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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