Archive for December 2020

December 31st   Leave a comment

At the end of this year, more than most, I am very grateful for where I live. You don’t have to go far around Crail to see good wildlife: animals come to us and we just have to put the time in outside to find them. It’s true of anywhere as we have all found this year. There have been some spectacular birds reported by people that turned their attention to their gardens or even just watching (or hearing) what was passing by their houses or flats. With the lockdowns and restrictions this year I have not travelled further than St Andrews since March, and then I have only been there five times. Even in the late summer as things relaxed a bit, it didn’t seem right to go further afield. But the consolation is I have spent more hours on my Crail patch, following how everything has changed in detail day to day, and seeing more birds in a year than I have ever down before. There are still a few hours to go but it is probably fairly safe to say that my local patch Crail list for 2020 is 173. Last year I worked really hard to beat my Crail year list record of 163 and was really pleased to get 168. And this year beaten by another 5! This reflects two obvious things – a lot of hours spent out and about and a good autumn (although a very poor spring). That said the lockdown meant a few things got away. I didn’t go to see a nuthatch, garganey and hooded crow that were in Anstruther in the spring: they turned up after I had done my single exercise trip out for the day, and all three (hooded crow arguably so) would have been new to the Crail list as well as year list additions. I missed a dusky warbler – frustratingly just out of sight and access in the walled garden of Balcomie – and a Balearic shearwater past Fife Ness. Both of these I have seen before around Crail, although I am waiting for a really good view of a dusky warbler (rather than calls and a brief glimpse) before I add dusky to the list properly. There were other more common species I missed by chance like pomarine skua (but they were relatively very uncommon this year as with all of the skuas apart from long-tailed) and the little stint mid-summer. To counter the bad luck there was much more good luck. I feel privileged to have had one of the best views of the Siberian Thrush of anyone, with two minutes at 30 meters. If there were any species not on my hoped for list, this would be the one. A mega-rarity regardless but when they make the mainland they are incredibly skulking and difficult to see, as many of the birders that came to Kilminning and who only glimpsed its underwing for a second or two will testify. And there were lots of other great birds this year: arctic, greenish, Radde’s and Blyth’s reed warbler, hawfinch, common rosefinch, black terns, long-tailed skuas and so on. But my top 5 of the year:

No. 1: The long-eared owl on Balcomie Beach. Great close up views of a great looking but normally difficult to see well species. Not the rarest, but birding is not all about the rarity.

Long-eared owl (JA)

No. 2: The rosy starling in Crail. Another great looking rare bird and right at the end of lockdown to cheer us up. But best of all, it turned up in a Crail garden and one of my neighbours gave me the info immediately because of knowing I would want to see it through reading Wild Crail. It isn’t why I write Wild Crail, but a great unintended consequence.

Rosy starling

No. 3: The red-breasted flycatcher. Another joyful, unexpected close encounter with a bird that normally is not too easy to see well. A tame bird, out in the open, on a sunny day, that showed itself well to everybody that came to see it.

Red-breasted flycatcher

No. 4: The male common redstart at Kilminning. We have a few every year although some years – like 2020 – they can be scarce (as with pied flycatchers – only one this year!). I had a lovely time watching this feeding along the edge of a field and being reminded about the similarity of its habitat use on passage and in Africa. But mostly this is top five because of John Anderson’s photo. One of my all time top favourite photos, by anyone, ever.

Common redstart (JA)

No. 5: A red-backed shrike at Kilminning in May. One of the only good birds of the spring and near the end of lockdown. I missed it earlier during the day but decided to try again in the evening. I cycled out of Crail along a deserted coastal path, on one of the most beautiful, sunny and still evenings imaginable. I found the bird and had it to myself for an hour before sunset, with it allowing me to sit nearby watching it closely. Again, not that rare, but an hour that made up for a lot of lockdown.

Red-backed shrike

It has also been a good year for numbers of things: lots of Lapland buntings and corn buntings this winter; over 6 Siberian chiffchaffs; flocks of long-tailed skuas; lots of sooty shearwaters and little gulls; whimbrels and white wagtails everywhere this spring; several whinchats at Kilminning for nearly 6 weeks and the most breeding attempts of yellow wagtails by Crail ever. And that’s a good place to stop reviewing the year. With the brightest, most cheerful antidote to lockdown. A species that maintained its toehold as a breeder around Crail this year, that is as we speak running around the feet of cattle and Fulani herdsmen in the warmth of West Africa and that will return to us in April, to end the lockdown year which has had little cheer in it apart from the birds. Happy New Year.

Yellow Wagtail (JA)

Posted December 31, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 29th   Leave a comment

There have been some huge gull flocks in the fields between Pinkerton and Kilminning for the last few days. A glaucous gull, an Iceland gull and a Mediterranean gull were all seen this afternoon among the hundreds of herring, common and black-headed gulls. I came to the gull party a bit late and couldn’t find any of the specials, but I had left my telescope at home. Still, the gulls should be there tomorrow and I will give them a closer look. Regardless, it was a lovely afternoon and as I walked the stubble field at Sauchope (just behind the caravan park and adjacent to the east end of Crail) I did put up at least 16 corn buntings and two Lapland buntings. It is turning into a good winter for Lapland buntings, with birds in seven separate stubble fields and 20-30 individuals. And it is really heartening to be finding flocks of corn buntings everywhere: we didn’t count them properly during lockdown this year but they do seem to have done well. I also probably had a jack snipe amongst the marshy bits of the field where they have recently put field drains in. I just caught a glimpse of a snipe flying up in front of my dog and immediately back down a few meters away. I couldn’t then reflush it. Classic jack snipe behaviour.

Some of the corn buntings at Sauchope this afternoon. Flocks of corn bunting like this are a great rarity in most parts of Britain now but are a common sight around the East Neuk this winter

Posted December 29, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 28th   Leave a comment

I retraced my walk of December 23rd to see if the ravens were still about the cliffs at Kitto’s Den. It was a nice walk, cold and still, with that flat bright grey midwinter light that actually brings out the detail in everything. But no ravens. The highlight was a greenshank, that obviously has a winter territory on the rocky shore at the mouth of the Kitto Burn. It still seems strange to find greenshanks as a wintering bird on the east coast, or even anywhere in Scotland. In the 1980s a wintering greenshank was exceptional in Fife, but they have increased in winter in Britain by over 50% since then. Another winner of climate change. Greenshanks like it warmer when not breeding, although recent climate change in Fife has hardly taken us to the temperatures that most wintering greenshanks experience in sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia or Australia, where the majority of the world population spend the winter. But those greenshanks that stay in Europe year-round are clearly doing well, by avoiding migrations of at least 5,000 km. Although they save energy and time in the spring by staying in Scotland – they may only have to fly a few hundred kilometers to their breeding ground in the Highlands – they have to watch out for sparrowhawks and peregrines. Wintering greenshanks frequently fall prey to raptors in Scotland. During my PhD work on the Tyninghame Estuary (over the Forth at Dunbar) in the early 90s I used to watch the wintering population of up to 9 greenshanks diminish to 4 or 5 each spring, and I would find their distinctive blackish flight feathers in little piles in the adjacent woodland as the sparrowhawks took their toll. There are lots of raptors in Africa but there is much more prey for them to eat, and many eat insects and lizards, so there is an advantage for many shorebirds to migrate to relative safety. The Kitto Den greenshank is a juvenile and looked happy enough today feeding alongside the redshanks that have also decided to stake a winter territory there. But there is plenty of cover directly alongside the beach so there would be little time to see an approaching sparrowhawk. I would head off to Africa myself.

The Kitto Den greenshank. A bird born this year and so spending its first winter in Scotland (a young one because of its browner, spotted lower wing coverts – the adult feathers are the white edged grey ones).

Posted December 28, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 27th   Leave a comment

It is still well worth going out to the stubble fields just to the southwest of the mouth of Kenly Water. I had at least 12 Lapland buntings this morning and probably more. 12 was the largest flock, but there were flocks of 5 and 6 all morning. Occasionally they circled around the hawthorn hedge where the reed buntings and tree sparrows were congregated to feed on the track alongside and to bathe in the puddles there. The Lapland buntings occasionally even landed in the hedge for a few seconds. I should think they are there to bathe as well, or have a drink, so it might be worth staking these puddles out for a really good view. There was also a flock of 50 linnets, and a few yellowhammers. The twite are still in the turnip field between the farmhouse at Boghall and the coastal path. I had a flock of 70 and then another of 50: it’s a big field and I only covered part of it so there were probably more. I walked on to Kingsbarns to see if there were any more Lapland buntings in the stubble field to the north of the golf course – I only found reed and corn buntings. There was a big gull roost in the field though. Almost all herring gulls including the pure white one – it is such a spectacular bird that it deserves a name even if it doesn’t make species status – the Kingsbarns snow gull. I headed back to my car via Pitmilly and the young alder and oak woodland patches that have improved the area enormously. They were planted soon after my moving to Crail and show what can be done when you set your mind to turn intensive farmland back into a more mixed, wildlife friendly habitat. There was a small flock of siskin in the alders. They are fairly unusual around Crail but a good stand of alders will keep them around all winter, so I am hopeful that Pitmilly might now be a good site to find them. There are lots of berry bearing bushes and whitebeams in the planted woodland and hedges which explains the big fieldfare flock I had last week. It was still around: about 75 fieldfares flew out of the woodland with their chuckling cackling calls as I watched the siskins.

Siskin at Pitmilly – they feed on alder cones like tits, often hanging from them upside down
My dog Nutty following my advice and staking out the puddles to get a close view of the buntings – the reed buntings were interested in her, but surprisingly little bothered. During the breeding season, when they have vulnerable nests close to the ground, they treat her like a fox and mob her closely.

Posted December 27, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 23rd   Leave a comment

A cold grey day with a northerly wind. The waders were back on Balcomie Beach this morning. About 25 sanderling and the same number of dunlin, 15 ringed plover, a couple of purple sandpipers and a bar-tailed godwit. The strandline of the beach was pockmarked with little beak marks where they had been feeding. The sanderling seemed more frantic and clockwork than ever as they scurried after food in the surf.

Sanderling and dunlin bill marks on Balcomie Beach. If you stare at them long enough you can read “Merry Christmas”
Bar-tailed godwit (JA)

This afternoon I went on another search for ravens for the patch list. I have only had them in one year with a few sightings in 2015 around the airfield. A pair was seen this morning displaying over a likely looking nesting site at Kittocks Den on the coastal path (below the Fairmont golf course between Boarhills and St Andrews). Ravens should be all over the lowlands of Scotland and should be common around Crail. But they have been (and still are) heavily persecuted, so they have not reclaimed the intensively farmed and more heavily populated East coast areas of Scotland. It’s a great sign if we are getting a local breeding pair back. Ravens breed very early, starting in January. The pair this afternoon proved elusive and I was heading back to Boarhills before one appeared above the golf course, huge and magnificent. A carrion crow helpfully mobbing it a little later to show just how big it was. Ravens are buzzard sized and dwarf carrion crows. When you can’t judge their size their long backward swept wings and diamond shaped tails are their best feature. It was a nice walk overall, through the marshy woodland of Kittock’s Den, full of redwings, the wet golf course with a couple of common snipe, the coastal cliff path with kestrels and jackdaws overhead, and the stubbles with skylark and a female merlin heading up into the sunset.  

Raven (JA). No. 173 for the 2020 Crail patch year list – now beating the record by 5

Posted December 23, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 22nd   Leave a comment

More off patch birding this morning with a trip to Elie. There is a very showy male black redstart around the yacht club. We had one on the beach at Crail last Christmas and now it’s Elie’s turn. Black redstarts are either birds of bare rocks and mountains or urban areas. In Germany they are called the house redtail and they are a common city bird throughout Europe. There is a nice mix of bare volcanic rocks, concrete and tarmac down at the yacht club so it looked right at home. It’s quite a tame bird, behaving like a robin and well worth seeing with its striking black, white and bright red plumage.

The Elie black redstart (JA)

I was back in Crail this afternoon. I heard a robin singing half an hour before sunset by the harbour. An optimistic and confident bird, with enough energy gained today to spare. Tonight will be cold, with a frost, and more or less the longest of the year, with sixteen hours of dark when the robin won’t be able to feed. Birds keep warm by their metabolism and as long as they have stored energy reserves they will survive. This is why birds tend to sing first thing in the morning as the spring approaches – there is little risk using up your energy at dawn when feeding opportunities become certain. It is another thing to sing the evening before when the temperature of the night and the weather the following day is not known, and so how much energy might be needed is also not known. So this is why I think the Crail harbour robin is a self-assured bird – or possibly it has a territory containing a nice, reliable bird feeder. It is a straightforward equation. More winter bird feeding (or a milder winter) then more evening robin singing.

And another Christmas chat – a Crail robin (JA)

Posted December 22, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 21st   Leave a comment

I went off patch to see a ring-necked duck and a smew at Cameron reservoir this morning. The far end of Cameron Reservoir is 14 km from Crail so I can’t fudge that into my “10 km from home” rules. But I’m hedging my bets in case I ever decide to expand it to 15 km. I haven’t seen many ring-necked ducks in any case. They are North American vagrants (or escapes from wildfowl collections, although my money is on the former considering the weather this autumn and the timing of its appearance). It was a tough bird to find even though I knew it was in with the tufted ducks. The light was awful and the tufties were keeping about 200 meters away. It was also roosting much of the time so not showing anything very distinctive. Once it did a bit of feeding and preening it was obvious, although I don’t understand why it is not called a ring-billed duck. Then when it back to roosting it was easy to find having learnt the subtle features – head and tail shape, and particularly, the white eyelid, that made it stand out from the tufted ducks even when its distinctive bill and front of head pattern was tucked away.

The female ring-necked duck that has been at Cameron reservoir for a couple of weeks. The bottom middle bird is a female tufted duck to compare the head shape.

There was a lot else to see. Waterbirds are great for variety and ease of watching. I sat down at the western causeway, scanned with my telescope and drank a cup of coffee. The only thing that could have been better was the light. The smew was nearly in full adult male plumage, gloriously black and white and a lot easier to find than the ring-necked duck. There were four scaup among the tufted duck as well, approximately 60 goldeneye, two goosander, and lots of teal, wigeon, mallard and mute swan. Pink-footed geese and greylag geese went over occasionally. There was a big bunting and finch flock along the wooded edge of the reservoir, flying down to the adjacent fields to feed. Perhaps one hundred chaffinches and the same number of yellowhammers, fifty reed buntings and a few tree sparrows. Wooded wetlands are great habitats: one day Kilminning.

Drake smew (JA)

Posted December 21, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 20th   Leave a comment

During my usual circuit of Balcomie, Fife Ness and Kilminning this morning I was struck by two things. The first is that this really is the quietest time of the year – nothing different anywhere to last week, and low numbers of everything that is still around. The second thing was the absence of pied wagtails. They become much scarcer around the coast during December and January. I don’t know where they are going – they must be flocking up somewhere inland. The same walk in the autumn would have 30-40 pied wagtails spaced along the coastal path and the beach.

Pied wagtail – much scarcer at Balcomie or even absent from Balcomie this time of year (JA)

Posted December 20, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 19th   Leave a comment

I was drawn back out to Kingsbarns again this morning, to the buntings and the gulls, both of which have the possibility of still having something special among them. As I walked down to the coastal path I was greeted by a plaintive bit of skylark song, high up and hurried. I looked up and sure enough there was a merlin powering up after a skylark. This merlin wasn’t giving up and the skylark didn’t do any more singing, concentrating on avoiding the stoops as it dived down to the ground. I lost them both close to the ground in a nearby field. I suspect the merlin got the skylark. It missed by centimetres on the final couple of stoops and I didn’t see the merlin flying away empty footed after the last one. There were the usual buntings around Kingsbarns. I walked up to the stubble fields just to the west of the village as well as to the north and counted about 35 corn buntings and fifty or so yellowhammers, each one carefully checked for a rustic bunting among them. There was also a big flock of fieldfares at Pitmilly. I finished up checking the gulls again on the rocky shore at the north end of Kingsbarns golf course. There were again over 1000 gulls moving between roosting on the shore and the adjacent stubble fields. The glaucous gull had moved on, unsurprisingly. They get attracted into big gull flocks as they move down the coast but never seem to stay long. I searched through the flock for the Mediterranean gulls that I had only glanced at yesterday in favour of the glaucous gull. I finally found a beautiful adult, pure white apart from its black eye mask. There may be as many a four Mediterranean gulls around Kingsbarns at the moment, and certainly two.

Mediterranean gull (JA). One of the winners of climate change – it was a really rare bird around Crail 25 years ago. Now I am surprised if I don’t see a few every year.

