Archive for February 2017

February 28th   Leave a comment

Another Crail duck, but less often seen unless looked for is the teal. These are quite tiny ducks and that alone is enough to identify them. They are quite happy in very small ponds and I come across them in ditches and temporarily flooded bits of fields quite often. The most reliable place to see them is on the rocky shore between Fife Ness and Kingbarns, usually in a pair, looking small compared to the wigeon and mallards that they are usually with. At this time of year large numbers (although only cumulatively – the flocks are small) pass by Crail, following the shore on their way north. Some individuals obviously rest overnight on the sea and it can be quite disconcerting to see a flock of teal sitting quite far out among the waves out at Fife Ness among the early morning guillemots and gannets.

A drake teal - really handsome with a good view

A drake teal – really handsome with a good view


Posted February 28, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 27th   Leave a comment

The eiders are busy displaying in readiness for the coming breeding season. The males lift up their heads and stretch up their necks at the females, who tend to watch in quite a disinterested manner. They also have a lovely set of calls but they are quite quiet and easy to miss. The males make a gentle, repetitive “phoo -arr” to the females – almost like a 70’s builder, but one that has lost his voice or his confidence. The females respond with a quacking “no, no, no, no, no”, which perhaps explains the male’s lack of conviction.

Male eider displaying to a female

Male eider displaying to a female

Posted February 27, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 23rd   Leave a comment

In the absence of anything new appearing this week apart from the bad weather, there is time to reflect on one of the star birds that we have with us every winter. You see them reliably on Balcomie Beach and occasionally in Roome Bay – tiny very pale grey and white shorebirds running along the surf line on sand or fine mud – sanderlings. I have always been intrigued by sanderlings ever since I started bird watching when a more experienced birder (well they all were then I suppose) told me of a study that had worked out that sanderlings must use more energy feeding than they could possibly ever gain because of their continual running about. If you have watched sanderlings for even just a few minutes you will know why they might have drawn these conclusions. A sanderling’s lot is to chase the small waves in and out, continually pacing – and often sprinting – along the water’s edge in search of tiny prey that gets washed in by the tide. Clearly the scientists doing the study got their sums wrong. They do dash around a lot but they eat a wide range of often large prey, probing for shellfish and worms, and taking small crabs when they can get them. And they are probably very well adapted to conserving energy in cold environments to see to the other end of the energy balance equation. Certainly they can stand the cold. Sanderling breed almost as far north as it possible for anything to breed. I have only seen one pair of breeding sanderling, on a ridge just above the still frozen sea in June in Alaska. I was at the most northerly point of Alaska at Barrow, yet this pair of sanderling were breeding at one of the most southerly points of their range. I remember exiting the area very quickly because I thought a darker shape out on the sea ice was a polar bear: it didn’t feel to me like balmy southern climes.

Sanderling on Balcomie Beach

Sanderling on Balcomie Beach

As well as their supreme cold adaption sanderlings also have to deal with the heat at times. Many sanderling winter much further south than Crail and I see sanderling feeding just as happily in the heat haze of an African beach as on Balcomie. Sandy beaches look pretty much the same the world over (they all have sanderlings on them for a start) but that energy budget calculation must be completely different for a tropical wintering sanderling. Overheating because of all that running must surely be the issue. And the energy required to keep warm when they are not feeding will be neglible. Then this energy budget framework begins to make sense of it all – if you are running around a lot you keep warm as a by-product, and if you migrate all the way from Svalbard to Senegal it may take a lot of energy, but once you get there your costs will be very low for the winter. Life’s a trade-off (…and then you die): I wonder if a Crail sanderling that only migrates 3,500 kilometers from Ellesmere Island to join us, but that has to dash about all winter uses a similar amount of energy to a Senegal Sanderling that migrates more than 7,500 kilometers, but which can take it a lot easier when it gets there. The temperature transition for a tropical sanderling in the spring must be a thing as well. From 40 degrees to 10 below, potentially in just a few days. Birds, and shorebirds in particular, really are amazing things.



