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

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