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

April 18th   Leave a comment

Last night I heard a tawny owl hooting from the kirkyard or the edge of Denburn. I could only just hear it from my house by the Co-op, but loud enough to make it onto my Crail year list. There was another tawny owl calling from West Braes last week that I heard about. I can’t believe it is the same territory, and it seems likely there are also tawny owls in the big trees around the farmhouse just northwest of Crail, only 300 meters as the owl might fly from West Braes. Tawny owls do move around fields and gardens quite happily but they must have big trees somewhere in their territory to nest in.

Posted April 19, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 16th   Leave a comment

Things have been on the move this week, with sandwich terns passing by in small numbers from about Wednesday. I caught up with first two of the year yesterday at Balcomie Beach despite the wind shifting northerly: my last were fishing in the much warmer surf of Senegal in October. The two at Balcomie will likely have spent the winter on the coast of West Africa and will now spend the next six months with us in the North Sea. There was a chiff-chaff singing incongruously from brambles at Saucehope on my way back from Balcomie: although they are early migrants, the majority will pass through well after the first birds through Crail.

One of this week’s sandwich terns passing Fife Ness

Today there was a handsome male northern wheatear at Balcomie, feeding on the rocky shore and a bit further on my first whimbrel of the year, launching itself up with its lovely seven note whistle to tell me instantly that this wasn’t just another curlew. Despite these two today I think it is safe to say that this spring has not turned into an early one, and most migrants are still to come. There should be much more of an influx of swallows this week though and the first house martins and willow warblers.

A spring whimbrel, stopping off on the rocks at Fife Ness on its way north

Posted April 16, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 9th   Leave a comment

Spring female wheatear

A cycle through the farms of Sypsies, Troustie, and Third Part (i.e. all the farms two fields north of the Crail to Anstruther road) turned up quite a few corn buntings today. More systematic counts will follow in May but at the moment it is looking good. I came back along the coastal path. Another swallow hawking over the sheep flock down at Caiplie caves and a female wheatear – the first of the year – on a wall just as I got back to Crail.

Posted April 10, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 8th   Leave a comment

There are still pink-footed geese passing Crail and Fife Ness, heading north in flocks of a few tens each time. Today I had a flock of 18 whooper swans doing the same, passing Fife Ness majestically, heading towards Aberdeen. As a counterpoint I saw my first swallow of the summer (last year’s was on the 7th), conveniently over my garden after spending all morning looking for one at Balcomie and Fife Ness. A male powering along, following the coast and singing happily as it went by. This and a chiff-chaff singing below the doocote at Roome Bay were my only summer migrants today, although the pair of shelducks back again, quacking around the bays north of Balcomie are definitely another sign of summer being around the corner.

Whooper swans

Posted April 8, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 6th   Leave a comment

I think we have grey wagtails breeding again on the Brandyburn in Crail. They have been regularly flying past my house, following the course of the burn as it flows underground from the bus stop by the school to where it re-emerges by the old cinema on Nethergate. Birds frequently have to commute between the best areas of their territories, so I don’t suppose it phases them much that their burn exists in two separated sections. It probably bothers me more that the Brandyburn is buried: streams tumbling through seaside towns add such a lot of character and many a Cornish or Devon village is made by them. There a couple of other hidden burns through Crail and many more in the surrounding farmland; channelled into pipes and covered over when a wild landscape was just something to be sorted out, rather than valued. Still, you can see the grey wagtails in Victoria Park, in Denburn Wood and perhaps easiest of all down at the mouth of the Brandyburn. Hugely long tails and more yellow than grey, picking flies from the wet rocks. When disturbed they leave with a lovely bounding flight and a clear “tchick-tchick” call.

Grey Wagtail

Posted April 6, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

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The Iceland gull tonight

It has been a while, but tonight the twitch was on with an Iceland gull reported from Pittenweem Harbour. I had just got back from Aberdeen and wasn’t keen to go out again, but we haven’t had an Iceland gull near Crail since 2008, and this would be only my 3rd here in 15 years. When I got to Pittenweem there was beautiful late evening sunlight and the sky was full of gulls in the cold westerly. John Anderson was already there and happily told me that it was still about, somewhere in the gull flock above the harbour entrance. I diligently searched through the gulls looking for one without black wing tips and pale as a ghost, before I noticed John frantically waving at me to look down. The Iceland gull was back in the harbour, sitting on the water right in front of me. A young bird, probably just coming out of its first winter, still with biscuit speckling above but with a second year clear black bill tip. I checked the diagnostic head shape – a gentle expression, a rounded head and a slighter bill than a herring gull – and the long white primary projection. They are much more elegant than bruiser glaucous gulls: like the difference between common and herring gulls, Iceland gulls don’t look like they are about to rob you. All pretence of elegance was then lost as it puked up various bits of lobster leg that must have got stuck in its throat. Then it tried to mug an eider of a small fish before collecting itself and catching the wind like a storm petrel to do elegant again. Gulls always seem to be this conflict of their beauty of clean whites and sharp sailing lines with their beastly, business like thuggery. A good first rarity of the spring and no. 103 for the Crail year list.

The Iceland gull doing a storm petrel in the strong wind blowing into Pittenweem harbour tonight

Posted April 4, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 1st   Leave a comment

A fine spring day, full of potential, but with only a chiff-chaff appearing. One was singing late afternoon from near the town Hall. I was down at Balcomie in the morning. A few dunlin were amongst the ringed plovers on the beach, lots of skylarks singing and a nice, grey heron stalking the rock pools at Fife Ness. Two pink-footed geese flew up from the rocks, perhaps having a rest on their way north as was a redwing at Kilminning.

Grey Heron

Posted April 1, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings