Archive for January 2016

January 31st   Leave a comment

The last day of January already and my mission to get my year list up to 100 for the end of January has been stalled at 98 for the last two weeks. Last chance today with a nice flat grey light and barely any wind. The view heading out of Crail towards Anstuther was fantastic. Snow on the hills over the Forth with the old volcanos of the Bass and North Berwick contrasting dark in the foreground, and the Pentlands in the distance speckled with white like a proper live Japanese volcano. I headed up to Carnbee reservoir: snowy weather brings smew and they like small lochs. If I am ever to get one on the Crail list it will be on a day like today up there. But it was business as usual – 40 or so tufted duck and the same number of wigeon, a handful of goldeneye and teal, and a pair of little grebe. I saw a distant pair of grey geese flying above Pittenweem – through my telescope greylag geese – number 99. Even at that distance, their white forewing shows up clearly enough to identify them. I checked through the still resident pink-footed geese flock behind Anstruther on my way back to Crail but nothing new.

I spent half an hour in the hide at Fife Ness in the hope of a velvet scoter. This is usually a 1st of January bird but scoters have been thin on the ground this winter. There were few things passing: guillemots, a couple of gannets, eiders, red-throated divers, one common scoter and the resident flock of five or so purple sandpipers on the rocks in the foreground.

Greylag geese - no. 99 for the year list - so close!

Greylag geese – no. 99 for the year list – so close!

Posted January 31, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 30th   Leave a comment

The gales continued throughout the day with snow showers overnight and this morning. It was raw. A walk out to Fife Ness seemed fine but to turn back home to Crail against the wind was another thing. Not a day for birding. I watched a common gull on the golf course at Balcomie feeding by tacking, a few steps sideways in one direction and then at 45 degrees to move against the wind. It gave up eventually and just let itself be blown backwards pecking halfheartedly at the turf.

The herons started nesting in earnest this week and have been bringing sticks to their nests along the main road at the entrance to Cambo. I suspect they will have to start all over again tomorrow when the wind dies: large tree limbs were coming down today never mind sticks.

Grey heron

Grey heron

Posted January 30, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 29th   1 comment

Another series of gales although the wind is from the south-west so nothing was being pushed past Crail this morning. Everything further down in the Forth was presumably keeping their heads down: an ill judged flight would have resulted in a quick trip out into the North Sea. Denburn in contrast was full of birds. A flock of blue and great tits and chaffinches, probably more than 50 of them feeding happily out of the storm’s way. With them some long-tailed tits. There is at least one flock resident in Crail this winter, maybe two. They usually keep to their own company moving closely together through the gardens and the roadside trees, constantly calling. They are unmistakeable being tiny, pink, black and white and with a long tail of course.

Long-tailed tit - a flock at large in Crail this winter

Long-tailed tit – a flock at large in Crail this winter

Posted January 29, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 24th   Leave a comment

A grey but still very mild day. It seemed very quiet on a circuit to Kilminning and back this morning. A flock of more than 20 magpies at the airfield was quite exceptional; they are becoming more common with each year now that they are being left alone. I was also passed by a flock of 12 purple sandpiper at Sauchope, heading up towards Fife Ness. I wonder how many I missed when I was counting them along the coast last week.

Purple sandpipers

Purple sandpipers

Posted January 24, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 23rd   Leave a comment

I cycled out to Anstruther to see if the goose flock was still out by the new school. Another soggy adventure with the footpaths more water than ground and the ground mud. But much milder with temperatures 10 degrees higher than earlier in the week. The goose flock was in a field of winter wheat to the north of the one it was in last weekend. There were 230 pink-footed geese today grouped around one of the ponds that seem to be in every field after the rain this winter. I only had my binoculars and they wouldn’t let me get closer than a field away before starting to get agitated and shuffling away. I would have been able to spot a white-fronted goose among them but not a bean goose so it may well have still been there. On the way back to Crail along the main road I passed a flock of lapwing and a couple of flocks of golden plover and curlew also in the fields. More winter birds enjoying the sudden change of weather just like me.

