Archive for February 2021

February 28th   Leave a comment

The Fife SOC is running an “Alternative Bird Race” this weekend, with the aim to compile a Fife wide list based on everyone birding their local patch. This might have had a little to do with covering a lot of the ground around Crail yesterday, and this morning covering the rest of it. Today it was my regular Wormiston, Balcomie, Fife Ness coastal loop. I picked up another 14 species, mostly easy coastal species – things like gannet, fulmar, razorbill, dunlin, sanderling, stonechat – with a couple of lucky ones for the time of year, shelduck and knot, and one special, a pale-bellied brent goose flying in to Balcomie Beach, and then presumably the same bird later past Sauchope and Crail. It is always good to see a brent goose on the patch, especially a one outside the usual two or three days when they pass Fife Ness in the autumn. And they are not always reliable then – I haven’t seen them in 7 out of the last 19 years. I finished the weekend on a reasonably creditable 87 species. As usual a few easy ones eluded me – lapwing, golden plover and even kittiwake. I scanned from Fife Ness for 30 minutes but in that time there was only one gannet past let alone a kittiwake. I hope that one or two of my species boost the overall Fife list for the weekend – the crossbill and the twite maybe.

Pale-bellied brent goose (JA)

This afternoon as I was in my back garden, I heard a grey partridge calling from my neighbour’s garden. The first call I thought was a misheard gull, but it kept going, louder and louder, like a male setting up a territory. But in a normal, small, lawn and flower bed garden, right in the middle of Crail. I have only very recently added grey partridge to my garden list, having heard one from my front garden last year, in the midst of lockdown on a very quiet, traffic free evening, probably from the fields by West Braes. I could barely hear it then, it almost felt like I was imagining it. Not today – a grey partridge in full raspy call, a few meters away, is impossible not to notice. We do have a bumper density of grey partridges around Crail this year I think, so breeding territories may be hotly contested. Nevertheless, one trying its luck in a suburban garden is a pretty radical solution for a bird tied to open fields.

Grey partridge – fairly unusual in Crail gardens, although those on the fringes next to fields like John Andersons get them wandering in now and then. A grey partridge setting up a territory in one though, is very unusual (JA)

Posted February 28, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 27th   Leave a comment

It was relief to get back outside this Saturday after a week stuck working indoors, and the days getting longer and warmer. It was time to get on my bike and get round the patch. Today was a balmy twelve degrees and very sunny: the frogs croaking all day, song thrushes and skylarks singing their heads off and great spotted woodpeckers drumming. Spring is definitely on the way.

I headed up to Carnbee via the secret bunker road. There is a big patch of wild bird seed mix planting just north of Tolldrie that has been full of small birds all winter but I have only driven past and thought about stopping. I should have done so earlier. There were hundreds of linnets, with smaller but good numbers of goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches and yellowhammers. Among them were nine bramblings; a couple of males now nearly in full summer plumage.

Male brambling

I continued up the road past the woods of the secret bunker, listening for anything special. A woodcock flew past me, but my usual jack snipe site in a boggy field corner by the road was empty of any other kind of snipe. It was the beginning of a theme for the rest of the day of missing winter visitors: no fieldfares or redwings to be found anywhere, no Lapland buntings. Carnbee reservoir was busy with ducks: about forty tufted ducks and twenty goldeneye, still lots of wigeon, but very few teal. I tried in vain again to call up a water rail. They are hit and miss on the Crail patch but you can never tell if they are there and being silent, or not there at all.

After Carnbee I went to Boarhills via Dunino. Everywhere I went today I heard and saw tree sparrows, many more than house sparrows. There are many parts of the UK where tree sparrows have disappeared completely: we are lucky to still have so many. At Boarhills I walked down the Kenly Burn. There were two dippers where I expect them to be, on the stretch between the village and the metal bridge. There are plenty of rapids and small overhanging cliffs on this stretch making it a good nesting area. It was high tide when I got to the Kenly mouth at lunch time. I sat watching the gull and wader roost. The usual greenshank was in amongst the redshank. At Hillhead the buntings are more or less gone. I had a flock of about 12 corn buntings in the stubble, but relatively few reed buntings and yellowhammers (still in their tens though, just nothing special compared to the cold weather of a couple of weeks ago). The twite are still in good numbers in the sheep field directly behind the beach, where the track comes down from Boghall Farm. There were at least 60 in a couple of flocks, often clustering on the fence around the field when they were disturbed. As I watched them a redpoll went over calling – pushing the Crail year list to 109. There were more twite in a flock of over 1000 linnet in the stubble field opposite the Newton of Wormiston, closer to Crail. Again I have been driving past this field and wondering about it all winter. Linnets are common and everyday, but a flock of 1000 is a noisy, dancing murmuration well worth seeing. And as I watched a common crossbill flew over from Wormiston, calling clearly but invisibly above me. I got back to Crail again seven hours, 30 km and 73 species later, with the sun still shining. Definitely much the best day this week.

The twite at Boghall today – still lots of twite about even if the other winter migrants are becoming scarcer

Posted February 27, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

Feb 21st   Leave a comment

The contrast to last week is amazing. Winter to spring in a few days. Kittock’s Den this morning at Fairmont was completely empty of migrant thrushes and woodcock. Even the blackbirds had gone and there was not a single hawthorn berry left. Around Fairmont the yellowhammers and skylarks were singing like it was mid-March. In my garden this afternoon I counted 44 frogs sitting in the water, croaking hopefully and waiting for the females to arrive. Last year we had spawn by the 12th of March but it seems any day now for spawn this year.

Two of the frogs in my garden pond waiting for some action – the one on the right is mid-croak

Posted February 21, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 20th   Leave a comment

The coastal loop from Crail to Wormiston to Balcomie and then back to Crail along the coastal path was much quieter than last week. The skylarks have mostly gone with just a few residents left in each field, busily singing and scrapping today ready for starting breeding in six weeks. Along the coast there were quite a few teal and a pair of long-tailed ducks past Fife Ness; otherwise it was much as usual for February.

It got a bit more exciting at lunctime. The Russian whitefronts had been seen again: the wild goose chase was on again. This time it was straightforward. I found the three birds exactly where they had been seen forty minutes before, in a small flock of pink-footed geese between Pittenweem and Balcaskie. The first whitefronts on the Crail patch (just at the 10km mark) for 9 years! Viewing wasn’t ideal, standing beside the surprisingly busy road, but they were good to see again. Pink bills and pale heads made them birds from Siberia rather than Greenland. I also noticed they looked more elongated than the pink-feet they were with, and with much darker grey backs allowing them to be picked out when their distinctive white face patches and orange legs couldn’t be seen.

Three Russian white-fronted Geese at Pittenweem today; with pink-footed geese. Although the photos are poor they do give a better feel for the id challenges.

Further along the road was a flock of about 800 pink-footed geese in a much quieter location. I could scan the flock in a more relaxed fashion. I picked out one tundra bean goose among them – another rare goose for the Crail patch from Siberia, with the last ones being seen here in the winter of 2015 – 2016. Again, they are distinctive like whitefronts when you get a good view – with an orange bill tip patch (the same pattern as on pink-feets but not pink) and orange legs. But most of the time you don’t get a good view – geese feed in cereals or grass obscuring their legs and head. Then it’s the lack of contrast in the blackish back, wings and flanks, and the lack of a prominent white tail tip that picks a bean goose out in a flock of pinkfeet. Another valuable addition to the Crail year list, although 10.5 km from Crail and so technically off the patch: but the flock luckily flew off east before circling back and heading towards Kilconquhar so the bean goose could, just, get included.

Tundra bean goose today, again with pink-footed geese

Posted February 20, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

Feb 16th   Leave a comment

What a difference a couple of days make. Today it was ten degrees, and there were about 20 frogs in my garden pond or sunning themselves around the edge. It was nearly solid ice three days ago! The great tits and robins are singing their heads off; the fieldfares, redwings and skylarks have all disappeared inland again. Today I saw a handful of skylarks and two were already singing. At Balcomie Beach there were still twenty or so dunlin and the single knot but it was much more relaxed. I sat in the warm sun, in the dunes out of the wind, and thought about how the wheatears will be starting to head north in a couple of weeks.

A Balcomie Dunlin, with just a hint of summer plumage (JA)

Posted February 16, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

Feb 14th   Leave a comment

This evening it is raining steadily and the temperature is back up to five degrees. Most of the snow has gone from Crail already and it will be back to normal “warm” East Neuk temperatures for next week. It was cold until mid-afternoon though and this morning it was still spectacular in the fields along the coast. I walked from Kingsbarns to Kenly Water along the coastal path and then back through Hillhead and Pitmilly. It was impossible to count the birds I saw this morning. There were at least a couple of merlins, a kestrel and a few sparrowhawks about putting up huge flocks of skylarks, hundreds at a time from small areas of each field. Then they would go down and then a few minutes later there would be another disturbance of another few hundred birds – the same, or different? I suspect thousands of skylarks – perhaps ten thousand, spread between Kingsbarns and Kenly. And in the skylark flocks, meadow pipits, corn buntings, redwings, fieldfares, song thrushes, linnets, twite (one flock of at least 80 above the beach at Boghall adjacent to the same field they have been in since the autumn), golden plover, lapwing and reed buntings. At Hillhead there were more discrete flocks of just yellowhammers and tree sparrows, and the usual large flock of chaffinches down by the Kenly Water. This flock had five bramblings in it – another bird I usually expect to see first in a year in the autumn but brought to the east coast now by the cold weather. The chaffinch flock was very, very jumpy and kept on flying back to some trees at the field edge where they were trying to feed. As I watched them a young male merlin flew over scattering the flock. It was already carrying a skylark but the chaffinches weren’t know. The merlin then, surprisingly, suddenly dropped the skylark as it flew over the burn towards Boarhills. I think it just fumbled its grip – perhaps the skylark was still struggling. It checked its dash to retrieve its prey but the skylark was already lost in the river. A clumsy merlin but I shouldn’t think it would have had any problem catching something else later. Merlins cache prey when the hunting is good, although watching a merlin going back to retrieve a cached skylark or pipit is painful. They seem to know only roughly where they stashed it and spend a long time running around on the grass looking (they are quite agile on the ground if not very good at remembering). From the prey’s point of view today, there was only a miniscule risk of falling victim to one of the many raptors hunting along the coast – but of course every individual has to react when a bird of prey appears, otherwise they are transformed from anonymity among hundreds of other fleeing birds, to obvious target. It all added to the excitement – constantly swirling flocks and birds everywhere I looked. To cap the walk, I also heard a Lapland bunting at Hillhead and then saw a snow bunting as I returned to Kingsbarns. It will be interesting to see how quickly the flocks disperse inland this week as the weather improves. One part of me is glad that conditions have eased making life easier for the birds, but another part will miss the spectacle.  

The bramblings in with the chaffinches at Hillhead/Kenly Water this morning. A male in the centre and a female below, then a male chaffinch and a female below. There are another three bramblings to spot in the photo.
A nervous moment in the flock – with the bramblings just that little bit later to fly than the chaffinches. One brambling is already up in the air, just to the right of the male facing the camera. You can see its white rump rather than the green of the chaffinches.

Posted February 14, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

Feb 13th   Leave a comment

The dictionary definition of a wild goose chase – “a foolish and hopeless search for or pursuit of something unattainable”. The literal definition – this morning’s tramping around fields around Pittenweem and St Monans, on the coldest day of the year, in search of elusive white-fronted geese. You can guess the outcome. It has been 9 years since we have had some white-fronted geese on the Crail patch, and this group was just on the 10 km boundary when it was reported this morning. I was very keen to see them. The cold weather brings the pink-footed geese to the East Neuk and with them rarer species. There were certainly lots of pink-footed geese. Small groups scattered about and at Balbuthie, several hundred, with a single barnacle goose among them. I searched diligently for bean geese or the whitefronts but another saying came to mind – needle in a haystack – particularly when my attention span was soon limited by a wind chill of about -5. Despite missing the target geese, it was really interesting to see the concentrations of birds brought down to the coast by the cold weather. Thousands of skylarks, hundreds of meadow pipits, redwings, fieldfares and song thrushes along the field edges and a flock of 500 linnet at the edge of Pittenweem (at one point all roosting on the ice of a frozen field pool like a flock of tiny golden plover). There are common snipe in most of the fields and many more lapwing than usual. I saw a peregrine sat in the middle of one of the stubble fields with a huge bulge in its crop: I should think it was appreciating the wader bounty as well.

Linnet flock at Pittenweem temporarily roosting on the ice – I estimated at the time about 500 of them, but there are over 350 in this photo alone, and half the flock had already flown off to join another similar sized flock in the wild bird seed set aside plot just on the edge of the east end of the village. So a lot of linnets…

The wind was even stronger this afternoon, from the south-east. In theory it should have brought something past Fife Ness but there was just a steady passage of kittiwakes and one red-throated diver. The few auks that were about were all staying put on the water. I think everything was keeping their heads down: I could only watch the sea in the shelter of the block house by the hide. It was much more exciting walking along the beach – again lots of song thrushes and redwings, meadow pipits and skylarks. The purple sandpipers were feeding like dunlin along the tide edge, and among the usual turnstones and redshanks a couple of grey plover and a knot out of the ordinary. These last two and the barnacle goose of this morning – three species that I often don’t get on the year list until the autumn – takes my Crail year list to 105 and a 45 day lead on previous years (and still with rare winter geese to play for). There was a big flock of skylarks and linnets in the asparagus field at Balcomie Castle, and among them, appropriately enough, a snow bunting. At Kilminning there were several woodcocks. Another snow species brought to the coast. And the final bird of the afternoon, a female merlin dashing over the sheep field and over the airfield. Another species that will be enjoying the abundance of small birds as much as I am. It really is a spectacle: there must be tens of thousands of song birds in the fields of the East Neuk at the moment.

The big seas continue – here a shag dodges the waves (JA)

Posted February 13, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

Feb 11th   Leave a comment

I walked around Crail this lunchtime. The snow is looking a little sad in places, but away from the roads there is still a decent covering. Last night was cold for Crail, with the temperature at dawn close to -4 degrees: there wasn’t much of a thaw during daylight. The birds are all still clustered around the shore and in the gardens. The fieldfares were less common today but there were still plenty about. I noticed the redwings more. There were several on the beach at Roome Bay feeding amongst the wrack and pebbles with the turnstones and redshanks.

A beach redwing today at Roome Bay

I walked on through the stubble fields by Pinkerton and Balcomie Caravan Park. The skylarks were in dense clusters wherever the snow had melted in a damp patch or been blown away by the wind. I probably heard a Lapland bunting among them. Bits of the field were unfrozen under the snow and I put up six common snipe as I walked by them. They must be like oases for the snipe in a frozen desert. Unusually there was a flock of 65 pink-footed geese in the northern field. I walked past them about 150 meters away and they barely glanced at me. Pink-footed geese are by and large unmolested around Crail, with no-one shooting them, and they know it. They didn’t look particularly hungry either. Most were preening or roosting. I finished up walking through Denburn. It was full of redwings and blackbirds fossicking among the snowdrops and digging little pits in the snow to get to the leaf litter below. The wrens and robins following on to the exposed ground after the thrushes. They all alarm called and I looked up expecting a sparrowhawk, but instead, a woodcock flying through the canopy, flushed by a sledging child in the sheep field.

Pink-footed geese (JA)

Posted February 11, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

Feb 10th   Leave a comment

I couldn’t get out today and could only glance out of my window at the snow. John Anderson phoned in the middle of a class this afternoon (my students are used to me answering the phone in the middle of a tutorial…) – a barn owl hunting in the late afternoon sunlight above the snow of the airfield. Barns owls and snow are a magical combination, even if a daylight hunting owl will be doing so because it is very hungry. Oh well, hopefully another day. I consoled myself today with the fieldfares, back again in a big flock to work on the crab apples. Occasionally flocks of skylarks flew over the garden heading east. Once they reach Fife Ness there really is nowhere else to go – there must be a very, very big flock out in the remaining stubble fields of Balcomie.

One of the fieldfares returning to my back garden, giving me at least a glimpse of some wildlife today

Posted February 10, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

Feb 9th   Leave a comment

The snow finally made it to Crail. With it an invasion of fieldfares. There must have been several hundred in the gardens of Crail today. I had about 60 in my back garden congregating around one of my small crab apple trees. The apples look beautiful and red all winter but nothing usually eats them – they are starvation food. There clearly weren’t many other options because the fieldfares were tearing into them. One of my resident blackbirds would chase off any fieldfare that landed under the tree for a fallen crab but there was no keeping away the others queuing up for a space in the tree. There were more flocks of birds displaced by the heavier snow inland passing along the coast through Crail all day – fieldfares, redwings, meadow pipits and particularly skylarks. Along the coastal path flocks of meadow pipits and the occasional fieldfare were feeding in the muddy springs which had melted the snow around them. There was also a single golden plover taking advantage of the unfrozen ground, uncharacteristically reluctant to fly. I walked carefully round it fearing a starving bird but it flew off strongly to the beach. There is still not much evidence of hard weather mortality and there were no corpses to be found along the path or the shore at West Braes. But it is going to be a cold night tonight and below freezing for much of the day tomorrow.

Part of the fieldfare invasion into Crail today
The golden plover on the coastal path at West Braes – unusually tame and unusually alone

Posted February 9, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

Feb 7th   Leave a comment

There was some hail and a tiny bit of snow today coming in on the continuing strong easterlies making it look as wintery as it has done in the East Neuk for several years. That said it was a poor showing and it was above freezing all day. The key thing was to stay out of the wind, and this was the theme for the birds today. I walked the loop from Kingsbarns to Kenly by Pitmilly and then back along the coastal path. The ground is saturated and there is a lot of flooding along the tracks and in some field corners. There are still concentrations of buntings, tree sparrows and finches at Hillhead Farm by Kenly Water, all keeping in the lee of the dykes and hedges. The corn buntings – about 30 of them – were mixed in with about 200 skylarks in the field by the salmon bothy. I probably heard a Lapland bunting, but it wasn’t a day for flushing buntings, and even if I had tried, it was hard to hear anything calling in the wind. Further down the coast at Boghall Farm there were big flocks of linnets in with the sheep that have reduced the turnip fields to brown deserts. Again, there may have been twite in amongst them but it wasn’t the day to chase after them. There is still a good sized flock of about 50 yellowhammer along the Drony road closer to Kingsbarns. At Kenly, even the sheltered burn mouth was rough. There was a good roost of redshanks and two greenshanks. They left in a hurry and I searched for the cause. A minute later a sparrowhawk flew up from the grassy bank behind the roost. At sea there were more auks and kittiwakes than usual, as it has been for the last week in the storms. I found a couple of auk and a juvenile kittiwake carcass on the red beach at Boghall: there will be more appearing over the next few days as birds dying in the storm at sea at the moment get washed up.

A young kittiwake passing Fife Ness yesterday morning (JA). First winter birds are much more susceptible to dying, lacking the experience or the body condition to deal with prolonged winter storms.

Posted February 7, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

Feb 6th   Leave a comment

There has been no let up in the easterly gales and heavy rain for the last three days. There are occasional gaps in the showers but if you want to get out it is full wet weather gear from head to toe, or a miserable time is in store. I went out to Balcomie and Fife Ness this morning. It was all about the storm and the wild sea and the spectacle. There were birds but hard to see anything in the wind and the huge waves. Balcomie Beach was covered in spume and the waders had retreated to the rocks on the northern edge where there was a bit more shelter while feeding. At Fife Ness there was a steady stream of razorbills and kittiwakes: I looked in vain for a little auk. About ten red-throated divers went past in 45 minutes. It was exciting and it felt like something special might come past at any time. But the cold and rain (and a miserable dog) pushed me home for coffee. I had a better view of the seabird passage from my house in Crail in any case. Being 30 meters up I could see into the wave troughs. It was the same as Fife Ness however, still razorbills and kittiwakes, although now with double figures of gannets – a faint hint of spring that otherwise seemed a very long way off today.

The scene from Fife Ness mid-morning today – razorbills and waves (JA)

Posted February 6, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 3rd   Leave a comment

The easterly gale continues, pushing the waves into Crail. It was fairly wild out at Roome Bay this morning between the grey curtains of the showers coming in off the sea. I watched the goldeneyes diving out in the surf. I counted at least eight, so after their late arrival last autumn, that is the usual number that winter in Roome Bay. They must have been trying to pick things up underwater that were being disturbed but I have no idea how they manage to see anything at all in such rough and murky water. A few more days of this – it is forecast to go on until next Tuesday – and the inshore seabirds will start to starve.

Goldeneyes on a brighter day (JA). This is one of John Anderson’s best photos and well worth posting again when talking about goldeneyes

Posted February 3, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

Feb 2nd   Leave a comment

I am working at home because of lockdown, teaching students remotely and trying to make the best of it. But one aspect of the make do arrangement that is just brilliant is that I am in the right place when someone finds something out at Fife Ness. I was just finishing a meeting with a student (honestly) when John Anderson phoned – there was a glaucous gull on the rocks by Stinky Pool. Fifteen minutes later I was out there looking at the gull too, as it took a break in the cormorants and shag roost. Ten minutes even later it was on its way south again, flying over the lighthouse at Fife Ness. This seems to be the way of Crail white-winged gulls – they stop its only for a short while. But my haste was vindicated. Today’s glaucous gull – and only about my 7th or 8th in my 19 years here – was a second winter bird with its wings going almost pure white, and more patchy biscuity-brown elsewhere. It was stood in exactly the same spot as the Iceland gull on November 26th last year. But in contrast, today’s bird showed the characteristic flat head, beady head and low brow (a more thuggish look) of a glaucous, with a heavier pink bill with a neat back tip. The rain started again as the gull left but I stuck it out for a quick seawatch, sheltering in the lee of the seawatching hide. I was rewarded with a black-throated diver coming past heading north. I had been hoping for one of the great northern divers that others have been seeing this week, but a black-throated will do very nicely, taking me up to 102 for the Crail year list.

The 2nd winter glaucous gull taken on my phone through my telescope – phonescoping works well in poor light.
But John’s photo is much more detailed – note the “nasty” look (apologies to glaucous gulls, but it is really is the best way to always split them reliably from Iceland gulls) (JA)

Posted February 2, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

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