found on tropical islands. There is a small colony that breeds by the Forth Road Bridge in some summers and larger colonies in Northumberland, Wales and Ireland. They come up to hang around the Forth in late summer after breeding as do all the other species. This morning it was a treat to see four species: roseate, common, arctic and sandwich all side by side. I expect them to all be here for most of August so they are worth looking out for, close to the car park at Kingsbarns Beach, over the next few weeks.

Adult roseate tern

Adult roseate tern

Canary-shouldered thorn moth

Canary-shouldered thorn moth

As I walked back into the village from Kingsbarns Beach, just as the rain set in, I was lucky to see what I thought was a sparrowhawk perched on a post alongside the cow field. A closer look revealed it to be a cuckoo – a young bird on its way to Africa for the first time. The adults left in July and many will be already back in central Africa. Cuckoos really underline the fact that most migrants find their way to Africa totally on their own, without any guidance or any parents to follow. The cuckoo was flying down to pick up caterpillars from the grass and refuelling for the next leg of its journey.

August is great for month for moth trapping and I have been getting quite a range in my garden this year. This morning’s highlight was a canary-shouldered thorn.

Posted August 10, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 8th   Leave a comment

The sky over Crail was full of flying ants this evening. The ants synchronise the release of the winged males and females to form new colonies on dry summer evenings. The black-headed gulls were quick to spot the opportunity and they were everywhere too, sailing around slowly and flycatching like huge swallows. They are surprisingly good at it. The ants aren’t very flight capable and just hope that the risk is sufficiently diluted by the thousands (or even tens of thousand) that are on the wing simultaneously: even sparrows and robins will have a go, and succeed, in catching lots. But only a couple for each ant colony need to survive. The rest is a summer feast.

Posted August 10, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 6th   Leave a comment

Jim Cobb examines the second storm petrel caught during the evening - it was then ringed and let go to literally span the globe despite its tiny size

Jim Cobb examines the second storm petrel caught during the evening – it was then ringed and let go to literally span the globe despite its tiny size

Yesterday I took part in a very surreal bit of wildlife watching. I spent half the night snoozing in the drizzle by a net out at Fife Ness, deafened by playback of repetitive rattling and wailing like an experimental music festival – all in the hope of tracking down a storm petrel.

Storm petrels are enigmatic seabirds that although are not that uncommon around Scotland, are very marine and only come to shore to breed on remote islands at night. And not when it’s a bit dark – when it’s completely dark. Plus they are more or less black and no bigger than a starling so practically impossible to see. Every year they come into the Forth in the summer and hang around the coast but they are invisible – too small and far out to see during the day and of course at night when they might come a bit closer it’s dark. So the only reliable way of seeing them is to try to attract them in by playing noises of a breeding colony and then trap them in a mist-net. Jim Cobb and the other ringers who habitually catch out at Fife Ness have been doing this for years during July and August and I have been meaning to see how they do it since I moved to Crail.

I wasn’t disappointed. For a start the whole experience was so out of the ordinary. Falling asleep in the fading summer light to the eerie calls of the storm petrels, while watching the fishing boat lights and the flash of the May Island lighthouse is not my usual evening. And then waking up suddenly to an almost completely dark shore with a vague shape of one of the ringers taking a storm petrel out of the net – and seeing such a special and unusual bird close up – made it even truly memorable. The thing that really struck me when I looked at the first storm petrel, caught just before midnight, was just how tiny it was. One of the world’s most extreme seabirds and it barely looks capable of looking after itself in a breeze. The bird was ringed – number 2680009 – so we should be able to tell where it has come from. Perhaps Shetland – birds that breed there have been found moving as far away as Newcastle within just 2 or 3 days suggesting that they forage over a very, very large area despite their size. And perhaps it came from even further afield – there have been recoveries of British ringed birds from South Africa, for example. Ringing is really the only way we can find out anything about these tiny birds’ movements and every recapture is valuable and hard won (the ringers can’t have a snooze like me because they need to keep checking the nets!).

