Archive for May 2020

May 8th   2 comments

The little egret had gone from Fife Ness first thing this morning: the last one was only here for a few hours as well. Everything else was much as yesterday – three dunlins at the top of the beach enjoying the big emergence of big black flies this morning, and also a few whimbrel. There was a spotted flycatcher at the top of Kilminning. They are a late spring passage migrant through Crail, with occasional pairs breeding at Cambo and Kenly: forty years ago they bred everywhere in the east. Perhaps the most surprising bird today was a wheatear flying over my Mum’s garden from the rooftops of the Co-op to the primary school. Wheatears do turn up in Crail gardens – after all it’s not far to the beach or fields anywhere in Crail. But I have only ever had one turn up in my garden a couple of times.

One of the summer plumaged Dunlin with a seaweed fly maggot at Balcomie (JA)
Spotted flycatcher (JA)

And speaking of garden birds. What can you do to increase your bird list during lockdown? Well, as I was passing the end of Sauchope yesterday I realised that I had a line of sight to the distant top of my roof. So this means that technically, if I was on my roof then I should be able to see a field corner that has corn buntings and stonechats. I need both of these for my garden list. Now stonechats are a long shot – small and they stay low. But corn buntings are bigger, obviously dumpy looking at a distance and sing conspicuously from the wires – they should be visible. This afternoon I gave it a try, climbing up the crow steps (surely designed to help rooftop access for birdwatching) and balancing precariously with my telescope. The view is amazing – 180 degrees of sea, red tiled rooftops and the whole of the south of Crail below. And fields visible on both sides, although there was a bit of heat haze. I watched the wires at Sauchope for twenty minutes before a just about identifiable corn bunting popped up. A bit technical but a corn bunting visible from my garden so it counts. Number 134 for my garden list. I probably also saw a couple of grey partridges flying up from the field behind West Braes, but it was too brief a glimpse to be sure. Next time.

How to see a corn bunting if you live in central Crail…
The corn bunting that sings by the side of the airfield road just outside of Crail (taken this morning). Not the bird I saw from my garden, but only two territories away.

Posted May 8, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 7th   Leave a comment

I’m keeping to the rules: this means I missed a little egret down at Fife Ness today. I was there on my usual circuit at about 9:30 this morning but didn’t see anything. Then I was emailed a phone video of a little egret in stinky pool at 11, and John Anderson phoned me up at 3 to let me know too. This would only be my second ever Crail little egret even though they are common at the Eden Estuary now. It’s such a short bike ride down to Fife Ness… but I know I am very lucky with my lockdown location and my exercise route anyway, so I will just hope for tomorrow. I did connect with a garden warbler in the garden of the ruined cottage at Balcomie Castle. I heard it singing first – a lovely mixture of scratchy and melodic warbling, with a fair bit of mimicry. Enough that I was really pleased to see the bird a few minutes later just to confirm it was only a garden warbler. They, like lesser whitethroats, are an indicator species so it perked me up again. This morning I also saw a couple of northern wheatears on the rocky shore, five whimbrels, three summer plumaged dunlin, a summer plumaged sanderling, and lots of house martins. The house martins have finally come back to Crail in good numbers with birds at Balcomie, Sauchope and more at Roome Bay.

Garden warbler – this bird at Kilminning last May

Posted May 7, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 6th   Leave a comment

Right on cue, straight after the swifts, the arctic terns were back today. I saw five from Balcomie this morning, looking gloriously light and agile after three weeks of sandwich terns, that are fairly graceful themselves. But nothing beats the flight capability of an arctic tern – they can and do fly, more or less, forever. Any of the birds I saw this morning could have flown over 50,000 miles last year, and seen emperor penguins and snow petrels, and tropic and frigatebirds, all in the last three months.

Arctic tern (JA)

Other migrants this morning were still more common whitethroats at Kilminning, five whimbrels and three summer plumaged dunlin (black bellies) at Balcomie, and a wheatear on the airfield. And pride of place, a marsh harrier quartering over the young wheat fields above Sauchope caravan park. Marsh harriers seem to be getting a little bit more common around Crail. I almost expect to see 2-3 a year on passage now whereas ten years ago I would consider myself lucky to see one. Marsh harriers are a durable, all rounder bird of prey. They can exploit almost any open terrestrial or wetland habitats, summer or winter, happy enough on farmland now as well as pristine reedbeds. I suspect they have become less habitat specific over the last few decades – although they still like tall, grassy or reedy vegetation to nest in – enabling them to do much better in the habitats we have created.

A couple of camouflaged whimbrels at Balcomie this morning
Marsh harrier (JA)

Posted May 6, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 5th   Leave a comment

One of the good things about the lockdown – and there are one or two positive things – is the repetition of the same walk (cycle) every day so I can see the daily change. I have been doing the same route, more or less, for 43 days now, from the end of winter, right through spring. Watching the summer migrants come back is usually a stuttering affair for me, connecting the dots between weekends. You can go from the first migrant back, to having them everywhere in seven days: this has been happening this week with the sedge warblers. The first back, for me, on the 29th at Kilminning, and now this morning there are five territories with exuberant, singing males in them. Common whitethroats the same, except a bit further along. Each year there seem to be more and more, and there are still new territories popping up even 15 days after I saw my first. The swallows have been here for a month now and many will have built nests and started to lay eggs: I watched a pair flying into one of the ruined pill boxes today – a perfect cave substitute for them to nest in. There are a lot of pairs nesting at the airfield and using the old buildings this year. The last regular migrants to arrive are the swifts – now on day 3 in Crail. I counted 7 over my garden this evening. The rest will be around, but it is cold so they will be feeding over wetlands further inland most of the day. The last regular migrants of all to arrive are the arctic terns. They should be here any day now. We can forgive them their late arrival considering they have come back all the way from Antarctica.

A male barn swallow at the airfield this morning
One of the new sedge warblers singing this morning at Kilminning

I had an orange tip butterfly in my garden this afternoon. These fast flying butterflies are easy to identify, despite their never staying still, because of their very conspicuous orange tips to their white wings (they are well named). When we first moved to Crail we were surprised to see them – they are very rare this far north. But over the years they have become more common as one of the beneficiaries of global warming. They are still a good sighting in Fife though.

The orange tip butterfly in my garden this afternoon

Posted May 5, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 4th   2 comments

There was some light drizzle last night with still prevailing (although swirling) easterlies so I got my hopes up again this morning. Straight out from Crail, past the airfield, a northern wheatear flew up from the side of the road – a very good sign. But apart from another wheatear on the shore at Sauchope on the way back, I didn’t find any obvious new migrants at Kilminning, Balcomie or the Patch at Fife Ness. Still lots of whimbrels, whitethroats and sedge warblers though. I am really enjoying the whimbrels this year – they at least are free to move around.

A wheatear to raise my hopes this morning

My daily route takes me back into Crail via the top of Roome Bay and this morning I saw at least six sand martins flying closely together around the drain pipes they like to nest in some years. I should think they are definitely breeding this year. Sand martins are very promiscuous and so when a female is laying, the male follows very closely to keep an eye on it. I saw a lot of this close tail chasing this morning. I wondered whether the reason they might be nesting this year, and that they only nest in Roome Bay occasionally, is because we have had such a dry April. The drain pipes they nest in must be nice and dry and so much more appealing. There was also a house martin there – they nest along Roome Bay Avenue and feed over the grass bordering the beach – and plenty of barn swallows. With the swifts back, Roome Bay now is the best place to easily see all three swallow species and the look alike swifts, to get your eye in.  

The sand martin nesting site at Roome Bay – in the drainage pipes in the concrete wall
Sand martin nesting in Roome Bay in 2011 (JA)

Posted May 4, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 3rd   Leave a comment

The swifts are back. There were messages appearing at about 6 this evening of swifts over central Fife, and I saw my first two at about half past seven. Swifts spectacularly arrive pretty much simultaneously everywhere in the UK – they are conspicuous and urban, arrive late, and fly hundreds of miles every day anyway, so there is no apparently slow wave of migrants spreading up from the south of England. I am so pleased to see them back: the migrant of the summer, here from only May to August. Their screams are the background to the summer gloaming, and long, warmer evenings. They are another species I last saw in January, above the rain forest in Liberia.

Common swift (JA)

There was nothing new during my Balcomie loop this morning apart from more sedge warblers back and more turnstones on the shore, roosting at high tide with a flock of 12 whimbrels. A couple of the turnstones were in their bright summer plumage – their high Arctic breeding season is still over a month away so the rest have plenty of time to spruce up.

A summer plumage turnstone at Balcomie this morning

Posted May 3, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 2nd   Leave a comment

The number of female eiders has been going down steadily all week and there now only a handful along the shore with small groups of attentive males. The rest are nesting now, with most on the May Island. The May is a bit of a black box just now with no-one there at all to keep an eye on things. But I suspect it is alive with puffins and the other seabirds and carpeted with incubating female eider ducks as usual. We are not really an essential part of what goes on there.

An incubating eider in late April on the May Island (JA)

The whimbrels were back at Balcomie this morning – more than 12 resting on the rocky shore, with one flock of at least nine. It has been an excellent spring for whimbrels and they have been flying past Crail more or less continuously for the last couple of weeks. Any curlew looking bird just now is much more likely to be a whimbrel, although there are still a few curlews passing as well. Whimbrels always look a bit lighter in flight, like a wader, whereas curlews look a bit gull like: but it is subtle. The best way to get on to a whimbrel is to hear its clear, repeated whistle. It’s very much like a human whistling and it’s easy to imitate. Curlews, of course, make a “coor-lee” call. Apart from whimbrels there was just the usual good numbers of willow warblers and blackcaps. I had fun chasing a male blackcap around the Patch at Fife Ness convinced it was something more special as it produced a diverse, mimicking sub-song a bit like a marsh warbler – it was wishful thinking right from the start, but this spring I’m having to survive on hope.

A whimbrel on Balcomie Beach (JA)

Posted May 2, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 1st   Leave a comment

Sometimes it takes a day or two to find anything brought in by a spell of “migrant” weather. I finally found a lesser whitethroat at lower Kilminning today in a small group of willow warblers. Lesser whitethroats are a birder’s bird. They are a bit skulking and when you do see them they are quite subtle birds, but on a good view they have dark face sides giving them a slightly bandit look. I think they suffer a bit from a name disability: it’s hard to get anyone who is not a birder interested in anything with a name that starts “lesser”. I like them, particularly because when you find one around Crail in the spring and autumn then there is probably something else good around too. Wheatears are also a good indicator species, at least in the spring, and there were three at Balcomie this afternoon. So I will be looking hard again on my exercise circuit tomorrow. Other things of interest today were large numbers of sandwich terns passing Balcomie mid-afternoon: at one time there was a flock of over 50 with quite a few stopping on the rocks for a while to preen. The whimbrels at Balcomie have gone, but there were two at Sauchope as I came back into Crail.

Lesser whitethroat (JA)

Posted May 1, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

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