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

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