Archive for June 2021

June 30th   Leave a comment

A landmark! I saw a corn bunting carrying nest material this morning. I am fairly sure this is not the first nest being built and most of the current nests were built right under my nose, but nevertheless it is reassuring to know that we are right at the start of corn bunting breeding. It could be a renest of course after an early loss of eggs, but the territory is just outside of Crail and one that I visit often, so probably not. I am getting my eye in on other corn bunting territories. Several males have noticeably shifted their song perches from their usual places they have been using for the last eight to ten weeks. When you then stop to watch them on their new perches you notice that they only sing occasionally and quite quietly. Most of the time they just sit hunched and inactive. Then suddenly they will perk up and another bird will appear from the crop twenty or thirty meters away. The second bird seems likely to be the female coming off the nest. The male then flies after the female with a half fluttering wings display type flight – the female does the same – and chases the female for a bit, catching her up before flying back up to his perch with a further display (wings in exaggerated flaps and legs dangling) and a more vigorous sing. I think this means that finding nests – at least to an approximate area of field – and being able to tell that there is a nest with eggs in a territory is a matter of noting these nest watching males, like little marker flags on their wires. I’m recording where I think the nests are at the moment on the basis of these cues and I will see if the system works later when they start feeding chicks and nest locations will be obvious. Anyway, it’s all very encouraging that things have finally got going with the corn buntings, although there are still quite a few territories where birds seem to be just messing around establishing themselves. Perhaps these are the birds that were still in winter feeding flocks a month ago.

This might not look like much but a corn bunting with a beakful of nest material is very cheering when you are worrying that you have been missing their nests, rather than corn buntings just being a very late nesting species, in a late season

And at the opposite end of the spectrum, I noticed that the Crail garden centre swallows have just fledged five chicks. They returned mid-April (see the entry for April 14th). Allowing for a week of nest building, two weeks of incubation and two weeks of feeding chicks in the nest that means that the swallows started breeding in the last week of May. We had unseasonably cold weather until about the 26th May, so this makes sense, although five weeks is a sobering delay for a species that might usually hope to get two broods fledged by August. The five fledglings were being fed at a rapid rate today, with the parents barely pausing as they fed a chick during a fly past.

Mid-air refuelling by the barn swallows at the old garden centre in Crail today

I heard my second quail of the year this morning from a winter barley field along the old railway track, just where it meets the footpath down to Kingsbarns. Today’s bird was calling much more strongly than the Dunino bird earlier in the month. A bit later I had it, or a second bird, calling from a few hundred meters away in an adjacent field. I don’t think it is a quail year – of any rare species I should detect when surveying corn buntings, it will be quail. Considering I have spent about 132 hours in June in quail habitat, and covered 528 kilometers, that is a low density. Another unusual bird today, although only in a Crail patch context, was a redpoll, calling overhead as it flew into Kippo Wood.

Posted June 30, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 29th   Leave a comment

In between watching the established male corn buntings sitting on wires, watching their females on nests below, and watching the new territorial males chasing each other, I took a detour to Balcomie Beach. There are three territories visible from the beach so it’s not entirely frivolous. But really I was hoping for some early waders. I was rewarded by a whimbrel, a flock of curlews, a few ringed plover and a couple of dunlin. The dunlin still looked summer plumage shiny. Balcomie Beach has a lot of rotting seaweed on it and there is a lot of food lined up for the more waders that will come over the next two months. July and August is the best time for rarer waders. The house martins were also enjoying the seaweed flies, catching the adults as they laid their eggs on the rotting wrack.

Returning dunlin on Balcomie Beach (JA)

Yesterday I forgot to mention that I heard another grasshopper warbler singing. The fields at Cornceres farm that go down to the sea just east of Kirenny Mill are really good for birds. The farmer leaves the slopes as weedy grass, and there are large wild bird mix plots at the edge of the barley, bean and potato fields there. The grasshopper warbler was singing from a small weedy bush. Although I am more used to them breeding in more scrubby habitat (i.e. like the pair at Fife Ness and at Kilminning this year), they also breed in dry meadows with barely any bushes. With yesterday’s bird I have now had more grasshopper warblers this year around Crail than in the last 20.

