Archive for September 2016

September 28th   Leave a comment

The pink-footed geese arrived today in big numbers. There were skeins passing all day from St Andrews to Crail. I sat indoors listening to their wild calling overhead and wished I could be out there with them.

Pink-footed geese - arrived today

Pink-footed geese – arrived today

The Brunnich’s guillemot is still resident in Anstruther harbour, allowing views so close you could almost touch it. It really is like a penguin, especially with its wings lacking flight feathers.

The Brunnich's guillemot in Anstruther harbour again

The Brunnich’s guillemot in Anstruther harbour again

Posted September 28, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 26th   Leave a comment

The Brunnich’s guillemot was in residence at Anstruther Harbour all day today providing everyone who went to see it with good views. As John’s photo below shows (much better than mine yesterday, obviously) it is in moult – replacing its flight feathers which they typically do late August to September. This bird won’t be able to fly at the moment (well, they are pretty much northern hemisphere penguins already) so can only swim away – and indeed must have been in the area a bit of time already before it swam into Anstruther Harbour. Its chance of being a fixture for a while is high.

The Brunnich's guillemot - still in Anstruther harbour today. A decent photo as well.

The Brunnich’s guillemot – still in Anstruther harbour today. A decent photo as well.

Elsewhere it is pretty quiet. I checked out Kilminning this evening and apart from a lot of robins (which seem to be increasing, so some may already be here for the winter) and wrens I didn’t see anything special in the bushes. There was a nice flock of lapwing and golden plover in the adjacent potato field and I enjoyed watching the gannets strung out in white lines on the horizon heading back to the Bass Rock at dusk. But I missed the terns – it has now been several days without even a sandwich tern.

Posted September 26, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 25th continued…   Leave a comment

It has been a frustrating week with birds not quite materialising or being missed but all’s well that ends well. A Brunnich’s guillemot was seen yesterday and photographed just outside Anstruther harbour on a trip out to the May Island. There was some initial uncertainty about its identity: it’s what is known as a mega-rarity, with only a handful of recent Scottish records and most in the northern Isles, and almost always later on in the winter. And it’s tricky to identify without a good view, which is usually difficult for a seabird. Photos were taken and then the features became clearer. Anyway it was relocated in Anstruther harbour this afternoon and put out on the grapevine. I got the text just after 4 while I was cooking Sunday dinner, thankfully just as everything had gone into the oven. I was out at Anstruther about 20 minutes later and after a sprint around the harbour wall (which is a long harbour wall, I have to say, when you are running carrying a telescope) there was the Brunnich’s guillemot obligingly snoozing on the water only a few meters out. There were a few other local birders there already and I joined them sat on the harbour edge to enjoy this vastly unexpected bird. Brunnich’s guillemot is the high arctic replacement for common guillemot and I have never been to the right part of the Arctic – so not only a new bird for the Crail list (no. 224) but one for my life list as well, and of course for the year list too, no. 153. I watched it for about three-quarters of an hour, able to see every feature that distinguishes it from a common guillemot. In short – more like a razorbill than a guillemot. It is a moulting bird and looked quite happy in the harbour so is likely to be here for a while – they are one of those species that although rare, once here, tend to hang around. So it should hopefully be a major attraction for birders in the coming week. This evening, its position in the sheltered harbour, and so close in, was absolutely perfect. The high Arctic came to visit me today. And I got back to Crail – very happy – in perfect time to put the Yorkshire pudding in the oven.

What made it a Brunnich’s guillemot rather than a common guillemot? A whole series of characters that were easy to see considering its position 25 or so meters from me, through a telescope, on a calm sea with perfect light – but I dread to think how difficult it would be in a swell and at a distance.

The Brunnich's guillemot in Anstruther harbour this evening. My poor phone photos taken through my telescope - but such a good view that they suffice to identify the bird

The Brunnich’s guillemot in Anstruther harbour this evening. My poor phone photos taken through my telescope – but such a good view that they suffice to identify the bird

With reference to the numbers in the pictures above:

1 & 2: Distance from the bill tip to end of feathering at base of bill, and this point and the eye is a ratio of 1 to 2.

3: Change in angle of bill halfway along the lower bill

4: Decurved upper mandible

5: Mostly dark around and behind the eye

6: White line along the cutting edge of the first half of the top of the bill, below the nostril

7: White unmarked flanks

8: Thick neck and general razorbill like shape

9: Grey black upper colour – never looking brown (or milk chocolate as would be expected in the strong light)

Posted September 25, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 25th   Leave a comment

The theme of wildlife beginning at home continued today. My best birds were from a sea watch from my teenage son’s room (where I am a barely tolerated tenant) which overlooks the Forth. An adult little gull heading into the Forth and then ten minutes later an adult Mediterranean gull passing the other way. After a lull of several years, three Crail Mediterranean gulls in as many weeks. This one was gloriously glowing almost pure white in the morning sunshine, apart from the diagnostic dark smudge behind the eye. Best of all – a new species for my garden list – number 129. It was much less interesting at Fife Ness later although I could see the flocks of kittiwakes on the horizon today and occasionally them bunching up like a cloud of flies in the extreme distance, presumably as they were targeted by skuas. I also saw a wheatear at Saucehope on the way home.

Adult mediterranean gull - glowing white

Adult mediterranean gull – glowing white

There was a family of swallows in my garden this afternoon: two parents and three juveniles, still being fed occasionally. A late brood but probably OK if the weather holds. Many of the other swallows left this week, I think, although it always hard to say because we have passage birds replacing the local birds right through October.

Young swallows

Young swallows

Posted September 25, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 24th   Leave a comment

There was a reasonably strong south-south easterly today but sea watching actually got worse compared to yesterday. In fact, it was really quiet – no terns, barely any kittiwakes – and only the gannets to save it, and a flock of teal passing close by Fife Ness. I didn’t see any summer migrants today apart from swallows and they were few and far between. One paced me and my dog Nutmeg as I cycled through a stubble field, picking up the flies we were disturbing by our passage. At one point Nutmeg started chasing the swallow and it just kept flying along with her in a zigzag fashion, the dogs increasing excitement and speed adding to its value as a fly producer. I have seen swallows following running antelopes in Africa like this, although they always seem oblivious to the swallows. Nutmeg would have chased this swallow, generating flies all day, terrier fashion, if the swallow hadn’t eventually decided to keep heading south.

Teal migrating past Fife Ness, heading south

Teal migrating past Fife Ness, heading south

I have been waiting for the geese all week – they should certainly be here any day now: pink-feet sounding like their voices are breaking and barnacles yapping like dogs overhead. Another sign of winter, I saw two purple sandpipers around the rocks at Balcomie today, flying away like dark dunlins with their distinctive, swallow like “zwick” call.

Purple sandpiper - arriving at Fife Ness for the winter

Purple sandpiper – arriving at Fife Ness for the winter


Posted September 24, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 23rd   Leave a comment

More garden visitors this morning reflecting that passage is going on. A meadow pipit perched on the telephone wire and then a redpoll calling overhead as I left the house. The latter a new addition to one of my other lists – my garden list – now at a creditable 128. Although if I saw a white-tailed eagle over the May Island (and I reckon it would be identifiable through my telescope) that would count too – more a “birds seen from my garden” list.

We have had settled weather for a long while now so birds passing at sea have been thin on the ground. I have seen no bonxies and only a handful of arctic skuas passing the bottom of my garden – in some years it may be several an hour – and only one sooty shearwater in the last week. Perhaps the only things that have been in good numbers are the gannets – with lots of juveniles passing this week and also red-throated divers.

A red-throated diver - lots passing by Crail into the Forth this week

A red-throated diver – lots passing by Crail into the Forth this week

Posted September 23, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 22nd   Leave a comment

At first light there was a chiff-chaff singing and two willow warblers calling from my garden so I was out early this morning with high hopes. The overnight heavy rain and south-easterly winds of the last couple of days must have brought something good in. Unfortunately all I found was more rain: no further warblers at all at Kilminning except maybe some new goldcrests. It did eventually clear up by 9 when I had to head back in frustration. At lunchtime this got worse when I got a text that a buff-breasted sandpiper had just been seen at Balcomie. I was working at home so I was out at the field within 10 minutes (grateful for the brisk west wind to push my bike out there faster). But not fast enough – I missed it by 40 minutes. I spent an hour scanning every ridge and furrow of the field from the edge but found only 2 wheatears, 45 skylark, 7 golden plover, a starling, a curlew, 12 or so rooks and a sparrowhawk – I feel I have to recount these as testament that I was really searching the field hard. A couple of others looking drew a blank as well. It had moved on. I have now “dipped” on buff-breasted sandpiper twice in exactly the same field – coincidentally there was one at Balcomie, again for less than an hour, at the end of September in 2013. Buff-breasts are attractive high Arctic waders that breed in North America. Needless to say they are rare with only 2 in the Crail area in the last 13 years – both of which, as I have said, I tried and failed for. I headed home disappointed again; with anything you care about there will be bad days as well as good days. My highlight today turned out to be two chiff-chaff feeding on the rose bush just outside the window in my garden late morning as I glanced up from my work; there can never be disappointment with unexpected birds.

A chiff-chaff - the bird that came to me today

A chiff-chaff – the bird that came to me today

Posted September 22, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 20th   Leave a comment

First winter spotted flycatcher

First winter spotted flycatcher

There were some indications of things on the move today with some yellow-browed warblers reported from the May Island and two spotted flycatchers, fly catching from Kilrenny Church. Spotted flycatchers are birds of the edge of woodland or parkland and it was unusual to see them perched side by side right on top of the church roof, sallying forth to pick up the flies congregating on the warm stonework. Migrants do turn up in unusual places but really anyplace with food is a good place. I always like seeing spotted flycatchers: they were one of the first slightly more unusual birds I used to find every summer when I started bird watching and had just passed beyond the blackbird and robin phase. That was back in the day when spotted flycatchers weren’t actually unusual in the eastern side of Britain. Now we just get them on passage with only occasional breeders locally in places like Cambo. So even more special, and number 152 for the Crail year list. Today’s pair were a couple of young birds (most unusual migrants are – the adults already know the way and many will be in Africa already). Both birds had the distinct pale wing bars and pale-edged inner flight feathers left over from the much more spotted plumage they have when they leave the nest (hence the name).

Posted September 20, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 18th   Leave a comment

My circuit through Wormiston and Balcomie and back to Crail along the coastal path was a contrast to last week. Most of the meadow pipits have moved on and I saw only 2 wheatears – last week on the same stretch there were 27. As I scanned the shore at Fife Ness looking for wheatears I picked up a male sparrowhawk on the rocks. Or rather I picked up the swallows mobbing it and then saw what they were mobbing. Once the swallows moved on the sparrowhawk effectively disappeared, a tiny blueish rock amongst the jumbled visual chaos of the rocky shore at low tide. I followed this sparrowhawk around the coast as it flew short hunts through the canyons and around the boulders, with small flocks of pipits and wagtails – probably the intended target – flying up in alarm in front of it to show its progress. Every time it perched, it disappeared, and I flushed it a couple of times as I continued along the coastal path, not seeing it until it flew off a few meters in front of me. A very professional surprise hunter and I suspect eating a linnet or pipit soon after I finally lost track of it. I followed it until Saucehope so it was hunting along at least a couple of kilometres of coast. It was one of those spectacularly low mid-September tides this morning: the exact hunting track of the sparrowhawk could be repeated by a predatory fish trying to surprise sandeels this afternoon when the sea rises nearly six meters again.

A beautiful blue male sparrowhawk hunting along the coast near Crail. Once it perches out on the rocky shore it effectively disappears and it can wait to launch the perfect surprise attack

A beautiful blue adult male sparrowhawk hunting along the coast near Crail. Once it perches out on the rocky shore it effectively disappears and it can wait to launch the perfect surprise attack

Posted September 18, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 17th   2 comments

Mid-week the winds were again easterly but it fizzled out on Thursday with a still day and the haar in. I went out at lunchtime but could barely see the trees let alone anything in it: a common snipe grumping off away from me into the mist was the only highlight. I should think the seabirds were excellent somewhere out in the fog… Late in the afternoon a yellow-browed warbler and a pied flycatcher were found at Kilminning where I had been looking a few hours earlier. Encouraging that some things had been brought in even if I didn’t find them. So today I went out reasonably optimistically in search for an early yellow-browed warbler. But sadly it was too beautiful a day, perfect late September weather for sitting on the beach but not for migrants to stay around if they had been brought in mid-week. There was nothing at Kilminning except for a blackcap and a redpoll flying overhead, calling to announce its identity and to get it onto the Crail year list – no. 151.

Redpolls come in various forms and depending on your point of view some of these might be species. When I started bird watching there was one redpoll species, but this was split into two – common and arctic redpoll. Then common redpoll was split into two species – mealy and lesser. And then arctic redpoll was split into two – hoary and Hornemann’s arctic redpoll. Are you keeping up? And then the two arctic redpoll species were lumped back together and now there is some discussion about lumping lesser and mealy back together. It all got complicated because people started using DNA to split species and if you look hard enough you can find differences in DNA at any level. Species suddenly consist of lots of distinct populations and then it’s not too big a jump to start to think of the populations as distinct and separate – which is pretty much the definition of a species (or at least one of the definitions…). Our knowledge of genetic differences and speciation is also changing all the time and opinions about species boundaries and differences seem to change all the time too. Work in progress definitely but where does it leave me with a redpoll (species?) flying overhead calling when I want to add it to my Crail year list. Well luckily I bowed out of this many years ago and as far as I am concerned there is only one redpoll species – I had a conversation with a famous ornithologist studying arctic redpolls while we watched a pair building a nest in northern Alaska and I commented on how different they looked. He said, “redpolls are all one species, grading into each other in one place or another, they just move about a lot and when you see one end of the continuum next to the other end, then they look different, but even the arctic redpolls are just redpolls”. Good enough for me (even if many will disagree) and best of all adopting this point of view means that when a redpoll flies over calling distinctively (and no-one has yet suggested that the different “species” have distinctively different calls) I can identify it fully. So on to the Crail year list with a happy heart. Of course if I did think redpolls were several different species there would be more species to add to the list…maybe in a decade or two when I am desperate to add any new species to it.

Juvenile mediterranean gull

Juvenile mediterranean gull

Balcomie Beach this afternoon was fairly quiet – it was a very high tide and all the waders apart from a few dunlin were roosting around the corner at Fife Ness. A juvenile mediterranean gull flew in for a couple of minutes. They are much less obvious than the adults looking like a cross between a young black-headed and a common gull but distinctive when you get your eye in. A sea watch from Fife Ness was very pleasant in the warm sunshine but also fairly quiet – distant arctic skuas and a sooty shearwater. A pod of about 15 – 20 bottle-nosed dolphins passed close by heading towards Kingsbarns. I finished the afternoon looking for a common redstart reported from the Patch but only found some willow warblers and a chiff-chaff. The highlight was a speckled wood butterfly on a bramble bush – well away from its usual range but perhaps not surprising considering all the migrant painted lady butterflies that have appeared in the last week or so.

Bottle-nosed dolphin - as many as 20 passed Fife Ness this afternoon

Bottle-nosed dolphin – as many as 20 passed Fife Ness this afternoon

Posted September 17, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 11th   Leave a comment

More of the westerly migrant fall today. Meadow pipits are still everywhere in large flocks, popping up in front of you from every stubble field. I counted 27 northern wheatears between Wormiston and Fife Ness with at least 15 in a single recently planted wheat field by the Yellow House at Wormiston Farm. It’s nice to see one wheatear on my circuit but today they were one of the commonest species, and not just young ones, quite a few were adults. I saw one on the beach which had just caught a crane-fly (a daddy long-legs), its fat body and long legs dangling from the bird’s beak. A few of those, and they are becoming very common just now, will power a wheatear a few thousand kilometres further south.

Tree sparrow - look for the chestnut cap and the black earphones

Tree sparrow – look for the chestnut cap and the black earphones

The rape stubble field on the corner of the Wormiston turnoff (at Hammer Inn) is full of birds at the moment. Large flocks of greenfinches, chaffinches, linnets, starlings, rooks, meadow pipits and a spectacular 140 or so tree sparrows. Tree sparrows are much less common than they used to be and have disappeared from many parts of the UK. They still do well in the East Neuk and any sparrows you see away from towns are actually just as likely to be tree rather than house sparrows. Even so, today’s flock is one of the largest I have seen.

The butterflies are finally becoming common in my garden this summer. Mostly red admirals and painted ladies – the latter are also migrants, but they are still moving north with the summer.

Posted September 11, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 10th   Leave a comment

On Friday the winds were south-east and there were heavy rain showers so there was a slight optimism in my heart this morning. There were some migrants but all from the west. The stubble field just by Pinkerton had over 200 meadow pipits in it first thing. At the Patch at Fife Ness there was a flock of newly arrived siskins – wintering birds feeding alongside a flock of summering willow warblers in the pines – all going south but some nearly there and some just starting. There were a lot of sea birds apparently passing Fife Ness. Amongst the hundreds of kittiwakes were some little gulls – no. 149 for the year list. There are always little gulls out at Fife Ness during late August and September but they usually stay so far out that they are only, at best, smaller dots amongst the larger kittiwakes. But with south-easterlies they get pushed a bit closer in. The same is true of the skuas that hound the gulls and terns; there were three arctic skuas a bit closer in today. It is hard to tell quite what is passing and what is just visible for the day because of the on shore winds: a bit of both probably. The red-throated divers today were probably all on their way somewhere – a steady stream of birds labouring past into the Forth. One of them stood out as larger, more black and white and straighter (red-throateds usually have a hump-backed look) – a black-throated diver – no. 150 for the Crail year list.

Little gull - no. 149 for the Crail year list, off Fife Ness today

Little gull – no. 149 for the Crail year list, off Fife Ness today

Posted September 10, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 6th   Leave a comment

It was a muggy warm evening, perfect for flying ants. There were black-headed gulls everywhere joining the swallows and house martins for the feast over Crail – there were even a couple of swifts tempted from their migration to spend an hour or two with us again.

Look out for newly fledged juvenile gannets sitting on the rocky shore as they find their bearings and get used to fending for themselves. They always look a bit inept and helpless but it’s just a teenage thing – they will eventually move on and try their luck in the big wide world, although it will take them a couple of years to lose their spots.

A newly fledged gannet wondering where lunch has got to

A newly fledged gannet wondering where lunch has got to

Posted September 6, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 4th   Leave a comment

The rain overnight brought down some migrants from the west. There were meadow pipits everywhere this morning and even a tree pipit with them in a big flock feeding on the Crail golf course at Fife Ness. Tree and meadow pipits are more or less identical to look at unless you get a very good view but luckily have different flight calls which they give all the time and especially when disturbed. I was very pleased to hear a tree pipit at last today – they are early migrants and this weekend will be about the last chance for them this year. Anyway, by the skin of my teeth, number 148 for the year list. There were also quite a few willow warblers about in contrast to yesterday. Sea watching at Fife Ness was still quiet though. One arctic skua and a few red-throated divers being the highlight.

The first juvenile gannets of the year are now about. I saw my first one last weekend but now there is a regular passage of newly fledged birds coming out of the Forth. The numbers will build up in the next week or two. The calm weather and still seas will be very helpful to these inept birds that have to learn to fish over the next month, living on their fat reserves on the meantime. You can always tell a newly fledged gannet because they really labour to fly with all the extra emergency weight they are carrying – and they are brown rather than black and white of course.

A newly fledged juvenile gannet

A newly fledged juvenile gannet

Posted September 4, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 3rd   3 comments

For every weekend during autumn migration that has good birds there are several that don’t. The winds have been from the west all week and today was calm and warm and sunny, a lovely day in nearly all respects. There was a lot of what we call visible migration – flocks of meadow pipits flying high overhead following the coast south (although this is westerly as they pass over Crail). There were flocks of swallows and martins doing the same but much lower, feeding over the stubble and shore as they went. Apart from the one-way direction of all the birds I saw today, there were quite a few sand martins among the house martins to show that these were not just the local birds.

I walked along the coast to Caiplie Caves this morning in search of some twite heard there a couple of days ago – a good bird for the year list. I found lots of goldfinches and a few linnets but no twite – they are rare winter and passage visitors to Crail and I haven’t seen any for the last few years. There were a few wheatears which seem to be a permanent fixture this autumn. It was the same at Fife Ness in the afternoon; quiet but some wheatears. A sea watch from the Ness resulted in just one manx shearwater in over an hour. But there were some arctic and common terns fishing well out, and a red-throated diver, a knot and at least four whimbrel passing.

Whimbrels passing the Ness on the way to Africa

Whimbrels passing the Ness on the way to Africa

Despite it being September I saw a yellowhammer and a blackbird gathering food to feed chicks. These may be well fledged but maybe not: both species will keep going as long as the weather is good and particularly if they have had a bad season with lots of nest failures beforehand.

Yellowhammer - some still feeding chicks even though it is September

Yellowhammer – some still feeding chicks even though it is September

Posted September 3, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

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