Archive for April 2018

April 29th   Leave a comment

Despite easterly winds not much has changed today. Still only one willow warbler singing at Kilminning. Sandwich terns passing, and one or two swallows in most places. New additions were couple of common whitethroat singing at Kilminning, but no sedge warblers as yet along that bit of the coastal path. At Fife Ness the usual Forth breeding seabirds were passing, with a steady stream of gannets close in which will be a feature now until the late autumn. Balcomie Beach is almost waderless now: only oystercatchers and a single ringed plover seem to be resident, although there were three fairly well summer plumaged sanderling with them today.

Ringed plover

Posted April 29, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 28th   Leave a comment

There were 14 whimbrel at least at Balcomie this morning. Hard to see on the rocky shore until they took off to a less disturbed bit as I walked along the coastal path. These are quite high numbers. They pass constantly at this time of year but only a handful usually stop at any one time. Its seems like they are waiting for warmer conditions further north as the slow pace of this spring continues. Considering it is nearly May, a walk at Kilminning and in the Patch at Fife Ness turning up only one chiff-chaff and a willow warbler this morning is also very unusual. There were at least four white wagtails on the beach at the far end of Balcomie golf course (i.e. towards Kingsbarns). They were behaving as a coherent flock rather than as the territorial pairs of the resident pied wagtails (which may already be on eggs). At least most of the swallows seem to be in and I had my first house martin over Crail in the afternoon.

More of the Balcomie whimbrels

Posted April 29, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 26th   Leave a comment

The slow pace of the spring continues. I saw my first swallow a couple of days ago (two weeks later than last year) around the sheep field below Denburn. This is a regular spot with one or two pairs breeding in the big house (the one turned into flats) next door. Swallows are former cave nesters, making their nests on ledges close to the roof. Caves are generally in short supply so the ancestral swallow that decided to start nesting in the man-made caves that we make as buildings will have suddenly gained a huge advantage. Now a cave nesting swallow would be a real find. Swallows have probably been nesting with us ever since we left Africa, spreading over Europe and Asia as we did. When we started building cowsheds and stables swallows must have really taken off in numbers – not only good nesting sites but full of flies as well. Swallows are declining now as insect numbers fall through intensive agriculture and probably also through loss of habitat and roosting sites in Africa. There are huge roosts of swallows in places like Nigeria and South Africa. This makes them vulnerable to sudden large declines if something happens to these places. This applies in the same way to any migrant. They are all vulnerable to the disappearance of any one site they depend on in the long chain of places they string together to successfully complete their annual cycle between Europe and Africa.

One migrant that has appeared in good numbers so far is the whimbrel. The small curlew that migrates from tropical coasts to the Arctic and back each year, although we have a few breeding in the northern isles. John Anderson had a flock of 24 on Balcomie Beach today. They are more usually in flocks of 2 or 3, flying over Crail. Their seven note whistle (mostly the same tone but slightly descending like a doppler shift at the end) is the best way to identify them as they fly high and fast overhead.

Whimbrels at Balcomie this week

Posted April 26, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 22nd   Leave a comment

I have been in Cyprus for the last two weeks where they haven’t had a winter and went straight into thirty degrees at the start of April. Their season is ahead by 2-3 weeks. Back in Crail, despite the warm weather of the last couple of days, our season is now 2-3 weeks behind. But the summer migrants are finally making it through. I watched four house martins coming in off the sea at Kilrenny this afternoon as if they had just made landfall. Most small birds migrate at night but swallows – probably because they can feed as they go – migrate during the day. There were three northern wheatears and a male white wagtail feeding close together on the shore below them.

In Crail, a male yellow wagtail is back in the same fields where one bred last year. This may be the third year running. If a bird breeds successfully they tend to come back again to the same place the following year, though yellow wagtails are notorious for moving a few kilometres regardless. Birds are individuals and vary in these kind of traits, so we luckily seem to have sedentary male. Yellow wagtails can live 8 years or so, although most won’t. So we are getting even luckier with a good survivor, able to come back again, as well as a stay at home individual. Like last year the male is very inconspicuous, only obvious as a ridiculously bright lemon flash when it flies between tram lines in the wheat field.

The male yellow wagtail back hopefully to breed again in Crail

Posted April 22, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 8th   Leave a comment

After my confident prediction of yesterday, I couldn’t find the black redstart again today at Fife Ness. It was a really nice day so it may have moved along the coast a bit to some wrack where there will have been lots of seaweed flies out enjoying the sunshine and the relatively warm 12 degrees. There was a northern wheatear and a couple of male white wagtails on the beach at the end of Balcomie golf course. White wagtails are the continental subspecies of pied wagtails and we get a few of the (likely) Scandinavian migrants through Fife Ness each year in April. There have been flocks of pink-footed geese going over Crail this weekend as they head north as well.

White wagtail

I noticed 4 lesser black-backed gulls on the rooftops of the High Street this morning. They are like herring gulls but have dark grey (looking black) upper wings where herring gulls have pale grey, and yellow legs instead of pink. They are much rarer than herring gulls and we have most of the breeding population in the UK so they are a species of particular conservation concern globally. They have also shifted from nesting on the ground in colonies to nesting on rooftops and although their populations are declining in the UK, numbers in urban areas seem to be increasing. We don’t have many lesser-black backs nesting in Crail: 10% of gull nests in St Andrews are lesser black-backs. I wonder if the 4 I saw this morning reflect an increase for us in Crail. So before consigning every noisy nesting gull to the generic seagull bin this summer, check to see whether you have a lesser black-backed gull rather than a herring gull. Your rooftop might then be doing a Loch Garten, hosting a bird that spent the winter in Morocco and contributing to our international obligation for us to look after the species (and there are very few of these apart from our seabirds) because they mostly only occur here.

Lesser black-backed gull

Posted April 8, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 7th   Leave a comment

The Fife Ness black redstart now in its second week

The male black redstart is still in residence. It was in exactly the same place as on Easter Monday but a little bit more conspicuous today as it was flycatching. With the rain tonight it is unlikely to leave, so tomorrow is likely a good day to try and see it. I sat on the coastal path just north of the lighthouse and had good views of it on the grassy rocks thirty meters away. I also had my first sandwich tern of the year passing Fife Ness. It was with a steady passage of auks and red-throated divers and one common scoter, which have been surprisingly scarce past Crail this winter. There were no other summer migrants that I found today: the promise of last weekend has stalled a bit with the continuing cold weather.

The corn buntings are singing in earnest now and it looks like it might be another great year. This morning there were 4 birds singing in or around the field between Balcomie Caravan Park and the airfield north of the road. Last year there were 2 -3. But it’s early days. We will start recording them properly in May when the territories are firmly established.

Sandwich tern

Posted April 7, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 4th   Leave a comment

It has been raining for over two days bringing us up to 20mm for the new month, which is already our typical quota for an average month in the East Neuk. You will have seen how waterlogged the fields are again, and the mallards are back dabbling in the middle of them. The rain stopped at dusk tonight and as I drove back to Crail from St Andrews thinking that it would provide a respite for the barn owls – that can’t hunt effectively in the rain – I saw one, beautifully perched beside the road just before Boarhills. It was still light, indicative of a frustrated and hungry owl, out early to look for voles in the first good opportunity since Sunday.

Barn Owl

Posted April 4, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 2nd   Leave a comment

One of the chiff-chaffs that arrived at Fife Ness this weekend

And back to winter as the seasonal tennis match continues. The prevailing wind is continuing with cold easterlies and showers. The black redstarts didn’t take the opportunity to leave last night. It was relatively still and clear – perfect for migration – but the redstarts must still need to regain their body condition for the next leg, or they anticipated the storm today that they would have met as a headwind over the North Sea. Black redstarts winter in southern Spain and northern Africa and move up to breed in northern Europe in March. They are relatively short distance migrants: it is 2,300 km from Mediterranean Algeria to Fife Ness. This is about two thirds of a bird the size of a black redstart’s maximum range in a single flight. If our current Fife Ness birds were heading for somewhere like Denmark or southern Sweden and got blown off course over the North Sea in last week’s storms then they may have completely run down their reserves. They then would need five or so days of good feeding, at least, to regain their fat reserves. And conditions for feeding today, unlike yesterday were far from ideal. The two redstarts today were below the caravans at Fife Ness, sticking to the lee of the rocks, and often disappearing in the crevices or even underneath them in their search for invertebrates to fuel up on.

The male black redstart at Fife Ness this morning

I found my first chiff-chaffs of the year. One calling up at Craighead and then another in the Patch at Fife Ness. They were keeping their heads down like the black redstarts and feeding deep within bushes. Down on Balcomie Beach the washed in timber is being replaced by washed up corpses. A guillemot, a razorbill, more shags and a common porpoise.

The common porpoise washed up on Balcomie Beach

Posted April 2, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 1st   Leave a comment

Northern wheatear – to start the migrant ball rolling

Today felt like the real first day of spring. And a much better day to find birds. My first northern wheatear of the spring was on the rocks just to the north of Balcomie Beach. A beautiful male that was probably in Senegal or Mali just a couple of weeks’ ago. I met John Anderson at Fife Ness who had just seen a black redstart around the pink cottage. I walked around the area for half an hour but only found tens of migrant robins – all getting the heart going for brief moment before their real identity became clear. Then I went around to the south side of the Ness reasoning that on such a sunny day this would be the warmest place and where the insects would be the most active. Within a minute I picked up a female feeding (just like a robin) on the coastal path and then directly behind it a male. Two black redstarts together to make up for their absence from my Crail list last year. Ever since I saw my first black redstart at the age of 14 on a school German exchange they have been one of my favourite birds. It’s that turn up anywhere thing, and particularly in those man-made places where unusual birds don’t turn up – busy city centres, railway stations and nuclear power stations. Concrete and brick are just another type of rock to black redstarts. But the pair today were enjoying some real rocks on the strandline and the seaweed flies brought forth by the real warmth in the sun.

Male black redstart – a true rock fan

Posted April 1, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

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