Archive for October 2015

October 31st   Leave a comment

The wind went back round to the south-west and this afternoon the temperature was up to 15 degrees. A nice day between the showers. The birds from the fall mid-week are trickling away. There are still a couple of ring ouzels at Balcomie, a few redwings and lots of chiff-chaffs everywhere. I had four passing through my garden in an hour this afternoon, with three feeding on the insects on our dead fennel heads. I was seawatching and swung the telescope to focus on a few meters away rather than a few hundred for a change and enjoyed the subtle details of the chiff-chaffs’ plumage in extreme closeup. There are lots of things that make chiff-chaff distinctive despite them being nearly identical to willow warblers, but I think the best feature is they have a much less intense expression than a willow warbler, which along with their tail wagging makes them seem a much less serious bird.

Chiff-chaff - a "little brown job" but worth looking at closely

Chiff-chaff – a “little brown job” but worth looking at closely

Hibernating snails at the burn mouth at Cambo

Hibernating snails at the burn mouth at Cambo

I walked through Cambo to Kingsbarns beach this morning. The rooks that nest down at the burn mouth were making a huge racket around their nests. The sycamore trees that they nest in are now covered with bunches of snails sleeping the winter away. Once you spot one cluster you realise that there are snails everywhere glued into bark crevices. It can’t be a quiet place to sleep for a snail underneath the rookery although I expect the lack of frost and the humidity right next to the sea might be the major reason for them clustering there.

Posted October 31, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 30th   Leave a comment

Today was much quieter compared to mid-week. It started well with a flock of 12 or so snow buntings passing Crail, a little way out to sea, heading towards Fife Ness. But at Balcomie and Fife Ness it was only the occasional woodcock that livened things up. There are still lots of blackbirds, fieldfares and redwings about, and I saw at least 4 chiff-chaffs but it was not as frantic as Wednesday. Everything seems a bit more relaxed and settled in as if thinking about staying for the winter.

A snow bunting that John photographed yesterday at Balcomie - seems there may be a few about Crail just now

A snow bunting that John photographed yesterday at Balcomie – seems there may be a few about Crail just now

Posted October 30, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 28th   Leave a comment

This morning was a classic, misty, Fife Ness thrush fest with every tree and bush shedding flocks of redwings, fieldfares and blackbirds – what with the occasional mistle and song thrush among them, and now two ring ouzels in the garden at Balcomie, it was a complete thrush extravaganza. I love the way you see a few redwings in a tiny sycamore, but as you approach more and more fly out of the tree until 30 or 40 have flown away. It seems impossible that you didn’t see more than a couple to start with and impossible that the tiny tree could have sheltered so many. Walking around Kilminning and Balcomie this morning was wave after wave of these magically exploding thrush flocks. There were many more bramblings around too.

One of the migrant blackbirds passing through Crail today

One of the migrant blackbirds passing through Crail today

I caught up with the black redstart at Balcomie first thing in the morning. A female feeding on the roof slates and old walls of the farm buidings – either a Continental bird fully at home amongst buildings anyway (they are as common as robins in German towns) or one finding a good substitute for the cliffs and rocky slopes they like in their other more mountainous habitat. Black redstarts are as endearing and perky as robins with an added dash of excitement as they flycatch, flashing their red tails against the grey of the stones.

Again this morning there was a real feeling that the next bird I saw was going to be the big rarity. There were several chiff-chaffs and a yellow-browed warbler at Kilminning and both were occasionally making odd calls a bit like much rarer Pallas’s or the ridiculously rare Hume’s warbler to keep me on my toes. And with woodcocks also exploding up at my feet as I craned to see the warblers above me it was all very exciting.

Posted October 28, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 27th   Leave a comment

Lots of handsome redwings passing through today

Lots of handsome redwings passing through today

No sooner had I written off this autumn than the wind went round to the east yesterday. With the mist and drizzle today the conditions were reasonable for some migrants. Sure enough, a black redstart was reported from Balcomie this morning. I went out after lunch and although I missed the redstart, I found a ring ouzel, a jack snipe and a flock of 30 brambling around the garden at Balcomie Castle, and a couple of woodcock down at the Patch at Fife Ness. There were flocks of redwings everywhere and the occasional flock of fieldfares. In short, lots of migrants and so the possibility of something really special – that crucial ingredient of hope makes for the best birding days.

The jack snipe was today’s best bird. Only my second for Crail. They are a common autumn migrant but exceedingly shy and skulking and fond of marshy areas which are in short supply around here. My first jack snipe was flushed by my dog on Kingsbarns Beach several years’ ago and today’s was crouched in a flowerbed! The normal response of a jack snipe is to crouch down and rely on its exceedingly good camouflage amongst the rank wetland vegetation it usually inhabits. Normally they don’t move even if you nearly step on them and so escape notice. I suspect this bird was somewhat lost, but sufficiently with it to realise its camouflage was not going to work in a flowerbed. It popped straight up in front of me as I chased the ring ouzel around the garden at Balcomie, zooming away to find a better place to hide. I just had time to appreciate its small size, stripy back and shortish bill to confirm the identification. Its larger relative, the woodcock, was doing the same thing down at the Patch, but they always fly at about 10 meters and usually with a lot of noise as they beat through the woodland they inhabit like woodpigeons. Consequently I see woodcocks and lots of them every autumn even though their camouflage is just as good as the jack snipes. There should be lots of woodcocks around Crail tomorrow morning as the easterlies and rain continues – look out for brown long-billed birds shooting away explosively from you in Denburn or Beech Walk Park.

Jack snipe demonstrating that camouflage only really works if you select an appropriate background

Jack snipe demonstrating that camouflage only really works if you select an appropriate background

The ring ouzel was also a good bird – my first for this year in Crail although my last was a week ago in the mountains of Catalonia where they winter. Today’s bird is off course but probably more likely on its way to North Africa – Algeria or Tunisia – for the winter. Its stone breaking chacking call echoing around the walled garden at Balcomie seemed to fit the grey misty day perfectly.

An October Ring Ouzel - a much better view than the bird today which was very shy

An October Ring Ouzel – a much better view than the bird today which was very shy

Posted October 27, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 25th   Leave a comment

This weekend has really put the seal on the end of the autumn. No summer migrants about at all for the first week since the beginning of April, the fields full of skylarks and long-tailed ducks appearing out at Balcomie. There is still a hope for a late season rarity if the winds go back to the east again but I have a feeling we are done for the year. It is now time to re-appreciate the common. Today it was a kestrel hunting over the airfield, a contrast of hurry as it shot across the fields in the wind and complete patience as it hovered before crashing down into the stubble.

Kestrel - a lovely sight unless you are a vole

Kestrel – a lovely sight unless you are a vole

Posted October 25, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 24th   Leave a comment

The wind has had a bit of southerly in it for a couple of days so birds were being pushed closer in to Crail today: on Thursday it was practically dead as everything was being blown well out to sea on the strong westerlies. But it felt very wintry sea-watching this morning. Lots of gannets, kittiwakes and auks, with a steady passage of red-throated divers into the Forth. I saw my first long-tailed duck of the winter too, beating like a giant bat against the strong wind.

I had a single goose flying past close in against the wind so it was moving in slow motion. Good thing because as I looked at it I couldn’t immediately identify it. When I first picked it up I was expecting a greylag from its shape, but through the telescope it seemed more like a pink-footed goose with its small dark head and lack of the bright whitish forewing. Then I noticed that the wing was quite uniformly dark, lacking even the paler grey contrast of a pink-footed and the penny dropped. A bean goose, and most likely a taiga bean goose (which has a much more greylag like structure than a tundra bean goose, which is much more like a pink foot). A very good goose for Crail even though there is a small population nearby that winters regularly in the Forth-Clyde valley. They don’t tend to appear until later in the winter and then we only see them if there is extreme weather pushing more pink-feet and other grey geese from the Continent over to Scotland. The last Crail “goose” winter was 2011-12. This winter is predicted to be cold so we may be in for another one.

Taiga bean goose

Taiga bean goose

Posted October 25, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 22nd   Leave a comment

There are a few very common bird species that don’t get to Crail very often – long-tailed tits, bullfinches and jays. I have probably seen more yellow-browed warblers here than all three species combined. Jays are particularly rare and I only had my second sighting of one ever flying into a group of oak trees just by the Fairmont Hotel today. Technically on the wrong side of the hotel which marks the boundary of my 10 km radius from Crail that I consider my patch, but jays are too special not to make it onto this year’s list because of a hundred meters. I suppose I could have seen it from the patch… Anyway there seem to be a lot of jays about this year and there was one reported from Kilmininng a couple of weeks ago so there may well be some coming in from Scandinavia. Jays are handsome, interesting birds. Massive predators but clever and resourceful, and still thriving despite a lot of persecution. It is the lack of woodland with oak trees and the isolation of what bits of woodland we do have that will be responsible for them being so rare around Crail.

Jay - a real Crail rarity

Jay – a real Crail rarity

Posted October 22, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 20th   Leave a comment

I try to keep WildCrail more or less about Crail and the immediate area but occasionally my self-imposed geographical limits get just a bit too frustrating. Today, for example, I had three white-tailed eagles in front of me as I sat at the edge of the Eden Estuary, looking west from the old course at St Andrews: a fantastic sight of the two locally breeding adults and their young of the year. I was out with a class looking at foraging in oystercatchers when one of the students pointed out the eagle excitedly. All telescopes swung round immediately to see a magnificent adult, yellow bill and white tail gleaming, sat on the mud like a giant shorebird as the tide came in. One of the group kept on saying – “but I can’t see a yellow bill or a white tail” – turned out she was looking at another eagle, and then it became clear that the group was divided between three eagles all in a line along the shore. We could see one of the wing tags on the adults – turquoise with the letter Z on it – indicating that it was a male released in 2009 and that has been breeding locally since 2013. The other adult was its female, also released in 2009, and the young bird, their chick of this year. This pair were released as juveniles and started breeding as 4 year olds – they have now fledged their 3rd chick. A fantastic success story for the reintroduction of this iconic Scottish bird and surely only a matter of time before one sets up residence a little closer to Crail. There are now 100 breeding pairs of white-tailed eagles in Scotland – when the reintroduction started 40 years ago there were, of course, none. White-tailed eagles may well become more common on the east coast than the west where the living is easier. I can look forward to many more days like today.

A young white-tailed eagle

A young white-tailed eagle

Posted October 21, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 18th   Leave a comment

A goldcrest - probably a migrant from Scandinavia

A goldcrest – probably a migrant from Scandinavia

I have been away for the week in Catalonia enjoying olive groves full of blackcaps and chiff-chaffs. For once the Crail weather has been kind to me while I have been away with only a firecrest and a barred warbler turning up in the last week. I can’t complain about the firecrest – I have been watching them all week in Spain – and there was another barred warbler found at Kilminning this morning. I looked for it this afternoon when I got back. I only ever see about one barred warbler for every four searches so I wasn’t too disappointed when I couldn’t find it today. Kilminning was very quiet with only a female blackcap (this week’s bird in any case) and some goldcrests as obvious migrants. Three barnacle geese flying over were the highlight.

Posted October 18, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 8th   Leave a comment

At last, the annual Crail yellow-browed warbler festival has really got going. The winds were easterly over the weekend coincident with some very heavy rain. The perfect early October recipe for yellow-brows. I found at least eight this morning from Balcomie to Fife Ness to Kilminning. At one point I was surrounded by four or five at the entrance to Kilminning. They were showing themselves as well, at least by late morning. Little striped jewels of green and white and yellow seemingly everywhere. Perhaps not quite the 200+ they have on Shetland and indeed not even the best we have had in Crail (30+ in the same area as this morning in one year), but a great day nonetheless. On days like today there is always the feeling that the next bird you look at will be that heart stopping extreme rarity.

Yellow-browed warbler

Yellow-browed warbler

Yellow-browed warblers have been becoming increasingly common in the UK over the last few decades. They are an odd species to become more common because they winter in south-east Asia (Vietnam & Cambodia for example). Other species that have a similar breeding range (Siberia) and the same wintering range are only extreme rarities to Britain with one or two birds occurring every year. But with yellow-brows there are clearly thousands passing through the UK now every autumn. I think we are watching a new migration route developing as we saw with blackcaps. 40 years ago blackcaps shifted their migration from wintering in southern Europe to the UK. When I was a boy, a wintering blackcap was a great sighting, now they are a common wintering species, at least in England, and a very common bird table visitor. Young migrants head off to the wintering grounds with a fairly vague and variable genetic program, and weather and chance can soon play havoc with their final destination. With blackcaps, the few random juveniles that ended up in the UK in the 1970s by mistake started to survive better than those that went further to Southern Europe – probably because of global warming and our loss of really cold weather in winter. They returned to Central Europe to breed earlier than the Southern European birds to seal their advantage. As adults, they returned to the UK each winter (winter site fidelity is a common trait in migrants), sticking to the route and wintering ground that worked for them (better the devil you know!) and that allowed them to survive so far. Over the years, those individuals with a greater genetic propensity to go east to Britain rather than south to the Mediterranean have produced more surviving offspring, eventually shifting the whole population’s migration route. And so back to yellow-browed warblers, who seem to be doing the same thing. There must now be a population of yellow-brows wintering in West Africa like chiff-chaffs: only a few actually winter in the UK and they are only very rarely recorded in Iberia so they must keep going south after Crail. They have started to be recorded on the west coast of West Africa, and I think somewhere in Senegal or Guinea there must be patches of forest where they occur all winter. There are few birders in Africa and if yellow-brows stay high up in the canopy of the rainforest and don’t call much, ten thousand will disappear without any trace. It will be interesting to see whether this is true over the next few decades: sooner or later they will be become too widespread in Africa to escape notice. If it is true then another question arises: how can there be an advantage for yellow-brows to travel four times the distance to winter in Africa from Siberia compared to the relatively short jaunt down to south-east Asia?

Although there were lots of yellow-brows, other migrants were scarce. I saw a few chiff-chaffs in the sycamores along the airfield road and a single swallow high over a stubble field. There were barnacle geese coming in all day today in ragged flocks. They seem to be much more volatile in their flocks compared to pink-footed geese, forming constantly shifting bunches and only ever ragged short-lived Vs. Pink-feet look much more pedestrian as they arrive. The frantic yapping of the barnacle geese adds to their slightly panicky air as they pass by.

A typically ragged flock of barnacle geese arriving at Fife Ness

A typically ragged flock of barnacle geese arriving at Fife Ness

Posted October 8, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 3rd   Leave a comment

The settled weather has continued. Birds have been arriving from the north – using the settled weather to migrate, but there have been no adverse winds or rain to bring anything here that doesn’t want to be here. A lot of meadow pipits have been going over and today a few flocks of skylarks. I saw a female hen harrier at Balcomie, probably just in from Scandinavia like the skylarks. It was being mobbed by a carrion crow until it gained height and was able to continue west towards Wormiston. I only see a hen harrier around Crail every two or three years although some winters one may be around for several weeks hunting over the fields. Hen harriers should be a common bird here in winter. They are like diurnal owls, happy in open agricultural landscapes and eat everything from mice and voles to small birds like skylarks. Fife in winter is perfect for them. The reason they are not common is the same reason we didn’t have buzzards here thirty years ago: persecution. Hen harrier breeding distribution in Scotland is the exact negative of the distribution of the upland shooting estates. Driven grouse shooting is not perceived by the land owners to be compatible with breeding hen harriers which can take many grouse chicks in a season. It is completely illegal, of course, yet somehow hen harriers disappear from such estates with annual regularity. The situation is complicated by class and privilege. If this was hare coursing or badger baiting being sanctioned by less wealthy people then it would have been sorted out years ago, as indeed we did sort out these other morally and environmentally dubious country pursuits. Lovely to see a Crail hen harrier even if every time I do see one I am reminded that such a rare privilege remains in the hands of greedy and misguided landowners.

Female hen harrier

Female hen harrier

On a more cheerful note – there was a late flock of swallows over the cows at the airfield. Every one was a young bird born this year. The more experienced adults are long gone now, most will be in Africa already. There were lots of small flies about for them. Cycling was a hazard but every time one flew into my eye I thought about the bounty for the swallows to fuel them on the next stage of their journey.

A young swallow on its way south past Crail

A young swallow on its way south past Crail

Posted October 3, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 1st   Leave a comment

There was a yellow-browed warbler found, at last, out at Kilminning this lunchtime. It was fairly elusive, haunting the tops of the same sycamores the wood warbler was in two weeks ago. Luckily every so often it would give a burst of calls making it obvious. It was another glorious day with the temperature up to 18 degrees mid-afternoon. The sky was full of buzzards: every individual around Crail must have been out soaring together in the thermals over the airfield. But a strong heat haze made it impossible to see anything out at sea. I think the little gulls are still there but all I could see were white shimmery dots today.

A buzzard calling in the sunshine today

A buzzard calling in the sunshine today

Posted October 1, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings