Archive for October 2014

October 26th   Leave a comment

First light – now back to 7 am – and a flock of nine whooper swans flew past Crail heading along the coast towards Anstruther. They were as low as possible, below the level of the houses as beat relentlessly into the wind.

The winds this weekend have been the strongest of the winter so far. It was very easy getting out to Fife Ness on my bike, somewhat harder coming back. When it’s this way round the trip is almost guaranteed to be business as usual. Only when I have to struggle into the wind to get out to Kilminning can I really expect to find something unusual. At least it’s the right way round. On a westerly my motivation to get out there is much less and so the wind assistance is a necessity; on the return the urge for a cup of coffee and to get out of the wind gets me back to Crail. On an easterly, nothing will stop me getting out there so fighting into the wind just seems like earning whatever birds I might find out there. And inevitably I will stay out too long so the wind assistance back to Crail can be a life saver.

Today I wasn’t hoping for much. Kilminning still has a lot of blackbirds, redwings and goldcrests but many fewer than last week. Down at the bottom I found a lesser whitethroat and a chiff-chaff among the goldcrests. As the autumn progresses the chance of a lesser whitethroat from further east increases so I looked at this one carefully. It was not very contrasty than usual and had a warmer sandy brown tinge to the wings so could well have been a “Siberian” Lesser whitethroat. As I cycled (slowly) back into Crail I enjoyed the flock of several hundred starling by Pinkerton. Flocks of starling swirling in a gale above a stubble field is iconic late autumn for me.

One of the migrant blackbirds still in temporary residence at Kilminning - at least until the berries run out

One of the migrant blackbirds still in temporary residence at Kilminning – at least until the berries run out

Posted October 26, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 25th   Leave a comment


A juvenile gannet on the lookout for fish

A fish spotted

A fish spotted

This week there has been an interesting contrast at sea. If you have been looking out there these last two weeks it will have seemed pretty similar – strong winds and rough seas. The contrast is in the wind direction. Up until the end of last week we had strong easterlies and since we have had strong westerlies. The result is a huge decrease in the number of seabirds passing Crail. One evening this week I looked out and saw only two gannets in ten minutes rather than the 200 of a week before. The same is true for kittiwakes. There has still been a steady passage of auks to and fro all week. Today at Fife Ness I had a juvenile pomarine skua going south like a rocket well out to sea, soaring sideways into the wind in loops that made it appear and disappear in big arcs on the horizon. This is “dynamic soaring” that the bigger seabirds do, looping down and up and travelling hundreds of miles in a day with barely a wing beat. Apart from this pom nothing else of great note this week. No little gulls or shearwaters (not even fulmars still!).

A fish targeted!

A fish targeted!

This afternoon I went out to Anstruther to look for a couple of Mediterranean gulls reported yesterday evening. It was very windy and I only managed to track down the usual. But it was nice watching the black-headed gulls behaving like storm petrels – kiting into the wind and trailing their feet just into the water to stabilise themselves and then picking up small prey from the surface of the sea. As I was in Anstruther I checked out all the redshanks for any of my colour-ringed birds. There is one, LLLR (Lime over Lime on the left leg and Lime over Red on the right), that moved to Cellardyke the winter after I first caught it (as an adult) in the harbour in Crail. It’s been over there for two winters now so I think it has changed its wintering territory for good. Most of the redshanks I mark in Crail stay here for the rest of their life, although birds in the first year sometimes disappear a few weeks after I catch them (I may have made them feel insecure about Crail as a safe place…). It is hard to say if a bird disappears whether it has moved or died. Anything that moves further away than Anstruther is unlikely to be resighted. I suspect at least one or two of the other adults that have apparently died have just moved elsewhere in the Forth, but by and large I think this is unusual. It is much better to stick with where you know and any adult moving will have to find space in another place that will already likely be full of other redshanks. I didn’t find LLLR but coincidentally John Anderson did, complete with photo. It was roosting on the very high tide in the churchyard at Anstruther – all the usual sites were completely covered and it is very sheltered there. Probably not the safest place with respect to cats and sparrowhawks but yesterday there will have been few options out of the wind at high tide.

The Crail redshank that has moved to live in Anstruther.

The Crail redshank that has moved to live in Anstruther.

Posted October 26, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 19th   Leave a comment

This weekend the wind has gone round to the west and today we have a howling gale blowing through Crail. The wind is surreally warm so it doesn’t feel as bad as usual. But it’s bad enough to disrupt the birding. Wrong direction and too strong to see anything except in a few sheltered spots. At Kilminning the goldcrests were congregating in the lee of the trees. The blackbirds and redwings were more exposed, drawn out to the treetops for the berries. Despite the week of easterlies Friday morning brought nothing new in; Saturday was very quiet too and today there was no sign of anything apart from what was brought in in the middle of last week. I watched a chiff-chaff among a group of goldcrests, looking at it long and hard trying to make it something more exotic. It’s a chiff-chaff’s lot I’m afraid. Always looked at in hope for something more exciting but then never appreciated when identified. This one was a very brown and grey individual so may well have come from the east. Not much of a consolation for my anticipation of this weekend being the “big” one of the autumn.

Sparrowhawk - also enjoying the influx of blackbirds

Sparrowhawk – also enjoying the influx of blackbirds

Denburn is getting easier to see things in as the wind strips the leave away. There were some long-tailed tits in with the more usual tits and goldcrests this morning. As well as the return of long-tailed tits there was also a grey squirrel or two about. With the wind making it very hard to hear and see things the sparrowhawks were making merry. It must be a nightmare for small birds when it gets very windy because their usual early warning system of alarm calls doesn’t function and there are so many things moving to hide an approaching predator. The blackbirds are taking most of the sparrowhawk’s attention – I am seeing a couple of attacks every time out. Blackbirds are so abundant just now, are a nice size and are often out in the open making them the best prey for sparrowhawks. There is a probably a glut for sparrowhawks when the thrushes come in every year. The blue tits can probably breathe a sigh of relief for this short period when the sparrowhawks’ attention is elsewhere. Even on such a windy day.

One thing I have noticed this week as I toured the parish looking for rarities is the unusually large numbers of magpies this year. Whoever or whatever has been keeping the magpies in check has relaxed this summer and it looks like that several pairs have bred successfully at Crail, the airfield, Kilminning, Balcomie and Fife Ness. There are at least 4 and maybe 5 separate small flocks to be seen, I assume the adults with their young of this year.

Magpie - much commoner around Crail this autumn

Magpie – much commoner around Crail this autumn


Posted October 19, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 16th   Leave a comment

Lots of goldcrests coming in at the moment - lots of these coming through Crail gardens as well

Lots of goldcrests coming in at the moment – lots of these coming through Crail gardens as well

Despite rain showers overnight and the continuing easterlies, this morning just brought more blackbirds, redwings and goldcrests – possibly one or two chiff-chaffs that weren’t there yesterday. Not the more exotic things I have been hoping for. It was still exciting being out first thing with every bush shedding blackbirds and a flock of several hundred golden plover circling around the airfield and Kilminning, undecided where to land. Maybe tomorrow will be the big day.

Posted October 16, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 15th   Leave a comment

There were a lot of thrushes in at Kilminning this morning. Clouds of redwings lifting out of the bushes and heading inland after a night over the North Sea and blackbirds dashing everywhere. Most of them were sooty young males on their first migration from Scandinavia and also on their way deeper into Scotland or England for the winter. A woodcock flushed from the bushes just in front of me as I watched the thrushes. Another overnight arrival. It shook itself and shuffled back into cover looking embarrassed. If there is ever a competition for the top comedy British bird then a woodcock is going to be a strong contender, although maybe a puffin might clinch top spot. A woodcock and lots of thrushes is a great sign of more good birds to come as the easterlies continue. There is still a yellow-browed warbler down at Kilminning to make any eastern vagrants feel at home. Rain showers are forecast for tomorrow evening so Friday may be a very good day.

A young male blackbird refuelling after crossing the North Sea

A young male blackbird refuelling after crossing the North Sea

The seabird show continued today. A juvenile long-tailed skua shearwatering  past, a couple of great skuas making heavier going of it, some little gulls and a continuous stream of kittiwakes going east past Crail in the 30 or so minutes I watched today. The number of kittiwakes (and auks and gannets) passing is huge. In a typical minute I counted 72 kittiwakes going by, and this was going on all day…

Posted October 15, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 13th   Leave a comment

I got very excited when I looked at the forecast last night. Strong easterly and north-easterly winds all week with frequent rain showers. Something good or two should turn up by the end of the week. The sea has livened up immediately with 6 pomarine skuas, a possible long-tailed skua, a great skua, a handful of little gulls and at long last, a sooty shearwater past Crail in the 30 minutes or so I watched today. Everything was heading out of the Forth into the strong north-easterly, slowing their progress so I could watch them at a more leisurely pace than last week. Trouble was that there was no incentive for them to be close in so it was swings and roundabouts – more time, but at a greater distance. Sooty shearwaters have been very scarce this year and I had given up hope: I usually see tens by the end of August but this was the first of the year for me.

Sooty shearwater - a Crail autumn speciality but not so this year

Sooty shearwater – a Crail autumn speciality but not so this year

Posted October 13, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 12th   Leave a comment

Another nearly flat calm day and beautiful conditions out at Balcomie Beach for just sitting and appreciating the stream of pink-footed geese flocks coming down from the north along the coast. Out at sea everything was far out: two tantalising skuas, probably pomarine, and a scattering of little gulls flashing their black and white wings amongst the larger gulls. On Balcomie Beach itself there was a tidy roost of ringed plover, dunlin and a single sanderling, looking almost snow white compared to its brown neighbours.

Dunlin on Balcomie Beach

Dunlin on Balcomie Beach

Posted October 12, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 11th   Leave a comment

Yellow-browed warbler at Kilminning today

Yellow-browed warbler at Kilminning today

The barred warbler continues its residence at Kilminning. It was showing erratically today. If you got lucky it was out in the open eating elder berries. If you didn’t there was no trace at all. There were many fewer birds than mid-week suggesting that we still have the tail-end of the storm rather than anything new. I heard and saw three yellow-browed warblers at Kilminning and only a couple of blackcaps. The best birds of the morning, for me at least – hoping to break my Crail year list record – were a flock of long-tailed tits. My first for the year – only bullfinch remains as a really common bird that I haven’t seen this year. Like long-tailed tits, bullfinches are erratic in Crail reflecting our near island geography. Flocks of long-tiled tits disperse at this time of year. They don’t like flying out in the open and leapfrog from spinney to hedge to get themselves to somewhere like Crail or Kilminning.

This afternoon was in stark contrast to mid-week with no wind and a flat calm. The storm is still with us though. Balcomie Beach has had large chunks of sand removed at the high tide line and there are meter high piles of seaweed all along it. I had to resort to the golf course and brave golf ball fire when I tried to walk along it at high tide. There were still some little gulls out to sea, a couple of sandwich terns and I found a wheatear at Fife Ness. The summer migrants that are still here are like a bonus now: my last swallow was on Wednesday and I miss them already. Amongst the redshank roost on the rocks at Fife Ness there was a single early purple sandpiper: a proper winter bird.

The (think it's only one so far) early purple sandpiper at Fife Ness

The (think it’s only one so far) early purple sandpiper at Fife Ness

Another vestige of the summer is the large number of red admiral butterflies still about. They are just as much migrants as the swallows, arriving each year in the spring and spreading northwards through the summer breeding as they go. Some will be heading south to the continent now which just doesn’t bear thinking about as an epic journey for something so apparently frail.

A red admiral butterfly at Fife Ness just about to launch itself out to sea on its southward migration

A red admiral butterfly at Fife Ness just about to launch itself out to sea on its southward migration

Posted October 11, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 10th   Leave a comment

The sun is rising at a very convenient half past seven at the moment. But this morning the sunrise was hidden behind thin cloud at the horizon so the grey sea and sky was split by a band of pink. As I admired this, listening to the robins singing I heard another call. A deep mournful trumpeting. Whooper swans. A flock of ten were flying along the shore at house height, arriving at the Forth probably after an overnight flight from Iceland. The pure white of the swans caught the pink of the sky behind. A beautiful start to a day. There were flocks of pink-footed geese coming over and heading west all the rest of the day, more from Iceland. The pink-feet and the whoopers must feel such a great sense of coming home for the winter when they turn the corner at Fife Ness and head into the Forth at last.

Whooper swans

Whooper swans

Posted October 10, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 8th   Leave a comment

After the storm cleared yesterday afternoon there were a few reports from Kilminning of things blown in: a barred warbler, a ring ouzel, redwings, bramblings and a few yellow-browed warblers. There was even a pair of ravens on the airfield. I would have been gutted if it hadn’t been for seeing one there earlier in the year and so adding it to my Crail list. I should think the storm and the ravens were a coincidence. I’m hopeful that these ravens represent them finally moving back into this bit of Fife. They should be a common species all along the East coast of Scotland and if left alone they should thrive around Crail.

The mighty and angry barred warbler

The mighty and angry barred warbler

I went out to Kilminning just after sunrise this morning to try and track down the barred warbler. I feel very unlucky when it comes to barred warblers – I almost always never manage to connect with them – so I wasn’t very hopeful. I was expecting yellow-browed warblers and I wasn’t disappointed. One was whistling away at the top of Kilminning as I arrived and through the morning I saw or heard 4 or 5 different individuals. The storm has removed many of the leaves so they were visible for the first time this year. I had some lovely views of these irrepressibly cheerful little birds. I was watching one scurrying around in an elder bush when I noticed a warbler behind it. My first thought was – yellow-brows really are tiny, it’s about half the size of that garden warbler – when the penny dropped. A barred warbler – looking suitable huge and chunky in comparison. And so began a series of great views for about an hour finally dispelling my feeling of never really getting to see a barred warbler properly, if at all. The barred warbler was moving around the tops of the elder bushes, sea buckthorns and even the sycamores and popping out in clear view every few minutes. It’s true they are fairly grey and non-descript but on close view there is a lot going on subtly – barring under the tail, faint wing bars and an angry shaggy look to them. It may have looked angry just because of the robins. It was being chased constantly. The storm must have brought in even more of them because every bush seems to have a couple of scrapping robins – chasing each other and anything else roughly their size. As well as robins everywhere, so there were song thrushes. They seem to get along with each other though, exploding out of every bush in small flocks as I walked past. Some final storm birds of note today were bramblings giving out their grumpy wheezing call from every other sycamore along the road down to Kilminning.

Posted October 8, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 6th   Leave a comment

I woke up before dawn this morning to hear the gale roaring in from the south. It was impossible to look out to sea first thing into the wind and see any detail. By late afternoon the wind had calmed down enough so it was pleasant, if a bit cold, looking out from Crail, with perfect viewing conditions over the huge waves. There was a continuous stream of seabirds passing, with many pushed in close by the southerly wind. Within 10 minutes I had seen three pomarine skuas and three arctic skuas, within the 100 minutes I watched before it got too dark I saw 8 pomarine skuas, 6 arctic skuas and best of all, at least three long-tailed skuas, including two adults. There were another five skuas seen less well that were probably a couple of long-tails and three more poms. To put this in perspective this well exceeds all the pomarine and long-tailed skuas I have seen from Crail in the last 11 years. After my complaints last week of not having much experience of juvenile pomarine skuas, this evening was a masterclass in skua identification. I began to see the differences in the wing flashes, the shape of the keels and the subtleties of tail shape in terms of pieces contributing to a distinctive whole rather than just a shopping list of characters to impossibly check off one by one in the few seconds that an individual was visible before a wave blocked my view again.

Pomarine skua

Pomarine skua

There were lots of other great birds past too. Amongst the thousands of guillemots and hundreds of razorbills that passed I picked up a single black guillemot (just my 4th for Crail), flashing its big white wing panel and looking small making it stand out. In the same fashion I had a puffin – normally very rare at this time of year – a first year with a very sooty face (looking like it hadn’t bothered to wash it for a week at a distance). There was a steady stream of little gulls, especially as dusk approached. I counted 52 mostly passing out of the Forth looking appropriately tiny compared to the tens of kittiwakes that were passing every few minutes. Heading in the other direction were a few late sandwich terns and an arctic tern. Other highlights were three black-throated divers, a couple of red-throated divers, some manx shearwaters, a group of three barnacle geese and a flock of four grey heron flying in convoy low over the waves as if they were migrants off to Africa (as many continental grey herons do). It’s fairly dull for a birder to just recount the list of what they saw, but sometimes it is all about lists – the sheer number of species – and this evening was one of these. I’m still smiling about the fact that I came home from work and was able to sit comfortably in my son’s room with a cup of tea and watch the Arctic and other far flung parts come past my window.

Little gull big sea - no apologies for posting this photo again - that's how it was today

Little gull big sea – no apologies for posting this photo again – that’s how it was today

Posted October 6, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 4th   Leave a comment

Gannet diving

Gannet diving

This week has seen a change from summer to winter. Mid-week the temperature overnight went down to eight degrees, there were gales on Thursday and Friday, and this weekend we have had more rain in 24 hours than in the last three weeks. With strong westerly winds the only place that was likely to turn up anything good was the sea so I have been sea watching a lot this week. I have had arctic skuas daily, a juvenile dark pomarine skua on Tuesday and a couple of great skuas on Saturday. A few manx shearwaters and the first little gull of the autumn. Lots of kittiwakes and gannets too of course. On Friday morning in the strong winds and heavy seas the spectacle was the lines of gannets disappearing in the troughs of the waves as they raced past. On Monday and Tuesday when it was calmer there were literally hundreds of gannets spread out as far as I could see from Crail, diving into the Forth in big groups. They were too far out to see anything else but I bet there were shearwaters and dolphins underneath. The fishing boats joined the party on Tuesday, having also cottoned on to the location of the fish schools.

Skuas are always great to see but telling young pomarine and arctic skuas apart during rapid distant flybys is very tricky for me. I just haven’t seen enough juvenile pomarine skuas to be confident. Although pomarine skuas are so much heavier than arctic skuas that at first glance they appear almost like great skuas, this impression is very dependent on the wind. Light birds can have very laboured flight when going into the wind and can look heavy and vice versa, a heavy bird can look as light and relaxed with the wind behind it. Their heaviness makes them a much more significant predator for other birds. Pomarine skuas are much more aggressive and predatory than arctic skuas although I hardly ever see them doing anything when they pass Crail. They are on their way somewhere rather than hanging out and feeding up like many of the arctic skuas that we have here in the late summer and autumn. One of my best pomarine skua sightings, where it showed its true potential, was in Alaska, well north of the Arctic Circle. I was watching an American golden plover performing a display flight over the tundra (that in itself well worth seeing) when from out of nowhere something large struck it causing a big puff of feathers to fly up from the plover. It was a pomarine skua that had stooped at the plover like a peregrine falcon, hitting it, I think with its bill and nearly knocking it out of the air. The plover just regained its flight above the ground and made a series of evasive zig-zags with the skua following close behind. The skua then swooped up to gain height and the plover dashed under an overhang of boggy ground and disappeared. The skua circled above in confusion and eventually left. About five minutes later I walked over to where the plover had disappeared expecting to find a dead or injured bird. Instead I found the plover crouching down under the overhang, looking skyward and waiting for the coast to clear. It flew off strongly as I approached, leaving another puff of feathers that had presumably been loosened by the attack. Ever since then I have had great respect for pomarine skuas, I just wish my respect was matched by my ability to identify them. Every year I should think I overlook several pomarine skuas. As the autumn progresses it actually becomes more likely that any arctic/pom skua is in fact a pomarine and sometimes they do come close in to Crail, so despite the difficulties of identification, it is well worth keeping an eye out for them.

A dark phase arctic skua - the long tail rules out a pomarine skua as well as the even, unmottled black plumage

A dark phase arctic skua – the long tail rules out a pomarine skua as well as the even, unmottled black plumage


As the days get shorter and dusk and dawn moves closer to the time when we are more likely to be leaving or coming home, then kestrels suddenly seem to be more common. Kestrels are crepuscular to a degree – becoming most active at dawn and dusk when their vole prey is most active and yet still able to be seen by a hovering bird, but these periods are usually too early or late in the day for us to be up and about to see them. Kestrels are of course also active throughout the day and during the winter a short gloomy day is like an extended dawn or dusk period anyway. Any smallish bird of prey hovering over a field will be a kestrel (buzzards hover too but look huge and ungainly). Kestrel’s long tails make them fairly distinctive anyway. I think we have about 7 or more kestrels about Crail at the moment.



Posted October 4, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

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