Archive for January 2019

January 30th   Leave a comment

Woodpigeons are a very common bird. Probably our most abundant larger bird. You can’t have failed to notice the big flocks around Crail this winter. So much available food for large birds of prey. It’s a shame we don’t have any goshawks about: there are enough woodpigeons to support several pairs. I did see one of our peregrines having a go today though as I returned from St Andrews, early enough that there was still light in the sky. A female (big!) was stooping at a flock of several hundred woodpigeon wheeling around the sheep fields just north of Bow Butts, trying to get a meal sorted before a very cold night. I didn’t see whether it was successful but I have been seeing lots of piles of plucked woodpigeon feathers in the stubble fields over the last couple of months. Buzzards and sparrowhawks catch woodpigeons as well so these will not all be peregrine kills. Even so, numerically, the peregrines will barely be making a dent in the thousands of woodpigeons in the East Neuk. They will, however, be making a difference in how long woodpigeons can feed and how much energy they use: when you see the trees covered with alert woodpigeons, or a wheeling flock, they have probably been spooked by a predator and they have to wait to be sure that the coast is clear. After all who wants to be the first to break cover if the peregrine is still around? In cold weather like today, this might make all the difference between breaking even energetically as individuals use more energy than they gain. Some woodpigeons will be starting to starve because they are too frightened to feed for as long as they need to. The fear of predation has a much bigger effect than the actual act itself. That peregrine being around Crail this evening may have pushed some of the weaker birds over the edge and a very cold night may then finish the job. And if not, these starving birds will be easy pickings the following day for the buzzards and sparrowhawks and foxes, less well adapted to catching a healthy, fast flying woodpigeon.

Peregrine – you just need one around for it to have big effects on its prey


Posted January 31, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 27th   2 comments


It is a great twite winter. They keep on being reported from all over the East Neuk and today I had over 100 birds – probably many more than this – in the stubble and harvested cabbage fields (now with sheep in them) going east out of Boarhills towards the sea. As you leave Boarhills heading for the coastal path, you can go either left or right at the doocote but if you continue east along the road past a few houses one field on from the main village, you then hit the twite fields. I have never seen so many together. They are keeping together in 2-3 large flocks, occasionally mixed in with the many yellowhammers and corn buntings that are also down there. I continued down to the pond and Kenly water. All was much as on New Year’s Day, and no luck again getting a water rail to respond.

Posted January 27, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 22nd   Leave a comment

There is a flock of 6 bullfinch going around the gardens of Crail at the moment. Bullfinches come and go in Crail – we can have several years without them – but there seem to be a lot about at the moment. I have been hearing them all over the East Neuk, their soft whistling “who” that they use to keep in contact is a giveaway. Despite their very bright plumage they can be quite inconspicuous, often staying quite still – it is only their calls that really draw attention.

Male Bullfinch

Posted January 22, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 20th   Leave a comment

The dull, misty weather continued to this morning. Balcomie had the same stillness as Kingsbarns yesterday. The tide was coming in pushing the usual crowd of redshanks, oystercatchers and sanderlings up to the top of the beach. A flock of 7 brent geese came past heading north. They are more usual in autumn on passage, but occasionally the Eden Estuary birds wander a bit along the coast. And we had a single bird for a couple of weeks mid-winter a few years ago feeding on the algae at the outflow of the Denburn at Roome Bay, although this was likely to have been an injured bird as it was on its own. Fife Ness was as quiet as it ever gets – barely anything passing except guillemots and a single red-throated diver. But the gannets and fulmars will start trickling back in a couple of weeks.

Brent geese

Posted January 20, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 19th   Leave a comment

I walked from Boarhills to Cambo, down along the Kenly Burn and then along the coastal path before heading back up through the woods by the burn. It was a great walk, starting with two dippers singing along Kenly Water. You normally never hear dippers sing very well because they sing from rocks surrounded by rushing water, but it was exceptionally quiet today. No wind at all and a slight mist damping every distant sound. There has barely been any rain for the last 6 weeks so the burns are all running slowly, and stretches of the Kenly are a series of pools. I could hear the dippers singing from a long way off as I walked down the side of the burn. There was one bird near to Boarhills and a second further down at the metal bridge. It’s easy to map dipper territories because they fly away from you until they reach the end of their territory when they suddenly change direction and fly back and past you. I always thought there was only one territory along the burn there, but it’s good habitat with several areas where there are small rocky cliffs overhanging the water, where they prefer to site their nests. Both birds were singing beside such cliffs so probably the centre of their territories and where they intend to nest. Dippers are quite early nesters, getting going in March in lowland territories like Kenly.

Dipper – they forage like thrushes except underwater and in usually fast flowing streams, extracting aquatic insects like caddis flies

I continued down to the mouth of the Kenly. It was high tide and as I turned the corner to head towards Kingsbarns I saw a small bird fly off the rocks, flying very low and fast with a whirring flight. I got on to it as it landed further on – bright orange and shining blue. A kingfisher! My first on the patch since 2015 when I had one at Fife Ness. Kingfishers are quite happy foraging in rock pools or in a calm sea during the winter, although they always breed on fresh water streams, lakes or river, which is why they are scarce around Crail. I heard the kingfisher calling a bit later as I walked down Kingsbarns Beach, although I am glad I saw it earlier because it was just the one whistle and I wouldn’t have been sure otherwise.

Kingfisher – everyone can identify a kingfisher on a good view, but most don’t expect to see them on the sea shore

I sat down to have a cup of coffee to celebrate the kingfisher. As I did I saw a very small seal swimming between skerries, close in. I glanced away thinking that it really was a very small seal and a bit close in. The penny dropped and I quickly scanned with my binoculars to see an otter swimming strongly along the shore. It was brief view, but an ottery head and the long fat tail is unmistakeable. My second live otter on the patch! It reached the rocks and then disappeared behind them. I have only seen a live otter here once before, crossing the St Andrews Road just outside of Crail on May 5th2016, and I found a road kill female otter in more or less the same place in October 2013. There are otters regularly seen at St Andrews and at Levenmouth but they are very elusive here. As I have written before – I think there have been otters regularly about Crail for the last decade because that was when the very common and visible mink which they outcompete became very hard to find. But we never see them. Like the badgers – even though they are much, much more common than otters – because they are strictly nocturnal you might not see one, from one year to the next. It’s a shame, it is hard to describe the feeling of seeing a wild otter and even in places like Shetland where this might happen every day, it brings such joy to your day. I am still smiling at the thought of such a wild, charismatic mammal swimming past my doorstep.

Nothing was going to top the otter, but there was a greenshank on the beach just north of Kingsbarns and I flushed my first woodcock of the year from the woods at Cambo. It is not a very good woodcock year, this year. They seem scarce, probably because it has been so mild so they haven’t been forced to the frost free coast in any numbers this year.


Posted January 19, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 17th   Leave a comment

The short-eared owl at Kingsbarns golf course – taken yesterday

I finally caught up with the short-eared owl at Kingsbarns. My mistake has been to look in the stubble fields when it has been hunting almost entirely over the golf course. Kingsbarns Golf Course is quite well screened and you have to walk right into the middle by the club house to get a good view over it. Once I did that today I saw the owl within a couple of minutes. I haven’t had a good view of a short-eared owl for a while. We get one or two a year in Crail – sometimes even flying over Crail and I have it on my garden list – usually just after coming in from the North Sea in September or October, but they don’t usually stay around. This bird has unusually been at Kingsbarns since October and as I have written, it has proved a bit elusive for me.

But today it all worked out perfectly. Bright late afternoon sunshine, crisply clear and no wind. I sat down in the middle of the course on a hummock and watched it for 40 minutes, sometimes very close but mostly quartering the rough grass on the other side of the course, occasionally dropping down after a vole. I could appreciate every detail. The general rule is that if it is an owl out in the open during daylight it is almost always a short-eared owl, but long-eared owls can do the same so it is always worth double checking. The trick is to see a clearly defined streaked breast separated from an unstreaked belly, or see the clearly defined black wing tips, that make it a short-eared owl. If you have a really close flyby – and I did as I walked out through the stubble fields (followed by the owl of course now I had already seen it on the golf course…) – then you can check whether it has yellow (short-eared) or orange (long-eared) eyes. All owls are beautiful because of their incredibly light flight. They barely have to flap to stay in the air with their long wings and bodies that are mostly feathers. But most of the time you just see them glancing through a headlight beam or as a shape in the gloaming. Not today though. For what it’s worth considering my track record with this owl – try late afternoon from the top of one of the hummocks about 100 meters into the golf course, south of the entrance just above the beach car park. It will make your day when you see the owl.

Another photo of the short-eared owl at Kingsbarns taken yesterday

Posted January 17, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 16th   Leave a comment

Kestrels are half way to being owls. They are often most active at dawn and dusk, taking advantage of when small mammals are most active. And of course, they eat mice, voles and shrews. The numbers of these, particularly voles, boom and bust (cycle) every two or three years and so like owls, kestrel breeding success varies considerably depending on whether it is a “vole” year or not. Kestrels can be flexible though. I have watched them chase and catch birds like meadow pipits, looking and behaving like merlins, dropping on skylarks from a hover or a high perch, or dashing after linnet flocks after a covert approach like a sparrowhawk. Owls pretty much always ambush perched prey and don’t chase in flight. They are slow, surprise predators: dashing around at night, even with spectacular eyesight is not a great idea.


Posted January 16, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 13th   Leave a comment

The distribution of birds in winter is much patchier than in the summer. This was really well illustrated by a walk through Kippo wood above Kingsbarns this morning. There was a flock of coal tits as I entered the wood and then absolutely nothing except a couple of blackbirds until I reached Kenly Farm on the other side where there was a big flock of fieldfares. On the way back through the stubble on one side, I put up just two meadow pipits and saw a couple of buzzards, but after crossing the wood again to the other side (hearing a jay on the way) it was a different world. Hundreds of chaffinches and yellowhammers with a sprinkling of starlings and mistle thrushes feeding in the stubble there. Everything was pretty much concentrated into one field corner by the main road, flying back into the wood when disturbed. All the woodland birds seemed to be concentrated there too – big tit flocks and even a flock of at least 6 treecreepers. It really is boom and bust but makes sense. The birds congregate where there is food, where there is shelter and there is safety in numbers. In summer a bird’s needs are much greater (to raise chicks) and its requirements much more specialised, not least in needing to have a fixed nest site, so a permanent territory needs to be found and maintained. In winter, they can be less fussy and of course much more mobile.

Male chaffinch – there is a flock of hundreds along the road at Kippo Wood at the moment

Posted January 13, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 10th   Leave a comment

There were a lot of common woodland birds to be seen at Cambo this morning. There was little wind so it was easy to hear and so locate the tits and treecreepers up in the sycamores. It was mild enough that there were even great tits starting their spring song – a loud clear “tee-cher, tee-cher….”: they were singing away in Crail too. Down at the Kenly Burn mouth there were the usual flocks of gulls and ducks. I counted about 50 wigeon. I only realised there were so many when a dog walker going over the rocks put everything up.

Pair of wigeon


Posted January 10, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 8th   Leave a comment

I was returning from giving a talk to the Dundee Naturalists Society last night at about half past nine when I saw a barn owl flying over the road at Balmashie, between Fairmont and Boarhills. There is a ruined house or farm building just by the side of the road there that I bet would make a good nest site for a barn owl. That with seeing my last barn owl in exactly the same location last year makes me think that this is probably a resident owl or two. So look out for ghostly white birds crossing the road (usually about car height which is not so good in terms of collision risk but good in terms of them catching your headlights). Barn owls look like gulls in a headlight view because they are so pale. When they are perched they can be less obvious unless you are checking every fence post along the way. Luckily it’s a quiet road so you can drive safely and look for owls as well.

Barn Owl

Posted January 9, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 3rd   Leave a comment

There is a little grebe down at the harbour in Crail. It has been hanging around at least since New Year’s day. Look for a very small duck like bird, diving on its own between the harbour and the point to the west. They look like a duckling – and they are also known as dabchicks. Little grebes are everywhere – usually on every small pond and lake throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. But because of Crail’s lack of ponds they are only locally at Carnbee, West Quarry Braes and Kilconquar. In colder weather a few end up on the sea. The last one in Crail was also by harbour beach on September 27th 2014 and there was a little grebe in residence just off the shore at Balcomie during the new year of 2011. There seemed to be many more little grebes than usual at Carnbee this New Year’s day (10-15) so perhaps they had a good breeding season and the young ones are now dispersing and looking for new territories. Inevitably a few end up on the shore where they can feed quite well on small fish for a while, although they never breed by salt water.

Little grebe

Posted January 3, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 1st 2019   Leave a comment

A New Year and a new year’s list. I was out from first light to dusk at Boarhills and the Kenly Burn, Kingsbarns beach, across to Carnbee via Kippo, Cambo (for moorhen that I missed at Carnbee), Balcomie Beach, Kilminning and Saucehope. In total, 81 species, so pretty good but not beating the 85 of last year. I was unlucky today I think. I missed out on water rail and dipper at Boarhills, and long-tailed duck, common scoter, treecreeper, stonechat and razorbill that have been every day species for the last month. Most annoying was missing out corn bunting – I checked the field at Saucehope after 3 pm when everything had left to roost. Still, with a little luck, 90 species are achievable mid-winter around Crail. I had a couple of lucky species to compensate for missing the common: a greenshank at the mouth of the Kenly Burn (this is an occasional wintering site for them) and a pomarine skua harassing herring gulls out at sea from Kingsbarns Beach. The skua was moving from gull group to gull group, and occasionally feeding from the surface of the water with them, so wasn’t just passing by. Mid-winter skuas are fairly unusual but pomarine skuas are the most likely species.

Greenshank – most winter in wetlands in sub-Saharan Africa but a few stay with us

Posted January 1, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

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