Archive for December 2019

December 31st   Leave a comment

It’s dark and bar a miraculous nocturnal rarity that’s 2019’s year list done. 168, comfortably beating my last best year of 161 in 2016. Even if I discount three species from the Isle of May, it’s still record breaking. Lots of great birds this year – my favourites included obviously the three new species for the patch list, hoopoe, red kite and aquatic warbler (which was also a world list tick), the wood warbler in Denburn on April 26th and the Pallas’s warbler at Kilminning on the 11th October. The complete list, in chronological order is (with species not seen in the last 3 years in bold):

  1. Blackbird (Jan 1st)
  2. Herring Gull
  3. Pheasant
  4. Robin 
  5. Carrion Crow
  6. Jackdaw
  7. Wren
  8. Rook
  9. Oystercatcher
  10. Twite
  11. Great black-backed gull
  12. Pink-footed goose
  13. Grey Partridge
  14. Skylark
  15. Reed bunting
  16. Linnet
  17. Curlew
  18. Sparrowhawk
  19. Dunnock
  20. Eider
  21. Redshank
  22. Song thrush (sunrise Jan 1st)
  23. Woodpigeon
  24. Black-headed gull
  25. Goldcrest
  26. Goldfinch
  27. Mallard
  28. Pied wagtail
  29. Turnstone
  30. Blue tit
  31. Greenshank
  32. Cormorant
  33. Red-throated diver
  34. Shag
  35. Guillemot
  36. Fulmar
  37. Goldeneye
  38. Kestrel
  39. Wigeon
  40. Yellowhammer (9 am Jan 1st)
  41. Red-breasted merganser
  42. Kittiwake
  43. Chaffinch
  44. Common gull
  45. Starling
  46. Feral pigeon
  47. Coal tit
  48. Great tit
  49. Grey heron
  50. Bullfinch
  51. Long-tailed tit
  52. Siskin
  53. Magpie (10 am Jan 1st)
  54. Mistle thrush
  55. House sparrow
  56. Stock dove
  57. Collared dove
  58. Greenfinch
  59. Tree sparrow
  60. Purple sandpiper
  61. Rock pipit
  62. Pomarine skua
  63. Meadow pipit (11 am Jan 1st)
  64. Great spotted woodpecker
  65. Lapwing (mid day Jan 1st)
  66. Common buzzard
  67. Fieldfare
  68. Little grebe
  69. Mute swan
  70. Teal
  71. Whooper swan
  72. Tufted duck
  73. Coot
  74. Peregrine (1 pm Jan 1st)
  75. Moorhen
  76. Sanderling
  77. Ringed plover
  78. Dunlin
  79. Golden plover
  80. Gannet (2 pm Jan 1st)
  81. Common snipe
  82. Stonechat (Jan 2nd)
  83. Long-tailed duck
  84. Common scoter
  85. Corn bunting (Jan 3rd)
  86. Grey wagtail
  87. Barn owl (Jan 8th)
  88. Redwing (Jan 10th)
  89. Treecreeper
  90. Tawny owl
  91. Jay (Jan 13th)
  92. Short-eared owl (Jan 17th)
  93. Dipper (Jan 19th)
  94. Kingfisher
  95. Razorbill
  96. Woodcock
  97. Brent goose (Jan 20th)
  98. Grey plover (Feb 2nd)
  99. Little gull
  100. Shelduck
  101. Chiffchaff (April 4th)
  102. Lesser black-backed gull (April 5th)
  103. Sandwich Tern (April 13th)
  104. Willow Warbler (April 14th)
  105. HOOPOE (April 17th)
  106. Barn swallow (April 18th)
  107. Blackcap
  108. Whimbrel
  109. Northern wheatear (April 19th)
  110. Sand martin (April 20th)
  111. House martin
  112. Black redstart
  113. Common redstart (April 21st)
  114. Sedge warbler
  115. Yellow wagtail
  116. Common whitethroat (April 25th)
  117. Lesser whitethroat 
  118. Pied flycatcher (April 25th)
  119. Wood warbler (April 26th)
  120. Black-tailed godwit (April 27th)
  121. Puffin
  122. Common tern
  123. Greylag goose (April 28th)
  124. Bar-tailed godwit (April 30th)
  125. Manx shearwater (May 1st)
  126. Great skua (May 4th)
  127. Common swift (May 9th)
  128. Arctic tern (may 11th)
  129. Velvet scoter
  130. Great northern diver (May 15th)
  131. Spotted flycatcher (May 17th)
  132. Whinchat (May 18th)
  133. Garden warbler
  134. Canada goose (May 21st)
  135. Arctic skua (June 2nd)
  136. Cuckoo (May Island)
  137. Gadwall (June 8th)
  138. Quail
  139. RED KITE (June 9th)
  140. Roseate tern (June 10th May Island)
  141. Goosander (June 18th)
  142. Mediterranean gull (July 2nd)
  143. Common sandpiper
  144. Knot (July 6th)
  145. AQUATIC WARBLER (July 28th May Island)
  146. Tree pipit (Aug 8th)
  147. Marsh harrier (Aug10th)
  148. Green sandpiper (Aug 11th)
  149. Ruff (Aug 12th)
  150. Curlew sandpiper (Sep 6th)
  151. Black-throated diver (Sep 9th)
  152. Sooty shearwater (Sep 9th)
  153. Little stint (Sep 19th)
  154. Merlin (Sep 21st)
  155. Red-breasted flycatcher (Sep 22nd)
  156. Yellow-browed warbler
  157. Barnacle goose (Sep 23rd)
  158. Barred warbler (Sep 28th)
  159. Jack snipe (Oct 5th)
  160. Brambling
  161. Ring ouzel (Oct 7th)
  162. Redpoll (Oct 10th)
  163. Pallas’s warbler (Oct 11th)
  164. Lapland bunting (Oct 26th)
  165. Scaup (Oct 27th)
  166. Long-eared owl (Nov 2nd)
  167. Waxwing (Nov 3rd)
  168. Water rail (Dec 24th)
Hoopoe at Boarhills: wish I had a proper photo of it
My favourite bird of the year – Pallas’s warbler at Kilminning (WC)
Red-breasted flycatcher at Craighead (JA)
The roseate tern that bred on the May Island this year (Tasso Leventis)

It all starts again tomorrow. Happy New Year.

Posted December 31, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 28th   Leave a comment

This morning I was walking along the footpath that cuts north-east through the fields from the main road starting just to the north of Kingsbarns. It passes through stubble and sheep fields that are good for winter flocks of buntings and finches, before ending up on the coastal path beyond the end of the Dunhill golf course. Halfway along I heard a Siberian chiffchaff. They have a very distinctive sad sounding single note call “szeep”, with a slight downflection in tone at the end – quite different from the disyllabic, two note “hooweet”, that goes up at the end. I saw the chiffchaff after a few  sconds of calling and I followed it as it moved along the footpath from small tree to tree before it flew down to feed out of sight on the ground in the adjacent turnip field (making me think of a willow warbler I watched doing the same in a cucumber field in Nigeria last month). It looked a very brown bird – much less distinctive than the greyish with greenish flights, Bonelli’s warbler-like “eastern” chiffchaff at Kilminning in October. I took some distant photos but enough to get the main plumage criteria to add to the call (which is pretty much a clincher anyway):

  1. No olive in the crown and mantle
  2. No yellow away from the underwing
  3. Pale brown hue in the upperparts
  4. Warm buff in the ear-coverts and a hint on the supercilium
  5. Buff at the breast-sides/flanks
  6. Black bill and legs

This is my second definite Siberian chiffchaff on the Crail patch. The first was about 8 years ago – Christmas time and at Kingsbarns as well, although in the woods at Cambo and a much more obvious grey bird, and with a slight wing bar on one side. Plumages seem quite variable and tricky (I would have not looked twice today if it had not called). As long as they call though, they are very easy.

Siberian chiffchaff at Kingsbarns this morning, showing most of the criteria (listed above) even in these distant photos. The light was flat, partially overcast so the photos accurately reflect the tones.

Posted December 28, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 26th   Leave a comment

On Christmas Eve I was up at Carnbee Reservoir hoping for a smew to add to the patch list. Lots of the usual ducks – goldeneyes, teal, wigeon, tufted duck and mallard; six or so little grebes and a water rail calling back to my playback from the rushy area at the far end. That made 168 for my Crail year list, so definitively beating my previous best year list of 161. I should think that is it for this year. Looking over the fields sloping down to the Forth I could see lots of small flocks of pink-footed geese flying about. There has been a lot of back and forth this year, from Fife to the Lothians.

Pink-footed geese flying over Carnbee on Christmas Eve (WC)

Christmas Day was beautifully sunny and clear. I watched the black redstart, first thing, working its way along the back of the beach, using the concrete, the fences and the gabions as perches to launch down onto the beach below to grab a sandhopper or a seaweed fly. It is very restless and doesn’t like to be approached. The best bet is to sit on the beach and wait for it to come to you as it makes its circuit, or better still, look down on it from the path above.

Crail Beach Robin 1 (JA)
Crail Beach Robin 2 (WC)
Pied wagtail keeping both beach robins company on Roome Bay Beach

This morning I sat for 30 minutes in the hide at Fife Ness, vaguely hopeful with a southerly wind. The gannets were back at least – five in total. A few guillemots and kittiwakes, two red-throated divers and quite a few fulmars passing but far out. On Balcomie Beach there were three purple sandpipers among the sanderling, looking very odd as they kept pace, running with them and picking at the surf’s edge as if they had had a species transplant.

Purple sandpiper (JA)

This afternoon I decided to go and see one of the smews that are about locally this year, even if they haven’t quite made Crail yet. I walked around Cameron Reservoir. There was a male smew – two have been there all December – with a flock of goldeneye, about 20 goosander, lots of mallard, teal and wigeon. Male smew are a very handsome black and snowy white, a very wintery duck. I have never seen a smew without feeling cold. As I walked back along the conifers that line the south edge of the reservoir I heard and then saw a flock of five crossbills flying over the trees. Crossbills occasionally come over Crail in irruption years (like waxwings they have good breeding seasons every so often and spill over eastwards from Russia and Scandinavia into the UK), but usually in July or August, although I haven’t had them on the year list for many years. I checked the distance to Crail – 15 km exactly so not even close to being within my 10 km patch boundary. Perhaps I should make it 10 miles.

Distant smew at Cameron reservoir today (WC)

Posted December 26, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 23rd   Leave a comment

It’s outside of my Crail patch but not that far away – West Sands by St Andrews – and its been a couple of years since I have seen a snow bunting. So I walked up the beach this morning looking foe the small flock that has been there for a month and regularly featuring in the Fife Bird News Whatsapp group. I started off at the Golf Museum scanning the bay and enjoying the hundreds of common and velvet scoters a few hundred meters out. It was flat calm and not very windy so they were easy to see through a telescope. Amongst them were long-tailed ducks and great crested grebes, and maybe a female surf scoter – an American species which, although rare in the UK is often in the bay. Juvenile velvet scoters have a head pattern like a surf scoter, and the real clincher is the bill shape (which I couldn’t see well) and the lack of a wing bar (which I didn’t see, but then you often don’t on a velvet scoter on the water). So perhaps, perhaps not. It occurred to me that female surf scoters are hardly ever reported in the UK and there is no great reason why males should be more vagrant than females, so I suspect a few get overlooked. The males are very showy and obvious – none about today though in the 400 or so scoters I checked. There was also a flock of over 50 scaup, keeping tightly together and separate from the scoters.