Posted February 23, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 19th   Leave a comment

Lesser celandine flowering at Fife Ness

Lesser celandine flowering at Fife Ness

It has practically been a spring weekend. The great tits, song thrushes and blackbirds have been singing their heads off; insects were out and about and the lesser celandines are flowering even out on the exposed bits of Fife Ness. I had a black-throated diver flying past at Kilminning on Saturday making 100 for the Crail year list; 11 goldeneyes in Roome Bay was another highlight, but otherwise February continues fairly quietly, the calm before things start to get much busier next month.

Black-throated diver - no. 100 for the Crail year list

Black-throated diver – no. 100 for the Crail year list

Posted February 19, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 16th   1 comment

A grey heron at the Cambo heronry

A grey heron at the Cambo heronry

I am seeing the grey herons back up on their nests daily. They will be getting ready for their early season. The heronry is along the main road just after the entrance to Cambo on the way to Kingsbarns. There are several nests there in the tops of the pine trees, but they are surprisingly difficult to see from the road unless there is a heron flying in to give them away. There has been an occasional heron standing on the half built nest in the tree behind Crail Kirk too. A few years ago I got quite excited at the prospect of a new heronry forming actually in Crail but it didn’t materialise. Maybe this year. Denburn would be a great place for a heronry.

Posted February 16, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 14th   Leave a comment

As I was on my way to work yesterday morning, and had just gone through Kingsbarns when a female merlin shot over the road in front of the car going at about 100 km/h. I just had time to subliminally identify it and follow it as it jinked over a wall and continued over the adjacent field. I am glad I wasn’t driving so I could enjoy the distraction. Merlins are one of my favourite birds – I have said before, they can hunt anything in any way and have complete mastery of the air. Because of their small size they are so much more manoeuvrable than peregrines, but they still can fly very fast and powerfully. And no. 99 for the Crail year list – if I get one more in February I will pull ahead of last year’s record breaking year, not that I am competing this year of course.

More winds and high seas today although a little warmer. Still a steady passage of red-throated divers and auks. John had a little auk yesterday but they are very rare this winter.

Golden plovers coming down to a less than peaceful roost on the rocks  at Fife Ness

Golden plovers coming down to a less than peaceful roost on the rocks at Fife Ness. Note the one at the bottom thinks it is spring already.

Posted February 14, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 12th   Leave a comment

More big seas and seabirds being pushed close to Crail. This morning there were tens of gannets passing every few minutes, as if it was mid-summer. Still lots of red-throated divers too. It was really too windy to see or hear anything inland. The skylarks I flushed on the track to Wormiston all barely flew away, hugging the ground for a few wingbeats before dropping out of the wind. Bizarrely there was a single canada goose in the drilled stubble field that held the lapland buntings a few weeks ago. It flew off as I approached so I don’t think it was injured. Mid-winter canada geese are unusual around Crail and this was my first of the year – making no. 98 for the Crail year list.


A red-throated diver passing Fife Ness

Posted February 12, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 11th   Leave a comment

At last a chance to get out sea watching at Fife Ness and to enjoy the very strong north-easterly gale and wild sea. Getting out there took considerably longer than coming back – always a good sign. You have to work for the good birds when you cycle out to Fife Ness in a strong easterly. The tide was right in early afternoon today and the birds were passing close. A steady stream of guillemots, razorbills, red-throated divers, eiders, gannets and fulmars with occasional small flocks of long-tailed ducks. Nothing unusual and not very many gulls passing, only a handful of kittiwakes in the couple of hours I was there. Still the drama of the huge waves and the backdrop they provide makes even a guillemot flyby something special.

Eiders past Fife Ness in the gale

Eiders past Fife Ness in the gale



There was a nice male red-breasted merganser in the surf directly in front of the hide, occasionally being swamped by the spume. A flock of some more red-breasted mergansers headed over and I could see the merganser in front of me visibly react to them, checking them out before taking off rapidly after them, perhaps in search of some company or more likely for some guidance to a better fishing area.

