Archive for October 2020

October 31st   Leave a comment

It’s been a gale all day, with a strong southerly wind pushing the remaining gannets close to Crail as they pass. I watched for late skuas a couple of times today but apart from kittiwakes and guillemots little was passing. It was a wild sea so exciting to watch regardless. I walked along the coast towards Anstruther in the afternoon as far as Caiplie. There were fieldfares coming in from the sea the whole walk. It was the same yesterday and the day before. Small flocks passing over Crail, heading inland, here for another winter. I watched a couple of cormorants on the rocks trying to dry their wings. Their solid work in flapping their wings to shake the water off was undone by every other wave. They gave up and dived back into the spume. Roome Bay mid-afternoon was at high tide and so full of herring and black-headed gulls, redshanks and turnstones. I saw three of my colour-ringed redshanks, two now ten years old, among the 40 others. It’s always cheering to see the marked individuals back again each winter, like old friends, but each year there are inevitably fewer.

One of the fieldfares just in from Scandinavia today, having a quick break at West Braes before heading inland
Cormorants trying to dry their wings in the sea spray

Posted October 31, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 29th   Leave a comment

Kilminning felt quite wintery today. There are barely any goldcrests and no sign of the long-tailed tits, with just the occasional redwing and mistle thrush that might be a migrant. There was one tree sparrow flying around chipping plaintively in search of some pals: the large dispersing flocks seem to have finally gone on their way. I wonder if any were brave enough to cross the North Sea. There were bullfinches at both the top and bottom of Kilminning. At this time of year we sometimes get northern bullfinches turning up, potentially from as far away as Russia. They are larger and have a deeper toy trumpet call. No sign of this in the buffinches today but it does seem like they might be possible migrants. They are not usually resident at Kilminning, although I might expect these birds to stay for the winter.

Male bullfinch (JA)

Posted October 29, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 27th   Leave a comment

Yesterday lunchtime John Anderson found a red-backed shrike at Upper Kilminning. He phoned me just as I had started a four hour teaching session so there was no chance of seeing it that day. There was some nail biting on my part because although red-backed shrikes are worth seeing, at this time of year “red-backed” shrikes are much more likely to be one of the sister species from Central Asia, which are very rare indeed. It turned out to be “just” a red-backed shrike, so I could relax a bit, especially as when finishing work at five there was no light left to see it with the clocks going back over the weekend. Anyway, there was rain and mostly cloud overnight so there was a reasonable chance of it staying put. Sure enough, this morning I saw it about 7:30 in the sycamores at Kilminning where it was found the day before. A very obliging bird, catching flies and large insects (I saw it eating a wasp) along the edge of the trees and frequently perching on dead branches in full view. Sometimes a late or early season shrike can behave like a large warbler, staying in cover because there are no flying insects to catch. I was glad of the opportunity to think about late season red-backed shrikes and what you need to see on them to identify them. Like most things, not too tricky when you know how, but without any experience a bit daunting. Once again, having photos makes it easy. The shrike was about all day today and may well be here tomorrow. Best seen along the trees on the west side of the road down to lower Kilminning, about 50 meters from the entrance, where there is an open grassy area between the road and the largest area of tarmac.

In context
And to enjoy (JA)

Posted October 27, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 25th   Leave a comment

During the autumn and winter we have two different types of pipit on the rocky shore around Crail: rock and meadow pipits. One is supposed to like rocky shores and the other meadows, but they both feed side by side in places like Roome Bay, Fife Ness and Balcomie. Habitat is not very helpful as an identification feature, although you will hardly ever see a rock pipit away from the shore. But they can be easily distinguished even though they are superficially very similar. And they are good species pair to build up your birding confidence with. You just need to run through a quick mental check list when you see a pipit on the shore: grey or brownish, definite streaking or not, dark or pale legs. After a bit of practice you assimilate all of these characters into one general impression so you can do it without thinking. Then it’s off to learning the next similar species pair: like cormorants and shags, arctic and common terns, chiffchaffs and willow warblers. There’s always another one to master whatever your level: greenish versus arctic warbler for some, or mistle and song thrush for others. One step at a time. With 10,000 bird species (or 12,000 depending on how you split your species) there is always another challenge.

Rock and meadow pipit (JA)

Posted October 25, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 24th   Leave a comment

Despite a strong south-easterly wind for most of the day there wasn’t much passing at sea. More gannets, but most a long way out, kittiwakes, a couple of little gulls, common scoters and two goosander during sea watches from Crail and Fife Ness. There were three purple sandpipers on Balcomie Beach. One was unexpectedly on the sand with the dunlins and I only picked it up as it flew away from me giving its swallow like “zwick” call. Structurally purple sandpipers are very similar to dunlin, and both can swop habitat, although you see more dunlins picking around on rocks by the surf than purps  on the mud.

Purple sandpiper on Balcomie Beach this afternoon ; I tried to get a photo of the one on the sand, but it was much more wary than this pair in their element

Posted October 24, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 22nd   Leave a comment

As I cycled out of Crail towards Fife Ness this lunchtime I noticed the wind was against me. Sadly, just a bit of north-easterly swirling around a weather front rather than a pathway from Europe. There were a few things about at Kilminning and the Patch: redwings, redpolls and a few blackcaps. No long-tailed tits though. There were several flocks reported yesterday and I have seen a few in the last week. They must have all been migrants that have now moved further inland. Another absence today was the gannets. They will be leaving us over the next month. I scanned the horizon today and only saw two: they will be further out rather than gone just yet, but typically I can count hundreds in a scan. It always feels wrong when there are no gannets passing Fife Ness, but winter is coming. They are only really absent for December and January. The highlight of my short trip out today was the big stubble field at the Balcomie end of Crail. As I passed, hundreds of skylarks flew up and started milling around. They kept at it in a swirling flock, like a loose starling murmuration. Then I saw the cause, a female merlin skirting around the edge of the field before flying up high and trying its luck stooping at a skylark and then a couple of linnets. I lost it over the airfield, still trying unsuccessfully to catch something. I left the skylarks still swirling, though now high up to stay safely above the merlin, some of them singing, just to let it know their invulnerability.

Gannet (JA). Off to the Bay of Biscay soon.

Posted October 22, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 20th   Leave a comment

One of the dangers of writing a blog – or any other bit of social media – is that you post only the highlights and give a misleading impression of wall to wall excitement. So to remedy this let me mention yesterday afternoon. I had been waiting all day for the rain to stop. In the end I headed out mid-afternoon to Roome Bay in a light drizzle hoping to reconnect with the Mediterranean gulls again. When I got there it was coming on to rain harder, but there were a lot of gulls again so I kept walking eastwards. It was all black-headed and herring gulls, and it always seemed that the next group a little further on would have something more interesting with it. The wind was behind me as well, so I really didn’t want to turn around anyway and face the now proper rain. I just kept going until I was nearly at Fife Ness, when the oncoming dusk made me rethink my strategy and make the turn back for home. I came back through Kilminning and some stubble fields, putting up tens of skylarks but again nothing more interesting. My feeling of virtue being rewarded was misplaced. I was out there but to little effect other than getting completely soaked. The dog was well walked, although I noticed she was reluctant to go out this morning when she saw it was raining again. Not every day is a birding blinder at Fife Ness.

But then you do get another go at it the next day. Better weather today and better birds. The rain cleared up by mid-morning and by lunchtime it was a lovely, sunny late autumn day. I heard the Siberian chiffchaff at the top of Kilminning a few times, but it stayed elusive in the tops of the sycamores. It has now been here at least 10 days. Thirty minutes later at the bottom of Kilminning I heard a Siberian chiffchaff again calling – a second bird, 900 meters away from where I last saw the first. This was a brighter bird than the top chiffchaff – still barely any greens or yellows, but a brighter buff and with a more marked supercilium, and without the very obvious brown ear coverts of the first bird. The call was another absolute classic Siberian chiffchaff, as good as the top Kilminning bird. Siberian chiffchaffs are never going to be split as a separate species, they intergrade all the way along from Siberia to the UK, but they are very distinctive and have come, well, from Siberia – another link from Crail to a far flung and exotic part of the world. Key to getting on to them is the sad, almost piping “sue”, single syllable call – sometimes quite loud and more strident than you might imagine.

Siberian chiffchaff – this one in January 2017 further down the coast in Fife (JA)

Two Siberian chiffchaffs is a good trip out by any standards. I also had a brambling in the top part of Kilminning, and some blackcaps in the lower part, a couple of common snipe and redpoll flying over, and best of all three barn swallows moving along the coast as fast as they ever go, although heading east. There is still life in the autumn yet.

By the way. I wrote a community land asset transfer for lower Kilminning during lockdown as part of the Crail Community Partnership’s aim to increase the wooded and wildlife habitat around Crail. Fife Council agreed with our case: that we would do a better job than them in looking after and rewilding the area. The land is ours – subject to final legal process – for the £1 I bid. But although the price of the return of land to the community was cheap, lawyers are not. And then we need to make a proper environmental plan to restore the land – to remove much of the tarmac (although leaving enough for access and parking), create a wetland and a more wooded, more biodiverse habitat. You know where this is going: if you have ever visited and enjoyed Kilminning then please donate to help us make a proper nature reserve. If you have only read about it in Wild Crail, please donate anyway, ready for when you do come and visit this already special place, that will I hope in twenty or thirty years be something really special.

One of Kilminning’s regular star turns – a barred warbler in Sept 2017 (JA). Elderberries for it now guaranteed forever !

Posted October 20, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 18th   2 comments

A still and grey day, with the wind dying down through the morning leaving an absolute flat calm from Crail to the May Island. I resumed my normal loop today rather than fixating on Kilminning. There were more skylarks coming in at Wormiston: there are hundreds in every stubble field now. On Balcomie beach there were 25 turnstones, 6 dunlin and the usual suspects – oystercatchers and redwings. I sat at Fife Ness for 30 minutes and enjoyed the peace. One kittiwake, a few common scoter and three far out auks were only thing going past apart from the gannets and shags. I did have two flocks of twite. One of five and the other of 15. The latter as if they had just come in from the sea. We probably have British and Scandinavian breeding twite spending the winter with us. There have been flocks reported from Boarhills to Fife Ness in the last week so we may be in for a good twite winter.

Twite (JA)

Upper Kilminning seemed a bit busier than yesterday. I spent a while trying to get good views of a flock of 6 redpoll feeding in the sycamore tops. They were clean and whiteish looking so may well have been Scandinavian birds. I had a distant glimpse of a chiffchaff while looking for the redpolls. It looked cold in tone too so may have been the Siberian chiffchaff again. A flock of 8 mistle thrush was around, feeding on the rowans but mostly flying around nervously like newly in migrants. They are very handsome thrushes – their spots underneath are much more even and widely distributed so they look much more spotted than song thrushes (see photo for Oct 12th below).

Migrant mistle thrush at Kilminning this morning

One of the real joys of living in Crail is that birds really are on my doorstep. I was cooking the Sunday dinner – very well organised and everything in the oven for an hour before tweaking required – when I got a message on the Fife Bird News WhatsApp group that there was a Mediterranean gull and a little gull in Roome Bay. Perfect timing and I jumped on my bike and was down with the gulls in three minutes. It was high tide, late afternoon with little beach left and there was a line of gulls – mostly black-headed – all along the surf. The path at Roome Bay is a few meters higher than the beach so it is a great place to see birds closely at high tide. If you stay on the path and don’t go down on to the beach, the birds are happy to ignore you even though you are only ten to twenty meters away. The Mediterranean gull was easy to spot – an adult, with pure white wings. After a minute it appeared to teleport down the beach: there was also a second adult. At various time times after a disturbance they paired up, but mostly they fed apart, picking up the seaweed maggots being washed out of the strand line wrack. Mediterranean gulls are a little bigger than black-headed gulls and the black-headed gulls gave way. I spent a happy twenty minutes trying to get a decent photo despite the fact that it was really too dark. Still it was a white bird against dark water so it could have been worse. The little gull had moved on but there was a juvenile kittiwake, a ton of herring gulls and all of the Crail resident redshanks and turnstones also taking part in the high tide feast. And then back to cooking without even a single burnt roast potato. Perhaps might have been a different story if they had been Sabine’s gulls.

Mediterranean gulls in Roome Bay this afternoon. Look for the white, not black wing tips, and the black shaded eye mask, rather than a black ear spot, to pick them out from black-headed gulls

Posted October 18, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 17th   Leave a comment

In birding terms, there has been a bit of a clear out over the last two days. The birds that came in mid-week have moved on and there has been little to replace them. One was a woodcock I saw coming in off the sea this morning during a brief seawatch. Its dashing, slightly wobbling flight over the North Sea over for another winter. To a bird that likes the dark and dense cover, to still be out over the sea at dawn must be an agoraphobic nightmare. It must be such a relief to see some cover ahead. But apart from the woodcock there was little about today. Only a few goldcrests left, no chiffchaffs or blackcaps, no redwings or great spotted woodpeckers. If felt like an average winter’s day rather than autumn. It is all in the wind and the rain patterns, and when they aren’t right then places like Kilminning are quiet. I struggled to find anything in the Patch that doesn’t live there year-round. Even Balcomie Beach was very quiet – only redshanks and gulls. I suppose this autumn is just averaging out.

A wren at Kilminning this morning – always a reliable resident to compensate for the migrants John and I didn’t find today (JA)

Posted October 17, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 15th   Leave a comment

I have been checked Kilminning, the Patch at Fife Ness and Denburn Wood today and yesterday in case the easterlies and rain have delivered. There are a lot of common migrants coming in steadily but nothing exceptional. The most unusual was a Siberian chiffchaff calling yesterday from the top of Kilminning, a perfect example of its characteristic sad call, repeated for about a minute but I couldn’t get a good look at it. That makes a perfect call and a perfect sighting, but sadly not simultaneously: anyway I’m happy that there is/was a Siberian chiffchaff at upper Kilminning, present on the 10th and the 14th, in the same group of trees, so I would think the same bird. In terms of common migrants, the thrushes are still coming in. Blackbirds, redwings, fieldfares, song thrushes and mistle thrushes. Not in spectacular numbers and surprisingly no ring ouzels to make the set. Warbler wise, some chiffchaffs, blackcaps and lots of goldcrests. There were a few brambling this morning. There were several great spotted woodpeckers at the Patch and Kilminning suggesting that they are coming in as migrants too: some without rings have been caught at Fife Ness this week. The few resident great spotted woodpeckers were caught a long time ago and already have rings on their legs. A jay was reported from Kilminning this afternoon. Another likely migrant coming in from Scandinavia because jays are rarer out at Fife Ness than red-breasted flycatchers. Despite not finding anything yet I still feel confident that there is something out there to find. I hope with a bit of time spent looking this weekend and some more birders coming down to help, we might still find another very good bird this autumn.

Great spotted woodpecker – there are more about Crail at the moment as migrants arrive from Europe (JA)

Posted October 15, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 13th   Leave a comment

The easterly winds are back, with rain overnight and yesterday. They are continuing for the rest of the week. I only managed to have a quick look at the sea just after dawn this morning from my house. With the strong north-easterly, everything was passing close in to Crail, sheltering as much as possible. I counted 500 auks passing in 4 minutes. They were mostly razorbills with a small proportion of guillemots. I watched for thirty minutes and they kept coming, making close to 4,000 coming by, all heading doggedly out of the Forth. There was a steady passage of sooty shearwaters, 19 in the half hour, and a few manx shearwaters. I should think there was a grey phalarope out there as well and I wish I had been watching from Fife Ness.

Razorbills (JA)

Posted October 13, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 12th   Leave a comment

A tight flock of 25 thrushes flew over my head along Kirkwynd and headed into Denburn late this afternoon. The rain had just stopped and they had obviously just come in off the sea. I glanced up at them expecting more redwings, but they had orange rather than red underwings – song thrushes. Because we have song thrushes in Crail all year round, it is easy to overlook song thrushes as migrants. But at this time of year, like the blackbirds and robins, most of the song thrushes around are in from Scandinavia for the winter.

Song thrush (JA)

Posted October 12, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 11th   Leave a comment

There seemed to be a few more migrants in at Kilminning today. It was perfect for migration last night with light north westerly winds and lots of stars. On such nights we lose the vagrants but gain the normal winter visitors. This morning there was a new fieldfare, more redwings and more blackcaps. At least one yellow-browed warbler and some of the chiffchaffs were still present. This autumn has been great for blackcaps, with the highest numbers I have ever seen here. Some of the elder bushes have had nearly double figures in them.

A female or juvenile blackcap at Kilminning (JA)

Posted October 11, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 10th   Leave a comment

Things have quietened down a lot after the very busy last ten days. The Siberian thrush was last seen on Monday the 5th, and the Blyth’s reed warbler and the arctic warbler were last seen on Thursday the 8th. Today I only found a brambling in the Patch at Fife Ness, and lower Kilminning almost nothing, even the blackcaps have gone. Upper Kilminning was a bit better, still with at least two yellow-browed warblers and some chiffchaffs. One chiffchaff I saw well was very grey brown and buff in tones, lacking any yellow or greenish on it, with brownish ear coverts: it looked just like Siberian chiffchaff but I didn’t hear the clinching call. After a good fall in autumn things hang around, sometimes for weeks. We are not like the May island where there is no real cover or food for the birds brought down there, so they almost always move on after a day or two. But we have had a few clear nights recently and light winds so this time most things have left more quickly. Still, there may be some good birds hanging around this weekend waiting to be found.

Today I went in search of two birds to see if I could beat my year list record. I got up to 167 with the Blyth’s reed warbler two days ago, one short of the record. First, I went to Kingsbarns to wander over the stubble fields to the north of the village and the golf course. I put up a few skylarks in the stubble and then found a field of kale that has been left to grow weedy cover all summer. It was full of small birds: reed buntings, yellowhammers, some corn buntings, house and tree sparrows, dunnocks, linnets and at least 4 twite – my first target bird. These fields have twite in them about one winter in three, so I was pleased to find them again. And the year list equalled! There was also an immature wheatear on the beach to remind me how few summer migrants there are about now. I haven’t seen a swallow for a week now.

The juvenile wheatear at Kingsbarns beach this morning. The sun is getting low – three hours after dawn and still the long shadow.

For my second target bird, I tried the stubble field between Balcomie Caravan Park and the north section of the airfield where I had lots of skylarks and the snow bunting earlier this week. I again put up a lot of skylarks, some corn buntings and meadow pipits and finally a Lapland bunting took off in front of me, calling distinctively and circling above my head showing some of its black and chestnut patterning on its head as it sped by. The year list record broken. I was taking a year off from trying to get a big year list – I think every other year is about right otherwise it can a bit of a chore rather than a joy. But lockdown and its paradoxical effect on me spending more time out birding has kept the birds coming all year – and then the fall added 15 new species in a week.

Yesterday I checked out Denburn Wood. It was full of birds. A big mixed flock of blue, great, coal and long-tailed tits, treecreepers, a great spotted woodpecker and a chiffchaff. I suspect a few things were overlooked here in the last two weeks with all the focus of attention on Kilminning. I had a good look at the huge ivy on the kirkyard wall adjacent to Denburn. It was gloriously in flower. With ivy this is not a showy thing. Their flowers are very subtle. But the insects love them as one of the only sources of late autumn nectar. The kirkyard ivy was covered in red admiral butterflies. Ivies often get a bad press but they are a great woodland cover plant, and a great food source in the autumn for birds attracted to the insects and also the berries.

Ivy and red admirals in Crail kirkyard

Posted October 10, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 8th   Leave a comment

I only went out this morning to clear my head before work and take the dog out on a beautiful morning. The wind is westerly, although very light today and with lovely autumn sunshine. We went to Balcomie Beach which I have neglected over the last week. Twenty dunlin and a few redshank, so a fairly typical winter’s day, but nice to look at some birds that weren’t doing their best to hide from me. I thought I would just take a look into the Patch on my back home. There is that nagging feeling that despite none of the exciting birds in the Patch being seen again yesterday, it was quite windy. And we have obviously been missing things even when there have been several very hard-working birders in the Patch. I also wanted to get a view of the crossbills that have been shuttling between the pines at Kilminning and the Patch for the last week. I have been calling them in as overflying birds each time, but it has been the same circumstances each time, and now people have seen a small flock feeding in both locations, but never at the same time. I got lucky immediately with the flock (four birds I think) feeding on the pines right beside the entrance path. Crossbills are always a bit shy but tend to get distracted when feeding so a gentle approach can sometimes work. I ended up beside the pine with a crossbill glaring at me as it fed: never mind the crossed mandibles, they also look cross close up.

A cross looking crossbill at the Patch this morning

I then walked around the patch. On my way out I heard the Arctic warbler making its dipper call from the same area where we last saw it the day before yesterday. It called in short bouts for a minute and I localised it to the same big sycamore next to the redundant telephone pole where we last saw and heard it on Tuesday afternoon. I was trying to get eyes on it before putting the news out when I saw a warbler down in the cotoneaster bush beside the sycamore. The Blyth’s reed warbler that had eluded me on Monday and Tuesday. It was showing well and I was able to see many of the key features (summarised in the picture below), although it greatly helped to know that it had been identified as a Blyth’s already. They are tricky, but there are a suite of characters that help. I saw the short primary projection immediately, the supercilium in front of the eye and eyering, and the greyish olive rather than rufous tones dominant on the back. And then it gave a nice blackcap like “tchack” call. All very obliging and I was able to follow it round very closely for the next hour. It hardly ever came out clearly from the vegetation but gave good views at less than ten meters, completely unconcerned about me. Most of the time it was in dense brambles and because it didn’t flush I can see how we had all been walking past it for the last three or more days. Even though it was a bit tricky to accumulate the characters for a very definite id, it was so, so much easier than getting a view of the Siberian thrush. Everything is relative. Number 235 for my Crail patch list and the third new addition in a week! Anyway, back to work now.

The photofit of the Blyth’s reed warbler that has been in the Patch at Fife Ness at least from Monday

Posted October 8, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 6th   Leave a comment

The spectacular week continues. It was obviously so quiet during most of September to prepare us for this week. I went to the Patch at Fife Ness first thing to resume a search for a mystery warbler that was seen there mid-afternoon. It had features of a booted warbler and features of a reed type warbler. I tried for an hour before dark but left just before it reappeared and was photographed. Later we all agreed the photos identified it as a Blyth’s reed warbler: another new bird for my Crail list so a big incentive for me to refind it this morning. Sadly, some of the birds from yesterday had moved on overnight including this one. There were fewer yellow-brows and blackcaps in the patch today and the red-breasted flycatcher at Seaview Cottage had also moved on. Nevertheless, it was well worth searching the Patch and after thirty minutes I heard the distinctive “chirrup chirrup” of a Radde’s warbler. I identified it immediately and then it called again – my criteria when identifying a bird by call is to identify the call and then hear it clearly repeated to be sure. I rushed to get the others and tried some playback. My last Radde’s in the Patch responded so vigorously to playback that it practically sat on the speaker. Not this one. None of us got eyes on it and it disappeared into the dense vegetation of the Patch. A shame, they are striking warblers with a lot of personality. I haven’t given up hope that I will see it; as the day unfolded it became clear that a lot of birds can escape detection in the Patch.

As I searched more widely a flock of barnacle geese flew over with a single duck leading them. A male scaup. Another good bird for the Crail list. There was a lot else to distract me. The redstart was still present, a big flock of tree sparrows was doing their autumn usual of circling around the Ness daring each other to migrate, a flock of house martins stopped off overhead, and lots of redpolls and a few siskin and brambling went over. Work beckoned so I went back to Crail via the big stubble field between the Balcomie Caravan Park and the north side of the airfield. I was again hoping for Lapland buntings. Instead I put up a flock of eight snow buntings among the many skylarks. They headed off strongly towards Wormiston.

I was teaching again in the afternoon when my phone went off with a message. I dutifully ignored it, but it kept on pinging. I had to look. A picture of an arctic warbler fresh from a net in the patch with a query to help in identification! I made my apologies to my understanding Masters student (thank you Tom) and was down at the Patch again, somewhat breathlessly, 9 minutes later. My time is improving, but so are the incentives. We were waiting for a few more of the local birders to arrive when I heard the distinctive sad “peeuu” of a Siberian chiffchaff. There was one sitting in a sycamore just above the ringing hut. I was able to see the complete lack of greenish or yellow on the bird and brownish ear coverts. Three convincing characters on another local patch rarity: the eastern theme continues. And then from the warmup act to the star. An absolutely cracking arctic warbler right in front of me. We had not found this earlier as we searched the patch for the other warblers, but thankfully there were nets up today. I realised I hadn’t seen an arctic warbler for 20 years – my last one was singing in a tiny bush in the tundra at Barrow, Alaska, on a day where I had watched a pomarine skua hunting an American golden plover, sanderlings making a scrape and I had worried about whether there were polar bears hiding out on the nearby sea ice. Another fantastic migrant connection. Regardless of the memories it brought back, it was a stunning bird. Well to a birder at least. It is in the willow warbler type vein but with everything exaggerated. It is larger, with a much bigger and stouter bill, with an added wing bar or two, and the most severe and exaggerated eyestripe and supercilium going, almost vireo like. When it flew off after being ringed it gave its characteristic dipper like short, metallic call. They are a completely different bird from a greenish warbler – that also turned up in a net in the Patch this autumn – the bill length and structure, along with the very long thin supercilium gives an arctic warbler an elongated, flat headed look, whereas greenish warblers look compact and almost dumpy (see August 17th, 2020).

Later the artic warbler was relocated in one of the big sycamores, feeding alongside a yellow-browed warbler, chiffchaffs and goldcrests – a lovely range of stripes and sizes. It also gave a nice series of calls, again very dipper like and very distinctive. Another great day bookended by two great warbler species, and one more for the Crail patch list, number 234. And speaking of lists, I realised today that this week has taken my year list up spectacularly to only two short of my record. I am up to 166 species within 10 km of my house already this year.

Big bill, long thin supercilium, one obvious wing bar and the hint of a second, freckled ear coverts – an arctic warbler!
No supercilium to speak of above the bill, yellow legs
Today’s star – an arctic warbler caught mid-afternoon in the patch and still there in the big sycamore closest to the old telephone pole this evening. Thanks to Chris Broome for ringing today and giving us all twenty minutes to get to the patch before processing the bird.

Posted October 6, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 5th   Leave a comment

I traded in my rainy Saturday when I worked this weekend with today. There was a little rain overnight and the easterlies continued. There seemed to be more blackcaps, goldcrests and chiff-chaffs today, but otherwise it was very similar to yesterday. I started at Kilminning with John to see if we could get a another view of the Siberian thrush and a photo of the bird. We arrived at the rose bush before dawn but there were already two cars there, and perhaps twenty when I left ninety minutes later. It was nice watching the rose bush and the elders behind, full of blackcaps, a garden warbler or two, song thrushes and redwings. At one point one of the birders accumulating behind us flushed a jack snipe – this must have arrived during the night – from the grass behind the tarmac. It shot up past us like a mini woodcock climbing to get past the trees behind the rose bush. And then at 7:33 the thrush appeared for about a second. Flying directly down to the bush from the trees behind. I was barely able to resolve something redwing size and the black and white stripe on the underwing and then it was out of sight. Again only meters away from everyone, but completely invisible. I think during the day it gave itself up on only three occasions, and then only a few seconds each. A very difficult bird – John and I may well have had one of the best sightings of the lot last Friday, with about 2 minutes continuously, although partially obscured for much of this.

