Archive for September 2021

September 26th   Leave a comment

My son has gone back to Glasgow University at last. Great for him for any number of reasons, and great for me because I now have full access to my sea watching telescope which sits in front of his bedroom window, overlooking the Forth. Finally, sea watching from my house first thing in the morning is an option again – and this is when a lot of seabirds are on the move. This morning, within five minutes, I had a Slavonian grebe flying by accompanied by two common scoter. Initially I thought a teal was with the scoter, but an overall greyish brown tinge made me suspicious and then I saw the white wedges on the inner trailing edge of the wing. Any grebe other than a little grebe are very rare past Crail or Fife Ness. Slavonian grebes have appeared on my Crail year list in only 6 of the last 19 years, red-necked grebes in 3 years, and great crested and black-necked grebes only once. All of these are not too hard to find in the inner Forth during the winter, but when they arrive and leave, they don’t seem to pass us.

Later in the morning I walked from Kingsbarns to red sands at Boghall and then back along the Drony Road. Again, strangely empty of corn buntings, although a flock of seven flew over calling heading towards the stubbles to the north of Kingsbarns that were so popular last year. Perhaps they are all there already. At the sheep fields of Boghall there was a large flock of linnets but no twite. On the beach there were two grey plovers – the first of the winter. There was a flock reported from the Eden today as well so perhaps they have just arrived. There were also bramblings arriving today – the first were reported from a few places in the East Neuk, including one I had flying over my garden calling. The good weather makes it easy for the winter visitors to arrive even if it doesn’t make for good conditions for vagrants. We should expect some redwings in, any day now.

Grey plover (John Anderson)

Posted September 26, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 25th   Leave a comment

The wind died down overnight leaving a very still day, and a calm sea. A very important characteristic of the day as it turned out. Sea watching at Fife Ness was to the horizon, with everything pin sharp and visible all the time above the sea. Although the hour I spent there was slow, the clarity of every bird made it one of the best sea watches of the autumn. Two sooty shearwaters and four manx shearwaters passed going north, the first for a week. There was a flock of over 100 little gulls milling around for the hour and a constant passage of pink-footed geese. I was just short of 1000 by the end of the hour. But the best bird was an adult pomarine skua, complete with its distinctive extended tail “spoons”, flying steadily north. No squinting into the wind, no disappearing behind the waves: my first nice and easy pomarine skua in years.

There were some small changes elsewhere. More northern wheatears – there were six around Balcomie Beach – a couple more chiffchaffs at Kilminning, and a couple of white wagtails on the east beach at Sauchope. It is worth checking out every group of pied wagtails on the shore at the moment because there are lots of white wagtails passing.

White wagtail at Sauchope today – a male moulting into winter plumage

This afternoon the lack of wind and calm sea was significant again because I took the May Princess out to the May Island. I haven’t been in the autumn before except to stay on the island to ring birds: why would you go for a random day trip when the puffins and all the other seabirds are gone? And when there was almost no chance of any migrants because of the good weather this week. The reason, as it emerged, is that the May Island is an amazingly atmospheric place when it is quiet. No seabirds, no wind, no noise, just calm and amazing scenery. I stood on the top of the island, in the last of the evening sunlight, with an unparalled view across the Forth, from Fife Ness to Edinburgh and back to St Abbs. Very peaceful. There were some birds of course. A female peregrine patrolling the cliffs, rock pipits and pied wagtails, a few northern wheatears and in the Heligolands a couple of chiffchaffs and a willow warbler. But it was eerily quiet without the seabirds. There was just a single shag on a ledge on the cliffs, otherwise all the others were on the sea around the island, with a few razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and a single juvenile puffin half way between Anstruther and the island. As the May Princess left, we encountered a pod of about 30 boisterous bottle-nose dolphins. A complete contrast to the calm before. They were surfacing right by the boat, leaping out in pairs and trios. The St Andrews Masters students that were the actual reason for my trip were completely captivated and the island was totally sold on them, even without its puffins.

Bottlenose dolphins on show by the May Princess and the Osprey III, Anstruther ecotourism in action
Guillemot in Anstruther harbour struggling with a flat fish – just the wrong shape entirely to swallow

Posted September 25, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 23rd   Leave a comment

The pink-footed geese are here! They are a little later this year, but today there were thousands passing Crail. Most to the north, as they cut off Fife Ness and battled with the strong westerly winds, or to the south, following the Forth. You could hear flocks calling in the distance all day.

