Archive for May 2019

May 29th   Leave a comment

The spring is slipping away. The starlings will be fledging chicks any day soon and there was a pair of stonechats down at the big gate to the SWT reserve at Kilminning with four newly fledged chicks. Stonechats are common again all along the coastal path after the run of relatively mild winters (the beast from the East last year notwithstanding). Stonechats are always conspicuous as they perch on fence posts and chack at you when you come near. But they get particularly noisy and flighty when they have young chicks just out of the nest. The young are brown and streaky like robins (and many other young chats like wheatears or bluethroats). The ones today were perched out in the open and dopey looking – the next week will be a testing time for them to avoid the local sparrowhawks before they get a bit more worldly wise. The sparrowhawks have their own chicks to feed of course.

Juvenile stonechat (JA)
Grey Heron down at Fife Ness today (WC)

Posted May 29, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 27th   Leave a comment

There are eider chicks down at Roome Bay now. At least three females with week old ducklings this evening. The crossing from the May Island can’t have been very good for them yesterday in the strong winds but I suspect these have been here a few days. In the background, out over the now calm sea there was a steady passage of manx shearwaters passing to the east. I counted about 20 in 30 minutes. They are a bird of summer, sunlit evenings, flying past us as they circle around the UK on their long feeding trips. They might be from Rhum or they might be from Skomer.

New eider chicks (JA)

Posted May 27, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 26th   Leave a comment

I was surveying corn buntings just north of Kingsbarns this morning. It was very rainy but it didn’t keep the corn buntings down. There were at least 5-6 territories in the fields adjacent to the golf course – last year it was 7. It is one of the highest density areas for corn bunting in the East Neuk. There were lots of whitethroats, yellowhammers and reed buntings wherever there was a bush or gorse patch left between the fields. I watched a pair of oystercatchers making a scrape in a newly sown bare earth field. At this time of year you see oystercatchers apparently just sitting out in the middle of bare earth fields – they might look too conspicuous to be actually on a nest but they probably are. Oystercatchers are aggressive nest defenders so rely less on having a hidden nest.

Male reed bunting on a sunnier day (JA)

This evening I came across what I thought initially was a really small bumble bee. On a closer look it turned out to be a fly mimicking a bumblebee – a narcissus fly. It is a really good mimic and I expect I have overlooked it in the past. Its larvae are major pests on daffodil and bluebell bulbs so I suspect it will be pretty common around Crail. Once you learn to recognise a new species you suddenly see it everywhere so I expect this will be the first of many this summer.

Narcissus fly (WC)

Posted May 26, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 25th   Leave a comment

Quite a contrast to last Saturday. Prevailing westerly winds for most of this week meant that there was only a small chance of anything unusual turning up. And so it was. Kilminning was very quiet, with only the now resident whitethroats and sedge warblers about. Balcomie Beach continues to have a large flock of sanderling, dunlin and ringed plover, all now in nice summer plumage and ready for their final flight up to the high Arctic to start breeding in a week or two. But best thing today was the appearance of a 10 shelduck chicks with the pair just to the north of the beach. The pair further north at the end of the golf course, and the pair at the east end of Saucehope caravan park haven’t got anywhere this year – either lost their eggs to a fox or didn’t even get started for lack of a suitable burrow. But at least one of our local pairs has made it to the chick stage. Once shelduck chicks get out onto the shore they are much safer. A pair of shelducks make formidable guardians, so as long as the chicks stay close to their parents most will probably make it. And further down the coast, my first eider chicks of the year. A creche of 12 with a couple of females, surrounded by a flotilla of males that were still trying their luck.

The shelduck chicks… (WC)
And the eider chicks at Balcomie this morning (WC)

This afternoon, I checked on the yellow wagtails at Barnsmuir Farm. I didn’t find any sign of them in their usual fields even though that was there the male was singing a month ago. But I did find a male and two females behaving in that agitated manner of birds with an active nest nearby about 2 kilometers away. Still breeding in Fife, but probably for the best a little bit more out of the way.

One of the local yellow wagtails (JA)
Thrift at Fife Ness

Posted May 25, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 19th   Leave a comment

A much better day weather wise for finding birds – and there are now 14 bluethroats on the May. So more hopeful searching. No bluethroats here again but hardly fruitless. I found two lesser whitethroat, a whinchat, two garden warblers and three spotted flycatchers between Wormiston, upper Kilminning and the Patch at Fife Ness, and saw a pied flycatcher, another garden warbler and whinchat, and a wood warbler that were found by others at lower Kilminning. There were a couple of northern wheatears and 50+ arctic terns on the rocks at Balcomie, and the mixed flock of sanderling, ringed plover and dunlin on the beach. So a great mid-May day, with the best part of migrant May still to come. It was really nice to see garden warblers again after missing them entirely around Crail last year. The one at lower Kilminning gave really nice views so I could really appreciate how chunky they are, with stout bills for a warbler – almost like a vireo. They are a very subtle warbler – really no characteristic features at all, but ensemble somehow very distinctive. The other highlight were the whinchats. I don’t get to see nice bright males in breeding plumage on the wintering ground in Africa.

Spotted Flycatcher in the Patch today (WC)
Garden Warbler lower Kilminning (WC)
Male Whinchat no. 1 lower Kilminning (WC)
Whinchat no. 2 on the edge of the field between Kilminning and Balcomie Castle (WC)

I say this every year, but it seems to always be true. There are more common whitethroats breeding around Crail this year than last. Whitethroat numbers were halved in the 1960s due to the drought in the Sahel where they refuel before crossing the Sahara in spring. Their populations have been recovering gradually ever since as they have changed their wintering grounds and the Sahel moved to a wetter phase in the 1990s. The upshot of this is that there are whitethroats breeding right in the middle of Crail this year – one now has a territory from the sheep field over to the restored doocote and yesterday I had my first common whitethroat in my back garden. I put it down as a migrant, but today it was singing a bit so it may be a hopeful breeder too.

Common whitethroat (JA)

Posted May 19, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 18th   Leave a comment

A few of us were out at Fife Ness and its surrounds this morning with high hopes. Last night seven bluethroats turned up on the May Island. Surely at least one more will have also made it to us around Crail? If it did we didn’t find it. They can be skulkers, although once located they can usually be seen well. But it’s the locating that’s the problem. We have just too many bushes, hedges, ditches whereas the May Island has about three of each. And more birders, although today we did manage nearly double figures. Bluethroats are like robins but with a blue throat (obviously), red on the tail and a more striped head – well worth seeing. And I haven’t seen one yet for the Crail list. Consequently I was working hard today despite the rain. I found a spotted flycatcher at Kilminning and another at The Patch at Fife Ness. Good finds on any normal day and firsts for the year, but my expectations were high.

A soggy sparrowhawk in the walled garden at Balcomie when I checked it for bluethroats this morning (WC)

Posted May 18, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 16th   Leave a comment

The easterly winds are back with some rain forecast for the weekend. But nothing was happening yet except at Fife Ness and Balcomie. A flock of at least 100 arctic terns were feeding about a kilometre out with another 40 or so on the rocks to the north of the beach. It was the first day this year that there were arctic, common and sandwich terns present. There were manx shearwater too. A great northern diver passed heading north looking like a cormorant but with huge feet trailing behind.

A great northern diver heading north past Fife Ness – equally credible if you imagine it flying backwards because of its huge feet, a really useful feature at a distance (JA)

Posted May 17, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 14th   Leave a comment

The bar-tailed godwit of a couple of days ago is still around Balcomie Beach. It was feeding on its own in the surf this evening. Later there was also a mixed flock of waders further up the beach – sanderling, dunlin and ringed plovers. Back in Crail, the swifts are all back now and screaming their way over the rooftops. I think many of the swallows and certainly the house martins are now only just in as well. They are all making up for lost time.

The bar-tailed godwit this evening – with a dash of red summer plumage (WC)

Posted May 14, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 12th   Leave a comment

The daily wader turnover at Balcomie Beach continued today. New in was a bar-tailed godwit, feeding with the oystercatchers at mid-tide this morning. It was on the way to summer plumage – speckles of red underneath and some silvery speckling above. There were four ringed plover on the beach today. The numbers go up and down, and as usual I can’t tell which are local breeders or on their way to Siberia. There were some rooks feeding on the seaweed piles today, loading up on seaweed fly maggots to take back to their now large and very noisy chicks at the rookery at Wormiston.

Rooks on the rotting seaweed piles – digging their own little pits to excavate out the seaweed fly maggots (WC)

Posted May 12, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 11th   Leave a comment

The last regular summer migrant came back today: there were a few arctic terns passing Fife Ness this morning, well out to sea. All change at Balcomie: no whimbrels, white wagtails or turnstones, instead three curlews. This evening there was another swift over Crail but they are not all back yet.

Arctic tern (JA)

Posted May 11, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 10th   Leave a comment

My lift to work was ten minutes later this morning so I stepped into Denburn Wood to wait. There was much less song compared to last week – perhaps the colder weather and also some of the blackcaps moving on. I spotted a pied flycatcher on the edge of the Kirkyard and the wood – probably a migrant brought down by the bad weather of Wednesday. It was probably a young male – mostly brown still but with black wings. Some males don’t start breeding until their second year, but why they migrate to Europe rather than stay in Africa if they are not going to breed is strange. They may wander looking for good breeding sites for the following year.

This evening I found a dead hummingbird hawk moth in my front porch. It was mummified and so still in good condition. There were a few hovering around my back garden last summer – they migrate up as far as Scotland in warm years – and this one must have tried to overwinter here.

Hummingbird hawk moth

Posted May 10, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 9th   Leave a comment

Despite easterly winds blowing from central Europe for the last couple of days and then heavy rain overnight on Tuesday and all day on Wednesday there was nothing at all new in this morning. Kilminning had common whitethroats and blackcaps singing but they are the summer resident birds; there was a willow warbler nest building, picking up dried grass stems from the ground. Balcomie Beach still has a couple of white wagtails, some whimbrels and turnstones and a single northern wheatear. This evening, after it warmed up a bit during the day, there was a swift at least. My first for Crail for the year. Last year the first was on the 5th of May but most didn’t arrive until the 8th. So this year is not much later. I expect the rest will be in tomorrow and they will be screaming down the High Street again in a couple of days.

Two of the summer plumage turnstones at Balcomie (JA)

Posted May 9, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 5th   Leave a comment

The best place to be today was again down at Balcomie Beach. The seaweed flies were coming out in droves attracting a flock of pied wagtail and among them, one or two yellow wagtails and up to four white wagtails. I was checking the flock for white wagtails when one flew up making the ‘tsip’ call of a yellow wagtail – a male yellow wagtail. It headed off towards Fife Ness. Five minutes later I picked it up, or a second yellow wagtail, in the same flock. Yellow wagtails turn up in odd habitats like most migrants: if there is food anywhere along the migration route then the habitat is suitable. Predation risk might then put a bird off from a novel habitat, but if there are lots of other birds of the same or similar species around then any risk will be diluted. The seaweed piles at Balcomie were obviously working for a lot of migrants: the wagtails, a few northern wheatear, a flock of turnstone, starlings, meadow pipits and a small flock of swallows, hawking low enough that they could have been snatching the flies directly off the seaweed. Some of the whimbrels of yesterday were still about on the rocky shore: I probably saw only about 15 around today. A black-tailed godwit was with one group – perhaps the same bird as last week.

The yellow wagtail at Balcomie today (WC)
One of the swallows taking a break from hawking seaweed flies (WC)
Native bluebells at Kilminning (WC)

Posted May 5, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 4th   Leave a comment

Intriguingly today at Barnsmuir Farm there was a male yellow wagtail in the usual field, and then twenty minutes later, 1.5 km away at Third Part on the other side of Barnsmuir, a second male yellow wagtail. The second bird then flew a further 300 meters towards Kilrenny before landing in a wheat field. I hope this means that the yellow wagtails are expanding. No sign of any females yet and this might be the male roving because none have turned up, but I will keep my fingers crossed. They are very inconspicuous despite their bright colour and it is only their flight calls that get them noticed, so I am likely to be missing them.

One of male yellow wagtails (JA)

Kilminning was very quiet this morning but all of the action was down on the shore at Balcomie at high tide this afternoon. I had a white wagtail among the pied wagtails in a feeding frenzy as huge numbers of seaweed flies were emerging. There were a lot of waders: I reliably counted over 20 whimbrels and I think there may well have been between 30 and 40. There was a flock of 12 just on Balcomie Beach with a single curlew standing among them like their big brother. Other waders included 15 purple sandpipers, and small flocks of sanderling, turnstone, dunlin and ringed plover.

Whimbrels on Balcomie Beach today (JA)
The white wagtail, also on Balcomie Beach today (JA)

But the big highlight was a great skua. It’s not unusual at this time of year to have one or two passing by Crail or Fife Ness, but this one was on the rocky shore at Balcomie tucking into a herring gull it had just killed. I put it up as I approached on the coast path, but it landed back on the gull almost immediately. I sat down barely 10 meters from it to watch. My last “great” skuas were in Antarctica, although they are split into a couple of different species there. This one was a mess for identification – extremely worn plumage (it has missed a moult) and extremely, almost uniformly dark, very reminiscent of the brown skuas I was watching last month. It will be a great skua though – I expect they have a dark phase like the other skua species. Great skuas are usually a bit more wary than the one today – except when they are nesting, when they will vigorously mob people that get too close. It is fairly scary having such a big bird flying directly at you at full speed and you get the message very quickly. So this was one of my closest (comfortable) views of a great skua. I sat there for 30 minutes, enjoying it particularly when it flew about a bit, passing over my head at only a few meters. The whimbrels and herring gulls that were also on the shore all flew up every time the skua did: I don’t blame them after watching it hammering into the herring gull corpse like an eagle.

The great skua – unlikely to become a vegan anytime soon (WC)

Posted May 4, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

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