Archive for June 2017

June 30th   Leave a comment

No sign of the black-browed albatross at Fife Ness this morning. The North Sea regular that has been returning to the German coast for several summers now has also taken a liking to visiting Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire. Yesterday it decided to fly up the coast and was seen all the way up to Bass Rock where it disappeared last night. I suspect it is sitting in the middle of the gannet colony right now hoping there is another albatross around. I had an hour or so of watching great seabird passage past Fife Ness despite the lack of giants – all the usual suspects with the addition of a fine adult summer plumage little gull, the first for the year. I was also hoping for storm petrels – several were seen yesterday but again no luck. The summer is turning and it will soon be migrant season again. Two velvet scoters past Crail this evening were another sign.

Little gull

Posted June 30, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 28th   Leave a comment

Today and tomorrow are good for looking at seabirds passing Crail. There is a north-easterly wind which will strengthen into a gale tomorrow. This has been pushing seabirds right against the Crail coast as they fly in and out of the Forth to feed their chicks. Saucehope Caravan Park was great this afternoon, with puffins passing just a few tens of meters out. At Fife Ness I watched a feast of razorbills, guillemots, puffins, gannets, arctic, common and sandwich terns and kittiwakes passing just beyond the low tide rocks. This morning it was manx shearwaters as well passing Crail, coming past at a rate of 25 every 10 minutes; some goosanders and surprisingly, quite a few large flocks of common scoters.

A close flyby by a razorbill

Balcomie Beach is at its quietest. Only a few oystercatchers and immature common gulls this afternoon. The eider chicks along the shore just to the north have got much fewer, but the survivors are now much bigger and should make it now.

Some of the surviving eider chicks

This evening I did a circuit up to Troustie to look for barn owls. The rain last night will have made hunting poor so I was hopeful they would be out before dark to catch up with feeding their chicks. My run of bad luck with barn owls continued, still it was good to be out in the wind and the gloaming – not very summery in feel perhaps – but bracing. At dusk you realise just how many hares there are. They were popping up everywhere, suddenly racing away across the tracks to disappear just as quickly into the potatoes or wheat.

A brown hare in the gloaming

Posted June 28, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 27th   Leave a comment

This year seems to have been a good one for common whitethroats. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere along the coast path that hasn’t got a pair of whitethroats. They are very territorial and come back to defend their same bush and patch of scrub every year, but each year there seem to be more bushes with a singing whitethroat. They have been on the up, more or less, since their monumental crash in the 1960’s when half the UK’s 5 million breeding pairs failed to come back one summer, probably after encountering the effects of a severe drought on their way to fuel up before crossing the Sahara. Things have improved a bit in West Africa rainfall wise since the 1990s and the whitethroats themselves have probably changed their migration areas and routes. Most have fledged chicks now and so they are even more abundant; although they skulk a bit, whitethroats do pop up to check you out if you are in their territory and make a grumpy rattle to let you know they have seen you. They are much more skulking on the wintering grounds. Where I often go in central Nigeria there is a whitethroat in every bush but you only know this if you play back their song so they come out to defend their territory. They are every bit as territorial on the wintering ground as they are in Crail. I think of whitethroats as very stay at home birds – they just have two homes, each a small bush, but separated by 6,000 km and on two different continents.

Common whitethroat

Posted June 27, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 22nd   Leave a comment

Wildflowers not cracked tarmac along Roome Bay Avenue

In an unusual bit of sensible management by the Council, the cracked and broken tarmac footpath along the top of the sheep field and Roome Bay Avenue was removed a couple of months ago. I walked past the digger for a couple of days as it dug out the old tarmac and hoped that more new tarmac wasn’t to follow. It’s an unnecessary bit of footpath, next to a field and the tree roots along it have taken over – they would have to go if there was to be any chance of a flat path there again. And common sense prevailed. The bare earth was left to itself. Now the old footpath is now burgeoning with wild flowers and insects. It’s nice when something gets put back to a wilder state: something no longer costing us money to maintain and a thing of beauty instead of something sterile and useless.