I was out at Kilminning for an hour this morning, still smarting at the harrier I missed on Sunday. As well as the geese, there was a steady passage of swallows and house martins heading west along the coast. The elder bushes only had a few robins (their numbers are increasing) and a female blackcap.

Pink footed geese (John Anderson)

Posted September 23, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 22nd   Leave a comment

The wind got up today for the first time in a couple of weeks with strong south westerlies heralding in the equinox. I was up at the stubble fields at Boarhills thinking about mapping the winter distribution of the corn buntings. The fields were almost empty even in the areas of high density corn bunting breeding. In about six stubble fields I found only a flock of Canada Geese, a stonechat, a couple of skylarks, some grey partridges and a handful of meadow pipits. Where the buntings are at the moment I really don’t know. Hillhead Farm on the other side of Kenly Water was just the same: lots of great wild bird seed mix habitat along the field edges but no buntings.

Some of the ten Canada geese now left at Kenly as the late summer flock finishes moulting and heads back, I think, to England

The curlew sandpiper from last Sunday resurfaced today, feeding on stinky pool at Fife Ness with a couple of dunlin and a ringed plover. It was a reasonably tame bird – by definition any wader using stinky pool is tame because of the disturbance of the coastal path and a golf green directly beside it – so I could sit less than twenty meters away as it fed. I was there near to high tide so the rocks behind were busy with other waders: thirty dunlin, twenty turnstone, five purple sandpipers, ringed plovers, redshanks oystercatchers, curlews and even a couple of whimbrel.

The curlew sandpiper at Stinky Pool this afternoon
The same bird (John Anderson)

Posted September 22, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 19th   Leave a comment

Sadly today is a tale of the one that got away. I was about 5-10 minutes too late for a juvenile pallid harrier that came in from the sea at Kilminning at about 12:15 today. The lucky finders, George Dunbar, Matt Jackson and Dan Burt put the news straight out but I was in (ironically) a Scottish Ornithologists Club Council meeting at home. I’m afraid I left the meeting straight away – a pallid harrier is a once in lifetime bird for a local patch. But when I got to the airfield I could only briefly string a distant juvenile gull and track golden plovers and gulls flying up in response to a merlin hunting along the back of Sauchope. The harrier had stayed around the airfield for only 10 minutes before heading inland towards Sypsies. So close. One of my favourite birds that I see often in West Africa, but never in Scotland. This one would likely be a Finnish bird, heading down to Africa through Sweden and Norway, and getting diverted through Scotland by the wind. Yesterday there was a honey buzzard over the May Island that will have done the same.

The one that got away.. a juvenile pallid harrier that I didn’t see at Kilminning today. Found by George Dunbar, Matt Jackson and Dan Burt. Thanks to George for letting me post his video grabs showing an absolutely perfect record of this rare bird. They aren’t tricky to identify but these photos leave absolutely no doubt.

There were some other good birds around today, although no small migrants – pied flycatchers and redstarts are again conspicuous by their absence this autumn. As well as the harrier, there was a grey phalarope, curlew sandpiper and a pomarine skua seen (by the same team that got the harrier – clearly on a roll). I only connected with the curlew sandpiper. A juvenile roosting on the shag rocks at Fife Ness with redshanks, dunlins and a couple of purple sandpipers. It wasn’t the best of views as it shuffled in and out of dead ground but I was glad to see something good today. Curlew sandpipers are surprisingly rare around Crail and only turn up (usually on Balcomie Beach) every 3-4 years. They must fly by Fife Ness every year, but then they are just another dunlin like wader shooting by, when we are concentrating on seabirds much further out. And last but not least today, the first pink-footed geese of the year: skeins flying past Fife Ness and cutting over the peninsula calling the autumn on.

Curlew sandpiper (John Anderson)

Posted September 19, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 18th   Leave a comment

The excellent weekend, but not so great for migrants, weather continues. Cycling along the coastal path in just a t-shirt in the middle of September makes for a pleasant day but migrant wise I only found a northern wheatear in the stubbles at Wormiston, and a whimbrel on Balcomie Beach. Swallows seemed scarce too.

The whimbrel on Balcomie Beach this afternoon – I whistled it back down to the beach after it was flushed by some walkers, but it left again soon after this, grumpy I think because it only found me rather than another whimbrel

Sea watching at Fife Ness and Balcomie produced red-throated divers coming in to the Forth again at a rate of about 20 an hour. Flocks of common and sandwich terns were passing quite frequently too. Waders were hard to find at Balcomie, and it was only a young male peregrine hunting along the beach that produced any, as the small number of dunlins, ringed plover and turnstones hidden among the rocks broke cover and flew out to sea. The peregrine, unusually, instead of heading off after its hunt came back for another two passes through the area over the next fifteen minutes, stooping at starlings and even a pied wagtail flock. Lots of chaos over the golf course ensued but no cigar for the peregrine. It did then eventually fly off towards Crail in search of less spooked prey.

Male peregrine (John Anderson)

Butterflies provided the most unusual sightings today. First a speckled wood butterfly at upper Kilminning. They are now regular in late summer around Crail, but ten years ago they were very rare. And then a painted lady butterfly on the buddleia in my front garden this afternoon. Both butterflies will be migrants. The speckled wood from further west and the painted lady from the southern Europe. So far this summer there have not been many painted ladies, in contrast to huge invasion from early summer onwards in 2019. Last year I had my first painted lady in Crail also just in September (the 17th).

Speckled wood butterfly at Kilminning
Painted Lady butterfly

Posted September 18, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 15th   Leave a comment

There was a hint of some migrants this morning at Fife Ness. I stopped at Craighead because I saw a chiffchaff in one of the ashes. Always a good sign. So I stayed a few minutes and sure enough a spotted flycatcher appeared. I then found a garden warbler at lower Kilminning, again frequenting the elder bushes by the newly rebuilt bench. A couple of whimbrels were on the shore at Sauchope to finish. But overall the weather is too good. The easterlies too light, and too little rain. A fine, warm autumn, great for migrants to head off and past, but not to stop.

Whimbrel (John Anderson)

Posted September 15, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 14th   Leave a comment

I have changed my mind about the guillemots and razorbills that have been close inshore the last couple of weeks. I don’t think they are in trouble. Quite the reverse, they are here in such large numbers because there are lots of fish about. I was out at the Eden estuary today with a class, teaching them to count (birds – obviously they can count in general), when I noticed that the river was full of auks. As the students practiced counting the oystercatchers, I counted over 2,500 razorbills and about 500 guillemots packed into the Eden, along a few hundred meters from the mouth at Outhead. My heart was sinking imagining that this was some massive wreck of starving birds when I saw that most of them were feeding vigorously, almost in a frenzy, with lots of herring gulls, sandwich and arctic terns, and red-throated divers in attendance, all also feeding vigorously. Not a wake, but a party. Lots of happy auks and after about an hour they swam out of the river, back into St Andrews Bay. And so the dead auks that are turning up on the beach are probably the inevitable collateral of very large numbers of birds in one place where we can see them. Juvenile mortality, in particular, is always high, for all bird species, and if guillemots and razorbills are normally in the North Sea at this time, then we wouldn’t see the deaths. Anyway, just a theory, but all those auks today looked like they were fine. And quite a spectacle too. With a supporting cast of a couple of white-tailed eagles loafing on the mud behind, and a little tern fishing in the foreground.

Razorbill (John Anderson)

Posted September 14, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 12th   Leave a comment

Still fairly quiet with warm days and little wind. There are still lots of guillemots along the shore, and more and more are turning up inland and dead on beaches. It does look like a mass mortality is occurring at the moment. Guillemots are susceptible to starvation, but usually coincident with storms making visibility to see fish and fishing generally difficult for them. The North Sea has been fairly calm for the last six weeks so it is a bit of a mystery at the moment. On a brighter note, there was a steady passage of red-throated divers into the Forth today – one or two past every ten minutes. There were also four northern wheatears at Balcomie Beach, the highest number this autumn. In a good period this can be as high as 20-30, but perhaps it is the start.

Northern Wheatear (John Anderson)

Posted September 12, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 11th   Leave a comment

I have been checking the beaches at Balcomie and Sauchope diligently for the last couple of weeks hoping for a ruff. It’s peak passage time for them through Crail and they have become more reliable, with them turning up at this time in the last four years. I finally saw a couple today, but not on the beach. I know full well that ruff are more like golden plover in their habitat choice – they like wet fields and pasture as much as the shore – but had absently mindedly forgotten it again this year. The two birds today were in a flock of herring gulls, picking their way along the furrows of a newly drilled field. The gulls flew up as I cycled past the big field next to Pinkerton (that had up to six corn bunting nests in it only six week ago) and I saw the two ruff with them. They circled round but wouldn’t come back down, finally heading off over Crail (and my garden!). I was spared the angst of wondering whether I can count a bird that would have been seen from my garden (if I was in it), but seen from elsewhere, because I already have seen ruff a couple of times from my house while sea watching. If I decide to relax this rule then there are a few species I can add (white-tailed eagle, Balearic shearwater, whinchat for example). I will see how desperate I get to add new garden species as the years go on…The great thing about a competition where you are the only participant is that you might as well make up your own rules to suit.

Ruff (John Anderson). These two from a field the other side of Crail August 2019

Seeing the ruff has ended a bit of a famine period for migrants. It has remained very quiet the last few days. Kilminning and the Patch seem almost empty of birds except goldfinches and swallows. I have also been checking the waders at Balcomie every day. Still lots of dunlin, with smaller numbers of ringed plover, sanderling and turnstone, but nothing more unusual. And the last couple of sea watches haven’t turned up a single shearwater or skua. There were only three pale bellied brent geese past Balcomie this morning and lots of sandwich terns. The other tern species have more or less gone although there should be small numbers about through until October. Another migrant today, though, was a juvenile marsh harrier. I picked up a large raptor being mobbed by crows over Wormiston House: it just looked a bit wrong for a buzzard, all dark and lanky. I cycled after it and refound it hunting over the fields at Randerston, its harrier shape and golden crown obvious even at a distance. It has been my best year for marsh harriers around Crail – I must be up to seven or eight for the year now. A few winter migrants have also perhaps started to arrive, although covertly. I have seen a few robins scrapping and there have been a couple of small flocks of blackbirds at north Kilminning suggesting that some of them are already here for the winter.

Dunlin Balcomie Beach (John Anderson)

Posted September 11, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 7th   Leave a comment

There was a big passage of meadow pipits this morning along the coast and over Crail heading west (although eventually south). The wind is back in the west so it is British migrants only. Meadow pipits are one of the commonest breeding birds in Britain with perhaps three million birds moving south each autumn. The main breeding range is the mirror of the main wintering range. The Scottish Highlands and Islands empty of them and the southern and eastern counties of England fill with them. They call continuously as they go, a thin “tsip-tsip”, so you always know it is a flock of meadow pipits. It’s hard to know just how many are migrating – the flocks moving directly along the shore at treetop height are always very noticeable, but if you look out to sea there are many, much less conspicuous, following the coast too, but low over the waves.

A September meadow pipit – a lot stop to refuel on the rocky shore as they head south to England, or even further afield to southern Europe (John Anderson)

Posted September 7, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 5th   Leave a comment

I walked from Kingsbarns to Kenly Water along the coastal path this morning and then back inland via Pitmilly. It’s one of my favourite walks and a good antidote to the current fruitless searches of Kilminning. There were little gulls all the way. I wasn’t seriously counting but I got to over 90 going south. We count little gulls passing this time of year but in fact there are probably several hundred (several thousand?) little gulls between St Andrews Bay and the May Island, and they go back and forth, close in and far out, during August and September, giving apparently variable numbers and passage periods every day. Later at Fife Ness there was a flock of 45 milling around a kilometer out, attracting other little gulls from the south. Again, there were lots of guillemots about close in at Kingsbarns and Kenly, but not enjoyably so after I found four dead guillemots washed up in about 200 meters of beach at Boghall beach. There have been reports of starving guillemots further north along the coast, with large numbers at St Andrews. So the many guillemots close in to the shore is probably not a good sign. There are lots of fish about and the other seabirds seem to be doing well – there are very few razorbills close in with the guillemots, for example. But perhaps not the particular fish that guillemots feed on, although when I checked their diet in the bible – “Birds of the Western Palearctic” – pretty much every local fish species is listed as prey. They eat just about anything swimming within a particular size. The water is very clear at the moment and there have been no recent storms, so it is a bit of a mystery why guillemots, in particular, are dying. At Kenly Water there was the usual late summer flock of Canada Geese. I counted 70 but could only see about half the flock. Migrant wise it was quiet as at Fife Ness: a couple of wheatears (which are very scarce so far this autumn) and some willow warblers. The local whitethroats and sedge warblers are still about but definitely getting much scarcer – they are slipping away day by day. Back at Kingsbarns at lunchtime there were probably over 100 house martins over the village. If this represents local birds rather than a temporary gathering of birds on passage then something good is happening for house martins in Kingsbarns. The biggest flocks of house martins I have seen over Crail late summer has only been about 40-50 birds.

One of the starved guillemots I found today washed up at Kingsbarns
Juvenile razorbill close in at Balcomie Beach this afternoon- fairly lethargic (but sometimes auks just are) so perhaps also starving

Posted September 5, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 4th   Leave a comment

Migration season is fickle. As other parts of the east coast had migrants trickling in today on the light easterlies and rain showers, Fife Ness stayed stubbornly quiet. I was out in the rain showers in the morning with fairly high hopes of a pied flycatcher, but only had a willow warbler in Upper Kilminning, and a tree pipit flying over – both of these can occur regardless of the weather at this time of year. Lower Kilminning was migrant free apart from barn swallows. Balcomie Beach had lost, rather than gained waders: I only had about 40 dunlin, 15 ringed plover and a couple each of turnstone and sanderling. Sea watching at Fife Ness and Balcomie beach turned up a few Arctic skuas and a steady passage of red-throated divers (about 15 an hour), but only two manx shearwaters. The little gulls are accumulating. Maybe 60 were out in a loose flock, milling around over the sea at the horizon. My highlights were the brent geese that were passing all day in small flocks (2 to 25) going both up and down the coast.

A swallow in the rain at Balcomie this morning

Posted September 4, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 3rd   Leave a comment

It has been very still the last couple of mornings and evenings, so when I go out into my back garden, I can hear the guillemot fledglings calling. It’s a plaintive mewing whistle a bit like a young gull but much purer. Once you tune into the call, you realise it is an integral part of the September Crail soundscape. There are guillemot chicks everywhere along the shore just now, following their parents around and calling constantly. They are often close in, but the call is so far carrying that this doesn’t matter. The guillemot chicks jumped off their ledges on the May Island a few weeks ago and are now full grown. They now look much like their parents although they can’t fly for over a month after fledging. Their parents might feed them at sea for a couple of months but how long this actually lasts is not well known. The guillemots, like the puffins, disappear off into the North Sea for the winter and most parents and their chicks are already out there, a long way from sight.

Adult (left) and calling juvenile (right) guillemots at Fife Ness last Wednesday (John Anderson)

Another set of chicks appeared this week. The first gannets fledged a few days ago, and now there is an all dark brown juvenile passing Crail every few minutes. If 30 or 40,000 pairs of gannets raise a chick each year, then this makes for a fairly steady passage of juveniles out of the Forth over the next few weeks.

And one of the first fledged gannets of the year yesterday (John Anderson)

Posted September 3, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

September 1st   Leave a comment

There have been quite a few people sea watching at Fife Ness the last week. What with the great shearwater, Sabine’s gull and the Fea’s type petrel passing, along with a good supporting cast of sooty shearwaters, skuas, terns and little gulls. I have been lured in as well for more sessions than I usually do, neglecting inland places. Still, Kilminning and Balcomie cottages have seemed quiet in terms of migrants, apart from willow warblers, every time I have had a quick look this week. So sea watching it is. It is a bit addictive – just one more scan, and a few more minutes checking out the horizon slipping into hours of not doing much, and often not seeing much. But today was such a beautiful, end of summer day, that I could have watched paint dry at Fife Ness happily. But there was a slow passage of the usual suspects with sooty shearwaters, little gulls and any skua always a highlight for me. The first brent geese of the autumn came by two days ago and I finally saw my first – a flock of 25 heading south to Lindisfarne or Norfolk. We should have the first pink-footed geese tomorrow or the next day.

Brent geese (John Anderson)

There were bottle-nosed dolphins also about today, passing the Ness close in and slowly. And just round the corner from the bird hide, where the wooden steps go down a tiny cliff, a couple of wall butterflies, true to their name, sunning themselves on the cliff wall. Last year we had just the first few wall butterflies making it to Fife, and this summer their northward expansion continues, with several more records.

Wall butterfly at Fife Ness (John Anderson)

Posted September 1, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

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