The rest of the day was spent checking out the various sites around Fife Ness, finding scarce migrants myself, or refinding ones found by others. It was nice to have so many birders out and bird, although many were chained to the rose bush all day. Many eyes and lots of things are found. One of the best birds of the day was a male redstart in the sycamores along the field edge at the entrance to lower Kilminning. I have been after a redstart all year: this was the first of the autumn. Like pied flycatchers they have been very scarce on the Crail patch this year. In the end four were found today: I saw a female at the Patch later. I watched the male feeding from the scrubby sycamores, dropping onto the ground and then retreating into cover to shiver its tail. I see them do this along hedge lined dusty tracks in Nigeria during the winter, and I associate them with heat and black-crowned tchagras whistling in the background. Redstarts are another tropical chat that just visits us for a few months. John did manage to get a photo of this bird and I think it is one of his finest. I am going to blow it up and stick on my wall – a redstart on its way to Africa – to remind me that the world really is a fantastic place.

Perfection in a migrant – the common redstart at Kilminning today (JA)
And in context

Another great bird was a ring ouzel at upper Kilminning. I spent a long time in the south-west corner next to the airfield trying to track down a dusky warbler. But my suspicious chacking turned into only blackcaps and the ring ouzel. It was feeding on the lawns around the hangers of the airfield, retreating into Kilminning when disturbed, chacking as it went. This was echoing around the buildings I think, making it sound close, yet quieter than usual. Anyway, the penny finally dropped and I went out onto the airfield to find the ring ouzel feeding with one of the migrant mistle thrushes that also came in over the last few days. Ring ouzels are blackbirds plus – bigger, longer tailed and winged and louder. Unlike redstarts, they are mostly summer birds for me. They evoke steep highland glens and lonely moorland. Ring ouzels winter in low montane woodland in Spain and North Africa and I have seen them there in small hazel or beech trees and juniper bushes. A habitat not radically different in structure to Kilminning. Migrants choose habitats by their vegetation structure more than by plant species I’m sure.

The ring ouzel on the airfield (a young male)

Other good birds today were a couple of spotted flycatchers at the top of Kilminning. At least eight yellow-browed warblers. As the numbers climb up this year (I am now on 15) the good views are accumulating of these always wonderful birds. I had one today with a fairly greenish warbler-like call, so I am rethinking my certainty of identifying a greenish purely on call. The two species almost never overlap in time – greenish are August birds and yellow-brows September – and always attract attention so perhaps this is not much of a problem. There was a red-breasted flycatcher found again today at Seaview Cottage on the edge of the north part of the airfield. I saw it mid afternoon in a much more traditional setting – mid canopy in a dense sycamore – than the gorse of yesterday. This was also unusually an adult female so I suspect this was the same bird as yesterday, having moved about a kilometer. There were more barnacle geese over all day but only hundreds in total rather than the thousands of yesterday. Another overfly was of a couple of common crossbills over the patch. It has been a good crossbill year after many without a single crossbill record from the Crail patch.

Another of the red-breasted flycatcher yesterday, but probably the same bird at Seaview Cottage this afternoon (JA)

Posted October 5, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 4th   Leave a comment

It has been another great autumn birdwatching day around Crail to make up for yesterday. It finally stopped raining at 7 this morning. 36 millimetres in total during the rain storm: this is over a month’s rain for us in the dry East Neuk. Yesterday it was relentless and I chaffed to get out, but it would have been pointless. I would have been soaked even before I got out to Kilminning. I could only watch the steady razorbill passage past Crail through the telescope in my son’s room.

I spent the morning around upper Kilminning looking for the mysterious calling warbler I heard on Friday. I was hoping for a greenish warbler or even a two barred warbler. But I heard nothing unusual again, and only one yellow-browed warbler calling. There were at least six chiffchaffs, many blackcaps and lots of goldcrests with the tit flocks, always a good sign of more interesting migrants to be found. I flushed some woodcock as I arrived, the first of the winter. There were redwings everywhere with flocks passing over and others clearly coming in to land from the sea. A flock of bramblings flying over added to the start-of-the-winter feel.

Double figures of yellow-browed warblers around Crail today – this one down at Fife Ness (JA)

All morning I could hear barnacle geese in the distance and when I walked over to Balcomie cottages I could then see the almost constant long lines of them as they followed the coast south. It was an exceptional day for barnacle geese passage: several thousand passed at least. In one flock there was a pure white one: an albino barnacle goose. I found a spotted flycatcher, a willow warbler and more blackcaps and chiffchaffs in the ruined cottage garden. I then tried my luck on the big stubble field still remaining between Balcomie and the golf course. It was full of skylarks but no Lapland buntings which is fairly surprising considering that everything else was coming in today. They are patchy though and even in a good year they turn up together in a few fields rather than at low density in them all. I headed back to Crail through Kilminning, passing through the 25 or so cars staking out the Siberian thrush which is now in its sixth day of residence. It was remaining difficult to see and the common rosefinch was also less visible today. In Crail I heard another yellow browed warbler in the sycamores behind the toilets at Roome Bay. There were yellow-brows reported from several other places around Fife Ness today, probably over ten in total including mine.

Some of the several thousand barnacle geese that passed Fife Ness today (JA)
And more overhead at Balcomie in one of their characteristic untidy flocks

I got a message more or less as soon as I got back home that a red-breasted flycatcher had been seen on the coastal path at Fife Ness – flycatching from the gorse bushes right out in the open. I was straight back out, again managing the trip from my kitchen to the bird in about 12 minutes with a strategic short cut through the golf course. I am glad I made the effort. Red-breasted flycatchers are always great birds to see: elegant, neat and scarce. You have to pay attention to find them and then see them. Well, usually. Not this one. It hadn’t read the rb fly rulebook. It was behaving like a whinchat, perching in the open on gorse bushes and flycatching in big sallies up and down, but always from a conspicuous perch. It was completely unphased by the increasing number of birders coming to admire it, several relieved to have left the completely unobliging Siberian thrush behind for some instant gratification. Unusually it was an adult female – we usually get juveniles – lacking a wing bar of pale edged greater coverts. I checked its tail and rump for dark feathers just in case we had a taiga flycatcher, and even further eastern version of a red breasted flycatcher, but this was just wishful thinking. But a week with a Siberian thrush does get you thinking. I think this might be the best red-breasted flycatcher I have ever seen, catching flies for Scotland in the afternoon sunshine. The gorse was only about fifty meters from the sea and with the easterlies the many seaweed flies that were emerging today will have been blown right over it.

The adult female red-breasted flycatcher on the coastal path between Kiminning and Fife Ness this afternoon (JA)

I couldn’t resist checking out upper Kilminning one more time on the way back home. I heard a tree pipit calling, or under the present circumstances a much more likely olive backed pipit, the harsh tacking of an interesting Sylvia warbler – a lesser whitethroat like call, and then a ring ouzel probably slunk away through a hawthorn as I approached. Everything to play for tomorrow, with more birds coming in all the time on the easterlies, and rain overnight forecast.   

Posted October 4, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 2nd   Leave a comment

It took nine hours of effort and four visits to finally see the Siberian thrush at Kilminning this morning. It all went perfectly. A dawn arrival, no-one else there. Parking by the rose bush where it has been camped out for the last three days. And then at 7:40 as the thrushes came out of roost from the whitebeams a very dark redwing shape shot into the top of one of the elders. Then it moved down the elder showing a flash of black and white stripes on its underwing. The Siberian thrush at last. It perched about a meter and a half above the ground, motionless in the elder for nearly two minutes. It was partially obscured and I could only see the double wing bar well, quite spotted, particularly on the smaller top bar, and rows of dark crescent shaped marks on the flanks and breast. After what seemed like an age it then slowly dropped down the bush showing itself completely before disappearing into the famous rose bush. A big buffy eyestripe curving behind the eye and enclosing a darker flecked ear, dark brown above becoming darker at the tail and end of the wings with the contrasting double spotted wing bar, and the strongly marked crescents on the dirty white underside. A subtly distinctive thrush. And then it was gone, not to appear for the next hour at least. There were about 20 cars there staking out the rose bush when I left, I hadn’t really noticed their arrival staying focused on the bush. The thrush was there the whole time I’m sure: we were all in the presence of the thrush, even though few saw it. I suspect it has been feeding in the rose bush since Tuesday, when it probably first arrived (although perhaps earlier – the winds were better last week) and it is probably still there. Unless you were there to see it coming or going it was invisible, and indifferent to the crowds only meters away from it. Yesterday there was a little bit of encouragement for it to leave its bush so people could see it. Whether you like this type of making your own luck, I don’t think it made any difference to this bird. It showed remarkable fidelity to the one bush and small area, probably not moving more than thirty meters away even though there are several very similar areas at Kilminning. In terms of its overall energy budget on a few relatively warm autumn days with lots of insects and fruit about, the occasional intentional disturbance from the birders will have made little difference. The ethical question remains – is this right or wrong – but I think it is just an ethical question rather than a welfare issue. For my part I understand the desire to see a bird, particularly a perhaps once in a lifetime chance. I tried to see it in the best way possible, but if I had seen it because it had been deliberately flushed I would still have been glad. Number 233 for my Crail patch list.

The Siberian thrush at Kilminning (thanks to Steve Buckland for this photo). There are not many available and this is a real achievement to get even a record shot of this bird.

It was a lovely morning weather wise as well. Nice sunshine and little wind. It was pleasant staking out the thrush bush particularly after I had seen it arrive. The common rosefinch was still about and showing more or less all the time, feeding on elderberries or perching high up in an ash tree in the sunshine between bouts. Bizarrely I heard a diver flying over, doing a yodelling call – a black throated diver. They shortcut by crossing over the peninsula but they only really call like this when they are breeding on Highland or West coast lochs. It was very surreal. I had to double check as the call passed overhead and the flying bird headed over the Forth because with so many birders about one or two of them is bound to have a bird call ring tone…Mine is a European bee-eater and I do worry that if anyone phones me while I am out birding in a crowd it is not going to go well. A couple of barnacle geese passed over in the same way – the first of the winter for me. And to top it all off, a hawfinch flew over to probably land in the trees behind the Siberian thrush bush. One was seen later there. As yesterday, that would have been the massive bird of the day in isolation, but this week it was just a bit remarkable.

The common rosefinch at Kilminning this morning (JA)

I cycled back home at about 9 am, quitting while I was very firmly ahead. I couldn’t resist stopping at upper Kilminning though. I was rewarded by a common crossbill flying over, a few small flocks of redpolls and 2-3 yellow-browed warblers, with one showing well in a low sycamore. While watching this bird I heard a loud “chis-seep, chis-seep” like a mobbing swallow. I didn’t pay enough attention to it – I suddenly realised it was coming from a small bird in an adjacent tree. I eventually got eyes on a small Phylloscopus – but nothing more. I know greenish warbler call well and this was too swallow like, and if I heard three yellow brows, there were probably more around so this could have been what I saw. So I don’t know. And actually I felt I had had my luck for the day. Tomorrow will do: this strategy worked out today. There is a general feeling of excitement for the weekend with good easterlies and rain forecast over the next few days. September was very quiet but now we have moved to the other extreme.

Posted October 2, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 1st   4 comments

I have been putting off writing anything because I wanted to be able to write about seeing a Siberian thrush at Kilminning. But not yet. Nevertheless today has been a great day on the Crail patch, and even without a Siberian thrush there is a lot to tell. Yesterday was a very wet day, with heavy rain only tailing off by the afternoon. I stayed at home to catch up on work rather than going to Kilminning first thing. This was a mistake. A common rosefinch was refound and then much, much rarer, a Siberian thrush. The finder, Ken Shaw, had spent nearly 6 hours in his car, in the rain, staring at a particular bush which the rosefinch was frequenting. Virtue brings it rewards. There are only a handful of records of Siberian thrush from Scotland, and they are a very difficult species to see when they are here. Ken put the news out. I’m afraid I was distracted during my tutorial session by the news scrolling across my phone: it was a tutorial for biologists so I’m sure they understood. Anyway, I stayed at my post for the next three hours, as more and more news came in and every birder in the vicinity got moving down to Kilminning. I had to ignore phone calls and people tapping at my window. Five o’clock eventually came and I jumped onto my bike with two hours of light left to play with. It was a long shot and there were no definite sightings late afternoon. I had a heart stopping moment of getting onto the head of a redwing before seeing the body. I thought I had got it, but no, just a redwing. Nice to see and the first of the winter but not quite what I was hoping for.

I was up at six this morning and back out at Kilminning before seven. I took the decision to skulk at the back of the bushes where it had been seen the day before rather than joining the drive-in cinema at the front. The weather was poor and the bird shy so birders watching from their cars was a sensible idea. And of course, Kilminning is perfectly designed for drive in bird watching with its acres of tarmac (although its tarmac days are numbered). But not great for someone on a bike. The thrush appeared first about 8:20, about 25 meters from me, but on the other side of a bank. There were a few brief sightings during the morning but I was never in the right place at the right time. By mid-morning there were about 60 people there and the staying in car discipline had broken down. I don’t think it mattered, the Siberian thrush appeared when it wanted to when changing locations – briefly visible in flight to a low bush, a pause for a couple of seconds and then back down into cover. They are notable skulkers and run a lot on the ground rather than perching up in bushes where they can be seen. I suspect I spent several hours in the close company of a Siberian thrush, and I bet it got me on its list. Anyway enough of the thrush – it is still at Kilminning and I will try again tomorrow until teaching obligations drag me away again.

Today was an excellent day. Four new birds for the patch year list including my third common rosefinch, and only my second hawfinch for the overall Crail list. The first brambling of the winter and a brilliant short-eared owl were also excellent and these two alone would have made the birding trip. Common rosefinches turn up at Kilminning about once every two years but they are wary birds. Usually only seen by the finder and they don’t seem to stay more than an hour. Today’s bird was the complete opposite. On day three and turning up in front of the crowds of birders every twenty minutes or so to snack on elderberries in full view for ten minutes each time. Many of the crowd today that didn’t see the thrush were greatly consoled by the rosefinch. It was a shame this bird turned up when it did – John and I and the other locals there would have greatly appreciated its confiding nature, and we would have had some great photos to share. As it was there was no going closer so as not to spoil the main attraction. I enjoyed it from afar, nonetheless. They are not very glamorous birds, but they are hard won. As I left Kilminning a short-eared owl appeared, again the first of the autumn, and I was able to watch its strange buoyant flight as it gained height above Kilminning coast before continuing its migration. Birding should never not be enjoyable, and I had two good birds this morning. I cycled back into Crail with a bit of regret, but happy enough.

More teaching and then the phone kicked off again. The thrush had been reseen, and then two hawfinches. Hawfinches are great Crail birds, and great birds to see full stop: mega finches with mega bills and outrageously dandy curled wing feathers. We have one every four years or so, and I have only connected with one in 18 years here. So more explaining to the students about my distraction: I’m looking forward to the course feedback at the end of the year “was often distracted during teaching by rare birds…” I think it makes me a proper biologist so I don’t mind, especially as I was teaching statistics this afternoon. Again, five o’clock came round and I was back on my bike as fast I could back to Kilminning. Rare birds make me fit as well as make me happy. The crowds had thinned. Only about 20 people and after a quick walk around lower Kilminning I picked up a juvenile (probably female) hawfinch in appropriately enough, a hawthorn. It was cramming in berries as fast as it could. A tired migrant probably from Scandinavia. A sparrowhawk came through the trees and the finch retreated deeper into the bush. I saw the sparrowhawk a minute or two later carrying prey, but I think it was more goldfinch sized than hawfinch size. I hope the hawfinches hang on until tomorrow. Like the rosefinch there was no real opportunity for John to get any pictures. It has been a dark and gloomy day and with Kilminning not ours to enjoy on our own terms. A hawfinch and a rosefinch deserve proper attention.

I left Kilminning at six – I will be back again tomorrow morning. It’s a probability thing and the more hours you spend the more chance you have. And things are still coming in and with the weather for migrants getting really good on Saturday I am hopeful that this is just the start of a good week, not the end. The final good bird of the day was a brambling, or a couple of brambling, doing their wheezy creaking call from the whitebeams at the entrance to Kilminning. Ring ouzels and woodcock to come.

A short-eared owl (JA). Top bird regardless of the supporting cast or not. I would love to have posted rosefinch or hawfinch but hopefully tomorrow will give better light and conditions. I have some from today but I’ll spare John the pain.

Posted October 1, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

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