Archive for February 2016

Week ending February 28th   Leave a comment

It does finally look like we have shaken off the rainy season – hopefully now fairly dry and sunny at least until May. With El Nino still in effect we may even extend the dry season until July if we are lucky. Regardless, a lot of this week has been beautiful and sunny with little wind. Frosty starts for sure but with real warmth in the sun by mid-morning. The birds are appreciating it. After the ice has melted from my garden pond each day there has been a steady parade of house sparrows, blackbirds and the occasional dunnock having a bath in the sunshine. If there is time to bath then things must be easy. The wrens and even the goldcrests have been singing this week as well also showing that things are good.

I finally got my 100th species for the Crail year list – a common snipe – feeding in a reedy dip in a field up by the secret bunker. I have been tramping across boggy field corners for the last 2 months hoping to flush a snipe and on Sunday I got lucky. Snipe literally explode up beneath your feet and accelerate away furiously making a distinctive squelching call. Their short tail, rounded body and of course their ridiculously long bill make them very distinctive as they zoom away. Snipe then often make a high circle around you waiting for you to move on so you can appreciate these features. When you have gone they make a very steep, fast dive back down to the ground, often straight back to where you flushed them from.

Common snipe

Common snipe

On Saturday at Fife Ness there were noticeably many more gannets. Their numbers are building up fast now. When you scan the horizon there are tens of gannets to be seen now. In another 2-3 weeks it will be hundreds. There was also a small passage of red-throated divers flying past.

On Sunday I cycled up to Carnbee Reservoir enjoying the view (at least on the Forth side) all the way. Skylarks and yellowhammers were singing and the usual wildfowl festival awaited me at the reservoir at the top of the hill. 6 whooper swans now – another adult pair joining the family of 4 that have been there off and on since the New Year and more than 100 wigeon and tufted duck, in about equal numbers, with teal, mallard and goldeneye scattered among them. As I cycled back to Crail via the low road I lamented that the reservoir is just about the only permanent local bit of water to attract waders. The field pools are now almost all gone – a week of dry weather is all we need for that. The pool at Troustie House has now also been drained – leaving behind a fairly useless and unused bit of damp pasture – I expect there was a grant involved. Almost all of the “environmental improvements” that are impoverishing us all in wildlife terms on farmland are fueled by perverse subsidies. I have to stomach both the reduction in my quality of life each year as Fife heads towards a completely industrial famed landscape and the fact that I help pay for it. Oh well, keep looking out to the Forth.

Whooper swan - 6 up at Carnbee this week

Whooper swan – 6 up at Carnbee this week

On a more cheerful note. I put up some bird boxes this week. A tit box (small hole – the “typical” nestbox) and a robin box which has an open front. My resident robin at the top of the garden was converted into a pathetic pile of feathers by the local sparrowhawk a couple of weeks ago, but there is another still around the bottom. I will keep my fingers crossed for both. Holes in trees are in short supply in Crail so I have high hopes for the tit box at least. More Crail blue and coal tits nest in holes in walls than holes in trees I should think.


Posted February 28, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending February 21st   Leave a comment

I am still stuck on 99 species for the year. Either the weather has been too poor to find birds or too settled so everything is staying put before the spring change. Which is definitely on the way at least. Just walking along Marketgate to Denburn first thing in the morning you will hear song thrush, chaffinch, dunnock, wren and blue and great tits singing their hearts out; on Saturday evening there was also a blackbird singing beautifully in the dusk calm at Balcomie. Further out in the fields the skylarks are also singing now. Their ethereal trilling from high above was a constant background to my walks over the weekend.

An opportunistic fox trying to be a blue tit

An opportunistic Crail fox trying to be a blue tit

The last stubble fields are being ploughed now. The fields which have been harbouring the finches and buntings all winter just east of Pinkerton are now bare earth. On Friday there may have been as many as 15 corn buntings there with the yellowhammers and linnets as the stubble got smaller and smaller. I’m not sure what their options are now – there is still the big stubble field by the Balcomie for them so they may just move over two fields. One species’ problem is another’s opportunity of course, and the gulls and buzzards were enjoying the ploughing.

There has been a smell of fox around the back of the graveyard and Denburn for the last few weeks. John was lucky enough to have one in his garden this week. It had come in to scrump on the nuts from his feeder. First clearing up the left overs but then becoming a bit bolder and attempting some direct harvesting. I’m very envious. The only mammal clearing up the bird food in my garden is my small terrier.

Cormorant gaining its white breeding plumage this week

Cormorant gaining its white breeding plumage this week

Balcomie and Fife Ness remains similar to the last couple of weeks. I watched the sanderling flock dodge the dog walkers on Balcomie Beach: it is a quiet beach so they only lose about 1 minute in 20 (plus the energy they use in avoidance) at worst. They run around so much anyway that it doesn’t seem such a bother to them. The more sedate dunlin and ringed plovers seem much more disturbed. At sea it was auks moving north again. On Sunday it was almost entirely razorbills. They breed a little bit earlier than guillemots. Most are getting their black hoods and patterned bills ready for breeding. A few of the cormorants were also showing signs of the white faces they gain for the spring. The gannet numbers are still low but should start picking up now to the thousands that can be seen daily from Crail during the summer.

Denburn is full of “vegetable snow” from the masses of snowdrops out just now. There’s some debate about whether snowdrops are native to Britain but they have been here so long and planted so widely that it would be unthinkable of a late winter (or more recently mid-winter) without their optimistic hope for the coming spring. So many of the plants (and many of the animals) we see aren’t native. We get very worried about introduced species because gradually local variation gets replaced with one global set of super competitors adapted to the chaos we cause, but there are many non-native species in Britain that we would be poorer without.

A mostly undisturbed dunlin on Balcomie Beach

A mostly undisturbed dunlin on Balcomie Beach

Posted February 21, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending February 14th   Leave a comment



This week ended with more cold weather – ice on my pond most mornings, a raw south-easterly gale on Saturday and even snow showers on Sunday. There was much more of a focussed air to the birds as they concentrated on feeding. Food put out on bird tables or in feeders is particularly important now. There is quite a contrast between somewhere like Denburn where the small birds have access to food put for them, whether actually in the wood or in the gardens around it compared to the woodlots around Crail. The great tits in Denburn, for example, were singing most of the day this week – outside of Crail the search for food kept most of them silent except first thing in the morning. Feeding in gardens definitely makes a difference: birds nest earlier in gardens than in the countryside around urban areas. I have just put up a new feeder on the front of my house, stuck to the kitchen window and overlooking the High Street. Not a very favourable location but things started to visit after about three weeks. We now have robin, house sparrow and dunnock as regular visitors (and woodpigeons too if you count their foraging underneath). Dunnocks hardly ever get a mention in Wild Crail. The phrase “dull as a dunnock” springs to mind, but I like their shy unassuming ways. And as an urban success story they do well in even the tiniest gardens, flitting about unnoticed even where there is a huge amount of disturbance. Dunnocks look a bit like sparrows but are much greyer and warmer brown. They lack a strong face pattern so look very modest and appealing. There will be a dunnock in every garden in Crail but most will be overlooked as sparrows.

The lapwing flock that is around Crail this winter was resting all day in the newly ploughed field behind Hammer Inn on Tuesday. Their glossy emerald backs were catching the sunshine making the brown earth look like it was full of jewels. Probably a good thing no-one was driving the other way as it so distracted me on the way to work.

The fulmars enjoyed the gale of Saturday. They are becoming much more regular attendees on their nest sites around Crail. Castle Walk has its spring and summer slight whiff of rank fish oil again. Beautiful as fulmars are in many ways, it doesn’t apply to their smell.

Fulmars - a thing of beauty as long as you don't inhale

Fulmars – a thing of beauty as long as you don’t inhale

Shag - a survivor of the recent storms

Shag – a survivor of the recent storms

Despite the run of storms this winter there don’t seem to be too many fatalities. There is a dead partly eaten shag on the field below the doocote. It’s missing its head and feet so I can’t tell if it’s a local young bird ringed on the May this summer, but I suspect so. But apart from this obvious one, I have barely seen any corpses. It’s tricky to say for sure because sometimes many seabirds die but the currents and wind don’t bring the bodies to shore. Each year they count the shags on the May to get a better idea but some of the shags spread all over the North Sea coast during the winter so changes in their summer numbers don’t perfectly match the death due to local winter conditions. It has been pretty stormy everywhere though this winter. But the days are getting noticeably longer and it might even be raining less – roll on the spring.

Posted February 14, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

Week ending 7th February   Leave a comment

Some weeks at this time of year are slow. The initial rush of birds for the New Year’s list tails off and spring migration still seems a long way off. And the weather has been against me, literally this Sunday when the return bike from Fife Ness took a four times as long as the journey down. The other way round is always more satisfying – for a start it would mean an east wind which makes things much more exciting bird wise, and a head wind when you are freshly heading out is much more bearable.

Balcomie beach was suitably windswept. It didn’t seem to affect the sanderlings much as they raced up and down the beach as usual. The hide at Fife Ness was creaking in the wind as I watched hundreds of auks shoot past in the hour I spent there. Every time I watch from Fife Ness the pattern of birds is different. Today it was guillemots and razorbills, mostly heading north, perhaps on their way back early to breeding cliffs in Shetland or Norway, or perhaps just stirred up by the storm. There was a regular passage of gannets, kittiwakes and fulmars as they gradually return to the north for the spring. But little else – no divers at all this time and only a group of four long-tailed ducks passing as slightly noteworthy.

Sanderling - characteristically dashing along the surf

Sanderling – dashing characteristically along the surf


Pheasants come into Crail from the surrounding fields every so often and one is making the rounds of the gardens of Marketgate at the moment. It’s probably an easier life for a pheasant in town than out – plenty of spilled bird seed from garden feeders to find and few foxes or people who might regard them as a meal (although I suspect road kill is actually one of their biggest sources of mortality). Pheasants don’t have many predators when they are adults – buzzards can kill them and even exceptionally sparrowhawks, but they tend to go for smaller prey. The real pheasant predator is the goshawk which is absent from the area because of past persecution and a general lack of good forest cover that they like. Goshawks are game changers for many other species too: magpies, jays, crows woodpigeons and even sparrowhawks become much less common and much less obvious as they eaten and scared away when goshawks are in the area.

A Crail pheasant in search of the easy life

A Crail pheasant in search of the easy life

Despite the poor weather of the weekend the temperatures went back up this week and it is quite noticeable that the robins, blue tits and great titts are singing much more. It’s a cheering thought that the first blackbird nest might appear in just four weeks if it stays a mild winter to the end.

Posted February 7, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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