Archive for August 2021

August 30th   Leave a comment

I went to the memorial service of Jim Cobb today at Kingsbarns Kirk. Jim was a local legend for many reasons but for many of us he will be fondly remembered for buying and creating The Patch at Fife Ness. That patch of trees at the end of Crail Golf Club, by the coast guard cottages. You enter by a less than obvious path besides the pink cottage and find yourself in a dense stand of mixed woodland and well developed bushes. A place full of cover and food for the migrants that end up at Fife Ness every spring and autumn. And because of the Patch they stay around for a few days instead of continuing inland, to disappear into Fife. It is a little migrant trap – a good trap though, with both migrants and birdwatchers benefiting. I am grateful to Jim for having the foresight over three decades ago to secure the land and for planting the trees so we can now all benefit forever. I am grateful to Jim for the Arctic, greenish, Blyth’s reed, Radde’s, dusky, reed, marsh and Sardinian warblers that are on my Crail list because of the Patch. I am grateful to Jim for the hope and potential joy I feel every time I go down to Fife Ness on an easterly. At the end of his life Jim frequently complained that things were not as they were – that there were fewer birds, fewer migrants, fewer good autumns. That may be so, but people like Jim mean that there are more birds, more migrants and more good autumns than there might have been.

A common redstart in the Patch – caught by Chris Broome who is continuing Jim Cobb’s ringing tradition at the site. Jim will be missed but the birds that he created habitat and space for are still here

Posted August 30, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 28th   Leave a comment

Everywhere I went today there were sand martins in with the swallows and house martins. In flocks hawking over the beach at Sauchope and Fife Ness, over the new stubble fields by Crail, on the wires at Balcomie Castle. Usually, I would be lucky to see one or two in a day, or a few if I pass their breeding sites at the top of the beach at Randerston, Kingsbarns or Boghall. They must be migrating at the moment. It is harder to detect barn swallow and house martin passage because there are always lots around, but I think barn swallows have also been heading south along the coast for the last week.

A sand martin on the wires at Balcomie, on its way back to a river or wetland in West Africa until next March

Otherwise, it was much as the week before. Some Arctic and great skuas at Fife Ness and quite a few little gulls also passing late afternoon. There was a garden warbler at lower Kilminning, which might be a new bird in (but then again they can be quite inconspicuous). I saw it by staking out the now just ripening elder berries by the rose bushes. These elders always attract migrants and half an hour spent watching the bushes at the end of August is time well spent to find a barred warbler or a common rosefinch.

Garden warbler (John Anderson)

Posted August 28, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 26th   Leave a comment

The wind was coming straight down from the top of Norway this morning. An hour at Fife Ness brought Arctic, great and one long-tailed skua. The last was what I was hoping for – a good bird for Crail. Although we get them passing every year, you need to get lucky, or diligently sea watch at Fife Ness in the right winds. The end of August seems to be the best time although they can turn up through to October. Today’s was a technical – a bird well out and requiring a lot of scrutiny as it shearwatered above and below the waves heading south fast, with the wind behind it. Long-tailed skua adults are easy – they have lovely long tails, but mine was a juvenile. Luckily, they also have a very distinctive shape – like a slender gull, with long wings, and the most useful feature, a rear end extension. Long-tailed skua’s tail feathers start a bit further back than the other skuas, giving them an odd, longer back end look compared to the other skuas. Because it is the back of the bird that is extended, not the tail, it also gives the impression at a distance that the bird has a broad based, longish tail – nothing like the adult’s tail streamers, but something more like the fat tail of a grackle or an oropendola. Another feature, and there aren’t very many at a couple of kilometers, was a fairly uniform, mealy brownish colour, like a sandy young gull. Other skuas flash white patches on their wings or undersides, and the only strong contrast on (pale) juvenile long-tailed skua is their darker primaries.

