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

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