Archive for May 2021

May 31st   Leave a comment

More haar this morning. The corn buntings were as undetectable as they were in March. Three birds bothering to sing out of a potential dozen, and then invisibly in the fog. I watched a swallow sat in a field clearly fed up with the weather. Waiting for it to brighten up and the insects to get going before bothering to fly.

Swallow waiting out the haar in Kingsbarns this morning

Posted May 31, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 30th   Leave a comment

The sun finally did come out this afternoon, with the haar retreating to the middle of the Forth. I was out checking corn buntings at Barnsmuir. I got excited when one popped up out of a grass covered dyke. I expected to find a nest but instead the reason it was skulking around the wall, I think, was because it was feeding on snail shell fragments from a thrush anvil. I still think most of the corn buntings are mate guarding at the moment – I see pairs a lot with the male only singing when it has a good view of the female below it. Otherwise, the male keeps quiet and follows the female around. If they are mate guarding then they are also laying eggs now, and so extra calcium – hence the snail shells – will be needed by the females.

I checked two of the yellow wagtail nests this weekend and they are still active with females on the nest. I work this out by looking at the male’s behaviour. They perch reasonably close to the nest site, watching the nest area and have a particular call they use, I assume to tell the female that I (perceived as a potential predator) am in the area. It gives away the fact that there is a nest on the go with a female sitting on eggs. Once the chicks hatch you get a confirmation that this is the case because the nest becomes even more obvious as the parents fly back and forth to the same bit of field with food. I am hopeful that the other two nests (of the four in total) are still on the go because when a nest fails the pair then hangs around together all day. But yellow wagtails can move sites between failed nests at the scale of a kilometer or two so if this has happened then I won’t necessarily detect this until I refind the pair starting a new nest somewhere else.

As I walked around the perimeter of another winter wheat field I heard a distinctive honking. A flock of 27 Canada geese approaching. I watched them coming in from the Forth, after a flight from somewhere further south, perhaps in England, to continue over Fife straight towards Boarhills. I lost them making an exact beeline to the mouth of the Kenly Burn, where each summer, a flock of 50 or more Canada geese spend a couple of months moulting. The first birds each year – like today – arrive too early to have bred successfully. Today’s flock might be failed breeders or sub-adults that aren’t old enough to start breeding (Canada geese usually only start breeding in their 3rd year). Each year more and more Canada geese seem to come to Kenly, and they also seem to be getting earlier in their arrival.

Part of the flock of 27 Canada geese – my first for the year – heading towards Kenly this afternoon. This takes the Crail patch year list up to 146, over two months ahead of last year.

Posted May 30, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 29th   Leave a comment

True to form. The sun came out on Friday, the temperature shot up – well, went to a normal summer value – and the haar came in. At some point in the future, when climate change has shifted the Mediterranean up to us, this will be a blessing. But at the moment, the haar is just a shame. Another day of wet feet and wooly hats. The silver lining is that the haar often comes in on an easterly wind, and it can bring migrants in that should be heading for Scandinavia. With that in mind, Kilminning was the obvious choice to start the day. It was quiet however, with the haar dancing in and out, promising a shaft of sunshine, but then bringing the cloud back just as it began to feel warm. Quiet migrant wise, but noisy with starlings angrily shrieking as their chicks are about to fledge – probably a few early nests already have chicks out. You don’t see the chicks as they hide deep in bushes for a few days after fledging but you hear the anxious parents reacting to every single crow (and there are a lot of crows about).

I tried Balcomie Beach where the haar had cleared a bit. The sun was causing the beach to steam creating a second mini-haar. Interesting in an Icelandic sort of way but not great for appreciating the waders: 40 or so sanderling, 20-30 ringed plover and a few dunlin. The high Arctic bound crowd refueling on the seaweed strewn beach. Sanderling, so white and clean in the winter, get an interesting orangey, lichen covered boulder look to them in the summer. They are brilliantly camouflaged for the Arctic tundra.

Sanderling on Balcomie Beach this week (JA)

The visibility wasn’t very good at Fife Ness. Some Arctic terns. They will be much more frequent now they have eggs on the May Island, and the off duty bird will be off fishing. A flock of six velvet scoters, all males except for one female. Turnstones on the rocks – more of the high Arctic bound crowd.

Later, in the afternoon, I was mapping fields and corn buntings at the end of Balcomie golf course when I saw a shape lolloping over the rise of the cattle field there. A badger scurrying out of a sett in the middle of the field. Another badger followed it, and then another. Just as suddenly they came back, dashing back into their hole, one, two three. And then back out again, and then back into the hole again. Three youngsters daring themselves to run out into the field, in daylight, and then getting scared, running straight back to safety. The wind was behind them so they didn’t notice me only a few meters away. My dog, with the same low to the ground eyesight, couldn’t see them but could smell them being upwind: interested but thankfully just a cautious interest. I hardly ever see badgers, and then it is usually only at night, crossing the road when the sighting is often spoilt by thoughts of squashed badgers, so this made one of my best ever sightings. There are badgers literally everywhere around Crail. Hundreds of them. But they usually keep themselves to the dark.     

Local badger cubs (JA)

My phone pinged. A possible rustic bunting along the coastal path at West Braes. A major scramble saw four of the Crail birders at the site within about twenty minutes. But our run of luck with rustic buntings continued – no sign of it, as with the couple of sightings of a wintering bird last year. It felt a bit like a needle in a haystack, but too close to home not to try for. The spring migrant season is coming to a close, but there is still another week for big rarities to turn up.

Posted May 29, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 26th   Leave a comment

The weather is finally on the turn, moving at last from March to May. Quite a few birds are feeding chicks now and it will have been hard for them to find enough insects, but at least the chicks are still somewhat insulated from the weather in their nests. I have a pair of great tits and blue tits feeding chicks in bird boxes in my garden. I think they have at least a week before they fledge. When they do, they will be at their most vulnerable to cold weather and particularly rain, so a good forecast is good news. Chicks fledge with fewer feathers (or at least not as well developed) feathers, than adults. They still can rely on feeding from their parents, but only for a couple of weeks, especially early in the season when their parents will desert them soon to start another brood. They need to learn to forage, find shelter and avoid the sparrowhawks: many don’t manage to do this. The highest mortality for small birds happens in the first couple of weeks. Early breeding species like robins, song thrushes and blackbirds have already fledged their first brood chicks. I have noticed an increase in song thrush song the last few days which suggests to me that their chicks probably didn’t survive too well these last couple of weeks and they are already renesting. The later season nesters – the swifts and the corn buntings – have been treading water but they should now be speeding up. Fingers crossed that the good weather does materialize.

Song thrush and newly fledged chick – some chicks have fledged already, but the starlings, tits and buntings will start fledging chicks in the next couple of weeks (JA)

Posted May 26, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 24th   Leave a comment

It has been raining all day and I have stayed inside, missing the corn bunting searching. There has been 12.4 mm of rain in the last 24 hours. May seems set on winning a prize for wettest month to contrast with April’s driest record. There were some pauses in the rain and I took the opportunity late afternoon for a walk around upper and lower Kilminning. A spotted flycatcher at the top, a garden warbler and one of the icterine warblers at the bottom, all left over from Saturday. The icterine had moved to the bushes and trees along the entrance road in response to the south-westerly wind. It was keeping to dense cover but singing as I arrived making it easy to find. I tried to get good views and had finally sneaked up to an elder bush, was watching the warbler working its way out of the leaves to some bare branches when a male roe deer erupted from the grass in front of me. The deer’s sudden dash and my dog’s even more sudden stop as she reached the end of her extender lead sent the icterine off into the middle of Kilminning and that was that. I was glad that didn’t happen on Saturday when there would have been a disapproving audience. You can imagine I was the only one out there this afternoon birding in the rain: a good sign actually. Anyone that wanted to see the icterine warbler must have done so already over the weekend. It isn’t the easiest bird to see, but 30 minutes of trying turns up a reasonable view. I shouldn’t think it will be off anywhere tonight so there is probably another opportunity tomorrow morning when the weather should also be much better. I wasn’t totally alone at Kilminning: a group of local plant surveyors were there making a baseline plant list so we can see how things change in the coming years as we create new habitats.

One of the weekend’s spotted flycatchers: at least one is still present at Kilminning (JA)

Posted May 24, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 23rd   Leave a comment

With the fall yesterday I was put in a bluethroat frame of mind this morning. If there is a bluethroat around Crail, it is probably around now. They are fantastic birds to look at in the spring, but bluethroats have become increasingly scarce both at Fife Ness and the May Island in the last 30 years. They are also often skulkers, liking thick vegetation alongside damp ditches. So a bit of a long shot. My best bet always seems to be the yellow house at Wormiston – ditches, rank grass and dense bushes, but also a nice lawn and a couple of ponds for an extrovert bluethroat. The house is a good migrant spot anyway. But not today. I did at least pick up a nearby corn bunting that I hadn’t heard singing since the beginning of April. Elsewhere there didn’t seem to be any new migrants: willow warblers in the patch, and a spotted flycatcher or two at Kilminning. I didn’t have the patience to track down the icterine warbler(s) today, that was seen and heard singing again at least until lunchtime. Today I paid attention to one of my favourites – the spotted flycatchers that had got eclipsed yesterday.

Spotted flycatcher and a St Marks fly spotted below at Kilminning yesterday (JA)

The high Arctic waders are coming through Balcomie now. There was a flock of bright orange, black and white turnstones and a nearly full summer plumage bar-tailed godwit on the rocks to the north of the beach. And to really lift the spirit, four females eiders swam in from a choppy sea herding a flotilla of 22 newly hatched ducklings, after their swim over from the May Island – the first eider chicks of the season for Crail.

Bar-tailed godwit (JA)
The first eider chicks in at Fife Ness at about 11 this morning. I was sat next to John when he took this photo. At the time I estimated 22-24 chicks – I think you can count 25 in the photo. We wished them well. They may have survived the crossing but now they need to avoid the gulls, hence their close guard of the adult females. (JA)

Posted May 23, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 22nd   Leave a comment

Yesterday I spent nearly all day inside, listening to the increasing north-easterly gale and the rain hitting the windows. Not a day to be outside. Nevertheless, a red-backed shrike was reported from Kilminning late afternoon, so out I went. It was ridiculous to be looking for any bird considering the weather, but the shrike had found a calm spot in the lee of the trees by the main road. It may have found a calm spot, but I didn’t find the shrike. Still it wasn’t the weather for any bird to continue its migration, so I returned home fairly hopeful I might see it the next day.

Today dawned, bright and sunny, with little wind. A great improvement and great shrike finding weather. But the shrike was eclipsed by a report of an icterine warbler from lower Kilminning. The shrike was a good sign of good birds and some early birders had made their own luck and found this quite substantial rarity at about 8 this morning after a very early start. I was down at Kilminning by 8:20 and was watching the bird within a couple of minutes. Sometimes it works like this, most of the time it doesn’t, as with the shrike last night. Icterine warblers are fairly common throughout northern Europe as a summer migrant but are only rare passage migrants to the UK: the last Crail patch bird was on the 21stAugust, 2006, at the Yellow House, Wormiston, in a big fall of less scarce migrants after some easterly winds and rain showers. So today’s icterine is only my second on the Crail list. The icterine warbler was feeding in the top of a sycamore, sometimes showing well, but mostly just offering fleeting glimpses. It became apparent that different people were watching different birds – two icterine warblers were present, one much yellower than the other. One of the birds stayed around a single sycamore much of the day (the brighter yellower one), singing every so often, and the second moved silently around a large loop around the edges of Kilminning, occasionally feeding in the trees by the Sibe thrush bench. After my initial great views it took some perseverance, especially in the afternoon to see it again well. But the song was easy to hear all day and really made the occasion. Icterines have a great, raucous, powerful song, with lots of mimicry with diverse scratchy and grating notes mixed in – I am not generally a fan of jazz, but this is as close to jazz as you get in birdsong, and it sounds good. The first icterine in the sycamore was accompanied by three spotted flycatchers, at least three garden warblers and a fair number of greyish brown “northern” willow warblers. The whole lot were probably on their way to northern Sweden before they got blown over to us yesterday. It was great birding – birds to look at everywhere, and every so often you laid eyes on the glowing yellow icterine.

