Archive for November 2016

November 10th   Leave a comment

As we move from migration season into winter, there is a shift from looking out for the rare to appreciating the common. As I cycled the circuit around Fife Ness, Kilminning and Saucehope today I spent more time than usual looking at the gulls. It is easy to overlook the gulls around Crail. There are a lot of them and they are everywhere. But next week when I am back in West Africa I won’t see a single gull. We have five species that are here commonly in the winter. The commonest is the large, pale grey backed one with pink legs (that breeds on rooftops and makes the noise in the summer) – this is the herring gull, the traditional “seagull”. Then we have common gulls and black-headed gull. Common gulls are like smaller, sweeter herring gulls. They have dark eyes and more rounded heads so look, well, nicer. The main difference between a herring gull and a common gull is you hold on to your sandwiches with the former – it looks like it might mug you – whereas the latter you feel like sharing your lunch with. Black-headed gulls are much smaller than herring gulls and have red legs and a red bill. They favour feeding along the surf in Crail picking up morsels washed out from the seaweed on the beach – although all the gulls will do this in really stormy weather or exceptionally high tides. Then we have great black-backed gulls. These are the really big ones that mostly hang out down at the harbour. They have black backs and pink legs – lesser black-backed gulls have the same but with yellow legs and in any case are absent during the winter in Crail. Great black-backed gulls are a scarier larger version of herring gulls that look like they are not only eyeing your sandwiches but your pet dog too. A lot of gull identification is actually based on head shape and proportions and these anthropomorphic markers do actually help a lot: splitting Iceland and glaucous gulls (very rare winter visitors to Crail with white backs) for instance uses the nice/slightly nasty looking expression difference that will split a common and herring gull. Finally, we have kittiwakes, a neat typical looking grey-backed gull that is usually out at sea: its main feature is its all black wing tips looking like they have been neatly dipped in ink. They also fly in a very characteristic fashion with quite jerky wingbeats on swept back wings that never seem to bend, so even when far out to sea they are identifiable. A walk around Crail will always turn up all five of these species and they are all worth looking at. And there are of course always rarer species that might be among them: I have seen yellow-legged gulls from the Mediterranean and Sabine’s gulls from the arctic just because I was looking through another flock of seagulls.

Common gull - identified by its "nice" expression

Common gull – identified by its “nice” expression

Balcomie Beach today was all winter birds. 10 sanderling and ringed plover, a few dunlin, turnstone and ringed plover, and a single grey plover. This seems to have become a resident – I have been seeing it every visit for the last couple of weeks. Grey plovers are longer legged and greyer than golden plovers so look more elegant, and when they fly they have black armpits making them instantly identifiable. They occasionally turn up at Roome Bay too.

Grey plover at Balcomie showing its distinctive black "armpits"

Grey plover at Balcomie showing its distinctive black “armpits”


Posted November 11, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 7th   Leave a comment

No waxwings yet stripping the rowan berries at Balcomie caravan park, but today three mistle thrushes doing their best. Mistle thrushes are never very common around Crail with only 2 or 3 pairs breeding between Kingsbarns and Anstruther. More come in during the winter but like the fieldfares they pass through quickly. Where they do turn up a bird will often defend its particular berry bush or tree against all other comers, chasing off blackbirds, redwings and fieldfares. When the flocks of waxwings come they even try to chase them away but never very successfully against so many competitors. There is often a dejected looking mistle thrush in a flock of waxwings watching its carefully hoarded fruit treasure that might have lasted a few weeks disappearing in a few hours.

Mistle thrush

Mistle thrush

Posted November 7, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 6th   Leave a comment

Kingsbarns Beach was bleak but beautiful this morning. Big waves and spume blowing across the beach and everything taking shelter apart from a few redshanks among the rocks. The gannets passing further out looked not bothered in the least: the wind speed about right for their big heavy bodies. They were passing without a wing beat like small albatrosses. From Crail a bit later I had another little auk passing and then a pomarine skua, both labouring into the wind. The pomarine skua was first definite for the year (although a couple of far out skuas earlier in September were almost certainly pomarines too, and my 300th or so this year after Senegal in October) making 160 for the year list. This has been my real target – I wanted to beat my record of 157, but also to beat it convincingly.

Pomarine skua - no. 160 for the Crail year list

Pomarine skua – no. 160 for the Crail year list

Posted November 6, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 5th   2 comments

The wind has been strongly from the north-west for the last two days. It’s an unusual direction for Crail. At Fife Ness this brought rough seas and one little auk past this morning. It had the wind behind it and sped past so fast, wobbling from side to side, that it looked entirely wind-directed rather than in control in any way. I should think it has reached Norfolk by now. Other birds were coming the other way, into the wind, so giving much more leisurely views. A steady stream of long-tailed ducks, a red-breasted merganser, a common scoter and a large passage of common gulls.

A little auk passing Fife Ness - strong winds from the north blow them down to Crail

A little auk passing Fife Ness – strong winds from the north blow them down to Crail

Posted November 5, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 3rd   Leave a comment

The northerly winds of the last two days have brought a few more winter birds in. There was a report of a waxwing at Kilminning today and I saw a large flock of fieldfares just outside of Crail this morning. It has certainly got colder and with flocks of pink-feet passing over Crail last night under the crisp starlight, autumn seems to have slipped into winter.

Fieldfare - a winter migrant from Scandinavia

Fieldfare – a winter migrant from Scandinavia

Posted November 3, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 2nd   Leave a comment

Another good winter bird to look out for around Crail is the sanderling. These are the small, very white and black waders (mostly looking clean white) that run along the beach at the surf edge like clockwork toys. Sanderling are intrepid migrants breeding in the very high Arctic and that winter on their own piece of beach from the UK all the way down to South Africa. The sanderlings we have with us are all wintering pretty much as far north as they go. We have almost entirely adults here: the juveniles head a further south for an easier life in their first couple of years. Migration dynamics aside, they are a beautiful winter addition to places like Balcomie with their crisp plumage and their enviable energy matching the ceaseless ebb and flow of the waves as they pace them in search of washed up morsels.

A winter flock of sanderling

A winter flock of sanderling

Posted November 2, 2016 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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