We caught a second bird after midnight. This one unringed. Perhaps a young bird looking for a colony to join for breeding and finding only our nets. There may be some breeding storm petrels in the Forth – it would be very hard to find just a couple of pairs nesting on one of the tiny islands. I called it a night after the second bird and made my way back across the pitch black golf course to Crail. I surprised a badger – a fine end to the evening. It shambled off towards Balcomie in disgust at finding someone about at that time of night.

A storm petrel photographed during another Fife Ness capture session in August 2007 when John was present to take some better photos

A storm petrel photographed during another Fife Ness capture session in August 2007 when John was present to take some better photos

Posted August 8, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 5th   Leave a comment

I was out a dawn this morning to give some guidance to a student who will spend the rest of the month tramping the golf courses of Fife to see how good they are for birds and whether some are better than others. There are a lot of golf courses in Fife and they cover a large area. Some have some interest for birds because they retain bits of natural habitat in a sea of farmland or housing estates. This morning on the golf courses out at Balcomie – against the backdrop of a perfect summer’s morning with the sun rising over a perfectly flat sea – it was lots of yellowhammers, linnets, starlings, woodpigeons and pied wagtails, and a few oystercatcher, curlews, black-headed gulls and willow warblers. Probably about 25 species in total actually using the course. The best birds for me were 2 or 3 tree pipits calling from the edge by Kilminning. Tree pipits are an early migrant species and pass through Fife pretty much in August, usually just letting me know only by their distinctive buzzing “tseep” flight call as they dash over high above. They are another species that I know better from Africa (although they are common on the West coast of Scotland as breeders) and some birds will be back there to spend the winter even in the next couple of weeks.

Tree pipit

Tree pipit

Posted August 5, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 3rd   Leave a comment

At least when August gets here there is no pretence that the summer is still to come. Autumn is only a few weeks ahead and breeding is over for almost everything. The residents are taking it easy with a few species taking their annual “holidays”. The jackdaws and many of the rooks have decamped to the beaches like the starlings did a month ago. House sparrows have moved out to the ripening wheat fields. When I was growing up and house sparrows were much more common the August flocks involved hundreds of birds. Now I am lucky if I find a flock of fifty and most are smaller than twenty. Those fields that have already been harvested and also the drying out rape fields are then a magnet for swallows and martins. The insects left in the stubble fields are easier to catch and rape fields are really good for insects even before harvest.

I walked from Kingsbarns back to Crail this morning. I counted over 500 arctic terns on the rocks in four large flocks. They were mostly juveniles which really reinforces that they have definitely had a good breeding year. Out at sea there were the same number of adults fishing close in and further out to the horizon to blend in with the gannets and kittiwakes (and a single distant great skua), with some coming back every so often  with a fish for their offspring. There were a handful of common and sandwich terns but this year is the year of arctic terns.

Arctic tern juvenile being fed by an adult - part of the large post-breeding flocks on the rocks between Fife Ness and Kingsbarns just now

Arctic tern juvenile being fed by an adult – part of the large post-breeding flocks on the rocks between Fife Ness and Kingsbarns just now

The migrants are coming back now. There were 10 turnstones on the rocks with the terns by Kingsbarn’s beach car park. Further down the beach a whistling whimbrel, a common sandpiper and a couple of knots, still with their pinky red breeding underparts. Yesterday I recorded another four of my colour-ringed redshanks back in Crail making 10 back so far for the winter. The first juveniles are back too at least four, standing out with their neatly spotted backs. As the adults laze about and seem to spend most of the time roosting in the sun, the juveniles keep feeding. Their priority is to learn how and where to survive the winter and how to fit in with their new neighbours, whereas the adults’ priority is just to save energy and wear and tear – they already know their place and their trade.

Post-breeding knot on its way back to Africa

Post-breeding knot on its way back to Africa

Posted August 3, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings