Archive for March 2015

Week ending March 29th   Leave a comment

The gannets are back for the summer at least

The gannets are back for the summer at least

It has remained cold this week and rumours of spring arriving need to be postponed. By the weekend there was no sign of a chiff-chaff in Denburn and the frog spawn remains resolutely unhatched and gradually silting up. Further south everything has slowed up too with very few reports of migrants. The weather is predicted to warm up a lot over Easter though with high pressure moving up from southern Europe, so by this time next week I hope it will be all change. In contrast, the gannets and the other seabirds are not really bothered by favourable winds and temperatures and their numbers have been building up this week. As I watched from Crail on Saturday during the micro-gale that blew up and away in just a few hours at mid-day the gannets were passing at the rate of a few every minute.

There are fewer redshanks and curlews on the Crail shore now. They will be leaving in a steady stream until mid-April and the passage birds from further south will then be in residence until mid-May. The oystercatchers are still around and I think some of these could almost be called year-round residents, attempting to breed in some of the fields around Crail: I haven’t got any marked birds so it is hard to say. I watched an oystercatcher feeding in Roome Bay on Saturday in the absence of anything else to look at and was rewarded by noticing how it was tackling limpets. The oystercatcher was sneaking up on them. I know this sounds ridiculous but if you remember from childhood (hopefully not from recent adulthood) how to best kick a limpet off a rock – you need to catch them by surprise because they rest at low tide without being fully clamped down onto their rocks. If you get a surprise kick in then they fly off relatively easy. If you fluff this then the limpet clamps down and then sometimes even the hardest second kick will not do the job. Well this is what the oystercatcher was doing except with its bill. It would walk slowly up to a limpet and then slide its bill under the lip of the limpet shell. Then a quick levering movement and the limpet was off. If it took too long then the opportunity was lost and the limpet won the encounter. The other limpets also somehow detected this and so the oystercatcher had to move further afield. When the oystercatcher was successful – which was most of the time – it then had a problem. How do you then get a slippery limpet out of its shell? The solution was to trot off with the limpet until it found a crack in the rocks where it could wedge it. Then it was a simple matter to lever it out. I think the oystercatcher I was watching was a pro: it had a couple of favoured spots for limpet wedging as evidenced by the gradually accumulating pile of shells around them.

An oystercatcher at Balcomie wedging a shellfish to hammer out its contents

An oystercatcher at Balcomie wedging a shellfish to hammer out its contents

There are a lot of limpets on a beach and they can be large and nutritious. If you have a big enough and strong enough bill then there is apparently a feast for the taking. But not many things seem to eat them and I think this is because you need a degree of skill and experience to get at them. This oystercatcher was probably a specialist having honed its skill over many years (an oystercatcher on a Crail beach may have lived here longer than many human residents). But having spotted one oystercatcher eating limpets now I expect I will see more. Being aware of something always increases the frequency of observation.

Reed buntings are an example of this. They are quite a common bird around Crail but often overlooked. Despite their name they are farmland birds and any dampish field with a grassy ditch margin will do. Any walk by Crail you will see them but without knowing they are there it’s just another brown sparrow thing flying up in front of you. But look for their handsome black and white heads and their white outer tail feathers and suddenly they are distinctive. If you know their song even better – it’s a flat, monotonous three note “chew-chee-chew” rising for the middle note and not quite descending down to the first note. Then you start to notice them everywhere.

A male reed bunting - most obvious at this time of year when they sing from field edges

A male reed bunting – most obvious at this time of year when they sing from field edges

Advertisements

Posted March 29, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending March 22nd   Leave a comment

I have been up to the crossroads two kilometres northwest of Crail to have a look at the pool which has re-emerged in the field between Leys Farm and Lochton. In the rainy spring and summer of a couple of years ago there were quite a few pools in the fields that attracted a lot of interesting migrant waders. Sadly they were all ruthlessly filled in and last year I had to make do with only a single green sandpiper in just about the only remaining puddle by Kenly. But time and some recent heavy rain has begun to undo the “improvements” and we now have three pools with quite good potential close to Crail. As long as we have a rainy spring and the farmers are distracted we may get lucky with birds again this spring.

On Wednesday there was a pair of ringed plovers on the main pool. They breed on the coast and also inland in highland marshes. At this time of year migrants can stop anywhere and I suspect these two were on their way much further north rather a local pair having a break from the beach. Little ringed plovers are also likely to turn up on passage. They winter beside little pools all over Africa and migrate up to breed all over Europe beside little pools. I have only see one little ringed plover close to Crail and they need a careful look to be sure they are little ringed plovers rather than ordinary ringed plovers. The nicest way to identify them is by call – both have lovely soft two note whistles but little ringed plovers slur downwards and ringed plovers upwards.

Close by the pool was a flock of about twenty lapwing. One of them was displaying away, tumbling and making their distinctive dissonant buzzing call, flashing black and white as it swooped very low over the rest of the flock. Lapwings are very gregarious but in spring they have to form pairs and become territorial, just like many other species that want to breed successfully. It must create a bit of a conflict when a flock of migrant lapwings plonks down in the field you have decided is your territory. I should think it was the resident bird that was displaying and will probably breed in the field by the pool – they can manage even if the pool isn’t there, as they did last year – but they prefer a bit of water which provides small insects allowing their chicks to grow fast.  Lapwings can also breed in small loose colonies so perhaps the resident was trying to attract rather than deter the rest of the lapwings to join it. A bigger colony has more individuals to chase off crows.

Lapwings

Lapwings

As I scanned the lapwing flock I noticed a golden plover, then another and then a whole flock. Their camouflage had done the trick again. I wonder how many golden plovers I overlook: it often seems that I notice them only because of the company they keep. A few birds were nicely gold spangled and with black bellies in anticipation of breeding in the highlands in six weeks time.

Another camouflaged golden plover - very striking but only when you notice them

Another well camouflaged golden plover – very striking but only when you notice them

Jackdaws - they definitely have fun

Jackdaws – they definitely have fun

The jackdaws have been enjoying the spring sunshine this week. Flocks have been soaring around Crail, tumbling and chasing and just generally showing off to each other. If you wonder if animals have a sense of fun and play then watch jackdaws in the spring. I am sure there are all sorts of adaptive reasons why the jackdaws might show off to each other – impressing a mate or establishing hierarchies – but the same thing can be said about a rugby match. It doesn’t mean that the participants might not also get pleasure from it and revel in it. Certainly if I could fly like a jackdaw I would be tempted to show off.

I have spent the weekend down in Cornwall and as expected the spring is 4 weeks or so in advance down here. I was on the lizard on Saturday and a tiny bird flew in from the sea, almost tumbling down into the first bush it found on the cliff. A chiff-chaff, probably making its first landfall since Spain, back for the summer and my first summer migrant for the year. I heard another singing along the coast path but no other migrants: spring is not early this year, even down in Cornwall. We should expect a chiff-chaff in Crail in a week or so heralding the real start off spring for me.

A newly arrived March chiff-chaff

A newly arrived March chiff-chaff

Posted March 22, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending March 15th   Leave a comment

There were further signs of spring this week: hares chasing across the fields; frog spawn in Denburn and pairs of partridges instead of the winter coveys. It’s a shame that the weather hasn’t also cottoned on. Sunday turned cold again with the wind from the north. There was even a hint of easterly on Saturday. I looked for a black redstart on Sunday as a consequence. Mid to late March is the best time to see a black redstart around Crail. They are an early migrant only coming from Southern Europe. Black redstarts like rocks and cliffs and buildings. We can supply all of these and so looking for black redstarts involves a tramp round farm buildings and the airfield. They perch high and are fairly conspicuous like robins so are not too hard to spot when they are about. No luck though this time, although I got excited for a second or two when I saw a chat-like silhouette flycatching from a fence at the airfield. It turned out to be a lovely male stonechat – the first at the airfield for a long time, so nice to see, but not as welcome as a black redstart would have been. In Germany, black redstarts are common garden birds (and robins are shy woodland birds) so migrants can often turn up actually in Crail itself. It is definitely worth looking at any dark birds behaving like a robin in your garden at this time of year – if it turns round and flashes a red tail then you have a black redstart.

