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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