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

Posted March 29, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

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