A March stonechat gaining its bright black, white and red summer plumage

A March stonechat gaining its bright black, white and red summer plumage

The resident tawny owl of Denburn has been hooting a lot this week. On Wednesday night it was very atmospheric in Beech Walk Park, beautifully clear with Jupiter and Venus and a whole skein of stars visible to a backdrop of the tremulous hooting of the owl. I still didn’t manage to hear it from my garden though.

The song thrushes started really singing last week but seemed to have doubled their efforts this week. If the temperature climbs up a bit I should think they will start nesting very soon. Song thrush song is very loud and definite, a varied and musical phrase repeated twice with a clear pause, and then a different repeated phrase and another pause, and so on, apparently more or less forever for an early morning bird. Unlike opera singers, birds really do have circular breathing and shunt air around a series of air sacs so they can keep singing regardless of the demands of breathing. A bit like a bagpipe I suppose. Some birds like skylarks are spectacular endurance singers, hovering high above a field and singing continuously literally for hours. It must really impress the females, although because all the other males are also doing it too the only way for a male skylark to distinguish himself is to do it the longest. It’s to our benefit that skylarks have ritualised their duelling for females through never ending song battles. It would be a poor spring soundscape without the larks’ endless song above.

Song thrush - a photo can't capture what wonderful if persistent singers they are

Song thrush – a photo can’t capture what wonderful if persistent singers they are at this time of year

I passed through Sauchope Caravan Park on the way back into Crail on Sunday morning – itself getting busier with a few early human spring migrants. I stopped to check the rocks for shorebirds and noticed a line of cormorants on the point. It’s a contrast to Fife Ness where shags seems to predominate. At Sauchope it’s usually the other way round for some reason. Cormorants and shags always look very similar out at sea but at this time of year it gets much easier. Many of the cormorants have gained their breeding plumage of white on the head and a big white spot on their thighs; shags are uniformly very dark green and so black at any distance. It pays to be a little bit careful however because so many of the shags that haunt Crail are colour-ringed and so many of them have big white rings on their upper leg. A distant “cormorant” showing a white thigh may well be a colour-ringed shag. The best way to split them is: in flight, cormorants have flattish bellies and shags a distinct pot-bellied look and on the water, cormorants have a gently sloping forehead up from the bill whereas shags have an abrupt forehead, at right angles to their bill.

A cormorant in breeding plumage

A cormorant in breeding plumage

Posted March 15, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending March 8th   Leave a comment

The weather is warming up and the song thrush song is now loud and insistent every morning. I even saw a toad crossing the road on Thursday night, taking advantage of the sudden hike in temperature that day of pretty much 10 degrees, to get on its way to its pond. The buzzards are spending a lot of time soaring about close to their nests and gently escorting each other, either as pairs, or while showing a neighbour off the premises. It really does feel that this long, dark winter is finally moving on too. Not a moment too soon.

A buzzard checking out an intruder near its nest

A buzzard checking out an intruder near its nest

A highlight this week was having my morning walk down Marketgate to pick up my lift to work punctuated by a peregrine blasting down from above to scatter the pigeons above The Old House. A brief twisting chase followed with the pigeon banking away easily. The pigeon had barely escaped before the peregrine caught the gale and had almost teleported back up hundred meters to resume its flight over Crail. If at first you don’t succeed…is the peregrine motto. Just keep on moving and another opportunity will soon be along.

The sparrowhawk attacking

The sparrowhawk attacking

The sparrowhawks have also been busy along the shore this week. John was lucky enough to watch a sparrowhawk catch one of the redshank – although not one of my ringed ones this time. As with most predation events that you witness, John was watching the prey – some shorebirds he was trying to photograph – and just got lucky. It all happens too fast and unpredictably to ever try to follow the predator. Redshanks are the perfect ready meal for a female sparrowhawk and one will keep a sparrowhawk fed for about a day during the winter. Sparrowhawks are creatures of habit and when they get successful they will come back again the following day. Redshanks are never so much at risk as when a sparrowhawk has got lucky the day before. For this reason it makes sense for redshanks to make loud and obvious alarm calls when they see a sparrowhawk even if it draws attention to themselves. The slightly increased risk of being targeted or losing focus during escape is probably worth the benefit of making the sparrowhawk look elsewhere for food in the future.

