Archive for July 2019

July 31st   Leave a comment

The fulmars that nest on the cliff below Castle Walk are never very successful at breeding. Some years several pairs sit all summer and don’t get off a single chick. This evening there was one well grown chick, at least, on the lower cliff below the viewpoint sign. Even though it is a very big ball of fluff, it will be another month before it fledges. There were no adults about at all. They will be far out to sea collecting fish to be regurgitated in a very oily soup when they visit the chick again every few days. Fulmar chicks can be left alone because they are so big, but also because they defend themselves by projectile vomiting at any intruders the same oily fish soup that their parents fed them – but much more digested and nasty smelling. It is a great defence. I have been vomited on by a fulmar and it still makes me cringe in memory: our very own sea skunk.

Cute and still flightless, but not defenceless: the fulmar chick on Castle Walk this evening (WC)

Posted July 31, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 30th   Leave a comment

I was cycling along the edge of Crail golf course on my way to Fife Ness this afternoon when something small flew up by my wheel from the longer grass behind the beach. A quail. It flew off, with distinctive whirring wings, straight across the golf course, where of course there was no cover so it kept going, staying visible for long enough for me to get my binoculars up to see the stripes on its back. It dropped down into some bracken by the club house as soon as it could and disappeared. But at least I have seen one of the 6 quail I have heard around Crail this summer. I suspect this will have been another bird just coming in from further south – if you are a quail there is still plenty of time to get another brood in this summer.

Otherwise it was fairly quiet at Fife Ness apart from the many painted lady butterflies still everywhere. Almost no puffins passing today even though the visibility was perfect and the sea very calm. There was a whimbrel on the rocks and a single manx shearwater passing in the twenty minutes I was there. I had a brief start as a small grey bird with rufous flanks flew up by the caravans. It was one of local juvenile stonechats starting to moult into adult male plumage.

The moulting stonechat (WC). What’s really unusual about this photo is that I have managed to photograph a buddleja today without a painted lady on it

Posted July 30, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 29th   Leave a comment

It was eerily calm this evening. At Balcomie there was no breeze at all and the haar seemed to be flattening the sea. A single whimbrel calling and the occasional passing party of raucous sandwich terns were the only loud sounds. The beach is still boom and bust. Tonight bust with only three ringed plover and a couple of redshank and curlew. But lots of common scoter passing. Any line of all black duck like birds passing Crail at the moment will be common scoters. On a close view or through a telescope you can see that many have paler brown wings. This is only really noticeable at this time of year so must be something to do with them moulting, or one year old males having got their black body feathers but not their new dark flight feathers yet.

Common scoter flock passing Fife Ness a couple of days ago – far to dark and misty today for decent photos (JA)

Posted July 29, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 28th   Leave a comment

Last week I was skulking around one of only bits of freshwater on Crete looking for a rare crake when another tourist bustled up and demanded “are you a twitcher?”. I denied this – I am a birder, not a maniacally obsessed lister determined to see as many rare birds as possible, travelling anywhere at anytime to get that new bird added. Well, I fell off my puritanical birding – “enjoy the birds around you regardless” – wagon today and went twitching again. To cut a long story short, twitching is bad for a birder because it sets you up for disappointment. You might not see the bird. And there are far too many good birds out there at any time for any bird watcher to see to ever be disappointed. But today it all ended well. A proper military style twitch involving complicated logistics coming together and some team work to get views of a reluctant, skulking rarity. The bird – an aquatic warbler. Found on the May Island yesterday and one I have wanted to see nearly all my life. I have looked unsuccessfully for aquatic warblers in Africa – they are a legendary migrant. A very low world population breeding in a few Eastern European countries (like the Ukraine), perhaps heading for extinction, and known only from a couple of wintering sites in Africa. They have very specialised habitat requirements for breeding and wintering, which creates a problem for the juveniles each year as they head for Africa and have to locate the relatively few patches of this shallow flooded grassy wetland habitat. Far better not to be fussy and to be able to make do with whatever scrubby habitat you find, which is the strategy for most migrant species. Aquatic warblers solve this – I think – by having an uncharacteristically precise migration strategy. In late summer (about now in fact), they head for Africa, but they don’t go south, they head almost due west. They hit the Atlantic coast of France (and some then pass through England where they are regular in very small numbers every August). Then they change direction and head south, following the coast all the way down, bypassing the Sahara before heading due East into the right wetland habitat just inland in Senegal. You can imagine the genetics of this is not too complicated: two time dependent changes of direction, rather than simply fly south at a particular time. But what came first? The habitat specialisation that requires a precise migration strategy, or the precise migration strategy that allowed a habitat specialisation? These questions – why are aquatic warblers such an exception to the rule of migrants just flying south and hoping for the unfussy best? – and is this the reason why they are at such risk of extinction? – are part of my professional, rather than simply my local birding life. So an aquatic warbler turning up on my local patch – this mysterious migrant, possibly heading for extinction – was something I had to see. So the twitch was on.

The aquatic warbler when it showed itself best – I am grateful to Sam Langlois for the photos – he was the only one quick enough. Sam is the person in the foreground below.

Ten of us, including the May Island warden (unluckily visiting St Abbs Head for the weekend) hired the Osprey rib from Anstruther. £350 in total if you are interested in doing the same sometime. It was then only a 20 minute bumpy, wet ride across to the island. A quick walk up to the top of the island and the usual nail biting 20 minutes or so until the bird was seen well by everyone. Aquatic warblers are fairly skulking and keep to dense vegetation. The bird was only in short rank vegetation but it was quite enough to hide a small bird. It was also fairly tame and didn’t fly unless its bit of vegetation was approached within a couple of meters. Then it would fly a few meters, perch briefly in sight before disappearing again. In 90 minutes it was clearly in view for about 25 seconds. But each view gave up enough to see the bird properly: a very pale sandy brown bird with thick black stripes on its back and head. Very distinctive and unmistakable – if you had a clear view of it – and that I suspect is the trick in ever tracking down one. I don’t feel too bad now missing them in Senegal – truly a needle in a haystack, and a needle that dives down to the bottom of the haystack (a haystack with Bilharzia which is also a significant limiting factor to consider when wading through their habitat in Africa). And then a quick dash back to the boat for us all and the same rapid journey on the rib. Back in Anstruther in less than 3 hours as if it had never happened.

The aquatic warbler is nine meters in front of us – we just don’t know it yet. The specks in the air are, of course, puffins. They didn’t get much attention today…
And there it is again – briefly. You can see it braced to jump back into cover.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Well, it worked out, and I may never see an aquatic warbler again unless I seek them out on their breeding ground, when singing males at least should be obvious. Number 230 on my Crail list – the May Island is firmly within the 10km radius of my house that defines my patch. I have always known that I will need to do some twitching on the May to get my list up to the target 300 before I take up birding in the afterlife, and I would have gone after an aquatic warbler even if it hadn’t been local. I can actually see the patch of vegetation where the aquatic warbler is from my house in Crail, so perhaps I should also put it on my garden list, but that might be taking it too far.

The other exciting thing today was much more accessible. A huge invasion of painted lady butterflies. You can’t have failed to notice the tens of butterflies on every flowering plant and then later sunning themselves on every wall – if you were in Crail today. On the May Island it was really noticeable. Hundreds of butterflies outnumbering the puffins – it is usually the other way round.

Two of the tens of thousands of painted lady butterflies blown in from the continent on the easterlies this weekend

Posted July 28, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 27th   Leave a comment

In the two weeks I have been away the year has visibly moved on. Waders are back everywhere on the shore: some redshanks are back in Roome Bay, where there were also a notable seven common sandpipers at high tide – the most I have ever seen in Crail. At Balcomie there were up to 50 sanderling, some dunlin, golden plover and a knot; at Saucehope a flock of bright summer plumaged turnstone and another couple of common sandpipers. There were only a few puffins passing Fife Ness and the other auks were scarcer. The gannets and fulmars are still breeding but everything else is more or less finished. There was a steady passage of sandwich terns followed by newly fledged juveniles, all heading north to hang out all along the Scottish east coast for a month after breeding further south. They will be joined shortly by the arctic terns. I saw a couple of great skuas and a few manx shearwaters as vanguards of the busier autumn seabird passage that is just starting now.

Two of the many sanderling on Balcomie Beach today – these are still in full summer plumage (WC)

The juvenile starlings are starting to moult. Losing their uniform cocoa brown and gaining the shiny black and spangled plumage of the adults. They all look a bit patchy at the moment, neither one or the other. Moult is a vulnerable time for them, costly in terms of energy and flight efficiency (although they don’t replace their flight feathers as the adults do at this time of year, which really makes a moulting bird vulnerable to predators like sparrowhawks). But the juvenile starlings today seemed to be taking it all in their stride – the seashore is such a good feeding ground (sandhoppers were bouncing around everywhere today) – that most of the birds I saw were in loafing flocks.

Juvenile starlings taking it easy in the afternoon sunshine- the one on the left showing a few adult feathers appearing on its back (WC)

Posted July 28, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 14th   Leave a comment

In my life I have only seen quails in Europe three or four times. The first was exceptional. A bird sitting in a tiny reedbed, in full sight in front of a hide on St Marys in the Scillies, spectacularly next to a spotted crake. Two great European skulkers in one go. It was early on in my birding career so I didn’t realise how lucky I was. The rest of my quail sightings have been random brief flushes from farm machinery, the most notable being a harvester going through a field of cotton in Israel in September with quail shooting out of the field in front of it like tiny rugby balls. The rest of my other European quail encounters (perhaps now over a 100) have all been like today: a bird heard but not seen. Today was particularly galling. I was passing by the big wheat field northwest of Troustie House when I heard a quail, barely a meter from the edge of the field and the road I was cycling down. I stopped and the bird kept on calling. It soon became apparent that there was more than one. Probably three. Two moved away calling every so often, while one remained, tantalisingly just out of sight in the wheat directly in front of me. It was moving slowly, calling away. I was so close I could hear the amphibian like croaking part of their call a soft “mwack – mwua”. But I couldn’t see it – even with it being one or two meters away for ten minutes. The temptation to leap the fence to try to flush it was hard to resist, but if there were three birds in the field they may well be breeding, or trying to breed, so best left completely undisturbed. It is turning into a good quail year for Crail, the first since 2011.

Obviously no photo of the elusive quail – but a roe deer more obviously popped out of the field edge a bit later (JA)

Balcomie has been relatively quiet after last Friday. Only three dunlin yesterday, and a couple of whimbrel today. It was relaxed sea watching at Fife Ness. Very calm seas and warm sunshine, but comfortable conditions never bring the best birds. Of note yesterday I had a great skua and some velvet scoter. Today it was mostly just auks, gannets and arctic terns. 

Guillemot – still plenty passing Fife Ness today back and forth from the May Island (JA)

Posted July 14, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 12th   Leave a comment

What makes a good day out in July around Crail? Any route that takes in Balcomie Beach, Fife Ness and Kilminning. July is wader month and you never know what you might find along the shore. You probably won’t but you can travel hopefully. Today was flat calm as well so if there had been a minke whale out there – and August (we are getting there) is the best time to see one passing Crail. This morning I had four or five whimbrels – they are coming back now. I had my first of the “autumn” last night in Roome Bay but there were plenty more today. Still singles and looking for company. They were either following curlews or responding hopefully to my whistles. There was a single bar-tailed godwit roosting with a couple of curlew at Fife Ness. A single ringed plover on Balcomie Beach and three common sandpipers between Fife Ness and Kilminning. The arctic terns and late puffins were carrying fish past Fife Ness to the May Island but the number of auks passing is much reduced from a couple of weeks ago as they have been fledging. As I came back into Crail there were more returning waders: a flock of eight golden plover back on their high tide roost rocks at Saucehope. The final highlight of a top July morning was a V of 12 goosander heading over Roome Bay towards Fife Ness.

Two of the common sandpipers, at Kilminning today (WC)

Posted July 12, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 9th   Leave a comment

House martins are the small blue and white swallows that nest under house eaves in pot shaped mud nests. They are the ones with the white rump and the chirruping calls. They, like most summer migrants, have declined a lot – 50% since 1970 in the UK – and they have certainly become a bit less common around Crail in the 16 years I have been here. They nest colonially and their favoured site is under a steeply sloping eave with regular protruding joists. They like the pro shop at the golf club at Balcomie and the houses along Roome Bay Avenue for example. Some people like them nesting on their houses. It is a joy to hear them gently warbling away in their nests at night or see them swooping agilely catching insects around the garden. Others are not so keen. The piles of droppings accumulating on window ledges or worse dropping down above a front door are too much. The response is then to net the eaves during the winter to force them to move on next summer. House martins have lost a lot of their nest sites in recent years through changes in house design and decreased tolerance of householders. But I think the real reason they are declining is probably lack of insects. We are recording huge declines in insects all over Europe as farming becomes more intensive and we increase our use of pesticides and herbicides.

House martins collecting mud for their nests (JA)

It has always been tough to be a house martin I think. They are susceptible to bad weather here in the summer, on migration, and then on the wintering grounds in Africa. They nest naturally in rare habitats like sea cliffs and caves. But they cast their lot with us, shifting to our farmhouses and messy insect rich farming habitats, and rambling villages and towns, full of horses and small holdings. Things were better for house martins for two or three thousand years. But its now all a bit sterile – think, when was the last time you saw a cowpat? True its all a bit neater and less smelly for us, but much less interesting and much less full of wildlife like house martins and indeed barn swallows. We still have a few house martin colonies around Crail, but it is not a certainty for the future. They, like many species that live in close association with us, still need wild plants and insects in the spaces between our buildings, and we need to keep habitat for them. Crail is not a bad place with lots of habitat sneaking its way between the denser bits of housing. And we have the beach and the seaweed of course – the best place to see a house martin is along the shore at Roome Bay because it has good nesting sites right next to the best insect supply in Crail. But we can do more. The unmown grass strips above the beach and at Castle Walk are a great example. This year they will be adding lots of extra insect food for the house martins as well as the barn swallows, the swifts and the sand martins. And all just because we asked the Council not to spend our money so often, cutting all of the grass, all of the time. House martins break my heart a bit – like spotted flycatchers and cuckoos and other characters from my childhood that are becoming scarcer – but they also make me very happy every time I see them. Thankfully that is still every summer day in Crail.

A house martin building its nest – the corner of a window frame where it meets the roof is another favourite site (JA)
A house martin chick looking out over Roome Bay this evening (WC)

Posted July 9, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 7th   Leave a comment

Today was a slight reshuffling of the characters of the week on Balcomie Beach. The Mediterranean gull was back wading through the thick seaweed soup with the other gulls. Although a lot of seaweed has been washed away, what remains has decomposed into a thick black sludge, slowing the waves coming in like an oil spill. But unlike oil this is all good and there were again hundreds of gulls and starlings feeding on the seaweed maggots washing out from it. And the knot was still around as a lone shorebird at the feast.

Mediterranean gull, herring gulls and a couple of starlings in the foreground (WC)
The knot (WC)

Posted July 7, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 6th   Leave a comment

It was the turn of a knot on Balcomie Beach this morning. A returning, full summer plumaged bird – lots of red below to show off to a mate and speckles of arctic lichen above to camouflage the red from Arctic foxes when sitting on a nest. On the way back to Crail I heard a quail singing from the wheat field opposite the entrance to Kilmining. One was reported there a few days ago so it is a fairly good bet to be there tomorrow – it was calling every two minutes or so in quick bursts.

The knot this morning (WC)
A better view of a summer plumaged knot (JA)

Posted July 6, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 5th   Leave a comment

The first summer Mediterranean gull is still in residence at Balcomie Beach. Most of the black-headed gulls have moved on but it remains with first summer common gulls and herring gulls, three redshank and five dunlin. Much of the seaweed has gone too, although the back of the beach is sculpted into peat like hags and the smell remains.

The Mediterranean gull again at Balcomie Beach this evening (WC)

Posted July 5, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 4th   Leave a comment

I was on the May Island this afternoon. As I left Crail a great skua came in off the sea and flew over the High Street. Cutting off the corner of Fife Ness as it headed north. That turned out to be the most unusual bird of the day. The crossing was fairly rough but there were the usual close flybys of gannets and some more distant manx shearwaters. On the island there seemed to be arctic terns everywhere, and lots of chicks. This meant the parents were even more aggressive, particularly as their chicks wandered onto the paths. But a few knocks on the head by a tern is worthwhile when you know they seem to be having a good breeding season this year. Last year none fledged at all – the gulls got them all. This year, fingers crossed, they are doing well. Part of this was the strategic removal of just two gulls that were tern specialists early in the season. The puffins were bringing in mostly single big fish indicating they had big chicks to feed. They are fledging at the moment: the young come out of their burrows at night to avoid the gulls and head out to sea on their own. One of these “pufflings” that had taken a wrong turning last night and ended up trapped in the toilets (oh dear what can the matter be…) was released from the May Princess as we set off back to Anstruther and had got a safe distance away from the island. The other species all had chicks. Many of the guillemots were sheltering big chicks under their wings as they sat on the cliffs and there were well grown kittiwake and shag chicks in most nests. There was a flock of 15 turnstone down on the rocks and some redshanks to show the turning of the season as well. Soon all the chicks will be fledging and it will be autumn passage again.

Puffin ready to feed a large chick (WC)
The puffling we released offshore on the way back (WC)
Arctic tern chick (WC)
Guillemot chick (WC)
Kittiwake chick (WC)

Posted July 4, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 2nd   Leave a comment

The first Mediterranean gull of the season was on Balcomie Beach this evening. A bird in its second summer of its life, so born last summer – which in gull ageing language makes it a first summer (because this time last year it would have been aged as a juvenile, then a first winter and now first summer). It had a bit of a black hood – definitely black and helping to make it stand out among the 100 (now) black-headed gulls also on the beach. There was also the first juvenile black-headed gull. And many more waders compared to last night: 6 dunlin, a common sandpiper, a bar-tailed godwit, a turnstone and 8 redshank. The beach is covered with rotting seaweed so the feeding is great for both the gulls and the waders. It is a great start to July.

The Mediterranean gull on Balcomie beach this evening (WC)
Common sandpiper (JA)

Posted July 2, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 1st   Leave a comment

The first redshanks were back on Balcomie Beach this evening. A flock of ten. Still in breeding plumage. They were feeding along the tideline for a few minutes and then gone, already heading further south. The black-headed gulls are also back in large numbers. There were about 50 on the beach tonight. Like the redshanks, all still in breeding plumage, but unlike them, here now for the winter.

A returning black-headed gull (JA)

Posted July 1, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings