Archive for September 2015

September 30th   Leave a comment

This evening there were more than 200 little gulls about a kilometre out from Crail. A long way out perhaps but it was a perfectly still sunlit evening so they were easy to see. They were dipping and hovering above the sea characteristically, flashing their black underwings, with an occasional black-headed gull or kittiwake giving me a scale. It’s been a slow autumn for seabirds so far – few skuas, shearwaters and no little gulls until now. I suspect little gulls are always out there this time of year, but too far out most of the time.

Little gull - passing Fife Ness a couple of days ago

Little gull – passing Fife Ness a couple of days ago

Posted September 30, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 27th   Leave a comment

You couldn’t really have a better day than today weather-wise. A flat calm sea, no wind, no clouds and even though the temperature this afternoon only reached 16 degrees, without the wind it felt perfect. You could see birds everywhere at Balcomie this morning from shore to horizon. Nothing more than our winter usuals, but with something interesting to see wherever you looked. There were a smattering of common and arctic terns being harried by three arctic skuas (two almost working as a team making quite sure that the victim had its fish stolen each time), a merlin hunting along the shore and a redpoll flying over to add a bit of extra interest. The weather looks fairly settled for next week – so more perfect autumn days in the East Neuk to look forward to, if not perfect just yet for migrant birds.

Arctic skua

Arctic skua

Posted September 27, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 26th   Leave a comment

The large flock of golden plover is still around, shuttling between the rocks at Saucehope and the stubble and newly ploughed fields between Fife Ness and Crail. Any large, coherent flock of rapidly moving pale birds over Crail will be this flock. When they come in to land in a field they have a very characteristic way of all conspicuously gliding together in a lazy loop over where they want to land followed by a rapid bunching up with flickering wingbeats before another lazy loop. A bit like a pre-roosting starling flock, but with much larger and paler flock members. The moment they land in a field they disappear like magic, of course, because their speckled backs camouflage their pale undersides.

Our local golden plover flock

Our local golden plover flock

It’s been a quiet week with little moving in the way of migrants or on the sea. Even the May Island has gone quiet with just a single yellow-browed warbler this week. We missed the crucial winds two weeks ago and everything got blown past us straight up to Shetland where there are literally hundreds of yellow-browed warblers (more yellow-brows than trees!). We have the locals to cheer us up though: the bar-tailed godwits on Balcomie Beach and occasionally Roome Bay for example.

A lovely bar-tailed godwit at Balcomie to keep us all cheerful during the quiet spell

A lovely bar-tailed godwit at Balcomie to keep us all cheerful during the quiet spell

Posted September 26, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 26th   Leave a comment

The pink-foots are here at last! There were flocks of pink-footed geese arriving all day today. Most coming in from the sea from the west because the wind had pushed them out into the North Sea during their flight down. There has been a steady westerly airflow from Iceland this last week so they will have been mostly wind assisted but will have had to correct their course. It is such a great autumn sound and sight to hear distant pink-feet and then to look up and see a skein coming in. I can imagine how pleased the geese feel too to see the stubble fields of Fife below them after up to two days of solid flying.

Incoming pink-footed geese: welcome back!

Incoming pink-footed geese: welcome back!

Posted September 26, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 22nd   1 comment

I saw another Crail kingfisher today, zooming across Roome Bay early this morning. You wait 10 years and then two come along at once. I suspect it is not a coincidence and we may now have a kingfisher using the shore regularly between Fife Ness and Crail. I hope so. Global warming is pushing kingfishers further north and they are becoming much more common in southern Scotland.

Another spreading species is the Canada goose. This used to be an annual rarity in Crail but we now we have a regular summering flock between Kingsbarns and Boarhills. This year I have counted as many as 200 roosting at the mouth of the Kenly Burn. Today they were feeding in a big flock across the stubble field behind the bay. Still no sign of any of the grey winter geese though.

Canada geese - becoming more or less resident in the Crail area

Canada geese – becoming more or less resident in the Crail area

Posted September 22, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 19th   Leave a comment

A red admiral enjoying the sun today

A red admiral enjoying the sun today

It was a lovely warm day today with little wind. There were finally lots of red-admiral butterflies about sunning themselves. This summer still qualifies as a poor one for butterflies though.

Every morning this week for the first hour after dawn there have been meadow pipits passing over Crail on their way south. Today they were joined by small groups of swallows and house martins and even a few skylarks, although these might well be at the end of their journey to their wintering grounds rather than at the start. The first geese of the winter have passed over Crail this week – brent and barnacle but still no obvious pink-footed geese yet: any day now they will be over with their distinctive “honk honk wink wink” call as if their voices are breaking.

Posted September 20, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 18th   Leave a comment

This week has seen a big change. There were hundreds of swallows around Crail last weekend but they almost totally disappeared on Wednesday. On both Wednesday and Thursday morning there were flocks going over Crail as if they were in a hurry. Today I didn’t see a single one. Everything else has moved on as well. I found a flock of blue tits, great tits and goldcrests with just three willow warblers in it, working their way along the sycamores at the airfield, but no other migrants.

Even so, I optimistically checked out the Patch for yellow-browed warblers that have started appearing on the May this week. I got excited by a snatch of call but when I tracked the bird down it was only a couple of birders using playback. I couldn’t complain having just tried to call one up myself a few minutes before. It turned out the birders had heard my playback and they were trying to make my calling bird appear for them. All a bit circular. It was a good job we tracked each other down or we would have both erroneously reported in a yellow-browed warbler today. I am usually very careful not to use playback when there are other people around to avoid this, even though I find that most birders, surprisingly, don’t actually notice calls that much.

As I cycled up the hill through the golf course I saw a little bounding shape working its way along the stone dyke by the side of the wall: a weasel. It was searching between the stones for mice, voles or shrews in that characteristic way they have of sudden lightning like runs and bounds interspersed with a frozen upright stare around them. They have that real predator machine look about them shared by sparrowhawks. Constantly alert for movement and ready to shift mercilessly from immobility into a lightning lunge at anything they encounter. Weasels must be a bit short sighted – or just don’t care – because you can always approach them. I got within a few meters of this one, helped by me squeaking like a mouse so that it actually approached me. I have had stoats even crawling onto my boots in this way. So much attitude and confidence in such a small animal. I am still smiling about it although I suspect if I was a mouse I would be less cheerful about the encounter.

This is actually a stoat but without seeing the tail it is hard to tell: this gives more than a flavour of my weasel sighting

The stock stoat picture I use to show what a weasel looks like – John hasn’t got a weasel photo, but as I have pointed out before if you can’t see the tail and can’t judge the size as here it might as well be a weasel

Posted September 19, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 13th   Leave a comment

The wind shifted round to the west yesterday evening. There is a storm over the Hebrides pushing the easterly winds to the north of us now so the hoped for migrant fall overnight didn’t materialise. This morning there was only what was about for the last few days. An apparently new wood warbler at Kilminning – but it will have been here yesterday or the day before. This morning the weather was fine, with no wind and there were a lot of people out looking so perhaps it is surprising that more “new” birds weren’t found. I enjoyed the wood warbler foraging in the tops of the sycamores; it was with a couple of pied flycatchers. There was also a spotted flycatcher at the top of Kilminning. I looked fruitlessly for a redstart which was seen there as well this morning – again this will be left over from earlier in the week: a couple were reported on Friday. Redstarts have been eluding me all year, spring and now autumn. It goes to show that even when you are out working hard to see birds that you miss most of what is there, and redstarts are not a particularly inconspicuous species.

Close up of the gorgeous clean white and yellow you see on a wood warbler

Close up of the gorgeous clean white and yellow you see on a wood warbler

Posted September 13, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 12th   Leave a comment

It has been an interesting day – gales at times, with a big sea and waves crashing into Fife Ness, with occasional rain showers. The wind remains easterly so everything is still in place for some migrants to turn up tomorrow. There was no real sign of them by this afternoon though: just a pied flycatcher still at the Patch, a couple of willow warblers at Kilminning, and two northern wheatears on Balcomie Beach. The passage at sea was much more exciting. Hundreds of birds passing every few minutes: gannets, kittiwakes, fulmars and all three auks. Surprisingly quite a few juvenile puffins, probably hundreds if I had bothered to count all day – I hardly ever see juveniles after they all fledge in late summer and even then not many. Every so often a red-throated diver, sandwich, common and arctic terns, sooty and manx shearwaters and arctic skuas would go by to liven it up. But it was sheer spectacle day rather than a day of unusual birds. I sat in the hide at Fife Ness this afternoon as it creaked in the gusty wind looking over the huge waves – so large that every so often my whole view of the sea would disappear as one broke over the rocks directly in front of the hide. At times it felt like I was going to be washed away. The seabirds were passing so close that my binoculars were more than sufficient.