The red-breasted merganser in the spume at Fife Ness this afternoon

The red-breasted merganser in the spume at Fife Ness this afternoon

Posted February 11, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 9th   2 comments

I was in England today attending a funeral in the town I was born. One bright thing of the day – was the number of buzzards (everywhere) and a red kite that I saw between Stansted airport and Royston. Thirty-eight years ago when I started bird watching there were no buzzards in that area and indeed much of eastern Britain. And I never even dared hope for a red kite, which was then a critically endangered species in Britain barely holding on to a few remote valleys in Wales. Persecution had done for both species. But they are back. I saw my first buzzard in the area in the mid-1980s (and indeed sparrowhawks started to become relatively common then too) and red kites have appeared in the last decade after the phenomenally successful reintroduction by the RSPB and others. We have the buzzards back around Crail too and they are a common sight. I occasionally meet people who rather bizarrely talk about “too many buzzards” being about – I certainly know what no buzzards being about was like. And it was dull. As I have said before, bring on the red kites back to Crail too.

Red kite - still a most wanted for Crail, but any day soon...

Red kite – still a most wanted for Crail, but any day soon…

Posted February 10, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 8th   Leave a comment

More rough seas in the south-easterlies today. There was a steady stream of guillemots flying past Crail close in with the occasional red-throated diver. All heading out of the Forth – the wind will be blowing them in and then any trying to go north will be pushed against the Crail coast as they head towards Fife Ness. I wish I had been able to spend longer than just the 10 minutes I had to seawatch at mid-day. Just perfect conditions for a great northern diver or two to lumber past.

shag 3.jpg

A shag 

Posted February 8, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 7th   Leave a comment

It’s easy to overlook pigeons. Like gulls relegated to seagulls, without specific names it is easy just to imagine that they are all the same and miss the variety. We have four species of pigeon in Crail: woodpigeons, rock doves (now relegated to “feral pigeon” after long domestication and then return to the wild), collared doves and stock doves. It’s not uncommon to have all four species in a Crail garden. The first three species most people can recognise if they bother to look beyond – “oh it’s a pigeon”. Woodpigeons are large and with a big white bar on the wing and white bars on the neck. Feral pigeons/rock doves are familiar to everyone as the archetypal pigeon with two black bars on the wing, a white rump and green gloss on the neck. And collared doves are small, pale beige and have a black ring about the neck. The joker in the pack is the stock dove. An intermediate between wood and feral pigeon but characteristic enough when you get your eye in. And they are surprisingly common around Crail when you do. The key thing to look for is a very neat looking grey pigeon without any distinctive features; it’s bizarrely the lack of characters that identifies it. In flight the absence of any white easily rules out wood and feral pigeons and a stock dove’s wing does have very black flight feathers making at least one presence character to use to identify them. Stock doves nest in holes in trees and there are a couple of pairs at least in Denburn and in every stand of trees in the farmland around Crail. I hear them every time I pass Denburn at the moment – a hoarse, deep, quite fast repeat of “wher – hoo”.

Not just a pigeon - a stock dove

Not just a pigeon – a stock dove

The winds have continued from the south most of the week. There is a good swell up now and fishing will be difficult for the shags that feed close inshore in the cloudy, turbulent water.

Herring gull above the swell

Herring gull above the swell

Posted February 7, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 5th   Leave a comment

Another rainy morning but with a south-easterly wind bringing the seabirds in closer. There was a steady passage of razorbills and guillemots past Fife Ness and a lot of gannets. Their numbers will be picking up steadily now until there are hundreds, if not thousands, passing Fife Ness in an hour as they shuttle back and forth from the Bass Rock. There are other signs of spring – several robins are singing during the night under the streetlights in Crail and I heard a blackbird tuning up at dusk yesterday.

One of the many gannets back this weekend

One of the many gannets back this weekend

Posted February 5, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 2nd   Leave a comment

A local male Goldeneye

A local wintering male Goldeneye

A highlight of Roome Bay at this time of the year are the goldeneyes. You can’t miss these very distinctive ducks diving among the waves, often in the roughest surf. The males are more distinctive than the brown headed females, but share an odd shaped triangular head which always makes them easy to identify. Goldeneyes breed in boreal forest, including our relic bits in the Highlands, nesting in holes in trees well above the water of lochs and slow rivers. The young have to jump down to the ground below, and literally bounce, if the hole is not directly above the water. Goldeneyes will take to nest boxes, although somewhat larger than the average tit box. In the winter they move to lowland lakes and the sea and I expect the four or so pairs of goldeneyes that spend the winter in Roome Bay come back here every year, just like the redshanks. It would be nice to know if they are Scottish breeders too, although birds from Scandinavia vastly outnumber our home grown birds in the winter.

Posted February 2, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

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