Archive for December 2014

December 28th   Leave a comment

There has been a fair bit of ploughing over the Christmas week. The buzzards- those mighty worm hunters – have been enjoying it. They are quite inconspicuous as they lollop along the ground, mud brown and hunched, but to me they stand out by the space they cause in the wheeling gulls that also follow the plough. Where the gulls aren’t there will be a buzzard. The gulls have a healthy respect for buzzards and when there is no ploughing and the ground is frozen the gulls will be back on the menu.

A buzzard following the plough today - note no gulls!

A buzzard following the plough today – note no gulls!


Although I like to keep my observations in this blog to the Crail “parish” (10km radius) I was walking by the Tay at Balmerino at lunchtime and flushed a jack snipe from a marshy pool just above the beach. I hardly ever see jack snipe even though they are common winter visitors and must occur every year around Crail. They are perfectly camouflaged, tiny and freeze when approached so are almost impossible to see. They occur in the tiniest marshy places almost anywhere so are also very dispersed. In freezing weather, however, they do come down to unfrozen pools by the sea and even the shore so you are more likely to see them on days like today. If they flush of course. I practically stepped on the bird today and even then it stayed put and I didn’t notice it: two people behind me then flushed it and I then only noticed it as it flew away past me. They look very much like common snipe in flight but a bit more dunlin like because of their relatively shorter bills and smaller size.

A jack snipe from John's collection - freezing on short turf is not the best use of its "you haven't noticed me strategy"

A jack snipe from John’s collection – freezing on short turf is not the best use of its “you haven’t noticed me strategy”

Posted December 28, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 27th   Leave a comment

I walked from Crail to the new distillery at Cambo via Wormiston and the coastal path this morning. One of Crail’s best walks especially on a frosty morning with the winter sunshine behind you. I was really pleased to see a pair of ravens again near Crail, on the fields at Randerston Farm. There have been a couple of sightings of ravens this autumn to add to my initial sighting in April this year so I am now really hopeful that the pair might be here to stay. They are very early nesters and so I will be looking for them in February to confirm them back as residents to the East Neuk. The rest of the walk was what might be expected at this time of year with highlights of 15 or so teal on the shore probably driven there by the icy weather inland, a flock of seven greylag geese doing a low flyby with their distinctive farmyard goose honks and a couple of stonechats.

A stonechat on the shore between Crail and Kingsbarns

A stonechat on the shore between Crail and Kingsbarns

Posted December 28, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 26th   Leave a comment

The colour-ringed purple sandpiper resident on the rocks below the car park at Kingsbarns Beach

The colour-ringed purple sandpiper resident on the rocks below the car park at Kingsbarns Beach

Purple sandpipers are a feature of the rocky shores of the East Neuk at Christmas. The easiest place to see them are at high tide at Kingsbarns Beach, on the rocks just to the north of the car park. Although mostly inconspicuous they can’t really hide as well among the rocks when they are all submerged. On the highest tides some “purps” even feed on the strandline of the beach showing themselves well. Then you realise they are not shy, they just occur in places where they are hard to see. People don’t feature much in their life: they occupy the rocky shore habitat that we leave pretty much alone and breed in the high Arctic where polar bears are still more common than people. John Anderson saw the colour-ringed purple sandpiper that is a winter resident below the car park at Kingsbarns again this week. As the ringers in Svalbard told him when he emailed them about it – “it will pretty much be there every winter for the rest of its life”. Like my redshanks and pretty much every wader along the Crail coast, every individual has its own winter home that it will return to every year (stick with what you know!). The Svalbard ringers caught this bird as an adult in June in 2010 and haven’t seen it again on its breeding ground, although it will be somewhere on that remote island every summer among the polar bears.

Posted December 27, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending December 21st   Leave a comment

We have passed the shortest day. It’s always a relief, the sun will be climbing higher and the days getting longer from now on. Not that there was much sun to see this Sunday with a very murky sky and half a westerly gale blowing. We seem to have been swinging from very mild days to very cold days this week: on Saturday morning just few degrees with a very cold wind, and then on Sunday up to 12 degrees with the wind feeling warm. Long, sustained cold periods during the winter seem to really be a thing of the past and I’m not putting my money on a white Christmas in Crail anytime in the future.

On Sunday morning I saw a pomarine skua passing into the Forth between Crail and the May Island. It has been an exceptionally good year for pomarine skuas with more seen this year from Crail than in total for the last 15 years. Good pomarine skua years come and go: my first was back in 1986 when I actually saw my first ever pomarine skua, on a frosty, Norfolk shingle beach – also in December. I saw my first white-tailed eagle on that day too. This was actually the bird I had gone to see back in the day before they had been reintroduced into Scotland and so were a very rare bird. The skua was a lucky bonus although I knew there were lots about it being a pom year. One of the great things about birding is it links you firmly to your past: seeing the skua today and thinking about how late in the year it was brought me back to being 20 again and the excitement of seeing new birds. The pomarine skua today was a bit technical – long range scrutiny down my telescope – even so an easy identification but only because of the intervening 28 years’ worth of pomarine skua sightings. I wouldn’t have had a chance if my first view in 1986 had been like this.

I went down to Balcomie Beach and Fife Ness later on Sunday morning. I got onto a strange bird flying well out to sea along the shore immediately. Very dark and bat shaped and apparently carrying a stick – it suddenly clicked – a woodcock. Not what you normally see skimming over the waves. They normally migrate at night. Of course this one may have been migrating all night and had just hit the Scottish coast. I was reminded of a new birder’s description of a bird they had just seen for the first time “a puffin carrying a carrot”, it took a while to work out they had actually seen an oystercatcher.

There was a juvenile grey plover on Balcomie Beach with the sanderling and ringed plover. They were all conspicuous on the beach but the other shorebirds among the rocks, the turnstone, redshank and particularly the purple sandpipers were much less obvious. Your eye gets drawn to a movement on the shore and then when you scan with a telescope you suddenly realise there are tens of turnstones perfectly camouflaged amongst the wrack and rocks. At Fife Ness I sat for about half an hour hearing the occasional swallow like “zwick” of a purple sandpiper before realising there was a flock of 30 right beside me. They suddenly took flight becoming briefly obvious before landing again and disappearing. I think the only way you can count shorebirds on a low tide is to walk back and forth and disturb them. Or wait until high tide when they have to perch on the few conspicuous rocks remaining or better still on the beach.

Purple sandpiper - practically invisible when feeding at low tide

Purple sandpiper – practically invisible when feeding at low tide

Gannets have been common this weekend. Almost like the summer. I can’t account for it. Most were heading south though. Also unusually I had a flock of four young mute swans passing along the shore. I was also pleased to see a couple goldeneyes. They are regular winter visitors to both Balcomie Beach and Roome Bay but seem to have come back a bit later this year.

Male goldeneye at Balcomie

Male goldeneye at Balcomie

There were a few road kill pheasants between Crail and St Andrews this week. The hit rate goes up when they move about, usually in the autumn when there are lots of young dispersing or in the spring when the males have other things on their mind than cars. I have no idea why there should be more kills this week, perhaps it’s just chance or an effect of when you start noticing something, then suddenly it seems everywhere. John Anderson has his house on the edge of Crail (new developments notwithstanding…) and has pheasants daily in his garden visiting his bird feeder. Perhaps the cold days this week caused similar movement in search of food.

A hen pheasant visiting John's garden this week - I am minded that birds really are little feathered dinosaurs

A hen pheasant visiting John’s garden this week – I am minded that birds really are little feathered dinosaurs

Posted December 21, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending December 14th   Leave a comment

With only a week to go before the solstice there is not a lot of the day to see anything in. I leave for work in as it is getting light and come back in the dark. Unless it’s owls of course. This time of year is about the best time to see the local barn owls. The back road to Anstruther is probably the best place to see them crossing in front of your headlights or on a fence post beside the road. I did spot a large flock of fieldfares in the bushes just outside of Crail on the St Andrews road at dawn on Thursday and they have been in the area ever since. Outside of autumn they are a cold weather bird for Crail, coming in from the continent to escape the much colder weather there.

A very handsome fieldfare - there are about 50 just outside of the north end of Crail along the St Andrews road

A very handsome fieldfare – there are about 50 just outside of the north end of Crail along the St Andrews road

This week has been the coldest of the winter with a couple of hard frosts. I walked through the town at dawn one day this week and it was spectacularly silent. Just the flight call of a song thrush and a blue tit calling briefly from Denburn. Everything was focussed on feeding and making up the shortfall of 17 hours of freezing darkness. Now is the time to put food out for garden birds.

The goose and swan spectacle has continued on and off this week up near Boarhills. Pink-footed geese are surprisingly difficult to see against a muddy potato field. Only when you stop and start counting do you realise that there are hundreds there. The whooper swans in the same area are a different matter, shining brilliant white against the dark soil. If we get snow or a heavy frost then the reverse applies. I doubt camouflage plays much role for either species in the winter so this is just of aesthetic interest to me. During the summer, swans nest on islands and are too big for avian predators so they can afford to be conspicuous. Being brown and grey coloured does probably count for the pink-feet though. I have walked past nesting geese and not noticed them until very close as they flatten themselves down on their nest in the licheny tundra.

Pinkfeets about to blend in to a potato field

Pinkfeets about to blend in to a potato field: how many can you count on the ground?

The wind got up on Sunday morning so I took myself down to Fife Ness for some token sea-watching. At this time of year my expectations are low although I was hoping for some little auks. Chris Smout had three past Anstruther earlier in the week and it has been a couple of years since I have seen some from Crail. Some winters we can have thousands past. Little auks are like baby puffins and out at sea can look just like a flock of starlings going by – they are starling size and it seems impossible that they can thrive out in the North Sea on even a moderately stormy day. But they are waterproof and unsinkable. It’s the land that catches them out – I have picked them up from roads and gardens on particularly rainy or foggy nights when they end up overland as they follow the coast down from the north and hit the East Neuk sticking out into the sea. No luck on Sunday morning though. Just the usual suspects from Fife Ness. More gannets than I might expect at this time of year and three arctic and/or pomarine skuas (at least one likely the former and one likely the latter) far out. Skuas are unusual at this time of year – like sandwich terns they should be off the coast of Africa just now. There was also a steady stream of red-throated divers past into the Forth.

I am twitchy about little auks because the end of the year is approaching and I am just one species away from 150 on my year list – which now seems the minimum to achieve for a year spent looking for birds around Crail. Species 149 was a bullfinch just on the edge of the “parish” past Anstruther on Wednesday. My record for a year is 156. I won’t reach that this time. Any disappointment about missing species this year won’t last long though. Come the New Year it all starts again.

Posted December 14, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending December 7th   Leave a comment

A massive contrast to last weekend: this Sunday it was raw out at Fife Ness. Even bundled up the strong westerly cut right through me as I looked out on Balcomie Beach. The sanderlings were glowing coldly white in the low sunshine in sympathy. There are 20 or so out there now using the beach, sprinting frantically along the tide line trying to make ends meet. Sanderlings are a classic case of spending energy to make energy. Their foraging tactic is to race the small surf on the water’s edge, back and forth, picking up whatever gets washed up or revealed. Their legs are a blur and they must effectively walk miles in a day while staying in the same place. I remember a study of their energetics about 30 years ago that concluded that they were using more energy than they could possibly gain. Much like an aerodynamic study at the same time that concluded that bumble bees couldn’t possibly fly – some mistake surely. But the point that sanderlings are probably on a knife edge of starvation is probably correct. They don’t have much margin for error and as it gets colder their energetic costs increase but their food supply depends on them keeping running, literally. At some point they will use more than they gain – in the Arctic animals will completely shut down when it gets really cold because they cannot gain more energy than they would lose if they stayed active. Sheltering out of the wind in a snowhole until a storm passes is the best strategy. Sanderlings don’t have that option for more than a few hours because they are so small. It is noticeable that all the sanderlings at Balcomie are adults. The juveniles migrate greater distances and spend the winter in much warmer climates. They are much less efficient at finding food so their break-even point will be at a higher temperature than an experienced adult. The solution then is to invest more in flying further to more benign environments. The adults play a more dangerous game, lower costs in travel and a prime closer position for early migration back to the Arctic, but more at the mercy of a chilling winter day.

A flock of sanderling keeping out of the way

A flock of sanderling keeping out of the way

As I watched the sanderlings a dog and its owner wandered along the beach. The dog started chasing all the waders and they flew up and out of the way. An interruption of a minute and then the beach was peaceful again. In any thoughts of balancing energy budgets on a wintery day disturbance is a big issue. No real problems at Balcomie where walkers are few and the disturbances infrequent. At Kingsbarns, however, it is a real problem. Any sanderling there may have to spend hours in a day avoiding people and dogs in the double whammy of losing energy in avoidance and losing time in which to gain energy. Winter weekends may be starvation days for the waders on beaches like Kingsbarns. A lively dog on a beach is the equivalent of removing all of the habitat for the period it is on there: multiply this by 100 in a day and the beach might as well not be there from a bird’s point of view. Although it’s not necessarily that simple. The beach is of course still there and when the people eventually are away at weekdays and in the early morning, all of the food that the beach contains is there effectively untouched, acting as a reserve larder.

Bizarrely the heat haze on a really cold day makes sea-watching impossible so anything out to sea at Balcomie was far too blurry to identify. There were a couple of gannets and some red-breasted mergansers close in and a very large flock of common gull. Common gulls are the species that breeds on Highland shingle river banks  and they then spend the winter on the coastal fields and shore. They look like smaller, sweeter looking herring gulls – their kindly expression is really the best feature to split the two species. I watched one in a chain of stealing a scrap of fish from a crow, which was then stolen again by a young herring gull who then lost it to an adult herring gull. A real pecking order.

This week there have been lots of pink-footed geese and greylag geese between Crail and St Andrews. On Monday there was a large flock of whooper swans up near Kenly. On Saturday I saw several flocks of fieldfares up towards Kellie Castle. These may be coming in more now with it getting colder on the continent. We might even expect some waxwings.

Pink-footed goose in a field near Crail this week

Pink-footed goose in a field near Crail this week

Posted December 7, 2014 by wildcrail in Sightings

%d bloggers like this: