Archive for December 2021

December 31st   2 comments

It is officially the darkest December since 1956. It has felt like a nuclear winter of low cloud and little daylight all month. I went out to a grey and damp Kingsbarns this afternoon. There is still a flock of about 30 twite in the usual spot at Boghall, even though the forage beet and sheep field of last year is now pristine grass. The twite and everything else disappear when they are on the ground. I heard a skylark frantically singing above the field and then saw a female merlin chasing it up into the sky. A long hunt ensued, with the merlin and skylark ending up well over the sea, still stooping and evading and climbing three minutes later when I got tired of watching them, now in the far distance. At sea there were several flocks of very handsome long-tailed ducks. Many of the males in full breeding plumage, and a couple of females too. There was a lot of displaying and chasing, although it looked like the female was chasing the males, rather than the usual duck way round.

Long-tailed ducks (John Anderson)

It is now dark, and short of chasing a tawny owl (which has eluded me this year, as has barn owl) for my Crail patch list, I have reached the end of my year list. I am on 176 (the complete list is here), breaking last year’s record of 173. It was a lot of irregulars that made up this year’s list – species that are not too hard to get anywhere else but I don’t get very often like red kite, wood warbler, grey phalarope, hen harrier, wood sandpiper, little ringed plover, osprey, curlew sandpiper, white-fronted goose and Slavonian grebe. The real rarities this year were Icterine warbler, dotterel, Sabine’s gull and dusky warbler, although none of these made their first appearance on the overall patch list. This overall patch list now stands at 236, unchanged from last year. It could have been much higher. I missed a lot of birds this year. The patch now has more regular birders, particularly sea watching very intensively at Fife Ness, and so the potential to miss birds has greatly increased. In previous years, most of what I missed was completely unknown – I am not quite sure which is better – to know or not to know. Probably the former because it makes me look out more and also gives me hope that these species are possible again. But the latter does add a layer of disappointment, which should never be part of birding, especially when I have such a good local patch and have had a record-breaking year. But for the record I missed – sometimes by only a few minutes – the following patch ticks: common crane, alpine swift, nuthatch, avocet, woodchat shrike (one at Balcomie House during the height of lockdown this spring and only seen by the owner), great shearwater, Fea’s petrel, pallid harrier (this one hurts the most), surf scoter and white-billed diver. I might hope to eventually get most of these but a Fea’s petrel, alpine swift, woodchat shrike and pallid harrier could well be once in a lifetime patch birds. Still, I have another 30 years or more if I am lucky to make these species back. And the new year starts tomorrow, with a new year list, and all to play for.

And my favourite birds this year? Well, always the ones that I am looking at, at the time. But I enjoyed the scarcer patch species becoming widespread for a time: yellow wagtails, grasshopper warblers, cuckoos, great northern divers, little auks. I enjoyed the corn buntings and going absolutely everywhere in the patch mapping them. I enjoyed finding the dusky warbler just on its call, and learning how to pick out roseate terns from a flock of arctics by their glow. Overall though, I think the dotterels at Pittenweem this spring come top. I have a soft spot for these waders as the highlights from my teenage birding when they came through my local Hertfordshire fields (at Dotterel farm), at the start of May (Dotterel day) like little treasures in an otherwise very bland, intensively farmed landscape. And from my wife’s ten year study of them in the Cairngorms: if I ever I wanted to see her during the summer I needed to climb a mountain and find the dotterels. They are just brilliant birds as well. Happy New Year.

A female dotterel in late evening spring sunshine at Pittenweem this year – one of the best birds this year

Posted December 31, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 24th   Leave a comment

If you visit the co-op and have noticed the hedge opposite is very noisy and full of house sparrows, then the explanation is both that there is a dense hedge (house sparrows love this because it offers protection from sparrowhawks) and we have a bird feeder hanging from this hedge. The sparrows empty it in the first couple of hours and a few other species pick up the bits that get tossed on to the ground as the 40-50 sparrows scrap over access to the feeder. Dunnocks, a robin and a blackbird are the regular foragers below the feeder. All three species are not big seed eaters, but they are flexible generalists. One blackbird – an adult male – has got very tame and waits patiently by the feeder for it to be refilled first thing in the morning. It comes to the seed as I am doling it out and seems happy to feed very close – it would probably jump onto my hand if I stood still enough. Blackbirds are particularly flexible in their diet and seem to eat almost everything, animal and vegetable. This makes them a good urban species. Their original habitat is open woodland but sometime in the mid-19th century they started moving into towns and cities. Now they are found at some of their highest densities in suburban and urban areas. Their tameness also serves them well. Humans in cities are not threatening and most don’t even see the blackbirds at their feet. It is a big evolutionary step for a species to discount humans appropriately (although it is complicated because migrant blackbirds need a different set of rules if they head across France, Spain or Italy in the autumn…). And it is a necessary step for a species to be successful on a planet with 9 billion people.

When you see a blackbird up close you realise how beautiful they are – the males are really black all over except for their contrasting bright yellow bills and eye-rings.

Posted December 24, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 22nd   2 comments

I was field mapping today – dull but worthy. Recording which fields have been ploughed, which are stubble, which still might be good habitats for corn buntings over the winter. I covered 20 km but only encountered corn buntings in the usual main site this winter at Kingsbarns. But only a flock of 30. Where the rest have gone just now, I don’t know: once again they may have been dispersed through the stubbles and not flushing. I heard and then saw a raven flying out of the woods at the Secret Bunker. If there is still pair resident, they will be thinking about nesting in the next month. The highlight of the trip was at Boghall. I was on the Drony Road working out which fields were which when a female or juvenile hen harrier flew up from the turnip field in front of me (or out of the pines near me) and quartered briefly over the field before disappearing into a stand of conifers on the other side of the field. Once again Boghall Farm comes up trumps for raptors. The mixed farming and the game cover crops make the farm great for small birds and so for the birds of prey. To emphasise this, no sooner had the harrier disappeared when I saw what I thought was a male merlin doing its characteristic mistle thrush like, undulating flap-flap glide attack flight over the field. It was targeting two skylarks at tree top height. One dived down to the ground and the other went up. The raptor used its momentum to gain height above it and then with a tiny stoop, plucked the skylark out of the air. Then the size of the raptor became clear – the skylark was tiny in the bird of prey’s feet – it was a male peregrine. A superb adult male with a very blue cast to its plumage as only the oldest and brightest males get. Male peregrines also use a thrush mimicking flight to approach prey, so my initial mistake wasn’t too dire. It was another very dull, grey day today with a lot of damp – almost misty – making size even harder to judge.

As John says – a record shot, but it captures the atmosphere of the day. Ringtail hen harriers are easy to identify by their long wings and tail and very prominent white rump. This is my first hen harrier on the patch since 2015. They should not be so rare – but their numbers are kept very low in Scotland by illegal killing associated with grouse moors. This is number 176 for the Crail Patch list – a final bonus to add to a record breaking year.

Posted December 22, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 20th   Leave a comment

Long-tailed tits did well this summer and the legacy is several flocks in the Crail area this winter. Each one is a related family party: families stick together. When nesting, siblings that have failed nests will then help their brother or sister to raise their chicks. There might be up to eight helpers. Then long-tailed tits have big clutches – up to 15 eggs. The end result may then be a flock of 25 birds, all related, and all working closely together for each other’s survival over the winter. They look out for each other, share information about food they find and they roost together. When you are as small as a long-tailed tit, and temperatures are sub-zero, making a tight bundle with your flock mates makes the difference between surviving the night or not. I was watching a flock of about 20 long-tailed tits this morning working their way through Denburn. They moved from Bow Butts end of Denburn Wood down to Roome Bay Avenue in about 20 minutes. They are always on the move. Other tit species (coal, blue and great), goldcrests and treecreepers join them for a bit, but they drop in and out as the long-tailed tits move over a much larger scale. Every Crail garden will get a long-tailed tit visit this Christmas.

Long-tailed tit (John Anderson)

Posted December 20, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 19th   Leave a comment

There was a pomarine skua passing Fife Ness as I sea watched this morning: no telescope and it was a long way out. I thought it was a great skua to begin with on its bulky proportions. But as it came just a bit closer I could see it was a pomarine: an initial id of a great skua that turns into a pomarine or arctic is a good sign that it is the bulkier and heavier former. Winter skuas in the North Sea are rare but are often pomarine, although I have had all three commoner species on the Crail patch in December and January. Most skuas spend their winter in the tropical Atlantic.

There are some female (or juvenile) common scoters at Sauchope and Roome Bay this winter. Common scoters are very common around Crail, but usually only passing by. Common scoters have no white on their wings, and males are completely black: they lack any other character (at a distance) than being a black duck. The females are actually a bit more distinctive because they also have a paler face and a slightly darker cap. These characters stand out quite well on flying birds, or birds on the water, giving you that initial bit of confidence that you really are looking at common scoters, if you are not familiar with them. Once you have got your eye in you don’t have to look out to sea very long before you see a line of them – black (or very dark) ducks, some with pale faces – flying by.

