Archive for April 2015

April 26th   Leave a comment

Last night was perfectly clear and cold with light winds so a lot of the willow warblers and blackcaps from yesterday left. There were still a couple left in Denburn this morning. I watched one willow warbler feeding in the rape field between Crail and Wormiston. The field is flowering and full of insects. It is a great crop for birds. Often migrants turn up at the edge of them to take advantage of the insect bonanza and later on in May it is always worth checking the edges of any rape field for red-backed shrikes. The willow warbler looked a little out of place foraging in the field and soon returned to the top of a hawthorn in an adjacent copse. It gave a little burst of song as it resumed perhaps more safe foraging in the canopy – one of the nicest sounds of spring.

I finally tracked down a moorhen for my Crail year list. The pond up at Wormiston is a perfect place and I finally saw one skulking along the edge of it. Moorhens in parks and towns can be very brave and completely ignore people but I find our local moorhens much shyer. They will freeze and hide behind vegetation until you leave making them very hard to see.

The last remaining stubble fields are getting ploughed up but one still remains at the first bend on the St Andrews road out of Crail. This field has been full of birds all winter and remains a useful resource. Today it had a flock of about 60 meadow pipits in it: more migrants and usually hard to spot as such because they are also residents and winter visitors here. This exceptionally large flock could only be on their way north. They were sharing the field with a flock of thirty linnets. The linnets are probably breeding around Crail and do so semi-colonially so they can still form flocks even in the summer.

Meadow pipit

Meadow pipit

The swallows have now arrived in sufficient numbers that every field has one skimming low over it. I watched one tracking a hare as it ran away from me through a wheat field. I have watched swallows following cows and sheep to catch the flies they kick up or that buzz around any large animal and have even been lucky enough to watch them doing the same with elephants and zebra in East Africa. It seemed to be the same principle with the hare. It must have been pushing up small flies and the swallow kept pace with the hare, passing just above it in a rapid to and fro zig-zag as if it was sewing a giant buttonhole through the field.

Why is a brown hare like a zebra?

Why is a brown hare like a zebra?

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Posted April 26, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

April 25th   Leave a comment

Willow warbler

Willow warbler

There were some easterly and southerly winds mid-week. The haar was in as a consequence making it feel much less warm than recently. We then had rain showers on Friday night. Perfect for a migrant fall. Good winds to drift the birds over and then the rain to bring them down. With all the good weather recently everything has not been stopping with us and has passed over. Today though Denburn was full of blackcaps and willow warblers. They were all feeding hard and there was barely any song – none at all from the blackcaps. These were all migrants on their way to somewhere else just using Denburn as a refuelling point. There were willow warblers and blackcaps in all of the woodland clumps between Crail and Fife Ness. There were a lot of swallows about today as well. First thing, as the rain cleared, there were about 10 swallows in Roome Bay zooming low over the rocks. Later on in the afternoon they had all moved on north. It is still early in the year and that nothing else turned up – sedge warblers or whitethroats for example – again shows that it is a late spring. A similar fall in late May rather than April brings in a much bigger range and, if we are lucky, rarities like shrikes.

Posted April 26, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

April 19th   Leave a comment

I have a pair of blue tits prospecting in my garden at the moment. It reminds me that I need to put up some more bird boxes. The tits usually make do with holes in the large, old stone wall running the length of my garden. Tits – blue, coal or great – just need a cavity and a small hole to prevent the entry of predators or larger competitors like starlings and so a hole in a wall is probably as good as one in a tree. Perhaps better. A weasel would find it hard to scale a vertical wall and a stone dyke is proof against any woodpecker. When tits nest in natural tree cavities or in wooden nest boxes in woodland with a high density of great spotted woodpeckers then the woodpeckers may knock their way in to eat the tit chicks. Another hazard for nest box using tits is the box being taken over by bumble-bees or wasps. Only a small percentage of nest boxes typically end up as insect homes although one study in Poland found 35% of their nest boxes taken over. Who gets the box is probably determined by who gets in first, or who is most determined. I’d always put my money on the tits – a bee or wasp colony is started only by a single queen in the spring and blue tits strike me as tenacious as a couple of jack russells. If ever a small bird had attitude it is a blue tit.

A prospecting blue tit

A prospecting blue tit

Another interesting thing about blue tits is their song and call. There isn’t much difference between the two and I am often fooled by a singing male at this time of year into thinking there is a sparrowhawk around. The rest of the year, a strident burst of blue tit song is the most reliable cue (apart from perhaps a swallow alarm calling) that a bird of prey is about. I watched “my” blue tits in the garden today and became convinced that one of them was acting as a sentry while the other prospected for nest holes. It perched on a wire occasionally “singing” as a crow came over and most vigorously as a sparrowhawk passed. Perhaps blue tit males impress their females not by the loudness or complexity of their song but by its utility as a signal of danger.

There seem to be a good number of lapwing pairs trying to breed in the fields around Crail this year. They are very obvious just now as they display: flashing black and white, tumbling from side to side like huge butterflies low over the field where they will nest.

Posted April 19, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

April 18th   Leave a comment

I keep going backwards and forwards over whether the spring is late or not. I did my usual circuit of Wormiston, Fife Ness, Balcomie and Kilminning this morning and only saw two swallows at Balcomie and a single chiffchaff at Kilminning. The swallows were mostly resting on wires and I suspect they had just arrived. Time for a preen and a stretch after their journey at best from West Africa and at worst all the way from South Africa. To be a swallow is to fly all day so I suppose a directed flight rather than the back and forth one they will make all summer at Balcomie is much the same to them. I suspect I am anthropomorphising but, even so, they both looked decidedly tired and sleepy in the early morning sunshine.

I sat at Fife Ness for half an hour looking over an almost flat calm. I saw my first sandwich terns of the year. They were passing at a rate of one or two every ten minutes. Most years they start to arrive in the first week of April so they are definitely late. There were a lot of auks passing – guillemots and razorbills and possibly a couple of puffins further out. The shore in contrast was very quiet, only an oystercatcher – the local redshanks, sanderlings and turnstones seem to have already moved on.

Sandwich tern

Sandwich tern

Posted April 18, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

April 17th   Leave a comment

The swallows are back. A barn swallow at Boarhills yesterday and a house martin at Kingsbarns today. Fairly typical arrival dates. I checked my notes for the last few years and the swallows tend to arrive in Crail between the 12th and the 20th, so this year is as usual even after the slow start to the spring. There were plenty of bees, hoverflies and even a few butterflies out today catching up as well.

Posted April 17, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending April 12th   Leave a comment

The summer migrants started trickling into Fife this week with the fantastic spring weather. Not a flood just yet and by the weekend there only a few reports of swallows from central Fife and we had a northern wheatear at Roome Bay on Saturday. I heard my first local chiff-chaffs at Cambo on Wednesday afternoon and quite a few singing in St Andrews on Friday. Chiff-chaffs are typically the first common migrants to arrive along with sand martins. Some chiff-chaffs winter south of the Sahara but many winter in Iberia so they don’t have so far to go. Sand martins however, winter almost entirely in tropical West Africa and their early arrival during a cold spring must be a shock to the system. The migrants time their arrivals to the local weather conditions and will remain in southern Europe for longer when spring is late, following the warmer weather as it moves north. But it’s a delicate bit of timing and it will be as hard for a sand martin to predict what the weather is like in Fife from the conditions in France as we would find doing the reverse. There are always individuals that will take the risk of arriving early because they gain first access to territories and can get set up before prospective mates arrive, ready for a longer and more productive breeding season. The risk that they find unfavourable conditions is higher the earlier they arrive though so it’s one of those great trade-offs that create the variation we see. Consequently migrants arrive over quite a long period. It’s easy to say when you have seen the first sand martin but not so easy to say when half the population has arrived, or when the last straggler gets here.

Migration can also be a much smaller scale affair. I saw my first corn bunting singing from a wire just outside of Crail on Thursday. This bird probably spent the winter out with the large flock near St Monans and made its own modest migration back last week. Perhaps not the most epic of journeys: there would have been little uncertainty about the weather conditions on arrival or whether it was going to succeed in making the journey. The corn buntings back around Crail are still a great sign of spring. Their populations have been remaining steady over the last few years. I wish them well for a good summer again this year.

The corn buntings are back

The corn buntings are back

 

On Wednesday I saw several red-breasted merganser pairs on the sea at Kingsbarns and there was a pair in the harbour bay at Crail on Thursday. They are a very distinctive duck and when they take off, pairs are a like a couple of speeding arrowheads.

A pair of red-breasted mergansers

A pair of red-breasted mergansers

At the weekend the weather turned back to a more normal Crail spring with strong westerlies and much cooler temperatures. Sunday morning the temperature barely climbed up to four degrees. The early swallows may well be regretting their haste. I was out at Balcomie and Kilminning on Saturday morning but everything was keeping their heads down and there was little sign of even the resident birds. I did see a song thrush with a beak full of food at Kilrenny showing that some birds have got going. Most blackbirds around Crail are on eggs or have hatched their first broods by now as well. If you go into the garden and notice a male blackbird perching near you with cocked tail and a nervous manner you are probably close to the female sitting tightly on a nest. You can try the “getting warmer” game as the male will get more agitated the closer you get to the bush that contains the nest. It’s a bit of a give-away and the smarter birds like magpies and jays, I am sure, use cues like these to help them find the eggs.

Posted April 12, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

April 5th   Leave a comment

Easter Sunday always seems to be a beautiful day in Crail and this year was no different. The herring gulls got their annual feed of hard-boiled eggs because of the egg-rolling down at Roome Bay. They were so distracted that they ignored the occasional buzzard soaring over as the haar retreated and the day warmed up. It made me realise that the adult herring gulls are not that bothered by passing buzzards – they can take or leave them – and when they have something better to do they ignore them. It is a bit different later on when they have chicks conspicuous and vulnerable on rooftops and they certainly keep their distance from buzzards when following the plough. But a soaring buzzard over Crail at this time of year is just a reminder of a menace rather than any real threat to the gulls.

Buzzard

Buzzard

Posted April 5, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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