Archive for December 2017

December 31st   1 comment

Time to take stock of the year. 151 species for the year list – a respectable total but somewhat shy of the record 161 of last year. A very quiet autumn is to blame (only one pied flycatcher!) – nothing remotely unusual turned up from August onwards. Highlights included the long staying little ringed plover and barred warbler, on Balcomie Beach and at Kilminning respectively, yellow wagtails breeding just outside of Crail for the first time, the return of a ring-necked parakeet to Crail, both Iceland and glaucous gulls after a few years absence, a family of roseate terns stopping by at Balcomie for a few days, and the twite and Lapand buntings at the year end (still going strong today with 7+ Lapland buntings and 30+ twite at Wormiston Farm). July was good with lots of waders on Balcomie, and a good cuckoo and whinchat passage. But no new birds for the Crail list at all this year, and the “rarest” being the little ringed plover, which was only my second here. Still some years are better than others and birders mustn’t fall into the farmers’ trap of benchmarking everything against the best year. Instead better to set standards by the worst – then next year will certainly be much better than this (and this year was fun). Happy New Year.

The 2017 year list (in order of appearance):

Eiders – no. 20 and Pintail – no. 37 on the 2017 Crail year list

Herring Gull



Grey Partridge


Reed Bunting

Water Rail


Pink-footed Goose



Great Black-backed Gull


Long-tailed tit – no. 48

Meadow Pipit





Carrion Crow


Glaucous Gull

Black-headed Gull



Red-breasted Merganser

Great Cormorant

Red-throated Diver






Blue Tit

Song Thrush


Sanderling – no. 78



Common Scoter


Grey Heron

Great Tit







Long-tailed tit

Coal Tit

Common Buzzard

Ringed Plover – no. 80

Feral Pigeon

Corn Bunting


Tree Sparrow

House Sparrow

Collared Dove

Grey Plover


Purple Sandpiper

Common Gull

Stock Dove

Pied Wagtail


Northern wheatear – no. 105

Mute Swan

Whooper Swan






Tufted Duck

Greylag Goose


Little Grebe

Grey Wagtail


Common Snipe

Jack Snipe



Ringed Plover

Goosander – no. 124



Long-tailed Duck


Golden Plover

Great Northern Diver

Velvet Scoter


Mistle Thrush



Lapland Bunting



Great Spotted Woodpecker


Arctic skua – no. 142

Canada Goose


Black-throated Diver


Lesser Black-backed Gull

Iceland Gull

Barn Swallow

Northern Wheatear

Sandwich Tern


Tawny Owl


Willow Warbler

House Martin


Sand Martin

Manx Shearwater



Sedge Warbler

Yellow-browed warbler – no. 143

Common Whitethroat

Common Sandpiper

Garden Warbler

Lesser Whitethroat

Bar-tailed Godwit

Marsh Harrier


Arctic Tern

Common Swift

Common Tern


Spotted Flycatcher

Yellow Wagtail

Great Skua


Little Gull

Mediterranean Gull


Black-tailed Godwit

Barred Warbler – no. 145

Ring-necked Parakeet

Little Ringed Plover


Roseate Tern

Arctic Skua

Yellow-browed warbler

Sooty Shearwater

Barred Warbler




Pied Flycatcher

Barnacle Goose


Twite – no. 151

Posted December 31, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 28th   Leave a comment

The Lapland buntings and twite continue in the same stubble field at Wormiston Farm, with the flock of about 30 twite still also on the coastal path below. The Lapland buntings were mixed in with skylarks, linnets, twite, corn buntings and meadow pipits, but as soon as everything starts flying up they form a distinct flock on their own circling around the area from where they were flushed. Another highlight today was a male stonechat on Balcomie Beach, foraging on the frozen beach, alert and brilliant in the bright sunshine.

Male stonechat at Balcomie today

Posted December 28, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 26th   Leave a comment

The Lapland buntings are still in the same stubble field at Wormiston Farm above the sheep field. I put up at least 8 this afternoon; they circled round in the late afternoon sunshine calling away before parachuting back down into the same part of the field. There was a flock of 20 twite in the same field as well. I passed the flock of 30 twite on the coastal path by the furthest green of Balcomie Golf course a few minutes earlier so there must be 50+ twite in the area. I didn’t try to check through the 500 or so linnets in the next door field so there may be many more. The flock on the coastal path are now very tame and I was able to watch them feeding at less than 10 meters. At sea there were a lot of red-throated divers, perhaps 40 spread between Balcomie and Fife Ness.

Red-throated diver

Posted December 27, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 24th   Leave a comment

It is hard to get out during daylight at this time of year: it has been a week since I was out at Wormiston and Balcomie. It is much the same – the epicentre of birdy activity around Crail at the moment. The huge flocks of birds are still in the stubble fields between Wormiston and Cambo. There were probably a thousand gulls this morning – mostly herring and black-headed. Lots of starlings, linnets, and meadow pipits. And 8 lapland buntings in exactly the same part of the stubble field as last week – about 200 meters west of the coastal sheep field at the end of Balcomie golf course. If you are coming from the other way down the track past Wormiston farm and the yellow house they are to the north, 300 meters from the track in the last stubble field before you get to the shore. The flock is a good one to go and look at with the birds flying low around the area (and you) several times quite closely when flushed before pitching down again in the field. They flush at about 40 meters which makes them reasonably easy to locate initially. And if you continue onto the coastal path and head about 300 meters south towards Balcomie Beach you will find the twite. Now coalesced into a flock of 28, feeding on the upper shore vegetation and rocks right on the coastal path. They are a good flock to go and see too, not very shy and I was able to watch them lined up beautifully on the rocks twenty meters away as they waited for me to move on so they could get back to the path. Twite are very nice distinctive birds when you have a good view with their buff heads and throats and their neat yellow bills.


Balcomie Beach is also the same with 30 or so sanderling, a few dunlin and ringed plover, and a couple of grey plovers. They were very nervous and sure enough I saw a merlin hunting along the rocks like an arrow. It disappeared up the coast towards the north but I think it is resident at the moment considering the occasional kills I am finding around Balcomie.


Posted December 24, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 17th   Leave a comment

It felt like spring in the Arctic today. Rain overnight had collected in pools on the still frozen ground, making Balcomie golf course a series of small lakes. And some Arctic waders – a flock of 24 purple sandpipers on the rocks north of Balcomie Beach and the same number of sanderlings on the beach.

A purple sandpiper flock at Balcomie

A flock of 9 twite flew past me as I walked along the coastal path up towards Wormiston. I think there is there one flock wintering in the area, moving from the shore at Balcomie to the stubble fields up at Wormiston, but disappearing in the latter among the hundreds of linnets. I continued into the stubble fields just east of the yellow house and immediately flushed a Lapland bunting. A bit more trekking across the field put up a flock of five. They were reluctant to fly far and I should think these have been here since the autumn and will spend the winter here. We had a wintering flock last year, and although this is not always the case, I think Wormiston Farm might be one of the most reliable places in Scotland to find a Lapland bunting in winter – and I have found over 60 at a time in the same field as the few today during good autumns for the species.

Juvenile female peregrine on the hunt

As I finished my walk back at the club house a juvenile (i.e. brown) female (i.e. huge) peregrine came rocketing past me at head height, hugging the ground until it scattered a flock of woodpigeons in the pines below me. Two close attempts to grab an escaping pigeon and a short unsuccessful chase later it continued on at high speed past Balcomie House. I lost sight of it but the flocks of pigeons and starling heading skywards marked its passage toward Crail.

Posted December 17, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 14th   Leave a comment

As I walked along Marketgate this morning to pick up my lift to St Andrews I nearly stepped on a blackbird. It was barely light and blackbirds are, well, black so I could barely see it. But it wasn’t moving far, staying firmly in my path and continuing to feed. It’s quite common for birds to lose their fear of people when it’s really cold and the last few days and nights have been below freezing. Blackbirds normally don’t take chances with predation risk, but when they are very hungry then an uncertain predation risk is more bearable than the certain starvation risk if they lose time feeding. If I had been a sparrowhawk I should think it would have been over the rooftops very quickly: it’s not that cold. Feeding at first light is another characteristic blackbird behaviour during cold weather. The sooner they get started on a cold day, then the more likely they are to find enough food to survive the coming long night. The worse thing that can happen is that they have to sit tight in a sheltered bush in the afternoon. But suspect the Marketgate blackbird was busy all day despite its early start, particularly with the rain freezing into an icy layer over the ground in the afternoon.

Blackbird – this one is a young male

Posted December 14, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 12th   Leave a comment

As I walked through St Andrews today I was struck by the number of grey wagtails I could hear above me. It is the same in Crail during the winter. Grey wagtails desert the streams and rivers and adopt the damp slates of the rooftops. From above, on a wet day, an old town like Crail probably looks just like a huge inverted river to a wagtail, with the depressions the dry bits and the water on the peaks. Grey wagtails have only started doing this in any numbers for the last 50 years. They are becoming urban birds in winter now rather than the slightly exotic birds of remote fast flowing upland or West coast streams from my childhood. What makes a species change to become an urban bird? Blackbirds, for example, moved from woodland to towns only in the last 150 years. They were shy country birds and now they make a good living right in the centre of towns. It is hard to say – evolutionary change, behavioural innovations copied between individuals, new opportunities arising with new habitats being created – all must play a part. Regardless, grey wagtails are very welcome. A brilliant splash of yellow against the grey winter rooftops.

Grey wagtail in its traditional waterside haunts

Posted December 12, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 10th   Leave a comment

It was below freezing all day today, although with little wind it barely felt cold in the afternoon sunshine. The ground stayed frozen though and every bit of fresh water was also frozen making it a difficult day for birds. Even the edge of the stinky pool – the muddy tidal pool on the left after crossing the golf course just before Fife Ness – was partly frozen, with thin jumbled panes of frozen seawater left at the edges after the water below had drained out at low tide. Crail ducks are always to be found on the shore but there were many more about today as our birds were joined by ducks from further inland where everything must be frozen even harder. There were about 50 wigeon on the shore just north of Balcomie and probably the same number of mallards; there were also a lot of teal but they are much harder to count. Out at sea there were goldeneyes: they are now back for the winter, with a few also in Roome Bay.

Drake goldeneye

Meadow pipit

The stubble fields between Wormiston and Balcomie also are benefitting from the cold weather with hundreds of meadow pipits added to the usual tens there. Right down by the shore where the fields must be the warmest there was a flock of maybe 300 linnets with the meadow pipits. Other things were scattered through this huge flock – skylarks, tree sparrows, corn bunting, reed buntings, yellowhammers and probably a few twite. The flock was too noisy to be able to pick out twite calls for sure. It was a great spectacle when they all flew up onto the overhead wires.

Posted December 10, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 7th   Leave a comment

There are two sorts of dabbling duck down at Roome Bay at the moment. About 30 or so mallards and at least a couple of pairs of wigeon. Everyone can identify male mallards – the classic duck –with a bright green head. Wigeons are equally easy to identify with the males having an orangey red head with a broad central crown stripe of much paler orange. Female ducks are trickier to identify, but usually come with an accompanying male to help you sort them out initially, ready for when you do see a female on its own. Wigeons have a very appealing whistling call, a “whee – you” that is evocative of cold winter days and the coast.

Male wigeon

Posted December 7, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 4th   Leave a comment

Pheasants were brought to my attention this morning when a neighbour brought round a road kill bird for identification. It was a female pheasant that must have been hit by a car and then died close to the side of the road. Apart from being dead, it was in good condition and if I was so inclined I could have plucked and eaten it without any problem after lying overnight in the equivalent of a fridge. Even if I wasn’t a vegetarian I would be off road kill after spending a summer sharing a house with a road kill enthusiast. The smell of several days’ old hare slow cooking on the top of a stove all day would test the resolve of most carnivores.

An understated female pheasant

I have been noticing a lot of road kill pheasants in the last couple of weeks. They must be on the move, looking for good foraging areas further afield as the colder weather reduces their local options. Striding between fields rather than flying makes them an easy target. And when pheasants do fly they tend to do it quite low also making them a target. There seems also to be another peak in pheasant road kill at the end of the winter when the males start looking for females. The carnage on the roads makes you start to do some mental maths to convert the number of kills to a density per kilometre, and then to multiply this up to the huge length of roads we have in the UK. You soon end up with an unfeasibly large number where millions of pheasants are being squashed per year. It is certainly true a lot get squashed (but then tens of thousands get released for shooting each year…but that is another story), but you can’t do this kind of back of the envelope calculation. For a start you only begin this exercise when you see a few road kills and we travel inevitably on the busiest roads most of the time. So the initial number is inflated, and when you multiply this up the error gets inflated much, much more.

And another thing about pheasants. Have you noticed how if you see a group in the fields at the moment they are either all males or all females? They are in groups because of safety in numbers, but the females don’t join the male groups because the males are so conspicuous. There is no hiding a male pheasant’s gilded plumage and they are beacons to buzzards and, where they occur, goshawks. A female, even in a group can flatten itself down in a field and disappear with its mottled pale brown plumage. This is essential when they are sitting on nests in the spring. Males just have to hope for the best. They are massively handicapped in terms of anti predation, but then again one that survives the winter and that still has that flashy plumage in the spring must have a good set of genes. Males play the male game where conspicuousness in the long run is a good thing.

Mr conspicuous – a male pheasant

Posted December 4, 2017 by wildcrail in Sightings

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