Three female common scoters at Sauchope this morning – this photo shows how the whole dark duck, with paler face thing works at a distance making them quite easily identifiable when you know what to look for

Posted December 19, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 18th   Leave a comment

We had the haar in today. A cold winter fog hugging the coast and barely clearing by the afternoon. There is high pressure sitting on top of us, and instead of the bright sunny day that it will have been inland, it was dreich. A walk out of Crail across the fields to West Braes and back along the shore was a low visibility affair. Yellowhammers and skylarks flying up out of the stubble, but straight back down again a few meters away, completely invisible again. Some golden plovers flying over unseen, only their mournful whistles giving them away. Stonechats chacking along the coastal path, barely discernible on the dead cow parsley stems. There was a female kestrel perched on one of the clifftop trees at Harbour Beach, looking damp and miserable. I doubt it could hunt by hovering. Kestrels are good perch hunters when they need too, but even so it will have been a day in the voles’ favour.

The female kestrel at Harbour Beach making do in the fog – just a few meters away but still disappearing into the gloom

Posted December 18, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 17th   Leave a comment

It was back to Kingsbarns today, with good weather – sunshine and no wind. The buntings were dispersed but I was able to check out a few flocks of corn and reed bunting and yellowhammers. I had no further luck with colour-ringed corn buntings or rarer species. It is a little bit like a needle in a haystack: there are a lot of big stubble fields around Kingsbarns. I had about 60 corn buntings this morning and fewer linnets, twite and tree sparrows so half the birds were somewhere else. But it is the best birding when you are looking for something rarer – things you normally don’t give a second glance to, like yellowhammers, need a proper look at. It was a nice day to be out to. I saw the sunrise and watched some of the corn buntings coming in from their roost, landing on the wires to have a stretch and a preen before starting to feed. There were flocks of pink-footed geese going over from their roosts close to the Eden. And a big flock of fieldfares – they have become much more common in the last week. Lapwings too. Perhaps finally indicating movement of birds in Europe away from the increasingly harsher winter conditions there as the season progresses.

There are several flocks of lapwings in the fields of the East Neuk at the moment (John Anderson)

Posted December 17, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 14th   Leave a comment

I went looking for more colour-ringed corn buntings at Kingsbarns this morning. Interestingly the big flock of last week was dispersed: smaller groups were spread over several stubble fields. The skylarks and linnets the same. I put up one mixed flock of buntings (corn and yellowhammers) with some linnets among them. The corn buntings called, the yellowhammers too, but then in the middle a loud and clear robin like ticking, repeated for about ten seconds as the flock flew away and then doubled back over my head. It sounded just like a rustic bunting (or perhaps a little bunting). Either way a bird well worth finding on the patch. Trouble was the wind was getting up and it started to rain: I tramped around a bit but the flock had moved to another bit of the stubble field and I couldn’t refind it. Things were only flushing at short distances – there had been a male merlin hunting through the field just a few minutes earlier – and the weather wasn’t great for scanning. Fairly frustrating, except that if there is a rare bunting there it is not going anywhere, and neither am I. My corn bunting business this winter will be taking me back to these fields a lot and I will be checking each bunting there closely for colour rings anyway. I think I will find it again. I trust my ears – perhaps more than my eyes. And I have been listening to buntings flying away from me calling all year.

I am going to provocatively post a picture of a rustic bunting (taken by John Anderson in Japan) to put my hat in the ring that there is likely to be one with the other buntings in the Kingsbarns stubbles at the moment. There were a couple of sightings of one there last winter but it was never properly nailed down. Stranger things have happened than rare buntings turning up in the same sites in successive winters (i.e. they are returning to their adopted wintering area). Game on.

Posted December 14, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 11th   Leave a comment

It was one of those very dark mid-winter days where it didn’t really get light, and the spring seems a long way off. On Balcomie Beach there were several purple sandpipers mixed in with the dunlin and sanderling. As the winter goes on they seem to use the beach more. From Fife Ness there were a few red-throated divers, long-tailed ducks, guillemots and a little auk passing. With the rain coming on I headed back through Kilminning. I stopped by the airfield as I saw a merlin chasing a skylark up, closely followed by a sparrowhawk. I think the sparrowhawk probably put up the skylark initially and then the merlin took over. The sparrowhawk peeled off as the skylark and merlin got higher and started the sequence of dive and stoop, climb and chase. Each time the merlin got close to the skylark during a stoop, sometimes just a few centimeters away, the skylark gave a little burst of song to try to convince the merlin to give up. It finally did after a couple of minutes and drifted back down to the stubbles of the airfield to wait for another, weaker skylark. It is always a thrill to see a merlin hunting, especially when well matched with a skylark.

A purple sandpiper on Balcomie Beach (John Anderson)

Posted December 11, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 9th   Leave a comment

The corn buntings are back in the stubble fields west of Kingsbarns, between the village and the old railway line. I counted 125 in three flocks, although they were quite mobile, merging and separating over three big fields. And if I counted 125, there will be quite a few more. The moment they land in the stubble they disappear. As I counted a new group in a bush I noticed some colour-rings catching the light. MWRY – the corn bunting we ringed in March this year, having moved the epic distance of 524m away since then. But this is why I am studying corn buntings. They move on a scale I can keep track off. It looked very happy 9 months on. Above it were a couple of twite, and on closer look another 30, keeping as a distinct unit even when flying off in the company of over 200 linnets. The fields had over 500 small birds in them: tree sparrows, yellowhammers, reed buntings and another couple of hundred skylark. So many skylarks that their flight calls blurred together to sound like distant burbling bee-eaters. The stubble fields by Kingsbarns are brilliant and I hope the ploughing there stays as late as last year. A final bonus was a very angry jay calling from one of the pine shelter belts. Always a special local bird and never guaranteed on the patch in a year (although this is my third or fourth this year).

MWRY taking it easy after its epic movement. Spot the two twite too.

Posted December 9, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 8th   Leave a comment

There were 55 sanderling on Balcomie Beach this morning – with a few dunlin, ringed plover and a purple sandpiper. At Fife Ness it was surprisingly quiet considering the storm of yesterday and continuing south-easterly this morning. The swell was impressive though. Even the few gannets were largely invisible as they passed in the troughs. The best birds were a few fulmars like mini albatrosses over the huge waves. They have been absent for weeks, far out to sea while everything else has been close in. Another great northern came over as I left, adding to this year’s total.

Fulmar (John Anderson)

Posted December 8, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 4th   Leave a comment

This morning I walked on a circuit from Boarhills down to the shore and around to Kenly before coming back through the fields as it came on to rain – and then snow when I got back to Crail. The cold and the weather kept it very quiet except on the shore which is always lively, especially at the mouth of the Kenly Water. There were the usual couple of greenshanks, flocks of purple sandpipers, teal, wigeon and mallards. The gull roost was all herring, great black-backed and black-headed gulls, but always worth checking through for a white-winged gull at this time of year. I watched a juvenile cormorant air drying itself on the rocks. Most water birds just don’t get wet, with fully water repellant feathers (water off a duck’s back etc.) but cormorants seem to be bothered, spending a lot of time holding and flapping their wings out apparently to dry them. The juvenile this morning was also fluffing up its breast feathers as if they were wet too. Deep diving species like cormorants do get wet because the increased pressure of the water at depth squeezes the air out of their feathers. It is reversible as they come up, the feathers squeeze the water back out, but it needs a bit of help with flapping and fluffing.

The juvenile great cormorant drying itself at Kenly this morning – I also noticed the orange skin at the base of the bill. I hadn’t realised what an obvious characteristic it is (juvenile shags don’t have this)

Posted December 4, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 2nd   Leave a comment

I sea watched at Fife Ness for a half an hour before work on the 30th and today on the basis that if you don’t buy a lottery ticket you can never win. There are still so many good sea birds in the North Sea and they were topped up by the storm of the 27th. Yesterday a Brunnich’s guillemot went past Fife Ness and there have been a slew of other sightings along the East coast. The last local Brunnich’s guillemot recorded was an ill bird in Anstruther Harbour (see September 25th 2016) allowing close and easily identifiable views. But a flyby is a different matter. I didn’t have anything unusual past that on my two quick sessions, but I looked very closely and critically at every guillemot and razorbill going past. It will have improved my ability to identify auks and pick out a Brunnichs when I do finally get lucky. I suspect that there are quite a few in the North Sea in little auk winters but it takes a brave or very persistent birder to call one out. It has been an odd winter for auks really. First the very big numbers of guillemots and razorbills close inshore in September, then the higher numbers of black guillemots, then lots of little auks and finally lots of puffins close inshore. Today puffins were one of the commonest auks past Fife Ness (although small numbers of everything today). I saw little auks on both days, but they are becoming scarcer now. And another great northern diver past this morning. I am now well into double figures for great northerns. In some winters I might be lucky with one or two. Another Arctic bird further southand much more common than usual this winter.

A common guillemot – sadly not a dark headed, white underwing, rugby ball (John Anderson)

Posted December 2, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

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