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

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