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

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