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 wildcrail in Sightings

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