Archive for March 2020

March 30th   Leave a comment

There is a fair bit of nest building going on. Over the weekend I watched a pair of blue tits going in and out of the nest box in my Mother’s garden. Today I watched a carrion crow carefully collecting wool. Some carrion crows are sitting already. But this pair today were carefully collecting newly shed wool and then carding it between their feet and bill. The result a clean, fluffy bundle of wool which they then took off to make the inner lining of their nest. You can imagine just how cosy the eggs will be when the females starts laying in a few days. Early nesters need warm nests, and insulation with moss, or grass or best of all fur makes a huge difference to the energy needed to keep the eggs at body temperature when a bird is sitting, and the cooling rate when the bird leaves the nest to feed. Another favourite for nest lining is feathers of course. The most famous being eider-down. So good we harvest it for our own insulation. I saw a stonechat a little later on my morning circuit with a feather in its bill. It was reluctant to leave the area where I was, another sure sign (if the feather wasn’t enough) that there was a nest nearby. The male added a further clue by chacking in the particular strident way that they have when you are close to their nest.

Carrion crow collecting sheep’s wool this morning at the airfield
Carrion crow
Female stonechat nest-building at Sauchope
And the male nest guarding

Posted March 30, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 28th   Leave a comment

A cold north-easterly today. With the rain and easterlies of the last two days there was a reasonable hope for a black redstart somewhere along my morning circuit. Balcomie castle, by the new asparagus field, along the eastern wall of the horse field, is consistently the best place to check. But it was quiet today. Six bar-tailed godwits on Balcomie Beach were the only obvious new birds (and another chiffchaff later in my garden). They breed a long way north and so not until June, so why these birds are on the move now I don’t know. Particularly when they are one of the most (the most?) flight capable bird in the world, able to fly from Alaska to New Zealand in a single non-stop 9 day flight…Getting from here to Novaya Zemyla in Siberia would be less than 2 days’ flight.

Four of the six bar-tailed godwits on Balcomie Beach this morning
Bar-tailed godwit (JA)

I sheltered behind the blockhouse at Fife Ness for 15 minutes while a hail storm blew in from the North Sea. The hide is out of bounds at the moment. I prefer to sit outside anyway. There was not a lot of passage despite the winds. A distant pink-footed goose, razorbills, common scoters and gannets, and a flock of 14 purple sandpipers on the low tide rocks.

Purple sandpiper (JA)

If you have walked through Beech Walk Park in the last few days on your exercise period you will have noticed the great spotted woodpeckers. There is a pair breeding in the top of one of the large beech trees on the Kirk side. The male has been drumming away nearly every day this week. Everyone can recognise a woodpecker drumming – it is surprisingly loud, rapid and echoing. The male chooses a hollow branch so it gets a proper drumming sound. They bash so hard and frequently (the original headbanger) that woodpeckers have evolved cushioning between the beak and their brain. This afternoon I could hear it drumming even from my front garden on the High Street (again the silver lining of a quiet Crail) – I checked my garden bird list and I hadn’t added great spotted woodpecker yet. I feel sure I must have had one in the 16 years I have been here – they are always around Denburn which is only a few hundred meters away. But then maybe not. Anyway – it is on my list now. Garden lists are probably going to grow for everyone on the next few weeks as we contemplate our own backyard rather than chasing the exotic. This takes my garden bird list up to 132 species. If you haven’t seen a great spotted woodpecker – and anyone with a bird feeder in Crail is likely to have seen one in their garden already – they are worth seeking out. Boldly black and white with flashes of scarlet. They are the only species of woodpecker in Crail. We had a green woodpecker in the Kirkyard for a few days in August about 13 years ago so you shouldn’t be in any doubt that it’s a great spotted woodpecker if you see one in Crail. Now I have said that, we will have a green woodpecker again this year. I hope so – they occur further west in Fife, but are uncommon even there. They often feed on the ground on ants, and are big birds, so they are also well worth seeking out. 

Great spotted woodpecker (JA)

Posted March 28, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 26th   Leave a comment

I walked around Crail this morning in the grey and drizzle. It was incredibly quiet, no-one is driving about and I could hear every single bird noise. I even heard a great spotted woodpecker drumming from Beech Walk Park. There are more chiffchaffs in; a calling bird along the shore gardens of Nethergate, one singing in Denburn and another bird in my garden. They are over a week earlier than last year. The usual arrival date in Crail is about the 3rd April. Denburn was damp but busy with tit flocks and treecreepers and goldcrests; lots of things singing. I stopped to appreciate a blackbird. The commonplace is usually overlooked, but blackbirds are really nice looking, interesting birds. Although they are one of our commonest urban birds this hasn’t always been so. Some German birds got the knack of it in 1870 or so, and the habits, or the genes, have spread since then across Europe. Now is one of the best times to hear (and learn their songs). Just stick your head outside on an evening about 15 minutes before dark and you will hear a blackbird singing. They are often the only things singing just as it gets completely dark: but the song is also distinctive – thoughtful, melodic whistling phrases, barely repeated. Almost like a musical conversation.

A male blackbird in Denburn this morning

Posted March 26, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 25th   2 comments

I am relatively lucky that the current constraints – a single period of exercise alone on a bike – mean that I can still go to Fife Ness and back, exercising both me and the dog and travelling in hope of bumping into a bird. There were three grey partridges in the newly ploughed field by Pinkerton. A pair and an interloper. There was a bout of calling and then a savage fight began: both birds coming to blows before one ran off. The second ran after it and after another scrap the interloper flew off back to the airfield. Most gamebirds are territorial when breeding but this is the first time I have seen grey partridges actually fighting. They can breed at quite high densities so this may have been a single male trying to muscle in on a female rather than a territorial dispute. The grey partridges around Crail had another good breeding year last year, and it has been a mild winter, so there should be a lot of pairs getting ready to breed again this year. 

A composite of the grey partridge fight this morning

As I passed Kilminning a flock of redwings flew out of the sycamores over my head. Obvious migrants. There have been very few around Crail this winter. There was another atypically feeding on the rocky shore at Balcomie. It must have been another migrant, fresh in from the North Sea and a little bit off course on its return journey to Scandinavia. Only a handful of redwings breed in Britain. And then on my way back there was a fieldfare all on its own in the wheat field next to Balcomie Caravan park. One more migrant, also on its way back to Scandinavia. I might be constrained but the birds are still coming to us.

The redwing on the shore at Balcomie,
and the fieldfare.

Posted March 25, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 24th   Leave a comment

The early chiffchaff came to me today. My wife called me into the garden this morning because she had heard a chiffchaff calling in a neighbour’s garden. I didn’t need much incentive to drop my work and rush outside. It took two trips out, and some climbing on a wall, before I saw it feeding in trees and bushes next door. A pair of blue tits were doing the same and chased the chiffchaff away every so often. Chiffchaffs are very quick and are constantly on the move, so I don’t think it made any difference to it, although it made trying to get a photo tricky. It was a milder day today and the chiffchaff was feeding fast, picking small insects and spiders from the tree branches: it might have been fresh in this morning, after an overnight flight from France or even Spain. It was certainly too busy feeding even to sing. The first chiffchaff is always the real start of spring for me.

My first chiffchaff this morning – conveniently in my next door neighbour’s garden but still hard to pin down

Posted March 24, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 22nd   Leave a comment

The wind is now more southerly but it’s still cold. I was hoping for an early chiffchaff. They were reported from all over Fife today, but I couldn’t find any around Crail. My only migrants were a siskin flying over upper Kilminning, and a couple of lesser black-backed gulls in amongst the herring gulls following the plough at the airfield. At Balcomie it is still the same winter crowd: the sanderlings were scurrying up and down the beach and two bar-tailed godwits in the first bay to the north. The sea from Fife Ness was quieter than yesterday, many fewer razorbills were passing. I expect they are still heading north but the wind was taking them further out to sea today.

Sanderlings surf running on Balcomie mid-morning today (WC)

As you head out to Fife Ness on the main road and pass upper Kilminning there is another sheep field on the left where the farmer has put out a load of turnips for the sheep to eat. There are often roe deer in the field too and this morning a young one was taking advantage of the turnips. It was fairly tame for a roe deer, and it stayed put with its breakfast as I watched it from the road. But it soon reverted to type and bounded off. Our local roe deer are, I think, generally unmolested so we can get relatively close to them. One of the real downsides of hunting is that it spoils wildlife watching for the rest of us – everything heads for the horizon when a human appears.

Roe deer and neeps (thankfully not on a menu) (WC)

Posted March 22, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 21st   Leave a comment

The days are now longer than the nights! Summer is on the way. But with a cold wind from the south-east today. I tried sea-watching from Fife Ness. It was busy but nothing unusual. Still a steady passage of razorbills – I counted 146 in ten minutes heading north. Only two guillemots with them. Smaller numbers of kittiwakes were heading north as well. As I counted the razorbills flying by I noticed one of them in a small flock doing the exaggerated slow, deep wing beats they do when displaying. I usually see this when I make a spring trip to the May, when pairs fly around close together, one displaying to the other. This time the flock it was with responded by landing on the sea. It was if it was a signal for the whole group to slow down and stop rather than something to do with pairing up.

Razorbills displaying (JA)

On the way to Fife Ness there was a flock of curlew and starling in the sheep field by the airfield. A big field, but the two species were in the same small area. They might have been in the best place for feeding, but actually I think the starlings were using the curlews as sentries. Curlews are tall, vigilant birds – they will see a sparrowhawk coming much earlier than a starling, especially one with its head in tussocky grass. Although a sparrowhawk or a merlin wouldn’t be much of a threat to a curlew, they always become tense and vigilant, calling an alarm when they spot one. So the starlings can get on with more feeding confident that one of their bigger neighbours is doing the job of lookout. 

Starlings and curlews out at the airfield this morning

The frogs in my pond have moved out. Not a sign of them now considering the activity and numbers of them two weeks ago. But they have left behind a lot of frog spawn. About 6 large clumps, maybe more – it’s hard to see into the depths where a couple of the biggest are. Last year we had just two clumps so I am hopeful we will have a garden full of even more tiny frogs at the end of the summer. There is no sign of the toads we introduced breeding yet but I am hopeful that they will appear in a couple of weeks. I did see a huge toad in our compost heap as we emptied it today for the spring growing season. Probably not one of our tadpoles – it was about as big as my outstretched palm so probably very many years old. It was unhappy about being disturbed and crawled into a crack in the wall head first. It was too big to fit in and so it stayed like a toddler playing hide and seek, with just its head hidden. We moved it into our toad house – a big broken clay plant pot at the back of one of our flower beds – and covered most of the pot with compost to keep it cosy. The toad house has never had a toad in it so far, it was full of snails though, waiting for warmer weather and the newly planted vegetables. The snails have been evicted, and the toad a much better tenant.

Frog spawn – not terribly exciting to look at, but something optimistic and something to look forward to.
Our toad in the compost heap

Posted March 21, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 19th   Leave a comment

It was a stunning day today. Brilliantly sunny and clear, the sea flat calm and visibility all the way to the central Highlands. I cut across the fields to Kenly Burn and walked along the shore hoping for an otter. On a day like today nothing can move on the sea without being seen. There were the usual crowd of mallards and bathing gulls at the burn mouth, but with my first lesser black-backed gull of the year and a teal dabbling in the rock pools. Teal are another freshwater duck that we see mostly on the sea: they breed on the little loch – or big pond – two hundred meters to the north (my usual water rail site with its little fringe of reeds, but not for the last couple of years).

Male teal at Kenly Burn mouth today: they are handsome ducks close up, but blend in well with the rocky shore

Posted March 19, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 15th   2 comments

It is blowing another gale today – quick to get to Balcomie and slow to get back. I usually bird from my bike but not this morning. It took all my concentration to stop being blown into the sea. Instead I stopped a lot, hunkering down behind the bank that runs along the beach. Out of the wind it was a lovely day with lots to see. A pair of shelduck at the end of the golf course in the area where they fledged chicks successfully last year. A female merlin flying along the shore and revealing all the turnstones hidden amongst the rocks. They needn’t have worried. The merlin had a bulging crop – it had already got lucky and was off to a sheltered place to sit quietly and digest for the next few hours. A snow bunting on the rocky shore – I would have cycled right past it, although it flew up calling obviously after a few minutes and headed over the golf course. A snow bunting is a once every two years bird for the Crail list so I was very pleased to see one: they turn up in spring or autumn on the way back or from the Highlands or Scandinavia or even the Arctic. And a steady stream of razorbills past Fife Ness. All in summer plumage and heading into the Forth.

Today’s snow bunting (WC)
A proper photo of a snow bunting (JA)

Posted March 15, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 14th   Leave a comment

One of the sounds of the spring is the deep cawing of rooks as they start to breed. If you walk through Beech Walk Park or Denburn you will know exactly what I mean. Rooks are colonial, nesting in big twiggy nests, with several to a tree, and then across several trees. They are very social crows and if you ever see a rook on its own there is something wrong. The rookery in Denburn and Beech Walk Park has 30 or so nests, but many more than 60 birds. There seem to be several hangers on around every nest as well as the pair. I have seen rookeries of thousands of nests in Kazakhstan, where there seem to be more rooks than trees in parts of the steppe, and the colonies extend out onto electricity pylons. It’s fairly noisy in Denburn now, but nothing compared to a really big colony. But its not an intrusive noise. I think rooks have been with us for a lot of human evolution since we left Africa, and they will always have nested in close association, favouring agricultural land (faux steppe). Their cawing is perhaps now positively hard wired into us as a sign of a good landscape. Despite this they are often persecuted for their damage to crops as they root around in fields. It’s not really fair as the damage is done as they search for and eat large quantities of crop pests. They do much more good than harm. Rooks cawing in spring will always be the sound of a British village to me.

The rookery at Denburn today (WC)

A flock of whooper swans flew over Crail at about twice rooftop height at lunchtime today. I could hear them coming – soft trumpeting – and then saw 30 of them crossing over Balcomie Caravan Park heading towards Wormiston. They were losing height, looking for a field to come down in to have a rest. Whooper swans are migrating at the moment, heading north in short flights while there is land, before a solid 24 hour stint over the sea to Iceland. I followed them out of Crail but they had continued on over the horizon.

Whooper swans (JA)

There are now 45-50 corn buntings down at the stubble field behind Saucehope Caravan Park. An impressive number if we think we have 180 or so breeding pairs in total in the East Neuk. There were a few birds singing as they flew from stubble to power lines and back as I walked across the fields.

One of the 50 corn buntings at Saucehope this afternoon

Posted March 14, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 12th   Leave a comment

As I walked past Denburn Wood to get my lift to work this morning I heard a sharp “tack”. Then another one. I last heard this last in January in Liberia, in a village in the middle of nowhere, after a long day catching whinchats and recovering tags. It was getting dark and a group of blackcaps came to roost in the palms by our hut. Just like this morning, I didn’t see them, but they are as distinctive with their calls as with their caps. I hardly ever come across blackcaps in the winter in Africa, they are in the far west and the far north in winter and I am usually more central. And I hardly ever see blackcaps in Crail in winter – at the other extreme of their wintering range. It’s a big distribution – blackcaps all the way from Scotland to West Africa. About 40 years ago central European blackcaps started wintering in the south of England as winters started to get milder. They were great birds to find mid-winter, these summer only migrants suddenly turning up on a bird feeder or feeding on holly berries at Christmas alongside the robins and bramblings. Those early pioneers have survived well and now many generations on there are thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of blackcaps wintering all over the UK, with a few now even in Scotland. I find a wintering blackcap in Denburn about every 5 years. There are many aspects of climate change that are an impending emergency, but it is climate change, not climate destruction, and many species like blackcaps, and the soon to be breeding little egrets around Guardbridge taking advantage.


Posted March 13, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 8th   Leave a comment

It has been very busy in my pond over the weekend. At least 12 full grown frogs jostling and croaking. The pond was scintillating constantly in the early morning sunshine as they chased each other. Then they would pause, often in a line all facing one edge of the pond – there is no sign of any females or any spawn yet – so perhaps they are still on the lookout. But the slightest disturbance and they dived down to the bottom of the pond, leaving no trace a few seconds later as the pond surface became smooth again. A frog is a well camouflaged thing in a weedy pond and even peering down, with my face just a few centimeters from the water, I couldn’t then see any sign of the froggy party. They could see me though because as long as I stayed looking, even completely still, they wouldn’t come back up to the surface. I had to go right away from the pond before they popped up again. It makes sense. A grey heron could clear out the frogs in my pond in a couple of sittings, and almost everything else from cats to foxes, even tawny owls, like frogs on the menu.

Frogs on the look out
and one mid-croak (WC)

The mallards on the rocky shore between Roome Bay and the Brandyburn will be on their way inland soon to find a damp ditch or burn to breed in. They are perfectly happy wintering by the sea. I watched a pair feeding very happily on seaweed (the thin filamentous algal kind that forms pale green slippery mats) around the old sea paddling pool today. But they never breed along the shore. I watched a trio of mallards later – two males and one female chasing over the fields at Wormiston. There are more males than females in most mallard populations and so there is intense competition. A lone female will be harassed by males until she pairs with one that can then see the other competitors off. This seems to take a while sometimes, and its an early spring sound to hear the quaking of mallards overhead as unpaired females are being chased. It’s only female mallards that “quack” by the way, males make a softer “qweep”.

A pair of mallards eating algae on the rocky shore at Roome Bay. There is a male wigeon roosting top left. (WC)

Posted March 8, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 5th   Leave a comment

The last few days have been sunny and spring like at last, with today’s beautiful weather emphasizing just how mild the winter has been. The run of storms over the last few weeks couldn’t hide the fact that we are living through one of the warmest winters ever recorded. Everything is getting ahead. The blue tits, for example, are prospecting and building nests – three weeks in advance. One of my colleagues who studies their nest building each year is tearing her hair out as suddenly she has no time. This evening a blackbird was singing into the gloaming as if it was already nesting. And the gulls are back on their rooftops in Crail, although it will be a while before they lay any eggs. I expect frog spawn any day now in my garden pond. There were several suspicious splashes as I walked past this afternoon. I should think the males have to make sure they get to the ponds earlier than the females so they don’t miss any opportunities. The pond water temperature is still very cold at the moment and I can’t think the males are enjoying diving down into it to stay out of my way: basking in the sunshine on the side of the pond beforehand must have been nice though.

Even though nothing is changing I can’t stay away from Balcomie. Sooner or later something will. I half expected a black redstart this afternoon with a touch of easterly wind. There were pink-footed geese flocks going over at least, and a group of redshank roosting in an odd place and at the wrong tide stage suggesting they might also be a group of migrants. There was a female sparrowhawk hunting the low tide rocks around Balcomie Beach. I accidentally flushed it from where it was sitting invisibly only a few tens of meters from the sanderling along the tide edge, spoiling its surprise, but probably making a sanderling happy. It flapped off out to sea, cutting the corner to Fife Ness, to find another patch of rocky shore to disappear into for long enough for the birds around it to forget it is there.

Pink footed geese passing over today (JA)
The Balcomie Beach sanderling flock keeping out of the way (JA)

Posted March 5, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 1st   Leave a comment

I didn’t write much last month because it was very much repetition every time I went out. The late winter bird community staying static and the weather staying windy and wet. Neither a great incentive to put the time in outside. With a new month and spring fast approaching things should now change. The weather is on an upward trend at last, with dryer and much less windy weeks ahead. Today though was another very windy and occasionally wet one. Balcomie Beach had its 30 odd sanderling and 3 bar-tailed godwits that have been there most of the winter, and the grey plover (and possibly one more) in the next bay. There were red-breasted mergansers and a couple of goldeneye in the surf. Further out lots of gannets at last. Still not the big numbers of the end of March, but today was the first time this year I could count double figures each time I scanned the sea. As I walked back through the fields to Balcomie Castle I flushed a flock of 100 golden plover. They were completely invisible in a dark, newly ploughed field. As they flew I could see some of them were getting their black bellies, ready for spring. It was almost magical the way they disappeared again as they landed just a little further away.

Red-breasted merganser (JA)
Golden plover (JA)

Posted March 1, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

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