Male velvet scoter (JA)

I found the small flock of snow buntings halfway along the beach roughly by the yellow flag. The flock would fly out of the dune edges onto the beach when disturbed by a walker and a dog, and then trot quickly back. It made them easy to find. They are quite a tame species and weren’t flushing until people were about 25 meters away, and then only flying a short distance, showing their wing patches as fluttering white against the dark sky. They are called snow buntings because they breed in the high tops, often by late snow beds, and they often feed on the insects blown onto them (which then get chilled and lethargic making a nice easy meal for all the montane breeding birds). But I hardly ever see them in the mountains. To me they are birds of their wintering grounds – beaches and saltmarshes and dunes. And then I think of them as being called snow buntings because of the way their wings flash white like snow flakes in a gale as they fly up from your feet. I watched them for nearly an hour. They were finding seeds all the time in what seemed to me to be pure sand. Most of the time the dog walkers didn’t disturb them, but occasionally they had to fly up and on to a new patch of beach. Not one of the walkers noticed them, which perhaps suits the snow buntings, unlike me who kept trailing after them.

Snow buntings on West Sands this morning (WC)

I went down to Roome Bay in the last hour of sunshine this afternoon. The black redstart is still in residence, working its way along the upper beach from the base of the cliffs to the first (or last) walkway down to the beach. It doesn’t stay in the same place for very long, probably to avoid the robins, but I sat down midway alongs its patch and saw it within a few minutes. I enjoyed the other species feeding on the seaweed, and particularly the wrens like angry mice, hardly ever flying, scuttling around the rocks and washed up creels.

Roome Bay this afternoon – the black redstart on the fence above the beach and one of the beach wrens (WC)

Posted December 23, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 22nd   Leave a comment

The black redstart was still on the beach at the east end of Roome Bay this morning. It was having a bad time with the local robin. It kept on chasing the redstart away, following it up into the gorse above the cliffs before returning to the beach. The redstart would then head down to a new bit of beach, usually round the corner directly below the cliffs where a second robin would do the same again. A black redstart is ecologically pretty much a robin on a beach in the winter – they feed on exactly the same things, in the same way. And I bet the red tail gets on a robin’s nerves subliminally. The turnstones were still feeding away at high tide like yesterday except a little gang of them were actually climbing the cliffs and picking around in the stony base. I can only imagine that, because of the very high tide, that the sandhoppers had moved well up above the tideline and were easy to find amongst the stony soil which would have prevented them from burrowing and so using their normal hiding behaviour. Some of the rock and meadow pipits were foraging there as well.

The turnstones feeding at the base of the cliffs in Roome Bay this morning (also a meadow pipit). You can see a tree fern fossil on the rock bottom right as well. (WC)
Turnstone (JA)
The black redstart (JA)

Posted December 22, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 21st   Leave a comment

A walk through Crail this morning turned up two good birds. First a chiff-chaff in one of the walled gardens by the pottery. It was feeding very busily on tiny insects picked off the branches of a small tree. I tried to make into a Siberian chiff-chaff, but it was more brownish than grey and no real hint of green in the wings. Wintering chiff-chaffs are quite unusual in Crail. I only see one every few years. Down south in England they are much more common as a wintering bird.

Chiff-chaff (JA)

Then down at Roome Bay I was watching the turnstones turning over the kelp fronds on the beach, directly below the path because it was high tide, when I noticed a dark robin with a shivering tail perched on a seaweed stalk. A black redstart, feeding on the kelp insects as well. Black redstarts in Crail in winter are quite rare. We have them regularly on passage – three out at Balcomie this year in April and October, for example – but a wintering bird is much more unusual. A couple in the last 10 years, with one in 2011 that spent a couple of months down below the cliffs at Roome Bay. I found that bird about this time of year so maybe this bird will stay resident too. It’s a great site down below the cliffs. Lots of small birds are attracted to forage on the insects and sandhoppers that are concentrated in the rotting seaweed of the tideline: today there were wrens, dunnocks, rock pipits, and pied and grey wagtails feeding with the black redstart.

