January 21st   Leave a comment

John tipped me off about the local pink-feet – there are plenty about if you know where to look with over 1000 at Kilduncan Farm near Kingsbarns. They are feeding near to the road and gave some close views this morning. At Balcomie everything is still in its usual winter situation but with perhaps more sanderling along the beach. I found a snipe on the rocky shore along with lots of meadow pipits, reflecting the harder weather inland. Unusually for the time of year, two goosander flew past. I don’t usually expect to add them to the year list until June. The twite are still along the coastal path a few hundred meters north of Balcomie Beach with perhaps 15 there today. There is still a huge linnet flock in the stubble towards Wormiston Farm so the rest of them may be in there. The field which had the Lapland bunting in December has now been mostly ploughed but there is plenty of stubble remaining in the area. The problem is that even a move of just a few hundred meters makes them very hard to find again, especially when they won’t flush in the cold weather until you are just a few meters away. I tried in the closest bit of remaining stubble and put up many meadow pipits and skylarks. They were flushing at very close distances, sometimes only a meter or two away so I rapidly became discouraged.

Goosander – two past Balcomie Beach today. Usually they are a mid-summer bird

A merlin soon perked me up. A male flew in and got on to one of the linnets flying on the edge of the large flock there. There was a rapid chase and a couple of stoops before the merlin gave up and disappeared towards Kingsbarns Distillery. I picked it up again a few minutes later in a blur of speed as it set up a hunt low over the fields. It suddenly gained height and started chasing a finch at about tree height. And then a second merlin appeared. This time a female, shooting up from Kilminning. Both birds swooped at the poor finch, one from above and one from below. After a few seconds the finch made it to the cover of the beech trees around Balcomie House. The merlins continued to chase, swooping around the branches as the finch tried to get into cover. The finch then flew out of cover heading back to Kilminning and the stoops resumed. It seemed impossible that the finch could escape but both merlins broke off after another half minute or so as the finch made it to the denser cover of the sycamores at Kilminning. An impressive show. The merlins looked like they were co-operating but I doubt there was anything more going on than one merlin taking advantage of the other’s hunt and the increased likelihood of the finch making a mistake if it had two predators to worry about. Co-operative hunting in raptors is surprisingly rare and most are rugged individualists, even when it should make a lot of sense to pool resources. A dream combination would be a sparrowhawk hunting with a peregrine – one that catches on the ground and one that catches in flight. But whenever you see the two species closely together, the peregrine is usually hunting the sparrowhawk rather than exploiting its flushing of prey.

Another satisfying part of the whole observation was confirming that the merlin I saw first was a male. It is tricky to judge size in a flying raptor, but males are quite a lot smaller than females and have a particular way of flying like a mistle thrush. I was fairly sure it was a male because of this but the much larger female joining it made it quite clear. Like getting a tick and gold star for a bit of homework. I am seeing merlins quite regularly at Balcomie this winter so look out for them if you are there. Like small peregrines with a sparrowhawk’s long tail and supercharged attitude.

Posted January 21, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

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