Archive for August 2018

August 26th   Leave a comment

It’s late August business as usual out at Balcomie and Fife Ness. Yesterday there were a handful of juvenile northern wheatears on the rocks of the beach, with some in the farmland at Wormiston, and a whimbrel to show that autumn passage is underway. A sea watch at Fife Ness this morning turned up 21 manx shearwaters, 2 arctic skuas and a great skua in an hour, with the usual thousands of gannets, and a lot of fulmars and sandwich terns passing; only a handful of arctic terns and a single common tern. The highlight was a knot on the rocks in front of the hide – a juvenile, fresh from the Arctic. It was probably hanging out with Arctic foxes and musk ox last week.

Juvenile knot

Yesterday the best bird of the day was a merlin hunting along the shore at Kilminning while I was looking for but not finding a whinchat that had just been seen there. I noticed that a flock of lapwings roosting on the shore had flown up alarm calling, and then a flock of starlings feeding on rotting seaweed piles nearby left as well. Sure enough a bird of prey appeared – not the sparrowhawk I was expecting but a juvenile female merlin working her way along the coast from Saucehope to Fife Ness. Merlins are often shore specialists hunting dunlins, pipits and starlings, although as a species merlins are ultimate generalists, taking any smallish bird. August really is the time for merlins in Crail: John Anderson had this merlin or another at Fife Ness earlier this week hunting in the same way, and I also saw a merlin at Kingsbarns last week.

The juvenile merlin that has been hunting along the shore near Crail and Fife Ness this week

Posted August 26, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 23rd   Leave a comment

I was late home from work this evening but it was good timing – there was a female or juvenile marsh harrier hunting over the wheat field between Damside and the old railway bridge, just north of Crail. They are a once or twice a year Crail bird, with April and September being the best times as the pass through. This bird was hovering and quartering over the crop and then suddenly disappeared, probably successfully pouncing on a mouse or a vole below. March harriers sometimes stay a few day in the area so watch out for something like an all dark buzzard but with a slightly different shape – longer wings and tail and a much lazier way of flying.

Marsh harrier

Posted August 23, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 21st   Leave a comment

It was an interesting sea watch from my garden this evening. I was watching the usual crowd of late August manx shearwaters passing and then a bonxie when I noticed a lot of black-headed gulls catching insects over the lawns going down to the sea behind Nethergate. Black-headed gulls are surprisingly good at flycatching, and will congregate in big numbers when flying ants emerge. But then – probably because the ants were coming out right above the shore – the gulls were joined by a juvenile sandwich tern, and then a juvenile common tern doing the same thing. Terns can be pretty good flycatchers too but I have never seen either species going for ants before. A late swift and a passing group of sand martins joined the party before the ants dispersed.

Juvenile sandwich tern

A walk through Denburn at the moment is very quiet except in one respect. There are a couple of young sparrowhawks making shrill mewing calls almost constantly, waiting to be fed. They are fully fledged and really should be out trying to make a living themselves. I couldn’t see them this afternoon even though they were just above my head in the canopy. I didn’t see or hear anything else in Denburn except for a wren which made a brief snatch of song. Most birds are moulting and keeping a low profile to save energy and avoid the attention of those sparrowhawks above them.

Juvenile sparrowhawk

Posted August 21, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 17th   Leave a comment

The gull season is nearly over. The herring gulls are still making a racket at dawn and whenever something disturbs them (like overflying buzzards) and there are still a few young ones whining from the rooftops. But the noise is becoming less and less by the day and most fledglings are now out of town in the fields or on the shore. Some are even making an honest living now, looking for worms as the harvested wheat fields get ploughed, scavenging fish bits out at sea or trying to steal food from other gulls and terns. I suppose the last one is not quite an honest living and there are of course some Crail youngsters that are developing their chip foraging skills on the High Street. It is a risky strategy and one by one they are getting hit by cars. The adult herring gulls that specialise in discarded rubbish and chips are very adept at dodging cars that can only have come from long years of practice and natural ability after natural selection of the unobservant and slow reacting individuals.

A young herring gull chasing a sandwich tern – gulls are often kleptoparasitic, so stealing a few chips on Crail High Street comes naturally

Posted August 17, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 14th   Leave a comment

People are mostly negative about magpies. They are too common, too crafty, too opportunistic. They thrive on chaos and pillage the other birds around them. Altogether too much like us for comfort. The more successful a species, the less we seem to like it. Better a panda, barely able to reproduce without help than a fox that will exploit any opportunity we present to them, or worse still compete with us. It’s not really fair: the few wildlife winners around us get little appreciation. Magpies are very beautiful birds: they’d be as popular as puffins if they were endangered. They are intensely social and very loyal to their mate and their kin, taking risks and watching out for each other. As socially interesting as meerkats, probably more intelligent, and they would never try to sell you insurance. The world would be a much duller place without magpies.

A Crail magpie in need of appreciation

Although almost all the swifts went at the end of last week, a pair has remained around the High Street, chasing and screaming around the old bank. They seem like a courting couple. I wish they were individually recognisable so that next May I could know that it is the same pair going into the roof of the bank, probably breeding for the first time, but with the difficult business of getting to know each other dealt with now, when they have plenty of time. It’s a nice swift coda to soften the blow of their major departure last week.

Posted August 14, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 12th   1 comment

There is a slight easterly today and so conditions at Fife Ness were good for a sea watch, despite the poor visibility caused by the drizzle. Hundreds of gannets and quite a few fulmars were passing out of the Forth, and the more unusual seabirds were all passing south. In an hour this morning there were about 100 manx shearwaters, a great and arctic skua, lots of common, arctic and sandwich terns, (with only a handful of the arctic and common terns being juveniles), lots of kittiwakes, a couple of puffins, a few razorbills and a juvenile (going into first winter plumage) Mediterranean gull. August is turning into the time for Med gulls around Crail. This year they are particularly numerous in the inner Forth, with a count of 30 at East Wemyss. I wonder if Mediterranean gulls come over to the Forth from the Continent after breeding to hang about for a month or two like the sandwich terns.

Mediterranean Gull

On Balcomie Beach there was a flock of 35 dunlin – mostly juveniles when they have been mostly adults up until now. There was also 10 sanderling, a couple of turnstones and a common sandpiper dashing between sandy pools on the lower rocky shore. That, the dreich weather and a juvenile northern wheatear, also on the rocky shore, made it feel just a little bit like autumn passage is on the way.

Juvenile dunlin on Balcomie Beach

Posted August 12, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 11th   Leave a comment

The swifts have gone. From over 50 on Wednesday night screaming over the High Street at dusk to none today. I was in England on Thursday and Friday so I’m not sure which day they left, but I didn’t see any there either. It is a fantastic synchronised departure: we really have no idea how they do it. The timing varies annually and doesn’t seem correlated with any particular cue or weather conditions. Somehow they all decide to leave at the same time, although birds from further north and the odd straggler will be passing through Crail for the next two weeks.

Crail is full of young willow warblers softly making their soft “who-wheat” call from garden trees and bushes. When you see one they are tiny, quite yellow and delicate looking. They are learning to forage efficiently and getting to know the neighbourhood before their migration to West Africa in September. This period spent getting to know the area around where they were born is investment in in rapidly finding a good territory when they return next April.

Juvenile willow warbler

Posted August 11, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 9th   Leave a comment

The most likely falcon you might see every day in Crail is the kestrel. There are pairs likely breeding at Kilminning, near Saucehope and towards Caiplie. This means that sooner or later you will come across a kestrel hovering along the coastal path, looking for a mouse or vole in the grass below. At least some of the pairs have bred successfully this year so there are more kestrels about now than usual. The only other falcons we regularly get in Crail are peregrines and merlins. Peregrines are large, bulky and short tailed, whereas merlins are small, very dashing and often reminiscent of a sparrowhawk on initial view. Merlins are commonest around Crail in August because of dispersing juveniles and hunt occasionally through gardens right in the centre. But if your falcon looks light and leisurely, and if it hovers then it will be a kestrel. They are often so concentrated on the ground beneath them when they are hovering, watching for the slightest movement below, that you can approach them within a few meters. They will pounce right in front of you and then suddenly shoot off, surprised themselves, when they shift attention from the hunt to their surroundings.

A Crail kestrel hunting along the coastal path this week

Posted August 9, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 6th   Leave a comment

Even if you never look at insects you won’t have missed that there are a lot of hoverflies about. Crail is full of them and if you stop for long enough you can get covered by them, particularly if you are wearing a bright or flowery shirt. They mimic wasps and bees but they are very gentle and perfectly harmless. They are often the victim of mistaken identity. This is a shame because they are very beautiful close up and their hovering and flying is second to none. And ecologically they are great – pollinating things and as larvae, many species eat aphids and thrips that are major plant pests. Some of the species in Crail are migrants as well. Spreading northwards as the summer progresses and arriving from the Continent. It’s one thing to be amazed at a goldcrest, at 6 grams, crossing the North Sea, but something else to contemplate a hoverfly at a few tens of milligrams doing the same.

Three species of hoverfly in my garden this evening and a wasp – easy to tell the difference. Hoverflies have fly eyes, short antennae and don’t have wasp waists

Posted August 6, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 5th   Leave a comment

There were four shelduck juveniles down at Balcomie this morning. They were in a tight flock and not that long fledged so I should think these are locally produced birds and hopefully indicating that the pair that was around Balcomie earlier in the spring bred successfully. The adults are away just now moulting in huge flocks – perhaps locally in the inner Forth or possibly as far away as Heligoland on the opposite side of the North Sea. They undergo this “moult migration” for safety in numbers when they become flightless while regrowing their flight feathers. The juveniles have just grown their flight feathers of course so don’t need to go anywhere to moult.

Juvenile shelduck – this one on the Eden Estuary by St Andrews

At Fife Ness I saw my first skua of the autumn – a great skua flying right over the point. It is worth checking out any brown, large seabird in August. Before the juvenile gannets fledge in September any all dark seabird is very likely to be a skua. Arctic and great skuas are not that uncommon around Crail at this time of year but unless you look well out to sea with binoculars, or sit out at Fife Ness for an overflight by birds cutting the corner off as they pass along the coast, you will not see them.

Great skua passing Fife Ness

Posted August 5, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 4th   Leave a comment

The shore down at Balcomie and Fife Ness is alive again after its summer lull. There were lots of redshanks, curlews and dunlin on the rocky shore this morning. The usual flock of moulting goosanders has reconvened – it is usually to be found just as the coastal path gets to the north end of Balcomie Golf Course. From Fife Ness there were few auks to be seen but the gannets are working their hardest now, passing out and back in to the Forth to service their now very big chicks on the Bass Rock. There were lots of sandwich terns with their attendant noisy juveniles but the arctic terns passing have few young with them. The breeders on the May Island have had a few disasters this summer with herring gulls taking most of the eggs and chicks. There was a flock of (probably disconsolate) adults on the rocky shore just out from Balcomie Beach. Two terns passing to the north caught my eye – they were all white with a very definite black leading edge to the wing, and looking shape wise like a cross between sandwich and common terns – two adult roseate terns. A regular at this time of year for Balcomie, but always hard to find amongst all the other terns.

Roseate tern – this one on the May Island s a few years’ ago. They are very rare breeders in the UK.

The yellow wagtails continue their residency down at Barnsmuir. There are now fledged juveniles with the adults, and they are feeding as a group at times in the horse fields. They are often away of course, feeding less obviously in the fields around, where they disappear with only their calls when they fly to another field giving them away.

A couple of years ago we put a pond in our back garden. We put local frog spawn into it for two springs but this year the spawn appeared all of its own (well I suspect the five large frogs that were in the pond in March might have had something to do with it). The pond has been full of tadpoles since, but while I was away they metamorphosed. And now we have a garden full of tiny frogs. We hope to repeat the trick with toads, but they seem to be taking a bit longer – there are half grown toads in the garden from the toad tadpoles we have put in the pond over the two years like the frogs, but not anything full grown like the big adult frogs that are now fully resident in our garden, and who are responsible for this year’s froglets. It’s so encouraging to create a place for frogs in the garden where there were none before. It’s such a pleasure to see them jumping into the bushes or poking their heads out of the pond or hearing their soft croaking on a warm summer evening like tonight. Toads are even better – I love the fact that one of the tiny toadlets that made it out of the pond two years ago might grow into a huge toad that might still be eating slugs in the vegetable patch in 20 years time.

One of our new little froglets making its new life on land. It is so small that it can walk over the duckweed without sinking.

Posted August 4, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 1st   Leave a comment

I have been away for most of the last two months – Nigeria, Namibia, Botswana and Italy. I feel disconnected from Crail as a consequence although the consolation has been the chance to see a lot of new birds and lots of Crail rarities – particularly in Italy where they are just common garden birds. One day I will see a bee-eater flying over my garden.

Coming back from Italy yesterday I was pleased to see common swifts again. The only ones in southern Europe were passing through, heading to Africa. Swifts – like cuckoos – really only stay up here to breed and as soon as they are done they head back home. The season starts earlier somewhere like Italy and it finishes earlier because the chicks grow faster on the better insect diet in the warmer climate. Swift chicks shut down their development in cool weather when the adults can’t find enough food locally, so they take longer to fledge somewhere like Crail. But this summer must have been good for the swifts here so I don’t expect their season to be that much longer. They might depart any day now – their usual departure in a cool summer might be mid-August.

Common swift – screaming around Crail now for their last few days until next May

Posted August 1, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

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