The browner, non-singing icterine warbler at Kilminning – this afternoon from the Sibe thrush bench. A classic easy id – big bill, open unstriped face, a very obvious whitish wing panel, lead grey legs and a long primary projection

I went home for lunch after checking the rest of the site (another garden warbler and more northern willow warblers at the top part of Kilminning; a singing lesser whitethroat at Balcomie). My Whatsapp pinged again as I ate my sandwich – the male red-backed shrike of last night had been refound at lower Kilminning. Off again down the Fife Ness road. This time it wasn’t an instant find. The shrike – like last night – was not fond of people and went into cover as soon anyone approached. When I got there it had disappeared again. I wandered through Kilminning Coast and then along the edge of Sauchope Caravan Park before finally relocating the shrike on a fence post along the western wooded edge of Kilminning and the wheat of the airfield. A lovely bright male: always a thrill even though they are becoming more predictable – the last week in May at Kilminning after any kind of rain shower or haar on a slight easterly. I didn’t approach it and enjoyed it as a distance.

Male red-backed shrike at Kilminning today – a long way away, but this one really wanted to be alone

Posted May 22, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 19th   Leave a comment

There is a little wood of oak trees just north-west of Bonerbo and south-east of Kingsmuir, as you take the high road from Crail to Cupar. Just as I was thinking about how scarce oak trees are close to Crail, and that this might therefore be a good spot to find a jay, I heard one. They make a loud, harsh screech of a call – it’s very distinctive, which is a good thing because jays are often very shy. They are often highly persecuted which makes them even more cautious. Even though they are probably in most of the larger wooded patches around Crail, I usually only see them flying between woodland patches, and then only one or two a year if lucky.

Jay (JA)

Posted May 19, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 18th   Leave a comment

I finally made it to Balmonth reservoir – another one of the hidden ponds/lochans of the East Neuk, about a kilometer east of Carnbee. I was up on the top of the ridge looking for corn buntings and found the right farm tracks to get there. It had the obligatory pair of mute swans, some coots, mallards and at least one pair of little grebes. It’s probably another potential water rail site too, for the winter. Because I was up on the slope there were many fewer corn buntings. The brown hares were less common too – I think they hit their highest density in the same bit of Fife as the corn buntings. Grey partridges seem to be everywhere though. I bump into a pair every couple of kilometers.

Brown hare (JA)

Posted May 18, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 17th   Leave a comment

I was mapping corn buntings along the coast between Kingsbarns and Boarhills: filling in some gaps and confirming that Boghall is stuffed with territories – particularly so if you consider that Drony Road goes through the farm. Probably 23 territories in 1.6 square kilometers… There is now only a flock of about 8 corn buntings around the former sheep field by the ruined chalet at Boghall – these are probably nesting birds that leave their nearby territories temporarily to flock up and feed in good areas. The flocks of twite are finally away, but there are still plenty of skylarks, yellowhammers and linnets about. With the high small density so there are still birds of prey. I had three kestrels, a male peregrine, a couple of buzzards and a passage female marsh harrier hunting over the farm in the hour I spent surveying there this morning.

The corn bunting in territory 13 on the Drony Road on the Kingsbarn side of Boghall. This one is particularly used to people, presumably because of all the walkers coming past on the coastal path.

The swifts, although back, are still not doing much in Crail. I see a few birds in the morning and the evening, but I get the impression they are still doing most of their feeding in the fields around and have not started nesting. I have been trying playback at my new swift nest boxes for a couple of days, but no close interest yet.

Posted May 17, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 15th   Leave a comment

With south-easterly winds and a clear night last night it is good conditions for migrants to get on with it, rather than hanging around at Fife Ness. Consequently, it was quiet at Kilminning – I just saw a couple of willow warblers behaving like they were passage birds, and there were still a couple of wheatears on the golf course at Balcomie (yesterday there at least seven). At Balcomie Beach there was a flock of 20 ringed plover with a few dunlin: these are likely to be passage birds on their way to somewhere like Spitsbergen or Arctic Scandinavia. This morning up on the old railway line above Kingsbarns (trying unsuccessfully to catch the flock of corn buntings still feeding up there on a big pile of discarded grain) I had another raven soaring high above.

Summer plumage passage dunlin at Fife Ness (JA)

Posted May 15, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 14th   1 comment

I was out north of Kilrenny this morning mapping the corn buntings when I saw a raptor quartering over one of the huge winter wheat fields there. A marsh harrier pausing on its way north to refuel. I watched it flushing up and darting unsuccessfully at a skylark, and then about ten minutes later it dived down again and didn’t reappear. Presumably it had caught something. It then occurred to me that it might have been a corn bunting. The marsh harrier was a second summer male, with yellowish brown shoulders, head and a band extending down from the wing to frame a dark brown collar. On the photo below you can see some paler grey flight feathers and black tips which also make it a male. Sub-adults of a lot of migrants stay in Africa during their first summer, but many individuals chance the migration to locate breeding areas and mates for the following year. Some may even get lucky and breed.

First summer male marsh harrier north of Kilrenny (Blacklaws steadings) this morning. As John says, a record shot, but showing the characters you need to age and sex it

I found another rarity this morning. A rare breeder for the Crail patch list. But not one to excite anybody but me. I found a coot nest at Cornceres farm, in the small (but deep) square irrigation pond at the south end. Until I expanded the patch radius to include Carnbee, coots were a major rarity full stop. They migrate at night so even though they are a very common bird and big migrants, I never saw them because of the lack of deep freshwater ponds near Crail. I did once hear a coot calling as it passed over Crail harbour, at midnight, when I was catching redshanks. The coots at Cornceres had already produced a few chicks – the phrase “a face that only a mother could love” springs to mind when you see a young coot. And does the other relevant phrase “as bald as a coot” come from the adults or the chicks?

Local patch gold – the breeding coot at Cornceres

This lunchtime a lesser whitethroat was reported from Balcomie. I biked straight down, keeping to my philosophy this year not to miss any opportunity for the year list. Like the wood warbler yesterday, the information was spot on and I found the bird immediately, feeding in a sycamore. With the marsh harrier this morning, that’s 142 for the Crail patch year list. It was a good quick trip out. I picked up a couple of new singing corn buntings, and when looking for a third, a raven popped up out of the wheat field between Balcomie and Wormiston. It circled around cawing before heading off towards Randerston. Ravens are becoming much more common – lots of sightings now this year, but 2021 is only the third year ever that I have recorded ravens. Hopefully we now have a resident pair.

Posted May 14, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 13th   Leave a comment

I took the scenic route to St Andrews this morning, via Falside and Lower Kenly, adding another 9 corn bunting territories. Their density declines as you go up the slope from the sea (the east of Fife is a dome) and when you reach the top, half way between the coastal road to Crail and the inland road to Anstruther they more or less disappear. When I was in St Andrews I got the message that there were more migrants in: a wood warbler and a spotted flycatcher at Lower Kilminning. We might now expect passage spotted flycatchers until the end of May or the first week in June, but wood warblers are quite a different level of rarity. This bird is the 5th in 19 years: I have had one in 2004, in an August fall with wryneck and greenish warbler; one in July 2008; one 6th May 2015 (also at Kilminning) and one singing in Denburn for a few days at the end of April in 2019. Wood warblers breed in upland and western oak forests in Scotland so are easy to see unless you wait for them to turn up in Crail. Wood warblers are one of the most attractive Phylloscopus warblers: pure white, bright green and bright yellow, rather than the subdued and often dirty tones of most of the others. They have an evocative call, which always takes me back to West Africa, and the remaining tall trees that dot the dry farmland where wood warblers spend the winter. And they have an even better song, which is the sound of hillside Scottish oak woods. You can imagine I was keen to see it. I was back from St Andrews by mid-afternoon and headed straight down to Kilminning, albeit slowly because of the east wind. This is the irony of a good bird down at Fife Ness, they are usually in on an easterly which means a frustrating slow cycle to see it. Today was an easy “twitch” (if such a thing is possible on your local patch). I arrived and three others who had been watching both birds just a few minutes ago put me in the right area, and then two minutes later both appeared. The wood warbler was its usual lovely self, feeding in the willow between the ruined toilet block and the Siberian Thrush bushes. The leaves on the tree are only half out so it was easy to get good views. It didn’t sing but it called a bit. The spotted flycatcher would dash by every so often and there were a few willow warblers in the willow as well – one with the dirty greyish green tones of a northern, Scandinavian bird. The wood warbler is a great bird to get on the Crail year list – now up to 140, and a month ahead of last year. More rarity weather to come over the next few days as well…

The wood warbler at lower Kilminning today. The bottom one I have turned up the saturation a bit but this is a true reflection of how a wood warbler sometimes looks in the field, with its clean acid tones

Posted May 13, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 12th   Leave a comment

Light winds, a bit of haar and some sharp rain showers are a May recipe for some migrants: they are coming in this afternoon on the May Island. At least one reached us. The first spotted flycatcher of the year caught as the last bird of the day by Chris Broome down at the Patch at Fife Ness. Another one of my favourite birds. It weighed about 14 grams, so on the light end, which makes sense for a bird turning up at Fife Ness mid-afternoon, low on fuel. It should be on the patch for a couple of days before moving on, either further north-west in Scotland, or to Scandinavia.

Close ups of spotted flycatcher – both tipping their head a bit so you can see how broad their bills are at the base – a big gape, all the better for catching flies

I checked Kilminning out on the way back from the flycatcher just in case something else had dropped in. There was nothing obviously new, still wheatears as yesterday and two whinchats.

One of the whinchats at Kilminning on the piece of fence that will always be “the whinchat fence”. If there is a whinchat at Kilminning it will feed along this fence unless disturbed

Posted May 12, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 11th   Leave a comment

In the excitement of yesterday I forgot a couple of things that would have normally been the news of the day. The first was a pair of greylag geese in a spring barley field just east of Caiplie. I cycled down the track to the coastal path watched by the geese, even though I was only thirty meters away. I stopped to take a photo and they carried on feeding, although one bird – I assume the male – kept a watchful eye on me every so often. I wondered if they were Arctic Norway breeding birds. Most greylags pass through Crail mid-April at the same time as the pink-footed geese, on their way to Iceland.

The pair of greylag geese stopping over at Caiplie yesterday

The second was seeing in a short space of time, two pairs of yellow wagtails, and a third male behaving as if it had a female on a nest nearby, in three separate fields along the road at Barnsmuir. So three breeding attempts on the go I think. The most I have found at this time of year so far suggesting the population is still increasing.

One of the five different yellow wagtails I saw at Barnsmuir yesterday that got temporarily forgotten about in the dotterel excitement

Today there were some more migrants through. I went down to lower Kilminning at lunchtime to see a whinchat reported there this morning. I saw the reported male on the usual whinchat fence line next to the golf course, but it was a bit busy there so it moved into the adjacent bean field where it was very difficult to see. As I looked though I realized the field was full of northern wheatears – well I saw five – and they were also hard to see as they fed on the ground among the 25 cm high bean plants. I found a second whinchat – a female – along the south-east corner fence, another favourite chat place. These late birds are likely heading to Scandinavia. Some of my tagged birds from Liberia bred well beyond the Arctic circle and so an early season arrival is not the best plan. And to top it all of I heard another grasshopper warbler. Something has happened this year to make grasshopper warblers much more abundant around Crail. The pair at Fife Ness are possibly even breeding.

The male grasshopper warbler singing at Fife Ness last Sunday – still there today and possibly breeding (JA)

Posted May 11, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 10th   Leave a comment

The big news up until 18:45 today was the arrival back of the swifts in Crail last night. I saw my first of the year flying over my house early evening, and then three or more spent the next couple of hours over Crail. I looked up my arrival dates from the last fifteen years and to my surprise found that the swifts quite often come back about the 8th-10th of May – I have had earlier swifts and I had later ones. This year just seems so late that I had assumed the swifts were late too. There is no trend for the swifts to have got earlier in their arrival in Crail. If anything, they are arriving more often in the second week of May now than the first. Anyway, great to have them back. Although they are not fully back – they were absent for most of the day over Crail: I saw a pair over the fields at Kilrenny this morning though.

And now the big news. In 2012 a couple of dotterel turned up at Carnbee, just outside of my local patch (5 mile radius from my house). I knew I would never have an opportunity to see a dotterel on my local patch again – dotterel are very, very rare in Fife even though they breed a 100km away in the Highlands. So I changed the rules for my local patch and made it within 10km radius from my house, just getting Carnbee included (and the May Island which is probably a better reason). Anyway, this isn’t the big news, it is that lightening has struck again and eight dotterel turned up just outside Pittenweem this evening. Ann Galbraith had just popped out for a walk through the field behind Pittenweem before cooking her husband’s tea: she spotted the dotterel flock in a field of winter wheat and put the news out. I have my phone on silent after 7pm but luckily the news squeaked in before. I would have just kept on doing the washing up and probably not noticed anything was amiss until much later. Needless to say the washing up was abandoned (as was Ann’s husband’s dinner – a bad evening for chores). I got to Pittenweem and to where Ann was in 25 minutes. Local knowledge of the fields around Pittenweem garnered from tramping them all after corn buntings helped quite a lot. There they were, eight dotterels, our most colourful and interesting wader, very firmly again on the Crail local patch list (and only 7.8 km from my house, which is 4.8 miles in old money).

Six of the eight dotterel at Pittenweem this evening (male on the far left)

As Ann and I nervously waited for the other local birders to arrive – your first thought when something rare turns up is that you just want to see it, but when you have, then your second thought is that you want your friends to see it too – a sparrowhawk flew over the field. The dotterel shot off, forming a tight flock and headed up and away. But they started banking round and I whistled my best dotterel call at them to encourage them back down (it definitely has worked for me in the past in the Highlands and on passage near my hometown in East Anglia where they were annual visitors in the fields of the appropriately named “Dotterel Farm”). Probably wishful thinking but the flock turned around, came over my head and then circled the field a few times before landing back in the middle. They settled down to feed, with some of the females chasing each other and a male as if they were very eager to be on the high tops and to start nesting. Dotterels have reversed sexual dimorphism. The females have the bright plumage and compete for males. They lay a clutch of eggs and then the male is left to incubate them alone while the female goes off to find more males. They may even lay a clutch in Scotland and then migrate to Scandinavia, following the spring northwards, to lay another clutch in the Arctic (which they may then help to incubate). I counted five bright females and three duller males (with pale fringes on their back feathers). One of the males was barely out of winter plumage, a subdued sandy affair to match their North African, semi-desert, wintering habitat (I have seen them in dry salt lake beds in Tunisia for example).

After a few more minutes the rest of the birders made it to the railway bank, as the dotterels settled down to roost. Panic over, and we could all enjoy the dotterels in the late evening sunshine, with a background chorus of corn buntings. The dotterel looked tired and I wonder if they were in Morocco yesterday: dotterels fly really fast – 60 km/h. Perhaps this flock just mistimed their arrival into Scotland and decided to rest up overnight before making the short final flight tomorrow to the Highlands.

One of the female dotterels

Posted May 10, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 10th   Leave a comment

I was out early this morning hoping to find a rare passage wader like a wood sandpiper at one of the ponds around Crail, brought down by the rain showers yesterday evening. I tried West Quarry Braes first. I cycled down the old railway track, then it is only a quick walk across a sheep field to get there. As I did so a very slim long winged grey pigeon flew away from me – something unusual for sure – a cuckoo. It then started calling from the trees by the pond: a perfect sunny May morning sound. As usual it was very shy and it moved on even though I was over 100 meters away. Passage cuckoos make short bursts of calling when they pass through, enough to get them noticed, but not the endless cuckooing that they make when they get to where they want to breed, echoing round and audible for kilometers. At the pond itself, no waders, but three pairs of tufted duck, and a pair each of teal, mallard, moorhen and little grebe. It is a good little pond, and especially so considering that there are so few in the area.

Spot the cuckoo – at West Quarry Braes this morning
And three pairs of tufted duck in the pond below

It was the same wader story at the ponds at Troustie and Sypsies so I headed down to Kilminning to look for more migrants. Cuckoos are always a good sign that there are things about. There was a garden warbler at Lower Kilminning, although it took me a couple of visits this morning to track it down. This bird could have easily have come in earlier in the week. It wasn’t singing and was keeping to the more densely vegetated bushes. Garden warblers are another one of those migrants, like grasshopper warblers, that only breed occasionally around Crail, and so are actually quite scarce. There have been one or two years in the last 19 when I have haven’t found one at all.

Down at Balcomie the house martins were back at last. There were still lots of sandwich terns on the rocks and with them, three Arctic terns. One drawing attention to itself by getting in the mood and chasing and pecking at a carrion crow which flew over it. There were no waders at Balcomie Beach except a couple of whimbrel, probing into the sand at the top strandline. The beach and shore itself have a lot of seaweed on it from the southerly storms of last week. This will rot down nicely for the seaweed flies and then the late May waders. At Fife Ness there were some more Arctic terns passing, a red-throated diver and a velvet scoter.

A couple of grasshopper warblers were reported from the bushes by Stinky Pool. I had cycled right past them – presumably during a non-singing spell. With the right gen I found them straight away. There was a male singing and a second bird – probably a female. The male was very excited and chased the female a bit, quite unworried by me sitting beside the bush watching. After my spiel about grasshopper warblers being rare around Crail, suddenly three come along at once of course. I was so close to them that I noticed for the first time that before a bout of reeling the male makes a “shree-shree-shree” call, with its head pointing straight up, like a long-calling gull. I was also able to appreciate just how mouse like they are as they scrambled through the dense bushes, brambles and grass.

Obliging grasshopper warblers at Fife Ness today

Posted May 9, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 8th   Leave a comment

There didn’t seem to be anything new in at Kilminning this morning. The winds are a bit easterly and with a gale and rain showers it seems like something might be blown in. But it wasn’t the best conditions today to find anything. The blackcaps, whitethroats and now many more sedge warblers were making the best of it and singing at least. Sea watching looked like it had potential with many things being blown in close to the shore but apart from a single arctic tern passing Crail, it was all just the species currently breeding on the Forth islands. I will keep my fingers crossed for tomorrow when I will be checking out any flooded field edges and the pool at West Quarry Braes for waders brought down by the storm.

Sedge warbler – most of the usual territories seem occupied now (JA)

Posted May 8, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 7th   Leave a comment

I was on the old railway line between Crail and Kingsbarns this morning when I heard a reeling call – like a machine or an insect – a grasshopper warbler. Although grasshopper warblers breed all over Scotland, they are never very common, and they are surprisingly rare around Crail. I have had them in only 5 out the last 19 years. Always a singing bird because they are very skulky and hard to see when not singing (but then they might use a reasonably obvious perch). And pretty much always in May, when random birds on passage sing for a day or two before moving on. I have had one singing in Denburn and at Kilminning, but the rest are from all around Crail. The song is quite far carrying and grasshopper warblers seem to be happy in any dense vegetation on passage, so it is all a matter of just covering the ground. I have covered over 100km this week looking for corn buntings within 10km of Crail, and the scrappy bramble patches, or the hedges and dense bushes between the fields are all suitable for a refuelling grasshopper warbler. So I conclude that grasshopper warblers are rare or they rarely sing: I didn’t see this morning’s bird and the moment it stopped singing it disappeared completely.

Grasshopper warbler (JA)

Posted May 7, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

May 6th   Leave a comment

I had coffee down on the shore between Elie and St Monans this morning. It’s always odd to sit opposite the Bass Rock rather than the May Island when you move down the coast a bit. There were several pairs of shelduck, close enough together that they were scrapping. The steep grassy banks along that part of the coast must be great nesting areas for them. I had only my second house martins of the year, wisely keeping to the coastal strip where nearly all the swallows and sand martins were, and I assume, some insects.

Shelducks are very territorial… (JA)

Posted May 6, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

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