Archive for May 2020

May 31st part 2   Leave a comment

Ken Shaw found a female red-backed shrike at lower Kilminning late morning. I looked for it early afternoon with no luck but finally connected with it last thing this evening. It worked out well in the end. Just me and the bird and the most beautiful summer evening imaginable. It is such a lovely evening that I suspect the shrike may be on its way again tonight.

The red-backed shrike at Kilminning, at about 8 pm

Posted May 31, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 31st   Leave a comment

I started off first thing this morning looking for the yellow wagtails and corn buntings to the west of Crail. As usual the yellow wagtails are becoming complicated. There is a pair still where they started nesting a few weeks ago, at Old Barns. I watched a female go down onto a likely nest site and then not reappear for ten minutes, and all the while a male making its “I’ve got an active nest and you are in the vicinity” call from the roadside. It’s not very adaptive, but a lot of birds have this “I’ve got a nest” call. It makes checking for breeders a lot easier. I was watching, as always, from the roadside, and the nest is thirty or so meters into an adjacent field. I obviously won’t go into the field to actually find the nest, and the level of disturbance along the road from cars and farm workers is continuous regardless of whether I am there or not. That there is only one pair there and they are not feeding chicks yet suggests that both early nests might have failed, and one pair has renested close by. The second pair may have relocated: I found another active nest up at Thirdpart, close to where they nested last year. Again a yellow wagtail was helpfully was making its “I’ve got a nest” call. The nest is in a field of cauliflowers currently being harvested. This is a gradual process as the cauliflowers develop at different rates so hopefully the field will stay intact enough, long enough for the chicks to fledge. So we have at least two pairs, and probably four nests so far.

The yellow wagtail male at Old Barns in its favoured natural habitat
And a second yellow wagtail at Third Part nesting in a cauliflower field

I added a few more singing corn buntings to the map. Despite the lockdown, I hope at least the map around Crail will be complete so we can see how they are faring compared to previous years. As I headed to Sypsies I saw a small toad crossing the road. It had frozen which might be a great strategy to let a potential predator know immediately that you are a toad and not edible, but not really effective against traffic. I gave it a lift to the verge.

Why did the toad cross the road?

Balcomie is now almost empty of shorebirds apart from the few summering oystercatcher and curlew. Yesterday I saw no waders, and today it was only 4 ringed plover, two dunlin and a knot. The southerly winds will have blown them all up to the Arctic.

Knot at Balcomie (JA)

Posted May 31, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 29th   Leave a comment

Today it was all about the chicks as more and more species are now getting their young out and about. The starlings have been making their very grumpy churring call all week to indicate that their chicks have started to fledge. I saw one just out of the nest at Balcomie Castle, keeping well within the cover of an elder bush. They are very vulnerable and the carrion crows have starling chicks on the menu for a couple of weeks until they get flight capable. Best for the new fledglings to hide. That said there were three young starlings later, on the strandline with some adults on Balcomie Beach. They must have fledged at least a week ago.

A freshly fledged starling chick this morning hiding from predators

And then some great chick news: there were three new shelduck chicks on show from the pair at the north end of the golf course. Not the big numbers of last year, so perhaps there was a mate change over the winter, and this was why there was all the fighting earlier in the season. Even so great to see the shelducks with some chicks and I will keep my fingers crossed for the other pairs between this one and Crail.

Shelduck chicks – also newly minted – at Balcomie today

Balcomie Beach has changed considerably overnight. Yesterday there were still hundreds of small waders. Today only about 25. Most of the sanderlings have gone. And only two whimbrels this morning, including one on the deserted golf driving range – the last day this will be an option I think. There was a new migrant shorebird though, a common sandpiper on the rocks at Sauchope. They are not too uncommon on the rocky shore in July and August, but today’s bird was early. Another likely failed breeder – if it is an adult, it might well be back in Liberia or adjacent West African country by mid-June.

A common sandpiper hanging out at a beach side bar in Liberia this January. This could easily be a British bird – tagged birds have gone to this area of West Africa. They have a territory in both summer and wintering grounds and go back and forth between them all their lives. My Crail bird today will be on its way between them.

I looked for the spotted flycatchers at Kilminning quite hard this morning but no sightings. I did find a sparrowhawk nest though. I have been hearing a female making its soft “kee-kee-kee” for a couple of weeks as the male delivers prey to her as she sits. The male is coming and going and is obvious, but the female is hard to see as she sits on her untidy stick pile near the top of a pine. I could see her tail sticking out on one side. You can’t see it well in the photo below but the nest is surrounded by down, clinging to the branches like fake snow. These are the remains of all the prey that the male has been bringing in to the female. Males often do most of the plucking at a fixed perch close to, but not at the nest, but this one seems to be letting the female do the job on site.

The female sparrowhawk sitting on the nest at Kilminning
And the male a bit more obvious – soaring above the nest site last week (JA)

Posted May 29, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 27th   Leave a comment

After the returning black-tailed godwits yesterday, the first goosander of the summer. We always have about 30 or 40 goosanders spending the summer at the Balcomie and most arrive in July. Today’s bird seems a bit early, but even so it could be a male that has already finished a successful breeding season in Scandinavia (or Scotland). Male ducks are more or less redundant after mating and that may have happened six weeks ago. If today’s bird is a male – and goosander males look just like females during their summer moult – then it has already gone through a body moult and lost its peach body feathers, and dark green head. It can now spend the next three months along the quiet Balcomie shore catching lots of small fish and using this energy to grow new feathers and a bright plumage for next year’s brief breeding season.

The first goosander of the summer at Balcomie

The shorebird show continues at Balcomie. Hundreds of birds between the north end of the golf course and Fife Ness. Almost all of the sanderling and all of the dunlin are now are in summer plumage. There are still three or four whimbrels every day, with a couple of birds regularly feeding on the strandline on Balcomie Beach. A curlew is often with them so it is a good opportunity to compare the two species.

A summer plumage sanderling (left) and a summer plumaged dunlin for comparison.
Some of the waders on Balcomie Beach. The sanderling are slightly more blurry compared to ringed plovers – this is because sanderling never stay still when feeding, running around like clockwork mice. The ringed plovers stand motionless looking for prey which they then run up to, so they are much less frantic

There was a late female white wagtail on the beach at Balcomie. The last one was exactly a month ago. It was in exactly the same place. More migrant coincidences. And then a spotted flycatcher again at the top of Kilminning. It was keeping within the canopy and I saw it briefly a couple of times, and then not again for fifteen minutes. It does make me think I am seeing the same skulking birds there every few days, rather than new migrants – although there have clearly been migrants passing through the Patch and lower Kilminning. Another week and I will be looking for signs of chick feeding to finally settle it.

Today’s female white wagtail

Posted May 27, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 26th   Leave a comment

There were two new shorebirds joining the usual crowd on Balcomie beach this morning. The sun was in my eyes so I didn’t notice four black-tailed godwits until they flew up in front of me, gaining height and heading off strongly northwards up the coast. It’s late for breeding birds to be moving. The furthest north black-tailed godwits breed is Iceland, and the breeding season there has been going for three weeks. They breed across central Europe (even some in southern England) and there, the breeding season will have started in April. So I think these birds have probably failed already, perhaps lost their mate, or even lost their breeding site, and so are headed back to somewhere like the Eden estuary to start their non-breeding season early. In contrast, the other new species, four knot further up the beach, could still be heading north to start their breeding season. Like the many sanderling and turnstone on the beach around them, they are extreme northerly breeders. They have one of the shortest breeding seasons with barely any time sandwiched between the last snow of June and the first snows of August.

Black-tailed godwit (JA)
Knot (JA) – this one at Balcomie last Friday

There were more eider chicks to be seen despite the strong winds over the weekend which must have made it difficult for them to get across safely from the May island. There were good size groups in a couple of places along the shore at Balcomie and another at Sauchope. The ratio of adult females to the number of chicks is high though suggesting that many chicks didn’t make it. Eiders have about 5 chicks so the ratio should be 4 or 5 chicks to every female to start with, and at the moment this ratio is more like 2 to 1. Still they breed every year and live a long time, so they only need to get a couple of chicks to adulthood in the long run.

Eider chick creche at Sauchope this morning

Posted May 26, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 25th   Leave a comment

More spotted flycatchers today. There were two at the top of Kilminning in the same place as the three eleven days ago. They were keeping close together and making a circuit around the tops of the sycamores, oaks and pines, only occasionally coming out into the open. Much more like a breeding pair than a couple of migrants. But then as I entertained this theory a third flew over towards the golf course. And then later there was a fourth down at the bottom of Kilminning. I won’t completely give up on the hope of a breeding pair: the top of Kilminning is just fine for them and 40 years ago I would be expecting a pair to breed somewhere like this every year. But it is probably just an odd year when the winds have pushed the westerly birds our way. I suspect this is how colonisation events happen though: after all the yellow wagtails weren’t here until five years ago and reappeared after a good spring when a couple of pairs arrived simultaneously on passage. Fingers crossed.

One of the spotted flycatchers at the top of Kilminning
And another at the bottom.

Posted May 25, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 24th   Leave a comment

The wind had died down a lot this morning but it was still strong enough to make looking at anything into the wind uncomfortable. It was a shame because the beaches to the north of Balcomie had even more Arctic bound shorebirds, and I had to look at them into the wind to have the sun behind me. This morning there were over 250 sanderling, 50 dunlin, 75 ringed plover, 50 turnstone, 6 whimbrel and a bar-tailed godwit. They were congregating on the piles of now well-rotted seaweed, with a lot of jostling between birds caught between their wintering habit of forming big groups and their summer habit of maintaining territories. It is always surprising how many individuals aren’t in their summer plumage yet despite the breeding season being only three weeks away for even the most northerly breeders. Some shorebirds take a summer off breeding; many live a long time and can afford to prioritise their own condition and lifespan to increase their chance of breeding successfully in the future. Individuals may be forced to do this because they can’t regain good condition after bad luck or a bad winter and so their lack of summer plumage reflects this. The bar-tailed godwit this morning, for example, looked like a pale winter bird rather than showing the gorgeous bright brick red underparts of a breeder.

Bar-tailed godwit (in winter plumage) and sanderling (in summer plumage) on Balcomie Beach

The house martins are making up for lost time after their late arrival this spring. The usual breeding sites around Crail have got nest building and scrapping birds around them constantly. There are house martin colonies at Roome Bay Avenue, Balcomie Castle, the old life boat house and pro shop at Crail golf course and the toilet block at Sauchope caravan park. I watched a pair at Balcomie this morning. I was trying to work out the dynamics of what was going on. A pair was flying up to the remains of last year’s nest and sitting there, occasionally close together, occasionally scrapping. I took a photo to try to work out if it was a pair. Females are a bit bigger than males and have browner feathers particularly at the top of the tail. These features didn’t prove to be very helpful because the bigger of the two had a male looking tail and the smaller looked like a pristine male, but with a female looking tail. And both birds had lots of duller flight feathers, looking sun-bleached after a long winter of constant daily African sunlight (a bird that is flying all the time must get more UV damage to its flight feathers  than something like a nightingale or a whitethroat that likes to skulk). House martins moult completely in Africa each winter so you can’t tell the younger birds at this time of year (most birds that are 1 year old can be aged because they retain some of their first year, juvenile feathers). But this seems to be a patchy affair in house martins with some old feathers retained, and these go very brown and sun faded regardless of age. The house martins I see in Nigeria in November look very brown and ragged so I think they are moulting at this time, leaving several months for even their new feathers to age. Occasionally you see a very pristine house martin but not often. Lots of other similar species have very neat plumage when breeding but not house martins for some reason. As I was looking at the house martins closely I noticed again their feathered feet. House martins never walk – another shuffler like the arctic terns, and only when they need to pick up mud for their nests – and so have barely any legs at all and they are completely covered with feathers. All the better for keeping their feet warm, with no need to worry about the feathers getting in the way of walking.

Two house martins pairing or squabbling at an old nest at Balcomie Castle (you can see the feathered feet, right down to the claws in both photos)

There was a spotted flycatcher in the Patch. Again, one appearing after strong westerlies suggesting that it was another Scottish bird being blown off course from the West side of the country overnight. There are few UK passerines still migrating now and spotted flycatchers are the one of the latest.

Spotted flycatcher (one of the Kilminning birds two weeks ago)

Posted May 24, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 23rd   Leave a comment

The gannets won’t have been complaining today – a gale blowing up the Forth in complete contrast to the flat calm a couple of days ago. It was one of those days when it takes seconds to get to Fife Ness but hours to get back. The puffins must feel the same, except they have to bring their fishy loads back against the wind, making it even harder. It was hard to see anything unless you could get some shelter – like the swallows at Kilminning flying between the trees where the air was almost still. I sat in the lee of the dunes at the north end of Balcomie Beach and looked at the terns. There was a flock of at least 120 roosting on the rocks at high tide. 100 arctic terns, 20 common and a couple of sandwich terns. I watched a very dark billed common tern for a while trying to make it a roseate tern to complete the set but the dark roseate-like bill – left over from the winter – was all it had. The common and the arctic terns were nicely mixed together so it was a good identification practice all round. The bill colour difference is obvious for most birds, but as my hopeful roseate showed it is not absolute. Anyway, common terns have red bills with a distinct dark tip, and arctic terns have a darker, more blood red bill which only occasionally darkens towards the tip, and not as a distinctly darker end. The shape of the bill is a more absolute feature – longer, thinner and more decurved for common. Another feature I could see well today was the leg length. Arctic terns have shorter legs than common terns so they always look like they could only really manage a shuffle if they ever had to walk anywhere (and why would you if you could fly like an arctic tern). I sat for half an hour as the tide came in and bumped the terns from rock to rock. They ended up twenty meters away and closer still when something disturbed them and they flew in a shrieking, swirling mass to circle round before landing on the rocks again a little bit closer each time. It was a proper wildlife experience – a load of terns letting me sit with them for a while in a little piece of sheltered shore. It made the laboured cycle back worthwhile.

Common tern on the left and arctic on the right in the photo above and below. You can see the difference in bill colour and structure and leg length well in these two photos
Arctic tern. Look at those ridiculously short legs – barely big enough to put a ring on.

Posted May 23, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 21st   1 comment

There are three weeks left of the spring migration season, and so far it has been a very quiet one. Very good for wheatears and whimbrels, but no scarce migrants. The weather hasn’t been what is needed – far too pleasant without rain to top off the easterlies. Now we are set in for a westerly airflow for at least two weeks. It has only been me and John Anderson checking out Fife Ness, Balcomie, Kilminning and Denburn, so some things will have been missed, but ironically, I have probably spent more hours out checking for birds during lockdown than I would normally do. I have been going out every day because I have been working from home: 63 days and counting of checking Kilminning diligently. I had a secret hope of a red-backed shrike this morning. An overshoot on the southerly warm winds during the week in May when they are most likely. But it was all wishful thinking. My best bird this morning was a siskin. Fairly unusual at Kilminning outside of October, but not a bird to make spring headlines. I enjoyed it anyway. There is always a danger of forever chasing what isn’t here rather than appreciating what is.

Siskin at Kilminning today

Posted May 21, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 20th   Leave a comment

I know my Godmother reads this from warmer summer climes in central Canada, so she at least will snigger as I announce the Crail heat wave has arrived – we hit 18 degrees by 10 this morning, although this afternoon the breeze got up and took it down to a more reasonable 15 degrees. We rarely get above 20 degrees ever in Crail because of the sea breeze: my record here is still 28 degrees which had most Crailers gasping (literally). This morning it was completely still and the sea as flat as it ever gets. There was some strange mirage going on at the horizon so it was made up of clouds from far away, perfectly blended in tone with the water so it looked like the sea had got topography at the edge of the world. The gannets weren’t enjoying is as they had to work hard without any wind assistance. Big seabirds don’t make sense in a flat calm which is why albatrosses are not tropical birds. There were plenty of arctic terns and kittiwakes passing Fife Ness and unusually a big flock of 1 year old black-headed gulls heading south, all with adult black hoods but still with their juvenile back patterns. The shorebird numbers on Balcomie Beach are perhaps up to 150 now but it they are hard to count scattered amongst the seaweed piles. Still mostly ringed plover but more sanderling every day.

Ringed plover on Balcomie Beach (JA)

The warmer weather brings out the insects. I watched some solitary wasps on one of the walls of my Mum’s house inspecting the little nooks and crannies for nesting sites this afternoon. An old Crail wall has lots of nesting sites for bees and wasps. One of them was a ruby-tailed wasp (to an entomologist this is like calling a herring gull a sea gull). They are worth looking out for, like some piece of Russian enamel jewellery. They are very distinctive but very small (less than a centimetre).

Ruby-tailed wasp – tiny but beautiful

Posted May 20, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 19th   Leave a comment

The arctic terns have begun their early summer residency down at Balcomie. There were about 40 on the rocks yesterday and 25 today. They gather for a week or two before getting down to nesting on the May Island. There is a lot of courtship feeding that goes on. The terns are all pumped up to breed and any carrion crow or great black-backed gull that came near would get mobbed and dive bombed.

Four of the arctic terns at Balcomie this afternoon, off to harass a gull

And coming from the May rather than heading to it, the first eider chicks of the year. Two with two females just off Balcomie Beach. I should think that a lot of the flotilla of chicks that set off from the island didn’t make it across to Fife Ness. It has been windy and the sea a bit choppy. These two should be alright now with a couple of females to look after them and a sheltered beach covered in rotting seaweed and its attendant maggots and flies to feed up on. The same is also doing the shorebirds well this week: there were over 120 today, mostly ringed plover, then sanderling with 20 or so dunlin. More than 10 whimbrels, 30 or so turnstones and a couple of wheatears were keeping them company.

And further along the beach, the first two eider chicks of the year

Posted May 19, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 18th   Leave a comment

I was on the edge of the golf course, overlooking Balcomie Beach at about 6 this morning when I heard a cuckoo calling. Collared doves might sound a bit like a cuckoo, but when you hear the real thing you know it straight away. I think everyone can recognise a cuckoo even if they have not heard one before – if in doubt it is not a cuckoo. It is a lovely and very evocative call. I grew up visiting a tiny reedbed close to my house every weekend. One of the joys of Fowlmere was the cuckoos every spring, and I used to hear them every visit through May and early June. Later in my life I used to hear them in the Highlands and the West Coast, and recently they were the backdrop to my fieldwork in the mountains of Cyprus. But the East Neuk is sadly cuckoo free except for passage birds and these don’t often call in spring and never in early July – the month when there is the best chance of seeing one, at Kilminning. It has now been a few years since I heard a Crail cuckoo. They have all been very early morning birds – worth getting up for, and it made my day today.

I glanced out of the window into my back garden mid-morning. There was a male sparrowhawk in the middle of the lawn eating a house sparrow. I have been watching the sparrows getting more and more reckless as the spring goes on, squabbling, bathing in my pond, and sitting on the wall cheeping away. Today there was a reckoning and they will all be much shyer for a while. We find a sparrow kill about once every few of months in the garden on average but most are newly fledged birds in June and July. A sparrowhawk will be eating a bird at least the size of a sparrow every day, and if it has a nest of five chicks it will be catching another five for them. It’s a lot of small birds. But sparrowhawks don’t limit small bird populations, rather the reverse. When sparrowhawks disappeared from many areas of the UK because of pesticide poisoning in the 1950s, songbird populations didn’t change at all. Although I saw cuckoos as a boy at Fowlmere, I never saw a sparrowhawk – they were absent from much of Eastern England up until the 1990s. They have come back as we sorted out the environmental problem that had killed them. And now the cuckoos have gone – 50 years ago they will have even been cuckooing in the East Neuk. But surely they can return too if we just pay attention to whatever we have changed.

The male sparrowhawk in my garden this morning getting his one a day. A little blurry through a window but sparrowhawks are as alert as anything and even the tiniest bit of movement to open a window will (and did) send it on its way.

Posted May 18, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 17th   Leave a comment

Unusually this morning it was raining when I went out just after dawn. A very meagre rain – 0.4 mm to add to the gigantic total of 3.8 mm this month. It really is a desert out there – we are getting less rain over the last two months than the Sahara. The winds remain westerly so there was no change in the birds due to the rain. The last two days have been the same large flocks of ringed plover, sanderling and dunlin on Balcomie, another five whimbrels and a handful of northern wheatears. The redshanks are now conspicuous by their absence on Balcomie Beach – they won’t be back until the end of June. The year is progressing. I saw a newly fledged robin, meadow pipit, and carrion crow over the weekend, and great tits and starlings are feeding chicks. It won’t be long before they fledge and their breeding season will nearly be over. You start getting into spring and then suddenly its all over. A small bird only needs 5 weeks from nest to fledged chicks and 7 weeks in total until they are more or less fully independent. Some birds cram as many broods in as they can during a summer – blackbirds for example. Some do two broods if they can, like yellow wagtails. And others like starlings only have one, and if they early nesters then it can all be over by June.

One thing that was new today was a pair of shelducks in Roome Bay, feeding on the algae by the paddling pool. I am not sure what is happening with the shelducks – there are four pairs at least. Two between Crail and Fife Ness, and two from Fife Ness to the end of Balcomie golf course. None seem to be nesting as I am always seeing two birds, except occasionally only one at the end of the golf course. Time will tell.

Shelduck (JA)

Posted May 17, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 15th   Leave a comment

At last it is warming up a bit, so today was more like spring. The exceptionally dry weather is continuing so it was another beautiful morning out at Balcomie. There are only a few female eiders left on the shore now, and I watched one female being relentlessly harassed by up to 11 males. She really didn’t look very happy. Many duck species have a dubious life history strategy, with males forcing themselves on unpaired females, and much of the advantage of a female of pairing with a fit male is to prevent this happening. A lone female is in trouble, although the eider this morning had I think a male with it, but it couldn’t do anything about ten rivals. Because female ducks look after the eggs and chicks entirely themselves then this type of male behaviour can succeed evolutionarily.

Nine against one here: the female eider being harassed by males

There were four northern wheatears on the beach again at Balcomie, including one that was relatively tame. Wheatears are usually hard to get very close to, flitting off to land a few tens of meters ahead of you as you approach, regardless of how well you have been playing grandmother’s footsteps. I have many favourite birds, but a close encounter with any wheatear species always pushes them into the top ten. They have everything – smart plumage, an engaging manner and most importantly that globe trotting cool.

Northern wheatear on Balcomie Beach this morning

The spotted flycatchers had moved on from Kilminning this morning. It was fairly quiet in all senses, with little bird song considering it was warmer today. You can appreciate more at the moment it with the lack of motor sports at the airfield and kart track. That said I watched several boy racers doing a wildlife takeover on one of the runways at the bottom of Kilminning. There were 8 hares chasing each other, boxing and running races on the raceway. It seems to be a great spring for hares. I am seeing them everywhere around Crail and they seem to be doing a lot of their mad March stuff in May this year.

The boy racer wildlife takeover at Crail airfield

Posted May 15, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 14th   Leave a comment

There were three more spotted flycatchers at Kilminning this morning. It seems a bit coincidental that there were three in the same place five days ago. But I think it is just a coincidence. I have been checking there every day and although the cold weather has kept both lots of birds in the canopy where the insects are, flycatchers pop out on short flights all the time. This morning they were a little bit more detectable because there was no wind so I could actually hear the little snap of their bills as they caught a fly. Balcomie was much as yesterday, lots of small shorebirds, a whimbrel and a wheatear. At sea a few arctic terns and sandwich terns were going north.

One of summer plumaged sanderling on Balcomie Beach at the moment (JA)

Posted May 14, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 13th   Leave a comment

There were more ringed plovers and dunlin on Balcomie Beach this morning, perhaps 50 or 60. The tide was in and the strong winds have washed in a lot of seaweed – there seemed to be a little flock of waders behind every clump. Otherwise today was much as yesterday. I sat at Fife Ness for a bit half an hour after sunrise – probably the worst time to be there to see anything because you are looking straight into the sun – but it was beautiful. I did notice that puffins usually fly a bit slower than razorbills and guillemots so you can spot them at a distance against the light as the little ones being overtaken. Later I chased a singing blackcap around Kilminning thinking it was a garden warbler. Blackcaps are great singers, probably the best in the UK, and when they mimic other good singers like blackbirds and add a bit of scratchy low garden warbler as well, they really are hard to beat. If you want to hear blackcap song then stand by the wooden bridge in Denburn tomorrow. There will be two really beautiful songs you will hear. The wistful, thoughtful, modest sounding one will be a blackbird and the exuberant, rounded and extrovert one will be a blackcap.

One of the blackcaps (there were probably 5 or 6 ) singing at Kilminning this morning

Posted May 13, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 12th   Leave a comment

The cold weather continues. It was up to 5 degrees this morning and with lighter winds so compared to yesterday it was much warmer. But still cold enough to supress singing and activity this morning like yesterday. It has become busier on Balcomie Beach though. Four northern wheatears, three whimbrels and a big mixed flock of ringed plover, dunlin and sanderling, on their way to the Arctic. The increase in ringed plovers is always noticeable mid-May at Balcomie: the resident couple of pairs suddenly become 20-40 birds for a week or two. Although ringed plovers breed in Scotland, many breed much further north in places like the far north of Greenland where they will be side by side with sanderling, knot and turnstone that are extreme Arctic breeders. Ringed plovers, whether our residents breeding at the top of the beaches at Sauchope and Balcomie, or the migrants that may shuttle between Southern Africa and Greenland, are well worth a closer look. All plovers have a really nice look to them, but ringed plovers particularly with their banded head pattern and button eyes. But there is something endearingly grumpy about them too.

A mid-May flock of migratory ringed plovers at Balcomie (JA)
And one of the migrant northern wheatears at Balcomie, photographed by John flying in from the sea two day ago (JA)

Posted May 12, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 11th   Leave a comment

It was really cold this morning for May. Three degrees with a reasonable wind to make it feel even chillier. I took an exercise cycle to Kilrenny just after sunrise this morning in hope of a hooded crow reported there recently. Lots of carrion crows and jackdaws  in the fields by the common but no hooded crow, saving me from the issue of deciding whether it is actually a real species or not, and so suitable to add another one to the Crail list. Having not seen it, I’ll keep it as a sub-species. I was also hoping for lots of corn buntings, but they thought it was very cold as well and few were allocating any energy to sing. There was a lot of singing in the more sheltered woodland of the common – lots of blackcaps. My route took me past Barnsmuir so the highlight like yesterday was the yellow wagtails. There were two males and a third bird, probably a female, in the same place as yesterday. The males looked like they had too much time on their hands, with females safely on early nests so they could sing and strut around. Which they were doing a lot of this morning. Their choice of strutting place and song perches is the main road and the wooden posts on the verge. Even with the covid lack of traffic they spent a lot of their time flying up out of the way, or even getting blown off their song perches. But yellow wagtails are a resilient, people and disturbance adapted species – whether foraging among cattle and herdsmen in West Africa, or elephant’s feet in East Africa, or farm machinery in Fife. They just popped back up and started singing again, irrepressibly cheerful and so bright yellow. I was cheered even as I was borderline hypothermic, but it was a short trip back home to a hot cup of coffee.

One of the cheering yellow wagtails early this morning (JA)

Posted May 11, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 10th   Leave a comment

Overnight the weather has regressed to early March, with a brisk northerly wind and five degrees first thing this morning. We even had some rain – 3.6 mm last night which is more than we had for the whole of April. The ground is so dry that there was barely a puddle this morning. I did a longer loop this morning to include the fields to the west of Crail. There were two male yellow wagtails at Oldbarns, easily visible as they fed along the main road. No sign of females but they should be on eggs now and sitting tight on a cold morning like today. Hopefully, we have at least two nests on the go (males can have more than one female and nest): I will be back at least in a couple of weeks to see if they are feeding chicks. Otherwise this morning it was hard work – just too eye-wateringly windy. There were a couple of northern wheatears on potato fields at Sypsies. No sign of the flycatchers at Kilminning although they will have been keeping to sheltered cover. I can’t imagine they left last night. On a very windy morning sometimes the only thing to do is seawatch so I had a look from Fife Ness. The Firth of Forth breeders were passing close in – gannets particularly as they sheltered from the wind before exiting the Forth. There were a lot of fulmars further out and puffins heading back in with the wind behind them. The puffins were more obvious than usual because they were flying high to get the maximum wind boost back to the May Island. I should think they were going faster than 60 kmh. Anything going north was doing the opposite, staying low to minimise the headwind, and the rough sea made most things only intermittently visible behind the waves. We sometimes get storm petrels past in May – they would have been hard to spot today it they were there.

One of the males feeding along the Anstruther – Crail road this morning – they really are incredibly yellow, particularly on a dull day
Male yellow wagtail at Oldbarns from a couple of years’ ago (JA)

Posted May 10, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 9th   Leave a comment

The conditions are good for migration, but not for rare migrants. The whimbrels have moved on from Balcomie, today was the first day in weeks without seeing one. There were three northern wheatears on Balcomie Beach, and one more at Kilminning, and now two spotted flycatchers (possibly three) at upper Kilminning. I can imagine all of these were UK birds, on their way to the northwest of Scotland. The now resident migrants were very busy this morning: a lot of song from common whitethroats, willow warblers, sedge warblers and blackcaps, and even a chiffchaff at the Patch. It does seem to be a good year for the resident migrants but then the weather is great, I am out every day and of course, any normal Saturday at Kilminning is all go-karts or boy racer noise rather than warbler song. As I came back through Denburn a tawny owl flew across the path being chased by two angry carrion crows. It dived into the cover of a bush but was soon moved on by some blackbirds. Tawny owls try to sit quietly and inconspicuously during the day but none of the other birds want them around and frequently mob them. Tawny owls are little threat during the day but are a real terror at night. A little bit of investment in moving on a tawny owl is like buying some insurance. Not that it will work well in Denburn, where the nesting pair is not really going anywhere, no matter now difficult the local small birds make it for them to snooze quietly.

A nesting willow warbler at the Patch, Fife Ness this morning,
and one of the two spotted flycatchers now at Kilminning

Posted May 9, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

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