Archive for June 2019

June 30th   Leave a comment

The grey herons have finished breeding and there a quite a few juveniles now on the rocky shore. They lack the black eyeline of the adults and have a dirty grey top of their head – it all looks ill defined and generally gives the impression of a more scruffy, younger looking, bird. Some are still following their parents around the rocky shore, others are being chased off by adults from their feeding territories. Grey herons aren’t that territorial around Crail but they don’t usually tolerate another bird feeding close by and I suspect most of the time you see a heron on a particular patch of rocky shore, it’s the same heron.

Juvenile grey heron (JA)

Posted June 30, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 29th   Leave a comment

Although we have had non-breeding curlews and oystercatchers on the rocky shore all month, I have been waiting for the first migrant shorebird of the season to reappear after the sanderlings and dunlins left us three weeks ago. It was a grey plover today. An individual with no sign of breeding plumage so probably a non-breeding adult. It was sat out with the moulting eiders on the rocks at Balcomie. And also at Balcomie, the shelduck chicks were still about. They are now much bigger and quite likely to survive to fledging now. But only 5 left out of the original 10. Not too bad for a bird that can live for 25 years at least: a pair only has to get two chicks to adulthood in a lifetime for the population to remain stable. The same thing applies to the eiders. A good thing because there are few chicks remaining now. Some are nearly fledged but I saw a mixed age creche this morning with two quite young chicks with a third at least a week older. It makes sense for any age eider chicks to gang together for safety in numbers.

The surviving shelduck chicks at Balcomie – see May 25th (WC)
Mixed age creche of eiders (there were only three left in this one – a third young one is following out of shot) (WC)
Grey Plover (JA)

There was a spectacular thunderstorm over Crail this evening. We hardly ever get thunderstorms on the East Neuk. Once or twice a summer. It was right overhead today, with hail and heavy rain – 3 millimeters in three minutes. That doesn’t sound much but it usually takes a good few hours of rain here to get three millimetres recorded on my rain gauge. The frogs in my garden were loving it – 23 degrees and maximum humidity – proper amphibian weather.

Common frog – this one is probably two years old

Posted June 29, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 27th   Leave a comment

I took a slow route to work this morning, cycling up the secret bunker road, back down towards Kingsbarns past Kippo, and then across around and through Upper and Lower Kenly farms. I was looking for corn buntings. These areas don’t have more than a handful of birds. Hopefully they will spread out to them, but apparently not this year. When I map the corn buntings each year, obvious holes appear. Some of them are, like today, places where they don’t occur, but others are places where no-one has checked yet. False negatives. Well today was an exercise in turning unknown negatives into true negatives – as my PhD supervisor used to say (and it sounds better in his Geordie accent) – “good negative data”. The only corn buntings I found off the beaten track were ones on the edge that I knew about already. A good sign that we have covered the ground this year. Other new corn buntings were between known singing males in high density areas at the sea end of the Kenly Burn and between Wormiston and Cambo. They really like the fields close to the sea. Very similar fields just a kilometre inland hardly have any. We still have a few weeks of the season to go, but the total number of male singing corn buntings (the index we use to keep track of the population because they are easy to count – although the joker in the pack is that a male may sometimes have 2 or 3 females and nests on the go in a territory…) is up to 160. The total last year was 164 and that includes the farms that the RSPB volunteers monitor in much more detail – they get the joker multiple occupancy territories. It looks like the total will go well above 170 when the RSPB add their bit and so the population is still increasing. There were a lot of corn buntings at the end of the mild winter so perhaps not surprising, but still great news. The wildflower strips, fallow fields and the winter feeding are really making a difference.

Looks like another good year for the corn buntings of Crail (JA)

The wind is a bit easterly bringing the seabirds in closer to Crail. I enjoyed the auks and the manx shearwaters passing this evening, Two male velvet scoters came past, still in immaculate plumage, although I suspect they will be off to a quiet bit of coast to moult now. Their orange bills and white eye patches were positively glowing as they passed by the end of my garden.

Two drake velvet scoters (JA)

Posted June 27, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 25th   Leave a comment

I was sea watching at Fife Ness first thing this morning in the vague hope of an early Mediterranean gull. There was constant auk passage – hundreds of puffins, guillemots and razorbills passing every few minutes as the three species work as hard as they can to feed the peak demand of their rapidly growing chicks on the May Island. Now is the time to learn the three species as they pass one after the other. They are easy on close view – you can see that guillemots are milk chocolate and razorbills dark; that puffins have white faces. But as they get further out it becomes trickier. I gave some thought to what I use to split them at a distance. It’s all shape, and tilt, and relative proportions of the front and back. Hard to describe except visually (see below). I haven’t quite got it right but it’s a reasonable guide to splitting distant auks. Puffins are always easy – wobbling, oval rugby balls. Guillemots usually look bigger at the back and unevenly balanced. Razorbills look even and flat.

My guide to identifying auks in flight at a distance: guillemot (top), razorbill (middle) and, of course, puffin (bottom)

Posted June 25, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 22nd   Leave a comment

It is getting hard to keep track of the yellow wagtails breeding near Crail this year. I think there may be as many as five nests – two which have probably already fledged chicks. There were birds around the Thirdpart area today but not the nests where two females were very active two to three weeks ago. And at Barnsmuir there are now three areas where there are yellow wagtails, at least one active nest with a female sitting, one with a female probably feeding chicks and a third with a male hanging around as if there is also a female incubating. Optimistically that’s five nests in four separate fields, spread over 2 km. The population seems to be growing which is fantastic news for a species in decline in the UK and Europe generally. I am still not seeing more yellow wagtails here than in Africa when I join them for the winter, but they are beginning to feel more like an East Neuk bird.

A male yellow wagtail today keeping watch on its territory while I think its female was sitting on a nest (WC)

Posted June 21, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 16th   Leave a comment

The year is moving on again. Balcomie Beach was empty of waders this afternoon and there was only a flock of oystercatchers roosting on the nearby rocks. The first two goosanders of the year were back for their post-breeding moult. I watched a male already in eclipse (female type) plumage fishing off the beach. They swim along with their head below the water looking for fish before they dive after them. The eiders are forming post breeding flocks too. The males have begun to look dark and patchy and there are many females around now, presumably non-breeders and the ones that have lost all of their chicks (which are quite scarce now). The young starlings are now on the beach feeding on the seaweed piles at the high tide line. Most are still associating with their parents and the large post-breeding almost all juvenile flocks haven’t formed quite yet. At sea almost every auk was flying by with a bill full of sandeels. At a distance the guillemots look like they have white faces like the puffins as the fish catch the light.

Goosander (JA)
Young starling with parent on Balcomie Beach today (WC)

Posted June 18, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 16th   Leave a comment

I have been away in the Netherlands for a few days. I was lucky enough to spend two evenings in a flooded polder close to Groningen – a flood plain that has been allowed to rewild as insurance against the city flooding. It was a truly fantastic place, full of birds and more like a bit of central Asia than urbanised Western Europe. I had things like Baillon’s crake and whiskered terns, as well as many Crail rarities like marsh warbler, icterine warbler and black tern. And lots of bluethroats. After so many hours searching for them three weeks ago it was nice to see some at last.

A Dutch bluethroat – just so you know what one looks like, ready to let me know when one turns up in a Crail garden next spring (WC – taken through a borrowed telescope)

Back in Crail today there were lots of painted lady butterflies on a walk on the coast past West Braes. There has been a good influx this year, with individuals appearing in Crail a few weeks ago and with more coming in this week with the weak easterlies. They don’t survive as larvae well in Europe and don’t hibernate so any painted lady here is almost certainly a migrant, with most early ones coming from north Africa. There were several males by the gate down to the coastal path at the west of Crail, staking out territories on honesty plants (the ones with white or purple flowers). They were being very aggressive chasing each other and other species like whites and small tortoiseshells away from the flowers.

A painted lady at West Braes this afternoon – this one has been in the wars. Faded and with a beak mark on both wings, I can believe it has journeyed up from Morocco (WC)

Posted June 16, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 11th   Leave a comment

I saw a colour-ringed great black-backed gull on the shore at Balcomie over the weekend. It was ringed on the May Island on the 3rd July 2017. It has been about Balcomie and Fife Ness ever since. Some birds go far from where they are born and others stay very close: I expect this one will breed on the May when it becomes a full adult in two summers time. Large gulls can take up to 4 years to get breeding and even so they might then need a couple more years before they get good enough at it to fledge chicks.

Born on the May Island – and now living at Balcomie: a two year old great black-backed gull and two years away from being fully adult

Posted June 11, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 10th   Leave a comment

I went out to the May Island again today. This time too late for the icterine warblers and red-backed shrike of the end of last week, but in plenty of time for more seabirds. The puffins were very busy feeding chicks, coming in with beaks full of sandeels. The herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls were busy patrolling trying to intercept them. Not with any great success I think. I watched about 20 chases without seeing anything other than the puffin outflying the gull. When a puffin does reach its burrow it’s like a magic trick. They land, hunch up and then disappear. I wouldn’t hang around either with so many gulls about. Occasionally you see a puffin landing and pausing. They then shuffle about a bit before going down a burrow. I’m sure these have forgotten exactly where their burrow is and need a bit of time to select the right one. Even so I bet one or two chicks get fed by mistake.

Isle of May stars: puffins, razorbill, arctic tern and more puffins (WC)

The highlight was a roseate tern up at the old lighthouse. It was flying around, looking gorgeously white with the just a hint of pink on its breast. They remind me of tropicbirds in shape – their tail looks very thin and streamer like, their wings relatively short for a tern and their bill seems very long. I had some of my best views ever of a roseate as it flew directly above me and I noticed that because the trailing edge of the primaries is white and the outer primaries black (this is reversed in arctic terns), the wing tips appear especially thin as the paler trailing edge gets bleached out against the sky. It adds to their distinctive shape. The roseate tern was courting a common tern: it needs a proper mate though so they can resume breeding on the May again.

Posted June 10, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 9th   Leave a comment

I was out surveying for corn bunting territories along the old railway line between Crail and Kingsbarns this morning when my dog, Nutty, saw a hare. Her usual good sense and loyalty leaves her completely when confronted by a rabbit, roe deer or hare and off she went. It’s a fair fight – Nutty is a small border terrier the same size as a hare and hares can run twice as fast. This one didn’t take her seriously and ran off half-heartedly giving Nutty a false sense of hope. I lost sight of both of them a field away with Nutty still chasing even though the hare was now far ahead. There was nothing to do but to wait for her to come back. I sat down at the edge of a field and poured a cup of coffee, not minding much because it was a lovely morning and a nice view to the west up towards Kippo. There were three buzzards over the wood on top of the ridge and one was harassing the other two which looked a bit bigger. I looked through my binoculars and saw two red kites with the buzzard. I have been waiting for a red kite around Crail for years! 

A red kite (JA)

Red kites were a very rare bird in the UK when I started birding 40 years ago. There were a few pairs in remote Welsh valleys and they were not doing very well. They used to be a very common bird of prey, happy in towns and farmlands, behaving a lot like gulls and crows – more like scavengers than birds of prey. But they were still persecuted as a bird of prey and they were wiped out from England and Scotland as were white-tailed eagles and goshawks. Birds of prey were protected properly after the second world war and many species, like buzzards, started increasing and spreading back across the UK. But not red kites. Their last strongholds in the Welsh valleys, although remote, were not very good habitat and they produced few chicks. So, it was decided to reintroduce red kites back into England in 1989 to help them recolonise. Chicks from Sweden and Spain (which have populations that were producing more chicks each year than there was habitat for them) were brought over, kept and fed in big aviaries in their new future habitat in the north of Scotland and south of England until they were ready to fledge and then released. The rest is history. The young kites survived well – helped with supplemental feeding, which is easy to do with scavengers – and started breeding successfully in a couple of years. With this success other releases in central Scotland and northern England followed. Thirty years on there are now perhaps 2000 red kite pairs breeding all over the UK but centred around their original release sites and gradually spreading to fill in the gaps in between. Like Fife. There are now regular sightings of red kites in Fife and even one up by the Secret Bunker a couple of years ago: and head north up the A9, or down to Dumfries they can be easily seen. A fantastic success story and a great example of what we can do if everyone gets behind a conservation program (although a few kites are still illegally killed each year, so not quite everyone). Red kites are very charismatic and even if you aren’t that bothered by birds it’s hard not to be impressed when you see such a big bird of prey soaring about just above your head.

Red kite (JA)

The farmland in Fife, particularly between Crail and Cupar, is perfect for kites. They only need small stands of trees for a nest site and seem to be fairly happy in even intensive farmland. They are not fussy, eating more or less anything, even earthworms. If the habitat works for buzzards then it will work for red kites, and kites are happy even to forage over towns and gardens, coming to bird tables if things like chicken bones are left out. As long as they are not actively hunted or poisoned, they do very well. And sooner or later they will start to breed around Crail. Today it felt like that might be any day soon, although my pair drifted from woodland patch to woodland patch (upsetting the resident buzzards each time) from Crail to Boarhills, steadily, but slowly heading northwards. I think they were just passing through, but perhaps they are young birds (one was moulting) looking for somewhere to start breeding next year.

Two red kites and a buzzard (left) near Crail this morning (WC)

Nutty, by the way, came back a few minutes later, looking very pleased with herself although exhausted. And for once I was pleased with her running off – a very fortuitous place to sit down with time to spare to look at those “buzzards”. I heard a corn bunting singing while I was there as well!

Posted June 9, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 8th   Leave a comment

I was on Balcomie Beach this morning counting sanderlings. I got to over 80 before they flew up and reassorted. I tried again but they were very restless: over 100 before the same thing happened, lots of sanderlings anyway. The most I have seen at Balcomie and all but two in summer plumage. I then got distracted by a text – a quail singing at Wormiston Farm: the first for Crail for several years. I settled for “a lot of sanderlings” and headed along the shore to Wormiston. In my haste I nearly ignored a dark looking mallard flying along the shore. It was a gadwall. Rarer than a quail in Crail. Apart from one on Carnbee Reservoir, always a quick flyby heading from somewhere with freshwater to somewhere else with some. I felt my luck was probably used up for the day, but ten minutes later I was by the wheat field between Wormiston Farm and the Yellow House listening to a quail calling twenty meters away. Two great unexpected birds at once and the Crail year list now nearly two months ahead of the record.

16 of the 100 or so sanderling on Balcomie Beach today (WC)
And one in close up (JA)

Quail are fairly exceptional birds. First you need to know that they are never seen. I occasionally flush them up from fallow fields in Africa and they shoot away like tiny rugby balls in a second. But I have never seen one of the 10 or so I have heard around Crail. They sit in the middle of dense wheat fields calling invisibly, if you try to approach them they just keep pace ahead. And that is the secret of their success generally, just keeping ahead. Quail have a rolling breeding season that may well start in Sub-Saharan Africa, and certainly North Africa in March. They produce lots of chicks that look after themselves like all gamebirds do and then they head off further north to breed keeping pace as spring and summer advances. Some years are better than others and quails reach northern Europe – like Scotland – mid-summer to get another brood off. Some individuals may get three broods out and there is even a suggestion that the young of the first broods may end up breeding at the end of the summer as well. A lot of quail. Which is a good job considering that a lot of things eat them and huge numbers get hunted by people on migration.

The day ended strangely in the hide at Fife Ness waiting for a white-billed diver to pass. One had been seen passing up the Northumberland coast in the morning and we estimated that it would pass Fife Ness at about three in the afternoon (with one or two assumptions, the main one being that it was actually going to fly past Fife Ness at all). Perhaps not surprising that my luck for the day had run out with the quail. But I saw a bonxie and 42 manx shearwaters, and of course hundreds of gannets and puffins, passing in the two hours I watched for it.

A puffin (because clearly there will never be a photo of a Crail quail…) (JA)

Posted June 8, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 6th   Leave a comment

There seemed there might be a last gasp of spring today with a few good birds turning up on the May Island today: late specials like a red-backed shrike, a marsh warbler and an icterine warbler. I went out at lunchtime checking our best shrike sites – Balcomie and Kilminning – but no luck. No sign of any migrants at all brought in by the light easterlies and rain of the last two days. There were lots and lots of young starlings though. They fledged a couple of weeks ago and they have been hiding in dense bushes and tree canopies ever since. They are very vulnerable when they leave the nest – most fledglings are – but because lots of starlings fledge at the same time and they are relatively large and noisy it attracts the attention of crows and gulls. I watched a carrion crow hunting them last week. It flew repeatedly at young starlings hiding in the canopy of a sycamore at Fife Ness, with their parents shrieking and diving ineffectively at the crow. On about the third pass one youngster lost its nerve and flew out. A short chase and then it was grabbed out of the air by the crow and carried in its bill down to the beach below. The crow pulled it apart in a few seconds and began feeding. A starling obviously needs a couple of weeks to get good enough at flying to avoid crows, and then they come out of cover and start foraging out in the open like their parents. Today was clearly coming out day at Balcomie, with flocks of juveniles in the horse field. They retreated very quickly back into cover when disturbed so they were not totally confident. In another week they will be secure enough to move down to the beach to feed and to seek cover in the air if attacked. They will still be at risk from sparrowhawks and later on merlins, when they get here at the end of July, but there will be safety in numbers at least.

Young starlings keeping in cover at Balcomie Castle today (WC)
A carrion crow eating a newly fledged starling it caught at Fife Ness last week – one that didn’t stay in cover (WC)

Posted June 6, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 4th   Leave a comment

The sanderling on Balcomie Beach are now in full summer plumage and really can’t be staying for much longer. It makes me remember when I was in Barrow, Alaska (19 years ago – I know that for sure because my son is 18 and we found out we were expecting him during fieldwork there). I found a couple of sanderling making a nest scrape in the tundra next to the still frozen sea on June 10th. The snow had only thawed a week before. It’s about 3,000 km from Balcomie to the furthest north a sanderling could go to breed (and they do go very far north), for example, the top of Greenland. A sanderling could be there in a 2 day continuous flight, or a few days more with a stop-off in Iceland. Either way, there is plenty of time to be there for the start of breeding. Once there though, the clock is ticking and the chicks only have until the beginning of August to fledge and fly south before the cold weather starts again. But they do have continuous daylight, literally tons of insects and, with a bit of luck, few predators, on their side. And speaking of predators, I remember losing my nerve as I realised I was being distracted watching the sanderling in Barrow by the sea ice – strewn with polar bear sized and shaped icebergs. We retreated further inland and found a cup of coffee in the safety of Barrow town. I didn’t see a polar bear that trip but seeing summer plumage sanderlings makes me think of them.

One of the summer plumage sanderling on Balcomie Beach (JA)

Posted June 4, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 3rd   Leave a comment

I went to the May Island yesterday. Every trip there is a bit special. A spectacle as worthy of anything I saw in Antarctica but a lot closer to home. If you have never been then get a ticket on the May Princess from Anstruther this month. June is the best time to go. There are sailings most days and the round trip takes about five hours, with an hour each way there and back. The journey out there is a gradual unrolling of the seabird fest. The occasional distant puffin half-way across becomes thousands of puffins, on the water and filling the skies around the island. Once you land, you can approach the birds to within a few meters, although the arctic terns at the landing site might be considered too close. But you haven’t really been to the May unless you have been pecked on the head by an Arctic tern protecting its nest. Best to wear a hat or walk alongside a tall person if you are bothered. Everywhere you go there are puffins. Flying in with beaks full of sandeels and plopping in and out of their burrows. Occasionally they gather in little groups waiting for you to move on away from burrows close to the path. In the long run these small disturbances probably make little difference to the chicks which only get fed every few hours at best, and the visitors probably pay their disturbance debt by keeping the gulls away from mugging the puffins. In several places on the island you can perch on top of the cliffs and watch all of the seabirds – guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes and shags – on their nests at close quarters. The birds know they can’t be approached any closer and carry on as normal. Watching lots of wild animals really close when they pay you no attention characterises the best wildlife encounters you can have anywhere in the world. Go and see what I mean.

Three May Island stars: puffin, razorbill and guillemots (WC)

The winds haven’t been great for migration the last week and the bluethroats were long gone. But there were a couple of migrant spotted flycatchers around the few bushes on the island and a willow warbler. The real bonus was a cuckoo. I saw it flying out of the lighthouse keepers old garden and then later on it perched for everyone to see by the old light. On the boat out I saw a nice light phase arctic skua – the first of the year. It is turning out to be a good year for my year list – I am now a month ahead of my best ever year: its been a good spring even if it is probably over now.

The cuckoo on the May yesterday

Posted June 3, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

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