Archive for October 2019

October 30th   Leave a comment

Today was the first day without a single summer migrant – not even the chiff-chaffs and blackcaps that have been at Kilminning for the last month. It’s all winter migrants now: a siskin over the High Street, mistle thrushes at Kilminning and unusually, a flock of 20 greylag goose at Balcomie. I spotted a long neck sticking out of the stubble in the distance and saw that it was a greylag; I tried to get a bit closer without realising that the rest of the flock was indeed a lot closer in the neighbouring field. Up they all went and headed off towards Cambo. I’m not sure if these are wandering Scottish birds or migrants from further afield. In any case, we usually only get greylags here in the winter in small numbers, mixed in with pink footed goose, rather than in discrete flocks. They are always easy to spot in a flock of pink feet being much larger. On the ground their big orange bill is a giveaway too.

The first greylag goose at Balcomie – even at this view its obviously a greylag with its pale head and orange bill (WC)
Greylag geese (JA)

Posted October 30, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 29th   Leave a comment

One of the great wildlife spectacles we have on our doorstep is a late afternoon high tide on Balcomie Beach, with a good swell and hundreds of gulls and waders feeding right at the tide edge. The gulls on the water and the shorebirds on the beach, and a constant swirl and exchange of birds as they avoid the breaking waves. And with a late afternoon tide at this time of year there is often a low sun falling behind the beach, making the gulls and the spray shine against the dark, seaweed sea. If you sit down on the high tide line, with the marram grass and the sun behind you, everything on the beach soon ignores you. I was soon surrounded by birds last Sunday, with turnstones, redhanks and a bar-tailed godwit feeding only a few meters away. I took some photos but they don’t do it justice. Most wildlife spectacles are so much better when you are there. The combination of the constant movement and exchange of animals, the noise of the waves and the gulls shrieking as they dodge them, and best of all the feeling of not knowing quite where to look because there is something happening all around you. Good wildlife watching experiences are more about being immersed in them, about being a part of the scene, than the actual cast.

Gulls wave dodging at Balcomie (WC)

Posted October 29, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 27th   Leave a comment

Scaup quiz

It was nice this morning to do some low effort birding. Lakes, wetlands and the sea you just turn up to and settle in with your telescope. You scan left and right and everything is there, large and visible. On my Crail patch this means only Balcomie Beach, sea watching or Carnbee reservoir. I was at the last today, enjoying those Crail rarities, mute swan, little grebe, tufted duck and of course coot. Amongst the tufted duck were two scaup, a female and a male coming out of eclipse (or juvenile) plumage. These marine ducks also occasionally turn up inland on freshwater and they are fairly uncommon on the patch – about once every two years, but often at Carnbee. I enjoyed finding them. They are not hard ducks really but you do need to pay attention and remember to check all the tufties just in case. Have a look at the panel adjacent and see if you can spot the scaups. Look for the rounded head and more wedge-shaped bill compared to a tufted duck; big white patches around the bill, and on the male the emerging paler back. In the rough, damp pasture field to the north I flushed a jack snipe twice, and six common snipe. True to form, the jack snipe flew up silently and landed about 50 meters away, whereas the common snipe all called as they flew away, much more strongly and directly flying out of sight.

Coot (WC)

Posted October 27, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 26th   Leave a comment

It’s about this time of year when you start thinking that maybe the autumn has passed by and there won’t be anything new turning up now. It certainly felt wintery today – five degrees with a chill wind, although bright and sunny. And it certainly felt quiet in the Patch – a few goldcrests, and at Kilminning – again a few goldcrests and the three or so chiff-chaffs that seem to be staying put. There were several new bullfinches at the top and there were more reported from other bits of Fife today so these are probably winter migrants. A very restless flock of siskins was another flock of more obvious winter migrants. There was no sign of the black redstart at Balcomie, and also not yesterday, so it must have been a one day bird. It is probably already back at its wintering site in southern Europe.

One of the chiff-chaffs at Kilminning – there are still at least three (maybe 5) that have been there for at least three weeks now (JA)

This afternoon I thought I would try something different so I walked from Boarhills down to the mouth of the Kenly Burn. There are still a lot of stubble fields there and I stumped across them in the hope of rarer bunting. Fourth field in and up popped a Lapland bunting – number 164 for the year list – and scarce this autumn. This is, I think, only the second or third reported for Fife so far. It did its usual of only flushing at about ten meters, completely invisible until it flew up each time, and calling a few times as it circled above me before diving down to another part of the stubble field. There were a few skylarks, reed buntings and yellowhammers in the fields as well. Down on the shore it was high tide and there was a good size roost of oystercatchers, curlews, mallards, redshanks and three greenshanks. It is a good site there for wintering greenshanks. Most will be south of the Sahara by now, at the edge of lakes and pools throughout Africa, and in mangroves around the edge. But a few hardy individuals brave out a Scottish winter at coastal sites like Boarhills, trading off a harder life for the next few months with the safety of avoiding a migration and being able to reach their breeding grounds quicker in the spring. But a harsh Scottish wintering site is all relative. A flock of 20 whooper swans flew over the stubble fields as I headed back to Crail – the swans regard Scotland as their holiday in the sun as they escape the Arctic for the winter.

The three greenshanks roosting at the mouth of the Kenly Burn this afternoon (WC)
Whooper swans here for the winter (JA)

Posted October 26, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 24th   Leave a comment

One or two things have cropped up on the east coast a bit further south and the May Island had a radde’s warbler yesterday (only one has turned up in Crail during my time here). This is despite the winds not being very good, although there was a little bit of easterly yesterday and some rain overnight. I tried Kilminning and Balcomie this morning just in case. There was a flock of redpolls and then siskins which are obvious migrants, and also two chiff-chaffs at the top. One was an “eastern” bird with the “sue-ee” call, which on occasions went to a single sad syllable like a Siberian chiff-chaff. It was a very cold greyish bird with only a hint of greenish yellow on the wing. A flock of several hundred pink-footed geese flew over and as I scanned the flock I picked up three snipe – they could have been jack snipe – flying high overhead.

The “eastern” chiff-chaff at Kilminning first thing this morning (WC)
The bird above, but better to appreciate its grey tones (WC)

At the bottom of Kilmminning there were another three chiff-chaffs in a lively tit flock, a blackcap and three bullfinches. It was a still morning so I could hear their constant, very soft whistling that they do as a contact call – much like their normal louder flight call, just so quiet that I needed to be a few meters away to hear it. The bullfinches were feeding on sea buckthorn and then whitebeam berries.

Female or juvenile male bullfinch (WC)
Male bullfinch (WC)

A black redstart was found by John Anderson at Balcomie later in the morning.  I must have walked past it. I popped down in the afternoon and refound it straight away on the stone dyke at the back of the horse field, in the corner where the asparagus has been planted. In fact, exactly the same location as the last black redstart at Balcomie, the first winter male or female on April 20th this year. That rough field edge with its stone wall perch and associated ruined buildings close by must be a perfect spot. This bird was a male and very mobile, using the whole of the horse field and the farm buildings, although mostly the east side of the horse field.

The male black redstart at Balcomie this afternoon (WC)
And a close up from John (JA)

Posted October 24, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 23rd   Leave a comment

Everytime I go anywhere in Crail I hear grey wagtails flying over. We must have several birds wintering in town this year. They occasionally breed but mostly they are a winter visitor, commuting up and down the Denburn and the Brandyburn, or hanging around the wet rocks and cliffs of Roome Bay. Despite their name, most people notice that they are bright yellow underneath (the males particularly so). They do wag their long tails so they then get identified as “yellow” wagtails. It’s one of the commonest misidentifications I get asked about. Yellow wagtails are a different species, yellow above as well as below, and they are a rare passage or now uncommon summer breeder just outside of Crail. Correctly identifying them is fairly easy if you follow the rule of summer and fields = yellow wagtail and winter and wet rocks, rooves or pavements = grey wagtail. The best place to reliably see a grey wagtail at the moment is along the burn in Denburn. There are a couple of quite tame birds there although they will fly away when approached closely, a flash of bounding yellow, with a metallic “zit – zit” call as they go. The yellow wagtails are now all in sub-Saharan Africa and I will see them again when I am in Nigeria next month. They have been breeding near Crail for the last four years and this year I am fairly sure we had 5 nests involving 2-3 pairs, which fledged at least two, probably three broods of chicks. This is great news – the only nesting pair in Fife, I think, and the species has only ever been a very scarce breeder anywhere in Scotland. It has been declining as with most other summer migrants. I am hopeful we will have even more nesting pairs next spring – but April seems a long way away just now.