A juvenile long-tailed skua from Balcomie in 2016 – pretty much the bird I saw today. I have posted this picture before but long-tailed skuas at Fife Ness rarely come close enough or stay around to be properly photographed (John Anderson)

I seawatched again in the evening from Castle Walk for thirty minutes as the sun set. I was hoping for some skuas stopping for the evening to forage so giving better views. No more skuas, but several manx shearwaters and one sooty shearwater heading east. They will then turn north when they pass Fife Ness. Tomorrow there may be a lot of passage back north as those birds pushed south by the winds earlier today readjust.

And I have posted this photo a few times, but its one of my favourites of such a brilliant bird – a sooty shearwater powering round Fife Ness on its way round Britain before heading back down to the southern oceans (John Anderson)

Posted August 26, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 25th   Leave a comment

This evening was the first since May without a swift over Crail. Most left last Thursday, but there were still birds chasing and screaming along the High Street over the weekend. All in all their exit is about a week later than last year. There will be a week of one or two stragglers passing over but the major part of the summer is over. A merlin came over my garden as I looked for swifts this evening – one door closes another opens. The first geese will be here in a week.

I am seeing sparrowhawks hunting on the rocky shore most days now. It seems to be a late August or early September thing. It makes sense. I go to Balcomie Beach because there are loads of birds there and the sparrowhawks do the same. Hundreds of starlings and waders; lots of young pied wagtails. Today the hunting conditions were all in the sparrowhawk’s favour with the haar and murky light first thing making them just about invisible.

A sparrowhawk hunting over the rocky shore at Fife Ness (John Anderson)

Posted August 25, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 24th   Leave a comment

The haar was in and out of Crail today, and with light south-easterly winds there was a vague chance of a migrant. As I cycled along by the airfield I flushed a whinchat from the fence – my first of the autumn. It flew off into the cow field to a patch of nettles. Perfect whinchat habitat – about a meter of perch, surrounded by rough grass to sally down into. Whinchats will always be one of my favourite birds – I spent some of today analysing data from the geolocator tags I took off whinchats in Nigeria and Liberia. This has been on hold during lockdown but I now have some time to look at each bird’s adventures again. This whinchat today may well be heading down to Liberia. We didn’t get any of our tagged birds coming to Scotland, but then only a tiny proportion of Europe’s vast whinchat population will be at any particular site in Africa. Nevertheless, every whinchat I see in Crail, I can imagine heading down to somewhere I know in West Africa, where I have studied them. As I watched the whinchat and thought my usual thought, about how similar the brown grass cow field and nettles was to African farmland, I heard a tree pipit popping up from the field, and then saw a second perched in a dead tree beside it. Again, just the same as African farmland, minus the bee-eaters.

Whinchat in Liberia, January 2020. This one went to breed well above the Arctic circle in Norway.

Posted August 24, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 23rd   Leave a comment

My wife, Sue, took the dog out this morning while I went in to St Andrews. She had two short-eared owls hunting along the grassy banks by the coastal path between the salmon bothy and Caiplie caves. They must have been migrants, just in from the sea. I went down an hour later in search of them but they had moved on, probably because of the now very busy path full of coastal walkers. Even without the owls it was a nice walk. I came back on top of the old cliff, on the level of the fields, which gives great views across the Forth. It was dead calm again and without the haar. Every bird on the sea was visible to the May Island. As I walked back I heard the double quack of a black-tailed godwit flying above me, heading west. I looked up and instead saw three odd looking ducks – pintails, with their distinctive long necks and tails. And then behind them the black-tailed godwit. Two unusual birds for the Crail year list in two seconds. Pintail used to be regular with a female that spent every winter at Kilrenny Mill with the mallards. But since its demise, I have not had one on the patch for three years. Black-tailed godwits, although easy to see on the Eden estuary, only pass through Crail and you have to be lucky to see them – about once every 2-3 years for me.

Lucky birds for the year list continued later in the afternoon when I got a message that there were a couple of green sandpipers and a juvenile little ringed plover at the pond, by the mouth of Kenly Water, at Boarhills. Green sandpipers are fairly rare on the Crail patch because we have so little fresh water in the winter – only 5 years with green sandpipers recorded in them since 2003 – and the same applies for little ringed plovers – only 2 individuals since 2003. The finder of the birds, Simon Pinder, kindly stayed in place to guide me: I got there as quick as I could, throwing my bike on top of the car and then cycling down from Boarhills. I think I made it from my house to the pond in 25 minutes – it is downhill from Boarhills which helps, and the dog had to run fairly fast to keep up. I saw both birds. A green sandpiper popped up immediately from the flooded saltmarsh (that is always good for wintering greenshanks) showing its almost black wings and white rump, and then about thirty minutes later, we relocated the little ringed plover back on the flat rocky area, with very shallow pools, by the pond. In the meantime, I checked out the roost on the high tide at Kenly Water. Quite fantastic in the late afternoon warm sunlight: lapwings, curlews, turnstones and noisy whimbrels; over 100 little gulls, an adult Mediterranean gull and the other usual gull suspects; arctic, common and sandwich terns; guillemots and razorbills in a raft just offshore.

Green sandpiper (John Anderson)

The little ringed plover topped it all off. Another epic wader, which travels and travels over the planet, and that connects me to so many places. My favourite little ringed plover fact is: a pair were tagged in Sweden. One went to India for the winter, one went to Nigeria. They met back in Sweden and bred successfully producing several young – where did they go to spend the winter? – well, they weren’t tagged but they could have gone pretty much anywhere, from Senegal to Bangladesh. Today’s bird was a juvenile, at the start of some epic journey. Perhaps a migrant from Sweden on its way to West Africa, perhaps a local Fife bird, feeding up at the coast before heading to East Africa. Little ringed plovers just need little pool margins to be happy so they can do well anywhere that is a bit damp. Like the wood sandpiper of yesterday they are an African bird to me, around every pool on the continent during our winter. Little ringed plovers look superficially like common ringed plovers but are structurally much more delicate, with a long tail and wings giving them an elongated look and a small domed head. They lack the eyestripe and have a yellow ring around the eye, again giving them a more delicate look – you can sculpt a ringed plover in clay, but you would need bone china to get a little ringed plover right. Today’s little ringed plover was mostly roosting on its own, occasionally stretching out its wing to show another good feature – its very slim and unobtrusive wing bar – common ringed plovers have big white wing bars. And it fed a little bit, with delicate steps and pecks rather than with the runs and vigorous pecks of common ringed plovers. A lovely bird and if it behaves like the last one that I found on Balcomie Beach in July 2017, it might stay for a few weeks (or it has been here for a few weeks already of course). They might be distinctive when you look closely at them, but they are easy to overlook among the much commoner, common ringed plovers, especially when you don’t expect to find them by the sea (although they are common around salt lakes in Africa).

The little ringed plover at Kenly Water this afternoon.

Posted August 23, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 22nd   Leave a comment

I was hoping for a good today, and so it was, but not quite as I expected. There were no land migrants blown in – although the rain showers were excellently timed, it was the wind that didn’t deliver, swinging south-east yesterday and becoming very light. This morning dawned damp and murky, with mist inland and out to sea, although the coast around Crail was bizarrely clear out to a couple of kilometers. I had planned to go out to Kilminning first thing, just in case, when I got a message at 7:00 am that a great shearwater had been seen passing Fife Ness half an hour before. Normally a fly past of something this rare (a once in 30 year bird) past Fife Ness is a shrug of the shoulders sort of thing – shame I wasn’t there to see it but nothing to be done, you can’t sea watch all the time etc. But the thing was, the same message had gone out the day before at 17:05 – a great shearwater past Fife Ness. Both sightings were of a bird close in suggesting that it might be sticking around for a bit. No more resigned shoulder shrugging, something could be done and there was a chance of seeing the shearwater if I got to Fife Ness as quickly as possible. I got ready to go as quickly as possible – a day of sea watching needs coffee and sandwiches – but not before a second message came in. A Sabine’s gull at Fife Ness and still in the area right now! A Sabine’s gull is not a great shearwater – this would be my third on the Crail patch since 2003 – but it is still a very rare bird. And an exciting looking, Arctic breeding gull from North America to boot. I saw my first in Barrow, Alaska! The dash was really on.

I was down at Fife Ness by 7:30, with John Anderson arriving down there at the same moment. As I jumped out of the car, I could already see a flock of kittiwakes on the water close in and thought this was my best bet. The original finder of the gull then waved to us from the Ness that the Sabine’s gull was indeed in this flock. Some fumbling with my telescope tripod and a nervous scan through the flock later I picked up the gull – a beautiful full adult, complete with its hood, dark bill and well marked wings. As with any rare bird twitch there is always that feeling of great nervousness and fear of missing out until you finally see the bird, that is then suddenly replaced with relief and a sense of being able to relax and actually enjoy the bird. John and I went out onto the low tide rocks to get a bit closer. It was very slippery and even though we very slowly halved the distance between us and the gull, it was still not within photo distance, particularly with the murky light. Through a telescope it was great though. I could just about pick out the pale yellow bill tip, and when it flew it showed off its very distinctive upperwing pattern of dark grey, black and white triangles. I have seen all my previous Sabine’s gulls as quick flybys. This bird stayed around Fife Ness until 9:30, and a lot of other local birders also got to see it well as a result. And of course there was the possibility of the great shearwater coming past again.

The adult Sabine’s gull at Fife Ness this morning. A bit murky and a bit distant but you get the idea – the two flight shots and the photo immediately adjacent are John Anderson’s which he considers too poor to post, but I disagree in the spirit that it is better to look at any photo of a significant bird than not at all. And poorer photos are better representations of what things actually look like in the field, helping you focus on the key identification features. The other gulls are adult and juvenile kittiwakes.

So it was a lively morning at Fife Ness, birds and birder wise, with a line of us looking for the shearwater or the Sabine’s gull (for the new arrivals), and inevitably a few things got seen. There was a steady passage of great skuas – about one every 15 minutes mid-morning, and a few arctic skuas and little gulls to grab your attention. The occasional manx shearwater or distant fulmar (at the edge of the fog) raised the level of excitement even further. Suddenly I heard a wood sandpiper calling faintly: reassuringly the Fife bird recorder Graham Sparshot, further down the line shouted out there was a wood sandpiper immediately afterwards. Then it called again, passing a bit closer – I need to hear a rarity call at least twice before I am happy to list it. No-one saw the bird passing. It was somewhere high and well out to sea, but there it was on the Crail patch. Only my third Crail wood sandpiper since 2003, so as rare as the Sabine’s gull here. Wood sandpiper calls – like a squeaky toy “eek eek” – are etched into my mind from years of winter fieldwork in Africa where they are common in any kind of wetland, and they are one of my favourite waders to hear for this reason. It is always a good day where there is a wood sandpiper.

I sat sea watching until mid-day hoping for more of the same. No further rarities, and sadly the shearwater did not reappear. It was always a very long shot, but the Sabine’s gull and the wood sandpiper were a fairly good consolation prize. I still tried again mid-afternoon for another hour and a half. Much the same as the morning but with two Mediterranean gulls passing over. This autumn there have been no Mediterranean gulls locally until now even though there are record numbers further down the Forth. A good day at Fife Ness all in all, with red-throated divers, auks, lots of terns, velvet and common scoters, teal, bar-tailed godwit, knot and purple sandpipers passing to maintain the interest.

Pair of velvet scoter passing Fife Ness (John Anderson)

I took the scenic route to Fife Ness this afternoon via Kilminning and Balcomie Castle to give the dog a run before it had to sit and wait patiently during the sea watching. Both places were very quiet as yesterday. I had a small hope that a barred warbler had sneaked in while we were all looking elsewhere. It was busier on Balcomie Beach with a continuous line of ringed plover, dunlin, sanderling, turnstone and starlings along the top of the beach, and hundreds of black-headed, common and herring gulls feeding below them in the high tide surf. A highlight was a juvenile yellow wagtail feeding on the seaweed at the water’s edge in a big flock of pied wagtails. Probably one of the locally produced birds rather than a migrant: small migrants were rather conspicuous by their absence this weekend. Not even a northern wheatear or a whinchat. Still, the autumn has only just started.

Juvenile yellow wagtail on Balcomie Beach this afternoon

Posted August 22, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 21st   Leave a comment

Today was the second day of easterly winds, and there were heavy rain showers last night and today. A recipe for some migrants appearing, but not quite yet. It was as quiet as I have ever seen it at Kilminning and in the Patch this morning. Almost nothing to see or calling. It was raining a fair bit which will have kept activity down, but I am fairly sure that there wasn’t much about. Yesterday I had a couple of tree pipits at north Kilminning and willow warblers and a spotted flycatcher in the south: these are “from the west” migrants and no sign of them today. Hopefully a complete change tomorrow with a flush of migrants from the east. In consolation I sea watched – manx shearwaters, great skuas, terns, common scoters, little gulls and a bar-tailed godwit – and beach watched – the big flock of ringed plover was still in residence.

The Balcomie ringed plover flock (spot the knot and dunlin among them) (John Anderson)

Posted August 21, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 19th   Leave a comment

I was pleased to find my last corn bunting nest that I had written off yesterday still going strong today. The chicks have fledged successfully and both birds were busy feeding them this morning. The male must have gone silent and inconspicuous – this is why I thought they had failed – because it was, unusually, working for a living and feeding the chicks. It only seems to be about one in five males that feed their chicks, and then not as regularly as the females. This is the last nest in the potato field and even if it is cut tomorrow, the chicks should be ok. I hope it isn’t. Potato fields are great cover for the chicks. But I did notice that the parents were coming out of the field to find food in the wild bird mix edges, suggesting that the insects in the potatoes are not so good, or harder to find.

Balcomie Beach was covered in waders at high tide again, with the highest numbers of ringed plover I have ever seen there. If you sit down at the top of the beach and wait, sooner or later a coastal walker will come by and put them all up. The waders fly about a bit but then come back, and more often than not, they land right in front of you. I had sanderling, dunlin, ringed plover and knot all at just a few meters away from me today. There was a juvenile wheatear on the shore as well, but it was much shyer.

The juvenile northern wheatear on Balcomie Beach this morning (John Anderson)

Posted August 19, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 18th   Leave a comment

I think the corn bunting breeding season has finished more or less. My last nest failed today – although from experience I know I will need to double check this in the days ahead to be totally sure. The nest was in the potato field opposite the airfield, and today was the day the chicks should have fledged. Perhaps they did and they were lying low. But there was no sign of agitated parents for the thirty minutes I sat beside the field this morning. I did see a female merlin. hunting over the airfield – starling and linnet flocks panicking in front of it. The rest of the morning was also quiet corn bunting wise. No singing bird heard at all today. I only saw two groups in the stubble at Caiplie – a mixture of juveniles and adults, perhaps a family group still. And then heard a tree pipit, lost somewhere in the stubble.

There has been a pulse of butterflies in the last week: red admirals and small tortoiseshells are everywhere in Crail now. Lots of moths and hoverflies too, the dividend of a warm summer.

A silver y – a common, day-flying moth rather than a butterfly

Posted August 18, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 17th   Leave a comment

It was a repeat of the 15th at Balcomie today. Lots of waders roosting on the beach at high tide, occasionally reassorting as a coastal path walker went by. A great skua, terns and some red-throated divers passing at sea. I spent a while looking at the waders, picking out the juveniles. Almost all juvenile waders are much more patterned on their backs than adults, with clearly edged feathers giving a scalloped look. It’s a good rule of thumb for ageing them.

