Archive for April 2021

April 30th   Leave a comment

I covered 44 km today looking for corn buntings and added another 11 territories. My own total is now 93. A few of these will be just first year birds singing as part of mobile feeding flocks and so not real territories, but then a few of the multiple sightings I have will turn into separate territories. I haven’t done much west of Pittenweem so there will be many more to find, and there are still large flocks of corn buntings dotted around that haven’t even thought about getting a territory yet. It is all very encouraging. I am encountering pairs of grey partridges every couple of kilometers and there seem to be hares everywhere too. And two fields with yellow wagtails in them either side of the horse field, suggesting two or more potential nesting pairs (although still no sign of any females). The only thing missing is some warmer weather and a few more migrants.

Corn bunting singing despite the cold this week (JA)

There were more common whitethroats in today, singing from fieldside hedges all over. The sedge warbler that occupies the bramble patch just outside Crail on the north side of the Anstruther Road was also back singing this morning. And swallows over most fields, although concentrated in the lee of hedges and patches of woodland, or over fields with livestock in them, where the insects are concentrated. At Balcomie, the beach was deserted apart from the ever-present oystercatchers: nearly all of the redshanks have gone now. At the high tide roost on the rocks just north of Fife Ness (behind Stinky Pool) there were only whimbrel, curlew and oystercatchers. As the rocks north of Balcomie became covered so more whimbrels flew in to join them until there were at least eight.

Whimbrels roosting at Fife Ness this afternoon on the high tide – but how many? Look for the dark crown and paler crown stripe and the back feathers looking blurry (less defined paler notches) to pick out the whimbrels from the curlews (three of each) (JA)


Posted April 30, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 28th   Leave a comment

Rain at last, although only about 2mm in the last 24 hours. It came in on an easterly wind so there was some cause for hope this morning when I went out. Sadly, the spring is now about a week behind in terms of migrants, so all I found this morning was a lot of blackcaps – mid-April migrants, not the more exciting common redstarts and wood warblers of late April. Blackcaps are nice though. I had over eight at Kilminning with a lot of them singing – blackcap song is one the most beautiful British bird songs. There were more willow warblers in too – another third week of April arrival species. At Fife Ness the only terns were sandwich terns. The guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and gannets were passing in good numbers – now back into their summer routine of back and forth the May Island and Bass Rock.

Willow warbler – with another great spring song, although not patch on a blackcap (JA)

Posted April 28, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 25th   Leave a comment

I was along the edge of the fields next to the coastal path at Randerston looking for corn buntings this morning. I didn’t find any new territories, but I did see a lot of hares. I saw a pair having a bit of a box and a chase, and one of the males, clearly very fired up and in the mad March hare mood, started lolloping straight towards me. I was mystified until I realized it was heading for my dog, Nutty. I watched in disbelief – my dog did the same. It stopped about four meters away from Nutty and got up onto its hind legs to have a better look. I can only imagine that to this sex crazed hare, a small, brown border terrier might have looked a bit like a potential mate. The dog and hare regarded each other for several seconds, and I watched in disbelief, my hand sliding slowly down to my camera to catch this bizarre moment. But I was too late, the hare realized its mistake (Nutty’s ears too short probably) and trotted off up the field. Nutty watched it go without even an attempt to pull on her lead to try and chase it, most unlike a terrier. This was just not what hares do. The next hare we met just legged it as normal, restoring Nutty’s faith.

Despite a slight easterly today there was nothing obviously new in at Kilminning or Balcomie. There has been a good passage of northern wheatears this year and there are one or two in many of the newly harrowed fields at the moment. I had a great view of a lovely female wheatear keeping pace with me as I walked along a fence. Normally spring wheatears are fairly shy, but this one seemed as interested in me as I was in it. Perhaps it was the dog again.

Female northern wheatear in a field behind Balcomie this morning

Posted April 25, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 24th   Leave a comment

The summer migrants are coming in quite slowly but surely. The weather is still cool, and the season has shifted from early back to about normal. Today I had my first common whitethroats and a sedge warbler. They tend to arrive back at the same time and usually in the fourth week of April. All in all it was a good day for summer migrants. Ten species. The two already mentioned, sand martin, barn swallow, sandwich tern, northern wheatear, blackcap, willow warbler, chiff-chaff and yellow wagtail. The last showing well in the horse fields at Barnsmuir. A lovely male: a drop of intense yellow to square an already sunny day. John Anderson saw it singing this morning in the usual territory that is always first occupied after they arrive so fingers crossed.

Crail yellow wagtail(s) today (bottom JA)

Posted April 24, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 21st   Leave a comment

The good conditions for migration have continued for the last three days. There was a small stutter with some light rain showers yesterday evening – it didn’t amount to much with only 0.4mm falling to create the monumental month’s total of 1.6mm so far. That is officially very dry. The irrigation ponds around Crail are being emptied by the farmers very fast this month. Migration wise it made no difference, although perhaps there were more blackcaps and willow warblers in Denburn this morning.

There were two good birds reported yesterday from Kilminning before the rain. One was a green woodpecker – I have only had one in 18 years in Crail. They occur further to the west but yesterday’s bird seems likely to have come in from the sea. The second was a nuthatch. They are spreading northwards and are regular breeders over the other side of the Forth, but there are few in Fife. This would have been a new bird for the Crail list for me. But sadly, I was fifteen minutes too late. It left Kilminning and flew west towards Crail before I got there. I spent the next hour in Denburn hoping in vain that the big trees there might have attracted it in. There was a nuthatch in Anstruther this time last year that I didn’t go to see because of lockdown, so they are becoming more common. I suspect we will have another in Crail sometime soon so I won’t grieve this one that got away.

Curlews have been passing over Crail for the last four days. As they migrate, they call – it’s a beautiful call anyway, the mournful “coor-lee”, but drifting down from a beautiful blue sky from a small flock powering their way north, it becomes even more special. A reminder of the freedom that birds have and the scale over which they move during a year. The annual curlew passage is becoming a mid-April highlight for me living in Crail. In a week’s time the whimbrels will be doing the same, except with their own, equally evocative, multi whistle call.

Curlews are on the move over Crail – really high up but their distinctive calls as they pass overhead give them away (JA)

Posted April 21, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 18th   Leave a comment

This weekend has been a couple of good days for migration. Settled weather on Saturday with little wind, and today, light south-easterlies. The trouble is, it is too good. Everything will be passing according to plan without anything being blown off course or forced to stop with us because of rain showers. There was some very light rain this afternoon but too little to make any real difference. I had my first willow warblers of the year on Saturday. A pulse of them arrived in Fife on the 16th. I heard them singing at Wormiston and in the Patch at Fife Ness. There were many more chiffchaffs in this weekend as well. The two species are very easy to tell apart by song at this time of year, but the challenge is to split them on sight. I think the easiest and most reliable way to do this is to look at the head pattern. In chiffchaffs, the eye dominates – it looks big, and with a clear eye ring especially in the lower half – and the res of the head pattern is subtle. In willow warblers, the eyestripe dominates, particularly behind the eye, creating a more striking head pattern of stripes. The eyeing is there but just gets lost because of the much more contrasting dark areas before and behind the eye, and this then makes the supercilium (the paler stripe above the eye – the “eyebrow”) more conspicuous. It is subtle but the differences create an innocent, open faced look in a chiffchaff, whereas a willow warbler looks more devious or thoughtful.

Top – willow warbler – it’s all about the stripes framing the eye; bottom chiffchaff – it’s all about the eye (JA)

There seemed to be more swallows around on Saturday. I had about eight as I covered 22 km looking for corn buntings: but today only one calling along the High Street in Crail. And no willow warblers today. So everything is still a bit delayed. I did have the first yellow wagtail back at Old Barns this afternoon. A bright yellow male popped up from the potato field next to their usual breeding field and headed over to the damper coastal path at West Braes, calling a couple of times. I have been looking for them all week so am fairly confident that this bird hasn’t been here for more than a couple of days. Males tend to arrive first (this is true of most migrants). When a female returns they will become more conspicuous as the males sing and display. I suspect the male today was feeding hard to regain condition after migration in readiness. As in previous years: yellow wagtails breeding in Scotland are few and far between and the birds at Crail are the only breeders in Fife. So they need a little consideration. Because they breed in a very busy working farm, right next to a well-used walkway and a busy road, they don’t seem sensitive to disturbance. But we shouldn’t push our luck. They are most safely observed a bit later in the season (second half of May) by parking at the Barnsmuir Farm strawberry shack (obviously buy some strawberries) and then scanning the adjacent horse fields. The adults use these fields when feeding chicks, and even later still in the season, the fledged young feed in these fields. These horse fields are about three hundred meters away from the closest nests.

Crail yellow wagtail male (this one in 2016) (JA)

The twites are still in residence at Boghall Farm. If anything there seem more than before. I counted a minimum of 120, but double this is likely. They are in the sheep field, on the beach and on the rocky shore in flocks of 20-40. The green derelict hut is the best place to see them. As I tried to count the twite among the sheep, a Lapland bunting flew up calling. I watched it fly up and away before doing its usual and circling back again, probably picking up a second bird as it went, to land again among the sheep. I had a good glimpse of a male in full summer plumage – like a huge reed bunting with a chestnut collar. I suspect this is still one of the wintering birds rather than a new migrant. Lapland buntings can breed very far north, and some won’t start breeding until the beginning of June. They won’t need to move for another three weeks. It has got harder to find Lapland buntings since the stubble fields have all been ploughed and you can’t go into the sheep field to look for them (one of the reasons counting the twite is so difficult). I think there are likely to still be more about, just much harder to find. And to cap off the Boghall sheep fields’ excellent birding, a raven flew over, cronking once. Twite, raven and Lapland bunting – just need a dotterel or two for the complete Highland, high tops feel.

A summer plumage male Lapland bunting – this one in Alaska (JA)

Posted April 18, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 14th   Leave a comment

The weather is a bit warmer and the winds are light southerly or south-easterly. There should be more migrants coming in over the next few days. I went looking for the yellow wagtails at Barnsmuir this morning but they haven’t arrived yet. A lot of bright yellow yellowhammers on the fields to keep me busy though. And a fair bit of corn bunting song as they start to ramp up. On my way back into Crail I passed the old garden centre and saw the returning pair of barn swallows there. They are often my first of the year, and although through the years, there will be a turnover in individuals, they are quite likely to be the same pair from year to year. There is no real evidence that pairs migrate together, or spend the winter in the same bits of Africa, and its hard to imagine how it might work considering that migrant birds decide where to spend the winter before they first pair up in the spring. But they can easily synchronise their subsequent time of arrival and location. They likely got together in the first place, after all, because they arrived at the same time, at the same place. I always imagine it must be a very joyful reunion for a pair when they meet up again after seven months apart. I hope the pair have a successful summer. With the ruined buildings at the garden centre scheduled for demolition to make way for new houses, they will have to go elsewhere next year.

The old garden centre swallow pair back again for another year. Female on the left (shorter tailed) and male on the right.

Posted April 14, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 11th   Leave a comment

Another cold day. Some brief snow showers in the afternoon, but the morning was sunny and with only light northerly winds so it didn’t seem so wintry. There were many more sandwich terns about today – over 25 at Kingsbarns, and I had two chiffchaff and one barn swallow in my 18km. I did have my first whimbrel of the year passing along the shore north. After a winter of curlews, its more business-like, slimmer and more plover-like body shape stood out, drawing my attention to it to check its distinctive bill as it shot past. The corn buntings were singing only a little and, I think, more quietly, this morning – I thought this yesterday. As if they really want to sing but don’t want to expend too much effort when it is so cold. And again, by late morning they became invisible as the singing birds resumed feeding in the middle of the fields.

I got as far as Boghall Farm at Kingsbarns this morning and checked out the sheep fields. A small flock of eight corn buntings among the three birds territorial singing there. And the twite are still there. At least a 100 and I suspect closer to 200. There were several flocks of 30-40 in the sheep fields, the beach and the rocky shore. The twite must surely leave soon: a couple were singing on the fence. It’s not a million miles from the habitat of a Hebridean or a Highland field along the beach at Boghall…Amongst the twite, and at one point forming a compact flock on their own by the drinking troughs, were nine redpoll. There have been redpoll there for the last couple of months, but this is the first time I have seen so many, and so well. They were feeding on the ground alongside the twite and linnets. Redpolls are smaller and compact compared to both other species, but otherwise it is variation on the theme of brown streaks. A couple were showing the blush pinky red on the throat and breast of a breeding male, and many had their distinctive red foreheads (the redpoll). But not all, and on a couple the red was quite orangey, presumably young birds gaining their breeding plumage for the first time.

The redpoll flock at Boghall Farm, Kingsbarns today
For redpoll aficionados – these three birds show well why I don’t believe in splitting them into separate species

Posted April 11, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 10th   Leave a comment

Strange weather. The cold is back again with a heavy snow shower this evening. Despite this it was a beautiful day for most of it, with not much wind, and from the south or south east. The conditions were good for migrant arrivals to resume, but despite covering 30km today (now I’m corn bunting surveying I am keeping an exact track of where I go), I only had two barn swallows at Wormiston, three chiffchaffs, and five sandwich terns. I think the cold weather is extending all the way to southern Europe so the way is blocked, with migrants pausing at the Mediterranean. Next weekend might be more interesting with a wave of impatient migrants arriving as the temperatures go back to normal and the wind goes southerly again. The pink-footed geese were using the good conditions, however, with hundreds heading north over the East Neuk this morning.

More sandwich terns were about today, passing Kingsbarns and Fife Ness (JA)

Posted April 10, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 9th   1 comment

I have been worried about the cold weather freezing the pond surface for the last three nights and its effects on the frog tadpoles. But so far so good – they are growing well, have broken free of their jelly and today were snacking on pondweed in the sun in a huge shoal (or school or whatever the collective noun for tadpoles is).

Lots of tadpoles enjoying the pondweed that I curse for the rest of the year

Only a short walk around Crail this afternoon after work. But it’s always worth it. A couple of chiffchaffs calling, singing and feeding very actively in the garden above the old boating pond. A male red-breasted merganser hauled out on the rocks, looking surprisingly dumpy as it preened. And a lesser black-backed gull with the more usual herring gulls bathing at the mouth of the Brandyburn. There will be lesser black backed gulls regularly there now until September.

Lesser black-backed gull at the Brandyburn today, back for the summer – one or two pairs nest on the rooftops of Crail, the rest on the May Island

Posted April 9, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 8th   Leave a comment

The temperature went up by 10 degrees today. The tadpoles in my pond were wriggling again. But we had a westerly gale making any kind of birding not very enjoyable. I tried to survey some corn buntings but they were keeping their heads down. When scanning the early season fields I can’t help but see hares. There are one or two in almost every field at the moment which is great to see. I have been seeing a bit of mad March hare action in the last few weeks with hares chasing and boxing at each other. I saw a pair mating yesterday. A speedy affair as you might imagine.

A brown hare yesterday at Old Barns doing what it does best

Posted April 8, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 6th   Leave a comment

So much for the early spring. There has been ice on my pond the last two mornings and cold near freezing winds since Sunday. My tadpoles have hatched and can’t be enjoying the weather. They seem none the worse for wear, which is more than can be said for many of the plants that were making an early start. It will be tough for the early migrant birds too, although there was a chiffchaff singing bravely at Kilminning this morning and another sandwich tern past Sauchope.

The chiffchaff singing at Kilminning this morning – fairly well puffed out against the cold, but happy enough to be back

Posted April 6, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 3rd   Leave a comment

There were more sand martins in today. I saw a pair at Balcomie and then later a pair at Roome Bay, zipping around their occasional nesting holes there as if very keen to get started. Breeding at Roome Bay is a hit and miss affair – I think it happened successfully last year. They probably need a dry spring so that the pipes they nest in are not dripping with water. It has dried up these last two weeks following the pattern of the last few springs. If that is the case we can look forward to dry, sunny weather until June. I had my first blackcap of the year at the Patch. In a mist net, which is handy when they are not singing. There were two male blackcaps caught and ringed at the patch this morning but I didn’t hear any song at all. It might be the cold night last night. None of the corn buntings were singing this morning until about 10:30, and then only a few. Blackcaps, like chiffchaffs are occasional winter residents in Crail so its hard to pin down early arrival dates. But assuming that today’s birds were migrants (and again there was a wave of blackcap sightings in Fife today and yesterday) then these are early birds. I usually expect blackcaps to arrive in the second or third week in April. Today’s blackcaps equal my earliest spring migrant blackcaps on the 3rd April 2016. The early spring continues.


Posted April 3, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 2nd   Leave a comment

As I walked down Kingsbarn’s High Street this morning on my way to see if the corn buntings flocks were still there, I heard some crows making a fuss. I looked up and there was a red kite, circling over the village at barely more than treetop height. Only my second ever record, with last being a pair near Crail on June 9th 2019. Considering how widespread as a breeding bird red kites now are, it is surprising that we record so few in Fife. It does seem to be finally increasing in the county, with a handful of records already this year. The East Neuk is a perfect place for kites to breed and it can only be a matter of time before they become a Crail area resident, rather than the glamorous rarity that they are now. The kite this morning circled over Kingsbarns a bit before heading towards Cambo and Fife Ness.

Red kite over Kingsbarns this morning

I had my first barn swallows this afternoon. Two at Lower Kilminning. A lot of swallows were reported today all over Fife. The 2nd April is my second earliest arrival date (the earliest being the 29th March in 2012): the average arrival date since 2006 is the 12th of April.

Barn swallow (JA)

There are still spectacular numbers of twite at Boghall Farm, next to the beach. I counted a minimum of 90 perched together on a wire fence but there may be up to 150. There were several flocks at various times, including one of 40 just sitting on the red sands of the beach. They are very tame, and I could approach the flock on the fence to twenty meters. To see them just follow the coastal path from Kingsbarns beach carpark towards St Andrews for 1.5 km. They are in the fields by the derelict caravan.

Twite at Boghall today

Posted April 2, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 1st   Leave a comment

Another harbour seal today! My daughter phoned to tell me she had found a “baby seal” on harbour beach this morning. After the injured one at Balcomie on March 29th, I thought it must have just relocated. But no, a different individual, lacking the wound on its head, although otherwise the same general size and appearance. Again, a seal born last year, about a meter long. It was right at the top of the far end of the beach at the harbour. I suspect it had swum onto the sand this morning on the high tide, hauled out and had a sleep in the early morning sun. When it woke up it found the sea just a bit far out, so it was waiting out the day, snoozing, for the tide to return to it. It looked happy enough although there is always the issue of dogs and stranded seals. But it was attracting a bit of attention from people on the beach, so the word was being passed to be careful as newcomers arrived.

Harbour seal appropriately enough on harbour beach

Posted April 1, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

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