Archive for July 2021

July 30th   Leave a comment

If you were in Roome Bay today and looked out to sea you might have noticed a flock of fourteen streamlined ducks on the water – with Chinese dragon-like crested heads and long pointed bills. These are goosander. Fish eating ducks that hunt together, pushing schools of fish in front of them as they swim underwater and then powering forward together to push a fish into the bill of a neighbour and vice versa. It’s all a bit of an Olympic synchronized event – all of them diving together and pacing each other under the water. They come up as soon as they get a fish so the surfacing is a bit more disorganized. Goosanders are here to moult, spending the late summer on our rocky shore while they grow new wing feathers. Some will be flightless for a while so there is safety in numbers, as well as efficiency in fishing. Male goosanders are very handsome ducks, with dark green heads and a pinky flush to their white plumage (they look very black and white at a distance). But this time of year, like other ducks in moult, they adopt the subdued greys and browns of females. It pays to be less conspicuous when you are moulting and vulnerable, as it pays to be very conspicuous and handsome when you are courting.

Goosanders today (John Anderson)

Posted July 30, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 28th   Leave a comment

We doubled the rainfall for July last night with 13 mm falling in about an hour at midnight. A proper thunderstorm is unusual for Crail – but probably less so in the climate change years ahead. It was fairly damp and muddy this morning and I was dreading my walk round the potato field at Oldbarns. But it was worse than I was imagining – the tops of all the potato plants had been chopped off yesterday in preparation for harvest in a few weeks. There are four corn bunting nests in this field. I walked through the field a lot to survey the damage – ironically it is now really easy to survey, with the furrows and tram tracks exposed. I quickly noticed that the tops had been taken off at about 15cm – a substantial haircut, but still leaving some leaves and the stems. Any nests might well have survived, although they would now be much more exposed to predators and the elements. I became slightly hopeful and to my surprise all four corn bunting territories were still there and with birds behaving much as previous visits. I am cautiously optimistic that the nests have survived, although perhaps only for now. One silver lining, although again with the caveat of I am not sure for how long, I found another active yellow wagtail nest, right in the middle of the field which was previously inaccessible to me. A pair were feeding chicks and mobbing me vigorously. Clearly another survivor of the potato cutting. This is nest number 9 that I have found – and with two that I have seen fledged juveniles from – makes a record-breaking minimum of 11 this year from at least 6 pairs. The other second brood at Oldbarns, in the winter wheat, fledged yesterday with lots of frantic male and female calling as the young spread out into the crop. This morning there were two males, a female and a juvenile from one of the first nests in the area.

The potato field at Oldbarns after its haircut yesterday. Compare this to the degree of cover for the nest in the photo on July 25th below.
The female and male from yellow wagtail nest no. 9 hanging on in the field and still feeding chicks in a nest despite the much reduced vegetation. You can see that the cut was high enough that it would have passed easily over a nest on the ground, among the main stems. I hope the same thing applies to the 4 corn bunting nests in the field. They are all still at the egg stage or just hatching, and will have to survive, relatively exposed for another 12-14 days.

Posted July 28, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 27th   Leave a comment

It’s merlin season. August is the best time to see merlins around Crail. We have a few around all winter but they are quiet and sit for 90% of the time before their explosive, rapid hunts. Blink and you miss them. But late summer they pass through and are much more obvious, zooming along the coast and hunting at mid-height (winter merlins often hunt very low or very high). And, of course, we have swallows at this time of year that spot every hawk, low or high and make a loud, mobbing calls, drawing attention to them. I have had three merlins in the last week: today it was a female at Wormiston. I got on to it because the corn bunting I was watching started making its aerial predator call (I had only learned this a couple of territories before as two corn buntings made this call to a buzzard). Then the swallows started up and the merlin flew over. Yesterday it was an adult male, with its powder blue back, at sunset over the fields at Barnsmuir. Again, followed by a retinue of angry swallows, a flying flag just in case I hadn’t already seen it.

Merlin (John Anderson)

Posted July 27, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 25th   Leave a comment

Corn bunting nest 1 in territory 73 just outside of Crail

Although it’s the end of July, the corn buntings are still right in the middle of their breeding season. I had several new nests started last week because the first nests had failed, and even two building their first nest in a territory last Friday. All the brand new nests are in potato fields. I am getting the impression that corn buntings like starting to nest in green crops or vegetation. This makes sense – the plants will still be growing to provide increasing cover for the nest – and are unlikely to be harvested (or burnt in their ancestral habitat) before the chicks fledge. Nests that are failing in mature crops at the moment – winter wheat or barley – seem to have about an even chance for the territory to be completely deserted a few days later. These birds are probably the ones that are then accumulating in the potato field: being sure about this is one of the reasons that I need to colour-ring the population, so I can follow individuals as they maintain or shift territories. Anyway, these new nesting birds in the potato fields need to come from somewhere. I now have the two big potato fields closest to Crail, each with at least 4 nests in them. At the end of June there was barely a corn bunting singing in a potato field.

I checked one of these nests early this morning. I have watched the male in territory 73 singing from alongside the airfield road since April. Corn bunting males are pretty focused singers, but this one has spent hundreds of hours singing over three months. He was finally rewarded by a female that I saw building a nest on the second of July. The nest took about five days to build. Looking closely at it today I could see it was a big structure. The potato plants provide cover above the nest but little else. Everything structural in the nest needs to be brought in and woven by the female. Nests in grass or spring barley have the stems to provide much of the support. It looked like there were three chicks in the nest today, but because the eggs hatched on the 23rd, I suspect there were 4 eggs, given the usual incubation time of 12-13 days. The pace of development of the chicks is really fast so they will fledge on about day 10 – 12, so on the 2nd or 3rd of August. Weather and predators permitting. The nest is quite exposed with barely any cover above as the potato plants around it have flopped a bit. Rain is forecast this week…

There is a second nest in territory 73. Corn buntings are frequently polygynous – one male, and several females. The male often doesn’t do anything except sing and chase the females, so it makes little difference to the females if there is another close by. I saw the second female building on the 19th, about 150 meters from the first nest. It might just be in the next territory – but this male (territory 2) also has another female nesting in his territory that started building a couple of days earlier. These nests won’t fledge chicks until about the 20th of August! Late indeed. And heading dangerously towards potato harvest time.

The nest in closeup. I think I can count three chicks here (I just take a photo at a distance and count later to minimise disturbance) – about 48 hours since hatching

Posted July 25, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 23   Leave a comment

As the summer progresses we start to get the exciting seabirds turning up, heading past Crail, either south from the Arctic, or north from southern oceans. I saw my first arctic skua of the season this morning: a dark phase bird heading steadily down the Forth, over a flat calm sea. If there was ever to be a top ten seabird, then a dark phase arctic skua is a strong contender. The bird in black. But probably not appreciated so much by sandwich terns.

Dark phase arctic skua – impeccable cool (John Anderson)

Posted July 23, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 21st   Leave a comment

There were some passage birds about today. Probably birds from Scotland moving down the coast: there was no wind at all. First, I had a female marsh harrier hunting over the airfield, then later there was a short-eared owl reported around the Patch at Fife Ness, and at lunchtime I then saw a juvenile cuckoo at Sypsies. I was sat down in cover at the farm watching for any corn bunting nest feeding activity and the cuckoo practically flew over my shoulder, in an atypically leisurely flight. I enjoyed the close view, usually they are heading for cover as fast as they can in response to seeing a person.

Female marsh harrier (John Anderson)

Posted July 21, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 20th   Leave a comment

More yellow wagtails! A new pair in the potato field just outside of Crail on the Fife Ness road, on the left hand side. I was pacing around the field for most of the morning yesterday trying to work out whether there were three or four pairs of corn buntings now nesting in the field. Corn buntings don’t generally nest in potatoes but with the near continuous border of wild bird mix, now flowering, it seems irresistible. I just hope the potatoes aren’t harvested in the next four weeks otherwise this apparent bounty will turn into an ecological trap. I picked up the wagtails because the male yellow wagtail was chasing away any corn buntings that approached a small part of the field, and then I picked up the female nearby. This makes the eight or ninth nest this year! And to really add to this good number, I had a juvenile from a May nest flying over, and another today at Oldbarns (again in a potato field). Days out in the fields around Crail now have a yellow wagtail or two calling as standard. I have substituted Nigerian farmland with Crail farmland, but the swallows, whitethroats and yellow wagtails are the same, and in a week or two when the whinchats and tree pipits start passing, there will be even more in common.

On another note – there are lots of interesting or beautiful, or both, insects about. Six-spotted burnett moths are now everywhere. Day flying and colourful, reliant on being distasteful and advertising it rather than flying at night. And to our benefit, even brighter than the thistles that they feed on.

Six-spotted burnett moth (John Anderson)

Posted July 20, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 18th   Leave a comment

I was reminded this morning that it’s not all bad at Sauchope for wildlife. There is a weedy bank just behind the toilets and the swimming pool, full of knapweed, common rock rose and some violets. And it is great for butterflies. I found the patch following a possible dark green fritillary a couple of days ago. The butterfly was zooming over the spring barley field next to Pinkerton – I was looking at a corn bunting territory there – and disappeared towards the caravan park. Today I saw it well enough to be certain – two individuals – and the first I have seen in the Crail area. Fritillaries are difficult to see well. One of their distinctive characteristics – making them a fritillary – is their very rapid flight. They hardly ever stay still and are impossible to follow because they move at a running pace over a large area. They remind me of hummingbirds in these respects, and the way to see hummingbirds is to stake out a likely flower and wait for them to come to you. So this is what I did. Dark green fritillaries like purple flowers so I waited by a patch of knapweed until one got hungry and perched close by. Dark green fritillaries are fairly bright orange (although this dulls, as with all butterflies, with age) and marked with lots of black speckles; the underwing has a greenish tinge although this is hard to see. Quite distinctive, although in this part of Fife, any fritillary, especially a big one by the coast is likely to be a dark green fritillary. I looked for some more in the Pinkerton triangle and Roome Bay. Both these areas were full of meadow browns, ringlets and graylings, but no more fritillaries. So stake out the long grass bank behind the toilets at Sauchope to see them. It’s also a great spot too for close up views of house martins that breed under the low eaves there.

The two dark green fritillary at Sauchope this morning. One much older and worse for wear than the other: the prettier one wouldn’t sit still at all

Posted July 18, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 17th   3 comments

I saw a juvenile cuckoo flying past at Wormiston this morning. Cuckoos this “late” will be the young of this year, heading back down to Africa for the first time. Many of the adults are already back in West Africa, having left a month ago. Another clue to its age was its brown colour, like a young bird of prey. Some adult cuckoos are brown instead of grey, but it’s unusual.

I try to be cheerful – there’s always too much going on with the natural world that is interesting, or exciting, or unusual or just beautiful to stop you dwelling on what might be going wrong with it. But I was stopped short by the resident stonechat at the end of Sauchope Caravan Park (aka Crail’s luxury coastal housing estate). The new development at the end of the park has removed about 80% of the stonechat’s habitat. It was making do today on the pile of debris that is all that is left of the coastal grassland and scrub that was its home. There has been a pair of stonechats breeding there every year for the last 20 at least, except after the hardest winters when stonechat numbers plummet. No longer. And the same for a pair or two of reed bunting, sedge warbler, meadow pipit, common whitethroat and yellowhammer. All of these species, by the way, were still nesting in the area when the work started a couple of weeks’ ago.

Home sweet home

Posted July 17, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 16th   Leave a comment

More yellow wagtail good news. I was at Balcomie, up near the castle cottages when I heard a yellow wagtail. A bright male flew over and then landed and made some sustained alarm calls from the adjacent winter wheat field. This bird was 636 meters (I blame the GPS for this level of pedantic accuracy…) from the nest in the asparagus field: well within their foraging range. But nevertheless, it was behaving as if it had a nest much closer. Encouraging (maybe nest 7 this year), but better still was a juvenile yellow wagtail that also flew over and circled around me attracted by the male calling. The juvenile was fully independent and probably fledged in late May or early June. So, it seems likely that the Balcomie asparagus pair are renesting after a successful first nest (so definitely a minimum of 7 nests this year). Why so excited about Crail yellow wagtails? – because when a declining African migrant species, and such a wonderful one as this, makes a comeback, however small, it gives you hope.

A Crail yellow wagtail (John Anderson)

Posted July 16, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 14th   Leave a comment

I was sat at the end of Balcomie Golf Course by the sea as I removed all the grass seeds from my boots. An occupational hazard of tramping along the field edges and fairly time consuming. This was an advantage today. I was distracted and immobile for so long that when I looked up, the normally shy shelducks and their brood of the year, were feeding right in front of me. It’s a cliché, but sit still for long enough and wildlife stops worrying about you. The shelduck chicks are no longer cute – although attractive enough – but that makes me happy. They really are big enough that short of a white-tailed eagle, they will make it to adulthood. That said, I probably would pay the price of one of the chicks for another Crail sea eagle: it’s been 11 years now.

Female shelduck and one of her four chicks, to be seen at the end of Balcomie Golf Course at the moment

Posted July 14, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 13th   Leave a comment

There was a bit more yellow wagtail activity at Oldbarns this morning. I have been hearing occasional birds calling for the last week, but it has been relatively quiet. I had thought that the adults had moved on to renest somewhere else. They tend to move a kilometer or so between broods. Today though, there was a pair in the newly cut potatoes, calling loudly and staying closely together. Then a second male appeared and the first chased it vigorously into the next field. It felt like a late April scene, when they are getting ready to breed just after arriving from West Africa. Perhaps they are going to renest in the same area as the first broods. One other, less happy, explanation might be that they were nesting in the potato field, and the nests were destroyed when the tops were cut off the potatoes this week.

The male yellow wagtail that was chased away from the cut potato field at Oldbarns. It is perched in the winter wheat where the first pair nested this year (and where they have bred first for the last five years). I later saw it feeding on the road closer to the farmhouse.

Posted July 13, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 10th   Leave a comment

I was cycling back from Caiplie this evening after ringing a brood of corn buntings – some nests are fledging now although most have not hatched any chicks yet – and I stopped to scan the harvested brassica field by the sea at Oldbarns. It looks a great field for late summer migrants or fledged yellow wagtails. Sure enough there was a flock of 28 lapwing and with them, I thought, 4 golden plover. A brightly coloured jogger went past and they took flight, and the 4 golden plover became 24. Even though most were in their summer finery still, they are amazingly camouflaged. The first golden plover back are another sign of the end of the summer approaching.

A golden plover just back from the Highlands or Scandinavia and still mostly in breeding plumage (John Anderson)

Posted July 10, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 8th   Leave a comment

Surprisingly I saw only my first common terns of the year at Balcomie this afternoon. Some springs they are unusual – but never absent. And there is often a pair or two that regularly fish at Roome Bay or Fife Ness during the early summer. Late summer they are everywhere, as are Arctic and sandwich terns. The common terns today were in a mixed flock of the three tern species, taking it easy on the rocks at high tide. There were also a few whimbrels about today – I am hearing one or two calling every day now as they pass down the coast. One was snoozing with the terns this afternoon. I also saw my first common sandpiper of the year: the first finished breeders now heading back to West Africa like the whimbrels. If you have ever been to an African mangrove forest you will know that common sandpipers and whimbrels are the signature birds of this habitat: such a contrast to the rocky shore at Balcomie and testament to how generalist waders are. As I scanned the shore for terns and waders I was really pleased to see the Balcomie shelduck pair (well at least one of them) with five, well grown, chicks. The chicks are big enough to escape the gulls now, so another successful breeding year.

Common tern (John Anderson)

I was just heading for home after finishing checking some corn buntings territories when I heard a yellow wagtail flying over my head. I followed it to Balcomie golf course. A male, very busy collecting small flies from the one of the fairways. Another breeding attempt and 4.5 km away from this year’s nearest at Oldbarns. If they bred on the airfield last year – which I am fairly sure they did – then 1.8 km from the nearest previously known nest. This means that this year we have had at least 5 yellow wagtail nests spread over 7.8 km. It all started with just a couple of nests at Oldbarns six years ago. It’s really encouraging.

The male (top) and the female yellow wagtail breeding at Balcomie. The nest is in an asparagus field, hidden underneath one of the potato plants that have grown up under the asparagus from tubers left from last year. Both birds are foraging well away from the nest.

Another encouraging sign. Two of the oak trees we planted in the new Bow Butts Park, next to Denburn, have survived and are fully in leaf. Today I saw a chaffinch singing from one of them. Nearly more chaffinch than tree, but as we know, large oaks grow from little acorns. In a couple of decades there will be chaffinches nesting in them.

A chaffinch enjoying one of the new oak trees at Bow Butts

Posted July 8, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 6th   Leave a comment

It was a wet day, with soaking vegetation to wade through as visited corn bunting territories today to check on how they are progressing. Most were sitting tight on their nests, especially in the afternoon, with eerily quiet territories – the males, of course, eventually giving the game away by sitting above the nests and singing a quiet little song. I came across a grey partridge at Oldbarns that was wetter than me. Four adult birds exploded out of a spring barley field a few meters in front of me. They had chicks, and one proceeded to distraction display by dragging its wings and stumbling away. I didn’t chase it (obviously) and it became more frantic, sprinting back and forth around me, desperate to draw me away from the chicks. It was soaking wet making it look even more unhappy. I moved quickly away and the adults flew off as fast as they could. A bit later I could hear the young calling quietly in the barley so their parents can find them again.

The grey partridge running frantically around me to distract me away from her chicks

I got home as the rain became really persistent late afternoon. Finally dry and contemplating a cup of tea I got a message: black redstart in the front gardens of Pinkerton. Back on with my wet coat, a quick cycle across Crail and five minutes later I was watching a (I think one year old male) black redstart feeding on the wet driveways. Black redstarts are good Crail migrants: 2 or 3 a year if I am lucky, and the occasional long term winter resident in Roome Bay. I have had one already this year on the 30th January. Mid-summer is unusual. They are commoner late autumn and winter. Anyway, one of my favourites and worth getting wet again for.

The black redstart at Pinkerton – like a sooty black robin with the red on the tail

Posted July 6, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

July 3rd   Leave a comment

If you have been out of Crail heading to Fife Ness or the golf courses you will have noticed that the potato field on the north side of the road is surrounded by a big strip of wild bird mix. When it’s first planted, the barley in the mix come up first so it is hard to recognize, but now you can easily see there are a mix of plants and the first wildflowers are also coming out. The result has been quite spectacular corn bunting wise. When the field was bare stubble in late March a corn bunting started singing from the middle. It disappeared in April and May as the field was ploughed and set up for potatoes. But last week, as the wild bird mix came into its own, making a diverse, weedy margin to the field, three corn buntings took up residence. Two new birds (perhaps one of them the March bird returning) started singing from or by the field and one of the birds that has been only in the spring barley on the other side of the road has moved over to the potato side to start building a nest.

I am beginning to get a better idea of where the corn buntings are at in terms of their breeding timing. I have watched 29 territories around Crail in much greater detail over the last few days. I think I have 4 still setting up a territory (i.e. nothing started yet), 3 nest building, 21 behaving as if there is a female sitting on eggs, and 1 feeding chicks. The last I found today in the cattle field next to the north end of Balcomie Golf Course. I picked up a female flying in from a field from Randerston obviously carrying something in its bill – like a puffin with a fish, something was obviously hanging down from the front. It perched on the fence on the top edge of the cattle field. It was carrying a large green caterpillar and so clearly on its way to a nest with chicks in it.  It was very wary and stayed put for several minutes until I walked away. At about the 100 meter mark it flew down into the cattle field below where I lost sight of it.

The corn bunting today on its way to feed its chicks – you can just make out that it looks like it has a Victorian moustache because of the caterpillar it is carrying

I spent the next two hours watching from various points around the field trying to see where the female was coming and going from, but I had brief glimpses of it either leaving or entering the perimeter of the field. In the end the male gave it away. The female landed in the middle of the field with a beakful of whiteish insect closely followed by the male, which sang a little bit, and then flew to perches either side of the female. The female was – as I found out – only two meters from the nest – and had crouched down watching me, waiting for me to leave. I was about 75 meters away at the field edge at this point. The male couldn’t care less and kept on flagging up the female to me, who – let’s anthropomorphise – was desperately hoping the male would stop making a fuss and drawing attention to her by the nest. The male finally flew off to a fence post (not only useless in contributing to feeding the chicks, but actually dangerous to them), and I moved slowly away to be less conspicuous. Again, at about the 100 meter mark, as I sat down and I think disappeared from the skyline, the female then made a tiny flight to disappear into a taller grass and thistle patch adjacent to where she had been crouching. Twenty seconds later she was back out without the insects and off back up the slope into the winter wheat field above for another load. I quickly walked down into the cattle field and found the exact nest spot after a minute of looking closely – not brilliantly hidden but enough so that no amount of cold searching in even the approximate area would have found it without a huge piece of luck. There were four chicks in the nest – quite well feathered and so about 8 or so days old. I needed to see the nest closely to establish its age and so when it was started – probably the breeding attempt was started about the 5th of June. Almost a month ago, so although most of the corn bunting nests are at an early stage, some individuals got their skates on much earlier. I left quickly before the female returned to minimize the disturbance, although at this stage for a songbird nest, the female will only desert if the nest is destroyed. They have put so much effort into the attempt so far that as long as some chicks are alive in the nest then it is still worth their while continuing, even if they have seen a potential predator or person near the nest.

The corn bunting nest. Note my visit was very brief; the flattened grass in front of the nest was as I found it (presumably that’s a week of the female going in and out every ten minutes), and that I have a licence to monitor corn buntings at the nest. These four chicks will be out of the nest in another 4 or 5 days.

As I was watching for the corn buntings, I could see and hear the waders along the shore at Balcomie. My first redshank back for the winter, and a passage whimbrel and a flock of 25 curlew. Again, a reminder of the season progressing and the lateness of the corn buntings. Any corn bunting starting a nest in a crop field now is in a race against time to get their chicks fledged before harvest start in 6 weeks’ time for the wheat and 8 weeks for the barley. Some of the grass fields have been cut already, particularly out towards Pittenweem and St Monans, and any “early” nests there will have been destroyed.

Posted July 3, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

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