Archive for May 2016

May 29th   Leave a comment

Still lots of arctic terns close in at Fife Ness

Still lots of arctic terns close in at Fife Ness

We have had cold weather since Friday, with temperatures around 7 degrees and a chill light haar coming in morning and evening. Kilminning and Fife Ness remains quiet migrantwise this weekend. The breeding common whitethroats and sedge warblers are still trying to make up for it with their exuberant song flights. At sea there are still arctic terns everywhere. Of note today was a large flock of common scoters going north and a pair of teal going south – both species I usually expect much more in the winter rather than in late May. The sea was calm this morning – winds have been light to non-existent all weekend – and so a pod of 10 or so bottle-nose dolphin passing the Ness was very obvious. Whenever I encounter dolphins, or any cetaceans, I always feel for my colleagues that study them – at least I get to see my study animals and don’t have to try to work out what they are doing from a fleeting glimpse of their back once every week, if they are lucky.

Bottlenose-dolphin passing Fife Ness

Bottlenose-dolphins passing Fife Ness

Posted May 29, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 27th   Leave a comment

No sooner do I start to write off the spring migration season does the east wind start again. With rain showers yesterday and today, a bluethroat and a subalpine warbler on the May Island, I even began to feel optimistic. A walk around Kilminning turned up a garden warbler at least. No. 129 for the year list and although a fairly regular passage migrant through Crail at the end of May, every one for the year list is good to get. Garden warblers are relatively dull to look at but are one of our best singers. I chased one around a hawthorn bush barely ever seeing it, but enjoying its song nonetheless. There were also two migrant whimbrels going over, whistling away to the Arctic, as I walked back along the coast path. The good winds are forecast to continue for several days, although without rain showers to really make things happen.

Garden warbler - no. 129 for the year list, at Kilminning today

Garden warbler – no. 129 for the year list, at Kilminning today

Posted May 27, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 26th   Leave a comment

As migration season tails away so the seabirds become the thing to look out for from Crail. The cold northerlies of the last two days have again resulted in the seabirds flying past Crail relatively close in to take advantage of the sheltering effect of the shore as they fly out of the Forth. Last night it was kittiwakes and arctic terns with the occasional small group of manx shearwaters coming past. This morning it was all puffins. The larger species like gannets are less affected but even they come closer. The adult gannets are incubating just now so the off duty birds are flying back and forth from Bass rock to feed themselves up after a long fast on the nest. They will range hundreds of kilometres – some going as far as Shetland – during these feeding journeys. Although it is mostly adults, there are plenty of sub-adult gannets around. They are easily recognisable by their mixed up and dirty looking plumage. Gannets take several years to become adults and as they get older they become more interested in a locating a future breeding site, so start to hang around a colony like Bass Rock for the summer. They also probably pick up cues on the best places to nest and feed that will help them when they eventually get to breed themselves: they will be looking for a mate as well.

A sub-adult gannet passing Crail - probably born 3 years ago.

A sub-adult gannet passing Crail – probably born 3 years ago.

Posted May 26, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 22nd   Leave a comment

The warmer weather comes at a price – a south west wind – and any chance of migrants has more or less dried up. Today it was relatively quiet at Kilminning. Residents only. Lots of singing whitethroats and about six sedge warblers, a couple of willow warblers and a blackcap. The summer is pretty much here now. Anxious meadow pipits, all with beakfuls of food seem to be everywhere and the starlings are just about to fledge their chicks too.

A meadow pipit at Balcomie with a beakful of food for hungry chicks that will be fledging soon

A meadow pipit at Balcomie with a beakful of food for hungry chicks that will be fledging soon

Posted May 22, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 21st   Leave a comment

Sandwich tern - all head, black front of end of the wing, yellow bill tip

Sandwich tern – all head, black front of end of the wing, yellow bill tip

Common tern - wings in middle, dirty wing and red bill with black tip

Common tern – wings in middle, dirty wing and red bill with black tip

Arctic tern - all tail (no neck), neat black line on back of wing and all dark red bill

Arctic tern – all tail (no neck), neat black line on back of wing and all dark red bill

Now is a great time to see three species of tern at close quarters at Fife Ness. At high tide all three species are roosting on the rocks right up against the shore. I was able to approach to 20 meters without them responding and through a telescope I could see the landscape reflected in their eyes. The three tern species that we have around Crail during the summer – the ones that you are likely to see any day between May and October – are sandwich, common and arctic. At first glance they look similar – white gull things with black caps and thin pointed wings. To be able to identify them easily you need a few tips. Now the field guides will tell you about differences in bill colour but when a tern is shooting past Roome Bay at 40 km an hour this doesn’t help you very much. The trick is to look at their proportions – the apparent position of the wings on the body and consequently how much neck, head and bill are in front of the wings and how much body and tail are behind them. In flight, sandwich terns have wings that look closer to the back of their body and so look big headed like a pterodactyl; common terns have wings in the middle of their body so look evenly balanced and gull like  and arctic terns have wings that look closer to the front of the body so they look neckless. So that’s sandwich all head, common terns even and arctic terns all tail. These characters work best on an average or distant flight view – which is what most people get, especially if you haven’t got a pair of binoculars with you at the time. As the terns get closer I find these structural cues get less useful. First, basic impressions work best. Up close I will use the wing pattern: arctic have pure white wings with a neat black line underneath the wing tips forming the trailing edge; common have dirtier looking wings with a wedge of greyish black in the middle of the tips and a scruffy black trailing edge underneath and sandwich terns have the front edge of the wing blackish. And of course if you really get close the bill colour will do: yellow tip for sandwich, blood red for arctic and red with a black tip for common. It’s good to know these features because each of the terns has a different story – each species astonishingly flight capable and here for two or three months before moving on, in the case of the arctics, to literally the other end of the planet. Today Fife Ness felt a bit like Shetland – arctic terns everywhere and lots of noisy interactions. They won’t breed here because it is a bit too disturbed but the May Island has all three. If you visit the May when the terns are breeding then you will get views close enough to see their bills and you may find out exactly why arctic tern’s bills are the colour they are…

Posted May 22, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 18th   Leave a comment

Sedge warbler - check out a rape field and there will be one or two at least singing

Sedge warbler – check out a rape field and there will be one or two at least singing

There are a lot of rape fields this year – the landscape is punctuated by squares of bright yellow. It’s a very cheerful crop and surprisingly good for birds. Most monoculture fields are dull places but a flowering field of rape at this time of year is alive with insects and consequently birds. I walked around the large rape field adjacent to Kilrenny common last night and counted at least 9 sedge warblers singing their hearts out from within the crop. There were three reed buntings, a dunnock, a couple of whitethroats and even a corn bunting doing the same. If we get a shrike this year it will likely be at the edge of a rape field too, taking advantage of the island of insects in an otherwise very impoverished landscape. Hedges or trees round the edge of a rape field, as it is at Kilrenny, seem to make them particularly good.

Posted May 18, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 15th   Leave a comment

There was a steady stream of arctic terns past Fife Ness today and a few common terns. All of the eiders going past were males apart from one – the females are all sitting tight on eggs and the males have nothing further to do for the year. In a couple of weeks we should expect the first rafts of eider chicks to make their way to us from the May Island accompanied by the females: they pool their chicks into large crèches to dilute the risk from predators like gulls. A flock of turnstone briefly touched down on the rocks at the very tip of Fife Ness. Five very handsome summer plumage birds on their way to the high Arctic with their start of breeding perhaps even weeks away.

A handsome summer plumage turnstone on its way to breed in the high Arctic

A handsome summer plumage turnstone on its way to breed in the high Arctic

Posted May 15, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 14th   Leave a comment

The May Island continues to host bluethroats and a thrush nightingale and I can only look at it in the distance. We are still missing all the migrants as the fine weather continues and they fly high overhead. There was a male redstart reported at Kilminning yesterday but no sign of it today. I saw just a male wheatear down at Fife Ness in the afternoon. I did see my first common terns of the year (no. 128 for the Crail year list) fishing inshore with the sandwich and arctic terns. And the many hares that were in the fields between Fife Ness and Crail on the way back were another consolation.

Common tern - no. 126 for the Crail year list

Common tern – no. 128 for the Crail year list

Posted May 14, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May13th   Leave a comment

Thousands of puffins past Crail today. This is the daily passage to and from the May Island but it usually happens much further out. The winds have continued to bring the seabirds close in – guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and of course the gannets which loom large even without a telescope. There were a few manx shearwaters feeding off Crail in the evening as well.

A particularly photogenic gannet passing Crail

A particularly photogenic gannet passing Crail

Posted May 14, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 11th   Leave a comment

The wind has continued easterly making nearly a week of it. Great weather if a bit cold and that is the problem. We need some overnight rain showers to bring the migrants down. The May Island has been getting great birds since the weekend, but few have been reaching us. Today the May had a citrine wagtail, a bluethroat and a red-backed shrike, yesterday a thrush nightingale and a wryneck. I wish I had a boat. My Crail list would be growing daily. I have been trying around Crail of course, just in case. On Monday morning I got up at half five to check Kilminning after a weekend of migrants I had missed (I was away). A lovely sunny morning and full of birds but all of the migrants of Sunday (whinchat, tree pipit, spotted flycatcher and lesser whitethroat) had departed overnight. I think when we have good winds but clear weather any migrants just stop off for the afternoon. You have to be quick to connect up with them. A good spell of dull rainy weather will stop migrants for longer in the spring. In the autumn birds are not in such a hurry and some migrants may stay around for weeks.

At lunchtime today I went back out to Kilminning for another search. I heard what I thought was a garden warbler down at the south end and put on some playback to lure it out. A brown bird came out of a dense rose bush and as I got my binoculars on it I saw it was a reed or marsh warbler. I immediately noticed its shape was a bit different from the usual reed warbler, a stouter bill and a rounder head, although still the charactflattened long body shape. The underparts were also dirty yellowish contrasting with the warm brown back, and it had a clear eye ring, more pronounced than the paler line in front of the eye (the lores). These are all characters of a marsh warbler – a great Crail bird and only my second one (although the same is true for reed warbler). I switched my playback to marsh warbler, and reed warbler and then even a few rarer similar species. But it had lost interest and apart from a few further brief glimpses I didn’t see it again. You best identify marsh warblers by catching them or hearing their song. The characters I observed are all subjective so my identification is far from certain. But a reed warbler type (birders refer to them as Acros or Acrocephalus warblers – a large genus of nearly identical brown birds that are only really distinctive when they sing). And a new bird for the Crail year list. I will put it down as a marsh warbler (no. 127 for the year list) because that’s what I think it was (and even if it was a reed warbler either species is new this year). I won’t get my sighting accepted as an official Fife record however.

The wind shifted more to the north in the afternoon.This pushed the seabirds in close to Crail this evening as they passed us in the lee of the shore. An endless stream of gannets and auks past in the evening sunlight.

Some of the thousands of guillemots that have been passing back and forth close to Crail this week

Some of the thousands of guillemots that have been passing back and forth close to Crail this week

Posted May 11, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 6th   Leave a comment

Denburn Wood is at its spring best at the moment. Burgeoning green and full of song. There were assorted warblers singing this morning: chiff-chaff, willow warbler, blackcap and the first sedge warbler of the year (no. 125 for the year list). I suspect the sedge warblers came in overnight just behind the swifts. Sedge warblers don’t breed in Denburn preferring brambly ditches in the fields around Crail so today’s bird was just finding its feet after a long migration.

I got a text at lunchtime that there had been a yellow wagtail seen along the main road by Kirkmay Farm. A great Crail bird – I only saw my first one here last year. Ten minutes later I was out on the muddy track along the Anstruther road and in the same time again I had found not just one but three yellow wagtails feeding around a couple of large puddles. Two were males glowing like jewels. I phoned John Anderson and he set out straight away. When you stake out a bird for someone else it usually leaves immediately but not today. John had all three birds alighting by his car just as he arrived. I suspect these birds spent the winter trotting around the feet of cows and herdsman in somewhere like Senegal and so are completely used to people and disturbance. I was able to watch one of the males at very close quarters displaying to the female as if it thought it could nest there (suitable habitat but yellow wagtails rarely nest this far north). I am used to yellow wagtails being close to me in Africa but not as the bright yellow beacons that they become in the summer. A very good bird for the Crail year list (no. 126), which seems to be going from strength to strength.

One of today's yellow wagtails at Kirkmay

One of today’s yellow wagtails at Kirkmay

I walked back into Crail along the coastal path. There have been a lot of northern wheatears around Crail this week and I saw one of these. Another migrant of course, less rare than a yellow wagtail but a joy nonetheless, and a thread connecting me from Africa to my home to the Arctic.

One of the many northern wheatears around Crail this week - John got within 5 meters of this one on Balcomie Beach

One of the many northern wheatears around Crail this week – John got within 5 meters of this one on Balcomie Beach

Posted May 6, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 5th   3 comments

I was on the 95 bus last night at dusk, luckily on the top deck, watching Crail approach when I saw a dark shape slinking into the wheat field by the track to Damside (that’s on the left one field after the turn off to the secret bunker road as you come out of Crail on the St Andrews road). I first thought a cat, but as the bus drew level I saw it was a very long, low flattened shape, much larger than a cat with a huge long tail – an otter! Coincidentally only about 200m from where I found the road kill otter in October 2013. It flashed by (no emergency cord on a bus) but such good news to know that they are still about. They must be very nocturnal residents or very rare visitors to Crail to escape notice most of the time.

Otter - one just outside of Crail this evening

Otter – one just outside of Crail this evening

The other news of the day is the arrival of the swifts. This morning there were none but by the late afternoon, with the warm southerlies, they were everywhere, their chases and screams that form the soundscape for the summer back in force.

Posted May 6, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 2nd   Leave a comment

The arctic terns came back today. There was a steady stream past Crail and Fife Ness this morning. Small groups mostly but one large flock of over 50. As I scanned through this flock as it passed the Ness I picked up two smaller birds flying just above the waves, keeping pace with the terns in a characteristic belting flight– all black but with a square white rump and a faint bit of white on the wings occasionally glimpsed – a couple of storm petrels. Great birds to see anytime or anywhere but quite unexpected today. I would have missed them if I hadn’t been zooming in on the terns through my telescope. Storm petrels are regular in mid-summer but never seen because they are nocturnal (unless you mist-net them at night). But we have had two periods since I have been living in Crail when there have been many storm petrels feeding around Crail during the day in early summer. And they are seen passing the Ness every year although usually in stormy autumn weather. So perhaps not so unexpected. I have been putting in the hours at Fife Ness this year as well.

There are still a lot of whimbrels down at Balcomie and Fife Ness. Four today with a bar-tailed godwit nearly in its full brick red and silver grey breeding plumage. I also saw my first common whitethroat of the year, singing in a half-hearted fashion in a usual spot by the old cottage below The Patch. That with the arctic terns, the storm petrels and my first manx shearwater of the year passing the Ness well out to sea increased the Crail year list spectacularly by 4 today – I’m now up to 124 and have moved over a month ahead of my record year in 2012.

Arctic terns

Arctic terns – the first of the summer came past Crail today

Posted May 2, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 1st   Leave a comment

Sandwich tern

Sandwich tern

The best way to celebrate the start of May is with a swift. I had my first just outside of Crail this morning (120 for the Crail year list). Swifts are usually one of the later migrants but this one has leapfrogged the sedge warblers and whitethroats. The temperature is back to double figures so everything should now start arriving. Swifts are a bit more flight capable than most migrants and probably migrate at twice or three times the speed of something like a whitethroat.

There was a large passage of sandwich terns today – hundreds passing Crail through the morning in small groups. At Kingsbarns Beach it was a sandwich tern festival with 10 birds or so plunge diving right at the waterline. They were catching small sandeels so close in that they were just meters away from any walker passing along the edge of the sea. They are big terns, but still incredibly graceful and adept in the air. It was a real treat to be that close to them. I could understand them being so oblivious to people after spending the winter doing the same in Ghana on the busy beaches and amongst the fisherman there.

There are still a lot of kittiwakes feeding close in off Crail and Fife Ness. Most of these are young birds from last year with their characteristic “W” pattern on their wings. Kittiwakes take a couple of years to reach breeding age so it’s not unsurprising that there are a lot of birds loafing around somewhere, but usually I think they are further out in the North Sea and so much less noticeable. With the kittiwakes is the occasional fulmar, barrelling past with a lot more purpose. Fulmars, of course, take much longer to reach adulthood, maybe even a decade to get their first successful nest. Again there will be a lot of immature birds passing Crail passing time until adulthood but they are impossible to distinguish from adults. The passage of time doesn’t affect how fulmars look – 20 or 50 years old they look just the same. Perhaps it’s the high fish oil diet.

Fulmar

Fulmar

Posted May 1, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings