March 16th   Leave a comment

I took the day off today to work on the path across the pond in my back garden. I was hoping that all day just outside in Crail would pay off with something of interest flying over. Things are starting to move now and there was a steady passage of meadow pipits all day. After an hour or two I thought I heard a chiff-chaff calling but it was only one call – luckily a few minutes later I heard it again. Really calling this time and then the bird itself appeared foraging very hard in the small bushes and trees in my neighbour’s garden. My first summer migrant of the year and a very early record. Last year my first chiff-chaff was April 4th, and in years before, April 8th, 4th, 15th, 7th and 10th. Chiff-chaffs are one of the first migrants to arrive for the summer, and there have been many records already in England this year, but they don’t, as my records show, usually pass through Crail until the first week in April. There is a fly in the ointment though. Chiff-chaffs also winter in the UK small numbers (most only migrate as far as Spain or North Africa, although some do cross the Sahara) and over the last 30 years the numbers doing this, particularly in England, has increased hugely. This far north it is much more unusual and I haven’t seen a wintering chiff-chaff in Crail since 2006, on February 6th, and before that a Siberian chiff-chaff on a frosty day just after Christmas by the burn at Cambo. So my money is on a genuine migrant today rather than a wintering bird. It was feeding very hard in that manner that migrants have after a long night’s flight when they really want to refuel and get on. It wasn’t singing which might indicate a migrant, but I find chiff-chaffs hardly ever sing as they pass through Crail in the spring. True you do hear them but they are the ones that are easy to notice. There are many more that just keep their heads down and just keep feeding, eager to be on their way. I hope this early bird is a sign of an early spring – I may have seen a wheatear on my way to Anstruther this morning as well. It flew over the car so I couldn’t clinch its white rump, and it was silhouetted. It just looked like a wheatear – something in the way it flew – and I bet it was. I will be on the lookout this weekend: the coastal path and fields between Crail and Anstruther is always good place for early wheatears.

A March chiff-chaff. Number 101 for the year lists and hopefully a sign of an early spring

My other rewards for a day spent DIYing in the garden – a peregrine flying over in its powerful but lazy way, heading far out to sea perhaps to the May island and a couple of hunting sparrowhawks. Even with my head down working I knew they were coming past because of the blue tits. The top sentry bird. Whenever you hear a blue tit alarm calling (it’s the same as their song) look for the raptor. They have eyes in the back of their head and seem never to make false alarms.

The weather has been very variable this week with micro gales blowing up and then interspersed with perfect early spring days. The sea has correspondingly been choppy and then perfectly calm. Mark Twain’s saying “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes…” seems particularly apt. I do love the way the ever-changing state of the sea makes the commonplace suddenly noteworthy. Gannets diving between two meter high breakers, or guillemots dotted on a flat calm sea in mirrored pairs. It was the eiders’ turn yesterday. John’s brilliant photo of one braving the spray is like a Japanese painting.

Eider in the storm

I passed Kinghorn on the train mid-week and kept my eyes peeled for the humpback whale. It has been breaching spectacularly – jumping right out of the water – just like they do on the wildlife documentaries. I have only seen humpbacks coming up to breathe and spouting. Impressive enough, especially when close. But to see one breach – and from Crail. It probably wouldn’t get better than that for wild Crail, until I see a pod of killer whales pass, or a live leatherback turtle, or a black-browed albatross (all have been seen from Crail, although not by me). I just need a couple of hundred years more observing. I am grateful to all those activists and conservationists in the 70s and 80s that made it possible that we have a humpback whale back in the Forth again.

Posted March 16, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

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