Archive for October 2016

October 31st   Leave a comment

We don’t always have long-tailed tits around and about Crail but there are at least two groups making the rounds just now. I saw a flock of about 10 in the Patch at Fife Ness and then immediately afterwards a flock of about 15 at Kilminning. They must have a good breeding season – like grey partridges, their autumn group size is probably a reflection of a single pair’s reproduction during the summer. Long-tailed tits always move together as a tight, cohesive group, calling constantly to maintain contact with each other and so always advertising their presence.

Long-tailed tit

Long-tailed tit

Posted October 31, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 30th   Leave a comment

A circuit around Balcomie Beach, the Patch at Fife Ness and Kilminning only turned up one summer migrant today – a chiff-chaff. And it could easily be a wintering bird. Autumn migration is perhaps really over for the year. Everything seemed fairly wintry. My first fieldfare of the winter, pink-footed geese flocks passing, golden plover roosting on Balcomie Beach, a flock of siskin and overhead, passing Fife Ness, a snow bunting. The only local bird news today was of snow buntings passing through Fife so there must have been a relatively major movement. I’m always glad to see one – usually they are just late autumn or early spring passage birds and you have to get lucky. They are more reliable at Tentsmuir and Out Head, spending the winter on the bleak, windswept dunes that resemble the high tops where they breed. Snow buntings are tough birds of tough environments and I can hardly think of seeing one without feeling cold. Today’s bird was no. 159 for the year list. I still have barn owl in hand so my target of 160 this year is pretty much guaranteed with just a little a bit of evening tramping behind Barnsmuir in December.

Snow bunting

Snow bunting – no. 159 for the Crail year list

Posted October 30, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 29th   Leave a comment

There are robins everywhere. Including the beach at Roome Bay and all along the rocky shore to Fife Ness. Any small bird on the shore around Crail is usually a rock pipit – dull and camouflaged, perfectly blending in with the rocks. Not so just now with the robins standing out in their bright red autumn plumage, and making it worse by constantly chasing each other as they try to sort out territories with newcomers apparently still arriving every day. There is good feeding on the shore: it never freezes and the drifts of seaweed provide plenty of maggots and flies for a fossicking robin. Any bit of beach could accommodate tens of robins but they still try to maintain a territory. The rock pipits occasionally get chased away too which seems to be a bit of a liberty considering that they use the same bit of shore all year and not just for a few winter months.

Rock pipit - they are having to put up with  the neighbours from hell at the moment as the migrant robins try to take over their patches

Rock pipit – they are having to put up with the neighbours from hell at the moment as the migrant robins try to take over their patches

Posted October 30, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 27th   Leave a comment

The wind has been firmly back in the west for the last couple of days bringing slightly warmer weather but no chance of further migrants to finish the season with. There are redwings about now, here for the winter, and there were reports of waxwings on Monday and Tuesday. The word is that we might expect a waxwing winter this year. Waxwings have periodic “irruptions” after a successful breeding season in the taiga of Europe and Asia, spreading much further west as a result. So look out for waxwings over the next 2-3 weeks. We get them first as they arrive on the east coast and Balcomie caravan park with its good rowan berry crop this year is perhaps the best place to look.

Waxwing - unmistakable and very likely in Crail  in the next week or two

Waxwing – unmistakable and very likely in Crail in the next week or two

I was in London on Tuesday sitting in St James’s Park listening to the ring-necked parakeets screeching overhead, remembering the Crail ring-necked parakeet of a few years’ ago. Ring-necked parakeets are spreading out from London where they are now pretty much everywhere. The bird tables, big trees and warm temperatures of the capital insulate this parrot from the winter weather that restricts parrots to more tropical areas. The sub-species that is spreading across the UK is probably mostly the Indian one, and they can occur up to 2000m, so are already quite hardy. They also occur in sub-Saharan Africa. I was watching ring-necked parakeets in Dakar the Tuesday before, where it was 30 degrees hotter than in London this week. A pretty flexible parrot then – and it is always the flexible generalist species that do well in human urban environments. We have a mild climate in Crail, bird tables and tall trees (well a few anyway) so the Crail ring-necked parakeet survived for 7 years here (2005-2012 RIP). And of course the sad conclusion of its lonely existence in Crail was that in the year that a second ring-necked parakeet turned up and they started to breed, both died, probably by a sparrowhawk. Since then the rest of the parakeet breeding population has been inching north. It might be a few years before we get them back to Crail, but ring-necked parakeets are here to stay.

Another good winter bird to look out for and one that is guaranteed right now is the turnstone. They are common around the rocky shores of Crail and particularly between here and Fife Ness. Somewhat inconspicuous, their behaviour of flipping over seaweed (and turning stones of course) draws attention. They are another hardy, flexible species recorded eating almost everything that turns up on the shore (including dead seals!). Turnstones like most waders live a long time and return to exactly the same bit of rocky shore each winter: any turnstone you see is a lifelong Crailer.

A Crail turnstone

A Crail turnstone

Posted October 27, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October23rd   Leave a comment

I have been away in Senegal visiting the Sahel and refamiliarising myself with a lot of birds that I can now longer see because of the current trouble in northern Nigeria. It was a pleasure to see chiff-chaff, common redstart, nightingale, tawny pipit, yellow wagtail, pied flycatcher, spotted flycatcher and a host of other migrants in the hot acacia woodland, either there already for the winter or staging through on their way to the savannah further south. And of course the waders – Senegal has a lot of wetlands – and every pool has 20 or so wader species, with most of them being European migrants. The unexpected highlight though was the sea watching. Five species of skua with hundreds passing every day to really help you get your eye in. I realise I have been too conservative in my identification of pomarine skuas in the past: many of my possible Crail pomarine skuas, seen at a distance, were probably definite. The terns were great too – common, arctic, sandwich, roseate, little and black, but amongst royal, lesser crested, white winged and Caspian so each one needed careful scrutiny. Like the pomarine skuas, seeing over 500 black terns passing at sea in the last week under all light conditions should allow me to pick up them more regularly when they pass Crail far out. There were one or two more familiar juvenile gannets as well, but looking a long way from home. They will all have been born around the UK or the North Sea, but some had made it all the way down already. It’s hard to avoid the connectivity between Scotland and Africa. Perhaps the most poignant reminder: a common redstart two weeks ago at Kilminning, and then one last Wednesday flying in to attempt to land on our small boat 21 km out from Dakar. I hope it made its relatively few final last kilometres to the African mainland.

Goldcrest

Goldcrest

I did a quick tour of the fields behind Crail and Kilminning this morning to get my eye back in to Crail. Despite some easterlies and rain showers it was quite quiet. Some chiff-chaffs and a blackcap among the goldcrests and a flock of four barnacle geese flying over. The theme of it being fairly quiet the last couple of weeks continues. Nothing turned up that would have been new to my year list: I have got away lightly being away from Crail in peak rare migration time. The season is not yet over yet and I have a feeling something very good is just around the corner. I just hope it turns up before I return to Africa in a couple of weeks following the migrants again.

Posted October 23, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 10th   Leave a comment

There was a female goosander close in at Roome Bay this afternoon. It was swimming among the rocks at the tideline, with its head mostly underwater looking for fish. They look more like sea-serpents than ducks sometimes.

A goosander looking for fish - they swim along with their heads under the water for long periods before they dive

A goosander looking for fish – they swim along with their heads under the water for long periods before they dive

Posted October 10, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 9th   Leave a comment

I spent a couple of hours in the Patch at Fife Ness this morning. I managed to find a lesser whitethroat and a pied flycatcher, both of which had been reported yesterday. It was instructive as usual to spend a long time looking for them and only to see the pied flycatcher after about an hour. You really have to work an area to see what is there when the leaves are still mostly on the trees, and then you probably don’t see the half of it. But again there was plenty to look at today: goldcrests everywhere, several chiff-chaffs and blackcaps, and a flock of noisy tree sparrows zooming overhead in the usual autumn indecision about what to do the fact that they have dispersed as far as they can in Fife without a sea crossing. There was no sense that more birds had come in overnight: nothing more than yesterday was reported and there were a lot of birders out looking today. I spent the afternoon enjoying the restless pair of robins in my back garden and their epic singing battle to keep the status quo in the face of all the incomers. It seems such a civilised way to resolve differences, although I shouldn’t think the robins think about it that way.

A Robin - lots of migrants upsetting the residents at the moment

A Robin – lots of migrants upsetting the residents at the moment

Posted October 10, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 8th   Leave a comment

Goldcrest - our smallest bird, dwarfed by a sycamore leaf

Goldcrest – our smallest bird, dwarfed by a sycamore leaf

There were birds everywhere today – birds passing through and birds arriving for the winter and of course, the residents. And with the easterly winds of the week it was worth looking at every single one just in case. So a busy day full of hope. Nothing very exciting turned up but still, there were a lot of good things about. I started at Balcomie with a ploughed field full of skylarks – probably more than 200. They were everywhere, feeding and chasing each other, some obviously still not quite getting the shift from being intensely territorial in summer to being gregarious in winter. A field full of skylarks is always worth checking for other species. There were meadow pipits, linnets, tree and house sparrows, greenfinches, reed buntings and yellowhammers as well – all needing to be looked at just in case. Flocks of barnacle and pink-footed geese came over occasionally and again they needed to be checked because it is never safe to assume that there is only one species in any flock of geese. At the north end of Kilminning there were goldcrests in every tree. Tiny greenish bundles of energy frantically feeding among the sycamore leaves to regain the energy they used to cross the North Sea last night to get here. As I searched through them for a firecrest I refound the male common redstart of Thursday, a yellow-browed warbler and a few blackcaps. And then flushed the first woodcock of the winter from underfoot. The first redwings of the winter were in too, mostly in the rowans or passing overhead. Between the wooded bits of Kilminning there was a flock of at least 400 golden plover – and they all needed to be checked just in case there was something else amongst them. And down in the south end of Kilminning more thrushes – blackbirds and song thrushes fresh in like the goldcrests and redwings – blackcaps, chiff-chaffs and the first brambling of the winter. They flew over to make it 158 for the Crail year list – breaking my previous best of 157. And I haven’t even mentioned the robins yet. Lots have come in this week too and the local residents are going crazy with singing and chasing to put the incomers in their place. So everywhere something to look at even if another rarity didn’t turn up. I finished up today’s birding at Fife Ness watching the little gulls and kittiwakes dipping amongst the waves in the late afternoon sunlight, and a juvenile arctic skua spectacularly tail-chasing one of the kittiwake for a couple of minutes before giving up and gliding back down to have a snooze on the sea. I headed back too after a great day’s birding – 67 species without really trying.

Posted October 8, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 7th   Leave a comment

I have a rule when sea watching – never identify anything rare in the first five or ten minutes. You need to get your eye in to the light and the wind conditions which change how a seabird looks and flies fundamentally. Everything can look bigger in a slight mist or when flying into a strong wind, and on a dull day everything looks much darker. After a while you calibrate things with known close in birds – kittiwakes and gannets and manx shearwaters – so when something different flies by you have much more confidence in what you are seeing. Today I had 3 skuas past in the first 3 minutes of a sea watch to test my rule and my resolve not to be bad birder! The first looked structurally like a long-tailed skua, small and dashing; the second like a pomarine – bulky and heavier; and the third intermediate in structure and flight action like an arctic. I think they were really all three arctic skuas – which is the most likely as we have them resident off Crail with the kittiwake flocks from August to October – and I hadn’t got my eye in yet. The first bird was further out than I first thought and really flying fast making it look a light bird; the second the reverse; and the third like goldilocks porridge, probably just right. I had mentally caught my breath and was considering things a bit more critically. I waited for some more skuas – after all the signs were good – to make some proper identifications, but that was my lot. Plenty of little gulls still coming past though. I gave up as the evening gloaming came on and all the auks started turning into black guillemots.

An obvious arctic skua - but well out to sea, shooting past in a strong wind...

An obvious arctic skua – but when well out to sea and shooting past in a strong wind…

Posted October 7, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 6th   Leave a comment

An early morning sea watch from my house brought a constant passage of little gulls and a sooty shearwater heading out of the Forth and a flock of 45 barnacle geese heading in. Barnacle geese started arriving on Tuesday, perhaps a little bit later than usual, although they pass us mostly in the first week of October. Like the pink-footed geese, the arrival of the barnacle geese is a significant milestone of the approaching winter. They were passing most of the day, following the coast a few hundred meters out to sea so less noticeable than the pink-feet of last week. I saw another large flock of 150 or so passing in the late afternoon as I watched the hundreds of kittiwakes and probably also little gulls feeding in a frenzy, kilometers out. A pod of bottle-nosed dolphins passed in the foreground, obvious even in the rough seas as some leapt clear out of the water.