One of this year’s Crail Grasshopper warblers (JA)

Posted June 29, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 28th   Leave a comment

There are signs of birds finishing breeding everywhere. Many are still going strong, but the early breeders, like starlings, and the failed breeders have finished. I saw a few curlews passing over and feeding inland today, and my first flock of about 10 in a sheep field at Caiplie. These could just about have got a brood of chicks off but are more likely to be back for the winter early after losing them. There was a flock of six lapwing flying up from a field at Barnsmuir – again probably early failures heading to their wintering grounds. The local lapwings are still trying: I have found about ten breeding pairs this year in the 100 square kilometers of farmland we are surveying for corn buntings in the greater East Neuk. At least half of these failed within a couple of weeks and relocated to new fields: these repeat nesting attempts are still in the balance. Another sign of the end of the coming autumn is the increase in sandwich terns along the shore. I have had small groups passing Crail for the last few days. So far, they are all adults, suggesting again failed breeders – it is obvious when the young arrive as they chase the adults with a relentless, never ceasing, high pitched shrieking.  The swifts are feeding chicks now and I see them every day hawking low over the fields, covering hundreds of kilometers a day to accumulate a load of tiny flies to bring back to the nest. The young swifts of last year and the year before that are livening things up for them when they return – chasing the adults and investigating their nests to scope out a good breeding site for next year. I think the sub-adult swifts arrived back last week. Certainly, the amount of chasing and screaming around Crail went up a lot last weekend. It is time to try to attract them to my swift boxes again after this year’s failure to get a pair breeding. I will try some playback this week: with swift boxes you have to just keep trying. Swifts like company and traditional sites so it takes a lot to establish a new breeding colony. Lastly, I caught up with the brood of coots at Cornceres. Most of the chicks seem to have survived and they look a lot more like dull adults, rather than the little bald punks they were.

Young coot at Cornceres – probably just about able to fly now. Quite a change from May 14th

Posted June 28, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 24th   Leave a comment

I saw a pair of corn buntings mating this morning on a wire: more like one bird trying to land on the back of another for a second. It reassured me that they are just starting to nest while lots of other species are finishing. The fields are full of well fledged rooks, crows and starlings, and at Kingsbarns I saw a gawky grey heron just out of the nest, standing in the field below, looking bemused. The summer migrants are mostly feeding chicks now, particularly whitethroats. Again, it is a good season for them – they are everywhere and there are a lot of active nests. The good weather of the last three weeks has been helping a lot. Tonight’s rain is the first serious rain this month with several millimeters falling – the total for the month to date has only been about 1.4 mm. It’s back to dry and warm tomorrow. The perfect combination for chicks about to fledge. Good growing conditions for plants and insects but no cold, damp days to chill poorly feathered fledglings.

The newly fledged grey heron standing on a fleeced Brassica field below the heronry at the main entrance to Cambo. You can tell it’s a juvenile by its poor choice of habitat and also by the lack of the black stripe from the eye and its grey (not white) crown

Posted June 24, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 22nd   Leave a comment

It is peak puffin time past Crail for the next month. There were hundreds passing every quarter hour this evening within a kilometer of the shore. I also saw my first great skua of the year. Huge, brown, bird of prey like and with prominent white wing flashes. Last year was a poor one for skuas (except long -tailed skuas): we are due a good season.

Great skua. In a good late summer season we can have about one or two an hour past Crail on some days (JA)

Posted June 22, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 20th   Leave a comment

If you are walking in the Highlands or on the west coast you hear ravens all the time. Their deep cronk carries for kilometers and pairs are always talking to each other as they move high over the landscape. It evokes wild places in Scotland to me. But this summer I am hearing ravens every week over the farmland around Crail. A (the) pair are still mostly between Kippo and the Secret Bunker, but today they were around the fields northeast of Kilrenny. Sooner or later I am going to get them over my garden in Crail.

Raven (JA)

Posted June 20, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 19th   Leave a comment

I have been inland most of the time this week, so I did the Balcomie – Kilminning loop this afternoon. It was typical June – no waders apart from a few local ringed plovers and oystercatchers, shelducks, eiders with their chicks and the first few goosanders back in a moulting flock, group fishing in the shallows. At Fife Ness a steady stream of gannets and auks, with some puffins close in. Further out, manx shearwaters – their season has started this week with hundreds passing past Crail every day, and hundreds in an hour on a good evening (last Tuesday, the 15th for example).

June at Balcomie – eider chicks, shelduck and goosanders, but barely any waders

Posted June 19, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 18th   Leave a comment

Now is the best time to see cuckoos around Crail as they head back to Africa. I saw one at lower Kilminning flying around the trees, with its characteristic anorexic bird of prey look, as it was disturbed by walkers. I think the most reliable way to see a cuckoo at Kilminning is to sit on the bench by the metal gate overlooking Kilminning coast and the sea, on a weekday either early or late when it is not busy. The meadow below and around Kilminning Castle is good for caterpillars and they often stop to feed there if it is quiet. But not for long. The cuckoos are moving quite quickly back to Africa now and some will be back in the Congo in three weeks’ time. The adults seem to follow the coast so anywhere along the coastal path is also as good as Kilminning. But you need to be ready because they dash over your head and then are gone – you see grey, falcon wings, a long tail, and as I have already written, a skinny, whippy impression. If you see a weird hawk fitting this description over the next couple of weeks, be fairly confident it is a cuckoo.

Cuckoo (JA)

Posted June 19, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 16th   Leave a comment

I had to read the Handbook of the Birds of the Western Palearctic entry for corn buntings today for some reassurance. I know corn buntings are late breeders but I am losing my nerve as we move into the second half of June with no chicks being fed in a nest yet. The text was reassuring – Cornwall and Sutherland, nests starting mid-June to July; England, an average start day of May 25th. Split the difference and throw in the two week late season then we have corn buntings in Fife this year on nests just now, with the earliest chicks hatching in a week or two. And I am seeing pairs in many territories mate guarding, male sitting idle in others as if they have a female on the nest, and even many territories where it looks like the male have just started. But with the skylarks feeding chicks, and even some fledged, young linnets and starlings everywhere, it still seems too late.

The closest I have got so far to a corn bunting feeding chicks this year – I am not sure why it is carrying this little grass seed head. Too small for a chick feed and not great for nest building. It carried it into a barley field and disappeared – perhaps just a snack for itself between incubation sessions.

Posted June 16, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 14th   Leave a comment

I was out in the wheat and oat prairies northwest of Kilrenny Common this morning. I had just spotted a distant female type marsh harrier close to Kilrenny and was cycling for a better vantage point when I noticed a female yellow wagtail on the road. It was picking up insects around a puddle from last night’s rain and then flew off into the tramlines of an adjacent wheat field. The marsh harrier was forgotten as I watched where the wagtail had disappeared. I wondered if this could be another breeding bird or just a migrant. Then the wagtail was up and calling. It flew over me on the road clearly carrying a bill full of insects and continued 100 meters into an oat field before dropping down into it. Instant gratification – proof of another breeding pair of yellow wagtails. And this one a long way from Barnsmuir: my first breeding record of one breeding to the west of Kilrenny. My route to and from Kilrenny took me past the three other active yellow wagtail nests at Barnsmuir, and there was still activity at two of them today, also with chick feeding going on. I didn’t see any activity at the third Barnsmuir nest but the male was still around over the weekend. So I will settle for 4 yellow wagtail nests on the go at three separate sites (where a new site is at least 1 km away). This great news: 6 years on and we nearly have a reliable (and perhaps expanding) breeding population of yellow wagtails in Fife.

Female yellow wagtail feeding on flies at Barnsmuir (this one on May 18th) (JA)

Back to the marsh harrier. I didn’t see it again after the excitement of the yellow wagtail, but Tom Glass – the resident birder at Kilrenny – has been seeing one about for the last couple of weeks. Presumably we have a summering bird, happy enough to hunt over the faux reedbeds and meadows that the cereal prairie at Kilrenny provides. The habitat is similar to where marsh harriers have started breeding in the Netherlands, so anything is possible.