The female (or more likely 1st winter male black redstart considering the white in the wing) black redstart at Roome Bay this morning (WC)
The same black redstart this morning (JA)

Posted December 21, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 14th   Leave a comment

I only had an hour this morning, so I walked along the shore in Crail: this time of year it’s as good as anywhere. The redshanks were in the harbour as usual – only two of my colour-ringed birds left this winter. A male goosander flew over heading inland – they are fairly unusual now and will be until next July. The fulmars are hanging round their nests again at Castle Walk. There were four pairs this morning, sitting on their nest ledges and preening each other. They live a long time – 50 or more years – and invest a lot of time in pair formation. Our own mini albatross, taking years to get a successful breeding season in. I wish our Crail birds were colour-ringed. I expect I am seeing the same birds that have been on the cliffs all the time I have been in Crail. Not that I am volunteering to catch them – you need a long-handled net to get them as they glide by, and when this near impossible task works after hours of trying, they then cover you with projectile vomit. But it would be brilliant to know just how old our birds are. It changes your perspective when you realise that birds have been resident in a place longer than you.

One of our Castle Walk fulmar pairs this morning (WC)

I continued on to Roome Bay. There was a pair of red-breasted mergansers feeding close in with the goldeneyes. And a lovely grey wagtail among the rock pipits on the rocky shore below the cliffs.

Grey Wagtail (JA)

Posted December 14, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 12th   Leave a comment

I was walking across the stubble field next to Pinkerton, heading down to Saucehope, and noticing that the skylarks were flushing practically at my feet as if it was very cold. It’s been a bit chilly but nothing like the frosty weather that usually makes skylarks act like this, when they can’t afford to waste any energy flying away needlessly. Then the real reason for their skulky behaviour appeared. A female merlin taking off from a fence post at the edge of the field. It headed off to the airfield but it must just have been hunting over the stubble field. Skylarks have two strategies when being hunted by a merlin. Those that are fit, or with plenty of energy to spare, can afford to fly away when a merlin appears. They take off and fly straight up, keeping above the merlin. Sometimes they even sing to signal that they are able to sustain a long chase if the merlin decides to press home its attack – but this is usually enough to put the merlin off: it doesn’t want to waste time chasing if its prey is strong enough to escape. A great strategy for a fit skylark, but any less fit bird that flies up less strongly and without singing boldly is immediately identified as a loser. So, the second skylark strategy is to stay put when a merlin appears – they freeze and rely on their camouflage. It is very effective – try spotting a skylark in a stubble field before it moves – although sometimes merlins land and start hopping around looking for the birds in hiding. And this then all perhaps explains why I only saw a few skylarks in the field, that flew up as I nearly stepped on them and then landed only a few meters away. All the fitter ones had already flown off leaving only the skulkers. Predators create these effects all the time – changing the behaviour and distribution of their prey without having to kill anything. I changed the distribution of the merlin today as it avoided me, making the stubble field safer for the remaining skylarks, but I made the airfield more dangerous when the merlin moved over there. 

Skylark – hide
Merlin – seek

Posted December 12, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 9th   Leave a comment

At last a perfectly sunny winter’s day: low sun and high tide at Balcomie Beach mid-afternoon. Hundreds of gulls surfing, sanderlings still rushing about and the group of goldeneyes getting frisky inshore. The males must be recently moulted young males, looking magnificently glossy and clean, their golden eyes shining, and keen to find a mate to get a head start for next year’s breeding season. But with the major problem of there being six of them and only one female. They were working hard to impress, sticking up their mushroom shaped heads on stretched necks and then throwing them flat across their backs. Back and forth, while following this poor female, who looked really like it wanted just to get on with a bit of feeding in the surf. Every so often one of of the males would be so distracted that a big wave broke over it and it was forced to dive out of the way. Goldeneyes are completely at home in the waves: they emerged each time from a dive completely dry, immaculate and ready to start their ridiculous head craning all over again.

The goldeneyes at Balcomie at the moment – a skewed sex ratio leading to a lot of showing off (WC)

Posted December 9, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 8th   Leave a comment

It’s hard to sustain an interesting narrative at this time of year. The days are very short and have been mostly wet and dark this week. This weekend, at least for some of today, has been a bit brighter. But the birds remain the same. There’s still a lot to see but the chance of seeing something even slightly out of the ordinary is greatly reduced because everything is staying put, conserving energy and keeping out of the way. This morning for example I sat in the hide at Fife Ness and watched an energetic sea chased by a south-westerly gale but hardly saw anything apart from gulls, eiders, oystercatchers and shags. In thirty minutes only one auk passed – too far out to identify – a red-throated diver and a turnstone. It is always nice to look at a wild sea, especially when you are sheltered from the storm in a hide but its nicer to see something passing over it. I am really missing the gannets. In a few months there will be hundreds passing in any thirty minutes and it seems an empty sea just now without them.

Balcomie Beach remains mostly a show of sanderling and redshank, with eiders and gulls in the surf, and now about six goldeneye on the sea a little further out. It was high tide at midday and the sanderling were half feeding, half roosting on a raft of washed in seaweed on the tideline. It was precarious and every so often a strong wave would send the flock flying up to circle over the sea before returning. Sanderling seem to be so full of energy it seems impossible that they gain enough of it when feeding. 

Male goldeneye (JA)
Sanderling – always on the move (JA)

There are a lot of pink-footed geese about, especially as you head out towards St Monans. I walked from Kilrenny to Crail yesterday morning and there were small flocks regularly heading along the coast or coming down into the soggy fields. It is certainly weather for ducks and geese. There is a really nice flooded field pool just above the old pig fields between Kilrenny and Caiplie and visible from the road as you drive from Crail to Anstruther. It has about 20 mallard on it and a few curlews strutting around the edge. I scanned it optimistically for some more exotic duck but with no luck. There was a single pintail that used to spend the winter with the mallards at Kilrenny but it hasn’t been there for a couple of winters now. Mallards are real opportunists which explains their widespread success in the habitats we create or change. They can use water bodies of any size and type and happily move around to exploit transient pools. And of course they can just head down to the rock pools of the coast when it gets really dry. Other duck species need specific depths of water, or more constant lakes, so they are rare in the East Neuk. I still haven’t seen a shoveller or a pochard for the Crail list: we really need a lake. Especially for a dull winter’s weekend.

A flock of pink-footed geese coming in to land in a wet stubble field (JA)

Posted December 8, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 5th   Leave a comment

With the short days there really isn’t much time to get out. I had a productive morning writing so rewarded myself with an hour and a half walking along the coast at Balcomie and then back through the stubble fields of Balcomie itself. The sanderlings on the beach were very tame, walking up to a few meters from me as they fed in the strong wind. It wasn’t particularly cold this afternoon and the feeding is I think good on the beach, with the remains of the seaweed well rotted down now, but the sanderlings were behaving as if feeding really was their priority. It’s a dangerous strategy – I flushed a sparrowhawk with a newly caught starling at the top of the beach. Any sanderling not paying attention as it races up the strandline is in danger of being tomorrow’s meal. That said, there are many more starlings than sanderlings on Balcomie Beach, and they feed closer to the cover that the sparrowhawks use to conceal their approaches. So the starlings must act as a shield for the sanderlings. But as the winter goes on and the starlings get whittled down, and the wariest remain, then it may work in the opposite direction. The sanderlings may then get targeted by a Balcomie specialist sparrowhawk trained by its daily successful starling hunts. There was a purple sandpiper right down on the strandline that probably has the best strategy – stay well out of the way. Although on a high tide they too will be pushed close to the killing zone. But purple sandpiper kills by sparrowhawks are rare. I have found a few and I am always surprised at just how colourful their feathers are. On a dull day like today, scooting past in the distance they just look dark grey or even blackish, but close up they have a beautiful purple sheen like the head of a mallard.

One of the tame sanderlings on Balcomie Beach this afternoon (WC)
Purple sandpiper (JA)

Posted December 5, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

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