Archive for September 2014

September 28th   Leave a comment

It was a reprise of summer with a lovely warm day and only very light westerly winds. At Kingsbarn’s beach this morning there was a wheatear and three black-tailed godwits as passing fare. The latter are really handsome waders, black and white in flight like oystercatchers but with such long legs that they look like they have tail extensions. There are lots on the Eden estuary by St Andrews every winter but few make it down to our beaches. There were a few sandwich terns fishing in the surf; one being chased for minutes by a succession of gulls after it caught only a modest sandeel.

Black-tailed godwit

Black-tailed godwit

This evening there were house martins enjoying the fine weather over Crail. They are still with us and have the skies to themselves for a brief period before they too depart. The swallows are now few and far between. I saw five or six today and all looked like they were in a hurry south.

Posted September 28, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 27th   Leave a comment

One of the pleasures of watching the same place all the time is the appreciation of rarity as a relative thing. Little grebes are not unusual birds and every medium sized pond or lake in Britain, or Europe or indeed Africa has one. But we don’t have even a small pond in Crail and so a little grebe is a rare thing. I have only seen a couple in Crail in 11 years. Today there was one fishing off harbour beach, chasing small fish around the submerging rocks and occasionally braving the waves further offshore. They are well named, even tinier looking when set against the sea. They are incredibly waterproof and buoyant so I don’t think it was bothered in the slightest by being a seabird for the afternoon. The other times I have seen them on the sea at Crail have been during cold spells when inland ponds will have frozen. This one was probably a juvenile stopping briefly on a journey to find its own new pond.

An unsinkable little grebe

An unsinkable little grebe

After a couple of years of almost no grey wagtails in Crail, this autumn has brought several. There may be as many as 10 around the town just now, along the Denburn and the Brandyburn, and particularly obvious in the evening when they fly over to roost somewhere at the back of Crail. They are incredibly elegant birds – more yellow than grey – with very long tails which they wag constantly. In flight they bound up and down with each up of a wing beat followed by a down as they close their wings briefly, giving a loud double “zip zip” as they go.

Grey wagtail - back in Crail

Grey wagtail – back in Crail

Posted September 27, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 23rd   Leave a comment

There have been more flocks of pink-footed geese and barnacle geese going over today. Winter is feeling much closer. I did a bit of sea-watching this evening: it’s now getting dark so early that I can barely squeeze in any time after getting home from work. Seabirds tend to go to bed early and there is not much point watching if it’s less than hour until dusk. I watched the late fledging gannets lumbering over the sea, flocks of guillemots leaving the Forth and a single manx shearwater and thought about how every autumn is quite different in terms of seabirds. This year it’s the absence of sooty shearwaters that stands out – this is my first year ever without one. And the abundance of little gulls that were so characteristic of this time of year five or more years ago are now a thing of the past. I haven’t seen a little gull this autumn, again something very unusual even if their numbers have been going down steadily these last few years.

Always plenty of gannets to enjoy in September even if other species are more elusive

Always plenty of gannets to enjoy in September even if other species are more elusive

Posted September 23, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 22nd   1 comment

I took an hour off at mid-day to go to see the wryneck at Boarhills. After the success of the weekend perhaps it was inevitable that my luck would change. It was a nice spot by Buddo Rock and a warm, sunny day for a trip out from the office but no wryneck. I had missed it by only 30 minutes. As I searched the rocks fruitlessly my first flock of barnacle geese for the winter flew over low heading south. Nearly as nice as a wryneck sighting.

The first barnacle geese of the winter

The first barnacle geese of the winter

Posted September 22, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 21st   Leave a comment

The red-breasted flycatcher was still at Kilminning and a wryneck was found at Boarhills. I hope to catch up with this tomorrow and post John’s excellent photos then. I think it would be bad luck to post them tonight… The weather will be good for migrants departing overnight with the lovely clear day today. There were lots of young swallows over Crail enjoying the return of the warm weather. Out at sea the steady return of the red-throated divers coming into the Forth for the winter continued.

