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

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