Archive for April 2016

April 30th   Leave a comment

After a very wintry week the weather returned to a more normal April. Warm in the sun and with the sea calming down. There were many more migrants around today. The willow warblers have finally arrived with lots at at Kilminning, Balcomie, Fife Ness & Kilrenny, although few singing. There are now swallows everywhere including one singing from the house opposite me on the High Street. Swallows are, like most migrants, very site faithful, and this bird will be the same swallow that was here, hawking over my garden, last year. I saw my first Crail house martins out at Balcomie, flying low with the swallows in a horse field and then some more in their usual early haunt along the strandline of Balcomie Beach. A final new migrant today was a whimbrel, also on Balcomie Beach, and then a couple more at Fife Ness. The first flew off with a quick burst of its characteristic whistling – always the sound of migration to me. The whimbrels along with the willow warblers and house martins today have brought the Crail year list up to 119. I’m still 20 days ahead of the next best year.

Willow warbler

Willow warbler

I went up to Carnbee Reservoir at lunchtime. There are still a few goldeneye present and I could hear the trilling of a little grebe. I was hoping for some ring ouzels which have been everywhere along the east coast the last couple of days. No luck but I had a dashing male wheatear in the adjacent bean field, its pale greys and whites making it obvious, even at a distance.

A Balcomie beach whimbrel - no. 119 for the Crail year list

A Balcomie beach whimbrel – no. 119 for the Crail year list


Posted April 30, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 26th   Leave a comment



It’s been a chilly day and the early swallows seemed regretful as they hawked in the shelter of the trees and houses along the Kinnesburn in St Andrews. But the showers driven by the north wind gave such clear crisp skies during the interludes that it seemed worth the cold. The sea has been another consolation – big waves and a swell dwarfing the gannets passing Crail.

Gannet 2

Gannet 2

Posted April 26, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

Week ending April 24th   Leave a comment

I have spent the last week in Cyprus catching up with my long term Cyprus wheatear study there so I am out of touch with Crail for the week. Seems migration has slowed this week with little passing after the excitement of the hawfinch of last week. This Sunday there were no migrants at Fife Ness except sandwich terns and a single swallow. But there was an intriguing report of a pair of cranes displaying near Peat Inn before flying off north. I live in hope of such a flyby over Crail. Seems I chose a good week to visit Cyprus and can pick up the Crail migration narrative more or less as it was at the end of last week. Next week must bring willow and sedge warblers, house martins and the rest of the swallows. The following week we can start to hope for rarities like shrikes.

NYOY - a male Cyprus wheatear singing at Troodos in Cyprus and every summer since 2011.

NYOY – a male Cyprus wheatear singing at Troodos in Cyprus last week and every summer since 2011.

I have been visiting Cyprus since 2009 and we have been colour-ringing Cyprus wheatears since 2010. Each year we see how many have survived their migration to Africa by refinding as many individual birds as possible. It involves a lot of walking up and down the forested mountains in the middle of Cyprus. But nothing beats seeing an old friend from last or even several years ago. The individual pictured is NYOY (black over yellow left leg, orange over yellow right leg) that was born in 2010. This was the year that I brought my son Sam to Cyprus to help with fieldwork, when he was 9 – he is now 15 and NYOY is of course 6. Cyprus wheatears have relatively high survival rates for a small bird and we have several individuals that are more than 5 years old in the population, with the oldest being more than 7. NYOY was singing from the same black pine tree that I saw it in all the previous years. In the meantime it has been back and forth to Africa six times. We know from the tags we put on two years ago that Cyprus wheatears fly to South Sudan or Eritrea for the winter – in a single non-stop flight of about 2.5 days with an average speed of 43 km per hour. A bird of this size has a theoretical flight range when fully fattened up of about 2,800 km and the migration distance for Cyprus wheatears is about 2,500 km on average. So they even have a little in the tank for contingencies. Quite amazing really. That their migration to the southern edge of the desert in Africa and back to Cyprus can be achieved by a single non-stop flight might account for their high survival. Other species might have several flights to make and so more links in their migratory chain: if any of these links fail…

