Archive for February 2018

February 28th   Leave a comment

The waves are getting larger as the strong cold wind continues, crashing into Crail. There was not much passing at sea except fulmars, looking dark grey like proper Arctic fulmars against the white horses. Most birds are sheltering, inland if they can like the gulls, or in more sheltered waters. Even so, with such stormy seas the shags will be having a hard time as the waters become too turbulent for them to see their prey. There will be a few corpses by the weekend. If you see a large black bird dead on the strand line check it for a colourful leg ring with some letter and numbers engraved on it. Let me know and I will pass the information on to the May Island team that rings the shags each year and keeps tabs on their movements and survival.


Posted February 28, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 27th   Leave a comment

The May Island was briefly turned white by this afternoon’s snow showers. I was reminded of the gannets that turn the Bass Rock white for the summer. They are just coming back now and beginning to shuttle back and forth past Crail. The easterly winds that have brought the snow have also brought huge waves so that gannets – not so small themselves – disappear between the troughs. When they do reappear, they contrast brilliantly with the flat greys of the snowy skies. A gannet looks just right over a stormy sea.


Posted February 27, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 25th   Leave a comment

There has been a strong south-easterly wind for the last couple of days bringing in colder weather to Crail. Big waves and more gannets, and also a lot of seaweed getting washed up onto the beaches. There are large piles in the corner of Roome Bay below the cliffs completely covering the rocks. The washed in wrack will be rotting down even in this cold weather and will be full of seaweed fly maggots. This attracts the pipits and wagtails, the oystercatchers, turnstones and the redshanks, and so the kestrels, sparrowhawks and buzzards. A short but exciting food chain that can be viewed in its entirety in any hour down on the beach. I had a buzzard and a kestrel trying their luck in just ten minutes there this morning. I was also keeping an eye out for black redstarts – the winds might be just a bit too early for these early migrants but in a week or two we will be in peak time for their passage through Crail. Never more than one or two a year, but they do turn up on the rooftops right in the middle of town or on the rocks of the shore right by the coastal path.

Pied wagtail

Great spotted woodpecker

I have been neglecting Denburn Wood for Kilminning over the last year. Denburn was full of birds this morning. A huge, extended mixed tit flock including the Crail long-tailed tit flock, chaffinches, goldcrests, robins, tree-creepers and a great-spotted woodpecker. We only have the one woodpecker species in Crail – great-spotted woodpeckers are starling size, black and white with a splash or two of bright red. They often visit feeders and if you have a woodpecker in your garden in Crail it will be a great-spotted. I have had one green woodpecker in Crail: a juvenile in August about 10 years ago. Green woodpeckers are more common further in Fife but hardly ever get out as far as the relatively treeless East Neuk. The other British woodpecker species is the lesser spotted woodpecker that is also black and white but only the size of a sparrow so easy to distinguish from a great spotted. They have declined massively in the UK over the last 40 years and hardly occurred in Scotland anyway, so are very unlikely to turn up in Crail. Lesser-spotted woodpeckers like the really old, rotten trees that are nowadays never tolerated in human landscapes (as you will have noticed in Beechwood Park last week even perfectly good trees and branches now get chopped down to keep things tidy…). Luckily great spotted woodpeckers are great urban survivors, travelling long distances to isolated tree stands and feeding quite happily in live as well as dead trees. They are reliable even in Crail.

Posted February 25, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 22nd   Leave a comment

Grey partridge

At this time of year the grey partridges stop flocking and form pairs ready for the breeding season: they switch from the covey period to the pair period. There have been a lot of coveys this winter with up to 12 birds in them. These usually reflect a pair’s success at breeding in the previous summer. We are lucky still to have good densities of grey partridges around Crail. Our densities are probably high enough that we now export grey partridges as the young from last year try to find their own space to breed. High densities of partridge are important both to dilute nest predation risk during the summer and also to allow large coveys in the winter so that there are always enough eyes in a flock to both keep a watch for predators while allowing time to feed. Once grey partridges start declining it is hard to get them back because it gets progressively tougher for the remaining birds.

Posted February 22, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 18th   Leave a comment

A loop around Kilrenny Common this morning was a mixture of imminent spring enthusiasm and intensive agriculture winter depression. The wood was really lively – lots of tree sparrows, tits, chaffinches and thrushes – and a flock of 40 greenfinch flying over. But the fields between Kilrenny and Anstruther were almost dead. 2 kilometers of nothing except two distant singing skylarks and a couple of large flocks of pink-footed geese passing over. It’s hard to stay cheerful. You can’t find a more intensive bit of farmland anywhere – there is no vegetation remaining between the fields except short grass and the fields are sown right up to the edge of the paths. There is no reason to have such a bleak and lifeless landscape. Even the burn that runs along the edge of the fields and that eventually runs through Kilrenny has had the vegetation on its sides cut down to the soil. It must take so much effort to keep it so bleak.

A skylark – one of only two species of bird seen in two kilometers of walking through fields between Kilrenny and Anstruther this morning

Posted February 18, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 17th   Leave a comment

Things are changing at Balcomie at last. Today there were over 60 sanderling on the beach with 25 dunlin. The locals were made much shyer by the immigrants and all left the beach when someone walked along it, instead of just running away or flying a little way along. It is hard to keep your nerve when everyone else is bailing out, and a lone sanderling can’t afford to be the only target if it isn’t a false alarm. As I watched the sanderling a swan flew over – an adult mute swan – only about my third or fourth Crail record away from Carnbee Reservoir.

A Fife Ness rarity – a mute swan

I had a walk this afternoon along the shore from Cellardyke to Caiplie at high tide. The usual lesser black-backed gull was in the harbour. Most will arrive back from North Africa or southern Europe in a month or so but a few winter here. I suspect the lesser black-back in Cellardyke harbour is the same individual every winter. There was a good roost of redshanks and turnstones at the sewage outflow, along with 30 or so wigeons and mallards. No female pintail among them. It is the first time I have looked for the regular wintering bird this winter – like the lesser black-backed gull the pintail was out of place, but sticking to its successful wintering site year after year. It has probably now died and I will have to rely on lucky sightings at Fife Ness to get pintail on my year list again.

Lesser black-backed gull

Posted February 17, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 15th   Leave a comment

We put a pond in our back garden a couple of years’ ago. Its evolution has been a thrill to me and the family ever since. Yesterday we passed another significant milestone – we had our first grey heron visiting. I’m not sure what it was looking for as it waded around. We have been careful not to put any fish in because we want lots of insects and tadpoles. We do have a few good size frogs now and are hoping for some of our own spawn this year, but it seems too early and too cold for them to be active just yet. Frogs do sometimes spend the winter hiding at the bottom of ponds so maybe the heron knows better. It flew off straight away when it noticed it was being watched. But it was back again today first thing.

Grey Heron

Tree sparrow

A month or so ago I noticed that we had a few tree sparrows also visiting our garden for the first time. They are still in residence and today I had at least eight around a seed feeder in my back garden (plus a few house sparrows and even a greenfinch). It reminded me that this week is national nest box week (starting appropriately enough yesterday on Valentine’s day). I would love to have a colony of tree sparrows nesting in the garden. So we have ordered two house sparrow colony nest boxes – each with three chambers (and holes) in each. I will put them up as soon as they come. In a couple of weeks it will be too late. Tree sparrows are a little smaller than house sparrows and can use nest holes that are a bit smaller but I don’t think they mind a house sparrow sized hole. And if the house sparrows use them then this will be a positive result anyway. I don’t know what the ecological difference is between house and tree sparrows. They often seem completely interchangeable and in many urban areas as you head to the east (tree sparrows occur as far as Japan) they are the commonest city sparrow. I watched a tree sparrow and a house sparrow feeding side by side on the feeder today in exactly the same way, and without any more aggression between the two different species than they were showing to their own. Fingers crossed that the bird boxes will anchor my new tree sparrow colony to my garden over the summer.

A clear sign of the coming spring is the gradual change in birds’ plumages as they head towards breeding. The local golden plovers – still about two hundred or so in the fields between Anstruther and Fife Ness, in a couple of large flocks – are now starting to gain their spangly golden speckled backs and their handsome black bellies.

Golden plover gaining its breeding plumage

Posted February 15, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 12th   Leave a comment

Male eider

Now is the time to appreciate the ducks. All the males are in their best plumage to do their best to attract or keep a mate. Once they have mated in the early spring they rapidly lose their bright plumage. The eiders are particularly splendid at the moment. As well as their obvious black and white they have a lovely more subtle pistachio patch at the back of their neck if you get a close view.

Posted February 12, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 11th   Leave a comment

My Sunday morning circuit from Crail to Wormiston and then the coast path through Balcomie, Fife Ness and Kilminning back to Crail is in a winter rut. A lot of nice birds to see but the same as for the last couple of months. The stubble field at Wormiston just behind the golf course is still full of skylarks, linnets and meadow pipits. The shore with lots of mallards and wigeons, with red-throated divers further out. Balcomie Beach with its sanderling, redshank and the two grey plover; I counted 7 twite along the shore to the north. Fife Ness with its roost of shags, cormorants and eiders with a good range of waders including purple sandpipers. Kilminning with its common and black-headed gulls at the sewage outflow and a handsome male kestrel hunting over the sheep field. Finally, Roome Bay with its goldeneyes fishing in the surf. All business as usual and a great backdrop to a walk on a beautiful late winter day, but I am impatient for the spring.


Posted February 11, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 8th   Leave a comment

One of the joys of the winter are the stubble fields: both for the freedom they allow you to walk over the landscape and the wildlife they contain. There has been a shift in recent years back to stubble fields, with fewer fields being directly ploughed and resown in the autumn. Stubble fields may have even been about 50% of the fields around Crail for most of this winter. Forty years ago spring sowing was common and the birds benefitted from the many stubble fields – the spilled crop that stayed in the field all winter as well as late summer weeds growing undisturbed and setting seed for another winter food source. The shift to autumn sowing coincided with declines of many farmland bird species. There were many contributing factors but the direct loss of stubble fields and many consequential indirect effects were certainly important. So a shift back to spring sowing, for even some of the fields around Crail is good news. At this time of year they inevitably all start to disappear, which is always a shame, but it is also a hopeful sign that spring is on the way.

A curlew, perfectly at home in a Crail stubble field

Posted February 8, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 5th   Leave a comment

I stopped on the road on my way to work this morning as a huge livestock truck slowly turned into the farm opposite the distillery at Kingsbarns. I glanced to my right and there was a dog fox – huge (for a fox), shaggy and magnificently muddy. It looked back at me, stopping at the edge of the road like me as if also waiting for the traffic to clear. It shook itself and its muddy fur stood out like a lion’s mane. It then casually trotted off along the road towards Crail as I continued my journey to St Andrews. It’s hard to put a value on such encounters – to me they are priceless (although I have paid a lot for similar ones with hyenas and jackals in Africa). The smile is still on my face. The casualness and confidence of the fox as it gazed back at me – both of us off to make a living, although mine today involving less mud and cold, but less excitement than his. I am grateful to my neighbours who must be leaving the foxes in relative peace at the moment so they are a bit more confident and visible, and there to transform a dull February day.

Posted February 5, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 3rd   Leave a comment

I was at Balcomie Beach mid-afternoon today just as it was reaching high tide. Something disturbed all the waders roosting further along the shore and large flocks of turnstones and purple sandpipers flew past the beach. Some landed on the strand line on one of the seaweed piles that were half-floating because of the incoming tide. Purple sandpipers always look slightly prissy, but a crowd of them all lifting their bills up and jostling for space on a rapidly diminishing island made me think of normally mild-mannered commuters forced to confront their neighbours, yet simultaneously ignoring them. They kept pretending it wasn’t happening, and the island was big enough for them all until a final wave did for the seaweed pile and they were forced to swim for it. If it is possible for a shorebird to be embarrassed I think they were, and they all hurriedly took off round the corner to a more reliable roost at Fife Ness.

Purple sandpiper

Posted February 3, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 1st   Leave a comment

There has been a short-eared owl along the coastal path between Crail and Anstruther, ranging from the salmon bothy to Caiplie caves, over the last two days. I went out this morning to find it – short-eared owls are surprisingly rare birds around Crail with my last one being several years ago. No luck – a brown looking buzzard launching up from the ground gave me a brief hope. There were a couple of pairs of stonechats on the way back, but the owl still eluded me.


Posted February 1, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

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