Archive for January 2017

January 31st   Leave a comment

If you have a garden that backs on to the fields around Crail you will have noticed that you occasionally get a pheasant coming in, especially if you have a bird feeder with lots of seed being spilled on the ground. Pheasants are native to China and were probably introduced by the Romans. They have been here so long now that they are an integral part of the British landscape, although in many places their presence is in fact due to thousands of birds being released every year for shooting. But they breed successfully and do very well without our support. Even if they do have a predilection for any seed left out for them or any other species for that matter. I have even had them in my garden right in the centre of Crail – gardens also have the advantage of being fairly predator free, although the last time I had a pheasant around the garden, it was also being visited by a fox. Perhaps no coincidence that both disappeared shortly afterwards.

Pheasant on its way to John's bird table

Pheasant on its way to John’s bird table


Posted January 31, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 29th   Leave a comment

The stonechat at Balcomie feeding around the kelp on the beach because of the frosty weather

The stonechat at Balcomie feeding around the kelp on the beach because of the frosty weather

And today back to an East Neuk best; frost overnight and a cold beautiful, sunny day with little wind. The ice and frozen ground first thing has pushed everything to the coast. I passed through empty fields on my way to Balcomie but as soon as I was at the shore there were birds everywhere. The pair of stonechats resident at the end of Balcomie Golf Course were on the kelp piles in the strandline, feeding on the ground like robins. The seaweed piles were unfrozen and are full of flies and maggots for a hungry stonechat compared to the still and sterile frosty grass just above it. There were a lot of starlings and rock pipits enjoying the best feeding available as well.

Although the shore was full of birds it was very quiet. In colder weather birds don’t waste energy making a lot of noise. The only regular sounds were the angry alarm calls of the redshanks as I flushed those close to the coastal path. Redshanks really make a fuss when people flush them. The call is mostly aimed at telling the “predator” (the person) that they have been spotted and there is really no point trying to catch the redshank as the element of surprise has been lost. I think they also let the other redshanks around them know that they are leaving their territory because of a disturbance, rather than abandoning it, so dissuading a competitor from moving in, in their absence. When redshanks are attacked seriously – like yesterday’s sparrowhawk attack – they just get out of the way and don’t call until they are safely in the air, if they call at all. We notice when redshanks make a fuss but not when they don’t, so you get the false impression that they are very noisy alarm callers.



Posted January 29, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 28th   Leave a comment

The rainy day today reminded me perversely how little rain we have had this winter. No more than 25mm in any month and a couple with much less. This month is heading for 20mm, with half of this falling today. This is the dry East Neuk, business as usual, after a run of quite wet winters. Still it was fairly miserable today, although lacking the cold easterlies of the last two days. I sat at Fife Ness for an hour this afternoon in a gap in the showers hoping for something new blown in by these winds. Just the usual with several red-throated divers and some passing long-tailed ducks to add a little extra interest. It was high tide and the waders were roosting on the remaining rocks, but getting displaced now and then closer to the shore as the rough sea from yesterday made their usual places too wet for comfort. Even the purple sandpipers who thrive at the surf edge amongst the splashes headed for higher ground. I spotted a juvenile female sparrowhawk flying in on an attack run towards the roost: I saw it well before the waders, which none the less were all up in the air and safe 20 meters ahead of it. The sparrowhawk just kept powering low over the rocks and around the coast – there were plenty of other smaller groups of waders and rock pipits between Fife Ness and Balcomie and I suspect it will have got lucky.

A purple sandpiper at Fife Ness getting out of the way of a wave

A purple sandpiper at Fife Ness getting out of the way of a wave

Posted January 28, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 26th   Leave a comment

There is a cheerful flock of house sparrows that use the gardens and bushes north of the High Street by the roundabout, through to the front gardens of the opposite side of the road (my front garden and the Honeypot) and then over my house into the back garden behind. They divide their time between all the various garden bird feeders, my pond and the thick bushes (for rest and relaxation) that are available there. The last thing is perhaps the most crucial. Sparrows can make a living in most urban areas but they need good thick bushes to retreat into from hawks and cats. Many urban gardens have lost their bushes and particularly in front gardens which have been mostly turned into car parks. Drive through any town (and particularly any southern English town) and you will just see paving and cars in front of the houses. The increase in traffic has also had a more direct effect on sparrow numbers – they are very vulnerable to getting hit by cars as they zoom low over the roads between gardens. My garden sparrows seem an experienced lot (one has a yellow ring I put on it 6 years ago) but lots of the new fledglings every summer do get hit.

A Crail house sparrow

A Crail house sparrow

Posted January 26, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 22nd   Leave a comment

I did my favourite Crail cycle this morning up to Wormiston, past Wormiston Farm and the sea house to the coast path and then back to Crail via Balcomie and Fife Ness along the coastal path. The stubble field just east of Balcomie caravan park to the south of the footpath is still stuffed with skylarks. I flushed them and one lapland bunting right by the footpath and watched it flying around with the skylarks hoping I would see where it landed, eventually it was joined by another and then a third. I watched the flock down to the ground. As I scanned the place where they had landed, again close to the footpath, they went up again – this time 7 lapland buntings in a tight group, calling and keeping together in the larger skylark flock before moving separately to another part of the field closer to the airfield. How do you count lapland buntings? Clearly, wait for them to flock up when they have been disturbed a couple of times and count them in flight. I had been suspecting that there were a few in the field: it’s a big field but I quite often put one up or hear one as I go along the footpath. Our last big lapand bunting year was 2010 when we had over 60 in one field near Wormiston Farm for most of the autumn and smaller flocks scattered around Crail for the rest of the winter.

Down at Balcomie it was the usual story – still about 50 sanderling and 20 dunlin on the beach, lots of mallards, wigeon and goldeneye along the coast and my first shelduck of the year (no. 97). There is a single pink-footed goose hanging about Fife Ness. Single birds are usually injured but this one seemed at least to be able to fly short distances and it has been in the area for a week or so. I watched the sea for a bit at Fife Ness – beautifully calm and wind free again – in the hope of a glimpse of the hump-backed whale that is in the Forth. I saw a cetacean break the surface far out with a small dorsal but only briefly and only once. A dolphin I expect but it is good to hope. The conditions for spotting whales or dolphins are just perfect today. A flat calm and a neutral flat light – anything breaking the surface from here to North Berwick is visible.

The lonely pink-footed goose at Fife Ness

The lonely pink-footed goose at Fife Ness

Yesterday there was a single waxwing seen at Toll Road in Cellardyke and larger flocks are still around further west in Fife. No luck for the Crail list so far but I am ready to chase if another is reported nearby.

Waxwing - one was seen at Cellardyke yesterday

Waxwing – one was seen at Cellardyke yesterday

Posted January 22, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 21st   Leave a comment

I expect it was a sunny day inland, but here in Crail we had the haar. Light and charming, softening the sunlight in the morning and then heavy and grey and a bit more depressing in the afternoon. There was correspondingly no wind all day and any attempt to see anything (or for anything to be there in any case) at Fife Ness would have been a bit pointless. I took a walk inland, around Kilrenny Common instead. There was an incredible flock of 600 rooks and jackdaws in the fields behind the wood. Their wall of “caws” and “chacks” as they periodically took alarm made a perfect sound track to the haar, although a few magpies would have perhaps have given it a little bit more gothic value. We do still have a lot of crows about. The wood was busy too: chaffinches, blackbirds, tit flocks and goldfinch flocks. A single great-spotted woodpecker made no. 96 for the Crail year list.

Great-spotted woodpecker

Great-spotted woodpecker

Posted January 21, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 19th   Leave a comment

I walked along the footpath from the Balcomie caravan park towards the airfield at lunchtime. The stubble field is still full of hundreds of skylarks and still at least one lapland bunting, calling somewhere from the middle of the flock as they all took off. They were with about hundred starling that also took off very rapidly, bunching up into a tight ball – a sure sign of a raptor attack. I scanned and finally saw a bird of prey chasing a straggler from the starling flock high up in a very rapid merlin like chase. Except it was a male sparrowhawk! Sparrowhawks hardly ever chase for long, hardly ever high up and usually give up straight away when the element of surprise is lost. But not this male.  It didn’t catch up with the starling although it closed the gap a bit. It turned from a bullet into a more normal slow, soaring sparrowhawk and glided down to the airfield below. The skylarks also drifted back down but the starlings kept going.

Sparrowhawk attacks seem to come in pairs. I was passing Roome Bay about 20 minutes later when I heard the shrill squeal of a redshank being attacked. This time I was onto the sparrowhawk straight away as it zoomed up from hitting a redshank just after the redshank had taken off from the tide edge about 30 meters out. There was a big puff of feathers as the sparrowhawk grabbed at and just failed to hold on to the fleeing redshank. The redshank continued flying and got away, I should think, with just fewer body feathers (and they have lot to lose) to show for it. The sparrowhawk continued onto the rocks in the middle of Roome Bay where it perched with an air of not quite believing it hadn’t succeeded. Its contemplation of its failure was short lived – a couple of crows flew straight in and started diving at it. If the sparrowhawk had caught the redshank, the crows may well have stolen it anyway. The crows may have been a pain for the sparrowhawk but for me they gave a good size reference: just a little bigger than the sparrowhawk making it a female (male sparrowhawks in contrast are much smaller being jackdaw size). The sparrowhawk cut its losses and flew off towards Pinkerton, gaining height from the updraught at the cliffs, still being persecuted by the crows. It is tough being a small bird with sparrowhawks around all the time, but sparrowhawks don’t really have it their own way. Most attacks they do end in failure and when they succeed there are often other larger raptors and crows ready to steal their prey from them. And peregrines will actually hunt and kill sparrowhawks if they have the chance, and where there are goshawks, sparrowhawks only exploit the densest woods because they will be targeted if they hunt in the open. Don’t begrudge a sparrowhawk the odd sparrow or finch from your bird table, they have a tough living to make and when you see them hunting it is a good as anything that you might see in a David Attenborough program.

A sparrowhawk "mantling" its prey (here a woodpigeon in John's garden) to prevent it being stolen by a couple of magpies off screen

A sparrowhawk “mantling” its prey (here a woodpigeon in John’s garden) to prevent it being stolen by a couple of magpies off screen

Most of the time the winter auks – mostly razorbills and guillemots – are lost in the waves out from the shore or flying rapidly past at distance. Sometime they do come close in and they are then revealed as very handsome birds in their winter plumage. The best place for a close up is Fife Ness, if you sit out right on the furthest rocks.

A close up winter guillemot

A winter guillemot close up


Posted January 19, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 15th   Leave a comment

Bullfinch - several at Kippo today

Bullfinch – several at Kippo today

Overnight the temperature climbed five degrees and rain put pay to the remaining snow and ice. Back to normal although still with the after effects of the cold weather. At Carnbee reservoir there was probably about 80 teal, about four times the usual number and the coots were back. Probably because of the smaller pools inland freezing. The stubble fields up there, like Crail, are full of skylarks. On the way I stopped off at Cambo to look for another likely cold weather movement – John saw a kingfisher at the burn mouth on Friday. No sign of it today but it was low tide and if it was still using the rocky shore then it had a huge area of pools and inlets to choose from.

I walked through Kippo Wood at lunchtime. A surprising number of bullfinches calling softly wherever I went in the wood, and a pair hanging out with a flock of about 15 redpolls (lesser – the UK subspecies/species depending on your preference) in the top of a birch. I suppose Kippo is an obvious place for redpolls, even for breeding, so this may be a regular thing. The redpolls plus the coots takes the Crail Year List up to 95.

Posted January 15, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 14th   Leave a comment

Some proper winter weather at last. Temperatures below freezing at night and ice and snow. Crail as usual has only got the lightest of covering. Today there was a classic winter high pressure bit of weather, little wind and very bright low sun. And coupled with the swell from the gales at the end of the week and the very high tide making the surf hitting Balcomie Beach huge and right up to the dune grass – there really was no beach left – it really was a nice day to be out. North Sea storm surges are a wonderful thing if you can watch them rolling into a beach on a sunny afternoon rather than coming into your front garden. The shorebirds were all forced off the beach at high tide onto the few remaining rocks at Fife Ness. I counted at least 25 purple sandpipers, 60 redshanks with good numbers of curlew, oystercatchers, sanderling, turnstone and dunlin as well roosting there. The black-headed and common gulls were in their hundreds in the surf however, feeding on the sandhoppers and seaweed flies washed out of the submerged strand line.

Roosting purple sandpipers

Roosting purple sandpipers

The cold weather has brought in a lot of skylarks from inland to the relatively milder and snow free fields around Crail. There is a particularly large flock – maybe as many as 200 – in the first stubble field that has been partially seeded with wheat on the footpath from Balcomie Caravan Park to Wormiston. Yesterday I thought I heard a lapland bunting among them and today with a bit of closer inspection and flushing the flock a bit I had good views of at least one flying around me and heard a couple of calls. But it was a classic lapland bunting, only flushing at close distance but atypically barely calling which is the main thing I rely on to find them. It is not particularly unusual to have a lapland bunting around Crail mid-winter, one is picked up pretty much every year, but I suspect, like jack snipe, there are many more than are ever found. Still a good bird for the year list (no. 93, after also picking up a redwing flying over Denburn and a flock of lapwing over Pinkerton today).

There are large numbers of skyalrks in the fields around Crail just now because of the cold weather

There are large numbers of skyalrks in the fields around Crail just now because of the cold weather

Posted January 14, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 12th   Leave a comment



Not all bird populations are in freefall, some are on the way up. Goldfinches are a wonderful small bird to have around the place, in looks, call and behaviour and their populations have happily probably doubled since 2000. There are various explanations for this including the increase in provision of nyjer seeds and the widespread adoption of specialised feeders in people’s gardens. This will have contributed undoubtedly but with any set of ecological changes there will always be winners as well as losers. And goldfinches may have changed themselves – perhaps becoming more tolerant of humans and adopting urban environments more as robins and blackbirds in previous centuries. The collective noun for a group of goldfinches is a charm – one of the most apt I think.

Posted January 12, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 8th   Leave a comment

It was another day with barely any wind and so the sea was very calm. Perfect for spotting dolphins and sure enough at Fife Ness this morning there were about 20 – 40 passing and heading north in a leisurely fashion. A lot of jumping out of the water and tail slapping by the smaller and presumably younger ones in the group. Of course my count is probably wildly inaccurate. At any one time there were only about 12 visible spread across 3 spatially separated groups, but assuming they don’t all come up together…One dolphin was very distinctive though with a white line on the top edge of its dorsal fin and three white marks along the base: once you can recognise individuals then estimating numbers becomes easier. If the marked individual is the sixth dolphin you have seen when you see it surface again then there are six dolphins, although you need to average over a long run of sightings and resightings, or have a few more individually recognisable individuals to be accurate. In any case, more dolphins than usual today and quite a lot of them. Birdwise it was fairly quiet although the kittiwake flocks were in a bit closer, 5 km rather than 10. At Kilminning I had a flock of 4 mistle thrush making 90 for the Crail year list.

Bottlenose dolphin

Bottlenose dolphin

Posted January 8, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 7th   Leave a comment

The numbers of sanderling on Balcomie Beach have been going up for the last couple of weeks with 48 there today. I don’t know if these are “local” birds redistributing themselves – birds from Kingsbarns beach, for example, moving a little way along the shore for a short time – or whether these are migrants from somewhere else. A few decades ago, when we still had cold winters in Western Europe, lots of waders would move to the UK during cold spells on the continent. They still move, but they don’t need to go as far as us to reach milder conditions. Looking at the European temperature map though it does look below freezing everywhere, even northern Spain so perhaps we are gaining some continental sanderlings.

Sanderling - a beach full of them at Balcomie

Sanderling – a beach full of them at Balcomie

There are also good numbers of red-breasted merganser about with at least a couple in sight when you look anywhere from Roome Bay to Kingsbarns, or singletons flying by Crail. They were a highlight at Fife Ness today, along with the fog bank to the north contrasting with the suddenly intense blue sky and sea at the Ness. Lots of razorbills on the sea and a flock of velvet scoters passing took the Crail year list to 89.

Red-breasted merganser

Red-breasted merganser

Posted January 7, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 5th   Leave a comment

A really beautiful day. Clear with no wind, temperature about freezing all day and wonderful light from the low sun. I did a circuit from Crail to Kingsbarns along the old railway line, back along Kingsbarns Beach, through Cambo and then via Wormiston back to Crail. I didn’t see a lot out of the ordinary but it didn’t matter at all. There was a flock of fieldfares around the railway bridge at the Logan’s Farm, several flocks of tree sparrows, and probably more than 6 buzzards on the route in total. The rooks at Cambo and Wormiston were making a lot of noise around the rookeries reminding me that the year has turned and some birds like rooks and grey herons will be thinking of starting nest building in 6 weeks or so. Yesterday I was at Tentsmuir again and the crossbills were singing – they will have already started breeding – a spectacularly early species because it feeds on pine cones that are ripening just now.

Rook - they are very noisy around the rookeries of Wormiston and Cambo just now as a prelude to early breeding

Rook – they are very noisy around the rookeries of Wormiston and Cambo just now as a prelude to early breeding

Posted January 5, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 2nd   Leave a comment

I spent most of the day between Crail and Kingsbarns, and walked the coast path entirely in the afternoon. I don’t usually spend much time on the stretch between Balcomie and Kingsbarns and hardly ever walk it at high tide. I found it full of roosting waders and ducks. Every other bay had flocks of mallards and wigeons, and in one bay about 10 teal. There were probably over 150 each of redshank, turnstone and curlew and twice that number of oystercatchers roosting in medium sized flocks on the larger skerries. And the sea full of gulls, particularly as dusk came on. A great northern diver lumbered past at Saucehope – always a good bird and I only see one or two a year around Crail, and always passing, never actually on the sea. That with magpies and golden plovers at Balcomie took the year list up to 87, although I am trying not to worry about it too much this year.

A great northern diver - they are so big they fly like a cormorant, are black and white and with huge protruding feet making them look like they could fly backwards and still look sensible

A great northern diver – they are so big they fly like a cormorant, are black and white and with huge protruding feet making them look like they could fly backwards and still look sensible

Posted January 2, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 1st 2017   Leave a comment

And another year begins. I was up and out at Boarhills for 7:45, just as it was getting light, counting my blessings that Jan 1st is mid-winter and an early birding start is, well, not really early. A year start in June would be a painful 2:30 … Nothing beats being out as the sun rises on New Year’s Day – and a clean, optimistic slate with every bird species counting again, even the very common every day ones, from herring gulls (first bird today calling as I left my house in darkness) to house sparrows (bird number 54 just before 10:00 as I passed a packed bird feeder in Boarhills, along with tree sparrows as number 53 – always nice to get the set together). And then there are the more unexpected, lucky finds, a glaucous gull flying along the coast (bird number 21 but only my 3rd in Crail in 15 years), and the full set of snipe – woodcock, common snipe and jack snipe, numbers 75, 76 & 77. It was a fun day. 54 species in the first two hours, 77 before 12:00 and a final total of 84, beating last year’s total by 5. I missed a few – lapwing, golden plover, mistle thrush, for example, but there is the rest of the year to look forward to.

A dipper - bird number 46 on the Kenly Burn at about 9:30 this morning

A dipper – bird number 46 on the Kenly Burn at about 9:30 this morning

Posted January 1, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

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