Pink-footed geese

Pink-footed geese

Posted January 23, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 22nd   Leave a comment

I walked through the stubble fields behind the Balcomie Caravan Park and Pinkerton this lunchtime. The ground was saturated and the walking difficult. But skylarks and meadow pipits popped up in front of me regularly and in the corner of the field behind Saucehope a flock of 11 corn buntings and twice the number of yellowhammers. The latter expected, but the former still unusual. There may have been corn buntings there all this winter, but I am not used to them being winter Crail residents yet. That there are still stubble fields around is probably significant in this.

Roome Bay was very busy at high tide. Hundreds of gulls of four species feeding in the surf with goldeneyes, mallards and eiders. They were picking small things up from the surface of the sea as it churned and boiled: the huge piles of wrack on the beach must have been growing lots of seaweed fly maggots in the last two weeks and the high tides were now flushing them out.

A gathering of gulls picking up seaweed fly maggots washed out from the wrack deposits on the beach

A gathering of gulls picking up seaweed fly maggots washed out from the wrack deposits on the beach

Posted January 23, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 17th   Leave a comment

The taiga bean goose this morning shot with my phone through my telescope - a good example of why John does the photography

The taiga bean goose this morning shot with my phone through my telescope – a good example of why John does the photography (the geese were not on a steep hill…). It’s the one walking right with orange legs.

Yesterday a couple of white-fronted geese were reported in a flock of pink-feet at Anstruther so I was out first thing this morning to try to track them down. They are not uncommon in the winter in Britain but they are very localised and there aren’t any that winter or even turn up regularly in Fife. I found the flock of pink-feet easily in a field behind the new Waid School building but no white-fronts. Much of the flock was in a dip in the field so I persisted to make doubly sure. After about twenty minutes the whole flock became visible as a dog walker pushed out into the middle of the field. There right at the end of the flock was a goose with bright orange legs and an orange bill – not a pink-foot, obviously, and not a white-front either, but a bean goose. A great find. Not so rare as a white-front but still a lucky bird to get in a year around Crail. When you see a bean goose you need to check which sub-species they belong to – either the tundra sub-species which is much rarer (from Siberia), or the taiga sub-species which breeds in north-western Europe and some of which winter in Scotland. The difference is in the longer neck and bill giving a taiga bean goose a more swan like appearance. This one was a taiga bean goose and a great no. 98 for the year list.

I continued on to Pittenweem and then up to Carnbee checking the fields for more geese. Up at Carnbee there was snow cover although the reservoir was only iced up in one corner. There were lots of tufted ducks and still the family party of whooper swans that were there on New Year’s Day: whoopers on a snowy loch are a proper winter image. As I drove back to Crail I saw several flocks of fieldfares adding to the real winter feel.

The family party of whooper swans in temporary residence at Carnbee reservoir

The family party of whooper swans in temporary residence at Carnbee reservoir

There are quite a few red-breasted mergansers along the coast from Caril to Balcomie just now. A few from Balcomie this afternoon when I completed my last NEWS count and a glorious male very close in at Roome Bay last thing.

Male red-breasted merganser - one close in at Roome Bay

Male red-breasted merganser – one close in at Roome Bay

Posted January 17, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 15th   Leave a comment

I spent a couple of hours at lunchtime carrying out a count along the shore for the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology). The BTO have been organising citizen scientists like me since 1932 to record what is happening with Britain’s birds. Originally it was just bird ringing but nowadays they count, map, monitor and record pretty much everything about the state of British Birds. Or at least their network of volunteers do and then they collate and publish the information so that Government and conservation bodies like the RSPB know where to focus conservation. I was counting the birds using the shore between Kilminning and Balcomie. A fairly quiet bit of shore but even the less exciting bits have to be counted. I tallied up 27 redshanks, 33 oystercatchers, 10 turnstone, 2 curlew, 1 sanderling and best of all 16 purple sandpipers. There were the usual shags, comorants and eiders with a couple of red-breasted mergansers and a wigeon, and a good total of 4 grey heron. Put down in print it seems like a good lot, but I will have missed more than I saw – rocky shores have so many hiding places – and there were many sections without anything to be seen.

Grey heron - they have to be rocky shore birds around Crail

Grey heron – they have to be rocky shore birds around Crail

On my walk to the start of the count I walked through the stubble field behind Saucehope and flushed 19 grey partridge. A really good number and a great size flock for partridges to survive the winter. The more individuals in a group the less time each one needs to spend looking out for predators while still maintaining a high chance of spotting one in time to escape (“many eyes…”). This means more time for feeding and so a better chance of not starving in cold weather (as well as avoiding getting eaten themselves). The Crail partridges continue to do well I think. And my year list too – no. 97.

Grey partridges near Crail - there's always one on the lookout in a big flock -  no. 97 for the year list too.

Grey partridges near Crail – there’s always one on the lookout in a big flock – no. 97 for the year list too.

Posted January 15, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 13th   Leave a comment

There were a couple of tawny owls calling to each other on either side of Marketgate early evening today. Their contact call is a loud “kee-wick” rather than than the more classic quavering hoot that everyone knows. The pair breeds behind the Kirk, in Beech Walk Park or in Denburn; they start early with some eggs being laid in mid-February. So the pair tonight were probably getting things ready. I was very pleased to hear them – species no. 96 for the Crail year list.

Posted January 14, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 10th   Leave a comment

Dead-man's fingers - lots of this sponge-like coral washed up on Roome Bay and Harbour beaches

Dead-man’s fingers – lots of this sponge-like coral washed up on Roome Bay and Harbour beaches

It’s an odd winter when it feels unusual to have cold fingers, but today was winter cold at last. Three degrees (sorry to anyone who comes from a properly cold place) and a stiff wind made it properly chilly today. The sea has got up again with a good swell from the south-east. Roome Bay is covered in wrack and a mess of lobster creels washed in from the swell of last week. The beach is also covered with dead-man’s fingers – a soft coral that is pink, fleshy and branched liked a deformed hand. This is a lower shore coral that will have been scourged up by the huge waves. I was down at Roome Bay hoping that maybe one of the grey phalaropes around at the moment chose there to feed. No luck but there were 9 goldeneyes close in. As I looked out to sea I also saw a large wader far out heading rapidly to shore – a woodcock – possibly a late migrant or one that got fed up with the May island. Number 93 for the year list in any case.

I spent an hour and a half this afternoon in the hide at Fife Ness enjoying the waves crashing in. A few little auks passed and a common scoter (number 94 for the year list). There was a good passage of guillemots and razorbills, over 30 gannets including a juvenile of this year which is very unusual for mid-winter and lost of red-throated divers mostly heading into the Forth. I caught a glimpse of a slavonian grebe between the waves but close in to the Ness – I consider myself lucky to see one or two a year and usually in September so this is another excellent bird for the year list – 95.

Slavonian Grebe - number 95

Slavonian Grebe – number 95

Posted January 10, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 9th   Leave a comment

The respite in the damp weather was short lived. The wind was back to the north-east today and it has become much colder – lots of snow on the hills to the north and south at last. I went out to Balcomie and Fife Ness this morning in the vague hope of connecting with a grey phalarope reported yesterday. With the stormy weather abating lots of birds that were blown into the Forth should be leaving for the open sea and many shoud pass by Fife Ness on the way out.

Balcomie Beach was busy. Some dunlin and a bar-tailed godwit as new year birds to add to the ringed plover and redshank flock there. A small flock of pink-footed geese flew over – another new year species taking the list up to 89. Pink-feet have been rare in the East Neuk for the last month or so. The weather has been poor, but not cold so the geese have been staying further inland. I continued on towards the hide at Fife Ness. A great northern diver flew over – a good new bird for the year list (90) – I didn’t see one last year. As big as a bus as it flew over and like a bus you wait ages for one and then three come at once – I saw two more soon afterwards passing the Ness.

Great norther diver (no. 90 for the year list)

Great northern diver (no. 90 for the year list)

At the hide there were little auks still passing but now only in small numbers. Suddenly a black guillemot flew by very close in – another great Crail bird. I have only seen three or four in the last 12 years, although one Christmas there was one right in the harbour in Crail. And then a grey phalarope, again close and touching down on the water briefly. Phalaropes are marine waders, actually swimming like miniature moorhens on the surface. Like little auks, grey phalaropes seem too small to cope with the open sea but they spend all winter far from land. True they mostly to winter in tropical oceans but many stay further north right in the teeth of the winter storms. Phalaropes are famous for spinning around like a top as they sit on the surface of the water. They create a reverse whirlpool that sucks up food particles to the surface. No spinning today, just a brief peck on the surface of the water a few meters out – enough to see the distinctive shape and head pattern. Then it was gone. But one or the same one was seen yesterday so there may be more around, leaving the Forth now just like the little auks and kittiwakes. Just a few minutes in the hide at Fife Ness and another two really good birds for my rapidly growing year list. The grey phalarope was number 92. I usually hit this number at the start of April. I headed back home very happy even as the rain started again.

Grey phalarope - a truly marine wader (no. 92)

Grey phalarope – a truly marine wader (no. 92)

Posted January 9, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 8th   Leave a comment

The south-easterly gales have finally gone. I actually saw the sun rise this morning. At the solstice the sun nearly rises over the May Island viewed from my house but today it was reassuringly well to the east – it feels like the year has really turned. The first bit of sunshine since before Christmas more or less. I heard a pied wagtail calling as it flew over the garden at sunrise – number 86 for the year list. A relatively common species but they seem to be scarce in Crail mid-winter.

Male pied wagtail

Male pied wagtail – no. 86 for the year

Posted January 9, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 6th   Leave a comment

A freshly dead little auk in Cellardyke this morning

A freshly dead little auk in Cellardyke this morning

This morning I watched the sea at Cellardyke beating ferociously into the harbour. The herring gulls were sheltering behind the walls along with an unseasonal lesser black-backed gull. I suspect it might be regretting its decision not to winter in Morocco: I usually expect to see this summer migrant in March not January, but its a welcome early addition to my year list, now up to 85. Kittiwakes were also escaping from the storm, they were all along the shore feeding in the surf instead of far out to sea. Little auks were also still close inshore with small groups flying along the beach heading east. At one point I could see a dense flock of three hundred or so tiny birds much further out to sea looking like starlings heading to roost. More little auks I should think but hard to say for sure in the gale and the rain. As I headed back to Crail I saw a great-black-backed gull worrying at something. Another little auk, but freshly dead. There will be lots more over the next few days as the storm continues.

Little auks and large waves

Little auks and large waves

Posted January 6, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 5th   Leave a comment

The little auk spectacle continues as the gales continue. It hasn’t really got light today and the south-easterly winds are still pushing mountainous waves into Crail. Stand on the beach at Roome Bay or at Saucehope for as many minutes as you can bear and you will see little auks battling along the shore. They have been pushed into the Forth and are struggling back into the open sea, caught between the land and waves. Hats off to these tiny survivors if you still have a hat.

Little auks dodging the waves as the pass Crail close inshore

Little auks dodging the waves as the pass Crail close inshore

Posted January 5, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 3rd   Leave a comment

The sea was the wild spectacle today. Some of the biggest waves I have ever seen from Crail. This afternoon only the great black-backed gulls looked really comfortable in the wind, hanging over Castle Walk effortlessly. There may have been lots of things passing at sea but the spray and rain made bird watching fairly difficult. I did see some long-tailed ducks passing – another bird comfortable in a storm. But even the tough goldeneyes were more sensibly in the calmer waters of Roome Bay, with about ten there mid-afternoon.

