Archive for July 2017

July 30th   Leave a comment

I have just returned from a week on the west coast, in Wester Ross, enjoying the things that are common there, but I doubt will ever make it to Crail, such as golden eagles, and things that occasionally do, like black-throated divers. It was particularly nice to see spotted flycatchers everywhere in the damp woodlands, field edges and gardens. They used to be common on the east coast and I miss them.

Balcomie Beach has lost its stinking mat of rotting seaweed during my time away and so most of its waders. Only about 25 dunlin and 30 sanderling were there today. The numbers of turnstone was up though with over 40 in one flock and there were 5 knot in the high tide roost at Fife Ness. A flock of 8 whimbrel flew in from the sea, whistling as they came in, and recruited 3 whimbrel in the roost to join them as they continued along the coast past Crail.



Posted July 30, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 21st   Leave a comment

A strong south-easterly today. Lots of gannets close past Fife Ness but surprisingly little else. A few manx shearwaters and the occasional small groups of sandwich terns. They are becoming more common as August approaches, adults followed by their shrill juveniles moving up the coast from their breeding sites like the Farne Islands to spend the next two months feeding their young along the east Neuk coast. On Balcomie beach about 35 turnstones had joined the dunlins and at least four knot; there was another knot feeding on the rocks at Roome Bay this afternoon. Knots are chunky waders with short legs and a relatively short bill for a wader, and the one in Roome Bay is easy to identify because it still mostly has its red summer plumage. There was also a good whimbrel passage today. I saw a flock of 5 cutting the corner at Fife Ness by flying over the golf course, more at Balcomie and I heard another calling as it passed high over the High Street this morning.

One of today’s knots

Posted July 21, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 20th   Leave a comment

There were possibly even more dunlin today on Balcomie Beach – maybe even 300. I stood talking to quietly to someone for about 30 minutes as we watched them and by the end the dunlin, with turnstones and sanderling too, were feeding less than 15 meters away. It’s been such a highlight of July to be a part of this wader festival. More post-breeding flocks elsewhere – tens of goldfinches and linnets in the fields, and now increasingly large swallow flocks as the juveniles of the year start banding together.

A young Crail swallow over the ripening wheat

Posted July 20, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 19th   Leave a comment

There were 225+ dunlin on Balcomie Beach at lunchtime today, three ringed plovers, 20 or so sanderling and a few turnstone and redshank. The seaweed has rotted to a dense black mulch, pitted now with beak holes. The seaweed fly maggots must be legion to sustain such numbers day after day. Although the little ringed plover seems to have moved on, the Mediterranean gull is still feeding with the black-headed gulls in the surf of Roome Bay at high tide. Its black hood is getting patchier every day and is now speckled with white.

Some of the over 200 dunlin now at Balcomie

Posted July 19, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 17th   Leave a comment

I am not often at Balcomie Beach at sunset but I should be. Especially on a warm July evening with it looking like the Hebrides. And waders scurrying along the sand. The little ringed plover is still there, and feeding along the tideline, mostly with the dunlin. Two or three whimbrel flew over calling in between the flocks of oystercatchers – one of the flocks had a juvenile shelduck with them, not long independent. A local pair of shelduck has been successful even if the Balcomie pair have not been – they have been hanging around in a pair in the bays north of Balcomie for the last couple of weeks with no signs of chicks.

The little ringed plover still at Balcomie Beach this evening

Posted July 17, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 16th   Leave a comment

John Anderson didn’t find the little ringed plover later yesterday afternoon so I went down to Balcomie Beach first thing to help him refind it. No need, I found John crouched immobile 15 meters away from the bird. The tide was in but there are a few muddy pools on the strandline and the little ringed plover was feeding there alone, with John in the background having gradually crept closer over the last hour or so. I approached from the other side and got much better views than yesterday. It seemed much more settled. I was able to see the pale fringes of the back feathers that juvenile birds have and also its characteristic yellow eye ring (which is much more obvious in adults). Eventually it got fed up of our close proximity and moved up the beach, joining the dunlin and sanderling flock, which also had a slightly pinkish adult knot among them.

The little ringed plover on Balcomie beach today at 09:00

Just after it moved a sparrowhawk appeared being chased by a herring and black-headed gull and an oystercatcher. It was carrying prey and at the time I thought it was one of the dunlin from the flock further up the beach because I could see a bit sticking straight out from its claws like a long bill. John took some photos as it passed and later I could see that it was carrying a song bird, probably a rock pipit and it had eaten a lot of it already. I suspect it was disturbed from feeding by a gull trying to steal its prey. The sparrowhawk made a successful getaway disappearing over the golf course. There was a kestrel hunting along the beach as well while I watched the plover – you can’t blame the birds of prey. Like me they are drawn to the action and Balcomie Beach is full of small birds – the waders of course but also pied wagtails, rock pipits and lots of perfect dinner sized starlings.

The sparrowhawk drama unfolding down at Balcomie this morning

On the way back via Fife Ness there was a flock of four common sandpipers on the main roost rock and a juvenile wheatear on the golf course. There have been wheatears along the shore most days this week and another whinchat two days ago – it really is worthwhile birding along this bit of shore at the moment.

Posted July 16, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 15th   Leave a comment

I heard a distinctive descending two-note “choo-ip” call from a small wader as I cycled across Balcomie Beach this afternoon. A smaller ringed plover was following a larger one, both tailing a flock of sanderling flying away from me. I stopped and double-checked the absence of a wing bar of the smaller plover – a little ringed plover. The much rarer summer migrant version of a ringed plover that breeds inland and only in small numbers in the UK. I have only ever seen one before around Crail, during the summer when there were floods in lots of the fields creating perfect muddy pools for migrating waders. Little ringed plovers hardly ever turn up on the sea shore. They prefer inland muddy pools, although I have seen plenty in salt water pools close to the shore in Europe and Africa. And Balcomie Beach, and the other muddy coves along the coast at low tide are the only wader oases in the desert of dry land that is the East Neuk. Little ringed plovers are, as the name suggests, smaller than common ringed plovers – they are more slender with longer wings and a smaller more rounded head which accents their smaller size. This one was busy feeding. It is on its way to sub-Saharan Africa (although a Swedish bird was tagged going all the way to India and back, while its mate went to Nigeria!) so needs to fuel up. Despite being disturbed initially by me and then by a series of coastal path walkers it kept coming back to the muddy beach to feed, sometimes alone but more often with the adult common ringed plover and the sanderlings. It was very inconspicuous though and I don’t think I would have noticed it initially if it hadn’t called.

The Balcomie little ringed plover

Posted July 15, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 11th   Leave a comment

I finally caught up with the ring-necked parakeet that is regularly roosting in a garden on the south of Marketgate. A beautiful male with a bright pinky-red neck ring with a blueish border. It looked so vividly green and tropical in the light drizzle of the early morning. I’m glad to see one back in Crail.

The Mediterranean gull is still in residence in Crail. It was been seen in Roome Bay a couple of days ago and I saw it again roosting with black-headed gulls on the rocks at Sauchope Cravan Park, at the roundabout, at high tide. There are a lot of gulls sitting in the surf feeding on the tideline at high tide in Roome Bay most afternoons and I would predict that the Mediterranean Gull will keep feeding there for the next few days. Look for the black hood rather than the chocolate brown head.

The Mediterranean gull in Roome Bay and roosting at Sauchope. It’s the bird on the right with black-headed gulls. Thanks to Erica Hollis for this photo.

New waders at Balcomie today: a whimbrel and a bar-tailed godwit.

Posted July 12, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 10th   Leave a comment

More change at Balcomie today. There are now over 100 dunlin present with the first juvenile of the year. More redshanks and the first turnstones back. Other new birds were a couple of common sandpipers, another knot and best of all two black-tailed godwits – always a good bird for the Crail list. They are common on the Eden Estuary but only a few pass through Crail in July or August. One of the godwits, at least, looked like an Icelandic bird with strongly barred chestnut flanks. They breed in Europe generally to the south of us and then winter even further south and only breed to the north of us in Iceland so this makes sense. Most of the waders were gathered into the main high tide roost on the large rock by stinky pool (this is the one where all the shags and cormorants sit regardless of tide), with half the dunlins feeding with the many gulls and eiders on the tideline of Balcomie Beach.

The two black-tailed godwits at Balcomie today

Posted July 10, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 9th   Leave a comment

There was a whinchat today halfway between Crail and Hammer Inn, on the now fairly overgrown footpath up from Balcomie caravan park. The last whinchat I saw was in Nigeria, last year: I see hundreds of whinchats in Africa where I study them but hardly ever see them in Scotland. They used to be a much more common bird but are now confined to the West and the uplands. It is strange because they are very generalist, needing only small insects and a perch – unimproved pasture or meadow with some small bushes and scrub does the job. That they have disappeared from lowland Scotland is probably indicative of the general reduction in the quantity and quality of insect food, as well as possibly tidier fields and earlier mowing of hay fields. But there are still many neglected field edges that should suit a whinchat – they certainly would suit a whinchat in Africa and as today a bird on passage to Africa. These edges have enough to keep a single bird that can move on when necessary but not a breeding pair and its growing brood for two months. Whinchats pass through Crail mainly in August so today’s bird was fairly early. Some Augusts, particularly on an easterly wind with rain showers, every field might have one or two: they will sit jauntily on top of the unharvested crop of wheat or rape so are easy to find. But most autumns (or springs) there are only a few that come through Crail. From Boarhills down to the mouth of the Kenly Burn seems to be the most reliable site for them then.

Whinchat in Africa – one of my photos using my phone and a telescope

Posted July 9, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 8th   Leave a comment

Today’s star wader at Balcomie was a whimbrel. Two curlews flew up from the rocks and I noticed one was much smaller than the other. A quick check of its bill shape (whimbrels have an initially mostly straight bill with the decurve at the end) confirmed it as a whimbrel. I whistled at it – the seven note whistle of a whimbrel is about the easiest bird call to imitate. And it checked its flight, came back to look at me, whistling as well. Whimbrels love company when they migrate and generally only hang out with curlews when there are no other whimbrels about. I couldn’t resist whistling at the whimbrel again as it flew off looking for a real whimbrel to join. It checked and came back whistling at me once more before heading off to rejoin the curlew, hopefully not too disappointed by my deception. But there is something magical about calling to a wild bird and having it respond to you. And especially so when that bird is a literally globe-trotting whimbrel. The all time champion migrant bird in my opinion.


Posted July 8, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 7th   Leave a comment

More waders back. 17 redshank now at Balcomie, and a newly arrived knot, picking happily amongst the washed in banks of rotting kelp from the storms last week with the dunlins and sanderling of yesterday. The knot was in its red knot summer plumage – quite a vivid red underneath and a subtle mix of pale grey, black and browns on the back. The rotting kelp attracted a lot of gulls too: mostly herring gulls but also a few black-headed gulls, including the first juvenile of the year.

A red knot at Balcomie just back from breeding

Posted July 7, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 6th   Leave a comment

The waders are coming back. A flock of lapwings at Fairmont, a summer plumage sanderling and 6 dunlin on Balcomie Beach and two redshank in Roome Bay. All probably failed breeders, although up at Fairmont I am fairly sure the returning lapwing flock joined the two to three pairs that were breeding in the field there (opposite the main entrance), and I think at least one pair still has chicks.

A dunlin returning to Balcomie Bay after breeding

I saw lots more black-headed gulls today and as I scanned a flock in the small bay at the east end of Saucehope caravan park I noticed one had a black hood rather than a chocolate brown one. A Mediterranean gull. A rare late summer and autumn visitor to Crail and I feel lucky to see one; they are commoner in the inner Forth and becoming commoner this end of Fife. This one was slightly odd – coming into its second summer (born last year) so still in its young plumage of black wing tips and a brown bar along the front of the wing, and a matching black bar along the back, but with a full black adult summer hood and contrasting bright white crescents around the eye. Advanced in one respect, or delayed in the other. Anyway, unlikely to have been a successful breeder (they take 2 full years to become adults) but probably full of hormones anyway.

I haven’t been updating the Crail year list score regularly, but the Mediterranean gull takes me up to 134 and a month ahead of the total for this time last year when I broke the record. Bring on those easterly winds and rain showers.

Posted July 6, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 5th   Leave a comment

It is about this time of year that things shift imperceptibly from building up to the summer to winding down. Birds start to appear having completed breeding – the goosander and common sandpiper last week, and a black-headed gull feeding around the harbour today. And those still breeding seem to be frantically trying to finish. The swifts are screaming again as, I think, young birds (two or three year olds) arrive and start pairing and prospecting so they are ready for starting to breed the following year. The swifts will, of course, only be with us another six weeks. The fulmars seem to have missed the boat again – no sign of chicks or even eggs in any of the nests I can see well on Castle Walk or above harbour beach. Fulmars, like swifts, live a long time and don’t need to breed successfully every year of their life but the Crail birds seem particularly unsuccessful.

A black-headed gull back in Crail again after breeding somewhere inland (like the Highlands)

There is a ring-necked parakeet back in Crail. I haven’t seen it yet – it has been visiting a garden in Marketgate in the early morning and I have seen some photos. Not that it’s likely to be a mis-identification. Ring-necked parakeets continue their spread across the UK from London and are now more common in the Edinburgh and Dundee area. We had a resident ring-necked parakeet in Crail from 2005-2012 – again in Marketgate – but I haven’t seen one at all for the last five years. There is a current debate about whether we should cull these “invaders” due to fears of them being agricultural pests in other parts of the world. I think whether they present a problem is not clear yet and they certainly add some interest to our wildlife. Getting rid of them would be a costly nightmare as well. If you do see the new Crail parakeet please let me know.

Posted July 5, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 1st   Leave a comment

The heavy rain – and we had 82 mm last month, the highest monthly total since July 2015 when we had 84 mm – has left lots of pools and small floods around Crail. One advantage of the wet weather, although we will need a wet July as well to really consolidate them ready for some migrant waders in August. Today there was a common sandpiper along the flooded track between Sypsie and Troustie which is a good start to the wader season. Further on a yellow wagtail flew up and headed off towards the area where they bred this year. Good to know they are still around – I couldn’t see whether it was a young one or an adult.

The sea has quietened down after a busy week. Still a constant stream of seabirds though and perhaps with more arctic terns than usual.

Arctic tern

Posted July 1, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

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