The same sparrowhawk eating the redshank it has just caught

The same sparrowhawk eating the redshank it has just caught

Now is the best time of year to see goldeneyes, either at Roome Bay or out at Balcomie and Fife Ness. They seem to gradually accumulate during the winter with a peak in March before leaving in April. Our birds will be breeding either in Scotland or Scandinavia, probably both, with a Norwegian bird spending the winter side by side with a Speyside bird. We know a lot more about duck movements than most other bird species because they are shot and wildfowlers are good about reporting rings – although some species are not on the main quarry list any more, goldeneye still are. I like watching goldeneyes wherever I see them on the sea because they are so at home even in the roughest surf. Completely unsinkable, waterproof and apparently oblivious to the cold. I expect on a stormy day it must be a relief to dive under the water and leave the wind and chaos above.

Male goldeneye

Male goldeneye

Posted March 8, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending March 1st   Leave a comment

Spring is definitely on the way. The grey herons out at Cambo that nest in the pines by the main road, have been busy building nests and loafing in the field opposite. The rooks at Wormiston are really busy as well getting their nests ready. The amount of bird song first thing, even on some of the frosty mornings this week, has been increasing. Song thrush song is now common joining the robins’ and the first dunnocks started seriously singing this week. Out in the fields the skylarks are chasing each other and are singing constantly. It is still cold but with the lighter evenings and the likelihood of it warming up any day it’s easy to imagine the first chiff-chaff and sand martin turning up in a few weeks’ time.

A local badger

A local badger

I was reminded of the nocturnal wild Crail on Tuesday morning when I passed a dead badger on the road to St Andrews. Last weekend on my back to Crail from the south of England there were also several dead badgers that had been hit by cars. The main mating season for badgers is February to May so I suspect these were males taking risks – extending their range with the hope of getting lucky. Just after passing the Crail badger I then saw another nocturnal animal but in much happier circumstances: a large dog fox crossing a ploughed field by Kingsbarns. It was trotting along in the open quite happy, with a lovely bushy red coat and brush – a fantastic Mr Fox.

The numbers of redshank this year on the beaches of Crail this winter are the lowest I have ever seen. A lot of redshanks didn’t make it back this year. I have been hoping that they were just a bit late, but now it is March and the season is nearly over I have to accept they aren’t ever coming back. I only have 10 colour-ringed redshanks now instead of the usual 20 at the end of the winter. The total Crail population is probably less than 50 and we have had over 70 in some winters. Bird populations do go up and down so I’ll keep counting and hoping for a return to usual next winter. Nevertheless I think there was a bad breeding season last year or much lower survival for the adults or juveniles during their migrations.

There are a few red-throated divers out from Roome Bay at the moment. Look for large pale cormorant-like birds. If you get a close up view they are easy to tell as divers – then it is a question of which species of diver. Red-throats are the easiest to identify because they have relatively slight bills with a distinctive uptilt to it. If you get a spectacularly close view then they have scary bright red eyes!

A red-throated diver close up - an uptilted bill and bright red eyes

A red-throated diver close up – an uptilted bill and bright red eyes

 

I did my favourite circuit on Sunday morning – a cycle to the north of Crail, then to Wormiston, Balcomie, Fife Ness and back via Kilminning and Sauchope. It was still fairly quiet – only just the start of spring. The shore along Balcomie is great for ducks at the moment – lots of mallards, wigeon, teal and of course eiders. They are in noisy groups with the males displaying like mad to the females. It was a lovely bright day on Sunday although the gale made it difficult to bird watch. I found a weird part of the beach where I must have been in an eddy creating a mini-eye to the storm. I stood in my own magical patch of complete calm watching the birds zip by. I had to leave it eventually and engage with the wind again as I headed back to Crail. I passed the sanderlings on Balcomie Beach – a count of 33 which is about what it has been all winter. For them spring isn’t until June.

One of the colourful wigeon out at Balcomie this Sunday

One of the colourful wigeon out at Balcomie this Sunday

Posted March 1, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

%d bloggers like this: