Archive for March 2021

March 31st   Leave a comment

The early spring in terms of migrant birds continues. The wind started of southwest but swung easterly by mid-morning and is now north-easterly. There was enough easterly that the haar blew in at Fife Ness. Just before it did I had my first sandwich tern of the year. No calling, just a single bird flying very fast north, in very business-like migration mode. The first week in April is the usual time for them, and my two previous earliest dates were the 2nd of April.

Sandwich tern (JA)

I also had my first northern wheatears on the beach at the east end of Sauchope (by Kilminning). Three, two males and a female. They flew off into the rocky shore where they disappeared. I suspect I cycled past a few more wheatears today, lost among the rocks of the low tide shore at Balcomie. The wheatears are also my earliest ever – the 1st of April being the earliest in 2018, and most appearing in the second week of April or even much later. As yesterday with me picking up my first chiff-chaffs and them appearing all over Fife on the same day, the pattern is being repeated today with wheatears. There was some other obvious passage today – hundreds of meadow pipits along the rocky shore, a flock of 30 whooper swan over Crail late morning, and a flock of 10 greylag geese, and hundreds of pink-footed geese north over Balcomie. It’s been a good two days after the disappointment of last week, carrying my Crail year list to 119. I did a bit of seawatching from my house at lunchtime (but only close in because of the haar further out) in a bid to see a velvet scoter that often pass on early spring days like these and to take the list up to 120 before the end of March. No year list additions, but three purple sandpipers, obligingly flying above house height into the rocky shore just below my house (the Brandyburn) to add to my garden list, now standing at 139.

One of the three northern wheatears on passage at Sauchope late morning. This is a female which is about 11 months old, the contrasting more rufous feathers on the wing retained from last year’s juvenile plumage.

Posted March 31, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 30th   1 comment

More signs of spring passage today with the warm southerly winds. I heard my first chiffchaff of the year – the first proper summer migrant chiffchaff – singing from the garden of the yellow house at Wormiston. Then two more singing at Lower Kilminning later. I felt sure I would see my first barn swallow too and although I didn’t, there were some reported from west Fife today. As the summer migrants come in, so the winter migrants leave. A flock of greylag geese north past Fife Ness, and small flocks of pink-footed geese and a single yapping barnacle goose, also going north but cutting across the peninsula at Kilminning.

Greylag geese (JA)

I was at Kilminning for an hour talking over possibilities of removing the tarmac and creating a wetland with a landscape engineer. It all seems possible which is very encouraging. The devil is in the details and there will be a big bill to pay. But some of the best bird reserves in the UK – Minsmere and Dungeness, for example – are almost entirely man made. I think the important thing is to see what might be, rather than accept what is. That said, Kilminning is still a good place to bird despite just being a lightly wooded car park. As I dreamt, I had my first siskin of the year over, a sparrowhawk, kestrel and a merlin hunting past me in the space of five minutes, and as mentioned, that noisy barnacle goose. Maybe there will be a marsh for it to pitch down on in a few years.

Kestrel (JA)

Posted March 30, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 29th   Leave a comment

It’s a given that I am fairly obsessed with birds, but occasionally other groups of animals get a look in. Today it was my first ever harbour seal I have seen around Crail. Harbour or common seals are the other British seal species, that used to be more common on the East coast thirty years ago. When I first came to St Andrews twenty years ago, there were hundreds that hauled out at the tip of West Sands. There are none there now and there are only a hundred or so in the inner Forth. Their strongholds are the west of Scotland, the Northern Isles and the Wash in England, and their populations are building up after a disease epidemic in 2002. But there still only a few hundred in eastern Scotland. So, a good sighting for Crail. I saw the harbour seal yesterday at Balcomie but wasn’t 100% sure because although they are easy to identify with a good view, on a bad view as yesterday, it could just be a small grey seal. Today it was hauled out on Balcomie Beach at high tide so its small size was obvious (half the size of a grey seal) and as it swam off (it spotted me first) I could see the distinctive dog-like head and V shaped nostrils. In short harbour seals look cute (big eyes and short snouts) while grey seals look a bit less so, cow-like and sad (relatively smaller looking eyes and long faces). I could also see, unfortunately, that it had a huge, old head wound. It looked like a propeller strike. It must have been horrendous, but it was mostly healed. The seal was a vigorous swimmer and the age of the injury must mean that it is now fairly healthy. I hope it is finding Balcomie a good place to recuperate.

Grey seal left (JA) and the Balcomie harbour seal right to show how to split them. Labrador versus King Charles’ spaniel.
The harbour seal at Balcomie this afternoon. They also have slightly upturned snouts compared to the long, Roman noses of grey seals. The head wound is on the other side.

Posted March 29, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 28th   Leave a comment

I’ve been feeling a bit flat birding wise the last few days as another new Crail bird got away from me. Despite being at Fife Ness in the morning of the 25th, an alpine swift turned up sometime in the afternoon. Sadly, it was only reported last thing in the evening. Swifts can be hard to connect with, but even so. An alpine swift is unlikely to pass by Crail again in my lifetime. Alpine swifts are huge swifts with a very strong and fast flight: even without their rarity in Scotland, they are a bird that anyone can appreciate. I associate them with high, remote places in Africa, or Mediterranean cliffs. Last Thursday’s bird will have been “overshooting” on its way back from Africa with strong southerly winds behind it. A detour to Scotland from the south of France by an alpine swift is only a day’s worth of flying. That said, they really should consider doing it more often. Birding should never be about disappointment, but sadly it sometimes is. If you are passionate about your patch and seeing as many birds there as you can then it is inevitable.

Still, there was some birding to be had around Crail this weekend. With the strong winds, there was a steady auk passage, but much lower than last week. Tens rather than hundreds every five minutes, and more guillemots. There were more kittiwakes and gannets as well. I had two drake goosander heading north over Fife Ness on Saturday morning, making it a good spring for them. Wader wise, nothing much new is coming through yet. Still the same 30 sanderling and a few dunlin but today a bar-tailed godwit at Balcomie after an absence of a couple of weeks. There are still lots of twite at Boghall. I counted at least 80 around the sheep fields behind red sands on Friday. And the flocks of corn buntings are still in the remaining stubbles at Kingsbarns, now massively outnumbered by passage flocks of meadow pipits. There were more corn buntings singing this weekend though, with three singing already from Crail airfield.

Bar-tailed godwit (JA)

Posted March 28, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 25th   Leave a comment

My first “real” summer migrant of the year today. Chiff-chaffs and lesser black-backed gulls don’t quite count because they can overwinter. I saw a fluttery shape charging low over the rocky shore at Balcomie. Something obviously different. A proper look at it and I could see it was a sand martin, although it was gone in a few seconds northwards. From Senegal or another West African country only a few weeks ago. On its way to a riverbank somewhere in the north of Scotland. And in a hurry even though this is my earliest sand martin record for Crail. The next earliest sighting was April 1st 2006. Sand martins are classic early migrants with many arriving in England late March, but not particularly so for Crail. I sometimes don’t see one until late April; it’s the same for northern wheatears (which pretty much guarantees one for tomorrow 🙂 ). The first summer migrant of the year always cheers me up. The passage season staring up again. Another migrant flew over Fife Ness a bit later. A goosander, again flying very fast. Another one for a Scottish riverbank somewhere in the north of Scotland.

Female goosander (JA)

Posted March 25, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 23rd   Leave a comment

As we passed the equinox and race towards light evenings, it turned colder again today, with a cold south-westerly. The wind still suits the whooper swans. Four went over Crail this morning, heading northeast. Yesterday there was a steady passage of razorbills past fife Ness heading north too. I counted about 150 passing every 5 minutes, making 1800 an hour. Mixed in were a few guillemots and the first puffins of the year. There was also a slow but steady passage of kittiwakes heading north. As I seawatched I picked up a stiff winged bird far out, low over the sea. Not the most likely fulmar, but an adult female peregrine cutting the corner off from the Aberdeenshire coast and heading for the Lothians. Peregrines migrate huge distances in some parts of the world – Greenland to Mexico, for example – but I suspect this was a “local” movement. A peregrine’s daily local is at the county scale.

Now is a good time to see red-breasted mergansers. A few are around the rocks of the Roome Bay, the harbour and West Braes. They are unmistakable if you have a close view – and they are often fishing close in, in very shallow water. Like little Chinese dragons.   

Red-breasted mergansers (JA)

Posted March 23, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 21st   Leave a comment

Yesterday I went looking for goshawks at a one of the most reliable sites closest to Crail. I spent a very enjoyable morning watch the skyline above the woods hoping to see a displaying bird: lots of buzzards, one or two peregrines, a couple of sparrowhawks and a brief view of a soaring female goshawk. Despite being the biggest, baddest raptor around, they are very hard to see. Late March is the best time when they display over their territories. Otherwise, they keep to the trees, and out of sight. There are now quite a few pairs in Fife but without hours of watching with a good view over their forest patches they are almost undetectable. There may well be a pair of goshawks breeding on the Crail patch, but we haven’t found them yet.

This morning I was trying to catch the corn buntings again at Kingsbarns. Despite very light winds and 80 corn buntings in two flocks they never came close to being caught. They are spending a lot of time sitting in trees and bushes alongside the fields, many of the birds singing, rather than moving around and feeding. I did see the single colour-ringed corn bunting from last week sitting on a wire, its white ring glowing and obvious. It was only about 150 meters from where we caught it. Good in two respects: first that their rings will be easy to see and second, it is always good to see any bird you have ringed, back to doing exactly what you expect it to be doing, unaffected by being caught and handled. The Lapland bunting was still present, in the same bit of stubble field as last week and again on its own despite the large number of yellowhammers and of course, corn buntings around. As I waited fruitlessly for the corn buntings, a flock of whooper swans flew over, heading north-east. There was a lot of whooper swan migration reported through Fife today, taking advantage of the light south-westerly winds. And later three common crane over Crail late this morning, also heading north-east: I missed them by ten minutes. Very frustrating. They soared over Pinkerton and headed off towards the airfield; three were seen over Aberdeen later in the afternoon.

Whooper swans heading north-east earlier this month (JA)

Posted March 21, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 18th   Leave a comment

I’ve been out a couple of days trying to catch corn buntings to start colour-ringing them. Then I can map how individuals use territories and move around the East Neuk. The flock of over 100 corn buntings still at Kingsbarns, for example. Where are all these birds from? Last year’s local birds or from further afield? With a proportion of corn buntings marked with different ring combinations then we will be able to follow individuals. Easier said than done. It’s been windy and I have mostly been watching corn buntings flying over or bouncing off my nets. But this morning, I caught my first bird at Kingsbarns. All long journeys start with a single step and this is an important one. I have been working on chats for the last few years – wheatears and whinchats – and corn buntings seem huge in comparison. The bird I caught this morning weighed 46 grams! I know this is not a lot really but compared to a 14 gram Cyprus wheatear, a corn bunting is a much chunkier bird. Males are bigger and heavier than females so I should be able to tell the sex of my bird, but this one was bang in the middle with its mass, with a female wing length and a male length tarsus. More experience needed I think. Today’s corn bunting was not only the first corn bunting of my new research study, it was the first corn bunting I have ever caught. Anyway, there is now a colour-ringed corn bunting at large in the East Neuk – WMRY – left leg, right leg, top to bottom, so white over metal on the left leg and red over yellow on the right leg. Finding it again will be a needle in a haystack but with a few tens more then we should start finding out much more about why the corn buntings are doing so well locally, but are only expanding out to the rest of Fife very slowly.

MWRY – my first colour-ringed corn bunting at Kingsbarns today

Some bonuses of following around corn buntings in the few remaining stubble fields: a snow bunting and a Lapland bunting. Both single birds and just in the same fields as the corn buntings but not really associating with them. I was really pleased because I identified both correctly by the pitch of their “truup” call as they flew by me, before I saw them: it has been a good season’s worth of experience this winter. The Lapland bunting obligingly landed in the top of a tree and even started a little singing – not the melodic song I know from Arctic Alaska but a more scratchy sub-song. Still, great to hear, and nice to be able to see a Lapland bunting well, rather than just a dashing shape in a windswept sky.  

Lapland bunting – note the amazingly long primary projection (really long winged compared to corn buntings) and also the very long hind claw (hence the American name of “Lapland longspur”)

Posted March 18, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 17th   Leave a comment

My daughter stuck her head round the door this morning and let me know that there was a bird in the greenhouse. I asked her what sort and she replied in true teenage fashion that she didn’t do birds and had no idea and why was I asking so many questions. I duly went down the garden to the greenhouse expecting the usual sparrow or a false alarm: house sparrows often go in to eat the aphids and then happily find their way out of the open door. But when I got there, not a sparrow but a sparrowhawk. A first year male that was trying to get out through the glass rather than looking behind it and seeing the open door. Sparrowhawks are great at what they do – stealth, surprise hunting and ruthless determination – but they are not the brightest bird on the block. I caught the bird easily as it continued to try to get through the glass. I’ve handled a lot of sparrowhawks and still have a licence to catch and put radio tags on them (a fairly arcane qualification, but handy today). But sparrowhawks are actually not much trouble in the hand. Even if they get their sharp claws into your hand their grip is not very strong, and their bill the same. I imagine it’s a different story if you are a blue tit. I took the sparrowhawk out of the greenhouse and showed it to my daughter who, at last, was moderately impressed. Sparrowhawks have such an indomitable stare, as if they are sizing everything up for a fight – even something many times its size. Perhaps something a teenager can relate to. I let it go and it shot away over my house, blue tit alarm calls and grumpy gulls following it away.

That teenager death stare – the young male sparrowhawk. If you look closely you can see it has a tick just behind its eye.

Posted March 17, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 16th   Leave a comment

A cold north-westerly, but warm out of the wind and in the sun. The frogs shifted up a gear, with over 50 in the pond and now 12 clumps of spawn. The volume of their croaking matched the temperature, turned up to 11. At Balcomie it is still quiet; the sanderlings roosting even at mid-tide. There are still lots of teal passing, pairs stopping to feed in the shallows of the rocky shore for a few hours with the resident mallards and eiders.

Teal (JA)

Posted March 16, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 14th   Leave a comment

There are still some corn bunting flocks about. I bumped into a flock of at least 60 just west of Kingsbarns this morning. The stubble fields are still there too, so probably not a coincidence. Everywhere else they are disappearing fast: I could hear the ploughing and the gulls throughout my walk from Kingsbarns to Kenly Water and back. There are only a couple left at Hillhead now, but there seem to be just skylarks in these fields anyway, apart from the big chaffinch flock down by the burn mouth (minus any bramblings now). The twite are still in residence at Boghall, in the sheep field behind Red Sands. At least 90, which I think removes the remote possibility that the similar size twite flock I found out at Kilrenny last Monday were the same birds. Coming back into Kingsbarns I checked the gulls roosting on the sea and found my first proper summer migrant of the year – a lesser black-backed gull, back from North Africa or southern Iberia.

My first lesser-black backed gull of the year at Kingsbarns this morning. They are pretty much the first migrant back, only having to come back from Southern Europe. The birds on the right (bottom to top) are a nice sequence of 1st winter, 2nd winter and then adult herring gulls.

Posted March 14, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 13th   Leave a comment

There was a pair of shelduck on the rocky shore at the north end of Balcomie this morning. This is where they usually breed, in a sheltered, enclosed spot or down a rabbit hole. I have never found the nest there so I suspect down a hole. They can breed inland quite happily so it may be well away from the beach in a bank above the golf course or alongside one of the fields. The chicks will then be walked across the golf course to the sea after hatching. It starts to feel like spring when the shelduck come back to Balcomie. The frogs in my pond feel it is spring already though – spawn was visible for the first time today although it hasn’t risen to the surface yet. The pond has been a mass of grappling and croaking frogs all week even though the temperature has still only been about six degrees most days.

Pair of shelduck at Balcomie – female on the left and male on the right. (JA). This is a photo from last year but shelduck mate for life and live a long time so the pair I had today are very likely to be the same birds. Older birds start breeding earlier than new pairs as well.

Posted March 13, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 11th   2 comments

There was a big concentration of gulls and ducks at Roome Bay this afternoon pecking away in the surf as the high tide washed out the sandhoppers and seaweed fly maggots out of the strandline. It’s one of the best natural spectacles to be seen regularly from Crail. Lots of birds, lots of activity and always the chance of something rare in amongst the herring gulls and mallards. And when there isn’t like today, there is still the satisfaction of having hundreds of birds to check through. In the foreground, on the small bit of beach remaining, were the Roome Bay redshanks. Among them YNGN – a colour-ringed redshank I caught in Crail on the 21st March 2011 – so almost exactly a decade ago. It was 8 months old when I caught it so it is now nearly 10 years old. It’s a small redshank and already getting its summer plumage relative to the rest of the others, so I should think it is a Scottish breeder. Maybe Shetland or the Hebrides, or perhaps the Spey Valley.

Roome Bay redshanks – YNGN is the one on the left, getting its summer spots

Posted March 11, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 9th   Leave a comment

A few corn buntings are popping up on the wires through their territories but there isn’t much song yet. The big flocks have disappeared and they are hard to find, lost in the middle of ploughed fields. The twite are still about and in big flocks. I found a new flock of 105 at Pitkierie cottage, alongside the road coming up north from Kilrenny. There is an old corn bunting strip there alongside the newly ploughed field. The margins that are being seeded and left for corn buntings have made a huge difference. Old school, big flocks of finches and buntings have been in lots of places this winter, brightening up the otherwise fairly bleak East Neuk farming landscape. And the corn bunting strips will have provided a life line during the snowy weather last month.

This photo will make John Anderson cringe but it shows well how distinctive twite are for a bird that isn’t very distinctive. Compare to the linnet bottom left. Peachy buff throat, yellow bill and dark crown and breast side streaks.

Posted March 9, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 6th   Leave a comment

Now is the time to hear great spotted woodpeckers drumming. There is one drumming in Beech Walk park in Crail at the moment. I am often asked how I know the drumming is from a great spotted woodpecker without seeing it, and the simple answer is, we only have great spotted woodpeckers drumming in Scotland. If we were in eastern Europe we might have a short list of five or six species and auditory identification is a bit trickier.

There were quite a few people out on the coastal path and shore this weekend. A trend that will be going up and up over the coming weeks despite lockdown. The wigeon that roost on the rocks at the mouth of the Brandyburn and by the paddling pool were all displaced out into Roome Bay. Less comfortable for them, but it made them easier to count – about 20 – outnumbering the mallards. It is usually the other way round. At low tide there is a lot of shore, so disturbance doesn’t matter so much, and at high tide, most of the shorebirds are roosting, so although disturbance costs a bit of energy relocating, the birds don’t lose valuable feeding time. It always looks bad when people are wombling over the rocky shore, and species like the wigeon are displaced, but it probably doesn’t make a great deal of difference to the birds’ energy budget, except when it is really cold.

Male wigeon (JA)

Posted March 6, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 4th   Leave a comment

Early March sometimes feels like a holding pattern. Things about to change but not quite there yet. There was a north-easterly today, and easterlies yesterday, so I had a vague hope of a black redstart or an early white wagtail. But the only real change was lots of gannets coming past Fife Ness – at least a lot more compared to the one an hour of last week – although with still many more to go over the next few weeks. On Balcomie Beach it was just the usual sanderling with a few purple sandpipers among them pretending to be dunlin, probing the beach rather than keeping to the rocks.

Purple sandpiper (JA)

Posted March 4, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 2nd   Leave a comment

Spring on one level seems to have taken a raincheck with haar yesterday and a chill, grey south-easterly keeping it at three degrees all day. But it hasn’t stopped my frogs. They are still at it, croaking and jostling, waiting for females. Some have turned up and a couple of suitors have got lucky. Males are a little bit smaller than females and cling on to their backs for dear life waiting for the right moment when the female lays her eggs. But if a bigger male comes along in the meantime they can lose their opportunity.

Male and female frogs

Another sign of spring today. A male house sparrow holding a feather and cheeping away from a rose hedge in the back garden. I don’t think he will be nest building yet. More just waving a flag of intention to generate some interest.

And above my pond, the male house sparrow also trying to get things started today

Posted March 2, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings