Archive for October 2021

October 30th   Leave a comment

The weather was beginning to make things interesting again this morning: some north easterlies yesterday and this morning some south easterlies. Rain showers overnight and through the morning were also helpful. There were flocks of starlings coming in off the sea all day – mostly in flocks of about 25, but one of over 200 later in the afternoon. We get a lot of migrant starlings that overwinter in the East Neuk, but they are not often such obvious migrants. Usually, I just notice that the flocks seem a bit bigger, particularly when the weather gets colder on the Continent. No sign of cold weather yet here, or in Europe though. There were redwings, skylark and a few woodcocks coming in too. Three chiffchaffs in the trees behind the caravans at Fife Ness was a good sign too – it will be well worthwhile looking for yellow-browed warblers tomorrow.

Because of the rain I spent most of the morning in the hide at Fife Ness. Birding through a letterbox but a dry letterbox at least. There were a few little auks (ten or so in 90 minutes), a couple of puffins, little gulls, a manx shearwater, a great northern diver, lots of wigeon and a velvet scoter of note. And the steady stream of starlings. As I came out of the hide, I met two birders that had just seen a wheatear fly off from the rocks behind. Any wheatear at this time of year is worth a second look but an hour searching the area in the rain didn’t turn it up again. Perhaps tomorrow.

Lots of wigeon passing Fife Ness today, heading south (John Anderson)

Posted October 30, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 27th   Leave a comment

I looked for Lapland buntings this morning, trying a couple of stubble fields at Wormiston that even in a poor winter often have them. No sign, and very few skylarks. The lack of skylarks by this time of year is quite unusual, but with warm weather across Europe still then there is no reason for them to come over to the UK yet. I did put up some corn buntings, but a pair and then a singleton that almost gave a bit of song as it flew off. I wonder if they are as confused as the frogs in my pond, because winter has been cancelled. It was very calm at Fife Ness and I regretted my lack of telescope: a Mediterranean gull, a pomarine skua and a minke whale spotted by some visiting birders sitting next to me were all distant and unidentifiable. The no scope strategy wasn’t a wise move today, although I picked up a female merlin and a few red-throated divers close in. There was another merlin – a juvenile male – on the airfield as I cycled back to Crail, and a female at Balcomie, making three sightings during the morning. The merlins are here for the winter even if the skylarks aren’t.

Corn bunting (John Anderson)

Posted October 27, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 26th   Leave a comment

Kilminning felt wintry this morning. Cold and damp (although this evening the temperature has climbed back up to 15 degrees). And only redwings and bramblings in. The redwings, dark, nervous shapes among the remaining leaves, and the bramblings creakily wheezing. It has been the best autumn I can remember for brambling around Crail.

One of the many bramblings at Kilminning this autumn

Posted October 26, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 24th   Leave a comment

There were some more redwings in at upper Kilminning this morning, perhaps reflecting what was happening late afternoon yesterday as flocks came in off the sea. But the bramblings have largely gone, and the only chiffchaff about today, for me, was one calling in my garden this afternoon. The summer migrants have now totally gone – my last one was a barn swallow over Kilminning last Tuesday (19th). Balcomie Beach remains quiet with only a couple of dunlin and no sanderling at all for the last couple of weeks. There are more than 20 ringed plover which is a good wintering number. It was Fife Ness again for any excitement. A few little auks still and a very close in grey phalarope. I had deliberately gone out this morning without my telescope to concentrate on what was passing close in and it paid off. The phalarope flew around the low tide rocks before dropping down on to the sea about 50 meters out. It bobbed around a bit, flew a little bit further, and then I lost it on the water, among the wave troughs. A much, much better view than Friday. As it flew by, I could see the contrasting blackish wings and white wing bar, the little black bandit mask, and the relatively stubby black bill, and its distinctive shape, like a sanderling coloured, jack snipe. Other birds on the sea watch included a dark phase arctic skua, common scoter, wigeon and a few red-throated divers. Much less busy than the last two days, but still a nice hour spent. Bizarrely warm again, with the temperature in the sun well above 15 degrees. I came home via lower Kilminning. Again quiet, with just a few blackbirds left over from the busyness of the last week.

Grey phalarope (John Anderson)

Posted October 24, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 23rd   Leave a comment

I stopped off at Lower Kilminning on my way down to Fife Ness to check if the dusky warbler was still present. It was clear last night and after 4-5 days it had moved on. I regretted this diversion when I got to Fife Ness, and the realization that I had just missed a white-billed diver. One had flown over the hide heading north five minutes before. Another to add to my near misses this year. After that shaky start, it was a steady stream of little auks through the day. They were heading both north and south, and some were landing on the sea, most were a very long way out, a few were at less than 100 meters. I noticed another very distinctive little auk characteristic. In a flock, they just can’t get organized. Guillemots form a neat line, razorbills even more so. Regularly spaced and following the leader. But little auks are an anarchist collective. No-one is in charge, they keep trying to overtake each other, above and below, and with their wobbly flight, the whole effect is of individuals flying separately, just close together. In about four and a half hours, spread over the whole day, I saw over 30 little auks. They were spread amongst hundreds of razorbills, some guillemots and a single juvenile puffin to remind me that if there were lots of puffins around, picking out distant little auks would be much more of a challenge.

Little auk (John Anderson)

It was a really enjoyable day, with birds coming constantly. A steady text of kittiwakes, gannets and auks, with occasional paragraphs of little gulls, and punctuation marks of great and arctic skuas, a great northern diver, a manx shearwater and a mixed bag of ducks: goldeneye, teal, red-breasted merganser, common scoter and long-tailed ducks. Late afternoon, thrushes started coming in off the sea: you could pick up the flocks kilometers out and watch their steady progress in to land. Tiny dots eventually translating into a small cloud of birds around me before they finally disappeared inland. Mostly redwings, some blackbirds and one fieldfare. A woodcock also came in off the sea at lunchtime, flying in and landing briefly in a confused fashion on the rocks. I cycled slowly back into Crail into the now strong southwesterly wind, the likely signal of the end of these exciting couple of days’ seawatching.

Some of the supporting cast – long-tailed ducks passing Fife Ness today (John Anderson)

Posted October 23, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 22nd   Leave a comment

Today was all about Fife Ness. I went down there on my way to work this morning because little auks had been seen going past. The last little auks I saw on the Crail patch were in November 2016. We had a run of good little auk winters up to 2016, but a drought ever since. Little auks are high arctic breeders that winter on the edge of the ice or in polynyas, far to the north of us. But on strong northerlies in the autumn they can get blown down into the North Sea. The last two days have done exactly this, although only in a mild way. Some winters, sustained winds can bring hundreds of thousands down. Today 41 were counted past Fife Ness: I saw 9 in 30 minutes this morning. All far out and heading back north. Later in the evening it was a similar rate, so I suspect we had a few hundred past Fife Ness today. It was great to see little auks again. Puffins are small and look like they can barely fly, wobbling distinctively as they go. Well, little auks are even more so. Wobbly, black and white bumble bees in the distance, looking half the size of the razorbills passing with them. Impossibly small when matched against the waves and the sea. It was a good half an hour in other respects. A black guillemot came past heading south. An adult moulting into winter plumage. And a great and arctic skua heading north.

Little auks passing Fife Ness (although these are from 2010). You get an idea of the wobbling from this photo – every single bird is in a different state of roll (John Anderson)

Those northerly winds brought another occasional species past Fife Ness. This one even rarer: this evening I had my fourth record for the Crail patch of a grey phalarope. And another tiny bird when matched against the waves and the sea. Phalaropes are pelagic shorebirds: waders that live on the open sea. They breed in the high Arctic like little auks, but then migrate to tropical waters like skuas. Usually they migrate on the western side of the UK and strong westerlies will blow them close in to the shore or to inland sites, but not on our side of the country. The northerly wind two days ago had a bit of westerly in it, so some grey phalaropes must have been blown into the North Sea and down the eastern side of the UK. I got the call from Fife Ness that three grey phalaropes had been seen far out, but they had landed on the water and were still there (although invisible in the wave troughs and at about a kilometer from shore). But nothing ventured…I was down there in 10 minutes. Then came the interesting process of getting my telescope on the right bit of sea. This was made harder because the two people who were watching the bit of sea where the phalaropes had landed couldn’t move their telescopes to find landmarks because they would have lost the location. Anyway, we worked it out. The right general direction then one of the sea patch watchers called out birds that were flying through their field of view. “Two juvenile gannets north now!” If I saw the gannets after the shout, then I moved my telescope to the south, and vice versa. It worked! I got on to the small flock of black-headed gulls the phalaropes were with even though they only became visible about every 30 seconds in gap in the waves. It was too far to pick out the phalaropes on the water – they are barely the size of starlings. It was a huge act of faith but I sat watching this patch of sea for twenty minutes. But then suddenly the phalaropes took off – it was if a flock of potbellied, short-tailed sanderling suddenly took off from the sea, appearing as if from nowhere. They flew about fifty meters and then dropped down into the water. And not three, but five birds in the flock: outside of the Arctic, I have only seen single birds before. Despite the distance, a clean black and white, dumpy shorebird that behaves like a duck is a grey phalarope whether it is at 10 meters or 1000. There is a bit of balance of probability here – but the other (very unlikely) phalarope species that might occur in a small flock would look just a bit less clean and brownish at this time of year. It’s going on the year list. Number 173, equalling last year’s all-time record. Brilliant fun – looking for a needle in a haystack and finding it. And there were more little auks passing behind the patch of sea as well, glowing in the low evening sun to top it all off.       

Grey phalarope – it’s a shame we didn’t quite have this view. They do pass Fife Ness very close sometimes as this photo demonstrates (John Anderson)

Posted October 22, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 21st   Leave a comment

I went down to Kilminning a little bit later this morning to have a coffee break in the sunshine – although we have a cold north wind in at last, making it feel a bit more wintery. I timed it perfectly. There was a small crowd staking out the wrong bushes for the dusky warbler and I heard it calling from its usual haunts just as I arrived. I called them over and within a few minutes it started feeding in sight, about a quarter of the time above the bushes and quite often in a tall shrub with a lot of bare branches. The best views so far, and best of all the bird was photographable at last. Still a challenge because it was moving constantly still, and never really out in the open. But John Anderson managed a few shots as you can see below. The bird looked less brown and brighter below in the bright sunshine, but still a very dark brown and dirty looking chiffchaff, and of course with its epic supercilium and chacking call.

The dusky warbler currently at Kilminning. Not the perfect portrait shots that John likes, but I really think these capture the essence of the bird better. Skulky and quick, while also showing more than enough to see what a dusky warbler looks like (John Anderson)

Posted October 21, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 20th   Leave a comment

I spent an hour this morning a few meters from the dusky warbler in a foolhardy attempt to get a photo. It was frequenting the same rose bushes, with occasional forays up into the willows, as yesterday. It was calling less than yesterday, but with some good bouts early this morning. When it stopped moving it was always in the depths of a bush or in thick branches. And when it was visible, it was constantly on the move. I am tempted to say a dusky warbler is more of an impression than a sighting: a sketch of the bird and only its call to easily identify it will have been most people’s experience. It was pretty much mine too today as I blew all of its clear views trying to line up my camera rather than just appreciating them. Photography is a tradeoff, and I thought I would never get into it at the expense of enjoying a bird. Still, I enjoyed the challenge and all the time the dusky warbler’s call and its general look and behaviour was being ironed into my brain for the next time. The dusky warbler was seen at least until late afternoon and I suspect it will be here tomorrow, for its third day.

The other really interesting bird today was a chiffchaff at upper Kilminning with an odd song. It started as a chiffchaff but then tailed off into almost willow warbler like notes. I asked around and apparently chiffchaffs from Asia (i.e. east of the Urals and towards Siberia) sing like this. Far eastern and Siberian chiffchaffs turn up at Kilminning at this time of year but it usually their calls that give them away, not their song. But with all of the warm weather… So warm in fact that I have had the frogs in my garden pond croaking on several nights this week. And so warm that most trees still have all their leaves, making spotting warblers even more tricky.

