Archive for February 2015

Week ending February 22nd   Leave a comment

As I came home from work past the new distillery at Kingsbarns on Wednesday my spirits were lifted by the sight of a peregrine flying over a stubble field and then the road just above the car I was in. It was my first Crail peregrine of the year but even if I see them every day (and at times during my research I can see them hourly) the sight of an adult peregrine in full flight over an empty winter landscape always cheers me up. There are two main reasons why this is so. I love watching peregrines because they epitomise everything that makes watching wildlife exciting and because they represent hope that even when we mess the environment up completely, we can still learn our lesson and do something about it.

First, the excitement of peregrines. We all have our animal facts learnt as toddlers – that blue whales are the biggest animals on earth and that peregrine falcons are the fastest. Peregrines are famous for attacking their prey with legendary stoops where they might dive near vertically for over a kilometre before hitting the oblivious victim with a raked claw. People have speculated about how fast they might go during these stoops – 100 mph, 120 mph? I have timed peregrines in routine level attacking flight as reaching 70 mph over a few hundred meters, so that they can routinely reach much higher speeds in a vertical dive always seemed very likely to me. We now know for sure: recently, trained falconry peregrines have been clocked by accompanying skydivers as reaching 180 mph during such stoops. Peregrines really are as flight capable as we always hoped they were.

Peregrine about to stoop (this one is a first winter bird)

Peregrine about to stoop (this one is a first winter bird)

That said peregrines hardly ever pull out the stops. When you watch wildlife programs they always show you the highlights: anything on peregrines and it will be just a few seconds before one is screaming down at jet speed on a hapless pigeon. If you watch one in real time then you might have to wait years until you see such an attack. Most of the time peregrines take the easy option, terrorising a field or estuary full of birds looking for a weakling that they can easily chase down or just pluck out of the air. I have watched a peregrine sitting for hours on a dead tree, only moving its head to track any birds as they flew by. Eventually a feral pigeon flew over fairly high – I saw it only because I followed up the peregrine’s line of sight as it cocked its head to watch it. After a few seconds of watching, the peregrine launched itself up and flew in a fairly leisurely fashion up behind the pigeon. It had no idea and as the peregrine reached it, the pigeon was just grabbed from behind. The peregrine sailed down with the pigeon and of course ate it. Clearly the pigeon wasn’t one of life’s winners and the peregrine had spotted this, and had indeed perhaps been waiting all day for such a loser to pass. It was a fantastic example of hunting efficiency although it made for a dull day watching that particular peregrine. And most peregrine watching, especially in the winter can be like this. Long periods of complete inactivity and then a brief (usually unsuccessful) period of testing what is available, looking for the easiest option. Not quite the epic predator that we might hope to see. It does make sense though if you think back to the efficiency of the pigeon example. If you are a top predator in the winter the only thing that might kill you is an accident, so the best strategy is to bide your time, and to keep trying easy hunts until you get lucky. If late in the day you still haven’t had lunch then you can turn it up a notch. The prey I think can readily tell how “hungry” or serious a predator is and so this accounts for the often bizarre close juxtaposition of predators and prey you sometimes see. If the prey know they are fit and are ready to run at any time, and the predator knows this and is looking for an easy lunch, then the fit prey is very unlikely to even be targeted. But with first sight of a peregrine you never know quite what mood it is in so a peregrine is always initially exciting. And the sudden transition from zero to sixty as it changes gear into its full capability is something to behold on the rare times you do see it.

The second reason that peregrines always cheer me up is that they were much rarer when I was a boy because of DDT poisoning and persecution. But we worked out this out and banned DDT (at least in the developed world), and people now treasure peregrines rather than kill them. Now they are the commonest they have ever been and you can find them nesting in city centres like Edinburgh. The landscape and our lives are immeasurably enriched by having these lions of the skies with us. I can’t go to the Serengeti every day but I can watch the same kind of wildlife excitement on my doorstep thanks to peregrines, and indeed all the other raptors – the eagles, buzzards, kites and hawks that have come back into our daily lives again over the last three decades. It doesn’t always have to be bad news with respect to wildlife and peregrines remind me of this.

An adult peregrine with prey

An adult peregrine with prey

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Posted February 22, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending February 15th   Leave a comment

This week should perhaps be called Wild West Coast rather than Wild Crail because I have retreated to Skye. There are many reasons to come to Skye but one of the main ones for me is the eagles – one of the highest densities of golden eagles in Scotland and now plenty of white-tailed (or sea) eagles too. I will have to be fantastically lucky to ever see a golden eagle around Crail. It’s not impossible, young birds wander down as far as the Midlands during the winter, but I won’t put any money on it. Sea eagles however are Crail birds even now. The pair at Tentsmuir bred successfully again last year and there are now 3-4 pairs breeding on the eastern side of the country. That said, I haven’t seen one around Crail for a couple of years. Although the reintroduction into Fife is looking like a success it might be another 20 years before they are reliable daily birds around Crail. You need to come to the inner Hebrides for that. So here I am at Elgol, overlooking the Cullins, Rhum and in the distance Ardnamurchan and Mull. The epicentre of sea-eagles in Scotland, with supporting cast of golden eagles over the hills behind me.

A buzzard being mobbed by a carrion crow - crows are usually the best size comparison to identify a distant bird of prey.  Unless it's a jackdaw of course...

A buzzard being mobbed by a carrion crow – crows are usually the best size comparison to identify a distant bird of prey. Unless it’s a jackdaw of course…

The first day I was here this week I walked out of the cottage where I am staying and saw a large bird of prey over the next door hill. There are buzzards everywhere on Skye and I could hear a couple mewing away so I just glanced at it. Then a relatively much smaller bird of prey sailed down to join it – wings in a V, a long tail and a white rump: a hen harrier mobbing the now clearly obviously very large bird of prey – a golden eagle. The buzzard mewing then became clear – there were two buzzards a little way above the eagle keeping pace with it and “escorting it off the premises” just like the hen harrier. Again both buzzards looked small next to the eagle. I was grateful for the size comparison, although I am fairly confident at splitting a buzzard from a golden eagle, it was great to have it all laid out for me.

It is very, very hard to judge size in birds of prey at any kind of distance. We only know how big things are because we know what they are. An unknown bird of prey might be small and close or far away and massive. Unless it flies behind a known landmark or in my case a hen harrier that you can identify independently then an estimate of size is of no use for identification. It always makes my heart sink when I am asked to identify an unknown bird and I’m told – “oh no it can’t be that, it was much too big”. Unless this statement is backed up with something like – “it was much larger than the swan it was flying beside” – then it is bound to be inaccurate. You have to be able to identify the bird the mystery bird was flying next to, and if you have a mystery bird then you probably can’t reliably identify its companion. All most unsatisfactory. A large bird of prey seen around Crail can of course be a sea eagle, although it’s more likely to be a buzzard that can also look huge as they glide in front of a car or sit on a roadside fence post, or even a female sparrowhawk as it swoops past closely. My best tips for judging how big things are without something to reference against are the size of the head relative to the body (larger birds have proportionately smaller heads) and the wing beat frequency (larger birds have slower deeper wingbeats). Wind speed and species with tiny heads (like pigeons and honey buzzards) can mess these rules up of course but I like birding because of these exceptions and difficulties. It can be exasperating when you start birding though. If you stick to the rule – never use size to identify a bird unless it is right next to something you are absolutely sure you know what it is – then you won’t ever go wrong.

I am on a size theme this week because eagles are just so big and every time I see one – even thousands of eagles down the line – I am still knocked out about how big they are. On Friday looking out to sea from Elgol I saw what I initially thought was a gull with an odd wingbeat. Through my binoculars it was clearly a sea eagle, just pulling up from the waves after catching a fish, and then flying as fast as it could back to Skye to escape two great black-backed gulls intent on stealing its prey. Now great black-backed gulls themselves are huge – over 1.5 meter wing spans and capable of swallowing a puffin whole. They looked puny compared to the white-tailed eagle. A body like a barrel, two barn doors for wings and an almost comically huge bill (although have a google at the closely related Steller’s sea eagle for a really ridiculously huge bill on an eagle). This eagle was really working hard to outpace the gulls which followed for a couple of kilometres before it disappeared over a headland. Even this giant bird was soon lost in the landscape of the mountains and lochs. Skye is a place of landscape superlatives and both eagles fit right in to the scale of the place.

An adult white-tailed eagle on the West coast

An adult white-tailed eagle on the West coast

To contrast with this – I walked in the Cullins for a few hours on Saturday and didn’t see a single living thing that wasn’t a plant or a human. No birds at all. Winter, inland amongst the deforested and trashed heather landscape of Skye is not for anything that can move to somewhere else. A stark beauty of landscape for sure, but skeletal and lifeless. Crail might not have the eagles but it is a lot gentler and alive in February.

Posted February 15, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

February 8th   Leave a comment

The temperature climbed up to a balmy 8 degrees this afternoon and I went out today in search of signs of spring to cheer me up. Still few and far between. One of a flock of twenty golden plover had its summer black belly already and a lot of the skylarks were singing. First thing in the morning there was also a lot of robin song and even the occasional song thrush. It is a good time to learn robin song – anything wistful and tuneful is almost certainly robin; if it is loud, boisterous and with repetitive double phrases and pauses then it is a song thrush. In another month everything will be singing and it will get much harder to pick out the individual species. As I circuited around Crail I saw magpies everywhere: two at West Quarry Braes, one at Wormiston, a couple at Fife Ness and more at Kilminning. They are surviving the winter fine and so I expect a big breeding season again if they are left alone. Crail may well be like Edinburgh for magpies in a couple of years. If you can forgive them (or perhaps even celebrate) their tendency to thrive in the environmental chaos we create, then they are really handsome and interesting birds to have around.

A handsome Crail magpie

A handsome Crail magpie

Posted February 8, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

February 7th   Leave a comment

On Wednesday night I was walking down Marketgate back home when I heard the quavering hoot of a tawny owl from Denburn. If you live close to Denburn or Beech Walk Park then you will hear the hoots a lot during late winter – they sound like someone pretending to be an owl more than a real owl – or their “kee-wik” shrieks in autumn. My house is just far enough away on the High Street that the road and traffic noise is enough that I can’t quite hear them calling. I could just hear this one until the Town Hall but no further. If I am ever to get a tawny owl on my garden list – just another 120 meters further on – then I will need either a really noisy owl or a very quiet night. Tawny owls do wander away from the woods and I have seen them silhouetted against a bright moon on chimney tops, but you have to be very lucky. A calling owl is much easier to notice. It made me realise just how noisy even quiet Crail is. There was no wind on Wednesday and it was just the rumble and swish of cars that drowned the owl. Urban tawny owls probably have to call more loudly or more often to compensate: they have shown that nightingales in the noisier parts of Berlin sing more loudly (and they are pretty loud to start with) so I bet this applies to tawny owls too.

Male tufted duck

Male tufted duck

This Saturday afternoon I went up to the reservoir at Carnbee (by Kellie Law). It was fairly still which made the cold up there tolerable. The reservoir was full of wildfowl, 50 or so tufted ducks, half as many coots, goldeneye, mallard, wigeon and teal, a flock of greylag geese, a pair of mute swans and a single little grebe. A lake full of birds is a joy to behold. By the time you have checked everything then you can start again, and there are always birds leaving and arriving to keep it interesting. It took 20 minutes or so before I saw a little grebe; they spend so much time under the water that you have to be looking at just the right spot when they surface. The coots were very noisy, with a pair fighting with such intensity that I thought one bird was going to be drowned. The loser did finally escape, although it was a close run thing. Behind the reservoir was a flock of several hundred starling with about 40 fieldfares feeding in a newly sprouted winter wheat field. A stonechat along a fence line was a final good bird. It can’t have been too cold over the last couple of weeks if there is still a stonechat up at Kellie Law. If you too can put up with the cold wind up there then it is well worth a trip up to Carnbee: it’s not a massive spectacle, but it’s the only freshwater wildfowl show we have on our immediate doorstep.

A coot in aggressive mode launching itself at a rival.

A coot in aggressive mode launching itself at a rival.

Posted February 8, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending February 1st   Leave a comment

The northerly winds continued with a gale over Saturday night and the low temperatures have continued too. Things are getting tougher for the birds as the interaction between a strong wind and cold means they need more energy but their opportunities to get it are diminished. The male blackbird that lives in my front garden now doesn’t fly away even if we approach to a meter or two. There have been redshanks feeding on the grass above the shore all week, dodging the dogs and the people but generally taking much more risk to keep feeding when the tide is in to make ends meet. It’s a good temperature gauge. When the temperature gets below 4 degrees for a couple of days then the redshanks start taking risks. Some waders put on fat to deal with colder weather but redshanks don’t seem to do so, they just move into areas they normally avoid because of risk of sparrowhawks surprising them. Not all the redshanks have to do this though. It’s really noticeable that none of my older colour-ringed birds ever use the grass. They are usually roosting at high tide, even this week. My colour-ringed birds are veterans and survivors so are almost certainly good competitors that can forage more efficiently, or have the best feeding areas at low tide. Those redshanks that I caught and colour-ringed in previous winters that were not so good, and that might have fed on the grass this week, have died already.

Roe deer have been more obvious this week with several small groups in the fields around Crail. They are not at all constrained by the livestock fencing or the stone walls. They seem almost to levitate over them.

Roe deer making light work of a fence

Roe deer making light work of a fence

 

I was watching herring gulls fly into roost at Cellardyke when I noticed one with dangling legs and an ungainly flight. To my horror I saw it had its feet stuck together in a huge clod of mud. Once I had noticed this I then saw that every gull arriving in to the roost was more or less in the same state. I relaxed when I realised that this was of course inevitable for any gull foraging in a very muddy field corner (and they are all pretty muddy at the moment). I wonder if they feed until their feet get so clogged up they have to return to the shore to clean up. I know what it is like to try to walk with cloggy wellies. Still, a minute or two in a rock pool or sitting on the water will have restored them all.

Posted February 1, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

February 1st   Leave a comment

There have been reports of one or two little auks from the Firth of Forth all week. I have been looking out from Crail when I could but with no luck until today when I saw a couple from Fife Ness. Little auks are true arctic birds and only retreat to the soft south around Scotland when the gales are sufficiently monumental to blow them down here. And little auks are truly little – imagine something a little bigger than a starling – out in the middle of the stormy Arctic Ocean, or the North Sea today. In a gale they shoot along like bullets with their wings whirring so quickly they blur. My two today were barely visible amongst the wave crests that would have dwarfed a gannet, let alone a little auk. Occasionally thousands of little auks end up around Crail mid-winter but it’s been many years since the last big year. They are a very common bird of the high Arctic with maybe 12 million pairs. They are sensitive to climate change however and increased summer sea temperatures have resulted in lower survival for the adults. I shouldn’t think our recent run of few little auks by Crail has anything to do with global warming just yet, just the luck of the weather systems that develop during the winter. The last couple of winters have certainly lacked the strong easterly gales of previous winters.

Little auk

Little auk

Posted February 1, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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