Archive for September 2020

September 28th   Leave a comment

It’s still wall to wall little gulls even if the sooty shearwaters have moved on. Scanning out from Crail this evening I could count at least fifty feeding in small flocks, some drifting east and others west. A great northern diver lumbered overhead heading towards the North Sea, its big paddle feet sticking out as much as its head. Late September is about the best time to see them here. They tend to fly thirty meters or so above the sea when they are on their way somewhere, with a steady labouriousness that speaks of flying hundreds of kilometers in a day.

A great northern diver passing Fife Ness on September 27th 2007, but they pass every September (JA)

Posted September 28, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 26th   Leave a comment

The last two days have brought hundreds of sooty shearwaters and little gulls past Crail and Fife Ness. The wind has been a strong north-easterly, making it unseasonally cold at Fife Ness, but good for the shearwaters. The sooty shearwaters have been mostly far out, breaking the horizon in big arcs, travelling very fast even though they are all heading north. There were several hundred counted in a few hours yesterday, and then the same today. I counted about one every minute past Crail, heading east before they will have turned north when they got out of the Forth. Little gulls were also passing in big numbers but they are much harder to count. They hang around a bit and go back and forth, feeding as they go rather than just travelling at top speed like the shearwaters. Surprisingly, there was little else passing. There were kittiwakes, but mostly very far out and only really identifiable as clouds of gulls at the horizon. Gannets everywhere of course and lots of juveniles, looking themselves like shearwaters with the wind strong enough for them to be able to do the same kind of dynamic, circular gliding to tack into the wind.

the two stars of the show – sooty shearwater (JA)
and little gull (JA)

Sea watching is the social side of bird watching. Usually being in a noisy, social group is not very compatible with seeing anything but when your birds are passing at several hundreds of meters – even kilometers – away, then it really doesn’t matter. And the other unusual thing about sea watching is the time machine effect. Usually if you are birding and see something unusual, it is only a quick glimpse and then it is gone. There is little chance to share your sighting and it’s not really your priority when you only have a few seconds to spare. There is only the moment. But when sea watching you have a time machine. Seabirds pass at distance and from a headland like Fife Ness you can easily scan about 100 degrees. Even a fast bird like a sooty shearwater will take minutes to pass by. Someone looking south towards the May Island can pick up an interesting bird and shout out as loud as they want to attract the other watchers’ attention. All you have to do, if you haven’t seen it, is to look into the future, a few degrees in front of where the first observer is still looking (by the angle of their telescope). Then move your own telescope back until the seabird flies through your field of view. True, waves can get in the way and you might misjudge the angle, but you just repeat further forward in time until you get it right. If you are looking north when most are looking south, and the birds are heading north, then you get to see everything that was seen by the others a few minutes ago. An instant replay, and a good way to learn as you listen to the running commentary of the other observers. And of course, you might get that rebel seabird heading south to scoop the others. Sea watching is a great team effort. You spot so much more with more observers, and often identification is difficult, so several opinions and perspectives can really help. This builds camaraderie amongst birders in a way that almost nothing else does. I think for some sea watchers it might be the same as for some coarse fishermen – it’s the company and the chat that is the attraction.

Knot (JA)

And so it was yesterday afternoon. A line of five of us in the lee of the hide (two meters apart in a gale so fairly socially distanced) shouting each sooty shearwater out and working as hard as we could to up the ante and spot something even more unusual. A team effort to get the highest day total of these fantastic birds as possible. After about an hour I left them to it and headed down onto the rocks where John Anderson was sitting, in his usual spot, fully exposed at the water’s edge to get that bit closer. As I approached he turned round and started mouthing “get down, get down”. There were 8 knot in a tight little flock barely eight meters from John. I had seen this flock arrive about thirty minutes ago but lost sight of them and had forgotten about them. John was already in place and suddenly had them trotting by at nearly arm’s length. A group of juveniles, probably fresh from the Arctic, and John may have been the first human they have seen. Or they were just too tired, and the wind too strong to much care about anything apart from getting some feeding done. They didn’t react to me or my dog and I sat down besides John to take some photos. It was a great experience to end the afternoon with – sitting right next to some wild birds that you usually only see at a distance, so close you could almost see your own reflection in their eyes. And the final icing on the cake. The north-easterly to jet propel me on my bike back to Crail.

John in his natural habitat with the knot to the right
Knot (JA)

Posted September 26, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 24th   Leave a comment

Some easterlies today but apart from a blackcap at Kilminning I didn’t find anything that had been brought in. A speckled wood butterfly was a highlight. They are getting commoner every summer but they are still unusual in this bit of Fife.

Speckled wood butterfly at upper Kilminning

The sea picked up during the afternoon, with manx shearwaters and a couple of arctic skuas past Fife Ness. There were a lot of kittiwakes passing and also out in big feeding rafts at the horizon. Mixed in with them were little gulls – some were passing too: it’s hard to assess their numbers, but there are probably hundreds visible from Fife Ness at the moment. Only one sandwich tern past, a few red-throated divers and one of the first red-breasted mergansers of the winter instead of the usual goosanders. On the way back I found a pink-footed goose sitting on the edge of the golf course. Hopefully just having a rest rather than on its last legs although it let me get within a few meters.

Pink-footed goose – you can see its serrated bill edge

Posted September 24, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 22nd   Leave a comment

There was a grey plover on Balcomie Beach with the dunlins. A subtly spotted and striped juvenile. There are usually one or two grey plover that winter between Balcomie and Kenly, although I suspect this is a bird passing through like the ruff of Sunday. There was another ruff at Sauchope – it didn’t look like the same bird – greyer legs and a much less rufous tinge to the fringes of its back feathers. But it was a grey afternoon in contrast to Sunday’s sunshine. Today’s bird was feeding on a mat of rotting seaweed floating on the water’s edge, almost walking on the water like a jacana. While I was sat watching the ruff I got a text from John at Fife Ness where I had seen him about thirty minutes earlier. An otter, fishing right in front of him. There have been several sightings of otters at Fife Ness this summer. Sooner or later I will get lucky too, but I think my dog might make it later.

The grey plover on Balcomie beach – distant but slightly surreal
Ruff number 2 (?) at Sauchope

Posted September 22, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 20th   Leave a comment

A flat sea again, with no waves breaking except on the shore. The swell was enough to hide a passing gannet though. It made spotting things easy again. I cycled alongside a pod of about 15 bottle-nose dolphins from Roome Bay to Kilminning, just beating them to Kilminning Castle which I climbed to get a good view of them leaping out of the water. There seemed to be a young one (half adult size) that was jumping out into the air and then inspiring some of the adults to do the same. Out to sea there were a lot of little gulls on the water and a single great skua passed. At Kilminning itself there was a blackcap on the elderberries and a flock of 8 redpoll flying over and calling. There was a little rain last night but the winds are all over the place rather than steadily easterly so I don’t think anything new came in.

I seawatched at Fife Ness for nearly an hour. Another great skua, hundreds of little gulls (mostly far out in feeding rafts with kittiwakes), a couple of red-throated divers, 6 manx shearwaters and an immature or mostly winter plumage black guillemot. It’s been a few years since I have seen a black guillemot for the Crail list. There seems to always be one or two around most years but you have to get lucky to see one. They always stand out a mile when you see one fly past with their big white ovals on their black wings and speckled plumage, contrasting with the uniform black upper and white lower of the other auk species.

Red-throated diver passing Fife Ness (JA)

I went back out mid afternoon on getting the news that a couple of yellow-browed warblers had been found at Craighead cottages. I had been looking for yellow brows earlier. Even the whiff of an easterly late September seems to bring in a yellow-browed warbler. It’s just a matter of how many. When I started birding forty years ago they were a much much rarer bird. I’m not surprised I missed these two at Craighead. I had a quick look there this morning but obviously not hard enough. Even though I knew that two had been seen only an hour before it took me fifteen minutes before I heard a call and then another five before I saw one of them. At the same time I heard a second bird call from nearby. In total, in 45 minutes, I only heard three calls and saw a yellow-browed warbler for a couple of minutes, and never very well. They were very busy, constantly on the move, feeding very fast, and changing bushes all the time. It was hard to keep track of them. When I did get to see one, it was worth it as always. There is something sculpted about a yellow-brow after a summer of willow warblers. The eyestripe and wing bar are like strips of bright felt stuck onto the bird rather than just a paler patch. Their black edging makes them even more contrasting. But their obviousness is only so when you are looking directly at them. You glimpse their crisp stripeyness and then they are gone to another part of the canopy. And when you don’t know where they are the stripes are perfect camouflage. It’s a great game of hide and seek that only gets a bit easier as the leaves start to fall later in October. Or when they call. I hope we have a good yellow-brow in season. In some autumns I have seen over 30, in others only a handful. But autumn has properly started now.

Yellow-browed warbler (JA)

Posted September 20, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 19th   Leave a comment

Pied flycatcher wintering habitat in Liberia. The flycatcher below is in the central tall tree with barely any leaves. Not so different from Kilminning.

Third time lucky with a pied flycatcher today. I connected with one at the top of Kilminning this morning – again it was wasn’t seen by anyone after lunchtime, so another short stayer. I picked it up at the top of an ash tree along the road. My last pied flycatcher this year was in Liberia on January 17th. On top of a tall emergent rain forest tree, forty meters above the ground above a burnt clearing. Structurally identical to Kilminning, if a bit warmer. Being a migrant is all about variations on a theme: different places but the same mix of vegetation. As long as there are insects. The bird today may well be on its way to Liberia. The sense of connection with far off places on the planet when I see a migrant is part of their appeal to me. As is their here today and gone tomorrow nature, but always there to look forward to again next spring. The pied flycatcher was about it for migrants apart from lost more skylarks coming in. I walked across a few stubble fields putting up tens of skylarks in each. I was hoping for a Lapland bunting. It really should be lapland in the stubble rather than a needle in a haystack. Lapland buntings come in on the easterlies with the skylarks in September although they are more likely later in the winter. Fife Ness was beautiful this morning – a slice of Mediterranean blue – but quiet. A few wigeon passing and a string of little gulls, about 40, spread out on the water in the middle distance.

My last pied flycatcher in Liberia
One of the 2-3 pied flycatchers at Kilminning this week – it may well be on its way to Liberia (JA)

I did the full Wormiston, Balcomie loop in the afternoon. Trying some more stubble fields and the yellow house at Wormiston where I’m sure there will have been a flycatcher hiding. It’s a shame you can’t go into the garden. It was high tide when I got to the shore. Lots of mallards and a few teal with the roosting herring and black-headed gulls. On the beach there were about 70 dunlin, some ringed plover, redshank and a juvenile ruff. The first one this year on the ground and close. Balcomie Beach is still busy with people but the waders kept dodging round them, even at high tide. But it made getting close to them a matter of luck. As I cycled back to Crail I saw my first barn swallows of the day. They have been slipping away all week. I think the house martins have done the same.

The ruff on Balcomie Beach this afternoon. You can see their odd shape in these photos, almost rail like in proportions.

Posted September 19, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 18th   Leave a comment

My bad luck with pied flycatchers continued today. A second bird was seen at Kilminning at lunchtime but it wasn’t there later in the afternoon. Like yesterday’s bird it was back on its way after only a short stop. The weather has been perfect for migration over the last couple of days. Many migrants, when the conditions are good and they are not crossing a barrier like the sea or a desert, fly overnight and might make only a few hours stop the next day before starting off again. I’ve tracked whinchats that apparently make a continuous two week flight from West Africa to eastern Europe. They must stop to feed, but never for very long. Many do stop on the way for much longer – with clear stop-over sites, particularly after and before barriers, or coincident with headwinds or bad weather. Nothing like the present conditions. That said, the garden warbler was still at lower Kilminning feeding on the elderberries just as two days ago, making a more protracted stay. There’s always an exception. Other migrants were coming in today: skylarks in small flocks arriving from the sea and there were two chiff-chaffs at Kilminning that probably weren’t there yesterday. The light easterlies are continuing so more interesting migrants should appear over the weekend, but again no rain is forecast so they won’t be that common or stay that long.

Garden warbler (JA)

Posted September 18, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 17th   Leave a comment

And then back to calm again. A bright day with the wind dying down to a light westerly by the evening. There were a few new migrants. A pied flycatcher at Kilminning which I missed, but I did have my first two fieldfares of the winter as I searched. It’s always nice to hear their grumpy chacking as they arrive for the winter. There were more pink-footed geese coming in, with flocks passing over Crail most of the day. None of the flocks have been particularly large yet. At the Patch at Fife Ness I found a spotted flycatcher, a couple of siskins and had a common snipe flying over. And another migrant – a very tattered painted lady butterfly. My first of the year to contrast with the invasion of last when I had hundreds by August.

A fieldfare, fresh in from Scandinavia this lunchtime at Kilminning, and with plenty of whitebeam berries ready for it
The tattered painted lady in the Patch this morning

Posted September 17, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 16th   Leave a comment

The last two days have been a complete contrast. Yesterday was the second day without any wind and the sea became flat calm that the only ripples on the Forth were from the fishing boats. There was a slight haze so the horizon disappeared: all the birds and the boats on the water appeared to be floating in the sky. It was a perfect evening for seeing anything at sea. Scanning from Crail you could see seals everywhere, their backs and heads breaking the surface as they swam along, but because there was absolutely no scale they looked like otters or beavers or even water voles. It was quite surreal. I sat in Roome Bay at dusk and you could hear people talking from the other end of Crail, and the even the pipping of the house martins too high up to see. The wind is so constant on the coast that when it truly disappears it transforms everything. The evening was topped off with a female merlin, passing by in the half-light over the rocky shore.

Today was completely different. A frantic easterly breeze and seabirds – red throated divers most noticeably up in number from normal – scurrying past over the white horses. I tried my luck at Kilminning first thing, although without some rain a brief spell of easterlies is unlikely to amount to much. And so it was, perhaps some new willow warblers, goldcrests and a single garden warbler feeding on the elderberries in the barred warbler spot. Most noticeable was the large number of robins ticking away from the trees along the Fife Ness road and along the shore. They have started coming in – the first real winter songbird migrants. There will be a lot of fighting over the next few weeks as the resident robins put the onslaught of continental birds in their place.

The garden warbler this morning at lower Kilminning – it was a dark morning everything is a bit fuzzy
The antidote to my garden warbler photo – a Crail robin. Might be a resident, might be a migrant here for the winter (JA)

Posted September 16, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 13th   Leave a comment

The holding pattern continues, but with a small hope of some change on Wednesday with an easterly forecast. But this weekend was much as last weekend. About 60 dunlin and 40 ringed plover on Balcomie Beach, still with the lone sanderling, like a bit of quartz among the pebbles. And the single bar-tailed godwit, although others were passing Fife Ness. Sea watching there on Sunday morning for an hour turned up one sooty shearwater and one manx shearwater, both heading north, and only two sandwich terns. Intriguingly I picked up two waders far out passing between me and the May island, heading into the Forth. Small and ruff like without wing bars they strongly suggested buff-breasted sandpipers, but I couldn’t pick up the dark mark on the underwing that would have clinched the identification. Probably wishful thinking – they were a long way out. The small flock of knot is still present on the flat weedy low tide rocks just in front of the hide.

Knot at Fife Ness (JA)

Yesterday I tried to change the scene a bit with a trip to Kilrenny, hoping for a black guillemot. More dunlin, a lot of redshank and lapwing, but a single greenshank was nice to see. It’s a good spot there for a wintering bird so I hope it stays. There was a single wheatear on the beach – it has been a very good autumn for them and I have been seeing some every trip out for the last few weeks.

Lapwing at Kilrenny yesterday – showing why one of its names is green plover

Posted September 13, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 11th   Leave a comment

I was hoping by predicting that that the winds were going to stay the same, that it would guarantee and instant onset of easterlies. Clearly no-one was listening. The wind continues westerly, almost gale force this afternoon. Yesterday, at least, I had my first pink-footed geese. A flock passing over St Andrews in the morning, heading for the Firth of Forth and the Lothians. Today, though, was more of the same: dunlins, ringed plover and a bar-tailed godwit on Balcomie Beach; some knots on the rocks. A couple of sandwich terns at sea. An ever diminishing pool of swallows around the airfield.

Dunlin at Balcomie (JA)

Posted September 11, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 9th   Leave a comment

Everything is staying much the same this week. I was down on Balcomie Beach at mid-tide this afternoon: still 40 or 50 dunlin, twenty ringed plover, one sanderling and three bar-tailed godwits. There were two white wagtails among the many pieds at the strandline, and then only pied wagtails at Sauchope later. There are still wheatears all along the rocky shore. I think a lot of the swallows have gone in the last week. There are still lots about, but in flocks in odd places that suggest that they might be migratory parties stopping for a feed. There is no real sign of any change in the prevailing settled westerlies, so this may turn out to be a very quiet September.

One of the three bar-tailed godwits on Balcomie Beach this afternoon

Posted September 9, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 6th   Leave a comment

With all the meadow pipits and the white wagtails, perhaps it is not a surprise that there are also some wheatears passing through. I had six at Balcomie and another two on the runway next to Kilminning this afternoon. The juveniles are all now in their first winter plumage, showing oranges and buffs.

First winter wheatear on Balcomie Beach

There were still white wagtails about today. One to three at Balcomie and another two on the east-most beach at Sauchope. I read yesterday that the pattern of moult is a good guide because white wagtails have moulted by August whereas pieds drag on through September. The result is that juvenile pieds look scrappy, messy and even a bit downy, compared to pristine and neat whites. It seemed to work well today, particularly for getting the paler grey backed, and paler greyish flanked juvenile pieds right.

White wagtail at Sauchope

As I watched the wagtails at Sauchope, a female sparrowhawk flew down from the airfield to land on the rocks at the east end of the beach. After the initial alarm and chaos of starlings, wagtails and some of the waders departing as it arrived, a few birds drifted back to the other side of the bay. The sparrowhawk, instead of launching itself directly at the turnstone and redshank about 75 meters away, flew back up to the airfield. I forgot about it and returned my attention to the wagtails that were also now drifting back to the beach. One minute later though the sparrowhawk was back, this time attacking from the west side of the beach, using the chalets as cover. It had clearly been scoping out where everything was on its first visit. Despite a five star rapid and covert second approach it didn’t come close. There were just too many birds on the beach and it was spotted even before it came over the tideline. The sparrowhawk sat on the rocks again afterwards to recover its pride before a couple of carrion crows rapidly saw it off the premises. If the sparrowhawk had caught something it would have had a job holding on to it. There is massive safety in numbers on the rocky shore at the moment. I am seeing sparrowhawks hunting on the shore every time I am out – I watched another series of hunts on dunlins at the north end of Balcomie Beach just an hour earlier (also brought to a close by crows). But I am not seeing any kills.

And the sparrowhawk scoping out the wagtail beach at Sauchope a few minutes later

Posted September 6, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 5th   Leave a comment

There has been a lot of meadow pipit passage over the last couple of days. It is really noticeable from about 6 until 9 in the morning. Yesterday particularly – there were drifts of meadow pipits flying over the fields between Crail and St Andrews, heading westward. This morning I could hear them constantly passing over Crail in small groups. The other passage news is the return of the white wagtails. They have sneaked in sometime over the last few days. Today I saw at least 6 between Balcomie and Sauchope, and I think I would have seen more if I had been properly paying attention. I saw a clean, pale wagtail at Balcomie and thought it might be a white wagtail. I then discounted it because I kept on seeing similar birds: too many for them not to be just juvenile pied wagtails. But the penny dropped when I got to Sauchope and had a mixed flock of pieds (all ages and plumages) and a couple more stand out white wagtails. The key features were all there to be noticed when I actually looked closely: the pure white flanks and neat pale grey breast sides in contrast, the neat black line across the upper breast, the pale grey upperparts from crown top to the bottom of the rump. It all makes sense: the pink-footed geese from Iceland migrated early last week, and the migration conditions would also have suited white wagtails up there. The meadow pipits are probably coming from Iceland as well.

A white wagtail at Balcomie and another at Sauchope today.

Otherwise it was the same passage waders as the last few days at Balcomie. Knot, dunlin, ringed plover, turnstone and the single bar-tailed godwit. I saw a single dark phase artic skua far out to sea from Fife Ness. It was an instructive sighting. I am always on the look out for long range features, and after the long-tails last week under similar circumstances, another penny dropped. Arctic skuas, and certainly the juveniles, have the bit behind the wings (i.e. lower back and tail) that is the same length and size roughly as the head. Long-tails have a longer back end, quite noticeably so, than the front end. Flying backwards a long-tailed skua might look like a duck, whereas an arctic would just look like pretty much the same. Kilminning remains very quiet, although a common whitethroat popped up out of the grass to retreat into a nearby bush.

Arctic skua – head=tail. Compare it to the long-tailed skua posted on Aug 27th where head < tail (JA)

Posted September 5, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 3rd   Leave a comment

Another quiet couple of days. Kilminning has lost most of its willow warblers and whitethroats have become scarce. Barely anything is passing at sea of note except sandwich terns and the still occasional newly fledged gannet. Balcomie Beach had a bar-tailed godwit and over 50 dunlin yesterday, but then only four dunlin today near to high tide. There are still about 10-20 knot on the rocks at Fife Ness and roosting on the small rocky island behind Stinky Pool where the shags congregate. There is usually a good wader roost on that island at high tide but it is hard to see the waders and anything on the sea side will go undetected. When a grey heron arrives and spooks everything you suddenly realise that you can only see about 10% of the waders roosting there. A common sandpiper on the rocks between Kilminning and Sauchope was the best bird today. Yesterday it was two common swifts beating into the wind over Fife Ness after a bit of feeding above the Patch. They will be far south today.

One of the knot at Fife Ness (JA)

Posted September 3, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 1st   Leave a comment

The wind is firmly back in the south west and the weather has improved for people – warmer and dryer – but it has taken the edge of the autumn. The sea was flat calm today with little passing except sandwich and common terns. A real contrast to last week. At Balcomie Beach there were so few waves that the incoming tide just pushed the seaweed up the beach like a broom, resulting in a dam that kept the sea at bay. I felt like a Dutchman walking along the beach behind the seaweed, a meter below sea level. Four dunlin and two ringed plover made use of the dam for a roost, but there was little else on the beach. At Fife Ness there are still fairly ragged looking, moulting golden plover roosting on the rocks at high tide. You suddenly notice a head popping up and realise that there are quite a few there, perfectly camouflaged.

Golden plover (JA)

Posted September 1, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

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