Juvenile puffin - unusually lots past Crail today heading north

Juvenile puffin – unusually lots past Crail today heading north

Kingfisher - on my Crail list at last. No. 221

Kingfisher – on my Crail list at last. No. 221

Balcomie Beach was also alive. 50 dunlin with redshank, sanderling, ringed plover, bar-tailed godwit, turnstone, a golden plover and a couple of whimbrel feeding along the strandline with the pied wagtails and rock pipits. There was a small roost of sandwich and common terns on the beach. In the surging surf eiders and a hundred gulls of four species were picking up the seaweed fly maggots as they got washed out of the piles of seaweed on the strandline. And as the background, the stream of seabirds and the wild waves. And then suddenly a bolt of electric blue flying along the sea: my first ever Crail kingfisher (no. 221 for the Crail list). I have seen many kingfishers around St Andrews and the Eden and I have looked for them after they have been seen on the Dreel Burn at Anstruther, but one for the Crail list has been elusive. Kingfishers are always special, but against a grey sea and as a Crail bird at last, this was very special.

Posted September 12, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 11th   Leave a comment

The winds have been south-easterly for three days now and when you look at a global wind map (have a look at,46.88,289) the wind is blowing straight from central Asia to Crail. Birds started to appear on the May Island yesterday and this morning there was a red-backed shrike reported from Boarhills. I stopped off there on my way back from work and although I couldn’t find the shrike, I did see two whinchats. A great indication of migrant birds being around – we only ever get whinchats when there are other good species about. Whinchats are surprisingly rare on passage in the East Neuk and I have only see a handful here. I usually see them in Africa now. Whinchats have declined massively all over Western Europe and have disappeared as breeders from many areas – Fife included. My last whinchats were in Nigeria last November when I was recatching birds with geolocator tags on them. It’s great to see these African birds perched again on a Fife stone wall rather than an acacia bush and it made up for missing the shrike. I wasn’t too surprised to miss the shrike though. It was pretty windy today and young shrikes tend to stay inconspicuously within bushes and feed like big warblers in these conditions.

A whinchat in Nigeria on a maize stem - a long way from the wheat field I saw them in at Boarhills today, but pretty much the same thing if you are a whinchat I think

A whinchat in Nigeria on a maize stem (actually a geolocator bird from my research – you can just see the tag sticking up from this bird’s back) – a long way from the wheat field I saw them in at Boarhills today, but pretty much the same thing if you are a whinchat I think

I biked down to Fife Ness to see if there were any other migrants around. The wind made it difficult but I tracked down a pied and a spotted flycatcher (again good indicator birds of other rare birds being about) and best of all a yellow wagtail. My first for the Crail list, taking my total up to 220 species now. It has been good for migrant yellow wagtails through Crail this year with 3 days so far when they have been seen in the area. I finally had my turn. I remembered to check through the pied wagtails on the golf course at Balcomie and sure enough there was a juvenile yellow wagtail on a fairway. Just as with the whinchats, I see yellow wagtails now mostly in Africa and it was lovely to see one Scotland where they are always a special bird.

A yellow wagtail - one of my photos of a bird in Nigeria - they are birds of acacia studded African farmland to me, not Scottish golf courses

A yellow wagtail – again one of my photos of a bird in Nigeria – they are birds of acacia studded African farmland to me, not Scottish golf courses

Posted September 11, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 6th   Leave a comment

The wind went round to the west overnight and the temperature climbed by 8 degrees compared to yesterday. It coaxed out a handful of butterflies – small tortoiseshells and peacocks – and then flying ants by late afternoon. I couldn’t see them but I could see the sky full of black-headed gulls soaring and flycatching like swallows.

A would be swallow when there are flying ants around - a black - headed gull

A would be swallow when there are flying ants around – a black – headed gull

Posted September 6, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 5th   Leave a comment

Balcomie Beach was much quieter today with only 15 dunlins, a handful of ringed plover and sanderling and just one ruff left splashing among the washing up seaweed. Still a nice spectacle and enough birds to make you check carefully in case something else was there too hiding further up the beach as with the midweek curlew sandpiper.

There was a big passage of fulmars today. Because there are almost always some resident birds around it is hard to tell when there is a passage. Not today. There was a steady stream of fulmars heading north all day past Crail, with 10 passing every minute in the morning. There was a good number of manx shearwaters and the occasional sooty shearwater as well. This afternoon at Fife Ness the passage continued. I also saw my first arctic skuas of the year harassing kittiwakes far off shore and best of all a juvenile black tern passing north. They are annual but unless you put the time in at Fife Ness with a telescope you don’t see them. Black terns draw attention to themselves by their dipping flight as they swoop down to the water to pick food from the surface even as they fly steadily along.

Fulmar - just as much a passage migrant past Crail as the manx shearwater

Fulmar – just as much a passage migrant past Crail as the manx shearwaters

Posted September 5, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 3rd   Leave a comment

Sooty shearwater

Sooty shearwater

The cold northerly wind continued today. All the swallows in Crail seemed to be congregated in the lee of the beech and sycamores in Beech Walk Park this morning, including a single swift, looking very out of place on such an autumnal day. At sea there was still a steady stream of seabirds passing with a great skua past Crail every ten minutes or so and my first sooty shearwater of the season powering past in the evening.

Posted September 3, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 2nd   Leave a comment

I went out to Balcomie Beach this lunchtime to look for a couple of rarer wader species that had been seen there earlier in the morning. The beach was about the best I have ever seen it for shorebirds – literally covered with dunlins and ringed plovers, with a good number of sanderling, golden plover, knot and redshank, and a few bar-tailed godwit as well. In amongst them were the two hoped for species, four ruff and a single curlew sandpiper.

We get ruff every other year – and there are good years when we get a few passing through in the autumn, but it has been a bit lean for the last couple of years. Ruff are odd looking things with pigeon heads and longish necks, and that makes them distinctive and easy to spot. Otherwise they are very variable in size from much smaller than a redshank to much bigger, they have variable colour legs and bills, and variable length bills. They are just as variable in their choice of habitat – I have seen them in the Arctic lichen tundra, on pasture amongst cows in Scotland and in rice fields in Nigeria. Today they were striding obviously on top of floating mats of seaweed on the surf’s edge, wobbling but not quite falling down as the waves shifted back and forth.

A ruff at Balcomie

A ruff at Balcomie

The curlew sandpiper was harder to find. Curlew sandpipers are dunlin size and dunlin like and although I find them totally distinctive, having about 100 dunlin appearing and disappearing on the beach as they poked through the mats of seaweed washed onto the beach made it a bit of a challenge. A fun challenge though. I found it after 15 minutes of searching: a young bird born this year somewhere in Siberia, fuelling up on seaweed fly maggots and heading towards South Africa.

Juvenile curlew sandpiper

Juvenile curlew sandpiper

The wind was from the north-west, perhaps helping bring the waders in. Good for seabirds certainly. There were several great skuas passing Fife Ness today, with one passing Crail this evening amongst the gannets.

Posted September 2, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 1st   Leave a comment


Juvenile male merlin

Juvenile male merlin

As I came through Kingsbarns this morning I noticed a commotion among the swallows and house martins rapidly bunching up over the newly harvested field by the road to the beach. There was a juvenile male merlin in full attack, diving into the middle of the swallows, missing and then chasing a chaffinch that flew up out of the field. It just made the cover of the sycamore with the merlin banking away just above the car I was in. A brilliant close action view of one the most exciting birds of prey we get to see around here. August and September is the best time of year to see merlins in Crail with a small passage of birds and a few that stay a few weeks in the fields and even occasionally visiting gardens. Male merlins are really tiny, smaller than a collared dove. This makes them really manoeuverable and very exciting to watch when hunting. When they are not hunting they disappear though, perching for very long periods on stone walls or even the ground. The best way to spot them, when they do move, is by the chaos they cause as every small bird then dives for cover or like the swallows this morning, flock up above the predator.

Posted September 1, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

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