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

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Posted October 6, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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