A Crail grey wagtail (JA)
And a Crail yellow wagtail – from this year, utilising old school geotagging of the photo (WC)

Posted October 23, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 20th   Leave a comment

Sea watching at Fife Ness was similar to yesterday. A lot going past into the brisk northerly but nothing very unusual. In an hour this morning I had about 10 little gulls and 1 or 2 adult Mediterranean gulls amongst the usual gulls, gannets and auks. There were more wildfowl passing: a couple of brent geese, and some goldeneye and teal flocks that were notable. And in the background the peeping of the Fife Ness invisible kingfisher. It was right in front of the hide for a bit, but without it calling you would not have known.

Mediterranean gull (JA)

At the top of Kilminning there were a few redwings, and still the flock of long-tailed tits. At the bottom of Kilminning there was a chiff-chaff. It was calling like an “eastern” chiff-chaff– a very different “see-u”. There was at least one of these birds around when the Pallas’s warbler was about, but I was distracted and didn’t pay it much attention. This bird today had a hint of a wing bar and was a bit greenish grey but was otherwise fairly indistinct from any local chiff-chaff. The call though is very distinct. A swallow flying along the coast was the only other summer migrant about: swallows were reasonably common last week but they have become very scarce now.

Two of the long-tailed tits in the flock of about 15 that have been at Upper Kilminning for the last week (WC)

Posted October 20, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 19th   2 comments

About 25 millimeters of rain fell yesterday and overnight. It was particularly intense early this morning and Crail was awash by first light. There was a river (well a large stream) running down the St Andrews Road and then down the High Street, the bottom end of Denburn Wood and the top of the sheep field was turned into a pond, and there was a burn again running through the sheep field all the way down to Roome Bay. I have to say the sheep field looked quite good with water running through it. The Brandyburn was a fantastic torrent as well. Roome Bay was full of silt washed down from the fields.

Denburn Wood transformed
Just needs an alligator and a waterthrush…

The rain and the silt in Roome Bay didn’t put off the goosanders. There was a flock of six feeding in the shallow water close in. They were fishing cooperatively, forming a line to drive the fish, each bird holding their head underwater as they went forward, looking for any fish that broke cover as the line passed. Then a bird would dive completely under the water and more often than not come up with one. But then the cooperation broke down. Any larger fish that couldn’t be swallowed immediately, or that was wasn’t positioned in the bill for a quick swallow, was fair game. And one of the other goosanders would attempt to steal it in a paddlewheeling chase. This seemed to be a much less successful strategy than trying to fish. A lot of splashing and wasted time, and probably indigestion as the bird being chased bolted down the fish as fast as it could. With goosanders, like cormorants and herons, you can see the bulge and even the shape of the fish as it goes down their throat: it looks uncomfortable.

Goosanders co-operating… (WC)
Goosanders cheating (WC)
Goosander fishing (JA)

The rain stopped by mid-morning, but the strong north-easterly wind continued. It seemed like there should have been better seabirds, and this morning it looked excellent with hundreds of auks and gannets passing Crail close in to get shelter as they headed east. But there were few kittiwakes, which seem to have to be present in good numbers for a good seabird day. In about 90 minutes of sea watching from Crail I only had two great skuas and a sooty shearwater of note. Later at Fife Ness it was similar. Plenty going by, but nothing out of the ordinary. I did at last get sight of the kingfisher that I have been hearing down there for the last few weeks. I was whistling my dog – after today I now realise I use a kingfisher whistle – and the kingfisher answered back, even flying up to perch on a rock at the edge of stinky pool to have a look at the intruder in its territory. Kingfisher shyness got the better of it immediately though and it flew back to disappear again into the rocks by the sea.

Guillemot at Fife Ness. There were lots passing Crail this morning leaving the Forth

Posted October 19, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 17th   Leave a comment

I am glad you can bird anywhere, anytime. On my four minute walk to pick up my lift to work this morning – from opposite the Co-op along Marketgate to Roome Bay Avenue I saw a blackbird, a herring gull, rooks, jackdaws, woodpigeons, goldfinches, blue tits, and a collared dove; flying over, a sparrowhawk, a grey heron, starlings, a redwing, two grey wagtails and a black-headed gull, and I heard a robin, chaffinch and a great tit. And the last bird, as I arrived at my destination, a star end to my micro bird watch: a brambling flying over the sheep field, calling to draw attention to itself. 18 species. It made me want to keep going and make it 50 in a mad dash around Crail. But sadly it was St Andrews for me and indoors for the rest of the day.

Goldfinch (JA)

Posted October 17, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 15th   2 comments

Kilminning has settled down into a quieter period. There were a couple of bramblings among the newly arrived redwing flocks and a single fieldfare. There are still plenty of goldcrests but no obvious chiff-chaffs. Unusually though was a flock of long-tailed tits at the top, and then a second flock down at the bottom of Kilminning. It seems too much of a coincidence that these should be just appearing now if they were resident. They seem much more likely to be migrants like the goldcrests but they are not a species known for their migration. Perhaps they are dispersing Scottish birds that are working their way down the coast. There were a few bullfinches in among them as well – another ususual Crail species that has suddenly reappeared. The best birds today were two merlins over the field between the two Kilminning blocks. I saw a female merling making a stoop down into the field and then coming up with a skylark. It continued to fly rapidly in a strange zig-zag fashion low over the field. The reason became clear, a second female merlin suddenly came into my view, and stooped at the first. It responded by landing in the field and mantling its prey, the second flew back to the airfield. Raptors stealing prey from each other is fairly common – usually the larger species prevailing. These two merlins were equally matched and the first didn’t give way. It was probably worth the second bird having a go. If the stoop had been a surprise the first merlin may well have dropped its prey on the precautionary principle.

If you were reincarnated as a merlin, you would know you had led a good life last time (JA)

Posted October 15, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 14th   Leave a comment

I was down in London this morning – I really don’t think it is going to catch on, even if I did see a ring-necked parakeet above Kings Cross. Nice to be back in Crail even after only two days away. It’s a nerve wracking time to be away in terms of missing something like the Pallas’s. But it has been quiet, although there is a gentle easterly tonight and probably tomorrow, with rain on Wednesday. I walked around Crail this evening and across some stubble fields looking again for a Lapland bunting. I put up 10 corn buntings in the field behind Saucehope, a few skylarks and a common snipe. But in the distance flying into the Forth, a whimbrel called a few times. I whistled to it and it called back but didn’t pause its journey. This might be my latest ever whimbrel for Crail. I shouldn’t think it was worried. Two days non-stop flight for a whimbrel (and they can manage 5 or 6 non-stop days routinely) and it will be in North Africa. Some do winter in the UK anyway – I had one for several winters, in exactly the same small patch of saltmarsh on the Tyninghame estuary on the opposite side of the Forth from us.

Any excuse to post a picture of one of my favourite birds – the global star, a whimbrel (JA)

Posted October 14, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 13th   Leave a comment

I couldn’t resist another chance of refinding the shore lark yesterday so I tried Balcomie and Fife Ness at low tide first thing this morning. There is much more shore lark habitat – open flat muddy and shingly beach areas – at low tide. It was very quiet in the noise sense: there were plenty of birds and for once I was able to hear them, with no wind and before the cars and go karts got started at the airfield. Although you then start noticing the lower levels of noise pollution. The golf club has various carts and buggies racing round early before play starts and these were a low drone in the background. But still better than usual. The seals singing from the rocks offshore was one of the loudest noises. It is not really singing, but nice enough as a soundscape mixed with the gently lapping waves. I was able to easily pick out a twite flying over Balcomie Beach as it called, distant geese flocks (there were a lot moving past from the Lothians to further north this morning) and even the soft, mournful song of an out of season singing mistle thrush somewhere in the back of the Patch. The best noise, however, was the shrill whistle of a kingfisher, somewhere among the rock pools and channels of the lower shore by stinky pool. I thought I heard one a few weeks ago but it wasn’t clear enough. This morning I could hear it piping every so often as I sat at Fife Ness looking out to sea. I scanned the shore too but didn’t see it. Kingfishers, for such a gaudy bird, dispappear on a rocky shore. They are small and their bright colours are surprisingly disruptive at a distance. At sea there was another great northern diver past (white face glowing) and a smattering of various ducks: goosander, velvet scoter, common scoter, wigeon, eider, mallard and my first long-tailed duck of the winter. The best bird was a juvenile puffin sitting on the sea close in. I hardly ever see puffins in winter, let alone juveniles which are usually very far out to sea by this time of year.

Juvenile puffin (JA)

Posted October 13, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 12th   Leave a comment

First light at Kilminning didn’t repeat the Pallas’s of yesterday. It was clear last night and it looks like the Pallas’s warbler departed. Where it might be going is uncertain – it is unlikely that it will retrace its steps back to the far east. They are rare vagrants to Africa so it may well head down there, perhaps sharing that unknown corner of West Africa where increasing numbers of yellow-browed warblers must now be wintering in. There were a few disappointed birders at Kilminning today. It’s a classic scenario – the rarity does a flit before the weekend. I was lucky to have it on my doorstep, and to have a job that often allows me to work when it suits me. It seems that a few other of the rare birds left over from Monday went last night as well: there was only one ring ouzel left at lower Kilminning, and fewer chiff-chaffs and goldcrests. The yellow-browed warblers remain though. There were still at least three at upper Kilminning.

One of the remaining chiffchaffs at Kilminning today (JA)

This afternoon a shorelark was seen on the rocks at Fife Ness. Shorelarks are Arctic breeding songbirds that are uncommon winter visitors and we don’t have much suitable habitat for one – but migrants can turn anywhere, and shorelarks like bare open habitats like beaches. This would be a new bird for the Crail list so I spent four hours this afternoon walking along the shore between Fife Ness and the end of Balcomie Golf Course. It was a really nice afternoon, and quite relaxing to be looking for a bird in open habitats rather than having to peer into dense obscuring vegetation without any hope of seeing the bird unless it moved across your field of view. I didn’t find the shorelark; I am becoming a believer in birding luck evening out, and I had my fair share of luck yesterday. But Balcomie Beach and the sea out from the Ness provided plenty to see as usual. The beach now has its own lagoon on the high tide courtesy of a big bank of wrack washed in on the easterlies of the week before last. The now resident waders have been feeding in this and on the wrack bed as it rots and becomes maggot infested. Turnstones, dunlin, redshank, knot, and lots of starlings, all now handsome in spotty winter plumage, even the juveniles. Lots of gulls too of course, sitting in the water behind the wrack bank picking up the maggots washed out by the tide. The sanderling, purple sandpipers and bar-tailed godwits were roosting on the wrack: wading in a shallow lagoon or fossicking through seaweed piles is not their thing.

The new “lagoon” on Balcomie Beach
Turnstones and starlings feeding on seaweed fly maggots – both species specialise on digging holes in rotting vegetation
Turnstone (WC)

My dog found a nice rotted fish skeleton to eat so I had to sit down and wait for her to finish before she would come back to me (she knows well what I would have done with the fish if I could have caught her). Making a virtue of it I sat down and seawatched by Stinky Pool (my prime location for checking for a shore lark anyway). The sea was full of birds right to the horizon. Mostly gulls, gannets and passing auks. But in thirty minutes I had a great northern diver, a great skua, a juvenile pomarine skua and I also picked up a distant short-eared owl, heading in from the sea toward Fife Ness. As it got to within about a kilometre of the land, it changed direction and headed for the Lothians. I bet this was an adult, orientating itself and then heading off to a known wintering area that it used last year. A juvenile, I bet, would have been so relieved to see any land after crossing the North Sea that it would have made landfall as soon as possible. It is always slightly bizarre to see an owl flying over the sea, but they have a light flight action, with frequent glides, that makes it look like they are finding the long crossing easy. The pomarine skua was really far out, but I identified it initially as a great skua until it banked and flashed lots of silvery white on it underwing coverts, almost like a sooty shearwater, resolving it as a pomarine or arctic juvenile, but with the hefty look of a great skua then making it a pomarine. It then helpfully chased a few kittiwakes confirming its large size and hefty look. I wouldn’t bet my house on the id but maybe a few quid. The great northern diver was another good bit of id practice. It was powering along with the wind behind it so it didn’t look exceptionally heavy or big, but the neck mark was really pronounced, like a collar, so the face contrasted bright white, so much so I did a double take and checked the bill just in case (but no banana of a white-billed diver). I checked the guides and this contrasting white face is a good feature on a wintering bird when the structure of the bird is not obvious. John’s photo below gives a good idea of this, but at a distance and in bright sunlight the white of the face contrasted much more.  

Great northern diver passing Fife Ness (JA)

Posted October 12, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 11th   2 comments

I was back out at Kilminning at first light this morning. It is very windy today and although nice and sunny, the conditions weren’t the best for picking up a small bird in dense cover. On the Sherlock Holmes principle – if you have eliminated the possible, then the impossible must be true – I shifted my search from the places where I thought the Pallas’s warbler should be, to the less likely ones. I deliberately stopped checking out the goldcrest and tit flocks in the sycamores and rowans, even though they still beguilingly had many chiff-chaffs and at least three yellow-browed warblers in them. Instead I checked the hawthorn bushes – both of yesterday’s very brief sightings were in hawthorn. Forty minutes later I had view of the Pallas’s warbler, feeding in the dense hawthorns in the southwest corner of upper Kilminning. These are the hawthorns just behind and to the south of the pines running along the western boundary, next to the airfield. It was a heart stopping moment – I have put a lot of hours in trying to find this bird and then suddenly it wasn’t a goldcrest, it was the bird I had been hoping for, green, yellow, stripey and right in front of me. I had it within about 10 meters for several minutes as it fed very actively in the sheltered hawthorns, glowing in the early morning sunlight. I watched it for a couple of minutes, finally enjoying all the detail and then took some pictures. It stayed in the area obligingly and I finally heard it call. Not the loud “duwee” that would have given it away instantly yesterday, but a soft “zeep” – probably distinctive enough to merit a second look if you were passing, but barely audible above a few meters on a windy day. As I watched it I became convinced that this was probably the best bird I had ever seen, although I suspect I will transfer my affection to the next hard won Crail rarity.

The Pallas’s warbler at upper Kilminning this morning – probably on its 4th or 5th day there
And one last portrait (WC)

Posted October 11, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 10th   Leave a comment

I was on Aberdeen station last night heading back to Crail when I saw a picture posted from upper Kilminning earlier. A Pallas’s warbler – a once in a decade rare bird for Crail. We have had two in Denburn since I have been here. It’s much like a yellow browed warbler, just more so – more stripes and more yellow and more active. They are very smart, little birds. You can guess I was out at Kilminning as it got light (a not so epic 7:50 at this time of year) and I have been looking for the warbler off an on, inbetween other commitments, all day. It is now raining heavily and will be dark in the next hour so I have given up. You can also guess that I didn’t see it. It was resighted briefly this afternoon so I have not given up hope. But it is a difficult bird. It certainly didn’t call all day which would have made it a lot easier and the many goldcrests, chiff-chaffs (easily double figures today) and the couple of yellow-browed warblers moving restlessly around Kilminning made it both exciting – always something to check – but also very tiring. I have looked at a lot of goldcrests today. Even without the Pallas’s it was good birding – the mixed flocks I have mentioned, plus at least two ring ouzels, lots of blackbirds and redwings coming in during the day, a brambling and a short-eared owl over the golf course. And a record-breaking year list bird – number 162, a redpoll (it was a flyover, calling): probably a lesser redpoll if you worry about these things. I would have preferred the new record to have been set by a Pallas’s, but perhaps it will still extend the list tomorrow morning.

Today’s consolation prize for dipping the Pallas’s warbler – a short-eared owl just in from the North Sea (JA)

Posted October 10, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 9th   Leave a comment

The last couple of times I have down to the top of Kilminning I have flushed a grey heron from the rank grass alongside the pines and sycamores that I check for migrants. This is a long way from any water and the bird was stalking as if feeding before it flew off rather than roosting (it’s not a good place for a heron to be roosting anyway so close to predator concealing cover). I have also been seeing lots of voles about, so I think it is a heron that has shifted to a mammal diet to exploit this opportunity. Grey herons are formidable generalist predators. They do mostly eat fish but really anything they can swallow will do, from crayfish to ducklings, from frogs to lizards and snakes (well perhaps not at Kilminning), and also mammals. John Anderson has a spectacular sequence of photos (see below) of a grey heron eating a fair size rabbit. So it’s perhaps not such a surprise to find a grey heron behaving like a stork or a raptor. Generalism is key to success for species that live close to humans – they can thrive on the chaos and the shifting goalposts we create.  

Grey Heron (JA)
And the proof of their optimistic generalism… (JA)
And the rabbit was successfully swallowed! (JA)

Posted October 9, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 8th   Leave a comment

I couldn’t resist checking out the Patch at Fife Ness this morning because a reed warbler was reported there yesterday. A reed warbler is a rarer bird on the Crail list than a marsh warbler, and this time of year, any reed warbler type bird is worth an extra look just in case. But reed warblers are another skulker species and I didn’t find it. But I was treated to some nice close views of a migrant male ring ouzel and I could hear it, or even another, grumpily chacking all the time I was in the Patch. There were lots of goldcrests about that were also obvious migrants but the origin of a great spotted woodpecker that was around was less clear. We get migrant great spotted woodpeckers coming across the North Sea at this time of year and they stand out because they are not very common around Crail at other times of year. But perhaps it was just a Scottish woodpecker and I was misinterpreting its foraging on a telephone pole as desperation after a long overnight oversea flight.

Male blackbird – exactly where a ring ouzel was about five minutes before. Blackbirds are a bit less shy than ring ouzels… (WC)
The “desperate” great spotted woodpecker in the Patch this morning (WC)
Migrant goldcrest (JA)

Posted October 8, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 7th   Leave a comment

I only had an hour this morning at Kilminning on my way to work today but it was well spent. A gale blowing and redwings blowing with it like leaves. Every tree gave off a puff of departing redwings, with good numbers of blackbirds and song thrushes, and one fieldfare. All in overnight from Scandinavia and now setting off again inland for their wintering sites. The top of Kilminning had a couple of yellow-browed warblers and bramblings, lots of goldcrests, a lesser whitethroat, a few chiffchaffs and a woodcock zooming off ahead of me among the sycamores. At the bottom of Kilminning I found what I was really looking for – a male ring ouzel flying up from the rowans giving its distinctive angry, deep chacking call. It looked huge amongst a flock of the much smaller redwings and showed the white breast band of an adult male. This is my 161st species for the Crail year list putting me equal with the current record. I am optimistic about beating it spectacularly this year! There were lots of ring ouzels coming in yesterday on the east coast but we somehow missed them: they are always best found first thing in the morning at Kilminning, usually in the teeth of a gale. Look out for big blackbirds with pale fringes to their feathers and big paler bands across their breast – there will be some in Crail gardens this afternoon. I also saw the barred warbler down at Kilminning in its usual bush this morning. I wasn’t looking for it, so it of course popped up right in front of me. There is a lesson there somewhere.

Male ring ouzel (JA)

Posted October 7, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 6th   3 comments

It was raining heavily all morning so it wasn’t worth going out until midday. I went straight to lower Kilminning to try to put to rest the strange call I heard yesterday. After listening to my recordings of all the likely and less likely candidates, dusky warbler still seemed to be the best bet. I tried some playback in the the rosebushes by the barred warbler bush where I heard the call yesterday. When I sat back in cover – exactly where I was sitting yesterday – dusky warbler call seemed nearly perfect. From ten meters away I could only hear the harsh electric tacks, not the soft song thrush like call between them. Perfect or not, and here and everywhere around the dense rose bushes and scrub of lower Kilminning, there was no response and nothing to see. Perhaps it was somewhere else – the chiff-chaffs in the area yesterday had all moved into more sheltered spots long the western boundary. Or perhaps it was never there at all. All day I kept hoping someone would get sight of a dusky warbler. But it was all a minor repeat of yesterday: the barred warbler, a couple of yellow-browed warblers, lots of redwings and a few bramblings feeding on rowan berries. Elsewhere along the coast and on the May Island there were more rarities appearing. Considering the high number of birders out at Fife Ness today I think we must have just missed the right weather conditions with nothing new being turned up at all. I enjoyed myself nonetheless. It was exciting looking for the dusky warbler, and for sure I will never mistake or overlook its call again. And I now know the inside of every rosebush in Kilminning – they are surprisingly accessible – and every robin and dunnock in the patch. 

One of the bramblings tucking in to a rowan berry at Kilminning today (WC)

Crawling around dense bushes is claustrophobic after a while so I also had a walk over the stubble fields of the airfield, directly adjacent to Kiliminning. They were full of skylarks. Hundreds of skylarks, newly in this week. There were only a handful ten days ago, but today it was a blizzard. I finished off the afternoon in Denburn Wood in the hope of a red-flanked bluetail, but only more dense cover and more robins.

Skylark (JA)

Posted October 6, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 5th   Leave a comment

It wasn’t quite the mega rarity day I was hoping for but there was plenty around to see, and there was always the feeling that the next bird just might be something very special. All the indicator birds were around: as I got to upper Kilminning first thing this morning there were redwings popping out of most of the rowan trees and I could hear several chiff-chaffs. I flushed two woodcock fimmediately from the sycamore trees along the road, and then had a jack snipe fly past me. It had been flushed by another birder and so came past me at eye level, and circled round before disappearing into cover again. A really nice view. They are common in winter, but because they freeze and flush only if you are about to step on them, you hardly ever see them. Migratory jack snipe seem to be more ready to fly and I flushed one in almost exactly the same place at Kilminning last year. I then heard my first brambling of the winter from the rowans – another migration indicator species. At Balcomie farm there were more bramblings, a couple of siskin (another species that turns up in conjunction with rare migrants) and a yellow-browed warbler in with a mobile blue tit flock (the garden of the ruined cottage was the epicentre of the flock’s movements).

A woodcock – a classic October migrant for Crail, suddenly popping up everywhere for a few days as they arrive, but then all disappearing inland for the winter (JA)

In the afternoon I tried the Patch at Fife Ness but it was quiet apart from goldcrests and a flock of 50 redwings passing high overhead, just in from the sea. At sea itself it was gannets, auks and kittiwakes, with the occasional red-throated diver past. Again, even with the strong south-easterly a little disappointing sea bird wise. I finished the day, just before the rain came on, staking out the barred warbler bush at lower Kilminning. I had about 10 seconds of views in 40 minutes of watching – par for the course, but good to know it is still there. But even better, although frustrating, I heard a bird making a very short, sharp chack, repeatedly – almost a tick and like a piece of electrical equipment sparking. There were two bursts from the vegetation behind the elders where the barred warbler has been seen most. It sounded like a cross between a rare warbler and a flycatcher – there was something of a dusky warbler to it, but without the song thrush flight call element behind. It was most similar to a call that I have heard mannikins make during their displays – obviously there is not a South American rain forest species hiding out in Kilminning, but this is what it sounded like. I had a look around but nothing popped out and I didn’t hear the call again. There have been a a lot of people out birding today, and indeed staking out the area where I heard the call, so it seems unlikely that there is something unusual there. But something usual, is then making a very unusual call, and I would still like to know what it is. 

A newly arrived redwing. Like the woodcocks they are very common around Crail when they arrive, but they soon move on inland and they can be fairly scarce during the winter (JA)

Posted October 5, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

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