Archive for June 2020

June 30th   Leave a comment

I headed to the far west this morning – well at least as far as Balcaskie – to have a look for corn buntings and yellow wagtails. The yellow wagtails first. They continue to confuse. I had three males and a female today, two males opposite the nest at Oldbarns which I think fledged last week, a female now feeding chicks near the second nest in the same field, and then a third male popping up out of perfect nesting field as nearly as far as Bankhead. All in all I think we have at least as many pairs as last year (three) and maybe one more. Then the corn buntings. Lots between Crail and Balcaskie, although the wooded area of the estate is not really suitable so there is a hole in their distribution there. But I did hear a jay, that East Neuk rarity – plenty of oak trees and mature woodland to suit them. I also heard a quail singing from a potato field just to the north-west of Pittenweem recycling centre. This year is possibly another good quail year with lots being recorded further south, so I hope this will be the first of several to come. Last year was also good. All along my route, out closer to the coast and back further inland, there were tree sparrows everywhere. We are lucky to still have them so common in the East Neuk.

Two of our East Neuk specialities: still common here. Corn bunting and tree sparrow

Posted June 30, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 29th   Leave a comment

I was struggling back into Crail between showers this morning with the south-westerly against me when an adult female peregrine popped up from the fields behind Sauchope. After a good start this spring with quite a few peregrine sightings, this is the first I have seen for weeks. Unlike me, it was enjoying the wind. Peregrines make sense when there is no wind, but they really make sense in a gale. I watched it circling around Roome Bay three times with barely a wing beat. It faced into the wind to gain height and then swooped down using gravity to gain enough speed to move forward into the wind. Then when the peregrine reached sea level it simply faced into the wind again and was blown back and up to complete a large loop back to where it started from above the cliffs. And then it continued looping, moving parallel to the wind in the direction of the May Island. I lost it a kilometre out to sea a couple of minutes later, again with barely a wing beat. I imagine it made it to the island about when I got home ten minutes later, me back to work, and it to cause havoc among the seabirds.

Peregrine (JA)

Posted June 29, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 27th   Leave a comment

Today it was either haar or shower dodging, with a strong south-easterly breeze again. At Balcomie Beach there were three bar-tailed godwits, showing nice variation in plumage, size and bill length. There were two females and a male, all in full summer plumage. Males are a lovely brick red underneath, and females are buffy, but I could also see that the females were much bigger than the male with longer legs and much longer bills. Females have ridiculously long bills, as long as curlews but looking longer because they are almost straight (they actually have a very subtle upcurve). Sword-billed godwit would be a good name. These godwits may have been in Siberia the day before yesterday. Bar-tailed godwits are a high Arctic breeding species and these will be adults that probably lost their nests in the last week. They should be hatching now after starting to nest at the start of June, and it is already too late in the short Arctic season for them to renest. Godwits look after themselves and live a long time: one failed season is not a disaster.

The three bar-tailed godwits – male in the centre

I expect different waders passing through now for the next three months. There were seven redshanks and a ringed plover on the shore with a whimbrel passing Fife Ness. At Kilminning I saw another cuckoo in the lower section. Perhaps a different bird to yesterday. This one tantalisingly perched where I could see it, but even my slight movement fifty meters away sent it off towards Crail. I followed it and made it back before the thunderstorms got going again.

Redshank – adults back at Balcomie now may even be successful breeders because they can start nesting in April (JA)

Posted June 27, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 26th   Leave a comment

We have had the east wind back a bit and this morning the haar was in. I went out after lunch after it brightened up in Crail but found the fog waiting for me at Kilminning. I was on the lookout for cuckoos – this week is the best for cuckoos passing along the coast and one had been reported from Anstruther during the morning. I found one, flying between bushes and keeping well hidden in the lower part. They are shy birds and when they fly into a tree or bush they freeze until you leave the area so if you don’t see exactly where they go, you lose them. I saw a whitethroat nearby carrying a large caterpillar: just what a cuckoo on migration needs and Kilminning is full of moth and butterfly caterpillars just now. There was another migrant at Kilminning, a chiff-chaff in moult so it was very dull apart from its wings and tail that remained quite greenish in contrast. It looked very intriguing even when it showed itself well.

Common whitethroat with a cuckoo sized caterpillar – no chance of getting a photo of a cuckoo with or without a caterpillar

I finally got close enough to the ringlet butterflies today. They are very restless and hard to approach. They are a handsome butterfly when you do get a good view. Although they are brown, it is very dark and contrasting against a dark velvet body on one side, and a neat white fringe on the edge of the wing, on the other. The haar followed me back to Crail. I saw a single tiny eider chick in Roome Bay, another late chick.

Ringlets at Kilminning

Posted June 26, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 24th   Leave a comment

The eider chicks don’t seem to be doing too well this year. There are a few groups of quite large chicks but fewer than most years. The age range seems also to be greater than usual. There were some chicks new in from the May Island at Balcomie this morning that must just be in their first week. Synchronised hatching is a good thing – it swamps the predators – so perhaps one is a consequence of the other.

The young eider chicks at Balcomie this morning…

There are more goosanders to be seen now – the flock at Balcomie was up to 17 today. They congregate on the beach at high tide and it is impossible not to disturb them. I expect they head back the moment I have gone past. The whimbrel was still on the beach, there were more curlews back today and a new redshank. The days are getting shorter (although thankfully very gradually) and summer marches on.

…and six of the 17 goosanders

Posted June 24, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 23rd   Leave a comment

New in at Balcomie Beach this morning – the first redshank back and a whimbrel. The four knot were still there. The big activity though is the large flock of gulls, starlings, eiders, shelducks and mallards feeding on the seaweed soup on the tideline. The easterlies brought in their usual crop of seaweed to the beach and this is now nicely rotting away creating primordial tidal pools full of seaweed fly maggots. The starlings, in particular, are enjoying this, with a very high feeding rate ensuring that the juveniles this year have a great start. It will also be a great attraction in the coming weeks to migrant waders.

Starlings in the soup. Note the adult in the centre delicately stepping through the muck with its tail cocked to stop it getting dirty

Posted June 23, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 22nd   2 comments

Now is the best time of year to see puffins from Crail. They are feeding chicks and tens of thousands of puffins are passing in and out of the Forth, with many passing Crail, every day. Today for instance they were close enough in at Sauchope that you could recognise them without binoculars – their red bills, white faces and rugby ball shape making them easily identifiable. There was a little bit of a seabird festival there – many of the auks were on the water including puffins, razorbills and guillemots, with kittiwakes and arctic terns swooping down among them. And then a pod of about ten bottle-nosed dolphins passed through, surfacing every ten seconds and making steady progress to Fife Ness. There were a lot of dolphin sightings from Crail last week but this was the first time I have been lucky. A pile of seabirds and some dolphins on your doorstep makes you realise things aren’t all bad.

Bottle-nosed dolphins (JA)

There were some early returning waders this morning. Four knot, all in winter plumage, at Balcomie, and then a golden plover, and at Sauchope, the first lapwing. It made me realise they have been conspicuous in their absence this spring. I don’t think there are any breeding in the fields around Crail this year, although I have been out much less to the north-west of Crail, where they usually breed, because of lockdown. It is such a shame – lapwings need the damp patches in fields to do well and these have all been systematically drained over the last decade. We only ever had about 3-4 pairs within a couple of kilometers of Crail, but now it seems we have none. At least we still have flocks of them wintering with us, and often roosting on the rocks with the golden plovers at Sauchope.

Lapwing displaying over a Crail field a few years ago (JA)

Posted June 22, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 20th   Leave a comment

You might be wondering where all the male eiders have gone. Some have definitely left the area, congregating somewhere else on the east coast, but some are still here, just in camouflage. Ducks moult their wing feathers at the end of the breeding season making them unable to fly for a time. So the males lose their showy plumage the better to escape attention during their vulnerable period. Male eiders become almost black and when they are loafing among the rocks on the shore growing their feathers they are very inconspicuous. But it begs the question, what are they hiding from? Probably white-tailed eagles. We don’t have too many around Crail (yet) but almost everywhere else in Europe where there are eiders, there are white-tailed eagles.

A male eider at Balcomie on the way to its black eclipse plumage – they only keep a bit of white on the wing which is invisible when closed
And another nearby further along in eclipse and showing the reason why – this one would find it very hard to fly

Posted June 20, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 19th   Leave a comment

There was a bit of haar dodging today after a gloomy wet start. I went out after lunch and even saw some sun. But it is becoming conclusive that we have moved into the wet period of the summer – dry April and May, then wet June and July – that has been the pattern here for the last few years. As the summer progresses so we see more insects: more and more butterflies are appearing. I had a ringlet (very dark with six lovely spots on its underwing), and common blues (outrageously blue) at Kilminning and in the long grass at Roome Bay. Common blues aren’t that common, but they are lot more common than any of the other blue species around Crail.

Common blue – subtle
Common blue – outrageous

Passage migrant wise the season should really be over now. It will be quiet until the end of July, although the shorebirds will start passing through again in a week or two. There are more black-headed gulls back even now and there will soon be Mediterranean and little gulls to look for.

One of the newly returned black-headed gulls at Sauchope this afternoon – back in Crail until next April. There is a tiny bit of haar getting in the way – I hope it’s not back until April.

Posted June 19, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 17th   Leave a comment

The haar finally moved out to sea late morning today, after another drear start. I went out after lunch to see some sunshine, but had to head west, as the Fife Ness area was still covered in fog. At one point Crail was neatly divided east and west by haar. The sunny side of town held the rosy starling – reported from Felkinton Avenue this morning but I didn’t relocate it after a fair bit of looking at about 2 pm. I continued on to the yellow wagtail fields at Oldbarns. I was pleased to see the pair on the sea side was feeding chicks. The female particularly was coming into the nest field with big beakfuls of black flies almost every couple of minutes. I then noticed another male wagtail harassing the female – perching near it and calling and then chasing it quite vigorously. It flew over the road into the newly prepared, bare earth brassica field on the north side and I had a good view – a yellow wagtail with a grey blue head, a white supercilium and white lining the underside of the grey blue cap close to the bill. A blue-headed wagtail! This is the continental Europe sub-species of yellow wagtail and a good bird to find – certainly the first I have seen in Crail since I have been here. I tried to make it into one of the more far eastern versions of blue-headed wagtail (its cap was quite pale grey looking at times rather than blue…) to complement the easterly airflow and the central Asian origin of the rosy starling, but I suspect it is just a late migrating bird blown over from Germany or Eastern Europe. As I followed this bird along the edge of the field I couldn’t help but notice the breeding yellow wagtails behind me – not just the pair feeding chicks but another male further in the field showing all the signs of also having an active nest (with a female sitting on eggs or brooding very young chicks). This means that we have had at least three distinct breeding pairs this year and I think 6 attempts. The breeding activity must have pulled in the migrating continental wagtail: perhaps there is a spare female for it.

The blue-headed wagtail
The male breeding nearby using subtle non-verbal communication to deter the blue-headed male
The female yellow wagtail that is currently feeding chicks, at the start of another beakful of flies
The haar starts at Crail

Posted June 17, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 16th   Leave a comment

The fourth day of haar, so another damp and foggy morning. A bit less thick than yesterday so there was more activity – several blackcaps were singing as they start their second broods, and the whitethroats were out and about with their fledged chicks. There were probably some scarcer migrants hiding out there. I only had a yellow wagtail flying invisibly overhead at Kilminning. Probably an exotic Scandinavian bird, but no telling just by call. Five years ago, before yellow wagtails started breeding in Crail, this would have been a very good bird. The rosy starling spent its third day at West Braes Crescent.

The Crail rosy starling (JA)

Posted June 16, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 15th   4 comments

The rosy starling is still in residence. Its main place is at the corner of West Braes Crescent and the Anstruther road, visiting a busy bird feeder by the blue fence. You can’t see it when it’s on the feeder but as it comes and gos via the local rooftops it’s easy to see. It was clearly at home today, excluding the local starlings from its favourite feeder and even doing a bit of singing. I don’t think it will be off tonight – it’s still very cloudy. The haar was in most of the day again making it gloomy viewing for the starling and fairly difficult to look for anything else out at Fife Ness. I spent some more time today at Kilminning looking for marsh warblers that have also been appearing along the East coast this week. But marsh warblers are skulkers and on a very damp, foggy day it was a needle in a haystack job – if they sing, however, it is really easy. Almost nothing was singing today – for a lot of birds this type of weather, at this time, is really bad. With many species having newly fledged chicks, feeding and keeping them warm and dry will be very difficult.

The rosy starling of West Braes Crescent – here singing. Notice its sympathetic lock-down hair style.

Posted June 15, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 14th   Leave a comment

The last two days may have been miserable in terms of the haar and the damp east wind, but they have been good for bringing in some birds. This morning, as I headed back home at 10:30 I got one of those emails from my neighbours that I love to get – particularly when there is an east wind on. Colin McLachlan and Barbara Mathieson, who live on the edge of Crail had had a strange bird in the garden – they had successfully identified it as a rosy starling and sent me a picture of it on the feeder at 8:30. They were unsure of their identification because rosy starlings are an Eastern European species (well more of a central Asian species) and don’t turn up in Crail. It was certainly a rosy starling – they are very distinctive – a starling which is half bright pink – and although they are very rare vagrants to the UK there is an invasion of them to Western Europe at the moment. A couple of hundred have turned up in the UK over the last two weeks, although in most years the UK gets only a handful. Every few years the species erupts from Central Asia, probably after a couple of very good breeding seasons or a local failure of the food supply (grasshoppers!). They are a colonial species and I once visited a huge colony in Kazakhstan, like a scaled down puffin colony – holes everywhere in bare rocky soil. They are very, very crowded and if the food supply fails then they need to find space to breed elsewhere, and some birds make it as far as Scotland. That said we haven’t had one in the Crail area for 20 years and I saw my last Scottish bird in 1990. As you might expect I accelerated my return back to Crail from Fife Ness and headed to the harbour area to look for it. It took a few minutes but I finally saw it perched on a rooftop close to the entrance to West Braes Crescent. It is a spectacular bird – a starling in a pink dress. The bill is pink too and the head has a loose floppy crest. The starling was commuting between back garden bird feeders, occasionally feeding on lawns along the main road and most often (or at least visible most often) sat on various rooftops and aerials – just like any other starling. It will likely be here for a day or two, and with the current invasion there may be others appearing, so look out for it. I am very grateful to Colin for tipping me off – I had been out since five this morning looking for one – so a very successful day and a new species for my Crail list, taking it up to 231. Please let me know if you see any more.

The rosy starling in Crail this morning. Check out the rooftops by the entrance to West Braes Crescent, or your bird feeders. As you can see from the bottom photo – a half pink starling, but otherwise pretty much like a starling. It’s pinker in real life – the haar wasn’t helping it shine today.

The rosy starling came at the end of an eventful morning. As they say – you wait ages and then three come along at once. I had already dashed down to Fife Ness to see a little egret at stinky pool. I had missed one earlier this spring because of the lockdown rules, so was glad to see this one. They are surprisingly uncommon around Crail – they turn up more often further round the coast and, of course, at the Eden Estuary, but seem just to fly right by us. This one was at least on the rocks for a while, glowing white despite the haar. And as I cycled through the golf course to the egret I heard a common crossbill chipping. Another irruptive species that is fairly rare in Crail except mid-summer, after a good breeding season (and crossbills start breeding in January). I haven’t had any crossbills in Crail for about 10 years when we had a couple of summers of small numbers of birds passing overhead. Crossbills call constantly with a distinctive “chip-chip-chip…” that makes even a high flying group easy to pick up on. This morning’s bird was apparently on its own (they are very sociable) and was on the tallest pine tree in the Patch chipping away to find some friends. I had a crossbill on my right and a little egret on my left – in terms of Crail rarity, about equal. The crossbill won and I chased after that. Luckily, the egret stayed sat on the rocks all the while until I could turn my attention back to it. Later in Crail when I was looking for the rosy starling another two crossbill flew over chipping. I should probably spend the rest of the day in my back garden with a fair chance of adding both species to my garden list.

The little egret at Stinky Pool this morning
And to make John cringe – trust me it is a crossbill, in the haar – luckily they always call

Posted June 14, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 13th   1 comment

I met one of my neighbours yesterday who said to me good naturedly “never mind the birds, I want more about the frogs”. So this is for him. How many frogs are there in the photo below? I took this yesterday afternoon in my small garden pond. They were playing froggy jenga, sitting in the weak sunshine in little heaps. There are more there than you think…

How many frogs in this photo? There are 13 – the one in the water behind the stem of the central white flower is the hardest

Posted June 13, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 12th   Leave a comment

The last couple of days have been windy with a fairly strong north-easterly, especially this morning. Eye watering but nice in its own way – the east coast in a gale is exciting. But slightly stressful in June as I worry about the newly fledged birds and particularly the eider chicks. The eiders at least were on the beach this morning with their chicks or in sheltered areas like stinky pool. There is quite an age range of eider chicks, and newly hatched chicks are still appearing, with more to come from the May Island (the warden is now back on the island so we will be able to keep track of what is happening there again). They won’t be crossing successfully today though. The gulls on the beach were leaning into the wind to stay upright and the waves are getting larger as I write. Storms in summer always seem much worse because there is so much more vegetation to flap and fly around.

Ways to deal with a June storm

Posted June 12, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 10th   Leave a comment

We seem to have moved into the rainy season. I was rained off this morning and didn’t get out until later. I had an interesting flyby at Kilminning. An adult male peregrine flew down and passed me at a few meters as if it was checking me out. As it passed the reason became clear – it was jingling like a sleigh and had bells and jesses on its legs. A falconry bird. I spent the rest of the time at Kilminning looking for a falconer to remonstrate, but I think this peregrine left its captor somewhere else. I wish it luck. Peregrines are nothing without the freedom to roam over Fife in an afternoon.

A wild peregrine (JA)

There are a few eider chicks in Roome Bay, and the number is getting smaller. I saw the main reason this afternoon. A great black-backed gull hovering heavily over a pack of angry female eiders, with two chicks cowering and diving in their centre. The eiders were so densely together they were almost clambering over each other to get high enough to peck at the gull. It only lasted a few seconds but more and more female eiders converged and the gull flew off to a nearby rock. The eiders then dispersed, back to their feeding leaving just two females with the chicks. A great group defence. I suspect that eiders lose track of their own chicks in creches, and so helping any nearby chicks pays off eventually. Still the great black-backed gulls are formidable predators, and capable of taking an adult eider if they really try.

Immediately afterwards – the great black-backed gull has just retreated and the eiders are dispersing. Gull 0 Eiders 1.

Posted June 10, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 9th   Leave a comment

There are lots of hares to be seen at the moment. Anything rabbity seen well out in an arable field will be a hare. Rabbits don’t often go right out from cover because their escape strategy is to run back to their burrows and these are at the edges. Hares do the opposite – they head for the open where they can run as fast as they can when threatened. Rabbits are agoraphobic and hares are claustrophobic. When you get a close view of a hare they are distinctive because they look much less cute than rabbits, with big slightly droopy eyes like a camel, and they look much more lanky with their longer legs and ears. Hares initially also crouch down flat when approached – they can flatten themselves very effectively to disappear from sight and dig little scrapes to help this. Rabbits tend to freeze where they are, watching very carefully to weigh up when they should run for cover. This morning I watched a group of five hares still doing their mad March thing, chasing and boxing in the cow field between the airfield buildings. It may be June, but hares breed, well like rabbits, and they are having a good year.

An invisible hare…
and visible hares today at the airfield

Posted June 9, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 8th   Leave a comment

Today’s highlight was an adult cuckoo at lower Kilminning. It flew in front of me – they are incredibly distinctive when you know what to look at. Very raptor like but also with odd drooping wings. They can look like a strange sparrowhawk if you are not familiar with cuckoos when you see one. It perched briefly on the top of a whitebeam but was soon off. Cuckoos are shy birds. The middle two weeks of June are the best time to see a cuckoo at Kilminning as returning birds follow the coast south. Being cuckoos, their breeding season is done. They are the migrants that spend the shortest time here and some cuckoos will be back in central Africa by August. The juveniles follow later in August. Scottish cuckoos head through central Europe and Italy and seem to survive better on migration than English cuckoos which head through Iberia. There have been much harsher summer drought conditions in Iberia over the last decade which makes it tough for a species that needs to find lots of large, juicy caterpillars.

Another highlight today was seeing the three shelduck chicks at Balcomie again. Where they have been for the last 10 days I don’t know. Perhaps my early morning visits caught them while they were still huddled up somewhere on the strandline – it has been cold and stormy. I know eider chicks come up onto the beach overnight and huddle together. Anyway great news and I will be more careful in writing off shelducks as bad parents in the future.

Linnets are an interesting species. They breed in a loose colony in dense bushes and then go off in groups to forage nearby. Like starlings I suppose. It makes me wonder how they coordinate the comings and goings to feed chicks, but perhaps they don’t. Linnets are one of the commonest species of finch out in the rough grass along the coast. They have a twittering musical call that is one of the sounds of the coastal path. Males and females almost always stick together – females are less distinctive, but the males are easy, so look for the males to learn the females. Males have grey heads and a rich chestnut back, and then an obvious patchy reddish-pink breast: both sexes have a white wing bar and obvious white in the tail when they fly.

Male linnet above a nesting bush at Kilminning this morning

Posted June 8, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 7th   Leave a comment

I checked the yellow wagtail sites first thing this morning. The nest in the cauliflower field – which has now been entirely harvested – seems to be inactive with no birds in the vicinity. The nest was active on Wednesday last week at least – my timings are very approximate so this may have fledged chicks but probably not. At Old Barns I saw two birds in flight, one an adult calling and a second shorter tailed one – so perhaps a newly fledged juvenile. Hopefully so. Later I saw a male a field away from the nest site. There is still time for more nests. As I scanned the fields I saw quite a few mallards flying from field to field. The network of burns (or rather, field side drainage canals) supports quite a few pairs. We have tens of mallards in the winter on the rocky shore around Crail and I think these all breed in the local farmland.

A local female mallard at Balcomie – the ones on the rocky shore now are probably failed breeders (JA)

I am not getting used to the shore at Balcomie without waders. June is always a quiet month but it never seems right. There was a late whimbrel, at least this morning. The swallows and martins were again low over the rocky shore and beach to beat the cool north-easterly. I watched them at Roome Bay but didn’t see any sand martins. I think they must have abandoned their nesting attempt there.

Whimbrel (JA)

Posted June 7, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 6th   Leave a comment

The weather has turned, June has notched up 8.4 mm of rain already – we only had a total of 11.6 mm for both the whole of April and May. A brisk north-easterly wind hasn’t done much to change the birds except to make my eyes water when scanning the beach first thing in the morning. The swallows and martins have been congregating wherever it is sheltered from the wind: in the lee of trees, buildings and the bank along the shore. There have been swallows practically crawling along the beach, they are flying so low: with a headwind, their effective ground speed is only about a meter a second so they could even pick flies up off the sand. Occasionally they land to do just that. I have been pondering the last three days how to take a photo to show this but John sorted it yesterday. Swallows are some of the most photogenic birds but they hardly ever slow down enough to allow themselves to be captured.

A barn swallow catching flies on the beach in the wind yesterday (JA)

Rabbit numbers come and go in the East Neuk as myxomatosis (another pandemic from a rabbit point of view) peaks and troughs. At the moment they seem to be doing well. Sauchope Caravan park is all young rabbits at the moment. This is fairly distracting for my dog, who forgets that even extender leads have limits in her red haze, despite the fact her last emergency stop was only a few seconds ago. Rabbits are important animals – they keep grass short (although this function is slightly redundant at Sauchope) allowing other plants that might get swamped a chance, and consequently allowing more insects and birds as the habitat is kept more diverse. They also provide a lot of buzzard and in the future for Crail, hopefully red kite food.

An important rabbit – this one at Balcomie caravan park this afternoon, enjoying the solitude

Posted June 6, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

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