Archive for May 2017

May 30th   Leave a comment

I still can’t quite lay to rest the idea that spring migration is over. Another day of easterlies and rain showers overnight got me hoping again. This evening there was a cracking new male wheatear on the beach at Fife Ness, enjoying the huge numbers of seaweed maggots and flies emerging from the rotting piles of kelp brought in by two weeks of easterlies. One migrant at least and like the waders of last week it may well be on schedule for a June breeding season in northern Greenland. The waders themselves were nowhere to be seen at Balcomie so they may have moved on.

Male wheatear on Balcomie Beach feeding on seaweed flies

The rain has brought a lot of snails out into my back garden. Last year my daughter caught some of our garden snails for the Crail Primary School summer fair – for snail racing of course – and marked each individual with a number in turquoise nail varnish. They were released back into the garden last June. And some of them were on the prowl in the garden last night! So snails live a long time (well this makes sense when you find them snoozing the winter away in big clumps) and also, snail racing (and turquoise nail varnish) probably doesn’t do them any long term harm. It might do them some good – if I was a predator I would keep well away from a violet snail.

Posted May 30, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 28th   Leave a comment

There was a proper thunderstorm last night. Quite unusual for Crail. The evening heavy rain shower coupled with the last few days of south-easterly winds should have made for a good migrant fall this morning. I was at Kilminning by 6:30 and although there was plenty to see and hear – whitethroats, sedge warblers, blackcaps, willow warblers, chiff-chaffs – the only obvious new migrants were a spotted flycatcher (no. 129 for the Crail year list) and a whimbrel flying over. Spring migration may well be over for the year. I consoled myself with some close encounters with large mammals: a couple of quite tame roe deer at Kilminning, a chorus of singing grey seals on the rocks at Balcomie, and a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins at Fife Ness. The dolphins have been about all weekend; yesterday they were doing huge leaps completely out of the water making them very obvious.

Bottle-nose dolphins

Posted May 28, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 27th   Leave a comment

Balcomie is the place to be. At high tide mid-afternoon the waders were very close in: 70 turnstones at least in a continuous count of roosting birds, still 60+ sanderling, 20+ dunlin and 5 knot. These were ghostly pale and barely showing any traces of summer plumage, perhaps just the faint hint of a reddish tinge to their underparts. I can’t believe they will get their breeding plumage in time to start breeding, even if they start mid-June. Some individual waders have a summer off from breeding so these birds might not be trying to catch up. Most of the ringed plovers of last night had moved on and there were a couple of northern wheatears to show that it is all very dynamic out there, with birds coming and going all the time. There was the first moulting goosander of the summer at Balcomie today, probably a failed breeder or even a “skipper” like the knots.

A knot at Balcomie roughy in the plumage I saw them today – this was taken in March not the end of May, indicating how late the birds are I saw today if they intend to breed this year

I counted 62 eider chicks between Balcomie and Saucehope. There were also some in Roome Bay a couple of days ago. The very calm weather must have helped them swim successfully over from the May Island. Although I watched a couple of female eiders easily shepherding their chicks around Fife Ness in the moderate waves whipped up by the south-easterly today. They looked very competent in a sea that I wouldn’t want to go kayaking in, so perhaps a few waves are not such a problem. Eider chicks seem completely waterproof and apparently unsinkable. Still I hope they are having a good breeding season and the fine weather continues for them just in case.

An Eider taking her chicks around Fife Ness to calmer waters around Balcomie

Posted May 27, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 26th   Leave a comment

Balcomie Beach and the rocky shore to the north is full of waders. All the high Arctic late season specialists on their way north for a June start to the breeding season. This evening there were 60+ sanderling, 40+ ringed plover, 50+ turnstone and 10+ dunlin. I have never seen so many waders down on Balcomie Beach. The ringed plover were particularly noticeable. I expect only a handful of pairs breeding along the beach there at this time of year and even in early winter you might only see 20 ringed plover on a good day. They were all noticeably tame. I approached a mixed flock on the beach to just a few meters before they flew a short distance away. Perhaps they breed so far north and winter on such a remote African beach that they never see people.

One of the many ringed plover at Balcomie at the moment

On my way home I had a close encounter with a handsome fox at Kilminning reserve. With the strong wind blowing in from the sea and the noise of the surf it didn’t notice me approaching and I watched it stalking through the grass relatively closely. It eventually spotted me as I pushed my luck and crept closer, running off to cover of the scrub above the reserve. Any evening is livened up by a fox sighting.

A fox in Crail this May – in John’s garden at Bow Butts rather than out at Kilminning

Posted May 26, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 25th   Leave a comment

More corn bunting survey today during a cycle in to St Andrews to work and back. There were new corn buntings singing to mark on the map all the way up to Boarhills, which spectacularly had three singing around the disused kirk. But then a corn bunting conundrum. There were at least 15 corn buntings on the wires across a large pasture field at Cambo Farm, with three males singing at the three of the edges. How many breeding corn buntings is that? Are there still roving flocks of birds that haven’t settled into territories to breed yet? Confusing but good – there really are a lot of corn buntings around this year.

The wheat and barley is starting to grow tall now hiding many things in the fields. Skylarks are invisible under the surface until they pop up for a song flight. Even the hares are being swallowed up. I don’t know whether a hare feels safer in the open when it can see things coming, or in a high crop where nothing can see it.

Brown hare

There were a lot of migrants well established along my route today: common whitethroats and sedge warblers singing from scrubby and weedy patches, and blackcaps from the woody ones. There seem to be a lot of swallows which is always wonderful. Not so many house martins though. They are much less common in Crail than they used to be. A good place to see the is around the reception buildings at Saucehope Caravan Park. The buildings have extended eaves perfect for tucking a house martin’s mud pot nest underneath. The recent rain will have made it a lot easier to build them. House martins are strange in that they breed several times during the summer – sometimes getting three broods out. In Africa they seem to have an easy life too, feeding high above rocky outcrops in the savannah with resident African swallows and swifts in large flocks. There must be a lot of food for them all and the weather is invariably warm and dry there during our winter. I have never seen anything try to catch a house martin either, in Scotland or Africa. Hobbys may take them, and an unwary house martin collecting mud on the ground for a nest will be easy prey for a sparrowhawk, but it can’t happen very often. Yet they are declining. Bad weather on migration is suggested as a reason and perhaps also shortage of suitable nesting sites.

House martins collecting mud pellets for their nests

Posted May 25, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 24th   Leave a comment

I did a circuit out from Crail this evening to Barnsmuir and then up to Troustie and back via Sypsies – the farms to the west and northwest of Crail. I was hoping that the yellow wagtails of last week might have decided to stay on and breed. No sign of them but they might well be tucked in the corner of a wheat field out of sight. I did see six singing corn buntings on my route – all to be recorded and mapped to keep track of their rising fortunes in the East Neuk. Once a common species their numbers have declined everywhere in the UK and they only hang on in Fife in the east. Chris Smout has been monitoring their numbers for the last 27 years but has now handed over the project to me. It’s a good time to take over. The RSPB have been encouraging farmers for the last few years to provide weedy and seedy habitat for corn buntings in the winter to bump their food supply. Cornceres Farm and Barnsmuir, for example, have both boosted up the numbers of corn buntings breeding on their farms into double figures. And you will have noticed the patch of bare ground replacing the grass between Denburn and Bow Butts – Crail Primary School children were out planting wild flowers and seed bearing plants there last week to provide food for the corn buntings and other seed eaters. Another RSPB initiative being replicated in other East Neuk villages, field corners and even some of the golf courses. It’s a great idea – for one, the removal of any patch of relatively sterile short grass that the Council doesn’t have to waste time and money mowing is a good thing, regardless of whether it directly benefits the birds. But of course it will benefit the corn buntings and a lot of other wildlife besides. There are two corn bunting territories immediately adjacent the new wildflower patch at Bow Butts. Neither was there last year and they are sure to appreciate the increased food supply. It’s all very positive. Much of Crail looks nice and neat, but a few more contrasting, ragged, wild edges (like Denburn) throw that neatness into focus as well as increasing the wildlife that also adds so much to living in Crail. And what of the corn buntings and their change in fortunes – they are dumpy, dull brown birds with a flat, monotonous song. Hardly ospreys or avocets or pandas; hardly icons of conservation. Yet they are our local symbol that some things can get better in the environment, our encouragement every time one regains a new field corner. Last year there were 110 males singing in the East Neuk, one of the best years since Chris started counting – this year I hope we will beat this.

Corn bunting singing hopefully

Posted May 24, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 21st   Leave a comment

I have been away in Cyprus for the last 10 days, missing a minor fall of migrants last weekend when the easterly winds were at last coupled with some rain. Conditions only lasted a day or so and everything is back to being quiet with the spring slipping away. We only have a window of a couple of weeks remaining where rare migrants are likely if the weather conditions are right. Something like a red-backed shrike, that we haven’t had through Crail for a couple of years now. Fingers crossed. I did see my first common terns of the year today among a large passage of sandwich terns. Common terns are about the last of the regular migrants to get to Crail.

Common tern

Posted May 21, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 9th   Leave a comment

Kilrenny is a beautiful place for a walk on a spring evening. No wryneck, but lots of birds singing, tree sparrows dashing about, swallows hawking low, and sedge warblers and reed buntings standing out in contrast against the bright yellow of their rape top song perches. On the way back to Crail a couple of sand martins – they may be nesting in one of the sandy cliffs around Caiplie this year.

Reed Bunting

Posted May 9, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 8th   Leave a comment

The cold easterlies continue with hints of exciting birds passing. Yesterday there was a flock of 12 pomarine skuas past Fife Ness and today a wryneck seen briefly at Kilrenny. I went to Fife Ness this evening and will try Kilrenny tomorrow. Fife Ness wasn’t ever going to repeat the excitement that yesterday must have provided, but it was still a beautiful evening and I watched hundreds of the usual seabirds stream past including 5 manx shearwaters in the hour I watched. There were still a lot of kittiwakes and common gulls passing. The only terns I saw were sandwich terns and in small numbers. A flock of 20 sanderling and several flocks of common scoter headed north. A highlight was a red-throated diver with the wind behind it flying past at about 60 km an hour – hard to judge exactly, but it was going the fastest I have ever seen a diver go, with its wings practically blurring like an auk. A bird in a hurry – late for a rendezvous with its mate on a Sutherland or Shetland loch perhaps.

A red-throated diver in a hurry

Posted May 8, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 7th   Leave a comment

The swifts are back – probably yesterday evening – but I spotted my first one from my bed this morning. Three zooming down the High Street. At least 5 and probably more were over Crail all day and by this evening obvious pairs were chasing each other, probably getting reacquainted after 8 months apart. Conceivably pairs of swifts might stay together during the winter, but we don’t know. If you think about young birds migrating down to Africa and finding a place to winter for the first time, then when they pair up here in Crail, if they then stayed together after breeding, whose wintering site would they go to? So perhaps not, but if any species was to stay together it would be swifts. Swifts probably migrate together in flocks and are probably quite mobile on their wintering grounds – although the problem still remains for a Cameroonian swift that pairs with a Congolese swift – which country? Perhaps they then spend the winter over both. Ah well, I’ll put that question aside and just enjoy them back for the next 14 weeks or so.

The swifts are back!

Posted May 7, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 6th   Leave a comment

Everything along the shore north of Balcomie has moved on apart from the bar-tailed godwit (still mostly on Balcomie Beach unless disturbed) and a few dunlin. And there are still one or two whimbrels about towards Saucehope. Fife Ness remains great for close views of common seabirds – lots of kittiwakes and common gulls passing this morning. And the first arctic tern of the year, heading north quite a way out – last year my first was on May 2nd. Arctic terns are one of the last common migrants to arrive, usually the same time as the swifts. There were some swifts reported in Fife today but I didn’t see any over Crail.

Arctic tern – no. 125 for the Crail year list today

Posted May 6, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 5th   Leave a comment

Easterly winds without rain showers is a recipe for frustration. There must be migrants passing but they are not stopping at Crail, continuing on in the fine weather. I did see, however, a marsh harrier this morning passing over Wormiston and the airfield, gaining height and continuing on. It might have been a Scandinavian bird off course or a late arrival heading to the Tay reedbeds to breed. A marsh harrier is at best a once a year Crail bird for me and late April or early May, passing over seems the best time to see one. The migrants at Kilminning earlier in the week have moved on, leaving the resident whitethroats and willow warblers still singing away. As I returned to Crail through Saucehope two male goosanders flew by heading to Fife Ness and probably much further north. They were very handsome in full breeding plumage, green and white and salmon pink – much nicer than the usual Crail goosanders we get in July, after breeding, when the males adopt their “eclipse” plumage to be less showy when they moult their flight feathers.

Female marsh harrier

Posted May 6, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 1st   Leave a comment

A holiday in May with easterly winds – the perfect time to be living in Crail. More migrants came in last night – you could hear chiff-chaffs singing all over Crail this morning. I found a garden warbler, a lesser whitethroat and several common whitethroats all new in at Kilminning in the morning (more chiff-chaffs too). Along the shore at Balcomie in the afternoon, 8 northern wheatears, a white wagtail, two whimbrels, probably the same common sandpiper as yesterday, a flock of 18 sanderling now, more dunlins and turnstones and a nearly full summer plumage bar-tailed godwit, handsome in its brick red breeding plumage. Another extreme northern breeder, with the closest place being northern Norway, 2,000 kilometers away. A less than two day flight and barely a jaunt for a species that has been recorded carrying out a 10,000 km non-stop flight from Alaska to New Zealand. I watched it feeding hard and wondered which beach it had fed on last – feasibly one somewhere like Mauritania or even as far away as Namibia.

The bar-tailed godwit at Balcomie today

Posted May 1, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings