Archive for February 2019

February 28th   1 comment


If you go through Denburn you will notice a large mixed flock of great, blue and coal tits, with the occasional smaller goldcrest. Tits are always noticeable, but among them are often one or two treecreepers that are much less obvious. Treecreepers are very well camouflaged and as they scuttle up and around the branches and trunks of trees they are frequently hidden. The best way of finding them is to listen to their call – a high pitched “zeeee, zeeee”, a bit more whistle like than a goldcrest or a coal tit. Another way is to watch for any flying flock member that suddenly apparently collides with the side of the tree and then continues running straight up it. Treecreepers aren’t that shy but are always on the move so you have to get lucky for a close view. When you do they are perhaps one of our nicest birds, with a delicately curved bill and a ragged long tail that braces it as it creeps up a tree.

Posted February 28, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 24th   Leave a comment

It has been unseasonably warm this week with afternoon temperatures reaching 14 degrees. Today we even had the haar rolling in: we usually only get this starting in April. The fog is formed on a warm day when the air heats up and then hits the cold North Sea. As it also gets warmer inland, the consequent inshore breeze then pushes the fog into Crail. It never penetrates very far because as the haar comes inland it warms up again. But Crail’s position with sea pretty much all around means it can sit on us all day. It can be very frustrating when the rest of Fife is having a beautiful day and we are shivering in the fog. When I arrived at Balcomie this morning the haar was still out towards Kingsbarns and it was beautifully sunny with a flat calm sea. I was able to check the dunlins and sanderlings flocks on the beach and the sea ducks offshore – still mergansers and common scoters but no long-tailed ducks. But then the beach and the birds started disappearing. It was enough to send me back home after half an hour imagining that the sea really was still somewhere out there in the grey at Fife Ness. A hundred meters inland the sun was shining again.


If you have been driving to St Andrews from Crail past Cambo this week you will have noticed the grey herons standing in the wheat field on the west of the road. On the east side is the heronry, in the tops of the few pines in the line of trees beside the road. Some herons are still adding sticks to their already large nests – repairing the damage caused by winter storms or just generally making them bigger. Grey heron nests aren’t as bad as stork nests that get bigger and bigger as they are added to every year, but some certainly look like they have been used for several years. Some of the herons may even be on eggs by now, although this would be unusually early for Crail. But everything has started much earlier this year: great and blue tits are nest building a month early and I bet there is a blackbird somewhere in a Crail garden on a full clutch of eggs already.

Grey heron nest building

It’s a risky strategy nesting early because the weather may turn colder, but the rewards are high with time for a second or even third brood over the summer. It’s less of a risk for very large birds like herons because the eggs take a long time to hatch anyway (a month versus 2 weeks for a blackbird) and the adults can protect them nicely against the cold when incubating. It’s the chick stage where the cold really makes a difference. The parents need to leave the nest to get food for the chicks and small chicks cool rapidly, not being able to thermoregulate until a few days old. A prolonged cold or rainy early chick stage can be disaster. A small bird will renest, of course, but each nesting attempt is costly, and any bird that gets the timing just right will be ahead for the year. So, an early spring is a tricky hope for the best for the resident birds. For the migrant birds, like the whitethroats or sedge warblers dues in two months’ time, whose time of arrival here is set by conditions much further south, and who can have no current local knowledge of breeding conditions until they get here, it is even trickier. Resident birds might start too early and then try again, but migrants can miss the boat entirely, arriving too late to time their chicks to the best conditions. This is one of the reasons we worry about climate change. It is unpredictability makes life difficult for animals: not warmer temperatures and rising sea levels (although they are a problem), and climate change is mostly about things becoming unpredictable or unreliable. But before I get too gloomy – we have had always had early and late springs, and the first egg date of something like a great tit can vary by over a month in two consecutive years for the same individual. Evolution has already put a lot of necessary flexibility in place – we will just have to hope there is enough.

Posted February 24, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 17th   Leave a comment

February always seems to be the quietest month of the year. The excitement of starting the New Year is done by the end of January when most of the usual birds are on the year list, and there is then little change in the bird community until March. True this year spring does seem to have started early but this is just the resident birds getting more active rather than any new birds coming through. We might expect the first migrants to only start passing in March with the meadow pipits, lesser black-backed gulls and if we are lucky with some easterlies, a black redstart or two.

I was out at all my usual haunts this weekend – Balcomie, Kilminning, Fife Ness, Kingsbarns and the fields and shore between them and Crail. The most unusual bird was a little grebe diving amongst the flooding rock pools at Balcomie. I have had little grebes there before in the winter but only very rarely. This, the one at Crail harbour last month and the tens at Carnbee Reservoir still fit the pattern of a great breeding season last year and low mortality this winter. Every little pond should have a breeding little grebe this year – maybe even the pond at Cambo. Other birds of note were a good number of twite in with the linnets in the sheep fields just north of Kingsbarns; a roosting grey plover on the shore at Kingsbarns and quite a few red-throated diver past Fife Ness.

Little Grebe

The gardener at Wormiston House found a dead bird of prey on Thursday 15thand dropped it round to my house for identification. She was also suspicious that there might have been some foul play because it was lying intact on a path with no sign of injury. It was a young male sparrowhawk and it was about as skinny as a bird can get. No fat at all on it and its breast muscles were so reduced that its keel was almost sharp. I doubt it could fly very well. It had starved to death: not too an uncommon fate for a first-year bird with limited hunting experience. Bad luck is a terrible thing for an athlete predator. Once a bird of prey starts losing condition, then they are less likely to be able to hunt successfully and so they lose even more condition. A positive feedback spiral that results in rapid starvation. Sparrowhawks breed every year from 1 year’s old, can live for several years and can produce 5 chicks in a season. They are not uncommon, but we are not overrun with sparrowhawks. So – as Darwin famously worked out – most must never get to breed. The poor hunters, the less capable and the unlucky meet natural selection, and this can be as brutal for sparrowhawks as it is for their prey. It is worth bearing in mind when a sparrowhawk crashes through your bird feeder, carrying off a hapless tree sparrow or chaffinch. They have a quick, sudden, unanticipated death. The failing sparrowhawk will have days of getting less and less able to feed itself, before starving to death. Not every young sparrowhawk dies in their first winter of course. I saw two today doing much better. One with a newly caught yellowhammer at Kingsbarns – in fact the length of the footpath by the sheep fields was punctuated by little piles of feathers from previous kills, mostly linnets. The second, only noticed because of the blue tits alarming as it approached, slipping silently and quickly over the wall of my garden, with just a centimetre to spare to better surprise anything in my neighbour’s garden. There is a such a duality with a sparrowhawk hunt –rooting for the prey but also rooting for the hawk. I see many more unsuccessful hunts than successful ones – it’s about 10-15% success rate for a sparrowhawk. Their margins are tight.

The dead male sparrowhawk from Wormiston – that’s my foot on the left to show how small males actually are

Greenfinches have been declining throughout the UK because of an epidemic of trichomonosis. They have been relatively hard to find around Crail in the last few years. But this spring they seem to be all over Crail and surrounding area. Hopefully they are over the disease and their populations are bouncing back. They are very cheerful spring singers and brighten up any garden, so I am very glad they seem to be returning.

Greenfinch – welcome back

Posted February 17, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 14th   1 comment

It has almost begun to feel a bit like spring these last few days. This morning it was ten degrees and there was a lot of birdsong as I walked through Crail first thing. The robins and wrens have been singing a while, but they are now joined by great tits, blackbirds, song thrushes, greenfinches and dunnocks. This evening, just as it was getting dark – now nearly at 6pm – there was a single blackbird singing from a rooftop on the High Street close to my garden. It was perfectly still and in between the occasional cars otherwise perfectly silent. The blackbird had the air all to itself, broadcasting its territory and readiness for spring to Crail. Blackbirds may have the nicest, most beautiful song in the world: I have heard a lot of them, but still think it is hard to beat a solo singing blackbird.

A beautiful male blackbird – one of our best, if not the best, singers

Another sign of spring is the returning fulmars. Some come back to sit on their nests in February even though they won’t lay any eggs until May. Older birds seem to visit their nests constantly through the year except for mid-winter. How the pairs synchronise their visits to coincide seems to be a mystery, but perhaps one just has to wait until its mate appears. This might explain why there is such a lot of hanging around.


Posted February 14, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 10th   Leave a comment

Balcomie Beach hasn’t changed much in the last week. Lots of a sanderlings and a few dunlin, although the golden and grey plover have moved on. At sea there seem to be more long-tailed ducks – probably 20 out from Fife Ness – in a busy flock with some of the males displaying to the females.

One of the 25 or so sanderling on Balcomie Beach at the moment

Yesterday I saw a colour-ringed juvenile great black-backed gull roosting with some herring gulls by the boating pond at Roome Bay. The ringer got back to me very promptly this morning after I googled the ring number and type to find their identity. It was ringed as a chick on Rona (the northerly bit of the May Island) on the 25th June 2018, and was seen again at Fife Ness in August and now again in Crail, 230 days later and only 8 km from where it was born. Some birds don’t disperse very far. Gulls are long lived and this gull may be here for next 40 years, so I will be keeping an eye out for it future winters.

Yellow 097:M. The colour-ringed great black-backed gull at Roome Bay yesterday.

The shag ring on harbour beach – you need the colour and the 3 letters. This is a white ring that has got dirty and dull in the 5 years the shag was wearing it.

I was also handed a shag ring yesterday found on harbour beach. I emailed Professor Jane Reid at Aberdeen University, one of the leaders of the project that has been ringing shags on the May Island for many years now, to find out its history. This bird had led a slightly more interesting life than the great black-backed gull. The shag was also ringed in June as a chick on the May Island, but back in 2013. It has bred on the island ever since although in winter it has wandered as far as Aberdeenshire. It was last seen alive at Fife Ness in September and considering that the ring has now washed up in Crail, minus a corpse, it probably died soon afterwards. If you have ever looked at the shags flying past  Crail, or hauled out on the rocks at Fife Ness, you can’t fail to have noticed most are ringed with their own three letter code and colour. If you ever note down a combination or find a ring (often on a washed up corpse after a winter’s storm), then let me know and I will pass it on. The study has thousands of sightings now but the more the merrier because like the gulls, shags can live a long time, and finding a ring can complete a history of a bird, showing categorically that it has died rather than having gone somewhere else to live where there is no-one to spot its rings.

A shag breeding on the May Island – almost all of them are colour-ringed, and many of them were ringed as chicks on the island

Posted February 10, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 2nd   Leave a comment

Balcomie Beach was much busier than the past few weeks. Some of the birds, like the flocks of starling, were taking advantage of the frost free seaweed piles to forage in, but I am not sure why there were more waders unless the colder weather elsewhere has pushed more our way. There were probably 50 sanderling on the beach and 20 dunlin. Really noticeable were the two grey plover and the 20 or so golden plover foraging along the tide edge. Golden plover aren’t that unusual on Balcomie Beach but they tend not to be foraging. Today they all were, probably because of the frozen ground elsewhere. Grey plover have been absent from Balcomie Beach for the whole winter until now: we usually have at least one resident. Splitting grey and golden plover is slightly tricky, but grey plovers are, well, grey in tone, and never show any golden brown, or any brownish tones that golden plover do. There are some structural differences but today both species were hunched up because of the cold so they were no help. If you see one flying, just check the underwing. Grey plovers have a big black patch on their armpit (wing pit!) whereas golden plover just have a uniform pale underwing.

Grey plover – all greys and blacks

Golden plover – lots of yellowy brown. For once the names are really helpful for identification.

As I watched the beach a sparrowhawk made an attack dash from the southernmost headland. It headed out so it was parallel to the beach, well out to sea and so I think hoping it would be much more unexpected and inconspicuous. Sparrowhawks don’t usually make their attacks from the sea side and shorebirds will respond to an alarm call by flying out to sea. It’s plan didn’t succeed and the golden plovers spotted it first tens of meters out. The beach emptied and the sparrowhawk continued over the beach and disappeared over the golf course. The waders were back in a couple of minutes. When its cold they can’t afford to waste energy flying about and they can’t waste feeding time. A sparrowhawk can just try again and again on a cold day.

John was out at the beach a bit later and saw a sparrowhawk making a similar attack in exactly the same place. This time the sparrowhawk caught a turnstone. Turnstones rely a lot on the camouflage and will sometime crouch when a raptor attacks. This is a great strategy for peregrines which catch in flight but very poor for sparrowhawks which catch prey on the ground. The sparrowhawk was a young male and turnstones represent the upper end of the comfortable size of prey they can handle easily. The sparrowhawk carried its prey to the edge of the beach and but had to land to readjust its grip on the struggling turnstone. This attracted the attention of a couple of carrion crows who were quick to come in to steal the turnstone. Carrion crows are much larger than a male sparrowhawk and when they work as a pair the outcome is pretty certain: the sparrowhawk gives way. When I was doing my PhD many years ago on the other side of the Firth of Forth, I studied sparrowhawk hunting behaviour, and many of their hunts on shorebirds – sometimes 25% – resulted in a theft of their prey by a carrion crow. Sometimes the prey even escaped during the scuffle between the hawk and the crows. The crucial factor for the sparrowhawk was whether it could get the prey into dense cover before the crows caught up with it. There is no cover at the back of Balcomie Beach except marram grass, and although even this puts crows off a bit, it is not much cover at all. I wonder if this influences their hunting tactics: attacking something small and more portable like a starling or a pipit would seem to be a better strategy.

Sparrowhawk with the just caught turnstone

A few minutes later – after a carrion crow stole the turnstone from the sparrowhawk. The technical term is “kleptoparasitism”

I did a quick sea watch from Fife Ness. It was a bit cold for a sustained watch. There were some long-tailed duck, a couple of red-throated divers and a distant adult little gull heading north. They are fairly unusual at this time of year. As I returned to Crail there were more golden plover spread out across the field east of Balcomie Caravan Park. That’s another way to identify golden plover – you will almost never see a grey plover in a farmland field.

Posted February 2, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

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