On my way home on Saturday evening I stopped off at Episcopi, a famous site for Eleonora’s falcons, to watch these elegant, colonial raptors chasing each other above the sea cliffs. One of my favourite birds for so many reasons. If Cyprus wheatears have migration tales then Eleonora’s falcons have migration legends. You can put a proper tag on a falcon of this size and their phenomenal flights have been tracked to the meter to and from Africa. In short Eleonora’s falcons are one of the most capable migrant species on the planet. They breed late and specialise in group hunting other smaller migrants passing by their island cliffs throughout the Mediterranean. Then they fly huge distances over the ocean or across Africa to the northern tip of Madagascar. Each day on migration they start their flights just before dawn by flying several kilometres straight up to get a Google Earth view of the landscape before heading off to the next distant landmark. They seem to use the larger mountains and islands in Africa to orientate themselves. I probably won’t ever see an Eleonora’s falcon in Crail but a couple have turned up in the UK over the years. It seems unlikely to me that these are lost: an Eleonora’s falcon is so flight capable that they must be exactly where they want to be, whenever. I expect some just like to explore.

An Eleonora's falcon - photographed by John onn a trip to Majorca, not Crail unfortunately

An Eleonora’s falcon – photographed by John on a trip to Majorca, not Crail unfortunately

I finished the long day that was Saturday with a couple of barn owls at Arncroach early on Sunday morning. Unfortunately just outside the Crail list boundary. Nice to see in any case and the year list will surely grow with the returning migrants next week.

Posted April 24, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 15th   Leave a comment

Yesterday evening I had a look at John Anderson’s photo site and found to my astonishment three photos of a hawfinch on a feeder. Now John often goes far and wide to photograph unusual Scottish birds but hawfinches – although great Crail rarities – can be tracked down in the arboretum at Scone Palace by Perth and I know John has made that pilgrimage several times. And any photo from the arboretum does not typically involve a feeder. The implication was that there was a hawfinch in Crail and probably in John’s garden. A quick email exchange ensued and I found out that yes, there was a hawfinch in Crail, but not in John’s garden although in a neighbours – who did not want lots of birders tramping around hence the lack of any news on the grape vine. John had not contacted me because I had told him last week I was going to Cyprus and he thought it was this week, not next. It was all turning into a nightmare of coincidences for me: a hawfinch is a very good bird to get on the Crail list and I might have missed this one. It got worse when John told me that it had been in Crail for the last three days. Two days is the magic number for a stop-over migrant in the spring, three if you are very lucky. In the last 14 years there has only been one other hawfinch and this was practically a flyby for a lucky observer at Kilminning. I made arrangements to visit the garden the next afternoon but went to bed feeling anxious as only a rare bird slipping away can make you feel (trust me, that’s quite anxious).

Next morning, first thing, I took the dog for a walk to Bow Butts with my binoculars in the off chance that I might spot the bird flying between the gardens. I scanned the tops of the tall trees alongside the putting green because hawfinches, as the arboretum at Scone suggests, like tall trees and they particularly like sitting right at the tops of them. First tree, there was a brown lump at the top – the hawfinch – sitting happily and in full view. The dog walk was suspended as I watched this great Crail bird and in the next 30 minutes had some of my best views ever of a hawfinch as it shuttled between the tall trees and the garden with the feeder in it via the top of a small eucalyptus in the middle. They are big finches, nearly starling size with huge bills that can crack plum stones with ease. When they fly they almost look like giant bees with their short tails, fat bodies and flickering wings. Hawfinches, to me, are associated with proper woodlands on the Continent, with big trees and black woodpeckers, firecrests, goshawks and honey buzzards and here was one bringing all of that to Crail.

The hawfinch that has been in Crail for the last four days - no. 116 for the year list and best of all no. 222 for the all time Crail list

The hawfinch that has been in Crail for the last four days – no. 116 for the year list and best of all no. 222 for the all time Crail list

Posted April 15, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 14th   Leave a comment

I was seawatching from my house early this morning when three goosanders flew past: a male and two females. There has been a steady but small passage of red-breasted mergansers for the last couple of weeks but goosanders are usually only regular Crail birds in late summer when they arrive to moult after breeding. A very early addition to the Crail year list and continuing this year’s excellent trajectory towards – I hope – 160.

Goosander - no. 115 for the Crail year list; usually I have to wait until late June for one

Goosander – no. 115 for the Crail year list today; usually I have to wait until late June for one

Posted April 14, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 13th   1 comment

Female common redstart - no. 114 for the Crail year list

Female common redstart – no. 114 for the Crail year list

With the heavy rain showers overnight and this morning I headed out to Fife Ness at lunchtime with some optimism. The wind had shifted slightly to the north-east and it was still raining so I didn’t find much – still only chiff-chaffs around the Patch. I stopped on the way back at Kilminning to listed for willow warblers; considering the weather even of some had been about I doubt they would have been singing. As I came back into Crail and got a mobile signal again I got a text from Fife Bird News saying that a common redstart had been found at Kilminning. Frustratingly the location was given only as Kilmining and it’s a big place to search when you should really be back to work. I headed straight back out to Kilminning to give it a quick go nonetheless. Some years I see one or two common redstarts but some years none so I couldn’t afford to let this one slip away from the year list. I started searching at the sea end of Kilminning – the trees there are like the open scrubby woodland they like on their wintering grounds in the Sahel. No luck so I headed to the north end of Kilminning and searched the pines along the main road – the trees there are more like their breeding habitat in Scandinavia. I literally was making my last minute of search that I already couldn’t afford when it popped up on a low pine branch in front of me. A female common redstart – pale milky tea brown with its distinctive red tail. When I checked my year lists this evening I found it was my first Crail common redstart since 2012 – a great addition to the current year list then and well worth the extra trip back out in the rain.

Posted April 13, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 12th   Leave a comment

We have had easterlies for the last two days hence the grey and fairly miserable weather. The temperature has been exactly the same as over the weekend but then it was still and sunny, rather than windy and dull: the difference between feeling like spring and winter. Easterlies are good of course for rare birds but we also need rain showers to bring them down – they are forecast for tomorrow. Thursday might be good.

The pace of migration has slowed a bit. Another swallow at Kilrenny this evening, feeding in the lee of the woodland, and chiff-chaffs pretty much everywhere. The most obvious bit of migration has been from the lesser black-backed gulls that seem to be in every field since Monday. There are quite a few hanging around at the mouth of the Brandyburn and one or two on the rooftops of Crail – they are a species of conservation concern so when you are cursing the gulls on your roof, instead feel privileged that you are helping one of the relatively few species that the UK is important for.

The birding highlight for me today was a fulmar powering up and down Marketgate as if it was scoping the houses for a nesting site. If fulmars do make the leap from clifftop to rooftop as the herring gulls have done then they might become even more successful. Then of course fulmars might join the list of not wanted. Fulmars are more usually at home out over the wild sea than cruising down the High Street: there were plenty out there today as well, adding the perfect poised counterpart to the chaos below.

I am very lucky to be able to illustrate this blog with John Anderson's photos - this is one of his best, composition, drama and the feeling of what it was like to be there today

I am very lucky to be able to illustrate this blog with John Anderson’s photos – this is one of his best, composition, drama and the feeling of what it was like to be here today. It’s a fulmar, but you knew that.

Posted April 12, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 10th   Leave a comment

I did see a sand martin today after my dip yesterday. A single bird flew over Kilminning this morning making no. 113 for the Crail year list. I was out looking for willow warblers – still only chiff-chaffs though. There is a newly built magpie nest in Kilminning, one in Denburn too that I noticed last week. They continue to do well. That said I found a magpie wing chewed by a fox at Kilminning so not perfectly well. At sea I had velvet scoters passing again; after the famine, the feast – that’s three consecutive days – they must be on passage now. And after yesterday’s puffin passage today it was back to normal – lots and lots of razorbills and only the occasional puffin passing out of the Forth. I don’t understand it at all; better keep watching.

Sand martin on Balcomie Beach two years ago - they are an early migrant, but even so a bit early for nest building. Nice photo though of this subtle swallow

Sand martin on Balcomie Beach two years ago – they are an early migrant, but even so a bit early for nest building. Nice photo though of this subtle swallow (no. 113 for the Crail year list).

Posted April 10, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 9th   Leave a comment

I walked from Cambo back to Crail along the coast path and then heading inland at Wormiston Farm this morning. I was hoping that the sand martins were back at their colony on the shore there. No sign of them yet but there were chiff-chaffs singing in the woods at Cambo and I had a second swallow passing over my garden in the afternoon, singing away as it headed north.

Today a lot of puffins passed Crail. A steady stream of twos and threes going past out of the Forth, so presumably heading further north. Usually it’s all razorbills and guillemots until much later in the summer when the puffins from the May start feeding their chicks, but today it was all puffins with only the occasional razorbill.

The buzzards have been busy over Crail this afternoon. They were displaying to each other (a zig-zagging sky dance), soaring together and mewing loudly, much to the annoyance of the herring gulls which filled the sky noisily every time there was buzzard nearby. At one point I had three buzzards over my garden – perhaps that was why they were so active today – the resident Denburn pair were seeing off a persistent intruder.

A common buzzard mewing - any large bird of prey soaring over Crail will be a buzzard. We have at least three pairs within 2 km of the church

A common buzzard mewing – any large bird of prey soaring over Crail will be a buzzard. We have at least three pairs within 2 km of the kirk

Posted April 9, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 8th   Leave a comment

The female or immature male black redstart that has been at Fife Ness for the last three days

The female or immature male black redstart that has been at Fife Ness for the last three days

John caught up with the black redstart at Fife Ness this morning and managed to get some excellent pictures of it. It had disappeared by time I got there at lunchtime. I sat by the rocks where it had been seen and waited. The seabirds kept me busy even of the redstart didn’t reappear. I saw a flock of four velvet scoter (with two common scoter) go past – my first for the year. They are often a January 1st bird but they have been scarce at Crail this winter. Still they finally made it onto the year list: no. 112. Several sandwich tern went past too. There seemed to be more chiff-chaffs about today as well as I walked back up to the golf club car park on my way home.

A pair of velvet scoters passing Fife Ness

A pair of velvet scoters passing Fife Ness: no. 112 for the Crail year list

Posted April 8, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 7th   Leave a comment

More migrants today. The black redstart was still at Fife Ness. I saw the female again at lunchtime, feeding amongst the rocks right on the Ness. It was surprisingly inconspicuous, hopping underneath the jumbled boulders like a robin and only occasionally popping up on top, shivering its tail, drawing attention. It was feeding very actively as if it really wanted to get on with its journey but the wind is now from the north. There were some migrant chiff-chaffs about too at Fife Ness Muir and Kilminning along with a small flock of redwings. And as I came back into Crail I saw my first swallow of the year. No. 111 for the year list and a fairly early bird. Previous year’s first swallows have been the 16th, 13th & 16th April, 29th March, 12th, 21st, 11th, 16th, 15th & 14th April, from 2015 to 2006 respectively: so the second earliest ever and over a week earlier than average.

A newly arrived barn swallow in Crail (from a previous year) - today's flew over Crail and kept going north. No. 111 for the year list.

A newly arrived barn swallow in Crail (from a previous year) – today’s flew over Crail and kept going north. No. 111 for the year list.

Posted April 7, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 6th   Leave a comment

Female black redstart

Female black redstart – no. 110 for the Crail year list

The heavy rain showers and the south-easterlies of yesterday have brought down ring ouzels and black redstarts all along the east coast. I sat at work today looking out at the bright day and lamenting my lack of an opportunity to scour Fife Ness to find our share. Sure enough a couple of black redstarts were reported in the afternoon from the coastal path by Fife Ness (along with some wheatears and a swallow). I managed to make a quick dash to see them on my way home. They had moved from the spot where they had been reported. All I found was John Anderson who had staked out the location for the last hour unsuccessfully. I widened the search area and eventually found a female black redstart, now around the lighthouse, right on the tip of the Ness. Number 110 for the year list and a great one to get – I can go a couple of years without seeing one for the Crail list. It was a lovely evening even without the redstart; lots of gannets and eiders shuttling by close in with the occasional red-throated diver and red-breasted merganser glowing in the evening sunlight. A male wheatear on the rocks topped it all off.

Posted April 6, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 6th   Leave a comment

I was scanning the sea from my house this evening when I spotted a very dark bird swimming on the water just out from the Brandyburn. I zoomed in and saw it had a white wing patch – a summer plumage black guillemot. Common around the west coast but very rare in the Firth of Forth and even more so during the spring or summer. I am lucky to see a black guillemot around Crail in a year and this is my second. I have been wondering whether they might be getting more common – the May Island would certainly suit them for breeding. They rival puffins in auky handsomeness – although this one was a bit far away to appreciate its gorgeous bright red tongue and legs.

Black guillemot

Black guillemot

Posted April 6, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 3rd   Leave a comment

It was a day of contrasts; a dull and rainy start but a beautiful afternoon. The light south-easterlies continued all day bringing in the summer migrants. There were three pristine male northern wheatears on the beach at the end of Balcomie golf course. Two weeks ago they will have been in the Sahel enjoying temperatures of above 40 degrees; here, today it was just seven degrees. I think they prefer it cooler – when I see them in Africa they take advantage of shade whenever they can and they don’t do much between 10 and 4 when it is really hot. All three birds were feeding at double speed amongst the seaweed. After a long flight – perhaps 2 or 3 days solid and over 3,000 km – they weigh half as much as when they started. So they need to refuel. Some wheatears (although probably not these early ones) continue on to Greenland from the UK with a further 3,000 km flight over the North Atlantic and the Greenland ice cap. There are no potential stops on the way so they have to fully fatten up before they depart. This might take about a week of feeding all day. Today’s wheatears were probably just going a bit further north in Europe so a couple of days’ feeding will suffice to put on fuel for the next leg. Wheatears, of any kind, are one of my favourite birds. What is there not to like about theses have a go heroes with their epic migrations (some from Alaska to Zambia via Central Asia for goodness sake) and their perky presence in the open, otherwise empty habitats of the tundras of the north right through to the deserts of the south.

A migrating male northern wheatear at Balcomie

A migrating male northern wheatear at Balcomie

Kilmininng had some other early migrants. One or two chiff-chaffs and a blackcap. All feeding frantically like the wheatears and as if they had just arrived during the night. There was no singing suggesting these were on their way somewhere rather than having arrived  at their final destination. Blackcaps and chiff-chaffs haven’t come as far as the wheatears, probably only from the olive groves of Spain. They may have been in Iberia just two days ago.

There were some other signs of spring. An early corn bunting tuning up down at Wormiston Farm and I flushed a snipe from a stubble there too. This will be another migrant on its way north, perhaps to the Highlands after spending the winter in England, or perhaps from much further afield. Some snipe winter in sub-Saharan Africa.

I disturbed a fox at Wormiston too. I saw a distant shape lolloping away and expected it to be a roe deer. But something about the way it stopped and looked jauntily back at me made me look at it closer through my binoculars. A handsome dog fox – keeping sensibly out of the way. It has been a good week for foxes. I saw another crossing the road just outside of Kingsbarns on Wednesday.



The year list has progressed well today. Three new summer migrants and a pair of shelduck in their usual place two bays north of Balcomie Beach. I am now up to 109: this is my usual total for late April or even early May, so I am still doing well.

Expect the first swallows in this week; it’s shaping up for an early spring.

Posted April 3, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 2nd   Leave a comment

I had my first proper summer migrant in Crail today – a sandwich tern stopping to fish by the harbour on its way out of the Forth. I usually see my first sandwich tern in the first week in April – no. 105 for the Crail year list. The numbers should start to go up again now the summer migrants are coming in. There was a lesser black-backed gull with the great black-backed gulls at the mouth of the Brandyburn a little later. Another summer migrant but less clear cut with one or two birds regular around Crail this winter. Lesser-black backed gulls stand out from great black-backed gulls because of their yellow legs (and smaller size of course).

Sandwich tern - first of the spring and so no. 105 for the Crail year list

Sandwich tern – first of the spring and so no. 105 for the Crail year list

Posted April 2, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 1st   Leave a comment

A local Lapwing ready to breed - look at that crest - this bird is probably a supermodel in lapwing terms

A local Lapwing ready to breed – look at that crest – this bird is probably a supermodel in lapwing terms

There are several pairs of lapwings starting to breed around Crail just now. You can’t miss them as they swoop and dive like black and white butterflies above the empty fields. The road up from Crail to the secret bunker has several pairs along it and there is the usual pair displaying across the road at the Fairmont Hotel on the way to St Andrews.

Summer migrants are on their way. I heard my first chiff-chaff in St Andrews yesterday. None yet for the Crail year list but there should be some this weekend. The winds are southerly.

Posted April 1, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

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