Posted June 22, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 21st   Leave a comment

The longest day and with a spectacular thunderstorm to end it. We are up to 52 mm of rain this month with 10% of this falling this evening in 40 minutes. June onwards really is the rainy season for us.

Sedge warbler

The sedge warblers are continuing to sing very loudly and vigorously from weedy tangles and bramble patches at the sides of the fields and roads. They have a tight schedule. Arrive at the end of April, then two months to get their first brood completely independent (a fairly typical small bird 3 weeks eggs, 2 weeks chicks and then 3-4 weeks feeding fledged chicks). As long as everything goes to plan. But as with most open nesting birds, and even ones like sedge warblers that nest hidden deep in cover, they lose 40% of their nests to predators. So many birds will be trying to renest even as some may be thinking of finishing and starting their moult before returning to Africa in August. It means a staggered season and desperate birds singing right through June and July. Some nesting sedge warblers have it even more complicated, with one male having several females in their territory – they may be the ones that really sing vigorously.

Posted June 21, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 20th   Leave a comment

Sand martin by its nest hole

I have been seeing quite a few sand martins in ones and twos between Anstruther and Kingsbarns. Sand martins are swallows, pale brown above, white below with a neat brown breast band. It’s hard to notice more than the general brownish colour when they fly by, but the lack of clear black and whites makes it easy to rule out the other two common Crail swallow species, the barn swallow and the house martin. The most characteristic thing about sand martins, to me, is their flickering flight. They are extreme swallows, with a lightness of flight and loose wingbeats almost as if each wing is being flicked independently rather than being systematically beat together. When you get your eye in then suddenly you see sand martins much more often. The best places to see them are along the shore. They breed in holes they dig in sandy or loose soil banks, so the small earthy cliffs common along the shoreline – particularly between Balcomie and Kingsbarns – are where they concentrate in summer. But I see them almost anywhere around Crail; never daily as the other swallows, but perhaps once every week during the summer. They have bred in the pipeholes in the seawall at Roome Bay in a couple of years: then they were a daily sighting. They breed in colonies but often these don’t last for more than a few years because of the nature of the temporary sandy cliffs that they use. Sand martins are a fantastically common species worldwide – they breed in North America and from here to Japan. They winter or pass through everywhere in the world apart from Australia and the Pacific islands. I have seen thousands of sand martins over rivers and wetlands from the Amazon to the Congo, and when I was in Kazakhstan, surveying wetlands there late one summer, we counted a million spread along the telephone wires running beside the salt lakes there, congregating before migration. That’s a lot of swallows and a lot of mosquitos and midges being eaten.

Posted June 20, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 17th   Leave a comment

A hot day in Crail – we made nearly 25 degrees today. I watched the auks flying around Fife Ness and felt like I was scanning the Mediterranean – apart from the seabirds of course. Sea watching in the Mediterranean is fairly dull. Today the auks all looked slightly odd as the fish they were carrying glinted in the strong sunlight making them look like they had extended white heads. And the extra weight of the fish changes their flight and posture slightly so guillemots look more like razorbills and razorbills like puffins. There are a lot more manx shearwater passing now – some evenings this week flocks of more than 30 have been passing regularly.

Puffin carrying a load of sand eels back to the May Island to feed its chick

I came back to Crail through Kilminning and flushed a bird which looked a bit like a sparrowhawk crossed with a nightjar. I saw it poorly and started thinking about nightjars and how fantastic it would be to find one for the Crail list. Then three flew up in front of me and showed themselves well – cuckoos! Already on their way back to Africa and stopping for a quick refuel on the caterpillars and large insects in the grass of Kiminning, along the shore. There were cuckoos recorded from Kilminning last week and passing along the coast further West in Fife yesterday. When you only have to lay your eggs in another’s nest, and don’t need to look after your own chicks then you can head back to Africa after only a few weeks here in Scotland. We get another wave of cuckoos through in August, but this time the juveniles. I say wave – but cuckoos are good Crail birds. I saw more cuckoos today than I have seen in the last five years around Crail.

Cuckoo

Posted June 17, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 13th   Leave a comment

I was tipped off yesterday about a dead raptor on the verge just as you come out of Crail passing Damside, on the St Andrews road. A tawny owl. Another hardly seen nocturnal animal, like our badgers and otters, showing its presence by traffic sampling. Tawny owls are early breeders so I hope this adult’s chicks are well grown and near independence: I expect it was working hard to feed them when it chased one vole or mouse too many across the road. The remaining adult should be able to do the job if the nights are not too rainy and the hunting is good.

The dead tawny owl – already partly scavenged, probably by a crow

I cycled back along the St Andrews to Anstruther road looking for more corn buntings this afternoon. Suitable fields start right at St Andrews but they are often surrounded by small woods or tree lines which the corn buntings don’t like. The corn buntings start to appear as you start to descend towards Anstruther from Drumrack and the trees around the fields disappear. As I scanned for corn buntings I enjoyed the low flying swifts over the wheat; not just dark silhouettes in the sky, but patterned and featured against the vivid green.

Common swift

Posted June 13, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 12th   Leave a comment

The eider chicks are getting larger but are getting fewer in number. The gulls, particularly the great black-backed gulls, are picking them off one by one. It’s the main reason the chicks congregate in groups. For the individual chick there is safety in numbers and for the adults which also pool their resources, there is more effective defence in a group. I watched a group of four eider females defending six or so chicks successfully this evening at Balcomie. As a great black-backed gull flew over and stalled as if to plunge down on the chicks below the females all flocked together tightly around the chicks and stuck up their bills aggressively to stop the gull descending. They were also calling angrily. The gull broke off its attack immediately. A great black backed gull is a big mean bird but four angry female eiders are pretty mean looking too. To top it off, a female shelduck flew in to chase the gull off – even bigger and scarier than an eider. The gulls don’t always have it their way.

Eiders defending their chicks from a great-black-backed gull flying above them

The wader flocks have moved on again. Only three ringed plovers on Balcomie Beach this evening and a couple of curlews at Saucehope.

Ringed plover

Posted June 12, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 11th   Leave a comment

I spent the morning along the farm tracks north-east of Crail filling in the gaps for corn buntings: new ones for Sypsies,Troustie and west of Toldrie. All in obvious wheat fields that looked likely as breeding habitat. They will have been there all along, just not recorded yet because during any one survey some territorial birds are not singing or up on the wires and so don’t get spotted. We call these records “false negatives” – which is a fairly obvious idea – but one that makes much of the science of mapping where things live and estimating how many individuals there are a bit of a nightmare. The only solution is repeated visits so you can estimate this detectability and so correct for it.

I was also listening out for quails. Now is about the peak time to hear them singing softly “wet my lips” repetitively from a wheat or barley field. I have only ever seen one quail in the UK in nearly 40 years of birding but I have heard hundreds. They are tiny gamebirds, barely bigger than a blackbird, and stick to long grass. They are erratic migrants. In a good breeding year there can be hundreds of pairs across England and Sotland and in poor years almost none. We talk about “quail years” when they do appear in numbers. The last was in 2011 when we had up to 10 birds calling in June around Crail. But not this year so far. I will probably have to get my next quail fix when I am next in West Africa during the winter, flushing them up as I walk across fallow farmland.

There are a couple of Canada geese hanging around Crail harbour at the moment. They are becoming a late summer fixture for the East Neuk after being a major rarity for Crail for the first ten years I lived here. A flock now loafs around the shore between Anstruther and Kingsbarns from late May until September now, before consolidating into a larger wintering flock based at Boarhills.

Canada Geese

Posted June 11, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 7th   Leave a comment

Great skua

The rainy season has started with as much rain in the last two days as we had in the whole of April. It has made the sea watching much better with no heat haze and clear visibility all the way to the Lothians. Lots of puffins past Crail today. They will be chick feeding now and very busy for the next two months. I saw my first great skua of the year passing the May Island this evening, heading out of the Forth: a long way out but distinctive nonetheless – huge, dark and heavy.

Posted June 7, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 4th   Leave a comment

The shore north of Balcomie Beach still has lots of waders coming and going. Today there were 35 sanderling, 20 dunlin, 15 turnstone and a couple of whimbrel. Some of the sanderling and dunlin were barely out of winter plumage and must be non-breeders this year but most looked like they were going to the party rather than staying at home. Again all ridiculously tame, landing on the high tideline to feed only 15 meters away from me. Sanderling make a soft “zwick” call which doesn’t carry far but they were so close and calling constantly today that the main background sound on the beach was a gentle clicking. That and the disgruntled churring of the juvenile starlings trying to coax another meal from the parents they are still chasing. They are forming juvenile flocks now, probably to their parent’s great relief, and are heading off independently along the shore to feed among the rich piles of rotting seaweed.

A summer plumage dunlin at Balcomie

Posted June 4, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 3rd   Leave a comment

I spent an hour this afternoon sat on the edge of the wheat field just outside Crail looking to confirm whether the yellow wagtails were breeding successfully. It was surreal just looking out over the uniform sea of green punctuated by only a couple of bright red poppies, particularly when the haar rolled in and left nothing else visible. It focussed me on the field. And what do you see in an hour of just watching an intensive wheat field in the East Neuk? Not a great deal – a few bumble bees, the occasional swallow passing over and a few nesting pairs of skylarks and meadow pipits launching themselves up for song flights or hovering over the wheat briefly before descending to their nests. In the hour I also had a corn bunting, a pair of linnets, a herring gull and an oystercatcher fly over. Just three species in an hour using the field (four if you count the wagtails – but I will come to them). Not a lot to distract me as I looked for the wagtails. After about 20 minutes I heard one flying in to the bit of field where I think they are nesting, it circled around and then came closer to perch on the wheat about 50 meters from me – the male, checking me out I think – before returning to the likely nest site much further in the field (about 100 meters away from where I was sitting). Then every 10 minutes or so I would hear a bird flying over either away or to this bit of field, occasionally I would glimpse them but even without the haar the trips in and out were inconspicuous and quick. I saw the pair come up together from the place where they were flying to on one occasion and followed the female a bit along the adjacent mud track as it collected food (although I couldn’t clinch a good view of a beakful of food being carried to really confirm it had a nest full of chicks). But they must be breeding and likely have chicks but I still need a definitive view of one of the birds carrying food to confirm the first yellow wagtail nest in Fife for many years.

Crail yellow wagtail catching a fly

Posted June 3, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 1st   Leave a comment

I finally tracked down the elusive yellow wagtails that are likely breeding in the wheat field at Old Barns, just outside of Crail on the Anstruther road. They were first reported on the 18th while I was away in Cyprus, seen again a week later and then a male was seen feeding on the coast path by the old salmon bothy yesterday, just a short wagtail’s flight from the entrance to Old Barns. When I looked for them last week I didn’t get lucky, and today I almost missed them. I was out early morning checking the field edges and between the potato rows between Barnsmuir and Crail for an hour before I heard the distinctive “tsip” of a yellow wagtail. A stunning bright yellow male flew over my head from the middle of a wheat field over to the horse and sheep fields at Barnsmuir. I chased it but couldn’t find it again. Then, as I headed back to Crail, I put up a female feeding on the muddy track alongside the main road and it headed off to disappear in the middle of the same wheat field where the male had come from. All very indicative of a nesting pair in residence and possibly with just hatched chicks. A pair started to breed in more or less the same place (well, the same field) last year but they disappeared after a week. This time they seem to be succeeding but I need a definite sighting of the male and female with a beakful of food returning to exactly the same spot in the field to confirm breeding. This will then be the first breeding record for Fife for many years. Yellow wagtails are another one of the migrant species which is declining in Britain and they are becoming a scarce breeder in many parts of England (Scotland has never been its stronghold). It would be brilliant if they did start to breed regularly here, but perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. I will keep checking the field over the next week and hope to see the pair definitely feeding chicks.

Male yellow wagtail at Old Barns (although this is the male from last year)

Posted June 1, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings