December 1st   Leave a comment

A whinchat in Nigeria

A whinchat in Nigeria

It’s always hard for me to get back into Wild Crail after my usual November stint in central Nigeria. Just as winter closes in here I spend some time where it is hot and full of summer birds. A walk around the research institute I help run in Jos before breakfast brings an easy 80 species, including summer migrants like willow warbler, pied flycatcher, wryneck, wood warbler, common redstart, tree pipit, yellow wagtail, whinchat, house martin, northern wheatear, common nightingale, hoopoe, wryneck and melodious warbler. Most of these I see in Crail regularly or might hope to see as rare passage birds, and many I have seen this year. I love the similarity of an August whinchat in a piece of scrub next to Troustie House with one in a structurally identical piece of scrub in a field corner in Nigeria in November, and I love the difference of a lone pied flycatcher circuiting around the trees at Kilminning with a flock of them amongst African gallery forest birds like yellow-breasted apalis and oriole warblers.

I was chasing whinchats again in the mornings and then looking at some of the date we collected from the loggers we put on them during the hotter parts of the day. Every migratory track we download and I look at it is an amazing little story of epic achievement. One whinchat, for example, went from central Nigeria to Moscow – a distance of 6,000 kilometers – in just 11 days. This works out at 12 hours flying every night at 45 km/h – which is the speed small birds like whinchats fly when put in a wind tunnel – followed by a day of rest and feeding up. This whinchat must know a route across the desert with regular oases and a route across the Mediterranean with islands on the way. One of the questions I can ask from such data is whether this bird is an adult with lots of experience to allow such an efficient migration: other birds take much longer, or cross the Sahara in a single uninterrupted flight of 2-3 days, and this might reflect a more risky strategy based on inexperience. Any very long flight requires lots of fat to fuel it and so a long period of recovery afterwards. This relies on good sites being reached in Tunisia or Algeria after crossing the desert, with little margin of error. Such migration strategy choices make all the difference to whether a bird makes it or not.

Curlew - they may still be common but they are one of our best Crail birds

Curlew – they may still be common but they are one of our best Crail birds

But back to Crail and less than 8 hours’ daylight and the relatively low mid-winter diversity of the temperate north. On Wednesday, the first day I have been out in Crail for a few weeks, the first thing I I noticed was the gannets have gone for the winter. Nice to see lots of gulls though – not an African thing – and nice to see 38 mallards in Roome Bay after a duckless week or two. There was a conspicuous great-spotted woodpecker in Denburn Wood and a bright and flashy grey wagtail down at the mouth of the burn itself. There are still some stubble fields about and the one behind Pinkerton had some skylarks and a single corn bunting. At Saucehope a large flock of lapwings was roosting on the rocky shore. And don’t forget the other  shorebirds there: turnstone, sanderling and curlew that are our winter migrants to make up for the absent warblers and flycatchers.  So some nice birds to come home to and always the promise of the waxwings that must materialise in Crail any day soon.

Our winter specials - sanderling and turnstone

Our winter specials – sanderling and turnstone

Posted December 1, 2016 by wildcrail in Sightings

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