Barnacle geese arriving into the Forth - no. 157 for the Crail year list

Barnacle geese arriving into the Forth – no. 157 for the Crail year list

Male common redstart

Male common redstart

The red-flanked bluetail was only seen again first thing this morning in Denburn. I put in nearly an hour at lunchtime in the best place for it in Denburn yesterday, but with no luck. I only saw a lot of robins and the occasional flash of a blue tit from deep within a bush to get me going. I then tried my luck at Kilminning and found a male common redstart in the top sycamores along the road almost immediately. One of my favourite birds, shivering its red tail as it fed low down among the branches and on the ground, much as the bluetail yesterday. My third common redstart of the year but still special: in some years I don’t see any passing through Crail. I am off to Senegal next week and will be hoping to see more redstarts, but in the heat of their semi-desert, acacia woodland wintering habitat.

Down at the bottom of Kilminning there were a lot of song thrushes and blackcaps. And the occasional perhaps larger greyish shape, too briefly glimpsed to be sure, of a barred warbler. Probably wishful thinking but I would be very surprised if there are not one or two skulking around Crail just now. The easterlies are continuing at least over the weekend so there is still plenty of opportunity for more rarities.

Posted October 6, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 5th   2 comments

I like living in Crail. A red-flanked bluetail was found in Denburn Wood this morning – found by the same person who found the last one in Denburn three years ago! In a further coincidence I had been thinking about bluetails this morning with the continuing easterlies and rueing the fact that I missed the last one in Crail in 2013. I left Crail the hour it was found in Denburn and returned three days later just as it was last sighted. I felt terribly unlucky – red-flanked bluetails were almost legendary rare birds and even as they have become commoner in Britain in recent years (from one bird every 10 years to 10 every year) they still have a mystique about them. And I had missed one on my doorstep so narrowly. The one consolation was the red-flanked bluetail in Denburn before that, that I did see in October 2003. I had just moved into Crail and it was one of my first experiences of the potential of my new home patch. As I have said, back then they were much rarer and hundreds of birders came to Denburn in the three days it was there.

After the bad luck of the last bluetail, my luck was perfect today. Bluetails can be difficult to see in the dense woodland cover they like – they forage close to the ground like robins and are hard to spot unless they move. I arrived early afternoon as soon as I heard the news to find a few people looking for it, but they had had only very poor and fleeting views. As I got the best information on where to look my attention was attracted to a call I didn’t recognise. I followed it and within a minute the red-flanked bluetail popped up in front of me a couple of meters away. I looked at it and it looked at me: I admired its white throat and white eye ring. Then it dropped to the ground for something and popped back onto the same perch facing away from me this time: so I admired its red flanks and blue tail. Then it was gone through the wood, stopping at a couple of other perches before disappearing completely. I called the others over but they just got the tail end of it. A fantastic bit of luck, particularly as everyone then spent the next hour combing the wood with no further sign of it. Eventually we located the dense bushes where it was spending much of its time, keeping out of the way because every time it ventured out an angry robin would chase it around the wood. Red-flanked bluetails are lovely birds to see – imagine if robins were very rare and one popped up on your bird table. And they are very special to me – I have only ever seen two in my life and both in Denburn. It will probably be there tomorrow and the next day – go and have a look for a blue flash being chased by a robin.

Red-flanked bluetail - no. 156 for the Crail year list. This is the 2013 Denburn bird that I missed. Today's bird wasn't very obliging for photographers mainly because the robins weren't letting it feed in the open

Red-flanked bluetail – no. 156 for the Crail year list. This is the 2013 Denburn bird that I missed. Today’s bird wasn’t very obliging for photographers mainly because the robins weren’t letting it feed in the open

Posted October 5, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 4th   Leave a comment

Red squirrel

Red squirrel

There is a squashed red squirrel on the St Andrews road just by the Fairmont. There is a patch of woodland that comes right up to the road there and I think it must have resident red squirrels in it. Last year a red squirrel crossing the road there caused an accident but got away unhurt itself; this year, the squirrel was not so lucky. Every time I see a red squirrel squashed on the road I am saddened but then also slightly heartened because at least I know there are some still about.

The south-easterly winds continue. Sea watching this evening for 30 minutes produced 300 kittiwakes, 2 sooty and 3 manx shearwaters and a couple of little gulls passing Crail going east with the wind. There were also a lot of auks passing including, unusually, quite a few puffins.

Posted October 4, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 3rd   Leave a comment

Sea watching this evening was busy in the brisk south-easterly. Lots of gannets and auks passing, and a few manx shearwaters. Two sooty shearwaters came past in the foreground, the closest this year, their underwings flashing silver. A few seconds and they were gone with the wind behind them. They are such powerful flyers that it is not hard to imagine them continuing round Britain more or less forever like their bigger cousins, the albatrosses, circling the planet clockwise in the southern ocean.

Still lots of juvenile gannets from the Bass Rock passing out of the Forth past Crail

Still lots of juvenile gannets from the Bass Rock passing out of the Forth past Crail

Posted October 3, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 2nd continued…   Leave a comment

This afternoon as I sat outside in my garden I heard the distinctive call of a yellow-browed warbler. And then throughout the afternoon. Certainly 2 birds around and maybe more. Two were reported from Kilminning this afternoon and 9 on the May Island as well so watch out for these lovely little warblers anywhere in Crail where there is a tree.

The beautiful day continued through to the evening when the light over the sea was perfect. I could see at least 30 little gulls far out dipping to the sea suface with a few kittiwakes to give scale. And then a great skua flew by, and soon after a juvenile arctic skua. A really nice end to the day. More easterly winds next week…

Great skua - not a great autumn for them this year

Great skua – not a great autumn for them this year

Posted October 2, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 2nd   Leave a comment

I have been checking out Kilminning and Balcomie for the last two weeks without much success but today I found a lapland bunting and my first yellow-browed warbler of the season, and all is forgiven.

There is a newly sprouted field of winter wheat on the east side of the lower part of Kilminning that was full of birds this morning. Skylarks, yellowhammers, linnets, greenfinches, tree sparrows, meadow pipits, lapwings and golden plovers. It was a treat having so much to look at – and easy to see in the strong sunlight and no wind this morning. I was thinking about possible twites and lapland buntings when, sure enough, I heard the characteristic rattling “tick ticky” of a Lapland bunting. Only a brief snatch but enough to focus my attention and to begin to search the field more systematically. As I watched a wheatear I had just found a few minutes later a lapland bunting flew up from nearby, making the complete call as it went low over my head – a dry rattle ending a “chew”. A very welcome no. 154 for the Crail year list. They are here every autumn on passage, sometimes in good numbers, but usually hard to find as they favour the middle of big fields and so not always a certainty for a year list.

Lapland bunting - no. 154 for the Crail year list this morning

Lapland bunting – no. 154 for the Crail year list this morning

The geese have dried up this weekend. A few small flocks of pink-footed geese flew over Kilminning now and then as I searched the trees for warblers but the big numbers of Wednesday to Friday have gone. I heard some deep honking in the distance and ignored it as the local canada geese but luckily glanced up and saw a flock of swans. Whooper swans – ten of them – heading south, that also make a deep honking call. The first of the winter and always a beautiful sight, especially in the perfect early morning sunlight.

I continued on to Balcomie in search of yellow-browed warblers. There was a huge, but strangely concentrated, fall of yellow-broweds a couple of weeks ago. Nearly all ended up in Yorkshire because the easterly winds were funnelled by a front to the north and south. Their feast was our famine and we only had one yellow-browed and I overlooked it, checking the tree where it was found earlier that day. In recent years we have got the feast, and it is now becoming unusual not to get to double digits in Crail every year for this (formerly) quite rare bird. The trick is to know their call because they are tiny warblers and are hard to see in tops of the well leafed sycamores that they like to feed in. I luckily heard a couple of bursts of calling as I approached the big trees at the entrance to Balcomie, and after a few minutes picked it out feeding with a loose tit and goldcrest flock among the sunlit leaves. No. 155 for the Crail year list – one I had been counting on.

A yellow-browed warbler - no. 155 for the Crail year list. This is a photo taken by John a couple of weeks back in Mongolia - an indication of their more normal range. Most winter in south-east Asia although there is a steadily growing population that pass through Europe in autumn and that must be wintering in West Africa.

A yellow-browed warbler – no. 155 for the Crail year list. This is a photo taken by John a couple of weeks back in Mongolia – an indication of their more normal range. Most winter in south-east Asia although there is a steadily growing population that pass through Europe in autumn and that must be wintering in West Africa.

On a less cheerful note. The Brunnich’s guillemot was found dead, washed up in the harbour at Anstruther on Friday morning. Its tameness was perhaps better interpreted as a bird on its last legs. A shame, but great to see this rare bird and it was lively enough certainly at the start of its stay with us.

Brunnich's Guillemot RIP - it died on Thursday night

Brunnich’s Guillemot RIP – it died on Thursday night

Posted October 2, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings