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

One response to “May 14th

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  1. ‘’And does the other relevant phrase “as bald as a coot” come from the adults or the chicks?’’

    I think I can help with this one. In Modern English, the word ‘bald’ has the meanings ‘hairless’ but also ‘streaked or marked with white’. (The Oxford English Dictionary numbers these meanings with the numbers 2 ‘hairless’ and 5 ‘streaked with white’). It’s interesting that other European languages have the same combination of meanings for the related word, and have had so for a very long time, thousands of years. (The reason seems to be that there was a word denoting ‘white, bright’ in Proto-Indo-European, a language spoken several thousand years BC, which then gave rise to words in later languages which could refer to the shining head of a hairless person but also white marks on a animal’s face). Thus, the words for the white facial marks on a horse are ‘blaze’ in Modern English, ‘Blesse’ in Modern German, ‘bles’ in Modern Dutch, ‘bal’ in Welsh’, and so forth. (The words may or may not have the ‘s’ in it, but they’re all the same word; they’re all closely related. So in Modern English, ‘blaze’ on a horse’s face and ‘bald’ on a coot’s face is in fact the same word, sort of). Also compare a particular rare breed of cow known in Dutch as ‘blaarkop’ and in English as ‘blister head cattle’, also because they have a distinctive white face).

    The Modern German word for coot is ‘Blaesshuhn’, a fowl with a face streaked with white; ‘Blishone’ in Danish, ‘Bleshaena’ in Icelandic; the Scots word for the coot is ‘beld-cuit’. That also explains why we have ‘bald eagle’, an eagle with a head marked with white (which is also its name in a wide range of other languages). and the horse term ‘piebald’ = spotted white. Bald eagles and piebald horses do have feathers / hair!

    I realise that the white bit on a coot’s face is in fact hairless (is that right?), but the analogies with the feathered bald eagle and the corresponding words for hairy animals with white faces / bodies in other European languages shows that ‘bald’ in combination with animal faces / markings refers primarily to the white colour, not hairlessness. Comparisons between coots and hairless human heads are secondary, and will be more tempting now in modern times when people will be less and less familiar with names for horses, cattle etc. with white markings on their faces and bodies. A bald eagle is no more hairless or featherless than a robin or a blackbird! At some point, the bald eagle will probably become renamed as something else, because people will find the association between the word ‘bald’ and hairlessness / featherlessness so strong that they will object to the name and will come up for a more descriptive name for the animal, one that modern people can understand better.

    So, the phrase ‘bald as a coot’ is very old; it comes from the adult animals, and refers to the white area on the animal’s face, which the chicks don’t have. But that’s a meaning which is on its way out, in terms of language history. Over the next few hundred years, speakers of Modern English will more and more understand ‘bald’ in reference to coots as referring to the hairless area on the coot’s adult face and the hairless (?) red area on the coot chick’s face.

    Christine Rauer, Bank House (I work on the history of the English language).

    Christine Rauer, Bank House

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