Archive for October 2017

October 29th   Leave a comment

The wind was mostly northerly today, strong in the morning and there were many more gannets passing Fife Ness. I watched them and thought that I really have no idea about migration. Most were flying high in skeins like geese except with long periods of gliding, and most were heading due north into the wind. First, why go north at all and second why fly high where the wind will be even stronger? The gannets really looked like they were going somewhere and hundreds were passing in the hour I watched, but where and why I have no idea. A great northern diver came past, also high but flying south – now that made sense – an Arctic bird heading down to winter in the southern North Sea.


Posted October 29, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 28th   Leave a comment

I was out at Kilminning this morning and it was almost deserted relative to last week with just a few blackbirds on the now equally scarce berries. There was at least a small flock of black-headed gulls down at the water treatment works outflow. One of them looked much smaller and with short arctic tern length legs. An adult little gull on closer view. I haven’t noticed how short their legs are before and this is a great feature if one is perched in a line of black-headed gulls. Little gulls are much more aquatic than black-headed gulls that also like to stump around a ploughed field or bit of turf looking for food. You would never see a little gull doing anything other than perching on a piece of dry land. They are much more like terns, aerial feeders picking food up from the surface of the water. They just need their legs for perching not walking. This little gull had nearly lost all of its black hood but still had a dark crown and a dark spot behind the eye, like a black-headed gull. When it took flight the lovely pure light grey upper wing contrasting with the sooty black lower wing made it even more distinctive. An adult little gull might be my favourite gull, although I haven’t seen a Ross’s gull yet so I may change my mind.

Adult little gull

Despite the strong winds today there was little passing Crail. Again my autumn sea watching lists this year are more about absence than presence: no shearwaters, skuas or kittiwakes. A few juvenile gannets, razorbills and guillemots, a common scoter and the usual shags and gulls were the only things passing Fife Ness this afternoon. The numbers of purple sandpiper are building up in front of the hide for the winter at least. On my back to Crail along the road I counted 26 grey partridges in three groups at Balcomie (they looked like they were having a rumble before my approach scattered them) and then another group of 10 at the airfield. Great numbers for another one of our East Neuk specialties.

Posted October 28, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 26th   Leave a comment

Goldcrest – cheer up you’re on holiday

At this time of year the number of goldcrests around Crail increases as we get migrants coming over from Scandinavia to winter in Scotland and further south. If ever you get the feeling that birds are just too fragile to do the things they do then have a good look at a goldcrest when one passes through your garden. Our smallest bird with an appropriately thin high-pitched call, they barely look able to survive a cold night let alone a night’s flight over the North Sea. Yet survive they do. Their tiny bills and active foraging mean that they can find the smallest insects hidden amongst the remaining leaves and branches. A tree to a goldcrest represents a huge area for foraging in and when I watch them they seem to find small spiders and aphids constantly. Very cold weather does kill them of course. Their volume is so small that they lose heat easily and they are too little to keep large fat reserves on them. Any bird given enough food can survive the cold, but if they can’t forage fast enough to make up their heat loss then it is just a matter of time. I am not sure why I am talking about cold weather in the context of Crail. For most of the time goldcrests spend the winter here it will be relatively balmy with temperatures well above freezing. That is why they come here in the first place. It might not feel like a holiday in the sun in Crail in December, but to a Norwegian goldcrest it is the Mediterranean.

Posted October 26, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 25th   Leave a comment

Spare a thought for one of the best birds we have in Crail. Almost every day of the year – except maybe a few in May and June you will find curlews along the shore. In Roome Bay there are usually a couple striding around the rocks, often inconspicuous despite their large size. When spotted they are fairly unmistakeable with their absurdly long curved bills. In flight they look a bit like young gulls until you see their bills. But why spare a thought for them apart from the fact they are wonderful? At the moment they are arguably the breeding species which is declining the fastest in the UK. In Scotland the breeding population has declined by over 50% in just 16 years. The UK holds 28% of the European breeding population so this is worrying, although globally the species extends all the way to the Pacific in Russia and there may be a million pairs there. The wintering population, which includes some Russian birds, has declined by 20% so there may be a problem in Russia too. Why curlews are declining is a bit of a mystery and subject to ongoing research at the moment. But curlew species globally have a bit of a problem – something about them makes them vulnerable. The slender-billed curlew – once a common European wintering bird – probably became extinct in the 1990s; the eskimo curlew – also formerly very common in the Americas – probably became extinct in the 1980s. Modern day dodos. It would be unthinkable for our Crail curlew to disappear as well.

A Crail curlew – still here

Posted October 25, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 23rd   Leave a comment

Tree sparrow

I was working at home today and while gazing out of the window during a lengthy phone call I noticed one of the sparrows that was in my rose hedge was a tree sparrow. I have had tree sparrows flying over high but this is the first time I have actually had one in the garden. Like the corn buntings, the tree sparrows seem to have done really well this year. As I wrote in August there are lots of the post-breeding flocks about all around Crail. For example, I saw a good size flock of 30 or so at the yellow house at Wormiston, and another of 20 or so at Fife Ness this weekend. It makes me want to get some sparrow nest boxes up – I would be happy with house sparrows but if I could get tree sparrows… It has got colder over the last couple of days so it is probably time to put out the bird seed and peanuts for the winter and that will help lure any tree sparrows looking for a new home.

Posted October 23, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 22nd   Leave a comment

There are still redwings and a few bramblings about left over from Thursday plus a flock of four redpolls and a couple of blackcaps at the bottom of Kilminning. The blackbirds are now the commonest thrush again. At Balcomie Beach the redshanks were chancing it, feeding right at the top of the beach on sandhoppers even at low tide. A sparrowhawk would only have to approach from the golf course and jink over the marram grass to be a few meters away from the flock before it would have any chance of being spotted. It is usually the juvenile redshanks that take these risks and I bet a few more will have been caught this week if this is what they have been doing. The few remaining dunlin on Balcomie – about 10 – were being much more sensible, picking on the beach close to the tide line and with a hundred meters on all sides to detect anything approaching. The sanderlings have been conspicuous in their absence this week. There was a single grey plover feeding again on the flat seaweedy rocks just in front of the hide at Fife Ness: little else at sea with another very quiet day despite the strong winds of the week. As I came back to Crail I watched a cormorant in Roome Bay come up with a flatfish three times as big as its head. A great black-backed gull came straight in as the cormorant struggled with the fish, desperately trying to fit it into its bill. The cormorant finally managed it but the gull nearly got lucky. I could see the clear shape of the flatfish distending the cormorants neck, making it look like a pelican.

One of the Balcomie dunlins

Posted October 22, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 21st   Leave a comment

There were fewer birds around this morning. Many must have left yesterday or overnight. Relatively speaking there was a lot to see this morning – redwings and blackbirds everywhere and a flock of 20 brambling at Balcomie – but not compared to yesterday. I found a chiff-chaff at Balcomie and another in the Patch with a blackcap. The only summer migrants for the whole week: I failed to see a ring ouzel seen at the Patch today but ring ouzels are like that. You usually see them flying away rather than being able to go to a place where they are staying. The highlight at Fife Ness was a kestrel hunting along the upper shore. Hovering into the wind so it faced straight out to sea, sliding up and down in the same place as if on a wire. The wind was strong enough that it just hung like a kite without moving its wings, until dropping as if the wire had been cut to catch a hapless shrew in the grass below.


Posted October 21, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 20th   Leave a comment

I had been wishing for some easterly gales and at last we have had some. Very murky weather and heavy rain yesterday brought in huge numbers of redwings all over the east coast. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, at Kilminning this morning. Every tree and bush gave off a cloud of birds as I approached and there were lots of birds feeding on the ground in the newly sprouting wheat fields. A lot of blackbirds have also come in. I checked them carefully for ring ouzels but no luck. There were a couple of mistle thrushes, fieldfares and a handful of song thrushes among the redwings. There were lots of bramblings too – the most I have ever seen in a single day at Kilminning – probably 200. Mixed in were tens of redpolls – one feeding on the ground with some linnets identifiable as a lesser redpoll – and some siskins. I didn’t find any woodcock though. They usually come in with a fall of blackbirds and I bet there are some about: I did have a snipe flying over. I think the easterly winds may have only lasted long enough to bring in some of the local birds migrating from Scandinavia. Still it was a great hour spent at Kilminning this morning with birds everywhere and every thrush, finch and bunting needed to be checked just in case. I think the weekend may well turn up something more interesting with just a bit more checking.


Posted October 20, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 17th   Leave a comment

As the warm weather and storms continue this week you can’t help but think about climate change. This week is of course only weather – it takes a few years’ of storms and warm weather to become climate – but we have had quite a few years of this now. Snow and frost was never common in Crail, but it is becoming a rarity. I thought more about this as I saw a stonechat perched on a cabbage, right in the middle of the field up at Wormiston. Not perfect stonechat habitat but probably good enough if populations are on the up and conditions are good. Stonechats have been recovering from the last cold(ish) winter we had about 7 years ago now: they are very susceptible to cold weather and this limits their population in the UK. They disappeared from around Crail and I used to struggle to get them on my year list. Now I see 2 or 3 birds every time I go out.


Posted October 17, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 16th   Leave a comment

This weekend I finished up collating all the corn bunting records that have been sent to me this summer along with the RSPB’s survey records via Yvonne Stephan. We are interested in the population of the corn bunting because they have declined all over the country but still have a stronghold in the East Neuk. Even our population was declining but recent work by the RSPB encouraging farmers to provide crops and boundary areas that provide winter food has turned the tide. Our minimum estimate of breeding territories this year (2017) is 146, with maps posted below. An overall map and then a zoomed in one centred on Crail and a second zoomed in on Elie. 146 is a major improvement in numbers (109 minimum last year (2016), but probably closer to 120; 110 minimum in 2015 but probably closer to 117). Some of this may be because of more intensive monitoring by the RSPB and perhaps an increase in effort on our part. But what is suggested is that the population is growing again and at a good rate. We might expect to get more than 170 next year if we do have the suggested growth rate. If it stays around 150 then it may suggest this result is just a consequence of increased effort. My feeling is it is mostly an improvement in the population and a little bit more effort. Time will tell. One thing we can be sure of at this stage is that there does seem to be an improvement in the status of corn buntings in the East Neuk over the last few years and that the RSPB’s and the local farmers’ efforts are paying off. I am very grateful for their hard work. My day’s birding around Crail is always improved by a corn bunting.

All corn bunting territories recorded in 2017 plotted as black dots – 147 of them

A zoom in on Crail

A zoom in on Elie

The consequence of the increasing numbers of breeding corn buntings in the East Neuk – this a wintering flock of 70 birds in the St Monans area. Can you spot the linnet too?

Posted October 16, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 15th   Leave a comment

I had a bit of a raptor hunt fest today. I was distracted by a flock of feral pigeons suddenly taking flight up at Wormiston Farm when an immature female peregrine came shooting in, scattering the flock and nearly catching one as it swooped past. It then started gaining height to catch up with a single feral pigeon flying high above. It was gradually closing in on it when the pigeon decided to seek cover and it dived straight down into the trees of the Yellow House. The peregrine stooped at it but pulled up before the trees – playing it safe – and the pigeon escaped. A crow had been attracted and started to follow the peregrine which promptly started chasing the crow. It just made it to the cover around the Yellow House too, although I think the peregrine was just playing. Its final lunge at the crow just as they made it to the trees didn’t seem as determined as the pigeon hunts preceding it. The peregrine retired to perch on a telegraph pole, bolt upright and looking for its next chance. I have watched too many peregrines to be fooled – they sit around for ages waiting for the chaos they create to subside before they start hunting again. The element of surprise is crucial even for an open hunting pursuit predator like a peregrine. I left it to it and continued down to the shore.

Immature peregrine beginning a stoop

Just as I got to the beach a female sparrowhawk came shooting down behind me and continued low over the sand, using the contours, rocks and seaweed as cover. It perched on a creel and I could admire it as an old adult female. As female sparrowhawks get older they get more male like – even getting a blue-grey sheen to their upperparts as well as a reddish tinge, particularly about the upper breast. The way you reliably sex sparrowhawks is by size rather than plumage and I had some good size comparisons as it hunted along the shore. As I continued cycling so the sparrowhawk kept pace with me, launching hunts of a couple of hundred meters before perching again. It attacked redshanks, rock pipits and probably the single wheatear that I saw rapidly flying away in the opposite direction. The last attack I saw was at Balcomie Beach, where it perched for a few minutes watching the waders before cleverly waiting for a redshank to go behind a rock. It then used the rock to conceal its approach and grabbed the redshank just as it took flight, pushing it straight down into a sandy pool. The sparrowhawk stayed in the open on the redshank for a few minutes. Sparrowhawks find it hard to kill prey and they often drop larger prey in flight if it is still alive and struggling. So it stayed put as it literally squeezed the life out of the redshank. This was despite two crows being attracted to the opportunity of stealing a meal. Either the crows knew the sparrowhawk was not to be intimidated, or they were inexperienced, but they kept their distance, circling the sparrowhawk and not really taking advantage of their numbers. I have seen crow pairs work together – one at the front distracting while the one at the back jumps in and grabs the prey. One crow made a half-hearted lunge but the sparrowhawk just flapped its wings and lunged back. The crow retreated and that was the end of it. A few minutes later the sparrowhawk carried the now dead redshank off to the marram grass to begin plucking it. I think this sparrowhawk has been hunting along Balcomie Beach for several years now and is a consummate professional. All it has to do is to keep working its way along the shore from rock cover to rock cover and sooner or later it will surprise something. The redshanks among the rocks may be hard to see themselves – and this is probably great defence against peregrines – but they can’t see an ambush predator also using the rocks to hide.

An adult female sparrow hawk eating a redshank – this photo from 2015, Roome Bay – but this looks just the old female I saw today. It could easily be the same bird, specialising on hunting along the shore around Crail.

Posted October 15, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 14th   Leave a comment

Merlin kill of a young blackbird in the Patch at Fife Ness

Another full week of westerly winds and unseasonably high temperatures. Two swallows and two northern wheatears at Fife Ness this morning were enjoying it for sure but I am becoming more and more pessimistic about the very quiet autumn. Bring on some sustained easterly gales. The sea remains quiet with very few gannets today; they may have left already for the Bay of Biscay. The Patch at Fife Ness is now hosting the local flock of long-tailed tits that was at Kilminning last week. There were also a few goldcrests there. I found a grizzly carcase stuck on top of the bench in the middle of The Patch. A merlin kill of a blackbird. I think it was a merlin because they leave both wings attached to the body after they eat and only pluck the inner wing feathers. Plus it was on an elevated perch under trees. Sparrowhawks are complete pluckers and almost always on the ground in denser cover. Peregrines leave merlin like remains but tend to pluck high up or out in the open on the ground.

The highlight of my usual Wormiston – Balcomie – Fife Ness – Kilminning circuit today was a small flock of twite feeding above the beach about 100 meters north of Balcomie Beach on the coastal path. I was alerted to them as they flew up in front of me by their squeaky bed spring call. It has been several years since I have had a twite on the Crail list so I was very pleased. A few make it to Crail every year I am sure but they are hard to connect with, being rare and lost among the much larger linnet flocks. They are not much to look at except when you give them a close look. Another linnet or redpoll type finch, but with neat lines, a buff throat and a yellow bill. Perhaps what makes them most interesting is their association with the west of Scotland and also the extreme east in Asia. They are the finch of the Machair and farmland along the wild west coast and then disappear across Europe until you get to the Caucasus and steppes of Kazakhstan. They are a small bird of bleak, empty but beautiful places. I am reminded of choughs and shell beaches or saker falcons and huge skies when I hear a twite.


Posted October 14, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 11th   2 comments

I was out at Fife Ness in the beautiful late afternoon sunlight talking to STV about the proposed mega wind farm 15 kilometres out. The turbines will be legion and they will be 190 meters tall. The horizon will show a line of the turbines and even at that distance you will be able to see the top 170 meters of them. I’m not worried about the view. I am worried about the seabirds. Everything that breeds in the Forth on the May Island and on the Bass Rock will shuttle back and forth past the wind farm. As I have written already, perhaps not a big problem on a calm, well-lit summer’s evening, but perhaps a huge problem in a force 10 gale on a February night. The real issue is there are a lot of perhaps in play. We really don’t know whether putting a wind farm out there will be a disaster for seabirds or not. On the precautionary principle we should really find out before we do – and this is the basis of the RSPB’s current challenge to the scheme in the highest court. I don’t think we will know until we have put them out there. Wind turbines per se don’t do much damage unless they are in the wrong place: siting is everything. My real concern is that it will be hard to work out if the turbines are in the wrong place because their damage is likely to be done gradually and relatively invisibly out in the North Sea. We will only know when the seabird colonies start to decline. So much better to put the turbines on farmland where there are already few birds and we can keep an eye on them, and easily remove any turbines that prove to be in the wrong place. There are no voters worried about the view in the North Sea though.

Fly on you crazy gannet

Posted October 11, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 9th   Leave a comment

The sparrowhawks of Crail had a good summer and there are several young birds hunting through the gardens. I see one or two every day, usually alerted by the alarm calls of the blue or coal tits. I found two kills in my back garden over the weekend: a house sparrow and a blackbird. Both of them young birds. The maths are stark. A blackbird might get four or five chicks fledged each year and only one or even less needs to survive to the next year for the population to remain constant. Most will get eaten by sparrowhawks or starve in cold weather in the coming months. But the same stark maths applies to the sparrowhawks and most of the youngsters that are wreaking havoc now will not make it when the weather gets colder or when they meet an owl or even a peregrine.

A young sparrowhawk – this one in John Anderson’s garden in Bow Butts

Posted October 9, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 8th   Leave a comment

The barnacle geese finally came in today, although when I checked the date of their arrival last year, they are only two days later. I counted over 400 passing in a couple of hours, coming over Fife Ness and along the shore past Crail or much further out and heading straight for the Lothians. They were in flocks of between 20 and 100, typically a bit more ragged than pink-feet, with clusters and bumps and rarely anything like a V. The pink-feets are still coming in as well but I only about 100 today.

Barnacle geese passing Fife Ness

The barred warbler is still in residence at the bottom of Kilminning. It was seen a couple of times this morning but I didn’t see it. The elderberries are beginning to run out and the barred warbler seems to have gone back to its skulking habits. I did see a couple of redwings and two willow warblers. There was a northern wheatear again in the first stubble field on the right as you head out of Crail before the airfield.

There was almost no wind today and the sea was very flat out from Fife Ness. I could see a long way. Far enough to see a few little gulls dipping up and down a couple of kilometres out. There was a steady passage of birds in small numbers: common scoter, teal, red-throated divers and skylarks. Three grey plover stopped off briefly on the rocks. Later past Crail I saw a great northern diver passing east, a manx shearwater and far out a couple of skuas. One an arctic/long-tailed type and the other probably a pomarine skua, looking heavy and determined – but at 3 kilometers or so distance out, tricky to be sure.

Grey Plover

Posted October 8, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 7th   Leave a comment

Seaweed fly – one of the legions on Balcomie Beach this morning

The westerlies continue so today there were few migrants about. Summer migrants included only a couple of sandwich terns past Fife Ness heading south and a chiff-chaff and a blackcap at Kilminning. Winter migrants, a siskin and a few skeins of pink-footed geese. It was still a nice autumn day. A flock of long-tailed tits and goldcrests made the top of Kilminning interesting. I found a bullfinch feeding on the whitebeam berries as I looked for yellow-browed warbers. Long-tailed tits and bullfinches are actually quite good Crail birds and these were only my 2nd or 3rd for the year. Balcomie Beach only had redshanks and oystercatchers on it at low tide. At high tide there were a handful of dunlin, ringed plover and two purple sandpiper roosting at Fife Ness. Balcomie Beach might get better next week though because the gales have brought a lot of seaweed up onto the beach. This was rotting gently today, aided by hundreds of thousands of seaweed flies, forming dense clouds above the beach. At high tide there were hundreds of herring gulls picking the flies and maggots washed out by the surf.

Seaweed and the legions of seaweed flies (looking like specks of dust on the photo) above it on Balcomie Beach this morning

I sat at Fife Ness mid-afternoon for an hour or so hoping for some barnacle geese. John Anderson joined me and we spent much of it bemoaning the quietness of this autumn. But even on a quiet day if you sit at Fife Ness long enough you will see something. First, we had a mink running along the shore a few meters away from us. Mink are a non-native animal with a big effect on populations of birds, fish and amphibians – it would be better if we had otters instead – but mink are beautiful. Watching this one swim out of a rock pool and its incredible fur transform from bedraggled to perfect sleekness with just a little shake made me regret the baggage that minks carry with them. Like grey squirrels – they are what we have now and they are worth looking at. John who is not a fan of mink in any way remained unmoved at least.

The mink

Then I spotted a merlin flying towards us from well out to sea. As it came closer we could see it was a female and carrying a meadow pipit. Hard to tell whether it was a Scandinavian bird just in carrying a meadow pipit packed lunch it picked up over the North Sea, or a local bird that ended its chase well out to sea before returning. Either way, something to cheer us both up as it came in nearly over our heads.

The merlin

Posted October 7, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 5th   Leave a comment

The geese are still coming in. I could see longs lines of them out at the horizon this morning heading towards the Lothian coast from the east. The closer in ones and the few groups flying directly over Crail were all pink-feets. There were fewer meadow pipits passing along the coast today but still a steady stream of small flocks. There were more skylarks though and a small flock of sand martins: I also saw a few swallows later on over the cow field at Kingsbarns. This evening I had another look for geese – we still haven’t had any barnacle geese yet and they should come through at any time. No geese at all, but I was watching a bit late and only the cormorants and gulls flying to roost on the May Island were passing Crail.

Cormorants going to roost

Posted October 5, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 4th   Leave a comment


Every morning as I walk along Marketgate to pick up my lift to work I have been appreciating the jackdaws again. It’s easy to overlook them. They are always around the rooftops of Crail and at a casual glance they are just crows. But there is something very alert and clever about them. They seem to have got a lot of things sussed: always foraging in pairs and looking out for each other, and always having a lot of free time to socialise and to play. One of the reasons for their success must be their generalism. They have been recorded eating just about anything, whether animal or vegetable, fresh or scavenged, and they are quick to investigate any of the many opportunities we create. Their Achille’s heel might have been that they are hole nesters, but with the adoption of disused or derelict buildings and chimneys in towns this weakness has become a strength. There is a pair that nest and roost in the chimney above my AGA stove. It must be one of the best sites in Crail – constantly warm and with no smoke to contend with. I often hear the jackdaws chacking contentedly to themselves, the sound echoing down the chimney so it sounds like they might be in the kitchen with me. The current longevity record for a ringed jackdaw is 18 years old – long may my pair stay in my chimney. Though I suspect such a prime site won’t be unoccupied for long when they do pass on.

Posted October 4, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 3rd   Leave a comment

The pink-footed geese were still coming in all day. The May Island had a record 3,500 past heading south. I saw a few of them pushing past Crail first thing in the morning and then at dusk coming high over Cellardyke heading to the Lothians. Below them there were hundreds of herring gulls drifting down from the fields to roost on our side of the Forth in the gathering gloom.

It’s pink-footed goose time again

Posted October 3, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 2nd   2 comments

The gales weren’t as violent today as predicted but there were still strong westerly winds all day, pushing the waves into white horses and shooting the birds past Crail. But some were fighting the wind. This morning I watched a flock of 20 house martins (the first for a week) above Denburn  suddenly gathering themselves together and then pushing into the wind to battle westwards. There were flocks of meadow pipits doing the same this evening. And then out in the Forth, big Vs of pink-footed geese as the sun set, flying over the May Island, due west from the North Sea. I can only think that all three species had been blown off course as they migrated last night and were compensating. We usually have a pulse of pink-footed geese and barnacle geese at this time of year coming from Spitsbergen. They arrive from the north-west and so the pink-feet this evening weren’t too far off course if this where they started out.

More pink-footed geese in this evening

Posted October 2, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

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