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

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