Archive for April 2017

April 30th   Leave a comment

The easterly wind was strong enough today to make looking for birds inland difficult. I headed out to Fife Ness again to enjoy the gannets passing just tens of meters out. I spotted a couple of small birds well out to sea heading to the Ness and watched them turn into two wheatears. They landed on the rocks looking a bit shell shocked before heading further inland. As I looked at them I noticed a common sandpiper creeping about on the rocks just behind – usually they don’t stop on the shore in the spring and head straight inland when they get here. But come late July until September we always have one or two on the rocky shore around Crail: almost all of them juveniles, taking the slow route to Africa. There were also a couple of migrant sanderling moulting into summer plumage on Balcomie beach – they won’t be breeding until June somewhere near the north pole. They were accompanied by a fully summer plumaged dunlin ready to breed right now and much closer to home, maybe even on one of the Grampians just visible to the north from Balcomie, and only an hour’s flight away as the dunlin flies.

Sanderling just starting to get its moss and lichen summer plumage to hide it when sitting on its high Arctic nest in 6 weeks time


Posted April 30, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 29th   1 comment

The wind shifted to the south on Friday and with increasing amounts of easterly during today – it is set to be easterly all week which is hopeful for some interesting migrants reaching Crail. I found willow warblers and swallows everywhere today, from along the road past the secret bunker, over the Anstruther road to Carnbee and then back to Crail via Kilrenny. I had my first sedge warbler of the year singing from a rape field near the cheese shop and my first common whitethroat from some scrub just north of Kilrenny. I covered a lot of ground this morning and these were the only sedge warbler and whitethroat I found so I suspect they had just arrived. As I passed the woodland next to the secret bunker I heard a jay calling: a rare bird for Crail, although when I told John Anderson about this he nodded wisely and said, “yes, that’s where I always find jays”. Still at least I know where to find them: I hardly ever cycle along that bit of road but I will more frequently now. Up at Carnbee I found a male gadwall – another rare bird for Crail and only my second. They are common at Kilconquhar and common pretty much anywhere, but you need freshwater wetlands which Crail lacks. Carnbee also had the usual mute swan, coot, little grebe, tufted duck and teal, with the wintering wigeon, goldeneye and whooper swans already gone further north for the summer.

Southerly winds – and by this afternoon they were very strong – always push seabirds close to the Crail shore. Consequently it was very busy at Fife Ness in the afternoon with gannets, kittiwakes, fulmars and auks streaming by. There were several wheatears and at least one white wagtail further on at Balcomie Beach.

One of the white wagtails at Balcomie during the last week

There is a pair of shelduck between Caiplie and Crail, and another two bays north of Balcomie Beach. They nest in rabbit burrows, often well above the shore. The pairs are still commuting about together so I don’t think they are on eggs yet. Every year at least one pair gets some chicks hatched, usually the Balcomie pair.

Pair of shelduck at Fife Ness


Posted April 30, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 26th   Leave a comment

There is a blackbird pair that has been feeding chicks in our back garden since last week. The male blackbird is particularly fearless and if there is any digging being done it flies down and feeds close by. So close that we could notice that it had a stick stuck to it – poking out of its side as if it was impaled. And then its fearlessness became perhaps an indication of an injured bird, foregoing safety to feed at all costs because it was finding it tough going. I have a licence to catch blackbirds so put up a mist net alongside the hedge where the nest was so that I could hopefully catch the male and do something about its apparent injury. This was last Sunday when it was very windy so it wasn’t very successful: a mist net works because it is not visible and if it is flapping about in the wind nothing will be foolish enough to go near it. The male regarded the net a long time as it approached the nest with a beak full of ivy berries and then went round it. I furled the net (tightly rolled so it can’t catch anything) and left it in place for the blackbird to get used to coming and going to the nest past the net. Then early next morning I unfurled the net again and caught the blackbird within a few minutes. If a bird is going somewhere predictably, and it doesn’t get more predictable than going back and forth to a nest, then catching it – when there isn’t a wind – is easy. I extracted the blackbird from the net and was pleasantly surprised to find the stick was a fine rose twig, covered in thorns, but only deeply entangled in the blackbird’s belly feathers. Blackbirds have a particularly thick downy layer under their contour feathers which provides some protection if they are grabbed by a sparrowhawk – the feathers get grabbed and pulled out sometimes rather than the hawk getting actual hold of the blackbird. I have seen a blackbird grabbed in flight by a sparrowhawk, seeming to explode in a puff of downy feathers as this happened. The puff of feathers may even have further confused the hawk like squid ink, allowing the blackbird to slip out of the hawk’s grip and away to cover. Anyway, this adaptation was not so good in the case of a twisted and thorny rose twig, which stuck to the down like velcro. I had to cut it out of the feathers. I let the blackbird go straight away, hopefully improved by the experience. And the story has a final happy ending. It was back feeding its chicks later in the morning, it is still doing so today and it is still as fearless as ever. Normally interventions to “save” a bird don’t go well but this one did. I look forward to seeing the male blackbird’s chicks fledging in due course, although the very cold weather of the last few days may be a new woe for the male.

Male blackbird – the thornless variety

There was lovely visibility tonight out to sea. Cold and little wind so no hint of a heat haze. Lots of kittiwakes going past and my first manx shearwater of the summer.

Posted April 26, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 23rd   Leave a comment

My usual Sunday morning circuit from Crail to Wormiston to the coast path via the Sea House and then back via Balcomie, Fife Ness and Saucehope felt very summery. Swallows all the way and a couple of sand martins for the Crail year list (no. 113) down on the shore. The stretch of coast from Balcomie Beach for a kilometre to the north was the best with at least three white wagtails – these are the Continental sub-species of pied wagtail with pale grey backs and rumps, and to my ear a more house sparrow like call. We get a few every spring at Balcomie and when there is one about there are usually some more. How much of this is just noticing them though – because if you don’t pay attention then they are just another pied wagtail. Pied wagtails are so easy to identify at a distance and are everywhere that I hardly look at them: only when I am reminded of white wagtails, like when a handsome pale male lands right in front of me as it did today, do I remember to really check. And then I find three in a kilometre. I started to feel paranoid so diligently checked a whole lot more pied/white wagtails and reassuringly only found pieds. There were three northern wheatears (all gorgeous breeding plumage males) along the same stretch of coast, and a couple of whimbrels, so the migrant white wagtails weren’t alone. The Patch at Fife Ness in contrast was very quiet apart from more swallows overhead.

An April white wagtail on Balcomie Beach

Posted April 23, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 22nd   Leave a comment

I haven’t been in Denburn for a couple of weeks so I can’t say when it arrived, but there was a blackcap singing beautifully there today. My first in Crail for the year, although one has been singing outside my office in St Andrews all week. Denburn is a very busy place this spring with several rook pairs now nesting there, expanding out presumably from the rookery in Beech Walk Park; a very nice looking new magpie nest complete with its domed top, the usual carrion crow nests and the resident sparrowhawk nest – all within a few tens of meters of each other. I think they probably all sit a bit uneasily together – any/or will take another’s eggs or chicks.

Male Blackcap – one of the most beautiful singers we have in Scotland – performing in Denburn at the moment

Posted April 23, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 20th   Leave a comment

More arrivals today: a steady stream of barn swallows and the first house martin of the year at Boarhills.

I went to the May Island in the afternoon. The first time I have been in April. Usually I go late May or June when the seabird breeding season is in full swing and the island can be full of thousands of puffins. Today it was just hundreds. Still really nice and impressive, particularly for anyone who hasn’t seen puffins before, but most of the puffins were either underground on newly laid eggs or still out at sea improving their body condition for their stint at incubation and the coming frenzy when they have to work constantly to feed their chick.

Puffin touching down on the May Island

If you haven’t been to the May Island yet, then make it this year. You won’t regret it – puffins alone make it worthwhile and it is almost magical as you approach the island and start to glimpse puffins at a distance or flying by, then you realise you are surrounded by them, and when you land they really are everywhere, shooting past your head, waddling along like penguins, or popping out of burrows. Then there are all the other birds to see – guillemots and razorbills (even more penguin like – yet surprisingly aerobatic in the updraughts of the big cliffs on the west side of the island), kittiwakes, shags and later in the season terns (just a bit too early for terns today unfortunately). Everywhere you look there is a little natural history story: female eiders trying not to be noticed as they incubate by the paths while the too conspicuous males, their job done, try to find late females to bother down on the shore; great black-backed gulls on the prowl for an unwary puffin (hundreds get eaten a season, but then there are 96,000 puffins there…); newly arrived willow warblers feeding on the short turf like pipits because there are so few bushes on the island; razorbills in pairs, in synchronised slow wing beat display flights, confirming their pair bond and commitment before their lay their egg for the season. The two hours or so on the island before the boat goes back to Anstruther flash by. And on the journey back there are always the gannets – in fantastic close flybys – to enjoy.

Shag newly sitting on its nest for this year

Any trip to the May Island in spring or autumn might turn up a rarity as well. Today I failed to connect up with a common redstart that had been seen earlier – still, we get those in Crail and it’s a likely species this weekend. The rarest bird on the island was actually a common buzzard. This could have been a Scandinavian migrant off course or just a chancer from Fife out on a day trip just like me. Exciting for the warden who might only see one or two buzzards on the island every year, less so for a visitor from Crail. Rarity is always relative.

Posted April 21, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 19th   Leave a comment

The wind was a light south-easterly overnight after some stronger southerly winds during the day. Sufficient to push a lot of seabirds close in to Crail yesterday evening. A steady stream of gannets, kittiwakes, fulmars and common gulls passing with the first puffins of the season further out. This morning there was a willow warbler singing from the Denburn sheep field – the first of the year and about a week earlier than usual. There were also some chiff-chaffs singing from odd garden locations  suggesting they came in last night as well.

A newly arrived willow warbler

Posted April 19, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

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