A long -tailed tit – part of a flock that joined the dusky warbler in its bushes at Kilminning this morning. A lot easier to photograph than the warbler. (John Anderson)

Posted October 20, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 19th   1 comment

This morning I was determined to work my way steadily around Kilminning to see if anything had slipped in yesterday without us noticing, particularly among the noisy distraction of the thousands of thrushes. Most were gone this morning. There were still tens of redwings about, but now numerically balancing the blackbirds which hadn’t moved on: so today it seemed there were blackbirds everywhere instead. The top of Kilminning had more bramblings, and I had counted about 30 by the time I got to the lower part. As I walked up to Willie’s bench (where the Siberian thrush was) I heard a distinctive chacking – a bit wren like, but harder and more metallic, like a Sylvia warbler. Hours of listening to Hannu Jannes’ “Eastern vagrants” CD that I bought at a BTO conference thirty years ago has hard wired a few calls into my brain. And one of them is a dusky warbler! I have heard dusky warblers at Kilminning before but never got eyes on them. They skulk a lot. I tried to get a glimpse as it called quite loudly and persistently from a dense rose bush a few meters in front of me. I took a couple of sound recordings on my phone and then played dusky warbler call back to it. It responded by coming a bit closer and calling more intensely, but still invisibly. A small bird then flew out of the bush and into the whitebeams behind – too quick to see anything on it. I was happy it was a dusky warbler though – the call is very distinctive. When you are very close to it, you can sometimes hear a thin, thrush-like, very high pitched “zee” in between the chacks, and the rhythym of the chacks is distinctive. Other warblers that chack do it in an even, spaced out way, whereas Duskys have bits of faster and slower. And the tone is very sharp – this bird not so much – but some birds like an electric cable shorting out. Anyway, I put the warbler out on the grapevine and then tried to get a sight of it.

It took a little while to see the bird well. People began to arrive and I began to feel slightly uncomfortable in that I hadn’t actually seen the bird. The identification was all on call. But then it was heard by someone else and we tracked the bird down to a strip of rose bushes only a few meters away from where I had first heard it. It went through periods of quite loud and intense calling making it easy to locate in a particular bush, but still impossible to see. I had to crouch down and practically put my head into a rose bush before I saw it. And then it was just a few of meters away from me, moving rapidly among the bare stems that form the hollow centre of the rose bushes, and so clearly visible. My best ever views of a dusky warbler. My relationship with dusky warblers has always been partial, a bit photofit. A head seen briefly, a bit of calling, a possible flying away. Today it was finally the whole experience. A chiff-chaff like bird but quite dark, with brown tones above and paler, but still dirty brownish below, and with non-descript coloured legs. A very contrasting cream supercilium, especially in front of the eye. The bill is weaker looking than Radde’s, almost wren like, and the tail looks slightly longer than on a chiffchaff. The whole impression is of a very distinctive looking Phylloscopus warbler. That coupled with its characteristic call, as I watched it scurrying through the bush, completed the full, 100% identification. It suddenly popped up on top of the rose bush in full view before diving back down again and disappearing.

The rest of the time the warbler was hard to see well. Occasionally it would go up into the higher vegetation, but there are still lots of leaves on the trees so it was back to photofit glimpses. Again, the secret to a half decent view was to get into the vegetation. The bird wasn’t shy. It didn’t move away from people watching, it just didn’t come out of cover. Most people got glimpses of it through the day and some had good views, and it was calling often. A huge relief. I had stuck my neck out on a call only ID because it is better to give others the opportunity, just in case the bird doesn’t stick around long. And although I didn’t have any significant doubts – I would have put it on the Crail year list even if I had only heard it calling the first time – a dusky warbler is a significant rarity and it is good to have others seeing it as well. Rarity wise – this is my second definite dusky warbler in 19 years. The last was a real skulker in The Patch at Fife Ness (the one I only saw its head, and so briefly I didn’t really want to put it on the overall Crail list at all). If the bird hadn’t been caught and ringed a little earlier, and seen by others, I would not have been very confident of its ID. Others have been calling birds – but never for long enough for me to be totally sure. Last year there was a dusky warbler in the garden at Balcomie Castle, but because of Covid only the finder got to see it. So that makes, I think, at least 4 dusky warblers in 19 years. I should think we overlook them, although if they call they shouldn’t be too hard to detect. At last the autumn has delivered, and once again, in the shabby car park that is Kilminning. An existentially beautiful place though, in birding terms.

Birding is often just the joy of travelling in hope, and it always delivers something (the bramblings, lots of them and close up would have made this morning worthwhile). But birding can be disappointing, as the nine Crail patch ticks I have missed this year have demonstrated. Still, when it delivers like today, it really gives you a buzz. I cycled home on that real high you get after finding a good bird, on your local patch, and shared with your friends.

No photo of the dusky warbler today, but this is the one in the Patch on the 18th – 21st October 2013 (photo by the late Jim Cobb). Today’s bird looked warmer brown than this, on a very dreich day and in the middle of a bush, and the supercilium was much more contrasting.

Posted October 19, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 18th   Leave a comment

And so it was this morning: very busy at first light with redwing flocks flying over even as I left my front door. At Kilminning there were hundreds of thrushes. Mostly redwings flying up from the sycamores and whitebeams to head inland, and then new flocks arriving and dropping down into the trees to replace them. I picked up the angry chacking of two ring ouzels within a few minutes and watched a male launch itself up and away with the redwings. There always seems to be a few in with the big redwing falls that we get but even so you need to have your wits about you to find them. Without their calls they would be lost among the other thrushes. It was a six thrush day, with a few fieldfares and mistle thrushes, and lots of blackbirds and song thrushes as well. Falls of redwings make for very exciting birding. There is constant movement and noise and every bush is alive with their dark shapes.

One of the thousands of thrushes passing through Kilminning in the last 24 hours – an immature male blackbird from Scandinavia

It was a good day for a lot of other winter migrants as I checked out Kilminning, Balcomie, Craighead and the Patch. I had the first Lapland bunting of the winter calling as it flew over. I may have heard a firecrest at Lower Kilminning. Two perfect calls, but then other birds can sound like firecrests and I didn’t hear the sustained burst of calling that is characteristic of them. I couldn’t find it and didn’t hear it again – but I won’t be too surprised if one turns up tomorrow. There were bramblings everywhere in small numbers. I had perhaps about 20 in total. Again, like the ring ouzels, they mostly keep to cover on passage and are shy, and only their wheezy contact calls and chipping flight calls draw attention to them.

Male brambling – John got lucky and had some newly arrived birds feeding on the shore (John Anderson)

More conspicuous was a flock of five whooper swans that had come down to land, appropriately enough, on the airfield in the rain last night. They were off again, heading south an hour after sunrise.

The overnighting whooper swans on the airfield this morning
A fresh sparrowhawk kill of a redwing that I found in The Patch this morning. You can see the pinky red “redwing” feathers

And three merlins – or the same female moving around between Lower Kilminning and Balcomie Cottages. Perhaps migrants themselves, or the local birds moving in from the fields around to take advantage of the bonanza. The local sparrowhawks have also started to focus on redwings and blackbirds. I am starting to find sad little piles of feathers to indicate those that haven’t made the migration successfully. But their loss is the sparrowhawks’ gain. Many of the juvenile sparrowhawks from this summer will be getting a lifeline at this time of year by the easy hunting.

There were no obvious rarities though. The morning started still and there were no yellow-brows to be heard, and most telling – no chiffchaffs. There is almost never anything special, small bird wise, that turns up in the autumn here without a fanfare of chiffchaffs. Still, it was a top morning, full of birds and full of hope that the next one I looked at might just be the one of the autumn. It is getting late though and without some more easterlies it may well be an autumn completely without regulars like yellow-browed warblers, redstarts and pied flycatchers.

Posted October 18, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 17th   Leave a comment

There was 14 mm of rain last night and some easterlies: this morning the redwings were streaming in on the pulses of remaining rain. This evening it is incredible: redwings calling constantly over Crail as they come in their hundreds and thousands. Tomorrow morning may be quite exciting. But today, still no yellow-browed warblers. It was still again so they should have been easily detectable. I may have heard one call distantly, but it wasn’t repeated and there were several coal tits calling around Upper Kilminning to provide confusion. There were more blackbirds and song thrushes at Upper Kilminning as well, and probably a new chiffchaff. But again, the best of the birding was to be had at Fife Ness. Visibility wasn’t so good, so it was only the closer in birds I saw. My first Arctic skua (an adult pale phase) for a week or two, chasing a kittiwake, before heading off strongly south again. Another couple of black-throated divers headed south. The passage of little gulls was reduced to just a few birds, still heading south, but I picked up more kittiwakes today and a single adult Mediterranean gull. The best bird of the day was a late common sandpiper, initially on the rocks below the hide at Fife Ness. They are normally a late summer passage bird, rather than a late autumn bird: late enough for me to double check for a spotted sandpiper (the American version of common sandpiper).

Spot the common sandpiper at Fife Ness today (John, this is what a record shot really looks like!)

Posted October 17, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 16th   Leave a comment

It was a still day – perfect for hearing yellow-browed warblers. But again, Kilminning was quiet, top and bottom. The chiff-chaffs have moved on: I saw only a siskin, a few redwings, a flock of bullfinch, and heard a brambling. There were a few stray, small flocks of barnacle geese passing over. Sea watching from Fife Ness was much more lively. The lack of wind was compensated for by the ease of seeing everything – there was no hiding in the wave troughs. I finally saw a great northern diver for the Crail year list – several have been passing this week. One lumbered past, flying reasonably high above the sea, and conveniently with a black-throated diver in front. It always helps with diver identification to get two species together, and I was able to appreciate just how big a great northern diver really is. There were a couple more black-throated divers past in about an hour, and a handful of red-throated. Its always nice to see the set, although a – not impossible – white-billed diver would have really made a full house. There was a steady passage of little gulls heading south – I counted 120 passing but there will have been more. And a good range of ducks: my first long-tailed ducks of the winter, goosander and red-breasted merganser, common and velvet scoter, and a single teal. Far out to sea, cutting off the corner, were lines of pink-footed geese, probably heading for Norfolk. Just as I was leaving, a sooty shearwater passed heading north: their season is coming to an end.

Great northern diver passing Fife Ness (John Anderson)

There are good numbers of golden plover around Crail and the airfield this winter – at least 200 and perhaps double this number. The best place and time to see them is on the rising high tide at Sauchope caravan park. They roost on the rocky shore, before being pushed off by the tide or getting too close to the people on the shore. Then they circle around in a huge, banking flock for a while, whistling softly to each other, before resuming their roost in the fields behind the caravan park.

Some of the golden plovers roosting at Sauchope this lunchtime

This afternoon I went inland, looking for corn buntings. In 14 kilometers and quite a few good stubble and weedy fields encountered I only found 18 corn buntings, all in the stubble just west of Kingsbarns. This was a great site for them last winter. I will have cycled past a few though – they are quite undetectable in the stubbles. Nothing like Lapland buntings, but you really need to walk through the fields to be sure they are not there. Big flocks are much more detectable and I suspect that most corn buntings are still in smaller family groups: if any are in the newly ploughed and planted fields I will never see them unless they fly. The yellowhammers haven’t flocked up yet for the winter either: in contrast the linnets and tree sparrows are already in large flocks. Up at Kippo Farm a pair of raven flew over from the direction of the Secret Bunker woods to Kingsbarns: perhaps this year really is the one where they start to be a regular resident rather than an occasional rarity. A female merlin and a few sparrowhawks hunting over the fields in the gloaming ended my circuit as I headed back to Crail before it got dark.  

Another weedy, seed filled stubble field bites the dust in a brief frenzy of gulls

Posted October 16, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 13th   Leave a comment

Most of the barnacle geese seemed to have gone through: today it was only small flocks of less than 10. Yesterday was quite spectacular and it did seem that every barnacle goose there ever was, was passing. Kilminning has also lost its redwings too. There were still some chiffchaffs and a brambling. And several red admiral butterflies, sailing around in the continuing warm, unseasonal sunshine.

A chiffchaff at Upper Kilminning today

It has been a busy non-birding week and some good “local patch gold” birds that I have seen have fallen by the wayside. I had another grebe past Crail on the 9th. I picked it up late as I sea watched from my house, which meant a two second view rather than 10. It was a red-necked or a Slavonian, my initial ID was the former, but I can’t be sure, particularly when it so conveniently fills a hole in my year list. On the 10th I had a raven over Fairmont. The first on the patch for a couple of months since I stopped looking for corn buntings up near the Secret Bunker. They may be back in the Fairmont area now for the winter as they were last year. On the same day I has a jay flying out of the woods at Cambo. There was an influx of jays along the east coast at the end of last week and several were seen at Kilminning last Saturday.

Posted October 13, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 12th   Leave a comment

A change in the weather – a pulse of north-easterly wind overnight with some rain showers. This morning dawned wet but with a lot of birds coming in. Most noticeable were the barnacle geese and the redwings. I was in St Andrews as it got fully light and there were constant flocks of barnacle geese flying overhead, heading down the coast towards Fife Ness. Their ragged, untidy V formations giving them away long before I could hear their yapping, angry poodle, calls. There were barnacle geese passing all day, but there were thousands passing in the first hour. The same pattern for redwings. There were hundreds at Kilminning this morning. Every so often a sycamore would suddenly erupt as a flock of fifty would take off and head further inland. There were other migrants about: at least 8 chiffchaffs between Upper and Lower Kilminning, some blackcaps, a few brambling, song thrushes and mistle thrushes. And the first woodcock of the winter at Balcomie Cottages.

One of the many flocks of barnacle geese moving down the coast today (John Anderson)

Posted October 12, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 10th   Leave a comment

This morning was again unseasonably warm, with little wind. It was perfect for finding birds: I could hear everything and the only things moving in the trees were birds. But there was nothing there to find once again. I spent an hour in the Patch and the caravans at Fife Ness, had a good look around Craighead, Balcomie Cottages and a quick look in at Lower Kilminning around the bench bushes. Song thrushes, goldcrests, robins, a blackcap, a chiff-chaff. The only summer migrant I saw today was a swallow at Balcomie. On the beach the curlew sandpiper was still around, feeding with dunlins along the low tide line. There was a confiding bar-tailed godwit feeding in stinky pool. Usually they are very shy but this one was desperate to keep feeding, pulling out big ragworms as it waded in the pool. Both the curlew sandpiper and bar-tailed godwit are potentially very long distance migrants – breeding in the high Arctic of Siberia and heading, perhaps, as far as South Africa. The curlew sandpiper is looking fatter and fatter by the day and must be ready by now to head south. There was one more obvious migrant wader. A greenshank on the rocks at Fife Ness.

The bar-tailed godwit at Stinky Pool today (John Anderson)

The best birding of the day was the big flock of gulls in the harvested potato field just outside of Crail and next to Balcomie Caravan Park. Lots of herring and black headed gulls, but amongst them an adult little gull, looking very odd in a muddy field, and a leucistic herring gull. Almost pure white apart from its dark bill, and faint speckles of yellowish indicating an immature. Almost exactly the same plumage as the one we had around Crail last winter, but that bird should be in mostly adult plumage by now – such as that is when the bird is all white anyway. The bill should be more adult like and not all black though. So a different bird and just a coincidence I think.

The leucistic herring gull

Posted October 10, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 7th   Leave a comment

I was lured out twice today as some migrants turned up along the East coast, and a Radde’s warbler on the May Island at lunchtime. Kilminning had a chiffchaff or two, a lot more redwings, but I didn’t find anything special. The curlew sandpiper continues its residence at Balcomie and Fife Ness: I saw it roosting with some redshanks at low tide at the north end of Balcomie Beach. Eventually all the waders on the beach (dunlin and ringed plover) were spooked by something and it flew off with a dunlin towards Fife Ness. Fife Ness itself was very quiet except for a steady stream of newly minted juvenile gannets heading out of the Forth for the first time. This evening the temperature is at 16 degrees, an insane level for mid-October. A strange autumn indeed.

The juvenile curlew sandpiper on Balcomie Beach this lunchtime – day 18

Posted October 7, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 6th   Leave a comment

A much better day today. Dry and sunny, with a north-east wind. It brought skeins of pink-footed geese in this morning, cutting the corner of Fife Ness and over Kilminning. A flock of 20 whoooper swans did the same – my first for this winter. I heard them in the distance, a faint bassoon-like honking, and then they flew over me into the Forth. It is a magical sight to see a flock of migrating swans, especially in autumn sunlight against a blue sky. There were a few other things at Kilminning – definitely more song thrushes, blackbirds, robins, goldcrests and blackcaps than the last few visits. I heard a redwing and a brambling too. So some migrants, even if not anything rare.

Whooper swans (John Anderson)

Posted October 6, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 5th   Leave a comment

It’s been a very rainy day. I tried walking over the stubble fields at Boarhills at lunchtime but rain stopped play: soggy skylarks and meadow pipits being the only thing on show. Later I tried some sea watching from my house in between emails and administration and lucked out on a male scaup flying by. Another surprisingly rare bird for the Crail patch, with one recorded in only seven of the last 19 years. They are either flybys like this as birds move along the coast or on the reservoir at Carnbee. Despite the very slow autumn, the scaup takes the year list up to 168, only 5 short of the record last year, and I am still a month ahead of when I hit 168 last year. But there is still no sign of any good migrant weather.

Scaup (John Anderson)

Posted October 5, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 3rd   Leave a comment

When you are a local patch birder, leaving your patch in October is very foolish. Yet here I am heading down to England for a couple of days. Previous similar trips away have led to me missing a red-flanked bluetail in Denburn, for example. Spectacularly it was found literally as I left Crail heading for the station, and then it stayed in the wood until I returned, but after dark, two days later. The wood was empty the following morning. Consequently, I checked Denburn Wood superstitiously and very carefully this morning before I left, even though the winds barely suggested anything had come in. Other birds have turned up like this bluetail but then they stayed long enough for me to connect with them when I came back – the eastern olivaceous warbler, a pied wheatear, a Radde’s warbler. But even though it all worked out in the end, all the time I was away, there was the worry about missing them. This is all foolish, particularly if you are not a birder, or bothered about a local patch, or take the long term view that anything missed is then even more special when you see it next time it appears. But if rationalizing anxieties like this actually made them go away then humans would be much happier and much more sensible than they are. So, I sit on the train hoping that the next bit of Fife Bird News that hits my phone is not that mega rarity – like a pallid harrier – that I cannot go and see until Tuesday. True to form, as I left Crail this morning, my phone binged. I checked it with dread at the station. A northern wheatear. Perfect, so far.

Northern wheatear (John Anderson)

Posted October 3, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 2nd   Leave a comment

This week has remained frustratingly devoid of rarer migrants, and as September has passed into October, it is fair to say that this autumn, apart from the seabirds and shorebirds, has not turned out well so far. So it goes sometimes. Birders suffer from the same syndrome as farmers and always benchmark things to the best year they have had, so inevitably as the years go on, each season is a relative disappointment. It’s a way of thinking that has to be actively fought against because going out birding around Crail always means some good birds. Take today for example. Although checking the Patch and Kilminning this morning only turned up a chiffchaff in the former and four bramblings and a redwing in the latter, bramblings are always nice to see, especially chewing away at whitebeam berries and scrapping with the local chaffinches, and the redwing was the first of the winter. A whimbrel and a northern wheatear at Balcomie were another two good birds for the day. And the juvenile curlew sandpiper was also still in residence to perk things up. It was showing well again in Stinky Pool. It was pulling out thread like worms fairly frequently: it makes me wonder why nothing else ever turns up at Stinky Pool. Perhaps it is just too disturbed, this curlew sandpiper is notable for its tameness for example – Stinky Pool was a great site for waders thirty years ago when there were certainly fewer golfers and coastal walkers.

The curlew sandpiper in residence at Stinky Pool – its 14th day

But the saving grace of today was the sea watching. Fairly slow, but perfect visibility and a lively wind pushing gannets, kittiwakes and razorbills past at a high rate. Always something to look at and to look for. I watched from Fife Ness in the morning and from my house in Crail at other times. There was a reasonable set of seabirds during the day: sooty and manx shearwaters, arctic and a pomarine skua, lots of little gulls, a handful of sandwich terns, common and velvet scoters and a slow and steady passage of red-throated divers into the Forth (they must be heading further south but hugging the coast as they go, otherwise the Forth further west must have ten thousand of them already). On a good south-easterly wind like today there is always a hope of good seabirds and rarities. You just have to keep looking and get lucky.

Plenty of great gannet and wave action today during sea watches (John Anderson)

Posted October 2, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

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