Turnstones – the middle one is a juvenile
Juvenile knot (left) and dunlin
The knot flock (one sanderling far left)

Posted August 17, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 15th   Leave a comment

It was a typical mid-August day, with light westerlies and no rain. Nothing very unusual about, but still plenty to see. There was a good range of waders along the shore at Balcomie: ringed plovers were the commonest, perhaps as many as 100, then half as many dunlins, twenty sanderling and turnstones, and 7 knot. The usual redshanks – with juveniles now – oystercatchers and curlews. A single whimbrel was feeding on the fairway amongst the golfers. Later at Kilminning Castle there were one or two common sandpipers. A forty-five minute sea watch at Fife Ness turned up 3 great skuas, 9 manx shearwaters and my first little gull and sooty shearwater of the year – all heading north and all far out. The usual breeders were shuttling by: common, Arctic and sandwich terns, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots and the last few puffins of the summer, and the ever present gannets, still a few weeks away from fledging their chicks. The sea was calm and I looked out for a minke whale – mid-August is usually the time I see one, but not today. There was a northern wheatear flycatching from the rocks at Balcomie. The first on the beach this autumn. We are now in passage season again and any easterlies and rain from now to November will bring something in.

Knot at Fife Ness – about half the birds today were still in full summer plumage (John Anderson)

Posted August 15, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 12th   Leave a comment

I finally came across a cuckoo that wasn’t too bothered about me, so I could get relatively close. It was feeding on large green caterpillars in the topped potato field by Bow Butts. The vegetation is now all shrivelled away, but clearly the insect larvae remain, now easily visible on the ground below the dead stems. A good feeding patch for a bird that might fly non-stop to the south of France from Crail on the next leg of its migration.

Juvenile cuckoo this morning – the droopy wings and fanned tail when perched are quite a distinctive and common posture for a perched cuckoo
Flight montage (a flock of cuckoos sadly never happens). Their flight shape is equally distinctive and you need to get your eye into it – half thrush, half bird of prey – to see passage cuckoos because visible perched birds like today’s are few and far between

Posted August 12, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 10th   Leave a comment

Despite the heavy rain over the last few days, my three remaining corn bunting nests with chicks in them are still going strong, and those that have fledged recently all seem to be present and correct in their territories. As I sat by the potato field next to the Balcomie Hotel, checking the nests, I saw a marsh harrier over the airfield. It was hunting in the area all morning. Another juvenile, or perhaps the same one as on the 4th. Marsh harriers can linger a long time at sites as they migrate slowly southwards. Some don’t make it to Africa and extend their stay in Europe throughout the winter. At one point the harrier headed towards Crail and made it as far as Roome Bay. I was tempted to jump back on my bike and head for my garden to see it flying over so that I could add it to my garden list. The madness passed thankfully, and almost immediately after the harrier headed straight back to the airfield. I then heard a tree pipit flying over. My first for the year: they are an August flyover species that I almost always record only on call. A final migrant of the morning was the first northern wheatear of the autumn, again distantly on the airfield.

Tree pipit (John Anderson)

Posted August 10, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 8th   2 comments

The corn bunting breeding season is drawing to a close. I checked 14 territories this morning in detail and there was only one bird singing, and then only for a few seconds. The rest were unoccupied or with adults busy with fledged chicks. Out of the 38 territories I have monitored intensively this summer, I only have three with chicks still in the nest, and all will have fledged in 9 days. There was a “flock” of more than 18 corn buntings in the winter wheat field at Caiplie. This was adults and fledged juveniles from at least three broods (there were four nests in this field). The oldest fledglings – now about three weeks old looked fairly independent and were feeding on the ears of wheat. It is strange to go round the fields and not to hear corn buntings, but it’s been over four months of singing for some males and they need a break now to moult and regain condition before the winter. Although they haven’t been producing the eggs, or incubating them, or feeding the chicks in most cases, as the females have been. The females must really be in need of a break. But August and September should be kind to them, with warm weather, long days and plenty of food up until harvest and then afterwards with stubble fields and spilt grain.

An adult (left) watching out for trouble for its chick in Territory 312. The chick is 16-18 days out of the nest and 28 days old. I was glad to get this photo because I have noticed that chicks have more “open” faces but this makes it clear – a more extensive uniform warm buff around the eye. The wing feathers are pale fringed making each feather stand out much more. The bill is not full size yet either.
The only corn bunting singing today. The male in territory 53 by the Barnsmuir fruit shack. He was mostly making the ticking call that corn buntings make when they think a predator is in the vicinity (my dog brings this on, looking like a little fox, which is quite handy when you need to assess whether there are still chicks in the territory). This male’s nest fledged on the 23rd of July, and the female is still feeding the chicks that have moved from the spring barley field where the nest was, over the road into the brassica field opposite.

Posted August 8, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 7th   Leave a comment

It’s been a good year for cuckoos. I saw another couple this morning passing along the coast, heading eventually to central Africa. The first was at Balcomie. The Arctic terns weren’t happy and dived at it as if it was a merlin or a sparrowhawk. The second was at Kilminning, and the same thing happened except it was swallows mobbing it. I got on to the Kilminning cuckoo because the black-headed gulls roosting on the rocks flew up in alarm as if a raptor was coming. Cuckoos really do look hawk like. Why do cuckoos resemble sparrowhawks? I think it is because they don’t want to look like cuckoos. If a nesting host – a species that a cuckoo might parasitise by laying its eggs in its nest – see a cuckoo in the vicinity of its nest, it is very likely to desert rather than take the chance that it might raise a cuckoo chick. A sparrowhawk in the vicinity of a nest is only a danger to the parent, and the host is likely to leave the area to save itself. Leaving the cuckoo to its business and its egg swapping to go undetected. The drawback of this strategy for the cuckoo is that it gets mobbed the rest of the year. European cuckoos in Africa also get chased and mobbed by a whole suite of African host species. There is an African cuckoo, which is basically our cuckoo but that doesn’t migrate across the Sahara (you need a really good view, or to hear them call, to split the species), so it is another case of mistaken identity. Life’s a tradeoff and cuckoos may have abnegated their parental responsibilities, but it’s not easy being a cuckoo at other times. Never mind the juveniles’ first migration to Africa completely solo – all the adults are pretty much back in sub-Saharan Africa by now.

The juvenile cuckoo at Balcomie this morning. As usual completely unapproachable, and not in any case in a mood to hang around near a flock of angry Arctic terns

Posted August 7, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 5th   Leave a comment

The roseate tern was still in with the big flock of Arctic terns north of Balcomie Beach. I popped down late morning for a quick look. There was more cloud cover today and no direct sunshine although it was still bright. This made the roseate tern look bright white among the greyer Arctic terns. So much so that you could pick it out in flight with the naked eye. No need to look for the wing pattern. A really good feature, but not in bright sunlight as yesterday. There were a few waders on the rocks as well: 20 dunlin, 4 knot, 15 turnstone, 2 sanderling, 1 or 2 whimbrel and some ringed plover.

The roseate tern today – to show how white it looked in the duller light. It’s the whitest one in the picture. You can also see the black lower edge to the wing very well.
Two of the dunlin a bit closer than the terns. On the left a juvenile from this year – neat black spotting on the flanks. On the right an adult with the subtly striped breast and black belly.

Posted August 5, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 4th   Leave a comment

It has been a month since I added a new bird to the Crail year list. Today it was a roseate tern: quite a special Crail bird, and I have only seen them in 6 of the last 19 years. Roseate terns are very rare breeders in Scotland. They used to breed in the inner Forth in small numbers and there are one or two birds around the May Island most summers. The best time to see them in Crail is late summer with the arctic terns that gather in big flocks at Balcomie and Kingsbarns after breeding. So it was again this morning. I diverted from corn bunting nest monitoring to look at the terns gathering at Balcomie, hoping to find a roseate. I was feeling low as another late corn bunting nest had fallen foul of potato harvesting: I watched the pair return to their destroyed nest site just ten minutes after the tractor had cut away all the potato vegetation. It is hard to register stunned disbelieve from a corn bunting but it was hard not to imagine that this is what they were feeling. Corn bunting nests must always have been instantly destroyed by herds of grazers or wildfires so corn buntings are evolutionarily prepared for the complete habitat transformation that occurs in literally seconds with modern farming equipment. Nevertheless, I expect it still hurts.

Anyway – the antidote to dwelling on the narrow margins between life and death that animals live by – is to sit on sunny beach and work your way through 200 Arctic terns looking for a roseate tern. The Arctic terns themselves are wonderful and they were an even mix of adults and juveniles suggesting a great breeding season. There were also a few adults and juvenile common and sandwich terns in the flock. After about half an hour I got lucky and heard the distinctive “choo-wit” call of a roseate a few times when the flock flew up in response and circled round in alarm as a heron went by. I couldn’t get eyes on it though. After a couple more alarm flybys I finally saw an adult roseate amongst the Arctic. The thing to look for is a black leading edge to the primaries on the upperwing – Arctic terns pretty much have unmarked wings (very clean looking) and common terns have blackish inner primaries (and so the back of the wing). I picked up this feature and followed the bird down to land on the rocks, conveniently next to both an Arctic and a common tern. I could go through all the features (although the call is good enough for me for a firm identification). Long legs (Arctic have short); a very black, long bill with only red at the very base (Arctics have short, all dark coral red bills and commons have long, brighter red bills with a black tip); a paler, nearly white looking back (Arctic and common have slightly darker grey backs, although in the strong sunlight today everything was bleaching white); and the best feature of all, the division of black and white on the folded wing. Roseate terns have the lower half of the wing black and the top half white, so a black and above a white line extending above the tail. Arctic terns have a greyish line with no contrast, and common terns have the opposite pattern, lower half white and top half blackish. It is a subtle suite of characters, but they combine to make a different looking bird to an Arctic or common tern, and the flight shape is also distinctive: more like a sandwich tern, more head than tail. But as I have said the thing that really makes them distinctive to me is the call – so much like a spotted redshank at times that I actually double checked a whimbrel passing through the terns, just in case.  

Roseate tern (right) and Arctic tern
The three very similar looking terns handily together for comparison R = roseate, A = Arctic and C = common. The other terns are Arctic with a juvenile from this year in the foreground.

The Arctic tern flock was on the rocks just north of Balcomie Beach. They are likely to stay here for several weeks, and roseate terns in the past that have associated with these flocks have also stayed around. So, if you feel like a find the needle in a haystack challenge, then the opportunity is likely to be there for a while. Another good bird today. A juvenile marsh harrier hunting over Crail airfield, probably on its way slowly down to Africa.

Pick out the roseate tern…

Posted August 4, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 3rd   Leave a comment

When you think of the East Neuk you think of sea not fresh water: it’s not the lake district, or even the pond district. So there are aren’t too many dragonflies. The few ponds there are – mostly farm irrigation pools – have a few late summer, and occasionally we get bigger migrant species over the gardens of Crail. Dragonflies only need water to breed in and can hunt over dry land, nevertheless you really need a pond nearby to have a good chance of seeing them. I saw three species today at the irrigation ponds between Sypsies and Troustrie. There were two species of damselfly (smaller, thinner bodies dragonflies). Both in electric blue and black. A common blue damselfly and a blue-tailed damselfly. And a common darter: bright red with yellow patches on the flanks that look like a little glowing sidelights. Dragonflies are one of the oldest animals on the planet. Like sharks, perfectly adapted predators with no room for evolutionary improvement for hundreds of millions of years. They still need a pond or two though.

Blue-tailed (top) and common blue (middle) damselfly; common darter (bottom). Three common dragonflies, although not so common around Crail.

Posted August 3, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 1   Leave a comment

The beginning of August and it is the start of the main sea watching season. Over the next six weeks it will get better and better out at Fife Ness. Some days it will take a few hours to accumulate a dozen shearwaters and skuas, some days just minutes. Well, it was a slow start today. Seven manx shearwaters in an hour, a steady stream of arctic terns, with some juveniles, a few sandwich terns, and a whimbrel. I enjoyed the puffins the most. There were hundreds passing back and forth, and many close. They will be very rare in a couple of weeks as they all finish breeding and move far out to sea for the winter.

Juvenile arctic tern (John Anderson)

Posted August 1, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

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