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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