Archive for August 2017

August 31st   Leave a comment

I saw a flock of about 10 grey partridges in the stubble field between Balcomie Caravan Park and Kirklands this evening. The young of the year stay with adults through the winter so an autumn flock (covey) gives an indication of the breeding success of the summer. So far so good. I will have to keep my eyes out for other coveys to see if the other Crail pairs also got lucky.

A covey of grey partridges

Posted August 31, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 29th   Leave a comment

The annual tree sparrow invasion is happening. I am regularly hearing tree sparrows flocks flying over Crail and they are in most of the unharvested wheat fields that remain around us. The call is like a house sparrow, just a harder and dryer “tack”, and when a whole flock is going over it sounds like a small machine gun as they all call rapidly. On the ground they are easy to identify – with a neat brown cap and black earphones. The juveniles of the year are dispersing and they all seem to accumulate in the East Neuk, stopping as they meet the sea. There should be some visiting bird feeders in Crail for the next month so it’s worth looking out for that neater looking sparrow on your feeder.

Tree sparrow

Posted August 29, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 27th   Leave a comment

There are more waders about now it is the end of August. There are about 30 redshanks back in Crail including at least three of my colour-ringed birds. I haven’t ringed any new ones for three years now and they get fewer and fewer every year. One was feeding among the skerries of harbour beach this morning, Yellow Black/Green Black (that’s left leg, yellow ring above black above the knee/ right leg, green ring above black above the knee). I ringed this bird on the 21st March 2011 on Harbour Beach: it was a juvenile, so born the summer before in 2010. And here it is back in Crail for an eighth winter, feeding just 45 meters from where I caught it, as it has done every winter (although sometimes it wanders to Roome Bay for an afternoon…). It is not a big bird – with a small wing and leg length when I measured it during ringing – so probably a Scottish breeder; perhaps on Lewis or from Wester Ross, or Shetland. As I checked through the redshanks for colour-ringed birds I spotted a more elegant one – a greenshank. They are reasonably easy to identify: the clue is in the name, green legs and with a slightly uptilted bill, but otherwise much as a redshank. We get a few greenshanks through Crail every year, with most in August, on their way to pools and rivers all over Africa, although more and more spend the winter in the UK as the climate gets warmer. Other waders around the harbour were a couple of common sandpipers, curlews, oystercatchers and a turnstone.

A greenshank

It is still mostly ringed plovers on Balcomie Beach with a few dunlin and sanderling. The rocks to the north have got hundreds of terns on them now. They are a mixture of arctic, common and sandwich terns. There may be a roseate tern among them but a good view is needed and this weekend my visit was at low tide when they were a long way out. The crows feeding on the rocky shore were getting a hard time when they flew near the terns. The arctic terns, particularly, seem to be still in colony mode. But most of the time the terns were loafing – taking it easy on a still, warm August day with nothing much to do after the busy breeding season and a few weeks before migration. The same for the gulls, although for most they don’t even have to worry about an up and coming migration. The black-headed gulls are already home for the winter. Breeding black hoods gone now, no young to protect or feed and still longs days to feed in. They will be using this gentle period to moult though, where they change their flight feathers for a new set. This takes a fair bit of energy so they won’t be able to loaf all day.

Black-headed gull – note the new shorter wing feathers close to the wing tip that are growing back as it moults

Posted August 27, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 25th   Leave a comment

I have been in Finland for the last two weeks – swifts, pied flycatchers, yellow wagtails and redstarts up at the Arctic circle, and Finnish specialties like red-flanked bluetail, pygmy owl and hazel grouse. But it’s very quiet in Finnish forests in August and it’s nice to be back to distant horizons and a landscape where you can see things. Autumn seems to have crept in while I was away and migration season will soon start in earnest. Our swifts are long gone and there are a lot of swallows and house martins sitting on the wires already. I watched a young male sparrowhawk slipping silently through the trees in Beech Walk park, finally getting some peace to hunt because the swallows were uncharacteristically off sentry duty, sitting preening in their lines, apparently already with thoughts only of the African savanna far ahead of them.

A sparrowhawk – looking forward to when the aerial sentries – the swallows – leave and allow them to hunt by surprise again

Posted August 25, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 12th   2 comments

I cycled along the coast path between Boarhills and Cambo this lunchtime. The mouth of the Kenly Burn was busy as ever: hundreds of gulls, redshanks and a common sandpiper, but only a small flock of Canada geese this year – about 12 birds. There were six wheatears on the rocks along the route and some large flocks of linnets. They seem to like the rocky shore this time of year. The sea was very calm and every scan I could see lots of seals. A head poking up here and a whole body hauled up there: they are hard to count but there must be hundreds of grey seals along the shore between St Andrews and Crail.

Grey seal

Rumours of Balcomie Beach becoming dull were a bit premature. Tonight and last night at high tide there were over one hundred dunlin strung out along the beach. Just as tame as in July. I could walk up to within 25 meters before they started looking alarmed and after I sat down they would trot past me at 10 meters. This evening they were joined by over 60 ringed plovers. Not quite as tame but 15 meters tame instead of 10. I wonder if they were all from Svalbard and on their way to Africa. Some might be local birds but probably not. There were few juveniles among them, maybe only 10% – either a very poor year for the locals, or the more northerly adults typically on their way south well before the juveniles.

Ringed plover

Posted August 12, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 10th   Leave a comment

Sea watching is a hit or miss business. I sat at Fife Ness for an hour this afternoon, half looking at the wader roost and half looking out to sea. In the hour there were barely any kittiwakes and no terns at all when there were hundreds yesterday. Two great skuas passed going north far out but no shearwaters apart from the occasional fulmar. The wader roost was also as uneventful: the usual redshanks, oystercatchers and curlew with a handful of dunlin and turnstones. Balcomie Beach is in its summer holiday busy period with people on the beach most of the time so its attraction for waders is less and so also the high tide roost.

Listen out for the soft “hoo-weet” call of willow warblers. They are in every garden in Crail just now as the young of the year start to drift south. If you see them they are tiny, very active and quite yellowish among the leaves of small trees and bushes.

A young willow warbler

Posted August 10, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 9th   Leave a comment

The beginning of August can be very quiet. I only saw and heard sparrowhawks as I walked through the woods at Cambo this morning. There were a couple of newly fledged sparrowhawks making a shrill whine almost continuously, increasing in pitch and frequency as one of the parents came back. It was then chased around the wood as the young competed for whatever it was carrying, gaining hunting skills as they went. As I got down to the shore there was more to see: a family party of grey wagtails down at the burn mouth, lots of sandwich terns passing along the coast and black-headed gulls on the beach.

A phone through my seawatching telescope photo of the ring-necked parakeet this evening

I was sea watching this evening from my house trying to turn very distant kittiwakes into arctic skuas in the surprisingly gloomy light. As I sat there I heard a familiar squawk and then saw the ring-necked parakeet fly into a birch tree at the bottom of the garden. It sat there for ten minutes or so, calling quietly and looking around, always I’m sure, on the lookout for other parrots. It’s the first time I have seen it since the beginning of July although I have heard the occasional call. I’m sure it is around Crail all the time, just surprisingly inconspicuous.

Posted August 9, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 6th   Leave a comment

Another small pond in the Crail area is at Wormiston House. You can see much of it from the road down to Wormiston Farm. It is very well manicured and with steep sides so more of an ornamental pond than a wildlife pond but it does that job too. I saw a female tufted duck with a brood of 8 or so ducklings a couple of weeks ago on it. They were still there today, the ducklings looking almost ready to fly – my first breeding record for this species so close to Crail. The pond must be fairly deep to suit this diving species. There was also a moorhen there today. They are happier with much smaller, shallower ponds but they do actually need a pond and it is great that we have at least one, nearly in Crail.

Female tufted duck

The remains of the dunlin killed and eaten by a sparrowhawk today at Balcomie

The dunlin numbers are dwindling at Balcomie Beach. It has got much less favourable with less seaweed on the beach and now with a couple of juvenile sparrowhawks regularly hunting along the shore. I have been finding skylark and starling kills in the last few weeks and today a fresh dunlin kill, right on the top of the beach only a few meters from where the remaining flock of about 20 dunlin regularly feeds. In many case, one of the advantages for shorebirds wintering far south is that they can escape sparrowhawks, goshawks, peregrines, merlins and the like that regularly hunt along the shore in winter. In Africa there are plenty of birds of prey too but they don’t hunt birds so much, and there are many more prey birds to spread the risk. Plus when days are not short and cold, a shorebird can afford to spend time looking for predators rather than keeping its concentration on looking for food and not starving.

Posted August 6, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 4th   Leave a comment

August is start of the skua season with arctic skuas hanging around Fife Ness harassing the terns and kittiwakes and great skuas cruising past. There were a couple of arctic skuas reported today and I saw a great skua from Balcomie beach in the evening. Skuas are easy to spot – all dark and a cross between gulls and birds of prey. And if they are chasing something – a black bird chasing a white one – then very obvious.

Great skua

Posted August 4, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 3rd   Leave a comment

At this time of year I start to look at the swifts again. Each evening brings closer the time when they will no longer be here and the summer will really start to slide towards its end. They are screaming more and getting restless although some of the birds are laying the foundations for their return next year. Every so often you see a swift with a very large white throat. If you have a close look through binoculars you often see these birds are carrying a white feather. They don’t sing and have no bright plumage, but they do have a white throat. I think this is an attractive feature for another swift and the juvenile swifts – by juveniles, I mean 3 or 4 years old and not breeding yet – accentuate it by holding a white feather. Maybe they also demonstrate their flying and food catching ability by grabbing a feather from the air, or their ability to build the shoddy nests that they do build (more of a pile of feathers on a flat surface). But it is a bit of a coincidence that it always seems to be a bright white feather that they are carrying. I think this is swift make up.

Another group of migrants that are getting restless are the arctic terns. They at least will be here for another month. There is a flock of about 100 – 200 out on the rocks just north of Balcomie Beach. On the high tide they are only a few tens of meters out from the coastal path and so you can get a good view. They are astonishingly beautiful and graceful birds, although not in any way delicate. They are still capable of attacking you if you approach too closely to one of their juveniles. There are quite a few juveniles among the flock indicating a reasonable breeding season. They will all head off for Antarctica soon, some of the adults for the 20th or 30th time, the juveniles following the adults on their long journey south. Most juveniles stay in the southern oceans for their first summer and then come back north for their second summer (i.e. two years from now for the young of this year) to breed for the first time.

The local arctic tern flock

Posted August 3, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 2nd   Leave a comment

The seals out at Fife Ness were singing very loudly today. It was the dominant sound: a low mournful moaning, sometimes almost becoming a hooting wail or even a crying baby. I could see four large grey seals hauled up on the rocks, so close they were practically lying on each other, all singing together like a fat barber shop quartet. It’s an evocative noise and usually it’s always there at low tide at Fife Ness, subliminally in the background – but you have to concentrate or be aware of it to notice what it is – but not today. I should think the golfers were glad to get to the 18th.

Grey seal

The dominant noise in Crail this evening was the sea. A sure sign the wind had shifted round to the south-east. There were a lot of seabirds rattling past close in as a consequence: manx shearwaters and fulmars particularly and even a few late season puffins.

Most of the puffins have gone back out to sea now, although there are still a few late breeders passing Crail on their way to and from the May

Posted August 2, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 1st   Leave a comment

August showers bring down sandpipers. Or they would if we had any pools or ponds by Crail. I did my best today, dodging the heavy showers to visit the tiny pools at Troustie, Lochton, Ribbonfield and Ragfield. The snipe already in residence at Lochton was the only shorebird I found, flushing from under my feet. I was distracted by three whinchat in the rape around the pool. It’s been a good late summer for Crail whinchat, making 5 with these birds. Whinchat often group together at passage sites. How they do this I don’t know because they must migrate alone at night like other chats. Perhaps they have a particular favoured habitat on passage and so all end up together because they select the same sites. Certainly you are more likely to find a whinchat or two around the damper field edges, like at Troustie than anywhere else around Crail.

Common snipe

Posted August 1, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

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