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.

Redwing

Redwing

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 wildcrail in Sightings

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