Archive for August 2015

August 30th   Leave a comment

Probable Lion's Mane Jellyfish at Roome Bay

Probable Lion’s Mane Jellyfish at Roome Bay

I came back today from a week in Spain and Portugal – not the best week to be away from Crail with one of the best migrant falls for many years occurring at the end of last week. Still the wildlife in Extremadura was pretty good too. I started the day watching pallid swifts over Lisbon and finished it watching common swifts over Crail – a couple of late season birds dashing over the High Street at dusk catching a snack on their way south. They may well be in Lisbon themselves tomorrow.

A neighbour sent me a photo of a large jellyfish they found in the boating pond at Roome Bay. It’s probably a small Lion’s Mane jellyfish – about 30 cm across here – but it can grow up to a meter or more.

Posted August 31, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 23rd   1 comment

There was a report of a humpback whale passing Crail towards Fife Ness first thing in the morning. It was flat calm all morning so a whale would have been very obvious. Whale sightings get more and more common every summer as their populations continue to recover. A humpback sighting on the east coast is still pretty good though. I had a good scan from Crail and Fife Ness but with no luck. I did see a few groups of bottle-nosed dolphins passing in early afternoon although none close in.

The knot season continues down at Balcomie. There was a flock of 25 this morning probing busily into the sand near the strand line. I think they were getting sandhoppers which seem to be particularly abundant in jumping clouds as you walk along the beach at the moment. The knot were joined by turnstone, sanderling and redshank, and right up at the top of the beach a single whimbrel.

The big flock of knot out at Balcomie beach this weekend

The big flock of knot out at Balcomie beach this weekend

I did a circuit of all the potential pools around Crail in the afternoon just in case there were some interesting passage waders inland as well. Even the undrained pool at Troustie was pretty much dry despite the heavy rain we have had over the last 6 weeks. It is such a loss to Crail that we don’t really have any pond or pool by late summer. The waders flying over continue over the Forth rather than coming down to us. There were large flocks of linnets and swallows out at Troustie and one or two corn buntings.

There was a spectacular thunderstorm over Crail on Saturday night with 4 mm of rain in about 30 minutes. The rainy season continues.

Posted August 23, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 20th   Leave a comment

Although the 3 month migration season, when anything might turn up in Crail, has started, it didn’t start with a bang today. Our first good bit of easterly winds and rain showers, along with goodies dropping onto the May and at other places on the East coast, didn’t result in anything this morning. There were just some willow warblers (fewer than the weekend), a couple of chiff-chaffs and a garden warbler at Kilminning. Still if you don’t check, you don’t find. I met a few others out hoping to start “the season” off well so if there had been anything about there was some chance of someone finding it. It is hard at this time of year though, with all the leaves still on the trees: for every willow warbler I saw I heard another two. If there had been a silent greenish warbler about (the mid-August rarity) it would have been tricky to find.

There are a lot of golden plover about Crail at least just now. A flock of about 200 is wandering between Saucehope and Anstruther and often flying right above Crail. Listen for their fluting mournful whistles and look for a tight flickering flock of pigeon-like birds. If you get a closer look they are a mixture of handsome black-bellied summer plumage birds and bright, clean winter plumage or juvenile birds, with some more raggedy in between birds.

A mixed flock of summer and moulting into winter plumage golden plovers

A mixed flock of summer and moulting into winter plumage golden plovers

Posted August 20, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 16th   Leave a comment

I had one of those perfect moments this evening. I was swimming with my family off Balcomie Beach – the sky a perfect blue, beach completely deserted except for us and even some surf. And the sea was alive with grey seals, popping their heads out to look at us and then shyly disappearing. Then back again a bit closer in a game of grandmother’s footsteps. And just above, hundreds of swallows passing down the coast. I even had a pintail flying overhead – a rare duck for Crail and luckily quite distinctive enough to identify while lying on your back in the waves.

Grey seal having a curious look

Grey seal having a curious look

Posted August 17, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending August 16th   Leave a comment

Despite the promise of some migrants at the end of the week there was not much sign of anything particularly unusual at Kilminning and Fife Ness this weekend. Willow warblers everywhere, but they pass through in large numbers in August regardless of the weather. Every bush and tree had a few willow warblers in them: they are everywhere in Crail at the moment too. Inconspicuous as they forage through the gardens unless you know their soft “hoo-weet” call.

I did have 11 whimbrels between Kilminning and Fife Ness on Saturday morning, and a flock of 12 teal and a common sandpiper at Fife Ness as obvious migrants. Shorebirds – coastal shorebirds at least – seem less dependent on the winds though; at this time of year there is always something about on the shore. There are now 10 or so knots on the rocks of Fife Ness.

Whimbrels passing Fife Ness - one of my favourite sights and sounds in the world

Whimbrels passing Fife Ness – one of my favourite sights and sounds in the world

As I sat on Balcomie Beach on Saturday morning I watched the goosanders communally fishing. It’s a great sight to see in July and August. Saturday was a typical sighting – about 20 goosanders in a line about 50 meters out among the rocks, with all of them dipping their heads into the water periodically to check what the fish were doing. They then all dived simultaneously underwater, popping up ten seconds later, many with a fish. The goosanders were cooperatively fishing, herding the fish and then benefitting from the confusion that so many of them create when they all attack at the same time.

A cooperatively hunting goosander with its head down looking for fish just prior to diving with the group

A cooperatively hunting goosander with its head down looking for fish just prior to diving with the group

The swifts left quite spectacularly this year. On Wednesday evening I was watching 30-40 screaming over the high street at dusk and then on Thursday not one. I haven’t seen a swift since. How they synchronise their departure I have no idea, perhaps they were cranking themselves up each evening earlier in the week and finally they passed a threshold so that instead of flying up to roost as usual they just kept going south. The brilliant thing is that they will now mostly already be in Africa and will be in the Congo next week.

There seem very few butterflies and moths this year. It’s been a slow growing season after a late spring so perhaps there will be a rush later in the month. Nevertheless, it is fairly unusual to be here in the middle of August, on a sunny weekend, with no butterflies at all in my garden. It does seem to have been a good summer for bees though.

I saw my first fledged gannet on Saturday – quite an early one. The big clumsy brown juveniles will soon be everywhere. The adults are still working very hard to ensure that the juveniles fledge with lots of fat to sustain them over the first few weeks even if does make it hard for them to fly. The auks have more or less disappeared in contrast – no puffins at Fife Ness this weekend and from now on they will be very rare until next May.

The robins are moulting and so looking very scrappy – if you see one that is. They stop singing in August and become much more furtive as they renew their plumage. It’s almost as if they are embarrassed to show themselves while they have patchy and dull plumage. In reality they hide because they want to save energy to get their moult done as quickly as possible and also because their flight ability is compromised as they grow new feathers. I have seen a few sparrowhawks around Crail this week passing silently (if the swallows let them) from garden to garden looking for the unwary. If I was a moulting robin I would be keeping a low profile too.

Posted August 16, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 13th   Leave a comment

Fulmars - they may be common but still worth looking at - our own min-albatrosses

Fulmars – they may be common but still worth looking at – our own min-albatrosses

This evening was good for sea watching. A brisk south-easterly wind pushing the gannets, fulmars and occasional manx shearwater close in to Crail. The weather forecast is for heavy rain tomorrow so there well may be some migrants brought down.

Posted August 14, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 9th   Leave a comment

One of the summer plumage knots on Balcomie Beach this week - this may even be the unlucky one I found killed by a peregrine this morning

One of the summer plumage knots on Balcomie Beach this week – this may even be the unlucky one I found killed by a peregrine this morning

Every Sunday morning, inevitably I almost end up on Balcomie Beach and Fife Ness. It’s an easy place to visit, there are always good birds there and best of all there is a sense of continuity in going to the same place repeatedly through the seasons. Like time lapse photography every added snapshot adds value: the changes each week make it really interesting. This morning there seemed to be waders everywhere with the autumn migration starting. 25 dunlin, the same number of sanderlings, ringed plover, turnstones, redshank and curlew, even a couple of knot roosting with the oystercatchers at high tide. The knot were still in summer plumage, showing bright brick red underparts and mottled backs. I also found the wing and some body feathers of one on the edge of the golf course. There were at least three earlier in the week… but one met a peregrine. Birds killed by peregrines are distinct from those killed by sparrowhawks because peregrines only pluck the inner wing feathers and so leave half the wing intact. Sparrowhawks are more thorough and pluck all the wing feathers off. They tend to eat prey in the cover of vegetation, so a kill out in the open is much more likely to be a peregrine. Falcons and hawks are more or less all an adult knot has to worry about. Their main defence is to migrate to breed and winter where such predators are fewer and to congregate in huge flocks where their risk of being a victim is massively diluted. Small groups on migration, in unfamiliar territory, are very vulnerable, however. The dead knot I found was in Svalbard or Siberia a couple of weeks ago, perhaps on route to Mauritania for the winter. It may have made the journey 20 times before and just got unlucky this time.

Young dunlin also on Balcomie Beach at the moment

Young dunlin also on Balcomie Beach at the moment

The swifts were very noisy last night, gathering in a big flock at dusk over Crail. They will be on their way back to Africa any day now. It’s hard to tell but I also think a lot of the swallows are heading south just now. Many more of the swallows I saw this weekend seemed to be heading west (and so eventually south) along the coast rather than the other way. They will still be with us until October although this is mostly because of migrants passing through continuously rather than our local birds staying much longer. The swifts and swallows starting to leave always makes me feel sad for the summer passing but they signal the beginning of the most three exciting months bird-wise in Crail.

Posted August 9, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 8th   Leave a comment

All week sandwich terns have been passing Crail heading east and eventually north when they pass Fife Ness. There must have been hundreds per hour passing mid-week. Sandwich terns are easy to spot – large and gull like but with short tails, long pointed bills and square ended heads so they look like pale pterodactyls. And they call constantly with a shrill “keer – ro – rick”. I’ve said it before but it really is the late summer sound of Crail: once you get your ear in you realise there are sandwich terns passing constantly at this time of year. The terns are often very close in and cut the corner so they fly right over Crail. Sandwich terns spend a month or two wandering around the North Sea coast after breeding so we will be likely seeing Dutch, French, English and German tourists passing by.

Sandwich tern

Sandwich tern

Posted August 8, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 2nd   Leave a comment

This morning was practically windless. The sea flat half-way out to the May: if there had been any dolphins about they would have stood out a mile. I did an optimistic circuit of Balcomie and Kilminning without any real expectation of finding anything, but found that everything was worth seeing. Even a chaffinch seems worth seeing after a month without them. I noticed a lot of young birds. At this time of year you can begin to get an idea of how well the breeding season has gone by counting the number of adults relative to the number of juveniles. Goldfinches are perfect for this. The young lack the head pattern of the adults and so look strangely bald. It is easy to count them as they perch in a line on a telephone wire. For example in one group I counted 7 young and 2 adults – so 3.5 per adult, or 7 for a pair. Not too bad when you realise that each adult needs to produce one young in its life to replace itself and so have a stable population. It is a bit more complicated than that because you need to factor in how long the adult might live and how many young ones will die before they get to breed themselves next year. If, for example, we assume realistically that half the adults die over the winter and three quarters of the juveniles (youngsters always have a much higher chance of dying in their first year as they try to find their way in the world) then we would be left with one adult and 1-2 juveniles by the start of next summer. A positive balance sheet but fairly tenuously so. If in a bad summer each pair only produced 3 young then this would shift to a decline in the population for that year. Good years can make up for bad years of course, and vice versa. It takes a lot of information to work out therefore if this year is good or bad for breeding for any bird, but on first sight it looks like the goldfinches have done well. Same with the swallows I think, also the buzzards and kestrels I saw today (you can tell the adults in birds of prey at this time of year often because they are missing flight feathers as they moult: the young have just grown a nice new set so have perfect-looking wings). For some birds the adults and juveniles segregate after breeding so this simple counting doesn’t work. The black-headed gulls roosting on the low tide shore off Crail today were almost entirely adults with may be a couple of first years for every 25 adults. The youngsters are mostly still inland, where they were born, and will work their way to the coast over the next month or two.

Juvenile black-headed gull - ready for its future life of crime?

Juvenile black-headed gull – ready for its future life of crime?

It’s young herring gull time again around Crail. The surviving chicks are now large and able to fly but still hang around the rooftops where they were born mewing pathetically. I notice that they (well at least “seagulls” – which is like referring to problems in Africa, yes, but which country do you mean?) have become demonised again in the last month. Yes, some gull species do well in the chaos we have created with our superabundance of litter to feed on, removal of the larger predators and changes of habitat to suit them. But in a world with a higher priority in maintaining “natural” habitats and ecological communities we would not have such a problem with gulls, or the next “pest” species that we will inevitably create.

Posted August 2, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 1st   2 comments

Arctic terns

Arctic terns

I have spent the last few weeks on the west coast of Canada on holiday with my family and as I sat on Balcomie Beach this morning it struck me how similar everything is. Last week I was watching seabirds on a rocky headland much like Fife Ness. Out to sea were cormorants and shags, gulls and auks and on the rocks were turnstones and oystercatchers. True, Vancouver Island has pelagic and Brandt’s cormorants instead of our shag and cormorant, California and Bonaparte’s gull instead of our Herring and Black-headed, and black turnstones and black oystercatchers instead of our species. But ecologically, it is all the same. There is a living to be made fishing or scavenging on any northern latitude coast and the evolutionary answers are the same. The turnstones may be black but they were turning over stones, picking among the mussel beds and chasing each other in their grumpy early summer way when they re-establish their wintering territories and feeding hierarchies. I will see the same behaviour from our turnstones which will be returning to Crail shores from now on. Of course there are differences: Vancouver Island doesn’t have any gannets so today these looked huge and fantastic to me after a three week absence – we are very lucky to have them so common. I do usually take them for granted. My appreciation was reawakened this morning as I watched bird after bird high diving into the surf. And Vancouver Island doesn’t have many terns. I watched arctic terns this morning and re-appreciated them too. They and sandwich terns, of course, will be fairly common for the next month or so as they bring their fledged young for a few weeks’ fishing at Kingsbarns and Fife Ness.

The season was winding down when I left and now the autumn migration season seems a real possibility. I have heard whimbrels calling as they pass over Crail and St Andrews every day this week heading south. Some of these birds will already be in Africa as I write this. The guillemots and razorbills are now much less obvious shuttling back and forth out to sea having finished breeding. Only the last few puffins are left breeding (although so many of them breed that this means that there are still a lot to be seen off Crail now). In a couple of weeks we can expect proper migration to start – easterly winds and rain showers will bring in early migrants like wood sandpipers, whinchats, tree pipits and cuckoos.

One thing that is a bit different between Canada and Crail just now is the weather. They are having a heat wave and a drought and I note from my weather station that we had 84 mm of rain in July. A good rain storm in Crail (several hours of heavy rain) is about 2 mm so that means it has been a raining a lot. You probably already noticed. June in contrast was dry – 17 mm, and May wet again – 74 mm. So if you are a pessimist we can expect more of this wet summer or if you are an optimist you can hope it’s the turn of another dry month.

Gannet - undoubtedly one of Crail's star birds

Gannet – undoubtedly one of Crail’s star birds

Posted August 1, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

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