Posted December 19, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 18th   Leave a comment

Ken Shaw found a glaucous gull at Kingsbarns at lunchtime. I was there 15 minutes later. My last glaucous gull was Jan 1st 2017 and I have only seen a handful on the Crail patch. And I couldn’t resist the chance to get both Iceland and glaucous gull on the same year list. Ken had given his usual excellent directions but it was still a hunt because there were over a thousand gulls spread out over the rocky shore and sea at the north end of the golf course. The tide was coming in so they were close enough to see easily but not too close that they were spooked by the people walking along the coastal path. I knew I was looking for a juvenile so it was a huge, pinky-white gull to search for. It took about five minutes, and I found it on the far left hand side of the gulls. I had started right to left of course. More fun that way in retrospect, but worrying at the time. Glaucous gulls are easy birds – bigger than herring gulls, a great-black backed gull aggressive look and the bill in the juvenile is two tone – pink with a black tip. It was great to see in the kaleidoscope of gulls – common, black-headed, great-black-backed and herring, even a couple of Mediterranean gulls. And the leucistic herring gull added to the mix to make the gull identification session complete. This bird has been around since the summer between Kenly Water and Kingsbarns although this is the first time I have seen it. It is a very handsome bird – pure white with a black bill and eye. It looks long-winged like an Iceland gull but lacks the relatively short body of an Iceland gull, the domed head shape and the Mediterranean gull like bill. As it sat amongst the herring gulls it was easy to see that the bird had exactly the same structure: on its own, or flying by, it would certainly get you going though.

Glaucous gull – number 172 for the Crail patch year list after the Iceland gull of November 26th
Composite of the glaucous gull at Kingsbarns today. Much bigger than the other gulls and the bill is very distinctive.
The glaucous gull looking as artistic as they ever get (JA)
Leucistic herring gull at Kingsbarns (top) to compare to the shape of an Iceland gull (the one at Fife Ness earlier this autumn). The head shape gives it away.

Posted December 18, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 17th   Leave a comment

I watched the sunrise this morning – 8:38, nearly as late as it gets here. At this time of year the sun rises over the little strip of sea between the houses on Nethergate that I can see from the back of my house. It feels a bit like Stonehenge, I know the year is turning when the sun rises just at the right hand side. This morning I saw the famous green flash for the first time. I have looked for it many times, but this morning when not thinking about it, just as the sun first appeared over the horizon, it was pale and then bright emerald for about a second.

I went out to the fields between Boghall and Hillhead a little later, drawn by the hope of buntings. Again many fewer than the first visit. About twenty yellowhammers, the same of reed buntings and one corn buntings. The Lapland buntings are still there though in exactly the same location as the last couple of weeks. There were two flying around overhead calling as I arrived in one field and then I put up a flock of 12 in the same field corner as they were feeding on the 12th. Kenly Water mouth was quiet with just a couple of close in red-throated divers as out of the ordinary. I walked down the coastal path to Boghall Farm and the turnip field which has the flock of twite resident in it this winter. I wanted to make a proper count and so I watched and checked the flock for half an hour. I estimated about 110 but took a photo of the flying flock to double check. When I looked at this later I counted 170. It’s clearly hard to count Twite. Twite don’t stay still when visible, or in the open when still. A really good number. Some winters are good for twite and then we might have a run of years without any. The fields by the coastal path from Kingsbarns to Boarhills are the most reliable place for twite, though, in any winter. I also noticed that one of the twite in one of my photos was colour-ringed but I could only see one white ring. Not enough to track down who it was and where it came from (the Cairngorms or Hebrides or Orkney?). I will have to return. Twites are nice birds to see so that won’t be too much of a chore.

170 twite at Boghall Farm this morning – there are 60 in this photo
You can see the characteristic cinnamon throat, bright white wing bar and in the wings and the occasional glimpse of a pink rump
Twite – close up the yellow bill is also a good ID character

Posted December 17, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 12th   Leave a comment

I went out to the fields between Boghall Farm and Hillhead, by Kenly Water this morning – where I was last Sunday. Not so many buntings today, all reed buntings apart from a handful of corn buntings, but still excellent. Almost no yellowhammers at all, which begs the question at what scale they are using the fields. Tree sparrows, for example, seem to be very stay at home. You find flocks of them in the same bush from week to week. Yellowhammers seem much more mobile. I watched yellowhammers flying over, clearly coming from at least a kilometer away and disappearing another kilometer past me.  It makes me wonder that there is a yellowhammer flock moving around the area between Boarhills and Kingsbarns – and with the rustic bunting of last Monday in it. I just need to find the right yellowhammer flock and I will find the rustic bunting. Sounds like an excellent thing to look for over Christmas. Today wasn’t the best morning to begin the search, with drizzle and then heavy rain late morning. I did pick up at least 16 Lapland buntings. They were initially in the south-west corner of the stubble field sloping down to the sea behind the salmon bothy. Then they were flying around off and on for the following 90 minutes, often close circling round, often in a coherent flock, chasing each other high over the fields. Lapland buntings are never easy to see but this lot are some of the easiest, showing well as they bank against the stubble or pass low overhead. You do need a bit of confidence to get on them. Listen to the call beforehand (very similar to snow bunting) and look for a big bunting (skylark size) that flies up like a skylark but then gains height and flies fast with flickering wings and then glides – but no white in the wing (to eliminate snow bunting). When every other bunting heads off into the distance, the Lapland buntings form a group and circle round. If you flush something you think is a Lapland bunting, stay put and watch it closely. If it is a Lapland it will circle round and eventually try to land again where you are, with lots of calling as it does so, and opportunities to get a glimpse of the plumage – black around the white face, brownish breast contrasting with white belly. They have a distinctive flight silhouette too. The bill is held at the bottom of the head, slightly drooping like a crossbill. But you never see them on the ground. They land and scuttle invisibly, like mice, away from where you think they are. My first ever Lapland bunting was on a golf course on the Scillies – I saw it well then. They are easy in the Arctic too when they sing and are nesting. But after 18 years around Crail, with several Lapland bunting days every year, and hundreds of Lapland bunting days in total, I am yet to see one for more than a second or two on the ground. So, you need to have the confidence to identify them in flight and by call. With this confidence you suddenly find they are not so uncommon at all. Lapland buntings have the current status of a Fife rarity that needs a description to be accepted as occurring in the county. But they are as distinctive as crossbills in call and as identifiable in relatively poor flight views as crossbills. Crossbills seen away from their usual haunts are fly overs with poorer views than most Lapland bunting sightings. Imagine how few crossbills would be recorded in Fife if a convincing description was needed each time. There are always Lapland buntings to be found in the weedy stubble fields of the East Neuk: it just takes a bit of walking to find them and then experience of them calling and in flight. This group of Lapland buntings is the best local opportunity, of the last few years, to see the species well, learn their calls and gain the confidence to find more.      

Reed bunting (JA) – John Anderson only has one photo of a Lapland bunting (as testament to how you never see them well on the ground) and I have recycled it too many times through the years. Still there were lots of reed buntings with the tree sparrows in the adjacent hedgerow, just as last Sunday
Stop Press: Lapland Bunting (JA). John trawled his archives for me after my comment above. You can see why they call them longspurs in North America.

Posted December 12, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 10th   Leave a comment

The fulmars have been back to their nesting ledges in Crail. They desert them to moult during the autumn, but then come back to visit throughout the winter. I was watching them soar along Castle Walk yesterday, and pairs can be seen together actually sitting on their nests as if breeding. It’s interesting how they manage to synchronise because fulmars don’t stay in pairs when out at sea for periods of weeks. Perhaps it’s just coincidence because I can only see the pairs that have arrived back at the same time by chance. But I suspect one of a pair comes back and hangs around until its mate does. Fulmars have a lot invested in pair bonds – a pair can stay together for decades – maybe even a half century. It is probably worth a fulmar’s while to hang around and demonstrate their commitment to next year’s breeding season.

Winter fulmars yesterday on Inchkeith island, further down the Forth (JA)

Posted December 10, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 8th   Leave a comment

I have spent a few hours over the last two days in the fields just to the north of Kingsbarns, between the main road and the coastal path. A rustic bunting was seen there yesterday morning: a new one for the Crail list if I had found it. It’s a variation on a reed bunting, distinctive enough if you see it well but not when flying away from you in the middle of a stubble field. I’m hopeful that it will be relocated. There are certainly a lot of buntings between Kingsbarns and Boarhills, and it will be easy for one slightly different bunting to blend in. It was interesting to see how the different species – yellowhammer, reed and corn bunting, and even a few Lapland buntings, were in some fields on one day but absent on the other suggesting that they are moving around on quite a large scale. It seems likely now that the Lapland buntings at Boghall Farm are the same as the ones at Kingsbarns, so perhaps the yellowhammers and corn buntings are also moving over the fields at the 1-2 km scale. It is also interesting to see so many corn buntings. Probably about 15 in total in the fields close to Kingsbarns in the last two days. They used to be much scarcer as a wintering bird even though they have always bred here. As the population has gone up, more and more birds seem to stay in their breeding areas: probably both are linked to better feeding conditions in winter that the local farmers are creating.

Corn bunting (JA)

It wasn’t entirely tramping around the stubble fields after buntings. I saw a merlin hunting a skylark yesterday afternoon. The skylark burst into song as the merlin got within fifty meters and the merlin stopped flapping instantly, gliding down back to the stubble. They have a good system going as long as the skylark is fit enough to be able to sing while being chased, so demonstrating its uncatchability (if this sounds far fetched to you have a look at the entry for October 24th 2012 – I also wrote a paper about this (link below) if you want to read about the details – it is a fascinating bit of natural history). And this morning there were lots of pink-footed geese around Kingsbarns, several hundred at least; probably the same lot came over Crail about half three this afternoon.

Posted December 8, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 6th   Leave a comment

It cleared up last night and this morning was bright, sunny and cold enough that you needed to keep moving to be comfortable. I walked down to Kenly Burn from the Anstruther road, following the track down to the coastal path along the northern edge of Boghall Farm. The fields there are still stubble with a lot of groundsel weeds in them, and there are two extensive strips of wild bird food plants. It was full of farmland birds – quite like the old days that I remember from the late 1970s when I started birding There is a hawthorn hedgerow along the track and at various times the flocks of buntings and finches in the stubble would all congregate there. I counted several hundred birds: 60 tree sparrows, 80 yellowhammer, 70 reed bunting, 60 linnet and six corn bunting. In the stubble only was about 35 skylarks (or many more as they stayed hidden until flushed) and between 5-7 Lapland bunting. The Lapland buntings were very active, flying around and calling, chasing each other, and sometimes very close. One even landed in the hedge with the other buntings – but was soon off again chasing. I don’t know if these are different Laplands from those of last week closer to Kingsbarns. As the bunting flies, today’s birds were 1.3 kilometers away (5 fields). I will try and do a count of both sets of fields next weekend to confirm how many are about. My money is on two different groups. The corn buntings were very active too. Five were in a line on a dyke with three birds singing and one displaying. There was a bit of chasing too. Further down the field towards the shore was a flock of 40 chaffinches and then along the coastal path, directly to the north of Boghall Farm a big flock of well over 50 twite. One of the main things we are losing at the moment is abundance – species are not going extinct but they are becoming much less common. But today felt just fine. The weedy winter stubbles and the set aside strips really make a difference. I hope one positive of us setting our own UK farming policies next year is that farmers get properly rewarded for leaving spaces and habitats for birds. I had a cup of coffee down on the beach at Kenly to finish my walk and watched a greenshank, shining almost white in the sun.

Some of the tree sparrows at Boghall Farm this morning
Greenshank with a redshank to the right – winter greenshank glow almost white compared to redshanks. The legs are a giveaway as well of course.

One of the occupational hazards of being the birdy person in Crail is I get my neighbours calling me if there is a bird to be rescued. Most of the time I can’t help, and there is really nothing to be done. A woodpigeon chick that has fallen out of a destroyed nest, or a gannet with a broken wing. Today I had an exhausted guillemot brought to my door. The stormy weather of the last few days will have made fishing difficult for it, and it was found listless on the tide’s edge. It was starving, with a keel lacking any fat and muscle. I shouldn’t think it could fly, but a guillemot doesn’t need to during the winter and it was still fairly perky. So I took the guillemot down to Roome Bay and launched it into the water, hoping for the best. It shook itself and swam out towards the sea. I don’t know whether it will be alright, but I think it has a reasonable chance.

The exhausted guillemot heading off into the sunset in Roome Bay

Posted December 6, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 5th   Leave a comment

The tail end of the storm was still lingering this morning as I walked round Balcomie, Fife Ness and Kilminning. Big storm clouds and occasional wintery showers, with the distant Perthshire hills covered in snow. A woodcock popped up from the side of the horse field at Balcomie. Woodcocks are nocturnal and hide out in the woods during the day, but it had been so dark and wet I don’t blame it for staying out. If you go out into the fields after dark with a spotlight you can see woodcock eyes shining back at you, sometimes in surprising numbers. There may be up to two million woodcocks wintering in the UK, enjoying our damp and usually mild winters. They migrate from eastern Europe and Russia where the ground freezes and so prevents woodcocks from probing for the soil invertebrates they feed on.

Woodcock – note the huge eyes for its nocturnal foraging. There was some snow overnight in Crail but nothing stuck. This woodcock was in 2010, when we last had some decent snow (JA)

Balcomie Beach was still empty of everything except redshanks and oystercatchers. Half an hour at Fife Ness produced only a few red-throated divers, kittiwakes and a steady passage of guillemots and razorbills in small numbers. And then a Slavonian grebe flying past from the Forth, landing in front of the Ness. The waves were large this morning so I could only see it in brief glimpses. All grebes are rare around Crail and although I saw a Slavonian grebe this year on August 29th, today’s is only my 5th bird in ten years. They are easier to find in the inner Forth or in St Andrews Bay. I didn’t see any gannets until I was round the coast at Kilminning, when a flock of 14 went past: yesterday there was a steady passage past Crail because of the strong winds.

Slavonian Grebe (JA)

Posted December 5, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 4th   Leave a comment

It wasn’t a day to go birding – horizontal rain for most of the day – but I couldn’t resist dashing down to Crail Harbour for a little grebe. The last and only little grebe I have actually seen in Crail was also in the harbour on January 3rd 2018. So a real Crail rarity although unlikely to start a stampede of birders. Little grebes are, of course, up at Carnbee reservoir and usually on the pond at West Braes nature reserve, but not anywhere else. It’s the same old story of no fresh water to speak off in the East Neuk. The little grebe today was diving constantly so it was barely visible above the water. I wonder if it was a hungry migrant making a cold weather movement from the continent, or perhaps more likely it had been displaced from an inland Fife pond which had frozen overnight. Little grebes are spectacularly waterproof, which was definitely an asset today, with little difference between the surface and the bottom of the harbour. It looked fine in the driving rain, but I was soaked in the few minutes I watched it before retreating home, my dog leading the way.

An impressionist photo of the little grebe in the harbour – it was very, very dark and rainy this morning
What a little grebe looks like on a brighter day (JA)

Posted December 4, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 3rd   Leave a comment

The cold weather from the continent has caught up with us. Today it was 2 degrees, although without any wind, it didn’t feel that cold. I walked a loop around the golf clubs at Balcomie: stubble and shore. There were few skylarks which is surprising, but another flock of over 20 grey partridges. They seem to be going from strength to strength around Crail like the corn buntings: both species like the same thing. The shore and beach was almost entirely redshanks and oystercatchers, with the sanderling absent. A few turnstones and the usual fifteen purple sandpipers at Fife Ness. I sat there for a while scanning the sea hoping for some divers. Only two red-throated divers came past. Then I picked up a great skua, very far out flying south and then landing on the sea. I have never seen a great skua here during the winter so I gave it the best look I could considering the distance. It looked compact and slightly small for a great skua, obviously smaller than a herring gull it tried to rob, so my mind went to more exotic southern species of great skua. It sat on the water about three kilometers out before chasing the herring gull and then a gannet before I lost it over the horizon. Splitting great skuas from their Southern Ocean cousins is very tricky even when you get close up photos, so it was all wishful thinking. A great skua is a great bird regardless. But this year hasn’t been a great skua year overall. I have seen perhaps 20 or 30 great skuas, less than 15 arctic skuas and no pomarine skuas. Some years my Crail skua total is in the hundreds. The long-tailed skuas of August 27th make up for the lack of the other species though.

Great skua (JA)

There was another young seal on the beach at Balcomie. This one was further along than the individual last week, having moulted nearly all of its white baby fur. It was sleeping among the rocks and appeared quite happy, living off its fat and waiting to grow up.

The young grey seal at Balcomie today

Posted December 3, 2020 by wildcrail in Sightings