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

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