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

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