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

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Posted May 29, 2016 by aboutcrail 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 aboutcrail 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 aboutcrail 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 aboutcrail 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 aboutcrail 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 aboutcrail 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 aboutcrail in Sightings

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