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

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