Wild Crail

Wild Crail

Posted January 3, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 2nd   Leave a comment

Back to gales and big seas today. The first bird I saw this morning was of course a fulmar that had eluded me all day yesterday, and there were lots more all day. There were also little auks passing by Fife Ness all morning in both directions. The wind pushed them close in and they were unusually seen better with binoculars rather than a telescope. Balcomie Beach was windswept but with a large flock of ringed plover, a few sanderling, a grey wagtail and a grey plover to add to the year list. I retreated from the bad weather at lunchtime with the year list up to 84. My target now, 100 before the end of January.

Grey Plover on Balcomie Beach taking my Crail year list up to 84 this lunchtime

Grey Plover on Balcomie Beach taking my Crail year list up to 84 this lunchtime

Posted January 2, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 1st 2016   Leave a comment

Last year I hoped to beat my record of 157 bird species seen in the Crail area. I had a fairly good year but ran out of steam latterly and finished at 152. The consolation prize was six new species outright for the Crail list. But on New Year’s Day it can all start again and everything is worth finding anew. I started out with a herring gull calling in the dark as I left Crail just before 8; the second was a blackbird flying away from the roadside – there were several more feeding under the streetlights as I got to Boarhills. Blackbirds often get up before it gets fully light to start feeding – the early bird gets the worm etc. although a colleague studying blackbirds once watched a late to bed tawny owl getting the early bird.

I headed off from Boarhills through the stubble fields to the shore. It was still too dark to identify most things except by call: I heard a carrion crow, tree sparrows, dunnocks and a wren. The first thing I could identify by sight was a reed bunting, but only because a small flock flew up from the stubble right at my feet. By the time I reached the pond down at the shore I had seen the distinctive sihouettes of a curlew, grey heron, eiders and of comorants and shags flying over the sea. The first flocks of starling also appeared flying out from their roost – possibly from as far as Kingsbarns – they came from that direction. The first thirteen species down and it was only just light enough to see properly.

Grey Heron - number 9

Grey Heron – number 9

The species then started coming thick and fast. A lone redshank on the edge of a semi-frozen pool in a field corner: it was limping so probably forced to feed in such dangerous circumstances for a shorebird. Black-headed gulls started to pass over from their roost on the sea, heading inland to feed. Even though it was light now, calls remained essential. A distant pheasant callng and a small bird overhead instantly transformed into a goldfinch when it also called distinctively. There was then a commotion from the shore – I hoped for an owl or an early falcon but didn’t see the cause. I did see turnstones, oystercatchers and a pair of wigeon flying away. At the pond I heard a robin ticking and a flock of yellowhammers flew down. I persuaded a water rail to squeal back at me from the reeds around the pond. Twenty-five species achieved just as the sun rose.

I walked around the pond alarming a mallard and a moorhen from the reeds and headed down to the shore. I could now clearly identify common gulls and great black-backed gulls on the distant rocks in the strengthening light. I continued down to the Kenly Burn mouth putting up a song thrush from the path and hearing both a blue tit and a chaffinch from the gorse. A large flock of woodpigeon took off from the trees along the burn. I scanned the sea with my telescope: a teal and a red-breasted merganser flew off from the burn mouth, and a meadow pipit called from behind me as I set up, then kittiwakes everywhere far out, an adult gannet, and red-throated divers and long-tailed ducks passing frequently. Forty species just as it turned 9.

Red-breasted merganser - number 35

Red-breasted merganser – number 35

It was mid tide so I couldn’t cross so I headed along the northern edge of the woodland along the Kenly Burn. Stock doves and greenfinches passed over and I flushed a couple of skylark from the stubble. There is a good sized rookery at the burn mouth and the rooks were still there cawing in the early morning sunlight; there were a few jackdaws calling as well. The strip of woodland aling the Kenly Burn is always good and I turned up a great tit and then a flock of goldcrests. Further along a mistle thrush flew off as I approached and then I hit the jackpot with a big flock of long-tailed tits and a treecreeper. Fifty species by 10, so far, so good.

I finally tracked down two dipper on the burn just as I turned the corner to head back to my car in Boarhills. As I got back to the village I spotted three large finches on a wire, a closer look turned them into corn buntings. A really lucky sighting for this time of year. In Boarhills everything had woken up now and there were house (and tree) sparrows everywhere; I found a pair of bullfinches in a big flock of sparrows, greenfinches and chaffinches. Another lucky sighting. I left Boarhills with 54 species under my belt.

I drove to Kingsbarns beach and set up my scope. A stonechat popped up in the dunes in front of me. I scanned the sea – several guillemots close in. I shifted along the shore putting up a flock of rock pipits from the strandline. There were no shorebirds on the sand unfortunately as the dog walkers were now up and about, but the hoped for purple sandpipers were on the undisturbed rocks further out. I continued scanning the sea and some of the apparent guillemots further out turned out to be razorbills. As I scanned a tiny auk sped past and nose-dived into the sea: a little auk – its size and crash landing quite distinctive. A really good species to get on New Year’s Day and a great number 60.

I left Kingsbarns just after 11 and headed up to Kippo. A flock of golden plover flew over the car. There were a couple of kestrels hunting along the Anstruther road and then a very lucky large flock of fieldfares and redwings as I turned off towards Carnbee. There were over one hundred thrushes in the flock with the same number of chaffinches and starlings: everything is very clustered in the winter and you have to get lucky to find a flock. I stopped to enjoy the spectacle of so many birds feeding together and was doubly rewarded by a coal tit. Even the very common is very special on New Year’s Day.

I continued on to Carnbee Reservoir. There was another large flock of winter thrushes there except with my first linnets of the year instead of chaffinches. As I looked at the linnets I heard a honking from the loch: a family of whooper swans, another really good species to get. Right alongside them were three mute swans and a bevy of coots and tufted ducks to add to the list. I had reached 70 species for the day and for the year. I had to scan hard to find the little grebe that I usually expect to see up there. One popped up just as I was about to leave. I headed back to Crail for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake to celebrate the great day so far.

Whooper swans - number 67

Whooper swans – number 67

I continued on my bike around Crail. A great spotted woodpecker in Denburn (which was full of birds already seen today), a magpie calling from the sheep field opposite and then a feral pigeon over Roome Bay. But only three new species since lunch. Things inevitably get slower as the day goes on and the list of already seen species goes up. I failed to find any wagtails or new shorebirds on the shore but saw a sparrowhawk flying high overhead. I passed another four corn buntings on the way to Saucehope, again unexpected at this time of year when I expect them to be all flocking together further inland. A flock of lapwing flew up from the rocks at Saucehope Point. I headed up Warsea Road and saw several collared doves; I headed home via the airfield looking unsuccessfully for wagtails and partridges. My final new species before I got home was a female peregrine hunting pigeons over the Balcomie Hotel. 78 species – my highest total ever on a New Year’s Day list. My optimistic target this morning was 80, so not too bad.

Peregrine - number 78

Peregrine – number 78

There was a coda. I went to a barbeque in the afternoon in a garden at the edge of Pinkerton. A perhaps ill advised idea at this time of year and today was fairly chilly…but I enjoyed it for its birding opportunities, taking my binoculars and adding a merlin hunting over the airfield. There was a commotion amongst the curlews and starlings and suddenly a merlin appeared chasing one of the starlings as it flew straight up. It caught it up in a couple of seconds and plucked it out of the air. A peregrine (probably the one I saw an hour or so before) flew in attracted by the commotion but it chased a buzzard also attracted in, missing the merlin in the confusion – it had gone to ground with its prey in a stubble field. An exciting end to the species total for the day – 79. I scanned the sea in vain for a fulmar to try to get my 80, but I can’t really complain. There’s always tomorrow and I have a real head start on the year so far.

Posted January 1, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings