Archive for August 2020

August 30th   Leave a comment

A quieter day today. In thirty minutes at Fife Ness at lunchtime there were just a few terns passing and two little gulls. There were flocks of roosting adult and juvenile common terns in a few places between Balcomie and Crail at high tide, left over from the storm. There were meadow pipits everywhere today and particularly in the newly harvested or ploughed fields. Twice today I saw a meadow pipit chasing a northern wheatear away from where it was feeding. Meadow pipits always look a bit frail, and wheatears the opposite. Wheatears are larger birds too. But clearly meadow pipits have hidden depths. They are also probably fed up with wheatears forever bragging about their extraordinary long migrations and their amazing thermal tolerance. Meadow pipits are no slackers in these respects, and some of the birds that are passing through Crail today will end up in North Africa, and may themselves breed up near the Arctic circle.

Meadow pipit – perhaps the commonest bird to be seen around Crail today (JA)

Posted August 30, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 29th   Leave a comment

I fed my developing sea watching addiction with about four hours at Fife Ness this morning and afternoon. The wind was still a strong north-easterly, there were still lots of birds passing, but there were few skuas today and barely any shearwaters. I had about 10 sooty shearwaters in total, but they were at the horizon apart from one closer flyby and by early afternoon they had completely disappeared. Only one arctic skua and about seven great skuas. There was a good tern passage again, picking up in the late morning. Mostly arctic, then sandwich and then common terns. There were more brent geese incongruously heading north – or the same birds of the last few days still passing back and forth.

Brent geese again passing north at Fife Ness today (JA)

The wind made looking north difficult, so I sat for most of the time looking south-westerly into the Forth, using the hide as shelter. By mid-afternoon there was a line of birders doing the same. It turned out to be a good thing even though the shearwaters were most visible north-easterly. First I picked up a peregrine a couple of kilometers out from the coast flying along the horizon. And not just going somewhere, I could see it doing hunting dashes, accelerating down into the wave troughs before soaring up like a shearwater. At one point I saw a little gull – looking like a little lapwing at the distance – flying up in front of the peregrine and it was briefly tail-chased. I lost the peregrine still apparently hunting even further out to sea. It will have been a long flight back to the May Island or Fife when it caught something. A little later I picked up a grebe flying out of the Forth. Grebes are very rare passing Fife Ness for me – every two or three years. This was a slavonian grebe, showing a white patch on the secondaries (but barely onto the primaries). It had no obvious white forewing which is a character of slavonians but young birds barely have this. I went with the extent of the wing patch – like a velvet scoter, rather than a tufted duck – as the clinching character to make it a slavonian. But I wouldn’t bet my house against it not being a black-necked grebe. Both are equally unlikely (or likely depending on whether you are a glass half full person).

Slavonian grebe – a very rare bird past Fife Ness even though they are quite common at other places along the east coast. Not quite flying but you get the idea about the wing bar extent (JA)

Later in the morning, again looking south towards the May Island, I picked up a tern with very rapid, clockwork wing-beats, it hovered before plunging down in a steep dive to the waters surface, and then straight back up to repeat it all again. A little tern, and a species I have been waiting to add to the Crail list for a while. A few years ago I was looking at my patch list and wrote down a sub-list of “common” species that I was missing: great grey shrike, hawfinch, hobby, water rail, red kite and little tern. Four of these have now fallen – hobby and the shrike to go. Little terns breed a bit to the north of Fife Ness and a bit to the south, but for some reason they never seem to fly by. They must migrate far out to sea. This little tern was a first winter with hints of brown on its mantle and a little helmet of a cap. But the plumage doesn’t really matter, it is its behaviour that identifies it. A tiny tern on speed, or in a Charlie Chaplin movie. My last little terns were in Senegal a few years’ ago, diving down into the waves as they crashed onto a sandy beach. Now I confine my UK birding to the Crail area, more or less, I don’t ever see little terns here. Today’s one was very welcome. And probably I got on to it (apart from the obsessive hours spent sea watching this week) because I have been checking and identifying every single tern in the hope of black terns. This week I have probably checked over 500 passing terns (maybe double that) – with the net haul of one black and one little tern. It would have been worth the effort to get better at splitting juvenile arctics and commons at distance, but these two are the icing on the cake.

Little tern. This one is an adult. Number 232 for the Crail list (JA)

Posted August 29, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 28th   Leave a comment

I put in an hour and a half out at Fife Ness and Balcomie this morning before reluctantly coming back to Crail to start work. A very strong north-easterly had me hiding between the block house and the hide, but even so it was a bit eye-watering. The seawatching wasn’t as good as yesterday but it was still well worth it. More sooty shearwaters, at one point a group of three passing, much closer than yesterday. I had seven past in an hour and small er numbers of manx shearwaters. There were little gulls passing. At one point I was following the only skua of the session – a pale phase arctic, powering past with the wind behind it and looking chunky compared to the long-tails of the day before – when it started chasing one of the little gulls. Not a fair fight. Little gulls really are small and next to an arctic skua, look tiny.

Arctic skua (JA)

There was a lot of tern passage again, but this morning almost all arctic terns with only a handful of common terns. It was such a contrast to yesterday afternoon that it had me doubting my identification. So I spent half an hour properly scrutinising every arctic or common tern, every adult and juvenile (and two first summers as well), close and far, that came past. Adult commons are very obvious at this time of year with a dark wedge of inner primaries, even if you don’t get their more gull like, bigger headed, bulky shape. Only one arctic had a dark wedge, although this was more a thickening of the black along the trailing edge of the primaries. And the juveniles were all as they should be too, looking slight with no necks, with clean black leading edges to the forewings and pure white trailing edges. Yesterday there were only a handful of the hundred or so juvenile commons that passed me that lacked a clay brownish tinge to the blackish forewing, and with clear white hindwings without a dark trailing edge, and two of those were clear first summer birds – perhaps they all were. I like these periods of self-doubt because they make you a better birder. They stop you from assuming and really make you look at everything properly.

Arctic tern juvenile – no neck, short bill (and legs although that’s no good in flight) and neat two tone wing (JA)
Common tern juvenile – dirtier looking wing with a dark trailing edge, longer bill, obvious neck. Both the terns are August birds so a good match to the ones passing Fife Ness just now (JA)

The gannets were coming by within a few meters of the rocks and with them two juveniles. I saw my first fledged gannet three days ago, then two more yesterday. In the strong wind they were flying as easily as the adults. They are much heavier as the fledge with a lot of fat to sustain them as they learn to fish, and usually you can tell a juvenile by the depth of its wing beats. But it was a free ride today as their airspeed kept them in the air with minimal effort. This evening as the wind died down I saw a couple more new fledglings and then their labouring flight was obvious as they headed past Crail for their first time, out into the North Sea.

A newly fledged gannet passing Fife Ness today. John was practically sitting out in the waves this morning, never mind the wind and rain. But worth it. This is an absolutely brilliant photograph. (JA)

There were more apparently confused pale-bellied brent geese passing. One flock of ten milled around Fife Ness flying north and then south for a while as a squall blew in. They are very powerful geese, even though small. They fly fast and easily I think, like whimbrels. Enough mass to fly forever, but not so much they aren’t fast and manoeuvrable. But this flock looked lost and not very capable for a while before seeming to pull themselves together and heading determinedly south.

The pale-bellied brent geese passing Fife Ness this morning just before the squall stopped them (JA)

Yesterday Balcomie Beach was covered in seaweed from the storms of the last couple of days. It was ankle deep, making a walk across the beach very wet. Today most of it had washed out with last night’s tide. In its place more waders including six knot, as tame as the ringed plover of a few days ago. There were three little gull taking a break on the beach. I spotted them too late as they flew up and over the bay. A close up little gull is always a treat.

One of the knot amongst the remains of the washed in seaweed on Balcomie Beach

Posted August 28, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 27th   Leave a comment

A really good seawatch is incredibly addictive. The birds keep coming past you and there is always another one to check, or the horizon to scan to pick up the next one. And the next one may well be something really good. I have about two or three of these every year, when the winds are good and there are birds everywhere. This afternoon was one of them. I spent ninety minutes at Fife Ness but could have spent all day there. The highlight was a flock of nine long-tailed skuas passing well out, but close enough to be identifiable, moving steadily north over a couple of minutes. More long-tailed skuas than I have seen on the Crail patch in the last eighteen years. And long-tailed skuas are one of the top birds you can ever see. There were a couple of adults, with their caps and long tails, at least one pale juvenile and the rest dark juveniles. Long-tails keep in a tight flock when migrating and that also makes them special. Not just one but a whole lot of them when you finally get lucky and see them. About ten minutes earlier I had two distant possible long-tails, but both, if they were long-tails, were dark juveniles so I was unsure: if they had passed after the distinctive flock, I would have been quicker to called them as definites too. More passed closer in a bit later when I away checking Balcomie Beach and letting my very patient dog have some reward for sitting quietly for the previous hour. I also had a juvenile black tern. This one close in and I watched it dipping down to the sea back and forth for a few minutes. There were hundreds of common terns passing mid-afternoon, adults and juveniles, so I had a feeling that there would also be black terns about: in total today, I think 5 black terns were seen from Fife Ness. There were also some arctic terns. The ratio shifted as I watched so late afternoon there were more arctics, although still many more commons. Most of the year it is the other way round. Sandwich terns were also common. I had my first sooty shearwater of the year, powering along distinctively as usual, looking twice as strong and determined than a fulmar and in a completely different class to the few manx shearwaters that also came past. There were a few bonxies passing: I saw seven including two passing right over our heads as they cut the corner at Fife Ness. I had six little gulls, all first winter birds apart from one adult. Not so many kittiwakes, but enough to get you going as more distant ones needed to be checked for Sabine’s gulls. And some other things passing in small numbers to give variety: common scoters, red-throated diver, knot and a whimbrel. I also had three pale-bellied brent geese. Early birds, we expect them a week later. Two were heading unaccountably north, while one cruised by almost within touching distance in a sensible southerly direction. A female sparrowhawk also tried to get in on the act by hunting a couple of time across the rocks in front, putting the oystercatchers into a panic both times. Something to see and check out every few seconds. I finished off the almost frantic seawatch with the contrast of the quietness of The Patch: just a couple of willow warblers and no sign of the pied flycatcher and redstart that also came in with the southerlies and rain. But I couldn’t feel disappointed: they will be around tomorrow and I had had my good luck already for today.

Juvenile long-tailed skua closer in at Balcomie a few years ago. One of the nine was pale like this (JA)

Posted August 27, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 26th   Leave a comment

I tried to seawatch yesterday from my house, but I couldn’t even see the sea. We had 18 mm of rain during the storm, most of it horizontal. I suspect there was a lot passing out of sight. There were only a few leftovers this morning passing Crail: little gulls, arctic and great skuas, common and sandwich terns. The storm, although predominantly easterly did not seem to bring any migrants in. Kilminning was quiet this morning with only a fallen tree and northern wheatear new. This evening though I found a very cold female speckled wood butterfly resting in my garden: a first for the garden and only about my third or fourth in this part of Fife. The butterfly invasion continues.

Northern wheatear today (JA)

Posted August 26, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 24th   Leave a comment

I had Balcomie Beach to myself this evening for the first time in two months. Sad thing was there were only four ringed plover to enjoy the solitude and the low evening sunlight. It was high tide and all the waders were already roosting at Fife Ness. I watched a flock of five teal flying down the coast into the strong southerly wind. They saw the roosting birds and stopped to join them. They might have been migrating all day and were glad of the opportunity to have an obviously safe resting place. As I came back into Crail there was a lone swift over the High Street catching the last bit of sunlight.

Juvenile ringed plover on Balcomie Beach this evening
The teal flock joining the roost at Fife Ness – there a couple of goosander there as well

Posted August 24, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 23rd   Leave a comment

I walked down Kenly Water from Boarhills this morning, sitting at the river mouth for a while before crossing it (low tide) and returning through the fields. It’s a nice walk. The river has very large trees along it, and runs at the bottom of a steep, cliffy valley – more like Devon than Fife. And at the end a good show of waterbirds. Most of the Canada geese were away in the nearby stubble fields, but there were plenty of mallards, a flock of about 80 lapwing, some dunlin, redshanks, curlews, turnstone and 1-2 greenshank. Apart from April to June there are always greenshanks around the shore there. Most greenshanks winter in sub-Saharan Africa but some British breeding birds have just been tracked to more local wintering grounds in Ireland. I suspect the few greenshanks that winter on the East and West coast of Scotland are also Scottish birds. In the stubble fields there were hundreds of meadow pipits. I noticed small flocks of them passing over Crail this morning, heading west on return migration. A lot of them must have stopped at Boarhills today: it was like a small reverse blizzard of pipits, popping up in front of me. Overhead I heard a couple of tree pipits calling and there must have been more in with the meadow pipits. Surprisingly there were no whinchats – the fields east of Boarhills in August are the best place to find them – only a couple of northern wheatears. Along the farm track there were a lot of butterflies: peacocks, red admirals, whites and three walls. Wall butterflies are apparently colonising Fife this summer. Fife’s third and fourth record of a wall butterfly, one at Kingsbarns, and the next day one at Caiplie Caves were only a couple of weeks’ ago. There were some on the May Island today as well as my three, so it’s probably time to stop counting: they are here, having crossed the Forth big time this year. Nothing brings climate change home more than the spread of southerly species northwards, like little egrets, but it’s really pronounced for butterflies moving tens of kilometers northwards every year. In my time here speckled woods have moved in and now it’s walls. I have a soft spot for walls. I remember puzzling out their identification in my grandmother’s garden in Hertfordshire when I was a boy and looking for distraction while doing boring gardening chores. They used to sun themselves on her stone birdbath. They were not far from the most northerly extension of their range at that time. And at Boarhills today, 40 years’ later they were appropriately sunning themselves in the same way on the stone walls between the fields, just a lot further north. It’s nice to have a piece of my childhood following me north – perhaps it’s not too much to hope for hobbys (a southerly insect eating falcon and my favourite bird of prey) as well.

Wall butterfly at the mouth of Kenly Water this morning

Posted August 23, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 22nd   Leave a comment

I did the full circuit this morning – Wormiston, Balcomie, Fife Ness, Kilminning and then Sauchope, rather than concentrating on Kilminning. Things have gone off, with the wind southerly and south westerly for the last two days. The chance of a scarce migrant has diminished but the usual August fare is still worth going out for. There was a lump in the newly harvested rape field on the way to Wormiston. It turned out to be a kestrel sitting on the ground. It wasn’t feeding and I can only think it was hunting. Kestrels are fairly good at catching birds when they try and it was fairly well camouflaged in the field. A linnet or reed bunting could easily miss it until too late. I have only seen a handful of successful kestrel hunts on birds and they were all launched from a perch, by surprise onto a bird on the ground. But perhaps this was a young bird that hasn’t got it together yet.

Ground hunting Kestrel at Wormiston – or maybe just having a rest

A little later I flushed a sparrowhawk perched at the back of Balcomie Beach doing the same. It was low tide so the only things in distance were the pied wagtails.  Anything beyond about 25 meters tends to get away in time on a sparrowhawk attack. The sparrowhawk was a male so a pied wagtail is a reasonably sized prey item. That said, it was only a hopeful sparrowhawk. The swallows hawking along the dunes gave it away, with their loud “chees-eep, chees-eep” mobbing calls. There are still a lot of sparrowhawks to be seen – this morning I saw five. Kestrels as well, three today – I think the local nesters at the airfield have probably done well this year.

And the sparrowhawk doing the same at Balcomie Beach – it is staring at a group of pied wagtails further down the beach

The sea was quiet from Fife Ness. Only a handful of sandwich terns, kittiwakes and a flock of five turnstones passing. There were swifts coming in from the sea though, clearly on migration, and perhaps after cutting the corner off from the Aberdeenshire coast. The swifts in Crail left last Monday, with a reprise on Wednesday with 8 or so birds over the High Street on Wednesday. Otherwise it has been only ones or twos. I wish them well down to Liberia or Sierra Leone and will look forward to them coming back next May – hopefully to my swift boxes.

Kilminning had a spotted flycatcher in the woodland along the Crail road. It was keeping in the canopy, probably out of the wind, with a flock of tits and willow warblers. At the bottom it was more willow warblers and a couple of adult looking whinchats along the usual fence line. Both whinchats and spotted flycatchers seem to occur on a westerly wind, coming from the west of Scotland, as well as during easterlies, coming from Scandinavia. There were at least two yellow wagtails still among the pied wagtails on the beach at the east end of Sauchope caravan park. If they stay a week longer while the other migrants of the last couple of weeks have gone then I think it is a reasonable assumption that they were locally produced, and probably from a nest on the airfield. It’s a shame I can only speculate – one more nest adding to the five I am sure about in the Crail area this year is a fantastic total.

One of the juvenile yellow wagtails at Sauchope this last week – they are really shy and fly off to the airfield if any of the coastal path walkers (or me) stop by the beach

Posted August 22, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 19th   Leave a comment

I spent over an hour at the Patch, Fife Ness, this afternoon – checked over 25 willow warblers, found a spotted flycatcher but no sign of the greenish warbler. I could easily have missed it though, and the weather overnight for the last two days hasn’t been good for a migrant to leave. There were three northern wheatears at Stinky Pool and a fourth at Sauchope. And back on the beach at Sauchope two juvenile yellow wagtails amongst the pied wagtails. Again really shy and retreating back to the airfield as soon as I tried to get within fifty meters. Out to sea there was a steady passage of sandwich terns, a flock of 10 – 20 every few minutes. Their numbers, and also of common terns, are increasing a lot around Fife Ness at the moment.

Two of the many sandwich terns passing Fife Ness today: adult on the left and juvenile on the right (JA)

Posted August 19, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 18th   Leave a comment

The weather brightened up after lunch and birds were fairly active after the dull start to the day, but I didn’t manage to find anything new in at Balcomie or Kilminning. At least one of the whinchats (the one with the large pale wing patch) is still at lower Kilminning. There were about 100 golden plover flying around, looking for a field to roost in at high tide. I picked up a ruff in among a group of them heading towards Sauchope but couldn’t refind them there later. I did notice some absolutely pristine juvenile redshanks roosting there, almost looking like a different species and really contrasting with the adults. Juvenile redshanks appear at Crail later than the adults. They have to find a suitable bit of shore to settle on – where they spend their first winter is pretty much where they will spend every winter for the rest of their life. The adults, of course, have already committed and so get back to Crail straight after breeding finishes.

Two juvenile redshanks (left) and an adult at Sauchope. Fresh juveniles are very spotted on the back, are brownish and have orange legs, whereas adults are much more uniform, greyish and have red legs

Posted August 18, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 17th   Leave a comment

It might have seemed a miserable day in Crail today, but the conditions were good. Low cloud and rain, with continuing easterlies is the best combination for migrants to turn up. I drew a blank this morning at Craighead, the Patch and Kilminning, apart from a common snipe flying over calling in the mist, and then bizarrely I saw it, or another a bit later being followed persistently by a common swift as it circled round high above the newly harvested oat field. I really have no idea and I doubt the snipe did either. The afternoon was much better than the morning. I had retreated reluctantly back home to work when I got a phone call from the Patch that a greenish warbler had just been caught. The bird I have been looking for all week. I was out of the door even while still on the phone and made down to the Patch from my house in six minutes. The warbler was still being processed and I was lucky to see it close up. They are subtle birds on first glance – variations on the Phylloscopus warbler theme, greens and dirty whites – but distinctive on second. The eyestripe is stronger than a willow warbler and edged with a dark eyeline and along the top edge subtly making it really stand out. It is supposed to meet above the bill, but barely did so on this bird – I wouldn’t have been able to see this in the field. The general tone above was more moss green than a willow warbler, and purer white underneath. The overall impression is of a much crisper, contrasting warbler than usual. The pale tips to the wing coverts forming a wing bar were subtle. It really is only an impression with just a couple of feathers on one side making a fair stab at a wing bar: but enough to be visible in the field. A pink bill and dark legs are also good characters. The really obvious character though is the call and as the bird was released it gave a loud “chis-wick”. The greenish warbler then disappeared into the patch. I glimpsed it briefly again in a mixed tit flock but it would have been an uncertain id if I had not just seen it. It absolutely refused to call again while I was in the Patch – if only these rare warblers called more regularly – we would all be finding them a lot more often. I was back at my home working desk within 45 minutes. I’d rather have found a greenish warbler myself at Kilminning this week but after hours of unsuccessful looking I am glad of any opportunity to see one – only my 5th greenish warbler in Crail in the last 18 years. Thanks to my neighbours Chris Broome for resuming ringing at the Patch this autumn, and Ken Shaw for letting me know about it so promptly.

Greenish warbler caught this afternoon, by the ringing hut at Fife Ness. Thanks to ringing like this we know where these birds come from (northern Russia or southern Finland) and where they winter (India!). So this one has a way to go to get back on track.

Posted August 17, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 15th   Leave a comment

It was a good August day with good birds turning up all day. Thirty minutes sea watching from Castle Walk this morning produced a dark phase arctic skua. Skuas fly with such intention, like a force of nature, scattering the kittiwakes in front of them. And dark phase arctic skuas, in all over sooty black look the part. I sea watched again over lunch from Balcomie Beach. There was a steady passage of mostly sandwich terns heading north, with occasional common and arctic. And behind a small group of juvenile and adult common terns, a black tern. Distant but obvious with its much darker body and wings – looking fairly black so possibly even an adult in mostly summer plumage – and its shorter, broader wings and shorter tail compared to the common terns it was with. They look a lot like waders in silhouette before you see that they are in fact a tern. I really like black terns – they are common at sea in West Africa and seeing this one past Crail took me back to beaches in Liberia and Senegal. Black terns are annual past Fife Ness, but I only see one about every two years. As well as the terns, a couple of bonxies came past – three skuas today in total, perhaps indicating that they are becoming more common this autumn, at last.

A juvenile black tern passing Fife Ness (JA)

I was surprised to see a browner, shorter tailed wagtail amongst the pied wagtails on the beach at the Kilminning end of Sauchope Caravan Park. I looked at it more closely – a juvenile yellow wagtail, and then another, and then a third. They were very shy and retreated to the airfield above. They shuttled between the beach and the wheat field in the airfield, keeping close together and all of a similar age. I did have a yellow wagtail on June 16th in the same place in the corner of the airfield – I put it down as a migrant. But perhaps a pair bred there. They could easily breed on the airfield undetected as I never visit it in the summer. I will check out the area properly next year.

Yellow wagtail – this one actually a May bird but quite like a bird today with a fair bit of yellow and the black throat and breast markings (JA)

There were a couple of new whinchats in the usual corner at Kilminning late afternoon. One with a pale primaries almost like a stonechat: both looked like adults, and both were very wary. It has been a great summer for whinchats at Kilminning. The shyness of the yellow wagtails and the whinchats was compensated for by an in your face juvenile wheatear, perky and confident along the fence line.

The juvenile wheatear at Kilminning this afternoon

Posted August 15, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 14th   Leave a comment

I feel that I have been working hard the last two days – perhaps 5 hours in total at Kilminning looking for potential migrants that might have come in on the easterlies of the last few days. Even so if there was a greenish warbler and it wasn’t calling I could easily have missed it. There are lots of willow warblers at Kilminning now, you can hear them calling everywhere, but I have hardly seen any of them without deliberately trying to track down a calling individual. And never mind barred warblers that are real skulkers and hardly ever call. Still you have to buy a lottery ticket to win, and sooner or later I will get lucky. The conditions are continuing fairly good over the next few days so I will keep trying. It hasn’t been entirely fruitless. There were three tree pipits in quick succession first thing this morning at upper Kilminning. And then I saw a ruff flying over. Ruffs turn up inland a lot, often in quite dry cow or horse fields, so it is not that unusual to see one around Crail away from the shore (although fairly unusual full stop with only one or two every year). It seemed like a good sign, but both of these species turn up in August even if we don’t have particularly good migrant conditions. Later in the afternoon a spotted flycatcher turned up at lower Kilminning. This is a better sign, and it wasn’t there in the morning. Spotted flycatchers, at least, are fairly conspicuous, and a few minutes at a site is enough to find one, if one is about. Hopefully more scarce migrants will turn up, and particularly with the rain showers forecast for Sunday and Monday.

Ruff (JA)

As I have been searching, I have been seeing lots of juvenile sparrowhawks. The nest at the top of Kilminning has fledged several chicks and they are now hunting in the area. It must be a major change for the local small birds as the density of sparrowhawks suddenly doubles or even triples. The juveniles might be less effective hunters but how is a young blue tit to know that? It still has to stop feeding to get into cover and out of the way, and then stay vigilant until the sparrowhawk leaves the area. It seemed like there was no time over the last two days when there wasn’t a sparrowhawk close by. At least it is warm, the days are still long and there are lots of insects about so feeding even in dense cover will be possible. Undoubtedly the sparrowhawks will have made any migrants harder to spot as well.

Newly fledged sparrowhawk – this one in John’s garden. At least two nests in Crail have fledged chicks this year so there are lots about in Crail gardens just now as well (JA)

Kittiwakes have been very common over the last week. Hundreds have been passing Crail every hour. At Sauchope today the gull roost was almost entirely kittiwakes. A mixture of adults, juveniles that are a few weeks out of the nest, and birds that fledged last year. Most of the kittiwakes have been heading east out of the Forth, but this afternoon they were passing Fife Ness to the west. We have huge flocks of kittiwakes a few kilometers off Fife Ness in August so perhaps these birds are just inshore at the moment rather than this being any kind of movement – the same thing as the gannets, moving locally back and forth.

Kittiwake – this one is one year old (JA)

Posted August 14, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 12th   Leave a comment

Sadly, despite rain yesterday and overnight and continuing easterlies, nothing much materialised. I went out to Kilminning yesterday afternoon and first thing this morning. Of note, there were juvenile willow warblers, a couple of redpolls and a cuckoo, although the willow warblers have been building up for the last two weeks regardless of the weather. The cuckoo did its usual thing of flying into the trees and disappearing: surprisingly it looked grey like an adult – they should all mostly be in Africa by now – rather than a juvenile. All in all, another Fife Ness disappointment – despite what looked like ideal conditions. It was interesting that nothing new appeared on the May Island and some of the rarities that turned up there yesterday have already gone. Something odd happened last night: perhaps because the rain was thunderstorms and so patchy rather than a solid front? There was a steady passage of sand martins and barn swallows, heading east over Kilminning this morning that was nice to see. More sand martins than I have seen all summer in a few minutes. Sauchope was also good with a large roost of golden plover, perhaps as many as 150, in various stages of moult from full summer plumage to full winter plumage. There was a mixed roost of gulls and terns, including some adult kittiwakes. Now they have finished breeding they are much more often on the rocks hanging out with the other gulls, taking a brief break before heading out to sea for the whole winter.

Golden plover (JA)

Posted August 12, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 10th   Leave a comment

The wind is still easterly, although fairly light: migrants are appearing along the east coast and with a bit of luck and some rain tomorrow Wednesday is setting up nicely. I spent an hour sea-watching at Fife Ness late afternoon. It’s still a bit early to search places like Kilminning, although I had a quick look for a barred warbler on my way home. The sea was moderately good. I had a juvenile little gull feeding with a flock of juvenile kittiwakes right in front of me for the hour. It was instructive to compare their plumages – superficially similar but quite different. At a distance one of the best features was the white secondaries, making much more of a contrasting patch than on a kittiwake, being bordered by dirty brown in front, a greyish line at the back and the black primaries. On kittiwakes, although they have the same white patch, this extends into the primaries and right to the back of the wing so it is much less of a feature. The head and mantle on a little gull also looks dirtier, with smudged grey on the crown and behind the eye. Overall, it makes them a bit darker and contrasting, and less clean looking. In a kittiwake flock though this is all a bit technical. Little gulls live up to their name and stand out simply because they are about two thirds the size of a kittiwake. The other highlight was my first arctic skua of the year, an immaculately plumaged, adult pale phase bird, cruising past heading north and half-heartedly worrying the kittiwakes for half a minute. I think the kittiwakes, and the little gull, were not feeding on fish – instead on something small picked from the surface and not worth the skua’s time to steal. A few manx shearwater, puffins and a flock of fledged razorbills rounded off my best sea watching session this autumn, and it will only get better.

Little gull and kittiwake juveniles. The little gull is a late winter bird but not far off the plumage of the bird today – just add more brownish feathers at the bottom and top of the back. But compare the secondary panel contrast in both birds – little gulls have a distinct white patch, whereas in kittiwakes it is more the whole wing. (JA)

Posted August 10, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 9th   Leave a comment

The wind was easterly today and will be for the most of next week, with rain showers forecast on Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s slightly early but could bring some scarcer migrants. Things are already beginning to appear, with a tree pipit over at the sheep field at Third Part (although no yellow wagtails there – last August they congregated in the equivalent field), and then two whinchats at Troustie House. This is always a good spot for August whinchats, with its more scrubby field edges and bits of grassland. I suspect there were many more whinchats in the middle of the larger wheat fields. Fence lines are quick to check, but whinchats in the crop, even when perched at the top of it, are much harder to spot. Tree pipits are also very hard to spot because there are meadow pipits everywhere, and without a very good view you can’t tell them apart. If tree pipits call, of course, they give themselves away. I have probably only initially picked up a couple of tree pipits on sight around Crail. The great majority are by their distinctive flight call. As I checked the fields I picked up several corn buntings although it is too late to map their territories. Even so some were still singing and one at Sypsies was behaving like it still had an active nest in a field of ripening wheat. Such late nests run the danger of being squashed during harvesting.

A corn bunting at Sypsies keeping a close eye on me and its nest down in the crop

I sea watched at Fife Ness mid-morning. Slightly disappointing with only a couple of manx shearwaters. There were more reports of cory’s shearwaters in the inner Forth today so one passing Fife Ness any day soon is a real possibility. The highlight was a near adult plumage Mediterranean gull passing right over my head as I sat on the rocks as close the waters’ edge as I could get. Balcomie Beach was relatively quiet with only a handful of people on it and very few waders as well: a couple of dunlin and a ringed plover to add to the now ever present redshanks (and discounting the oystercatchers which are always there, any day, any season and any weather condition).

One of the Balcomie Beach oystercatchers that rarely get a mention because they are always there, which is the shame because they have everything going for them (JA)

Posted August 9, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 8th   1 comment

I was at the mouth of the Kenly Burn just after lunch today. It is a great spot to sit and birdwatch: conspicuous birds and enough of them that when you have finished checking them out you can start again with a reasonable expectation of finding something new. There were about 130 canada goose. It’s now a summer usual for a big flock to spend July and August moulting there. They commute from the burn, where they roost, to feed in the newly appearing stubble fields nearby. There was a mute swan with them, perhaps one of the resident birds there. It was feeding quite happily in the sea among the gulls. There are always a good lot of gulls at the burn mouth, bathing and then preening or roosting afterwards on the rock. Today it was mostly herring and black-headed gulls with a few common and great and lesser black-backed gulls. Wader wise there was a flock of about 100 lapwing, some redshanks, 3 common sandpiper, a couple of whimbrel, a knot and a lot of oystercatchers, also using the burn for a bath. I heard a distinctive “chew-it” call – but sadly only once. If I had been in Norfolk I would have added a spotted redshank to the list, but in Fife it is a very rare bird – only one on my Crail list in nearly 18 years. My rule is to hear a call properly at least twice if you don’t see the bird. Passing by, at sea, there was a steady passage of sandwich terns and my first couple of fledged common terns of the year.

Canada geese and the mute swan at the mouth of Kenly Water this afternoon

Yesterday at Kilminning I couldn’t find any of the whinchats so they may have, indeed, moved on after the oat field was harvested. But I did find an adult whinchat flycatching from the powerlines over the field at the east end of Crail behind Sauchope. It was perched in the usual position that the corn bunting sings from that I can see from my house (if I climb onto the roof with a telescope…). I had a brief fantasy of cycling full speed home, clambering to the top of my house and adding whinchat to my garden list. Common sense prevailed and I just sat and enjoyed one of my favourite migrants as is. Whinchats are great flycatchers and when on the non-breeding grounds they usually spend the last hour of the day flycatching from the top of big bushes.

Posted August 8, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 6th   1 comment

It is hard to judge quite what is passing through Balcomie Beach at the moment. There have been more people on it than I have ever seen before and there is no space for waders except around the edges. At low tide it barely matters because the rocky shore is huge and mostly undisturbed. But at high tide the opportunity to see the waders along the tide edge is gone apart from the tolerant flock of mostly juvenile dunlin. Most waders are roosting at high tide so the disturbance is probably not a big issue for them then either, just for me as some of the scarcer late summer species miss out a stopover on the beach. There are plenty of whimbrels though. I watched a flock of five flying south slowly along the coast at about fifty meters height, whistling continuously. Birds roosting on the rocky shore whistled back and flew up to join the flock until there was a flock of nine flying over Fife Ness. I could hear their whistles long after they disappeared over the headland, and I should think the flock was picking up more birds as it passed Crail.

A whimbrel passing Fife Ness (JA)

Posted August 6, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 5th   3 comments

The conditions were perfect this evening for looking for whales and dolphins, and the warden on the May reported two minke whales earlier today. I sat on Castle Walk for an hour looking at the flat calm sea, trying my luck. Minke whales tend to come to you – you happen to be watching a bit of sea and then one surfaces. A couple of seconds of a long rolling back with a relatively small looking dorsal fin and then it’s gone. I got lucky twice in the hour, and all in the first five minutes. The rest of the time I was looking in the wrong spot: lots of the usual seabirds and a couple of manx shearwaters. Even so I knew it was there and knowing there is a whale cruising by your house is quite a wonderful thing. August is the best month to see minke whales from Crail or Fife Ness but it still takes some luck.

Posted August 5, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 3rd   Leave a comment

They have been harvesting the field of oats at lower Kilminning today. When I got there at 7 this evening there were only a couple of tufty bits left uncut, in the field corner that used to be scrubby grass before the field was improved last year. Sure enough there were four whinchats using the only available perch left in the field to launch their sallies from. It was a familiar sight. In Nigeria, whinchats use all types of agricultural land and at the start of the dry season when they arrive in September there are uncut maize fields everywhere. They settle among the tall stems, but sooner or later these get cut down or burnt leaving only a few stumps and open ground. The whinchats stay put even though the habitat has changed completely. I think their trick is that they eat anything insect wise from ants to butterflies, and as long as they have some kind of perch to gain a vantage point, then they are happy in any kind of grassy vegetation. It will be interesting to see whether this hastens their departure from Kilminning though. Unlike wintering birds in Nigeria, these individuals haven’t already got to approximately their final destination, and also need to have a very good feeding rate to build up fat reserves for their migration. A whinchat in Nigeria has a mass of 14 grams whereas a whinchat pre-migration has a mass of 28 grams. They double their body weight and then set off on a potentially 3,000 km flight, with only a few hours off each day, for 3 days and nights. After that they will be back to 15 grams or so and it will take them a week or ten days to refuel to do the same again – and then they will have arrived back home in West Africa. Whinchats really impress me – superb generalists and superb migrants.

One of the Kilminning whinchats this evening making do with the only perch left in the the field after harvesting

Posted August 3, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings