Archive for January 2020

January 30th   4 comments

A few people have mentioned to me this week that there are “too many pigeons” in Crail. By pigeons, I think they mean the flock of about 100 feral pigeons that sit on rooves along the High Street. A good proportion of these roost next door to me behind Greens. Pigeons like gulls are subject to a fair bit of bad press and antipathy generally. It’s a shame because they are one of those few species that still do well despite what we do to the environment. They like the same things we do and they are resilient, social urbanites. Perhaps they are just a bit too successful and in our face: we like our wildlife to know its place. But feral pigeons have a lot going for them.

For a start, feral pigeons are an interesting mix of plumages as a result of our selection of them for a farm animal and latterly as a pest. The gold standard plumage is that of the rock dove – the original, “pure” species that we started harvesting a long time ago. The pigeons you see around the cliffs and sea stacks of the wild west coast are more or less pure, original rock doves. Most feral pigeons in towns resemble wild rock doves, but there are random white and ginger birds, or black ones, or speckled individuals, left over from some selective breeding centuries ago. Rock doves like nesting in sea caves (there a few pairs nesting in Caiplie caves for example), so houses, castles and latterly purpose built doocotes are favourite similar sites in the many areas where there aren’t caves. And once you have pigeons nesting next to you, they are a lot easier to harvest for eggs, young or even adults than climbing up a cliff. We then selected and bred more useful and productive types, with plumage changing along the way – there are also all sorts of “fancy” types of pigeon as a result of selective breeding just for the sake of it, in the same way there are lots of types of dogs. And like dogs, once we abandon pigeons and they go feral, inbreeding and natural selection soon evens things out and they head back to the wild, rock dove plumage type. I had a rough count of the proportion of Crail pigeons that look like wild rock doves, and it’s about 80%, with only a few percent standing out as really odd, domesticated pigeon types. So our feral pigeons are actually much closer to the real thing than some now redundant, farm animal.

A very handsome pure type rock dove on Islay or a less favoured feral pigeon, if you find it in an urban area

The agents of our pigeon ethnic cleansing are the local peregrines, with a contribution from the local sparrowhawks and buzzards. If you have ever wondered why pigeons are such fast, agile flyers, then consider a peregrine, that in coastal and now some urban areas might take a pigeon a day, but only after an intense and occasionally prolonged aerial chase. The weak, and the odd plumaged, get noticed and culled, leaving those birds that are most like the original wild type, honed by millennia of selection to outfly peregrines. The odd plumaged Crail pigeons will be being gradually winnowed away as they feed in the fields around Crail and meet a hunting peregrine. Back among the rooftops of Crail they are relatively safe – which is why they are here of course, like the gulls. Perhaps the solution to the pigeon “problem” might be to encourage a peregrine to nest in the centre of Crail (or a goshawk which would do the same for the gulls as well). But if they did terribly well, they might become victims of their own success, like the pigeons. Perhaps I will be writing about “too many” peregrines in thirty years’ time.

The arbiter of pigeon plumage and form – a peregrine

Posted January 30, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 23rd   2 comments

Sparrowhawk feathers – all neatly plucked and only a few bones remaining..

There’s been a murder. I was in the boggy birch wood at Kilrenny Common yesterday looking down at a pile of feathers, all neatly plucked, lying on the moss. A classic sparrowhawk kill – but this time it’s the sparrowhawk that has been killed. I looked more closely, definitely all sparrowhawk and all large feathers, so a female sparrowhawk. Stranger still. If it was a male (they are two thirds the size of a female – think of a jackdaw and a carrion crow) then I would expect that the much larger female sparrowhawk to be the killer. Generally female sparrowhawks don’t eat males, but it does happen, although I have not found one in the hundreds of sparrowhawk kills I used to find when I was studying their hunting behaviour. So what plucks all of a bird’s feathers like a sparrowhawk and is large enough to kill a female sparrowhawk? Not a merlin or kestrel on the last criteria – and they don’t pluck so extensively and neatly. Not a peregrine either. They are impatient pluckers, ripping out big swathes of feathers, and they usually leave the outer wing feathers still attached to a grisly angel skeleton. The scene of the crime is not very peregrine modus operandi. Peregrines like a more open or high perch to feed from and this plucking occurred on a low stump and on the ground, concealed by the sparse canopy. Peregrines do catch and eat sparrowhawks – again I have never found a sparrowhawk killed by a peregrine but I have seen several very serious hunts of sparrowhawks by peregrines where the hawks escaped only by suicidal dives into dense wooded cover. And individual birds like individual people sometimes behave oddly – perhaps this is a male peregrine feeding in cover to avoid the attention of crows that can – with some effort and in a pair working together – steal a peregrine’s prey So I can’t completely rule out a peregrine as a suspect. But really I think I know the culprit, although it’s a leap of faith and hope. I think this sparrowhawk met its bigger, badder cousin, a goshawk. Imagine a sparrowhawk on steroids – a female is as big as a buzzard, with huge, long clawed legs, and with the speed and agility of a much smaller bird. Goshawks eat other birds of prey routinely – well, they eat anything actually. But their ability to reduce numbers of sparrowhawks and owls in an area is legendary.

There have been a few sightings of goshawks this winter in the East Neuk and they don’t breed too far away from Crail. And I think we now have one here. This is really exciting because goshawks are one of our missing top predators, like wolves. Absent because we removed them, leaving “lesser” predators like sparrowhawks and crows to have the stage to themselves, to hunt with impunity. If you visit bits of Holland or Germany where goshawks are common you hardly see a magpie and definitely not a sparrowhawk. They are there, but cowering in dense cover like the smaller birds they themselves hunt. A sparrowhawk that comes out to terrorise an Amsterdam bird table is likely to end up on the menu. You can imagine that this suits blue tits and sparrows – too small to really be bothered with by a goshawk – so they can come out of cover under its protective umbrella. The same principle is behind the logic of reintroducing wolves to Scotland to reforest – trees escape the attention of deer as the deer hide away from the wolves. If we are seeing the return of goshawks to the area then we can expect some big changes ahead. And a very exciting bird of prey to watch. That said, they are often very secretive. Sticking to the trees and perching silently and invisibly for much of the time before launching a ferocious surprise attack. But watch out for them: a buzzard sized, beefy sparrowhawk, with a very intense stare.

The foot of the sparrowhawk left as one of the remains. A terrible foot if you are a blue tit. But a wimpy foot compared to a goshawk.

Posted January 23, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 5th   Leave a comment

It has been a mild Christmas again. Temperatures at 10 degrees and the house sparrows in my front garden not even bothering to empty the seed feeder every day. There are very few skylarks about and most of the corn buntings around Crail seem to have gone elsewhere – probably inland because there have been no frosts. I did flush three corn buntings from the stubble field by Pinkerton this afternoon. The black redstart was on its usual creel below the cliffs in Roome Bay and there were three grey wagtails in the area as well. It is still generally quiet at sea with very little movement at all. I am off to Liberia now for a couple of weeks chasing tagged whinchats, so even warmer weather and some birding excitement to look forward to.

The Roome Bay black redstart again (JA)

Posted January 5, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 2nd   Leave a comment

The black redstart is still about in Roome Bay. This lunchtime it was shuttling between the creels washed up below the big red cliffs at the east end of the beach and the water pipe outlet just below the footpath above the beach before it turns to go back up the hill. It is still shy, moving well away along the beach if you get closer than about 50 meters. Once again it was feeding around the high tide seaweed piles with pied and grey wagtails, and rock pipits, but the robins seemed to be leaving it alone today.

The Roome Bay black redstart today (WC)

There are still lots of bullfinches about. I had groups yesterday at every site I visited – some years I can struggle to find one. There are a few in Crail too, visiting gardens. I came across a group of four today feeding on tree buds at Balcomie Caravan Park.

One of the bullfinches at Balcomie Caravan Park today (WC)

Posted January 2, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 1st 2020   Leave a comment

I had my usual New Year’s bird racing day where I try to see as many species as I can for the new year list on the Crail patch – 10km maximum from my house. Despite having all day free from dawn until dusk it was a shorter list than usual – 74 rather than in the 80s. I started at Boarhills, then Kingsbarns, Kippo Wood, Carnbee reservoir, Balcomie Beach and Fife Ness, Kilminning and then Roome Bay, back in Crail. I saw much as I might expect but just kept missing easy birds like meadow pipit, kittiwake, sparrowhawk and corn bunting, and there were no lucky birds like a merlin or a twite. It was a grey day as well, not very inspiring for the New Year. It only really got light at 9 this morning and by this afternoon most birds had given up for the day – seawatching at Fife Ness was the quietest I have ever seen it. My highlights were 6 or so greenshank at Boarhills, including one calling before first light to make it the 4th bird of the year, a big flock of starlings and fieldfare, and common snipe popping up all over at Carnbee, and stonechats feeding on the fairway like wheatears at Balcomie.

The first bird of the year – a grey heron. Mine was flying over my house in the pitch dark as I set off this morning at 7:30 am (JA)
A greenshank – several this morning. Not a common wintering bird but 4th on the list today. Most winter south of the Sahara, but they are becoming more common here now as the climate gets warmer. (JA)
The last bird of today – a fulmar just after 3 pm from Fife Ness (JA)

Posted January 1, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

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