Archive for September 2018

September 30th   Leave a comment


The winds were less strong today although it was still windy from the west. It was much quieter at Fife Ness. No skuas and barely any kittiwakes. The gannets saved the day as always. It is easy to take them for granted, but really, the sight of 50 or more gannets plunge diving simultaneously into a choppy sea always makes it a good day. I walked the coastal path in a loop from Kilminning to get to Fife Ness and counted at least 15 stonechats on the way – a record. The cold winter must have been offset by a great breeding season and there are stonechats all along the coastal path now.

A male stonechat – one of the many along the coastal path between Crail and Fife Ness at the moment

Posted September 30, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 29th   Leave a comment

The relentless westerlies continue. Today it was too windy to do anything but seawatch, and the barnacle geese seemed to agree. They must be taking a break from migrating today, with only a few flocks battling it up the Forth past Crail in late afternoon, just above the waves. Fife Ness was busy but again all very far out – in an hour I had three great skuas, an arctic skua, a possible pomarine skua, and even a couple of possible sooty shearwaters (right on the horizon and barely above the waves –if they hadn’t been the first of this year I would probably have put them down as definite). There were also a few manx shearwaters, sandwich terns and velvet scoters but otherwise it was wall to wall gannets, kittiwakes and a very large passage of guillemots and razorbills.

More barnacle geese today struggling against the very strong westerlies

Posted September 29, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 27th   Leave a comment

I walked out to Caiplie Caves this morning looking for a black redstart that has been seen there for the last week or so. It was grey and blustery and I know how difficult it can be to find a black redstart in such conditions. They tend to forage under the big rocks of the rocky shore and don’t fly about much. On a sunny still day they sit up on more obvious perches. So perhaps not surprisingly I didn’t find it. There were a lot of other small birds foraging among the rocks though: passage meadow pipits and a couple of wheatears, and resident rock pipits, linnets and starlings. A flock of barnacle geese flew by, struggling against the westerly wind. A few flocks were reported coming in yesterday – the first of the winter – and they should be passing Crail for the next few days. They are distinctively black and white with pale grey upper wings, short necks and a distinctive yapping call as they fly by. Mine today were silent though, probably saving energy because of the adverse winds.

Barnacle geese

Juvenile pomarine skua

The wind went round to the north late afternoon and almost immediately the sea watching got better. In 50 minutes looking from my garden I saw a dark juvenile pomarine skua, a couple of little gulls, a great skua, and flocks of hundreds of kittiwakes spread out all over the Forth.

Posted September 27, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 26th   Leave a comment

After a cold couple of days, this afternoon the temperature was back up to 20 degrees. It was a beautiful evening, and there were at least three fields being ploughed on my way back from St Andrews to Crail, the tractor in each followed by a blizzard of gulls glowing in the late sunshine. One of the gulls caught my eye as particularly clean and pure white as it flew over the road in front of me just north of Kingsbarns – an adult Mediterranean gull. It is always a thrill to see a Mediterranean gull, even if they are not the big rarity they used to be 30 years ago.

An adult Mediterranean gull – easy to spot with no black in its wings at all, a black smudge directly behind the eye and a dark red bill

Posted September 26, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 23rd   Leave a comment

One of the redshank on Balcomie Beach at the moment

The westerly storms have cleared out most of the summer migrants from around Crail. It wasn’t until I got to Kilminning, after Wormiston, Balcomie and the patch at Fife Ness, that I found a couple of willow warblers and a few swallows and a house martin flycatching in the sheltered, sunny corner that had the spotted flycatcher last week. The wheatears and whitethroats have gone, and most of our swallows. From now on any further summer migrants will only appear if we get favourable easterly or south-easterly winds, although we should have a trickle of Scottish swallows passing for the next month regardless of the winds. In contrast, Balcomie Beach was quite busy, with good numbers of dunlin, ringed plovers and redshanks – here now for the winter – and there were still lots of pink-footed geese going over heading south. A flock of four Canada geese also flew over the beach to remind me that they were the commonest goose in the area until the end of last week: they will be outnumbered again as the barnacle geese arrive as well, in the next week or two.

Posted September 23, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 22nd   Leave a comment

Little grebes

I don’t go up to Carnbee Reservoir – beside Kellie Law – often enough, especially considering it is the only lake on my Crail patch. I was hoping for some ducks today, like pintail or gadwall, but it was just teal (about 50) and mallards (about 15). There were a lot of little grebes. They can be elusive in the winter but today there were about 20. They have obviously had a good breeding season. The water level is very low after the hot summer but that means exposed mud for waders along the edge. This is hard to see from the road so I walked all the way round the reservoir. I was rewarded with a ruff flying up. There have been a few passing through Fife in the last week and John had one at Fife Ness briefly a couple of days ago. Ruff are fond of all habitats from ploughed fields, to lakes, to beaches and estuaries, and rocky shores – and in Africa they like rice paddies.


I sea watched from Fife Ness this afternoon hopeful that the strong winds might have brought some grey phalaropes our way. It was more interesting than the last couple of weeks. Great visibility so I could see large flocks of hundreds of kittiwakes out at about 4 kilometers through my telescope. Each flock – and there were about seven I could see – seemed to have one or two, and occasionally three arctic skuas with them. Whole flocks would fly up from the sea and then I could usually see a skua chasing one of the kittiwakes and this would then be joined by another for a frenzied tail chase for a few seconds before the skua(s) descended back to the sea and disappeared from sight, followed by the kittiwakes over the next minute. This was happening more or less constantly for the 90 minutes I was watching and there may well have been up to 20 arctic skuas out there. It was quite exciting, although all very distant. I was sitting next to John who doesn’t use a telescope – the better to be ready with his camera – and he barely saw any skuas. Even further out were lines and lines of pink-footed geese coming relentlessly into the Forth and continuing on to the Lothians. At least there were a couple of knot that joined us on the rocks briefly, at closer quarters.

Arctic skua chasing a kittiwake (they steal food from other seabirds, although the larger skuas sometime kill other seabirds like birds of prey)

Posted September 22, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 20th   Leave a comment

It’s been windy the last couple of days. Last night at sea even the gannets were passing by slightly uncomfortably, being buffeted by the wind as they shot past east or struggling low over the waves west. Gannets like a storm, but coming back to the Bass Rock must have been a real chore yesterday. This afternoon it was much calmer. There were flocks of kittiwakes and guillemots sitting unusually just off Crail. They seemed to be having a break after the storm. Groups of sandwich terns were passing overhead going steadily back west.

A Crail curlew in the storm

Posted September 20, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 16th   Leave a comment

This weekend we have had continuing westerly winds – quite strong today. There was much more seabird activity past Fife Ness but still a long way out. Quite a lot of kittiwakes flying north, but in an hour on Saturday afternoon only a couple of great skuas, a distant arctic or pomarine skua, and three manx shearwaters. The stream of red-throated divers into the Forth has become a trickle, but there were many flocks of pink-footed geese coming in to make up, some with greylag geese amongst them. Red-breasted mergansers are becoming more common and will soon outnumber goosanders as goosanders finish moulting and head into inland waters for the winter. I was really pleased to see lots of juvenile gannets passing Fife Ness at last so they have started fledging in earnest. Again, they were quite far out so perhaps I have been missing earlier fledglings that have flown straight out of the Forth without passing close to Crail. Very noticeable this weekend was the lack of terns: none on Saturday apart from two common terns going north and a few sandwich terns today.

Juvenile gannet – lots fledging over the weekend

I had my first spotted flycatcher of the year at Kilminning on Saturday, followed quickly by a sighting of a jay flying over. The spotted flycatcher was probably a migrant from the west of Scotland on its way south and the jay probably a dispersing young bird from further west in Fife. Move just a few kilometres further inland and they are everywhere. In any year I feel lucky to see a jay on the Crail patch; they are rarer around Crail than spotted flycatchers, although we do get a few migrant individuals coming in from the continent on strong easterlies, but usually in October. They don’t hang around for the same reason that we don’t have many resident jays. Jays like woodland and we don’t have a lot of that. My best local site is up near the secret bunker but there don’t seem to be any there this year. The other obvious migrants around this weekend were lots of northern wheatears – the best feeding like a roadrunner on the driving range at Balcomie, literally dodging the golf balls – a few chiff-chaffs and willow warblers, just a single whitethroat (most seem to have gone in the last week), and some sand martins among the still very common barn swallows and house martins.

Jay – a Crail rarity. I have seen more red-backed shrikes here than jays

Posted September 16, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 14th   Leave a comment

Northern wheatear

There was a flock of 47 goosander at high tide just off the car park at Kingsbarns Beach this afternoon. This is the largest flock I have seen near Crail. They were loafing close in until taking alarm and flying down to the Cambo Burn, bizarrely because a man in a wet suit, with a spear gun suddenly reared out of the water. I don’t think he was hunting goosanders, but nor does it seem very likely he was hunting the many tuna and barracuda of Kingsbarns. There were a couple of northern wheatears on the beach – they seem to be a constant on the shore this year, rather than coming and going with winds suitable for migration.

Posted September 14, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 13th   Leave a comment

The pink-footed geese are coming in – I had heard they have been passing Crail all day and I have just had my first for the season flying over my house, their “onk-onk-wink-wink” calls ushering in the autumn.

Pink-footed geese back again for the winter

Posted September 13, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 12th   1 comment

It is turning into one of those quiet autumns for seabirds. I haven’t had a sooty shearwater yet, no autumn little gulls and generally evening sea watches from Crail are fairly uneventful. There were more kittiwakes today, but even the strong winds of the last few days haven’t changed things at all. And still no juvenile gannets, which definitely makes this quite a late year for them. The red-throated divers are at least reliable, with a steady stream coming into the Forth for the last two weeks in ones and twos every so often.

Red-throated diver

Posted September 12, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 9th   Leave a comment

It is a good year for brent geese – lots reported passing along the Forth today. I had two flocks of 6 and 15 coming past Crail into the Forth in just thirty minutes this afternoon. And a great skua leaving the Forth, looking bizarrely like a huge brown butterfly, with the strong westerly behind it.

More brent geese coming into the Forth

Posted September 9, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 8th   Leave a comment

I decided to head up to Boarhills and the mouth of the Kenly Burn this morning – it is a good place for September migrants. I cycled up the old railway track and saw a fox sat in the middle of a stubble field, sat down, watching me as I went by. I stopped and looked back at it: a perfect fox, perfectly framed against the stubble and already with the start of the dense fur they get for the winter. At Boarhills I headed down to the pond to the north of the burn mouth. I haven’t been there since New Year’s Day. It was a lot warmer today and with a couple of moorhens. It’s a perfect breeding spot for them and one of the few ones in the area with so few ponds about. There is also a family of moorhens in the pond at Cambo Farm – I first noticed them this week on the bus back from work. If you sit on the top deck you can see over the wall as you pass, otherwise the pond is completely invisible and I suspect many people don’t know it is there.

It was coming up to high tide at the mouth of the Kenly Burn. I counted 160 Canada geese on the rocks or in the bay. The late summering flock has increased from nothing to this fairly large number in the last 10 years: I first started recording Canada geese regularly in September from about 2009. Before that they were “vagrants” and I only had a couple of sightings in my first 5 years in Crail. Mixed in with the geese were goosanders, eider, mallard, wigeon and teal, and a pure white farmyard goose.

There were 160+ Canada geese down on the rocky shore at Kenly Burn today

As I cycled down the coastal path towards Kingsbarns after crossing the burn, putting up lots of starling and a few northern wheatears feeding on the beach, a small wader flew up in front of me from the rocks. I immediately thought it was a little ringed plover because it had no trace of a wing bar (fairly unusual in a wader) but its back and wings were a bit patterned and there was no trace of white at all around its tail. As it banked around and flew back towards me, circling over the adjacent cow field, it clicked – a buff-breasted sandpiper. I could see a straight bill about half the length of a dunlins so ruling out a plover, and it was unmarked underneath apart from a few darker spots around its shoulder. The whole impression was of a long-winged plover, a bit like a ruff. I watched it circling around for about a minute before I lost it when it landed in a bit of dead ground in the cow field, or the field adjacent.

A buff-breasted sandpiper – this one taken by John at the end of August 2005 at the Tyninghame Estuary, just across the Forth from Crail

I know buff-breasted sandpipers quite well. I saw my first on a golf course on the Scilly Isles back in 1985 and fell in love with them because they are high Arctic waders that have little fear of people. I spent ages getting closer and closer to it, not quite believing that it hadn’t flown yet, until I was lying in a bunker as it approached me. I popped my head up out and found I was looking at the buff-breast at eye level only about 5 meters away. It just continued on past me nonchalantly. A few years later, in 2000, when I was doing some fieldwork in Barrow Alaska and came across breeding buff-breasts I fell even more in love with them. Again, they were very tame but it was their courtship this time that made them memorable. The male flicks its wings out like a Benny Hill flasher and holds them straight out, at right angles to the ground so the underside – which is pure white – faces the female. Then the male struts around for a bit looking ridiculous with its relatively long wings, and the females shuffles around in an embarrassed fashion. And here was one in Crail! Well, on the patch at least. I have missed two buff-breasted sandpipers by less than hour each time since I have been living here. Both birds in September and in stubble fields at Balcomie with other waders like golden plovers. Buff-breasts are dry habitat waders preferring short grass, a bit like golden plovers – they winter in southern South America and breed in Arctic North America and the far east of Russia. There are always a few recorded each autumn in the UK, probably as youngsters head off in slightly the wrong direction south for the winter. A difference of a few degrees, when you start near the north pole means the difference between continents. The bird today was a juvenile; adults have less marked wings. These wrong direction birds may find suitable grassy habitat in southern Europe or Africa and then if they survive they will make their back to the Arctic, and then probably repeat the track as adults. The few spring records of adults and the many juveniles in the autumn suggest that some buff-breasts, like yellow-browed warblers, probably have a genuine route through the UK rather than it being vagrancy.

The buff-breast was my first new Crail bird since the Brunnich’s guillemot in Anstruther almost exactly two years ago. The Crail list is now up to 225. I spent another hour trying to relocate the bird in the nearby cow and sheep fields, then the rocky shore again because there were a few wader roosts nearby with ringed plovers, dunlin, turnstones and knots – that would all provide good company for a buff-breast. I then continued on to Kingsbarns Golf course mindful of my first ever sighting but there were only golfers.

In the afternoon I spent an hour out at Fife Ness sea watching. Very quiet – no shearwaters apart from fulmars. The only highlight was a flock of 7 pale-bellied brent geese. It’s been several years since I have recorded them on the Crail year list, although they are always recorded about this time of year passing Fife Ness. You just have to get lucky or put in the hours at this time of year. The brent geese will have left Svalbard just a few days ago and are a reminder that the pink-feet and barnacle geese will be here any day soon as well.

Pale-bellied brent geese passing Fife Ness

Posted September 8, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 6th   Leave a comment

After the heavy rain at lunchtime the visibility across the Forth was brilliant. A lovely September evening. I had to get out and did a circuit of Kilminning and then back to Crail along the coast path. Lots of birds – redshank, curlew and turnstones on the shore, herring gulls everywhere, and the usual late summer flocks of roosting golden plover and lapwing at Sauchope. Kilminning was very quiet, with just a couple of yellowhammers exploiting the berries where the rosefinch was earlier this week. There was a goosander at Roome Bay – they are less common around Crail than at Fife Ness and Balcomie. It was close enough in and the evening so still that I could hear it calling to itself – a quiet and unbirdlike grunting.


Posted September 6, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 4th   Leave a comment

We had light north easterlies on Sunday followed by a day of south-easterlies and a lot of rain yesterday. Not quite the weather conditions for a lot of migrants, but much better than the last week. With September being here too, things should be on the move. And Shetland had a lot of barred warblers last week. Well that was my frame of mind for checking Kilminning at lunchtime today. The top was absolutely dead apart from a few robins deciding whether to stop skulking or not now August is past. I continued down to the bottom and stopped at the usual barred warbler site. There was something calling like a cross between a greenfinch and a willow warbler from the roses next door. A bird then popped up – a juvenile common rosefinch – watching me warily from the top of the rose hips. Rosefinches are not common, at least not here, and this was only my second in Crail. When one is found, they don’t hang about. We haven’t had one here for longer than a few hours – I have missed at least two since my first in 2013, even though I was looking for them in exactly the right place just a few hours later. So, I was incredibly lucky to find one right in front of me. And luckily too, I remembered that rosefinches are fairly shy, so instead of approaching it, I walked away from it. The rosefinch stayed put and I so I had the best view I have had since I was in Kazakhstan many years ago (where they really are common). That said they are not a lot to look at: dull uniform brownish, a plain, unmarked brown head, slightly shaggy, with a beady black eye, and fine streaking underneath. They do have a couple of neat whitish wing bars as a positive identification feature to check. It kept calling which made me happy because I didn’t know its call until today, and it is similar enough to a few other birds (like greenfinch as I mentioned) that I could have easily have ignored it in the past. Despite my canny retreat it wasn’t totally convinced and after a minute it flew off, circling around before heading off strongly towards the top of Kilminning. I put the news out to the Fife birding grapevine immediately but knowing I would probably be the only one to see it. Still – it’s a serious start to the season and it will tempt a few more birders out this weekend I hope. I bet there really is a barred warbler or two about.

Juvenile common rosefinch – this one taken by John in Mongolia exactly two years ago

Posted September 4, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 2nd   Leave a comment

As I walked down to Balcomie Beach from the golf club I was greeted by the hysterical shrieking of a redshank – sounding like a murder was taking place. It’s always a fair sign that one is and as I got to the beach I flushed a sparrowhawk sitting invisible on the rocks above the tideline. It glided fifty meters further along the rocks – just about visible as it moved – before disappearing again as it perched on a rock, mottled brown amongst mottled brown rocks. The redshanks were shrieking again as it flew but after the sparrowhawk resumed perching and wasn’t visible any more they stopped. Far too risky to make a fuss when you don’t know where the predator has gone. The redshanks were super vigilant, craning their necks and keeping to the tide edges, but they didn’t do the obvious thing and leave. They are literally between a rock and a hard place because if they leave their territories too often then they are open to occupation by other redshanks: possession is nine tenths of the law with territoriality. I think that’s one of reasons they really shriek when a sparrowhawk is about and surprise hunting: the sparrowhawk’s ability to hunt by surprise is gone and it might then move on, but also the redshank makes clear it is deserting its territory for a good reason. And it would be a foolish redshank that then tried to exploit a territory holder’s absence while the sparrowhawk was there.

A sparrowhawk hunting over the rocks at Balcomie

The sparrowhawk’s progress along the shore for the next ten minutes was obvious – not because I could see it, but by the shrieks of the redshanks and the small flocks of golden plover – another bit of invisibility as they roosted on the rocky shore – flying off to a safer bit of beach. They are not territorial in winter so have no qualms about getting well out of the way.

And a golden plover getting out of the way

Posted September 2, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 1st   Leave a comment

A goosander passing Fife Ness – probably one of the moulting birds that are usually at Balcomie

Virtue has its reward. As I was doing some recycling at Pittenweem tip this morning I heard a common redstart calling from the clump of trees behind the glass bins. It’s a lot easier to find a migrant at this time of year when they call: it was barely visible in the dense foliage. The conditions haven’t been good for migrants from the east for 10 days or so, but redstarts breed on the West Coast and in the Highlands so we can get passage birds with light westerly winds as well: the same applies to spotted flycatchers, whinchats and tree pipits, although apparently never for pied flycatchers, for some reason.

I walked from Kilminning to Fife Ness and back in a loop this afternoon. All very quiet except at sea where the gannets are working very hard getting their chicks ready for fledging. There were also a few younger birds –even birds just a year old – non-breeders that must be visiting Bass Rock and the area to get an idea of where and how to breed. A visit at the end of the summer at fledging time should give these young birds the most information: which bits of the colony are best for producing chicks and indeed if the colony is worth nesting in at all. Apart from the gannets and a lot of fulmars passing Fife Ness, in about an hour there were just a couple arctic skuas, a whimbrel and a goosander. No shearwaters and barely any kittiwakes at all – although one of the few passing was intercepted by one of the skuas and a lengthy chase ensued.

A one year old gannet

Posted September 1, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

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