Archive for January 2015

Week ending January 25th   Leave a comment

The winter this year seems to be dragging a little – after another week of being entirely indoors more or less during daylight. There were at least a few signs of spring this weekend. A pair of lesser black-backed gulls were around Cellardyke Harbour this Sunday; they winter from England down to North Africa but are pretty scarce in Scotland at this time. I usually expect to see my first in March. Black-headed gulls are beginning to gain their black (actually dark brown) hoods for breeding. And I saw a pair of goosanders flying in strongly from the sea and heading inland over Anstruther. It’s again a bit early and I hardly ever see them in Fife in winter, but they breed on highland rivers so this pair might have been already on their way north (I’m probably being too optimistic but I need a few straws to sustain me).

A serious redshank fight

A serious redshank fight

I walked from Anstruther back to Crail on Sunday along the coastal path. The shore at the east end of Cellardyke is always a great place for birds. There were lapwings and redshanks roosting on the shore, many mallards and wigeons and the usual hundreds of gulls. I keep meaning to put the time in and check every gull there regularly for the rarer species such as Iceland and glaucous gulls, but that’s probably something for when I don’t have to keep my children amused. I watched a couple of redshanks fighting in Cellardyke Harbour. They can be very, very territorial, fighting for a small patch of low tide mud, sometimes it seems almost to the death. I can imagine the stakes are high. As I know from the redshanks of Crail, they have very clear tiny ranges which might be used by the same bird all the winters it remains alive – over 20 years for some birds. The most vigorous fights occur when two birds think they own an area and both feel they have something to lose. I normally expect these kind of fights much earlier in the year, when, for example, a young bird arrives and occupies an apparently empty patchy for a week or two and then the resident adult arrives back a little late to reclaim it. Why protracted fights might occur in late January I don’t know – the redshanks should have sorted it all out months ago. Perhaps an elderly resident died during the cold weather last week and so there is something to fight for amongst the remaining neighbours.

The pig farm area of Cellardyke used to be a magnet for birds. Lots of spilled food and churned ground created lots of feeding opportunities. It is very quiet now with just a few starlings and linnets when there were hundreds there a couple of winters ago. The whole walk back to Crail on Sunday was fairly quiet except out to sea. There was just one large flock of about 30 yellowhammers, ten linnets and a stonechat in a field corner to liven things up. Birds are often clustered during the winter so you expect to go from famine to feast. This flock of yellowhammers seemed to glow against the drab, fairly miserable muddy field corner they were feeding in. And with an irrepressibly perky stonechat perched on a stone wall behind to add the final cheering touch on a grey winter’s day.

A perky stonechat - the perfect antidote to dull winter's day

A perky stonechat – the perfect antidote to dull winter’s day


Posted January 25, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending January 18th   Leave a comment

It hasn’t been a week for going outside apart from at the end of it when the gales subsided; then it got much colder with the wind finally shifted round to the north. It went down to minus two on Saturday night – very cold by Crail standards. Anyone reading this who isn’t a Crailer might laugh at the idea of minus two being vaguely cold, but we are lucky, surrounded by the relatively warm bath of the North Sea that keeps the frosts away. I often get the response when I tell people I live in Scotland that they wouldn’t like the cold up there. They think of the winter yet probably live somewhere in the heart of “continental” England where it actually gets much colder than here. We do need sympathy in the summer though, when the same levelling effect of the sea usually works against us, so we never have hot days and so warm evenings.

House sparrow - fat or fit?

House sparrow – fat or fit?

With the cold weather so the birds have been visiting my feeders much more. The sparrows that live in my garden have been ignoring my seed feeder entirely, but on Saturday morning they were at it from dawn onwards. Paradoxically small birds get fatter when it gets colder and feeding gets more unpredictable. Being fat is good because if the temperature is minus two for the 16 hour night at this time of year then a sparrow needs something to burn to keep it warm. And if the day dawns frozen and windy then there may be few opportunities to make up the energy used during the night. So the fat is an obvious insurance policy. Being fat is also bad, however, because it costs energy to gain and carry fat at a time when finding food is hard. But most significantly being fat makes it harder to take off. If a sparrowhawk attacks my bird feeder then the fattest sparrow will be the slowest to escape. It’s a classic trade-off. Most of the time sparrows can be thin and prioritise escape. When it’s very cold they need to prioritise not starving – a cold night will certainly kill a thin sparrow whereas a fat sparrow may not meet a sparrowhawk that day. But it all gets a bit complicated when you might want to work out whether a sparrow is in good condition or not. If a sparrow is thin on a cold day is it starving? Or is it such a good sparrow that despite the cold it can still find reliable food enough to keep its weight down so even if it does meet a sparrowhawk it won’t be unfortunate the sparrow straggling at the back of the flock. And if I put a feeder out with seed available every day will my sparrows be much thinner than those across the road that don’t have access to reliable food? And then, if I forget to refill my feeder on a very cold day, do my thinner sparrows then have an even harder time? On the precautionary principle, I think I’ll keep my feeder topped up.

On Monday evening I saw a barn owl flying over the road at Boarhills. I was unlucky last year and didn’t have a single sighting so it was nice to see one again. But it’s always just a flash of owley white passing in front of your car headlights that leaves you wondering if you had really seen it all. One of the best wildlife spectacle going is the sight of a barn owl hunting over a meadow or along a bank in sunshine. If you crouch down they are often so intent on the hunt that they fly almost up to you before they shy away. Sadly diurnal barn owls are a rarity (even more so now buzzards have returned) and I haven’t seen one well for a decade or more.

On Saturday afternoon I cycled out to Fife Ness to enjoy the lull in the winds and a beautiful sunny day. There were some golden plover in the big field just beyond the Balcomie Caravan Park. This is always a good field for golden plover and lapwing and it is worth stopping there for a quick scan. Golden plover used to be shot and I remember when I was growing up they were one of the shyest species – quick to spot you approaching and quick to leave. These days they seem to have finally relaxed and you can get some lovely close views. Perhaps the best place to see them is when they are roosting on the rocks at Saucehope. If you spot them at all – they are fantastically well camouflaged and it is only their movement that gives them away. I also saw the 25 or so sanderling that are still on Balcomie Beach, joined today by three purple sandpipers, perhaps forced to extend their feeding time and location due to the cold weather. At sea no gannets (well you wouldn’t hang around here last week if you didn’t need to), but plenty of the hardier red-throated divers. As I came back along the shore by Saucehope I noticed lots of robins feeding in the unfrozen seaweed along the beach and Roome Bay was full of birds – starlings, redshanks, rock pipits and pied wagtails doing the same.

Golden plover

Golden plover

Eiders are now displaying and getting ready for the spring. The males making their sort “whor – arr” calls of intention and the females quacking back with an apparent refusal “no-no-no-no-no”. Probably not a refusal though because there are some practice matings going on, well in advance of the late April nesting season.

Displaying eiders this week

Displaying eiders this week

My highlight this week (apart from the barn owl) was on Saturday night when I sat, cosy by my stove, listening to a flock of pink-footed geese calling high above as they flew over Crail heading towards the Firth of Forth to some chilly nocturnal feeding somewhere.

Posted January 18, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending January 11th   Leave a comment

The New Year gales have continued for much of this week and this weekend has been raw even when the sun has been shining. My morning commute to St Andrews is coincident with dawn just now (or should that be the other way round) so I have been watching the starlings leaving their roosts in Crail and heading out into the wind. On very windy days they fly very close to the ground, sometime only a few centimeters above it when they are flying over an open field. Their speed of reaction is amazing but it still looks very dangerous. The flocks in the morning are heading out a long way – I have seen small flocks this week still heading out in a dead straight line several miles from Crail. The roosts in Crail are not large this winter, only tens of birds. They still zoom around in a spectacular flock like a big sky amoeba before descending to roost every evening. Not quite the murmuration spectacle to be seen in other places like the Somerset levels, but worth seeing nonetheless. The starlings’ quick reactions are again in evidence in these wheeling and twisting flocks where a lead bird’s turns are mirrored by its neighbours, causing a chorus line of turning and wheeling in the sky.

A murmuration of starlings going to roost

A murmuration of starlings going to roost

I walked around Kilrenny Common on Sunday morning hoping to catch up with a long-eared owl that was reported on Friday. They are difficult, roosting very inconspicuously and only to be seen if you get very lucky. Even when they flush, if you are not looking in the right direction, they soon vanish deeper in the dense scrub they favour roosting in. I wasn’t terribly surprised to miss it. Kilrenny was full of other birds though. There was a large flock of goldfinches feeding on alder cones in the top of a tree, all gently chittering to each other making a lovely tinkling background noise despite the wind. I saw my first tree sparrows, pink-footed geese and redwings of the year. Redwings are hit and miss for Crail during the winter like fieldfares. They are common on passage but there is nowhere reliable for them between November and February. They feed on the ground at this time of year and are surprisingly hard to see until they fly up into a tree or bush in front of you when they look oddly small and dark. Redwings are striking on close look though.



There was the usual flock of curlews feeding in the pasture field alongside Kilrenny. I optimistically checked it for whimbrels – some do winter in Fife – although it will be April before this is a serious quest. As I scanned through the flock I noticed some starlings among them, practically invisible in the long grass. They would be effectively blind to any approaching predator because of the long vegetation. The curlews tower over them and would of course spot any predator easily. Starlings, as do a lot of other small birds, often parasitise the vigilance of larger birds. I can’t think it does the curlews any harm, if they even notice the starlings among them. The curlews themselves will be relying on the many eyes present in their own large flock to detect an approaching predator. The same thing applies to the huge flocks of woodpigeons feeding in the open fields around Crail. John got incredibly lucky this week when he was photographing woodpigeons and a peregrine suddenly attacked. It couldn’t get close enough because it was spotted well in advance – in a big flock there is always one bird looking and as it leaves it raises the alarm to the others. You can watch woodpigeons for weeks wondering why they are in one field and not another, why they are in such big flocks and why they keep looking up, without realising that it’s life and death for when the peregrine does turn up. Like crossing the road for us – an alien might watch humans for weeks before they saw an accident and worked out why pedestrians avoid roads and behave as they do when they cross them.

Woodpigeons - now you see them

Woodpigeons – now you see them

Now you don't - the peregrine attacks

Now you don’t – the peregrine attacks

The peregrine is too late

The peregrine is too late

The woodpigeons escape

The woodpigeons escape

On the milder days at the start of the week robins have been singing much more frequently and for longer at dawn and dusk. Mistle thrushes are also singing now – they are very early breeders. It might still be dark and windy but spring is coming.

Posted January 11, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

January 2nd   Leave a comment

Male blackcap - my first wintering blackcap in Crail for a couple of years

Male blackcap – my first wintering blackcap in Crail for a couple of years

The weather hasn’t been brilliant for the New Year until this afternoon. My New Year’s list got off to a slow start on the 1st: it was raining for much of the day and today has been a gale. I spent most of yesterday morning looking out of my back window at the sea and the rain, slowly accumulating the common birds that at least on New Year’s day are as worthy as the rare ones. I was lucky though and had a male blackcap in the garden as my 18th species of the day. I clocked up 23 species (including velvet and common scoter, and quite a few gannets) before the rain stopped and I headed off to Denburn. I was rained off after lunch as well so my day total was only 49, with the last new species of the day being one of the Castle Walk fulmars. There is a whole year ahead of course but it is good to get off to a good start.

There were a couple of sanderling unusually in Roome Bay on the high tide at lunchtime. They are well worth looking out for –tiny waders that run along the line of the surf ceaselessly and so pale that they glow almost white. They are hard to miss when they are on a beach although Balcomie Beach is a much more reliable place to see them.

Sanderling - two on Roome Bay beach today

Sanderling – two on Roome Bay beach today

This afternoon at Kingsbarns it was relatively quiet. The woods seemed deserted apart from a flock of long-tailed and blue tits, and a couple of song thrushes grubbing about quietly on the ground. Everything in the stubble fields was keeping their heads down out of the wind and I only saw the skylarks, reed buntings and meadow pipits that flushed directly in front of me as I walked through them. It was a bitter wind and I sympathised with their reluctance to get up into it. Even the sea was relatively quiet apart from the large roost of common gulls gathering at the mouth of the Cambo Burn and a single beautiful male long-tailed duck positively sparkling in the sunset.

Posted January 2, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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