Red-throated diver passing Crail

Red-throated diver passing Crail

Posted September 21, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 20th   Leave a comment

robin1All yesterday I had a great sense of frustration as I worked in my office and looked at the weather and thought about east winds and good birds to be found. A report came in mid-morning of a red-breasted flycatcher and some yellow-browed warblers from Kilminning. I couldn’t drop what I needed to do so I cheered myself with the thought that even with the improving weather, and migrants would probably stay around a few days. Autumn migration is a much more leisurely affair than spring migration and the displaced birds that end up in our corner of Fife this time of year usually take at least few days to refuel before moving on. Then I thought about red-breasted flycatchers being fairly difficult to detect and that most of the migrants this week probably came in on Tuesday or Wednesday. It has just been so murky since that they probably hadn’t been picked up until Friday when it actually got fully light during the day. That brought on more gloomy thoughts of everything setting off again overnight and Saturday being just too late. I glanced out of the window every now and then thinking of the world outside and me being inside and on one occasion saw a pied flycatcher in the sycamore tree a few meters from my window. A great migrant bird to see, indicative of the great conditions I was probably missing and for once coming to me rather than me having to search it out. I called my PhD student Sam over to see it. Sam is Nigerian and has seen hundreds of pied flycatchers during the course of his PhD fieldwork where he is recording, amongst other migrants, the distribution and the habitat use of pied flycatchers in Africa. But he has never seen one in Europe. Although he spends the summer here as the flycatchers themselves do, he has been too busy writing up to go and find one. The pied flycatcher we were watching will be back in West Africa before Sam.

I had a quick look around Denburn on my return home in the hour before dark. The murk had returned so making it unlikely that any migrant would leave overnight but making it impossible to see anything in the wood. Still I felt I had to try.

Saturday morning arrived at last and I headed off to Kilminning. I met a couple of other birders there and after about 30 minutes I relocated the red-breasted flycatcher. It was a tricky bird, keeping to the centre of the bushes and under the canopy of the trees. In two hours I had about a minute and a half looking at it. Some really nice views but never long enough to attract the other birders over to have a good look. There are two strategies for finding a bird like a red-breasted flycatcher. If you know where it is – and they tend to follow a circuit of a hundred meters or less through a patch of stunted woodland or tall bushes – then the best thing to do is to sit down in the middle of an open area under the canopy and wait. Sooner or later the flycatcher will come past and perch in front of you. It will feed there for a half a minute or so before moving out of sight. It takes nerve though to sit still and trust that it will come past. The temptation is to dash about looking into every bush until you find it. But if you look into the bush during the 90% of the time the flycatcher is perched and motionless they are almost undetectable. So the odds of you seeing it using this second strategy are very low. Despite this, and because the first strategy is totally useless if you are not on the flycatchers circuit, most birders use the second strategy. The more experienced birders keep their nerve however and watch individual bushes for ten minutes at a time before moving on. It’s hare and tortoise and the tortoise always wins this race. I’m trying very hard to learn to be a tortoise when my nature is very much hare, ready to dash to the next bush and the next bird. Today I had the luxury of a whole day to bird in with my family otherwise occupied, so I could really practice the tortoise strategy, and it paid off.

The red-breasted flycatcher at Kilminning today

The red-breasted flycatcher at Kilminning today

As I searched for the flycatcher I heard perhaps up to 3 yellow-browed warblers calling. Later I probably heard another one at Balcomie. I didn’t see one all day though. More detectability issues – they were all keeping up in the tops of dense sycamores and if they hadn’t called I would never have known they were there. The red-breasted flycatcher was helpfully calling a bit as well and I found it a couple of time because of this. The yellow-browed warblers stopped calling by about 9 am. I am sure they hadn’t left, they just became undetectable. It really brings home to me what we overlook. Famous rarity hot spots like Fair Isle and the May closer to home are well placed to get migrants it is true, but much of their “rarity appeal” is due to there being only a few bushes for the migrants to hide in and a load of people checking them every ten minutes. Detectability is almost everything in birding. I would love to have a real map of every migrant bird that was around Crail today: I would expect that there were probably another ten red-breasted flycatcher equivalents that were not detected. And of course every birder (including me) headed for the rarity that was detected, so reducing the chance of finding these others elsewhere.

Mindful of this I headed off to Balcomie and Fife Ness. I found a pied flycatcher, a spotted flycatcher, a garden warbler, a fieldfare, a couple of lesser whitethroats, and lots of blackcaps, chiff-chaffs and willow warblers. A good haul of September “lesser” migrants. I enjoyed the flocks of skylarks coming in from the sea, the robins everywhere that have also come in and a single bonxie far out at sea. The weather improved all day until it felt like summer had returned. A lovely autumn day full of optimistic and fruitful bird watching.

Posted September 21, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 17th   Leave a comment

Migrant willow warbler

Migrant willow warbler

I have been out at dawn both today and yesterday looking for migrants as we continue with light easterly winds and the occasional rain shower to bring them down. There have been yellow-browed warblers reported now from both Kilminning and Balcomie and a barred warbler down at Kilminning. The trees are still covered with leaves and so it is difficult to track these birds down and both days I have been unlucky. I’m not sure anyone has actually seen a yellow-browed warbler yet, instead they have heard their distinctive call coming from the tops of the dense sycamores. Yellow-browed warbler calls are now hard-wired into my nervous system after more than a decade of autumns in Crail so I certainly haven’t overlooked a calling bird. Sometimes they call and make it easy but mostly they don’t. And when you only have an hour before work to find one in the haar it’s even trickier. Tomorrow maybe. This morning my consolation was a couple of pied flycatchers at Kilminning, a chiff-chaff or two, and a lot of willow warblers. Yesterday it was a lone snipe, atypically resting in the open in the middle of a harrowed field, probably exhausted after a night crossing the North sea.

Posted September 17, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending September 14th   Leave a comment

A week ago, on Sunday evening we had the first pink-footed geese of the winter passing over Crail. A V of 100 or so went over my garden mid-afternoon heading into Fife or the Lothians along the Forth. We always get the first wave of geese coming in about the 6-7th of September – certainly in the first week of September if there have been at least a couple of days of northerly winds to help the first birds down, probably from Spitsbergen. Later at the end of September we get the bulk of them then coming down from Iceland. There’s something so special about hearing the first geese coming back every year.

Pink-footed geese - welcome back

Pink-footed geese – welcome back

The haar has been in and out all week. We have had high pressure with a steady but light east wind for a lot of it. Bits and bobs have been turning up migrant wise. The first redwings at Kilminning on Thursday and a barred warbler caught at Fife Ness Muir on Saturday. I was busy and couldn’t go down to look for the barred warbler. I was relieved actually. They are such hard work being so skulking that you can know exactly which bush it is in and still not see it. Better to bump in one by accident later this season – a large greyish warbler dashing into a bush – than to spend an afternoon waiting for a glimpse of a bird that may already be on its way again.

Tawny owl

Tawny owl

I spent the weekend at Cambo at the annual Crail, Cellardyke & Pittenweem Scout camp. It’s always a bit hectic but there are advantages of camping out for hearing nocturnal birds. I was woken up on Friday night by tawny owls hooting at about midnight, and then their “kewick” calling close to dawn. The hooting is the territorial song of the male and the “kewick” is a contact call, allowing pairs or family members to stay together as they move through dark woodland. We have a tawny owl pair in Crail between beech walk park and market gate but Cambo probably has several pairs with its larger expanse of woodland. Tawny owls are one of the most successful owl species in Europe because they eat more or less anything that moves from insects and worms up to largish mammals and birds. They have been known to catch birds and bats in flight as well as practically swim for frogs. Anywhere that has some large trees will have tawny owls. You find tawny owls even in the middle of large cities. They hunt from chimney pots and lamp posts just as happily as from tree branches – dark owl shaped lumps that you might imagine are owls in a dark street often are. Tawny owls are so successful that their main cause of death is bizarrely starvation. They are intensely territorial and almost all suitable territories are already filled up. Juveniles each year head off in August and September to look for a vacant territory. If they get lucky they find one without a resident, but most do not and get chased out to starve to death. Competition for limited space is the main source of mortality in tawny owls.

Another nocturnal noise at Cambo was the deep honk of Canada geese that are now a late summer fixture of the coast between Boarhills to Kingsbarns. There was a bright near full moon over the weekend so the geese were probably still feeding even at night. I saw a flock of about 20 flying over at dusk. They used to be a difficult bird to see around Crail.

There are still a lot of tree sparrows about and actually in Crail. I saw a flock of 25 mixed with house sparrows at the shore end of Pinkerton, above the cliffs of Roome Bay at the beginning of the week and flocks are regular over the centre of Crail. There were even some out on the May Island a couple of weeks ago. Look out also for migrant northern wheatears on the shore this week – they are perky upright birds like robins but with a distinctive big white rump that flashes as they fly away down the beach.

Migrant juvenile northern wheatear - often on the beach at this time of year

Migrant juvenile northern wheatear – often on the beach at this time of year

Posted September 14, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 7th   Leave a comment

It was another quiet morning out at Balcomie and Fife Ness today. There were a few dunlins around Balcomie beach. They were flickering round nervously in a small flock from high tide rock to high tide rock. Much less an easy target for a peregrine than the single knot on the beach at high tide earlier in the week. I checked them out carefully for curlew sandpipers – which have obvious square white rumps rather than a thick black bar through the middle – because there is a major passage of them at the moment through the UK. There have been 6 up at the Eden Estuary, for example, this weekend.

Flock of dunlins at Balcomie

Flock of dunlins at Balcomie

Everything at sea from Fife Ness was miles out apart from the sandwich terns. Every few minutes a flock of 5 – 10 birds would pass out of the Forth noisily. I really don’t understand the movements of sandwich terns – some days they are all heading into the Forth and others they are all leaving it. One theory is that sandwich terns move around the coast (or even the North sea from the Netherlands to Germany to Northumberland) to see which colonies have fared well and so to inform their choice of breeding colony the following year. What bothers me about this apparently sensible idea is that – if everyone is moving around and looking to see whether there are lots of young birds in some areas than others then who is staying at home to provide the reliable information? My theory is that the adults are showing their juveniles round. The young birds of the year are still following their parents but are not being fed fish very much if at all. But perhaps they are being fed information that will allow the young to find good feeding areas the following year and the location of the breeding colonies.

Juvenile sandwich tern - prospecting?

Juvenile sandwich tern – prospecting?

Posted September 7, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 6th   Leave a comment

The common redstart that popped up in John's garden while he was washing up yesterday

The common redstart that popped up in John’s garden while he was washing up yesterday

The light easterly winds of the last two days (why it was so murky) brought in a few migrants. There was a citrine wagtail on the May (very rare and a shame it didn’t come that extra bit further – after all what’s 10 more kilometres after a thousand), a common redstart in John’s garden on Friday (I’m very envious), a red-backed shrike at Kilminning today (which I missed by 10 minutes) and a garden warbler which at last I did see. I enjoyed the return of the sun at least even if I missed pretty much everything else.

Posted September 6, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 4th   Leave a comment

Over the last few days the first gannets of the year have started to fledge. They look so heavy and clumsy compared to the adults – even today in the easterly murk they were easy to pick out, they were the gannets labouring low over the sea. Their “baby” fat will keep them going for a while they learn to fish for themselves but it makes their initial flights really hard going.

Newly fledged gannet - handsome but heavy

Newly fledged gannet – handsome but heavy

Posted September 4, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 3rd   Leave a comment

Peregrine (record shot only)

The unfortunate knot a few minutes after the photo below was taken

Remember my highlight of last Saturday – the juvenile knot on Balcomie Beach. I was happy to see it had taken up a residency. Sadly that has come to an end. John was photographing it again on the 1st when he saw it take off rapidly and head out to sea. The reason became clear as a peregrine then appeared and stooped at it catching it as it tried to climb away above the sea. Seeing this kind of thing is incredibly difficult even though it must happen twice a day for every jobbing peregrine we have around Crail. It all happens so quickly and by the time you have got your wits about you the peregrine is already flying off with the prey in its claws. John’s sighting was really lucky, although perhaps not from the knot’s point of view. It’s tough being a young bird and this knot was spectacularly on its own. Knot usually form very large flocks where they have safety in numbers from this type of surprise attack. Knots tend to winter much further south, many go all the way to tropical Africa to winter. There are still birds of prey there – peregrines, lanners and barbary falcons – but relative to the number of knots they are very rare. So it makes sense for a knot to go all that way to ensure a good chance of survival over the winter: life’s a trade-off and then you still die, but from a knot’s point of view better later rather than sooner.

The juvenile knot at Balcomie enjoying the easy life

The juvenile knot at Balcomie enjoying the easy life

Another bit of second hand Wild Crail was a mink at large in the town centre yesterday, running up and down the High Street near Caiplie House B&B. They have become much harder to see in recent years – I hope because the otters are forcing them to be much more careful. I still see mink droppings about on the shore but hardly ever see them now, whereas ten years ago the sight of a mink on the prowl in the middle of Crail like yesterday was not so unusual.

Mink at Balcomie (August 2006)

Mink at Balcomie (August 2006)

Posted September 3, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings