Archive for August 2016

August 29th   1 comment

A corncrake was seen yesterday at Boarhills rapidly disappearing (as they do) into a fallow field. A rare bird anywhere in the UK, except maybe the Hebrides, and a bird that, even in the Hebrides, is impossible to see due to its preference for very dense cover and freezing rather than flushing when approached. As you might imagine I spent a happy hour this afternoon tramping through the weedy (lots of thistles…) field flushing surprising numbers of skylarks, a pheasant and a covey of grey partridges but no corncrakes. Worse than needle in a haystack but I had to try because it was a corncrake. There were several wheatears as consolation in the harvested fields on the way back – it’s been a good autumn for wheatears – they seem to be everywhere along the coast just now.

Lots of wheatears around at the moment

Lots of wheatears around at the moment

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Posted August 29, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 28th   Leave a comment

And another tale of virtue bringing rewards. I was chafing to get back out to add to the year list this morning but ended up doing chores in the garden when a pair of greenshank flew over “tu-tu-tuing” away (no. 146 for the Crail year list). I had been wanting to get out to the mouth of the Kenly Burn to try to find a greenshank today but they came to me. Greenshanks are like whimbrel and call a lot when migrating which is always nice: you can hear greenshank passing over anywhere in Europe or Africa spring or autumn. Of course I wait for one all year and then three come at once. When I did finally get down to Balcomie another greenshank flew over calling (and a whimbrel!).

Sea watching at Fife Ness was not a patch on yesterday. The wind was pushing things further out and there were almost no terns and only a few small flocks of kittiwakes passing. The only skua was a great skua (very welcome though – first for the year making the list now 147 and well ahead – in all previous years I only get to this total late September or October). It looked massive compared to the long-tailed of yesterday even as it flew past with a gannet. There were also only two manx shearwaters past in an hour: I can’t believe the sooty shearwaters weren’t there, they must just have been passing too far out to see today.

Great skua with gannet

Great skua (no. 147 for the Crail year list) with gannet

It was a beautiful afternoon. Butterflies are finally appearing in numbers this year with red admirals and peacocks both sunning themselves in my garden. In the evening I heard a couple of late migrating swifts screaming high over the High Street – another reminder that summer is still with us even if many things are moving on.

Posted August 29, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 27th   2 comments

Sometimes virtue does bring additional rewards. I stopped to let a golfer tee off undisturbed at the end of Balcomie beach and while I did so I noticed a bird barrelling in from the sea. I looked at it casually thinking it was just a mallard but through my binoculars it turned into a gadwall – a new Crail bird, never mind a new one for the year list. Some birds are a bit embarrassing not to be on the Crail list yet and gadwall is definitely one of these. But as I have said before, Crail lacks freshwater so some common things elsewhere like coots and great crested grebes and indeed gadwalls are pretty rare here. Rarity is very much where you are standing: greenish warblers are commoner in Crail than gadwalls. The Crail list is now up to 223 and the year list 142.

I had a great sea watch from Fife Ness later in the afternoon as the wind swung round to the south. First bird through my telescope was a sooty shearwater – first of the season – with another eight passing in the next couple of hours. The second a manx shearwater and the third was a juvenile long-tailed skua! I identified it straight off – with the characteristic extension at the base of the tail which makes them look long-rumped rather than long tailed, and its slim back end, pot-bellied look – actually long-tailed skuas are one of the most elegant and beautiful seabirds going despite that description. It stayed around for great views over the next two hours, chasing kittiwakes and arctic and common terns in between resting on the sea just off the Ness so I could do a more comprehensive identification to confirm my initial impression. Skuas like raptors are better identified on initial impression because structure is everything and the more you look at something the less clear structure becomes. Normally you don’t get a second chance with long-tailed skuas – they fly by – so it was nice today to have the luxury of seeing all the other characters that identify them. Best of all there were five or so arctic skuas around for a comparison and all were chasing kittiwakes allowing a really nice standardised comparison of size and shape. And there were seabirds everywhere, including quite a few young puffins sitting on the sea. A good afternoon – the first great sea watch of the autumn and three more species to add to the Crail year list, now up to 145.

Dark phase arctic skua at Fife Ness - no. 145 for the Crail year list today

Dark phase arctic skua at Fife Ness – no. 145 for the Crail year list today

Posted August 27, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 22nd   Leave a comment

As I left Crail on my way to work this morning a falcon dashed across the road and headed upwards in a characteristic determined flight – a merlin, probably chasing a skylark. They have a particular paced look when they hunt skylarks which makes sense when some hunts can involve minutes of sustained chasing. August is a best time to see merlins around Crail and a short walk across any of the fields between Crail and Kingsbarns or Anstruther is quite likely to turn one up, although when they perch (and they do that a lot) they are hard to spot. I usually have one or two sightings of merlins passing through my garden in August so it’s worth watching out for them anywhere. There are plenty of sparrowhawks and kestrels about the town as well though.

Merlin

Merlin

On my way back from work I stopped off at the co-op at Anstruther to check the ploughed field behind it where a Mediterranean gull had been seen mid-afternoon. There was a big flock of mixed gulls roosting in the middle of the field and I checked through it carefully. Med gulls are very distinctive as adults – almost pure white with a bright red bill – but it took a bit of looking before I spotted it amongst the black-headed and herring gulls. At one point the whole flock took flight making it much easier to pick out. Most gulls have some black in their wings but Mediterranean gulls are all white apart from the usual “seagull” pale wash of grey on the upper surface. This is quite useful when they are on the ground in a flock too because they look odd, like they are missing the tips of their wings. Mediterranean gulls used to be much rarer but they have been spreading in the last 30 years north and west. Still they are rare visitors to Crail and this was my first one in a couple of years – a welcome number 141 for the Crail year list. On my way back to the co-op I saw a wheatear in the same ploughed field (and heard of another two at West Braes beach this afternoon). Surprisingly there were none over the weekend. Perhaps these are Scottish birds brought to us by a more west wind and the showers overnight.

Mediterranean gull - an adult in winter plumage having lost its black hood. No. 141 for the Crail year list.

Mediterranean gull – an adult in winter plumage having lost its black hood. No. 141 for the Crail year list.

 

Posted August 22, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 21st   Leave a comment

A hot day! I did a tour of the path from Troustie to Wormiston to Balcomie and back through Kilminning and Saucehope this morning and it felt like Africa. That feeling of the first part of the day being the best before it gets too hot to see or do anything. It does make a change for Crail. There was not much more to find from yesterday. I don’t think anything new came in last night and I couldn’t refind the whinchat and lesser whitethroat of yesterday. I did find a pied flycatcher (no. 140 for the Crail year list) in the garden of the yellow house at Wormiston Farm, making up for missing the one at Balcomie yesterday. But like everything yesterday it was hard to find, barely calling and only visible briefly in the dense foliage. A fall in late October is much easier to get to grips with when the leaves have gone from the trees. The juvenile curlew sandpiper had moved along from Balcomie Beach to one of the tidal pools further north. It was still tame and I walked past it at less than 20 meters before I noticed it. Close up you can really see how nicely marked and neat they are. It was alone, leaving the dunlins still on the beach with the sanderlings.

The juvenile curlew sandpiper that has been at Balcomie Beach for the last two days

The juvenile curlew sandpiper that has been at Balcomie Beach for the last two days

A pair of emerald damselflies about to lay eggs in my pond and add to the biodiversity in my garden

A pair of emerald damselflies about to lay eggs in my pond and add to the biodiversity in my garden

I spent some of the afternoon watching the pond that we put in my back garden last autumn. It has been establishing through the summer but we hit a significant milestone today with our first damselfly visiting. An emerald damselfly – very small and slight – but with lovely bronze green highlights. No sooner had we seen our first male than another two turned up and starting mating! Within 20 minutes the pair had climbed down a reed until they were completely underwater and the female started laying eggs on the stem. The first male flew around a bit and then left in disgust; after a further 20 minutes the pair had finished and left too. Hopefully leaving us with damselflies now resident in our pond. The tadpoles next spring will have to look out for themselves a bit more.

Posted August 21, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 20th   Leave a comment

And today feels a bit like Christmas. The huge hoped for fall of August migrants didn’t materialise this morning but there was enough about to make things quite interesting. I made it out to Kilminning by 7 and enjoyed the best of the day’s sunshine as I cycled out. Immediately I was struck by how quiet it was and I began to feel a bit disappointed. Sometimes even when the weather is right we don’t get lucky. Then I found a flock of willow warblers in the pines at the entrance to Kilminning – some migrants at last. I spent the next 40 minutes checking through them carefully. There were about 20 of them mixed in with coal and blue tits and a couple of chiff-chaffs; each one needed to be checked and it was a challenge as they darted about the trees. I finally saw a greyish warbler among them – a lesser whitethroat – always a good indicator species for Crail of other good birds to find and number 136 for the Crail year list. It was sobering to think that it took so much patient checking through the flock before I was lucky enough to see the lesser whitethroat. So much of finding rare birds is, well, finding them. They are around so much more than we ever detect them.

Lesser whitethroat

Lesser whitethroat

I continued down to the bottom of Kilminning. Again it seemed very quiet apart from a whinchat at the edge of the airfield – another good indicator species. Then I suddenly heard a very distinctive “choo-slip” like a pied wagtail or speeded up yellow-browed warbler. A greenish warbler maybe? Then it called again and again from the willow tree in front of me followed by a quite striking willow warbler type bird flying out of it into the next tree. Almost certainly a greenish warbler – a fantastic August rarity for Crail, breeding in central Asia and wintering in India, and one I have only seen once before here (August 24th 2003, so 13 years ago!). A once a decade Crail bird (obviously number 137 for the Crail year list as well). I got out my phone to listen to the call to confirm I wasn’t mistaken – a perfect match – and as I listened the live bird started calling again and even gave a short burst of song. It flew from tree to tree above me and finally came out into clear view in an elder for a few seconds. Greenish warblers are quite distinctive in a technical sort of way – very clean and two toned looking, whitish below and olive green above with a nice, distinctive black eye-stripe and a large white supercilium all along the head, curving up behind the eye. I took all of this in and remembered to check for the wing bar – there it was, a single thin yellowish white line in the middle of the wing. And then it was off back into the dense vegetation.

I cycled up the road to get a phone signal, called John Anderson and then put the news out for the rest of the Fife birders. Rather ill-advisedly I gave the bird the kiss of death by describing it as easy to see and “responding well to playback”. I then waited for others to arrive. Within ten minutes some other birders and John arrived and we tried to refind the bird. But it had gone to ground and apart from bouts of calling wasn’t seen again for several hours. It’s really frustrating to find a good bird but then not to be able to share it with others (not as frustrating as not seeing the bird at all though) and I was relieved when I came back to Kilminning later in the afternoon to find that it had been seen by a few others in the hours that followed. But I was very lucky this morning to get such a good view and to hear it calling and even singing right in front of me. After that first run of sightings I didn’t see it again and so after an hour I went up to Balcomie Castle to look for a reported pied flycatcher. Not so lucky this time. Still I headed back to Crail mid-morning for a well-earned coffee with a happy heart.

This afternoon I returned to Kilminning and Balcomie looking for more warblers and flycatchers but it was the shorebirds turn. Amongst the dunlin on Balcomie Beach was a juvenile curlew sandpiper. A once every two or three years Crail bird (number 138 for the Crail year list) and one of my favourites if only because it is the quintessential birders bird. If you don’t look out for curlew sandpipers, you will never see them. They look to me quite different to dunlin but it’s all very subtle: longer legs, neck and bill giving a more elegant shape. In a flock of dunlin they are just another dunlin unless you remember what to look for. And that’s probably the other significant part of finding rare birds. When you see a bird, you mustn’t assume it’s common (although expect it to be) – remember the alternatives and check them all off.

Juvenile curlew sandpiper

Juvenile curlew sandpiper

After the beach at Balcomie I was understandably still feeling lucky so had a bit of a sea watch at Fife Ness. The wind had been picking up all day from the south so the seabirds were close in. Lots of kittiwakes, fulmars, gannets and sandwich terns but nothing unusual. The shorebird excitement continued though with small flocks of redshanks and knots – some still mostly in their red and grey summer plumage – passed by, heading south. And then a black-tailed godwit flying over at Kilminning on my way home. Another species as unusual as the curlew sandpiper for Crail and so another addition to the Crail year list, making 139. I had slipped behind in my race to beat my all time best Crail year list this week – I reached 138 species by the 19th August in 2012 (my record year to beat with 156). I am now back on track being one ahead, although the lead is precarious and I have to continue adding species to keep up with the very good August and September that we had in 2012. Still, so far so good with a really good day today, exactly when needed. I finished the afternoon off with some more knots, a whimbrel and a couple of common sandpipers at Saucehope.

Black-tailed godwit - one flying over Kilminning today put me back ahead in the Crail year list challenge - no. 139 for the Crail year list

Black-tailed godwit – one flying over Kilminning today put me back ahead in the Crail year list challenge – no. 139

This evening the wind has gone round to the north and there are some showers forecast overnight. Tomorrow might have some potential and certainly there will be some local birds today that haven’t been found yet.

Posted August 20, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

August 19th   2 comments

The rain is here at last and we still have easterly winds. It feels like Christmas eve. Tomorrow might be great. There are already a lot of pied flycatchers and an icterine warbler on the May Island. I only managed some sea watching through the rain this evening but the visibility was poor as it has been all week. There should be some skuas and shearwaters coming by tomorrow as well and maybe even a black tern. Fingers crossed.

Dunlin on their way south

Dunlin on their way south

Posted August 19, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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