The marsh harrier wasn’t my raptor highlight – although they are rare Crail birds. I was just north of Pittenweem when I picked up an unusual looking buzzard. It was all dark and the wings looked relatively broad and rounded. I thought goshawk briefly, then it banked, and I saw a large white rump and tail base above a longish tail. The only raptors with white rumps in the UK are female harriers – and this had broad wings so must be a hen harrier. But the wing shape was too broad and so shorter looking than a harrier. A buzzard helpfully stooped onto the raptor to help with size comparison – the hawk was about the same size or slightly larger. Then the penny dropped. A Harris’s hawk! A social, desert living species from southern USA and Central and South America. Last seen by myself on a BBC wildlife documentary pack hunting in Arizona, and also tellingly at a couple of falconry demonstrations in Fife over the last few years. Although I would love this to be a wild vagrant, it is much more likely to have escaped from one of these displays: it is one the commonest birds of prey in captivity and relatively easy to train for falconry. I watched it being mobbed by just about everything as it soared and gained height over Anstruther, before heading off, high towards Crail. I wished it well, although it will not have a lot of luck finding other Harris’s hawks in Crail.     

Bless John Anderson for having even a Harris’s hawk in his collection – from Chile in 2018. A long way from Crail except as the falconry bird flies. (JA)

Posted June 14, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 12th   Leave a comment

Another grasshopper warbler! Only 6 birds in 19 years up to 2021 and now my sixth bird on the Crail patch in 2021. A grasshopper warbler was singing from the line of small, scrubby trees separating the cattle field and the brassica field just north of Kilminning. It was a keen singer and likely to be another breeding bird – or perhaps the Fife Ness pair relocated? Grasshopper warbler song is the same kind of subliminal noise as a quail at a distance. You hear it, but don’t really notice it. Grasshopper warbler pops into your mind but you have to concentrate to actually then really hear it, rather than imagining it. If you have never heard a grasshopper warbler before, it’s well named. They sound like a grasshopper, reeling away, or an electrical buzz. Not like a bird at all.

Grasshopper warbler

My joy at another grasshopper warbler was tempered as I reached Crail again. I saw a squashed bird on the road. I initially thought it was a young starling but on closer look it was a corn bunting. And right by a usual song perch, by the road, of territory 73. I have been watching this bird singing here since the 25th of April. Sometimes on the pill box closer to Crail, but mostly on the lone bush on the right hand side of the road as you head to Fife Ness, but before the airfield. I confirmed it was the male of the territory that had been killed. It didn’t have a brood patch – a patch of bare feathers that females have when incubating. I was at the airfield last night and recorded the bird in territory 73 singing at 8:30 pm. I saw it squashed at 12:30 pm today, and probably only just so. Such a shame. Many birds get hit by cars – a huge number. It is rarely this personal, but everyone is a tiny, individual tragedy.

The male corn bunting of territory 73. Hit by a car and then run over sometime this morning. A tiny tragedy.

Posted June 12, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 10th   Leave a comment

Two unusual birds today. I heard a quail calling from a wheat field at Beley Farm, Dunino this morning. My first one of the year, and perhaps not unexpected considering the hours I am spending in quail habitat every day (wheat fields). Quails are not regular on the Crail patch but I have had them now for the last three summers. Before that it was only 2011, but there were several in this “quail year”. If quails have a good breeding season in southern Europe in March and April, then some of these birds move north to breed again resulting in a small invasion into Britain in June. Even in quail years you have to be very lucky to see one. They spend their entire time in dense crop fields and unless a passing raptor or fox flushes one up they are invisible. Luckily, they call night and day when they are breeding – a soft “wet my lips” or “quip whip whip” repeatedly. It is not loud even though far carrying and steals into your brain as if you are imagining it. You have to concentrate to actually notice it. My other unusual bird at Dunino was a crossbill flying over. It could have been a local breeder or an early migrant, dispersing after breeding (crossbills breed very early). I have only had crossbills on the Crail patch list in 7 out of the last 19 years so they are always good birds, although there have been a few around this year already, particularly the flock at Cellardyke in January.

One of the cellardyke crossbills this January (JA)

Posted June 10, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 8th   Leave a comment

June is a good time to see mammals. There is not much real night time so they have to come out when you can still see them, and there are a lot of young animals around – more to see and not as wary as the adults. This week, as I tour the farmland around Crail looking for corn buntings I am seeing young roe deer, rabbits, hares, badgers, foxes and today, a family of weasels. I met them on the coastal path at Kingsbarns. A mother came round the corner with three (maybe more) half grown youngsters. They shot off to hide. The mother going under a big rock, but the young ones going into the grass. One’s strategy was to stick its head into a grass tussock, with that toddler logic of – I can’t see you so you must not be able to see me. A little bit of squeaking coaxed it back out so I could look at it properly.

A young weasel this morning – it is looking over a plantain and a dandelion leaf to give you an idea of how tiny it was

Corn bunting – this is the bird in territory 16 at Boghall, in the corner of the field where the twites and over 100 wintering corn buntings were this winter.

Posted June 8, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 7th   Leave a comment

I spent much of the day at Kilminning, moving rocks about to restrict vehicle access just to the car park, and then putting up a noticeboard to explain what we are doing. All journeys start with a single step, and the journey of rewilding Kilminning will be a long one, but good to start. Throughout the day the background noise was juvenile starlings following their parents and making their post-fledging begging call. It’s hard to describe. Best to find a starling at this time of year and listen – an adult will be with its juveniles, and the fledglings will be calling constantly. It is a sound of the summer – marking the end of the spring. The juvenile starlings will be fed by their parents for another week or two and then will join up in single age flocks and move down to the shore to feed on the seaweed maggots for the rest of the summer.

Juvenile starlings at Kilminning waiting to be fed as their parents forage in the bean field below. The parents can recognise their own young – it must be via call.

Posted June 7, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 6th   Leave a comment

Still no sign of any chick feeding by the corn buntings; there is much less singing and they are less detectable in pairs so I think most females are on eggs now. At least one of the three active yellow wagtail nests has now hatched. I watched a female bringing a beakful of small items (black flies?) in to the nest area that always seems to be occupied by the first nesting pair. Males at the two other nests were making their “alert for the female sitting on the nest call” and not doing any chick feeding yet, but these nests must be due to hatch soon too. I watched the house martins very busily collecting mud at the puddle at Barnsmuir by the fruit shack. They must need hundreds of beakfuls of mud to make a complete nest. There are still some puddles around in the rutted tracks of most of the farms but they are drying out fast. And we are entering a dry and warm spell for the next couple of weeks.

House martins collecting mud at Barnsmuir today

Posted June 6, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 5th   Leave a comment

With the warmer, sunnier weather of the last few days, there have been more butterflies about. This morning up at Lower Kenly, I saw my first small copper butterfly of the year. I usually see them at West Braes or Kilminning – they like the short grass of the coastal path. Although they are coppery red, they are actually “blues”. Female common blues are like small coppers, but with less red – they are often along the coastal path too. Small coppers have a dark hind wing, contrasting with red. It looks black at first glance, but if it catches the light, it is iridescent. They are worth looking at closely, although they are very flighty and shy butterflies, moving on if you get within a few meters of them.

Small copper butterfly

Posted June 5, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 3rd   Leave a comment

I was watching the swifts over my front garden and the High Street this evening. They have finally got going and have been screaming and chasing this week. Sadly none have come closer than a few meters from my swift nest boxes. One of the swifts was just hanging in the air, soaring into the wind, high above. Swifts don’t hang, they always keep moving, so it wasn’t a swift. A peregrine – the same arrowhead shape as a swift on first glance (although not a perfect match – that would be a hobby, a much rarer falcon). The peregrine stayed hanging high above for several minutes, waiting for something to pass by below, before drifting off south over the sea. Some years I see peregrines nearly every day, but this year it is about once a month, so nice to have one coming to my house.

Peregrine (JA)

Posted June 3, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

June 1st   Leave a comment

I had an osprey flying over this Pitkierie (just north of Kilrenny) this morning. Unbelievably this is only my second osprey in the Crail patch. My first was on the 26th August 2006, flying along the shore at Kingsbarns Beach before cutting the corner off to the Forth. Ospreys can be easily seen in parts of Fife – the Eden Estuary, late summer, is the closest place – and all over the Highlands (although 75 years ago there was only a single pair of ospreys breeding in Scotland). But they are rarities here. Most ospreys migrate from West Africa, so they fly over Fife and each year there are a handful of sightings of migrating birds, but always to the west of Crail. It was great to see an osprey again here, and it reminded me that my last osprey – in the absence of going anywhere except my local Crail patch in the last year – was in Liberia, in January 2020.

The distant osprey this morning, gaining height before it continued west: local patch gold. One of the easiest raptors to identify even at this distance because of its pied plumage and general gull like look.

Posted June 1, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

%d bloggers like this: