Archive for May 2015

Week ending 31st May   2 comments

With unusual impeccable timing after two weeks away in Cyprus and Germany I came back to Crail on Saturday to a report of a Kentish plover on the beach at Balcomie. This is a fairly rare bird with less than 20 Scottish records, although many of these come from the Firth of Forth in late spring. It has been on my hoped for list for Crail, indeed for Balcomie Beach which is perfect habitat for it, ever since I have been in Crail. I caught up with it mid-morning on Sunday after the heavy rain of the morning cleared up. Despite it only being a few kilometres from my house it still felt like a proper “twitch”. I felt a great sense of urgency to get out to the beach and very tense and excited right up to the moment of spotting the bird. And then a great sense of relief that I had seen it for the Crail list. I have seen many Kentish plovers abroad – they are a world-wide species but they favour more southerly beaches. A couple of years ago when I was in California I saw hundreds sharing the beaches happily with the surfers and dog walkers, only trotting a few meters out of harm’s way as a person approached. Today’s bird was a different story. It was associating with much more nervous sanderling and ringed plovers and would respond to their alarms. It was still possible to watch it without disturbing it at about 100 meters, but a telescope was needed to really appreciate it. Kentish plovers are slimmer and slightly smaller than ringed plovers and lack the definite black markings of them – they look like a washed out version of a ringed plover, or at any distance like a chick. They are great runners – like sanderling – and have slightly longer legs so this adds to the dinky, chick like appearance. Later in the year, looking like a newly fledged ringed plover would not be very helpful, but in the spring when there are only adults around it was very distinctive. It was probably a female (males have small patches of black and rufous on them) but I noticed a slight rufous wash on the back of the head which I think only males have. I watched the Kentish plover dashing about the beach for a while. It seemed to want to be alone, moving up to the cover of the strandline where it became invisible when it stopped moving. When alarmed it would rejoin the plovers at the tide edge. All of the plovers flew off to the bay to the north when a dog walker went on to the beach. John Anderson and I were the only bird watchers left to see their departure because of the unintentional human disturbance so there wasn’t much of a conflict but later on in the day this may have become more of a problem.

The Kentish plover at Balcomie beach today - no. 218 for the Crail list

The Kentish plover at Balcomie beach today – no. 218 for the Crail list

It was quite a wader-fest on the beach. As well as the Kentish plover and ringed plovers there were about 10 sanderling and a couple each of dunlin and turnstone. Some of the sanderlings and the turnstones were in very bright summer breeding plumage reminding me that they were still on their way north to the high Arctic, with the start of their breeding possibly still three weeks away. The same might be true for a couple of northern wheatears on the golf course. My last northern wheatear was on top of the tallest mountain in Cyprus last week: it takes them about 1-2 weeks more to reach the Arctic after crossing the Sahara so all of these birds are still perfectly on time to start breeding in those areas of the Arctic where the snow doesn’t melt until the second week in June.

Eider chick

Eider chick

My first eider chick raft of the year was out in Balcomie Bay to add to the Sunday scene. I get very cheered up seeing the chicks each year with their fussy and attentive multiple crèche mothers but also slightly apprehensive because only a few chicks will make it over the next three weeks. The same applies to the lapwing chicks in the area. There are quite a few out and about now on the way to the Secret Bunker and most obviously out on the lawn in front of the Fairmont Hotel. I wish them well in their next 2-3 very vulnerable weeks when everything has them on the menu.

Because of my absence I missed the arrival of the sedge warblers this year. There were several on Sunday morning hurling themselves up into the air in frenzied song flights. They probably feel the need to get going after their late arrival.

Lapwing chick

Lapwing chick


Posted May 31, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 10th   Leave a comment


It always seems a bit quiet after a migrant fall clears and today I only found one garden warbler and a few willow warblers and chiff-chaffs remaining between Kilminning and the Patch at Fife Ness. The whimbrels are still going strong though and a brave swift finally made it over Crail as if it means to stay – enjoying the balmy temperature rise of 5 degrees up to 12 this afternoon. There are still no sedge warblers back which is very late for them indeed.

One of the remaining willow warblers  at Kilminning today

One of the remaining willow warblers at Kilminning today

The sea was very busy today in contrast to inland. It will be reliably full of birds through until October now, with the peak season running from now until late July. The wind was a brisk southerly so everything was pushed close in to Crail. I had a steady stream of gannets, razorbills, guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars past with occasional sandwich terns and the first arctic terns and manx shearwater of the summer. A good few of the gannets were carrying seaweed for their nests. Fair enough, but the bizarre thing is I see almost all of the gannets carrying nesting material flying out of the Forth, not back into it to the Bass Rock. Competition for seaweed must be so high that they grab and hold onto any bit of seaweed they find, even if they then head off further out to sea to look for more. Gannets tend to return to the Bass much further out to sea so I can’t see whether they are carrying much larger loads on the way back. It does seem a waste of time and energy but if 80,000 gannets are all looking for seaweed at the same time then it must be a very valuable resource.

Gannet carrying seaweed for its nest

Gannet carrying seaweed for its nest


Posted May 10, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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There was another day of easterly winds yesterday with heavy rain showers overnight. As a consequence I set out in hope for Fife Ness this morning. Kilminning had some new garden warblers to show that some more migrants had come in. There was then a common sandpiper on the tidal pool at Fife Ness: common sandpipers are hardly ever spring passage birds around Crail although in July there may several on the rocky shore around the harbour on their way south to Africa. It was strangely inactive, feeding sedately on the water’s edge as if tired. Common sandpipers are usually characterised by their nervous jerky behaviour coupled with a constant bobbing up and down of their tail. This bird was in slow motion and ignoring walkers and golfers alike.

The Patch was much more lively and I hit the migration jackpot, finally seeing a reed warbler for the Crail list. Reed warblers are not that common in Scotland and they are rare passage birds for Crail. Usually they turn up during ringing at Fife Ness because they are skulking and so more likely to be picked up when they fly into a mist net. I heard a snatch of song that I thought sounded like a reed warbler. I was a bit cautious because we expect the sedge warblers in any day now and they have a similar song. But I was fairly sure of my identification and sure enough I soon was watching a reed warbler moving through the bushes a few meters in front of me. Reed warblers are part of a group of uniformly brown birds that are really most distinctive by their song. Nevertheless there are a few features to check when you see one, like its warm brown colour, especially on the back and tail, to eliminate the very similar marsh warbler – that coincidentally turned up last May in exactly the same place in the patch. All was in order and safely added bird number 217 to my Crail list. It’s always a great day out when you add a new species. Reed warblers are easy to find in England, and probably turn up annually in Crail, but it has taken me 13 years to see one here: today’s bird was very special to me.

Reed warbler - bird species number 217 on the Crail list

Reed warbler – bird species number 217 on the Crail list

The big flock of garden warblers in the Patch last week had reduced to a couple but with the addition of a lesser whitethroat. Another good migrant to find. They are great indicator birds that something good is likely to be around. Having already found a reed warbler this sign was perhaps a bit redundant.

It brightened up in the afternoon and by the evening it was even fairly warm. Swallows seemed to be everywhere over the cow fields at the airfield and whimbrels were passing steadily over, whistling shrilly. I found a couple of new spotted flycatchers at Kilminning and a tree pipit at Balcomie to round off a nice spring migration day.

Posted May 10, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 7th   Leave a comment

It has been a great spring for whimbrels. There have been up to seven down at Balcomie beach and individuals regular on the shore at Crail, especially Saucehope. They are very obvious this year because almost all the other shorebirds have left, apart from the oystercatchers. The summer shore is always much quieter without the waders but not usually this soon. At least the whimbrels are making up for it. If you spot a curlew rooting around on the rocky shore tomorrow double check whether it has a shortish looking bill and a stripey looking head – it will be a whimbrel.

One of the whimbrels on Balcomie Beach

One of the whimbrels on Balcomie Beach

Posted May 7, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 6th   Leave a comment

The last week has finally seen the start of proper spring migration through Crail. There was a spell of light east winds at the end of last week with some rain showers and the migrants have come tumbling down. The showers were particularly heavy over the weekend. In fact we have had double the total amount of rain we got during April – an admittedly very dry month with about 15mm – in the last 4 days. Having spent an hour or so out in one of the heaviest downpours today I can testify that it has been monumentally wet. But as the farmers and gardeners have been saying – we need it – and as far as I am concerned it can rain a bit more if it keeps on bringing the birds down.

Last Friday there were more willow warblers and chiff-chaffs about and I saw my first wheatear of the year at Balcomie. The flash of their white rump as they take off, contrasting against the dark, bare earth fields they usually turn up in is one of the signs of a Crail spring or autumn for me. I also saw my first sand martins of the year. There was a group of four hawking over the only remaining farm pool at Balcomie Castle. There are a couple of small sand martin colonies between Balcomie and Cambo and I suspect these birds had shifted from there to the pool because insects are more reliable above water in colder weather. Even though this weekend has brought the migrants in, it has not really warmed up yet. The swallows and martins were congregating wherever it was a bit more sheltered and insecty, particularly the lee of sycamores already in leaf or over the strandline. Another first for the year last Friday was a common whitethroat scuttling about in the brambles at Balcomie, making the same grumpy churr in alarm at me as the last whitethroat I saw in West Africa in November last year. That whitethroat was also in a scrubby field corner, in a bush that looked a lot like a bramble: it was a bit warmer though.

One of the male pied flycatchers at Kilminning this morning

One of the male pied flycatchers at Kilminning this morning

Things really picked up after the heavy rain of Sunday. There was a wryneck at the patch at Fife Ness. On Monday and Tuesday there were reports of cuckoos, redstarts, pied flycatchers and even a yellow wagtail (a bird that still eludes me for my Crail list). I managed to get out for a serious look for things first thing this morning. Luckily there wasn’t any rain today for the first couple of hours after dawn. I started at Kilminning and after about ten minutes found a tree pipit foraging amongst the sycamores. Like the whitethroat of Friday, my last tree pipit was in November in West Africa. Again foraging on the ground among scattered trees (eucalyptus though) on the edge of farmland, but again much warmer and much dryer. I then heard the distinctive chinking of a pied flycatcher coming from the other side of Kilminning and I hurried over to find two birds fighting over a patch of sycamores. Usually the pied flycatchers I connect with at Crail are in the autumn and in dull brown winter plumage but these two were handsome black and white adult males. Pied flycatchers are territorial on their wintering ground, on their breeding ground – and from today’s observation – on passage as well. I was grateful for their fighting and calling. It’s so much easier to find a rare bird when it’s calling.

I then tried the patch and had my best hour’s birding of the year. There was a flock of about 30 mixed warblers: 8 or so garden warblers, 4 or 5 blackcaps, a wood warbler, a goldcrest, 2 common whitethroats and the rest an equal mixture of chiff-chaffs and willow warblers. Underneath the flock, which was keeping to the tops of the trees, was at least one, probably more, spotted flycatcher and another pied flycatcher. Garden warblers are not very rare birds but in any year I might only get at most a handful around Crail. Here was my year’s quota in one tree. And wood warblers are very good Crail birds. I haven’t seen one here since 2008. With a mixed flock like this working its way through a patch of trees there was always something new to look at. I thought initially there were only three garden warblers but the longer I looked the more I saw together until I was able to count 8. If the usual rule of thumb about detectability applies then there may well have been another 8 more down at Fife Ness this morning. And of course other species which I missed entirely. Still I was very happy. The icing on the cake, as it came on to rain again, were a couple of swifts, visibly shaking the raindrops off as they passed over me.

The rarest Crail bird of the day - a wood warbler

The rarest Crail bird of the day – a wood warbler

On my way to work I stopped at the lapwing pool at the crossroads east of Toldrie. I was hoping for an elusive yellow wagtail in the damp pasture or along the muddy pool fringe. No wagtail but I did flush a common snipe up from the grass. Another migrant I should think. One third of European bird species are long distance migrants and many snipe winter south of the Sahara just like the warblers and flycatchers I was seeing earlier.

A less obvious migrant - a common snipe

A less obvious migrant – a common snipe

Posted May 6, 2015 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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