Archive for October 2018

October 31st   Leave a comment

There was a red-breasted flycatcher reported from the Patch at Fife Ness late yesterday afternoon. I was down there just after first light to hopefully catch up with it. I was slightly pessimistic because last night was clear and with light westerly winds so good for a migrant to continue its journey. Luck tends to average out, so my poor luck at the weekend of just missing white-billed divers was evened out again (although arguably that was done with the Sabine’s gull on Monday) with the flycatcher popping up right in front of me within thirty seconds of arriving in the right area. It looked at me, I looked at it – getting the black tail with its white sides and the eye ring and general small flycatcheryness – and then it was gone into the denser cover of the pine trees around the ringing hut. I then spent 40 minutes wandering around the patch looking for it again, wondering if I had imagined it. I should have stayed where I first saw it. When I staked out the area about 20 meters northeast of the ringing hut and just waited for it, I got to see it every few minutes. They really move about, never staying on a perch for more than a few seconds before dropping to the ground to pick something up and then dashing off to the next perch a few meters away. You do get good views but like hummingbirds, the bird has to come to you rather than you chasing the bird. A couple of views were really nice so I could eliminate taiga flycatcher – the very far east Siberian version of the red-breasted flycatcher that has only been recognised as a separate species. Late season red-breasted flycatchers – they usually turn up in September or early October – are more likely to be taiga flycatchers. But the bird this morning lacked a whiter throat patch, had orangey-buff tones (not greyish) on the breast and an almost entirely pale horn coloured bill (rather than mostly blackish). The other clinching character for taiga – the black upper tail coverts was impossible to see and I doubt you can use it in the field unless it the bird is right in front of you, or you can get photos to enlarge later. Anyway, a clear red-breasted flycatcher and about my 8thfor the Crail list. Apart from the flycatcher, the Patch was fairly quiet. A few redwings and a flock of long-tailed tits being slightly out of the ordinary.

Red-breasted flycatcher

Posted October 31, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 30th   Leave a comment

It is a good mistle thrush year. There are mistle thrushes to be found all around Crail at the moment. Although they look a lot like song thrushes in the bird book they are completely different birds. Much bigger and more robust, with a loud old-fashioned football rattle call when they fly off. They also have white underwings and white outer tail feathers. You will find them anywhere there are berries in a tree – Balcomie caravan park is a good spot and so is the kirkyard – they are usually in pairs or in a small flock which is probably a family group.

Mistle thrush

Posted October 30, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 29th   Leave a comment

I spent some of today guiding a birding friend of a colleague who hadn’t been birding in the UK before. It was great to be with someone who got excited at seeing their first dunnock, reed bunting and meadow pipit. A flock of greenfinches on the beach at West Sands was suddenly not something to be glanced at, but instead something to be properly looked at and appreciated. Greenfinches really are outrageously bright green and yellow, and really interesting to look at as they foraged among the marram grass. A goldfinch on a fence among a flock of linnets is a real star when you haven’t seen one before.  Malcolm is from California – a great birding location – and so it was also interesting being reminded of the similarities and differences between two widely separated parts of the world. Things in common like Slavonian grebes, dunlin, sanderling, a peregrine, red-breasted mergansers, things nearly in common like grey herons and golden plovers, and things that were major rarities to him in his patch like common ringed plovers or long-tailed duck. True to form being with an American we found an American rarity that you wouldn’t look at twice at off any Californian beach – two drake surf scoters in amongst the hundreds of common scoters in St Andrews Bay. As I got excited about picking out these rarities (although there are 1 or 2 in St Andrews Bay most winters) I noticed Malcolm more interested in a pied wagtail at our feet and then a rook on the railing besides us: both of them lifers for him. We finished off at Fife Ness with beautiful late afternoon light and a busy sea with hundreds of kittiwakes passing and a couple of arctic skuas, a great skua and a manx shearwater. And the brilliant highlight of a Sabine’s gull just as we arrived. I have only ever seen 4 Sabine’s gulls before in my life: one in Barrow Alaska, two off Senegal and one flying past Crail into the Forth about a decade ago. Here was another about 50 meters out dipping over the sea like a kittiwake but with its very distinctive brown white and black triangles back pattern. I followed it as it went further out to sea before losing it when it landed on the water. It was a good bird for Malcolm too but his first ever gannets that were nearby were much more attention grabbing. The Sabine’s gull is a great bird to get again for the Crail list, almost like a new bird. Two in 16 years is pretty rare. This autumn is not turning out to be too bad, for a bad autumn. And we are still having good easterlies with some rain forecast overnight: I saw a woodcock as I passed Wormiston on the way to work which is a good sign of things starting to come in.

Woodcock – look out for one in your garden tomorrow

Posted October 29, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 28th   3 comments

The northerly wind straight down from Spitsbergen and along the Norway coast has brought some white-billed divers along the east coast. This high arctic diver is really rare and I haven’t seen one in the UK. Two have passed Fife Ness in the last two days so I have been sea watching with a lot of hope. Today I had a close black-throated diver and some red-throated divers, and yesterday the great northern, but no luck with a white-billed. They are even bigger and bulkier looking than great northerns and their bill is so pale it can look like they have just grabbed a banana. There was plenty to entertain this morning from Fife Ness anyway – a great skua and an arctic skua, lots of kittiwakes passing far out and probably some little gulls in with them, and a steady stream of wildfowl as yesterday, but perhaps more common scoters and fewer long tailed ducks. The wind is now from the east and will be until Wednesday when rain is forecast – a good prospect for a late autumn rarity. Fingers crossed again.

Pale phase arctic skua passing Fife Ness

Posted October 28, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 27th   Leave a comment

It’s starting to feel like autumn might have slipped away. There will be a little bit of easterly on Monday and Tuesday with some rain, but it is getting late. But perhaps not too late for a firecrest or even an eastern wheatear species. Today the northerly wind made it feel raw out at Fife Ness. I sea watched for an hour in the early morning squinting into the glare. There was some passage of ducks – regular small flocks of long-tailed ducks, velvet and common scoters, wigeon and teal and a single goldeneye and red-breasted merganser. One red throated diver going south and a great northern diver heading north. The auks and kittiwakes were passing a long way out and there were no fulmars at all. The main show was out of sight I should think. At Balcomie Beach there was a big mat of newly washed in kelp and a large number of gulls feeding around it. The wind was strong enough that the black-headed gulls, and even a few herring gulls, were kiting over the seaweed in the surf like petrels – literally walking on the water with their wings outstretched.

Herring gull

Posted October 27, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 25th   Leave a comment

Most migration happens at night and out of sight. One day things aren’t here and the next day they are. But today it was obvious. At dawn I had a brambling going over the garden making its grumpy croaking call. And then it was a steady stream of flocks of siskin, linnets, meadow pipits and skylarks, with a few redwings, redpolls and blackbirds mixed in. They come in from the sea at Fife Ness and then continue along the coast, so pass Crail heading towards Anstruther. It’s not quite Gibraltar or Istanbul, but if you sit up on the top of the cliff at West Braes it’s our own migratory watch point as the flocks come past nearly at eye level. The joker in the pack was a flock of about 30 tree sparrows. Or 90 of them if the same flock didn’t come past three times. The tree sparrows are still dashing up and down the coast looking for somewhere to spend the winter as they have been doing since August. There are some signs that they are settling down: there were five on my garden feeder yesterday, hopefully back again for the winter. They have been absent since fledging chicks in June after breeding in one my bird boxes for the first time.

Bottom right…a blackbird coming in to Fife Ness after crossing the north sea the night before

Posted October 25, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 24th   Leave a comment

Siskin

I haven’t been trying too hard on the year list having been away from Crail for over two months this year. But this morning I passed the milestone 150 as I heard a siskin flying over the sheep field by Denburn. Like redpolls they pass over Crail in October and if you are not listening for their distinctive calls they go unnoticed. Siskins are more likely to stop and some winters a few stay in Denburn feeding on the alder cones. They also visit bird feeders, where their small finchy size and mixture of green, yellow and brown streaks makes them fairly obvious. There should be a few more species appearing for the year list – notably I am missing bar-tailed godwit which is a winter regular and John had a short-eared owl flying in at Fife Ness yesterday. Any owl seen flying in daylight around the shore just now is likely to be a short-eared owl on migration, coming over to the UK from Scandinavia for the winter.

Posted October 24, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 22nd   Leave a comment

The wind got up this afternoon whipping up the sea into large waves and white horses. Surprisingly the only thing coming past Crail were gannets. The ones heading out of the Firth were going very fast with the wind behind them. Heading out towards to the site of the new wind farm: I have been watching the construction platform work its way along the horizon for the last couple of weeks. It must be laying the foundations for the turbine towers. The open horizon is on borrowed time, although it’s not the view I’m worried about. On a day like today seabirds end up flying very fast and often higher than usual…

Gannet – no real problems in a storm

Posted October 22, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 21st   Leave a comment

I was out at Cambo this morning – another very mild day. Kingsbarns Beach was at its Sunday morning busiest so no room for any birds except on the rocky bits. I watched a few turnstones feeding there amongst the seaweed. They are consummate opportunist and generalists. After the apocalypse there will be rats and turnstones. There was a whole series of short notes submitted to the magazine “British Birds” in the 1980s – which is still going by the way and well worth a read in its 112thor so year – about what turnstones have been observed eating. It was like a game of poker. Foraging on insects or worms in a garden to play, raise you with fish and chips or bird’s eggs, again with various kinds of animal faeces, raise a whole lot more with pecking the blubber off dead seals and even stranded but still alive whales, and then finally everybody else fold with foraging on a washed-up human corpse. And you will find them doing this kind of thing on every beach in the world. I think it was only sandhoppers today though, as they turned over the wrack and the occasional stone by the mouth of the Kenly Burn.

Turnstone – really not a fussy eater

Posted October 21, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 20th   Leave a comment

With westerlies since Monday, this weekend was going to be much quieter than last. At Kilminning this morning there were about 50 redwings, double the number of blackbirds and a handful of song thrush, fieldfare and bramblings. A couple of barnacle geese passed overhead. The only summer migrant – and it might well be a wintering bird now – was a single chiffchaff at Balcomie Farm cottages. Possibly my odd bird from last week – very dull and brownish and making a “shew-aaa” call, more normal chiffchaff call than last week and tending more to a Siberian type call.

The twite flock is back at Balcomie Golf Course in the same place as all last winter – the north end along the coastal path. There were 20 twite at least on the beach, the rocks of the shore or perched on the cattle field fence when disturbed. I hope they stay in residence all winter. After five years of no twites, we have been spoilt the last two.

Two of the twite down at Balcomie this afternoon

At Fife Ness there was a steady flow of kittiwakes, moving slowly north, dipping down to the sea and feeding as they went. There were smaller gulls with black underwings among them doing the same – little gulls. It has been a very quiet year for little gulls – some years we have hundreds – this year just a handful. It was reassuring to see them passing. They have probably been here all along, just too far out to see. I counted 46 in thirty minutes and there were probably many more out in the horizon heat haze.

Little gull

Posted October 20, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 17th   Leave a comment

Long-tailed tit

There has been a flock of long-tailed tits foraging along the trees of Marketgate off and on for the last week. This morning they were crossing the road from Roome Bay Avenue into Denburn as I walked to get my lift to work. You can’t miss them if they come through your bit of Crail – they make thin “zee zee zee” contact calls constantly – and follow each other from tree to tree in broken lines. They are quite tiny with ridiculously long tails. They are very sociable and stay very close together. They even roost closely together. I have only seen photos of this: they are very cute at the best of times but a pink bundle of them huddled side by side on the same branch must be irresistible. Long-tailed tits are not always in residence in Crail but we had a good flock last winter as well.

Posted October 17, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 16th   Leave a comment

There was a huge influx of thrushes today. The sky was full of dark specks that turned into redwings. Big flocks over passing over the fields that would normally be starlings turned into blackbirds as they came closer. There were thousands of redwings around Fife Ness and a few ring ouzels reported from Kilminning. The wind is back to a south westerly so the big arrival doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of the weather, but there is almost no wind over Scandinavia and further south on the continent so perhaps the departure conditions last night were perfect.

One of the many redwings that have been coming through Crail since last Thursday, with a huge passage today

Posted October 16, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 15th   Leave a comment

I spent a couple of hours first thing out at Balcomie Farm looking for the little bunting. There are good mixed flocks at Balcomie – yellowhammers, reed buntings, tree and house sparrows, chaffinches, greenfinches, linnets and the odd dunnock and corn bunting – feeding out in the stubble fields. I checked a lot of buntings and sparrows. Like the chiffchaffs of the weekend, looking at every individual very critically is a great way to learn the details of a common species: I know juvenile reed buntings and yellowhammers a lot better now. It was good fun even if I didn’t refind the little bunting. I like it when there are birds everywhere and when you have finished checking them you can start again because everything has changed. And there was also the redstart still in the sycamores, flocks of pink-footed geese going over and a couple of redpolls to add extra interest.

A juvenile reed bunting

Posted October 15, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 14th   Leave a comment

I returned to Balcomie Farm this morning to look for my strange calling chiffchaff. Again it was a parade of ordinary looking and calling chiffchaffs and the female redstart. At least the weather was much better than the day before. I got distracted by the yellowhammers and reed buntings heading out from the farm into the stubble and spotted an unusually small looking reed bunting among them. Intrigued I stalked it down the stone wall that heads down towards the Balcomie golf course. It was a bit frustrating because it kept on moving away down the wall, but every view I got of this smaller bunting pointed to a little bunting – a fairly rare bird, a first for the Crail list and the first one I have ever seen. It is one of those species that after 40 years or so of birding I really should have seen, but there are always a few by chance that elude you. I have been looking for a little bunting a long time. It finally popped up onto the top of the wall and showed a crucial thick black stripe on both sides of its crown, a reddish orange face and a nice white eyering – it looked like a reed bunting in bad makeup, heavy on the eyebrow pencil and heavy on the fake tan. It then disappeared and I spent more frustrating minutes trying to resight it a bit closer: this was my first little bunting and I was feeling a little short of confidence after the fuss I made about the chiffchaff yesterday so I wanted to make doubly sure. But the bunting flock eventually headed off out of sight to the other side of the stubble field or the golf course. I decided not to call it in until I or someone else refound it, although I mentioned it to John and another photographer who had come down to photograph the redstart. Later in the afternoon it was photographed well, up at the ruined cottage, and John confirmed the identification. Number 227 for the Crail list and 2434 on my world list. That’s three new Crail birds this autumn so that officially makes it a good autumn for me, despite the westerlies.

The common redstart at Balcomie farm cottages today and yesterday.

I came back down to Balcomie as fast as I could after I heard about the photo and searched for another hour but the buntings were scarce again. Another one to look for again tomorrow. I should probably camp out at Balcomie Farm. There are worse places – this afternoon as the sun finally came out it was full of skylarks, starlings and linnets in the stubble fields, flocks of both barnacle and pink-footed geese going over, and the redstart still in residence. During the day as I searched for the little bunting I found lots of redpolls, some bramblings, a blackcap, large flocks of tree sparrows, a great spotted woodpecker and a mistle thrush. All nice birds to see on any ordinary day around Crail. The redpolls were everywhere this morning flying over in small flocks with even one bird first thing over my garden. Elsewhere redpolls are very common but they a good bird for Crail, only really reliably turning up in October as the redwings and siskins come in.

Common redpoll – they have a very distinctive flight call as they fly over at this time of year “chicky-chicky-dweeeee”. A good job because few actually stay any length of time around Crail and I hardly ever see them perched.

I spent some time at Kiliminning. There were a couple of yellow-browed warblers at the top, mostly around the first sharp bend near the entrance. They were hard to watch, constantly moving from tree to tree, although at one point one individual was chasing the other. I heard another yellow-browed warbler at the bottom of Kilminning and a single twite flew over making its creaky bedspring call. There were a couple of treecreepers feeding in the treetops with the warblers, with one looking very exotic – like a South American woodcreeper in a bromeliad – as it fossicked among hanging brown clusters of ash keys.

A yellow-browed warbler – usually the star but a bit neglected today. Still lovely birds to find – I am up to about 8 different individuals since last Thursday

Posted October 14, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 13th   Leave a comment

It was a rainy day and birding was very damp. I had to go out though: there must be more out there to find with the fall yesterday. Most of the thrushes have moved on though. There were only a handful of redwings at Kilminning first thing. The blackbirds were back as the commonest thrush and the ring ouzels were gone. I heard one or two yellow-browed warblers at the top of Kilminning, and another down at the bottom. But it was hard to find anything in the persistent light rain that soon made my binoculars of little use. Balcomie was more rewarding. I was watching some chiffchaffs when I heard an unfamiliar repeated “see-uuu” call from the sycamores behind the farm cottages. The call was totally different from a chiffchaff call: loud and with a clear down slur, and quite different from any of the Phylloscopus warbler calls I know well (including willow warbler, greenish and Siberian chiffchaff). I soon located the bird and was disappointed to see it was coming from one of the chiffchaffs. It was a bit dull for a chiffchaff but then everything looked dull this morning. It was only after about thirty seconds of it calling that it occurred to me that I had heard this call before although only on my “Eastern Vagrants” call CD – an exotic collection of almost all the species you might dream off turning up (but mostly never will) on an east wind. The bird had disappeared so I checked my calls and found it under the title “Eastern chiffchaff” A perfect match. I tried a bit of playback but no response from any of the chiffchaffs including a few that were calling as normal with their upslurred “hoo-eet” call. I tried to relocate the calling bird and I did find a female redstart and another yellow-browed warbler for my pains, both that were keeping well in the canopy and I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been searching so hard. But the “mystery” bird did not call again and neither did any of the other chiffchaffs after the calling bout that attracted my attention initially. The rain was becoming more persistent and I had to leave to pick up my family from the airport.

Later I browsed xeno-canto (the web site that has many recordings of most species globally) and confirmed the call I was hearing was a perfect match for Eastern chiffchaff, but what I didn’t realise until then, that this is an alternative name for Mountain or Caucasian chiffchaff. A potential first for Britain and one of the more unlikely ones, being a relatively short distance migrant. I had to go out again to look for it, even though it was still raining with the haar coming in. Balcomie was much as I had left it – I checked five or more chiffchaffs feeding in the same area very carefully but none showed any of the plumage characteristics of a Mountain chiffchaff and none called at all. I learnt a lot about chiffchaff plumage and structure checking every bird from bill to tail tip. The yellow-browed warbler was still there but relegated to a distraction rather than the star. Being in one place for an hour I was able to note that it called once about every ten minutes and was only visible in total for about a couple of minutes: a good lesson in how easy they are to overlook and this one was more or less in the same few sycamores twenty meters in front of me the whole time!

I got soaked again but was actually quite relieved and happy – refinding such a difficult bird to identify on my own would not convince anybody, least of all me. If the strange chiffchaff really is around, better found with a few others and when photos and recordings can be made in the better conditions forecast for tomorrow. The most likely thing is that some common chiffchaffs occasionally make all sorts of calls in the same way that plumage aberrations turn up. But all very exciting and I have learnt a lot about all the characters that make up chiffchaff identification today. Roll on tomorrow.

A common chiffchaff

Posted October 13, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 12th   Leave a comment

The winds became more southerly overnight but there was heavy rain just after dark and during the early part of the night. Great conditions for a fall of migrants. Sure enough, at first light at Kilminning there were literally hundreds of redwings flying up from the trees and the ground, and there were flocks passing all morning, some still coming in from the sea. There were many blackbirds and song thrushes as well, with a few fieldfares, and lots of bramblings going over. But the real thrush highlight were the ring ouzels. I saw at least three this morning, starting off with a young female in the rowan at the entrance to Kilminning, by the go-kart sign. It helpfully was sitting in the middle of the road as I drove in before retreating to the rowan tree. It is full of berries and on the sheltered side of Kilminning – the wind has remained strong all day making it hard to locate birds, and making it hard for the birds to find sheltered spots. It was really instructive to see this bird – obviously a ring ouzel when I first saw it out in the open, and because it gave the pebbles struck together chacking call that is so distinctive – but then pretty much like a blackbird when it was less obviously on display in the middle of the rowan. It made me realise I could easily have overlooked a couple among the blackbirds yesterday. The moral is – on easterly stormy winds – double check every sooty billed blackbird for a first winter female ring ouzel. A much more obvious male joined the first bird a bit later, with a clear, large white breast band, and I saw a third bird, another obvious male on the golf course out at Craighead. I suspect there are a few ring ouzels feeding away in Crail gardens right now being overlooked as blackbirds.

How to spot a first winter female ring ouzel when it is doing its best to look like a blackbird and be overlooked

The Patch at Fife Ness had at least two yellow-browed warblers – two were calling at the same time from different areas, and I suspect there was a third there as well. There was a pied flycatcher – the first of the autumn – happily catching insects in the sycamore canopy in the more sheltered sycamores with the yellow-brows. I had a frustrating brief view of the tail end of a greyish bird with white tail tips disappearing into a bramble – probably a barred warbler – but just not quite good enough view to be sure. I couldn’t tempt it out with playback or refind it, but that means little with super skulking barred warblers. There was also a chiff-chaff and a female blackcap that I didn’t see yesterday suggesting that these were new in migrants – I found almost nothing in the Patch yesterday except redwings.

Sea watching at Fife Ness was exciting – strong winds and gannets like albatrosses soaring by at close range, auks shooting by like cannon balls. The highlight was picking up thrushes and flocks of starling far out and watching them come in from the sea. There were a few red-throated divers, wigeon, common scoter and velvet scoter passing.

The rain has now set in for the rest of the day and probably through tomorrow. This will keep the current migrants here and may bring some more down, although I suspect we won’t be able to find them in such poor conditions until it clears up a bit.

Posted October 12, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 11th   Leave a comment

There were easterly winds all day yesterday and they became quite strong overnight. There was a haar first thing but still with a strong south-easterly wind. A change in the weather at last and although it has made a murky and damp day today, it has brought some birds in at last. I found a yellow-browed warbler at the top of Kilminning almost immediately I arrived – I was trying to track down a calling chiff-chaff and then picked up the yellow-brow that was with it. Quite a dull bird and I thought of Hume’s Warbler – the even more eastern, rarer version of a yellow-brow. It had dark legs and a subdued back pattern consistent with Humes, although two clear wing bars and the yellow bill base of a yellow-browed almost certainly made it wishful thinking. I waited for it to call to clinch it but it remained silent. Great views though and I am glad to have caught up with one at last this year – an autumn without a yellow-browed warbler in Crail is unthinkable. I heard another one calling a bit later from the garden of the ruined cottage at Balcomie and also met a birder who had seen one at Craighead. So there are a few about at last.

Yellow-browed warbler – here at last

There were other birds that had been brought in. Probably 20 or so bramblings around Kilminning (the first of the winter), 50 or so redwings and lots of blackbirds and song thrushes. The Patch at Fife Ness had goldcrests and redwings but I didn’t find anything else of note. The haar cleared a bit by late morning so I sat at Fife Ness for a few minutes before the rain set in. A great northern diver flew by as close as they ever get, just along the edge of the rocks. When you see them close up you realise what a monster they are – as big as a cormorant, and with their huge flappy feet, making them seem even bigger.

Posted October 11, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 8th   2 comments

After my sorry efforts of photographing the little stint I am glad John caught up with the bird today and took a proper photo. It may be here for a few days. The best time to see it will be at high tide, and when walking along the shore just after the north end of Balcomie Beach, but before the coastal path leaves the back of the beach.

The little stint at Balcomie yesterday and today

Posted October 8, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 7th   Leave a comment

John and I were out at Roome Bay thirty minutes before sunrise this morning. We staked out the gorse bushes hoping to hear some early morning pinging and then perhaps to get a photo before it moved on. It was a cold windy dawn and there was no sign of the bearded tit of last night. It may just have been hunkering down out of the wind, but probably it left with the clear skies and calm conditions of last night like a true migrant. There were a couple of redwings that passed over as we waited.

It stayed windy, becoming even windier in the afternoon. It was high tide at Balcomie when I went along the coastal path. There were groups of redshanks and dunlins, with a few turnstone all along the high tide line, feeding on the stranded seaweed piles. As one flock of dunlin flew up in front of me I saw one bird was smaller, neater and whiter looking. A little stint – a once a year bird for Crail. It landed nearby and I was able to watch it picking among the seaweed, looking small next to the dunlins, and tiny next to the redshanks. It was a juvenile with a neat double “V” of white on its back.

The little stint at Balcomie this afternoon in various poses to show how distinctive they are compared to a dunlin (on the left) and tiny compared to a redshank. The middle photo shows the back “V” of a juvenile well.

At Fife Ness it was windier still, with distant rain showers out to sea. Still large flocks of gannets diving well offshore with a couple of sooty shearwaters and three great skuas hanging around too. A couple of pomarine skuas passed heading north; one a dark juvenile and the other an intermediate. In contrast to yesterday there were far fewer kittiwakes and many more guillemots – probably hundreds passing in the hour I was there. There haven’t been any terns this weekend, or any swallows around Crail and as I watched my first fieldfare of the autumn come in from well out to sea, just above the waves to minimise the cold headwind, it felt fairly wintery.

Lots of guillemots passing Fife Ness today

Posted October 7, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 6th   Leave a comment

One of the reasons I love birding so much is that birds can and do turn up anywhere – in dull places, in routine moments – suddenly transforming them into something special. This happened this evening on a dog walk. I hardly ever go out dog walking in Crail at dusk – you can’t really see anything – and there is something a bit suspect about walking around town at night with a pair of binoculars. Anyway, we are dog sitting at the moment, and as often happens when teenage daughters are tasked with something, the afternoon dog walk didn’t happen, so it was left up to me and my wife to walk our dog guest, Jack, last thing. I nearly left by binoculars behind but there was just a bit of light left and so I hoped that if we headed down to Roome Bay we could at least appreciate the gulls coming to roost. It was a beautiful evening tonight, so Jack and daughter were quickly forgiven. Birds or no birds, Crail is a lovely place to walk around just after sunset. We ended up on Roome Bay beach admiring the May in the gloaming when I heard a bird calling from the gorse bushes at the east end of the bay, above us. A distinctive “ping” – a bearded tit! They have very distinct metallic pinging calls and when you start birding their call is one of the first ones you learn. Because it is very distinctive and also because bearded tits are reedbed specialists and are great skulkers. If you want to ever see them you have to learn their call so you can locate them flying suddenly between dense reed clumps. And so here is the problem – bearded tits are one of the most habitat specialised birds in the UK. They only ever occur in reedbeds: I have never seen a bearded tit except on a reed stem, in a reedbed. Of course, they must disperse between patches of reedbeds and I have read very occasional accounts of people seeing a flock flying up from a reedbed noisily and heading high and with purpose away from it, presumably on the start of a hunt for somewhere new. But these are like stories of narwhals (real unicorns) – I would never expect to see one unless I go to the special places where they live.

A male bearded tit – obviously not the Crail one tonight because this is in a reedbed where they always are.

But here was a bearded tit, pinging among the ticking robins in a gorse bush in Roome Bay. Just as I was pointing out the possible bearded tit (only a possible at this point because although I know their call really well we were in unicorn territory here) to my wife, who knows the call too, Jack started barking picking up on my excitement. A rapid turnaround from the hero of the hour for getting me out, to the zero of now, making it impossible to hear the bird. I ran away as fast as I could up from the beach back onto the footpath and along to the side of the gorse bushes, reaching for my phone to play back bearded tit call so I could double check it wasn’t all wishful thinking. As my phone started pinging too, a bird popped out of the gorse immediately. Despite the waning light, it was a lovely view – a male bearded tit – they are like painted porcelain and this bird was unusually out in the open, moving along the fence just above the beach towards me. Bearded tits are one of the most social bird species. They hate being on their own and I have always seen them in flocks. This poor dispersing male must have thought it had hit the jackpot and found some other bearded tits in Crail after hearing my playback. I turned my playback off feeling guilty, but perhaps not very guilty because this was now definitely a bearded tit, in Crail, not just a possible unicorn. Number 226 for my Crail list and not one I was ever expecting to get. The closest ones in Fife are over on the Tay estuary and as I have said they never go anywhere but reedbeds.

The bird was a beautiful male. Bearded tits are unusual in that first year birds adopt full adult plumage straight away in their first autumn so this could easily have been a dispersing juvenile. It pinged away in the gorse bush for another few minutes as it began to get properly dark. I imagine it will be roosting there tonight. John and I will try to get a photo at first light tomorrow before it sets off on its continued journey to find a reedbed and some real bearded tit companions.

New Crail birds notwithstanding, today was a nice autumn day, with just the hint of promise to it. The wind was just a bit from the north overnight and this morning there were a couple of redwings – my first for the winter – two chiff-chaffs, and a lot of robins and goldcrests, that probably all came in last night. Some obvious small bird migration at last. By mid-morning the wind was back westerly and the brief hope was extinguished. Conditions were good for sea-watching though and I spent an hour mid-afternoon at Fife Ness. It was all long distance stuff, but in an hour I had three sooty shearwaters (my first definites for the year) and about five manx shearwaters milling around with the hundreds of kittiwakes, gannets and auks feeding in dense flocks out at the horizon. There was a steady stream of great skuas passing through the flocks – 12 or more in the hour – and at least three arctic skuas harassing the kittiwakes. There were even a few bottle-nosed dolphins to make it a real seabird spectacular. Shame it was all happening out at 60x magnification on the horizon. But the visibility was great, only a light breeze and no heat haze, and there was something to look at continually for the hour. It would have made it great Crail day, never mind random bearded tits later.

Sooty shearwater – at last making it onto the year list today. There were three out with the gannets and kittiwakes at Fife Ness this afternoon

Posted October 6, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings