Archive for January 2022

January 30th   Leave a comment

I walked through Kittock’s Den and back to Boarhills along the coastal path, between the gales this morning. Last year I was optimistic about the pair of ravens here, thinking that they might start breeding. They didn’t and probably relocated to nest in the Secret Bunker woods. This year there is no sign of the ravens regularly around Fairmont, but they are to still to be found between Kippo and the Secret Bunker. If they are nesting there (again?) they will have started already. It was very quiet in the Den – there are lots of trees down from the winter storms. The shoreline was busier: goldeneyes, wigeon, teal and mallards, and the usual greenshank.

A greenshank and a redshank on the shore at Fairmont this morning: a good illustration of how completely different they are in general tone – greenshanks always look very pale

Posted January 30, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 29th   Leave a comment

There was a fierce south-westerly gale for most of today, although with a temperature of 11 degrees this morning it didn’t feel very wintery. The sea was smeared into white spray and Balcomie Beach was like a miniature sandstorm. It was too eye-watering to bird very well, although in front of the hide at Fife Ness was perfectly sheltered. I watched the sea for thirty minutes this afternoon – lovely sunlight, good visibility and big waves. I had a few razorbills passing, often much higher than usual if the wind was behind them, and a single puffin (taking the Crail year list up to 99). There were lots of kittiwakes – perhaps 100 in total – but only four gannets.

Redshank in the sandstorm that was Balcomie Beach this afternoon

Posted January 29, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 27th   Leave a comment

It was a brilliant morning – low bright sun and little wind. I had to go out for some time outside before work. I walked along the shore at West Braes. There were two big flocks of grey partridges feeding in the rough coastal grassland amongst the weeds. The stubble fields above are now fully ploughed so there will be little feeding for them up there now. The coastal strip is important habitat. Both the male and female of the pair of kestrels that nest in the salmon bothy were hunting along the braes. Because there wasn’t any wind they were perch hunting, using the fence posts and small cliffs as vantage points. Kestrels are versatile predators. They can perch hunt like owls, surprise dash like sparrowhawks or merlins, and they can, of course, hover. Kestrels eat small mammals, birds and insects. They nest in and hunt in and along man-made structures. Versatility in every respect that allows them to do so well in human modified habitats. Most birds of prey are versatile really and the lack of them anywhere, from merlins to golden eagles is often a consequence of human persecution rather than lack of suitable habitat. Kestrels are not persecuted very much – I am not quite sure why they mostly escape – perhaps because they are perceived as flying cats, taking out “vermin”.

The male and female kestrel perch hunting at West Braes today. The male above obviously uses this perch a lot: the cliffs have lots of ledges with white streaks below them, testament to years of use by the resident kestrel

Posted January 27, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 23rd   Leave a comment

It has been a quiet mid-winter weekend around Crail, with a couple of modest highlights. Yesterday it was business as usual at Balcomie, with sanderlings and purple sandpipers along the tide line. Then at Fife Ness, red-throated divers, and a few auks and common scoter passing. The gannet numbers are beginning to climb up very slowly. Today I did one of my favourite walks: the loop from Kingsbarns, along the coastal path to Kenly Water (top coffee spot). Then back inland through Hillhead and Morton of Pitmilly. At Boghall, there was a flock of nine pale-bellied brent geese feeding on an improved pasture field next to the beach. We always have brent geese passing through Crail in early autumn, but wintering birds are more unusual, even though they are resident the whole winter at the Eden Estuary. Brent geese are small, only really large duck size, and are much more tied to the shore than other geese species. Worldwide (they breed throughout the Arctic and winter in the US, Europe, Japan, Korea and China) they are specialists in eating saltmarsh vegetation and eel grass (the only truly marine flowering plant, although it looks pretty much like seaweed). But UK and European birds have started foraging on farmland pasture over the last 50 years. Where eel grass beds have declined or get depleted because of increasing goose populations (much of the mortality of the species is through hunting and protection comes and goes for this species as they are perceived as a declining species of conservation concern, or quarry, or an agricultural pest) then brent geese feed on farmland. Improved pasture (treated with fertilisers to improve yield) provides as much energy as eel grass, but with a greater risk of disturbance and perhaps predation. Brent geese on the continent can regularly get hunted by goshawks which are much less likely to forage out in the middle of an estuary where brent geese traditionally find their winter food. The trade-off between foraging gain and keeping safe is a keen one in geese. Brent geese can live up to 30 years so they don’t take risks, but then if they are to breed successfully they need to put on a lot of fat to migrate up to Spitsbergen. The birds at Boghall are pale-bellied, showing that they breed either in Greenland or more likely Spitsbergen. Brent geese will migrate back to Spitsbergen in late April in a single flight – this needs a lot of stored fat – and then females will also use their fat reserves to produce their eggs and incubate them. Foraging somewhere profitable and relatively safe, like Boghall Farm, especially late winter, is an important part of a Brent Goose’s life history. The nine this morning, although wary of walkers on the adjacent beach, looked well settled in: they were first reported there on the 15th.

Three of the 9 brent geese at Boghall, Kingsbarns this morning (a bit grainy because I didn’t want to disturb them and even at 100 meters they are beginning to look very wary). The middle bird is an adult and the flanking two are young ones, born last year in Spitsbergen among the polar bears and arctic foxes. They are probably related: young geese often stay with their parents through the first winter

The brent geese were an early addition to the year list – usually a September bird on passage. Another addition was a woodcock flushed from the middle of a stubble field at Hillhead. Woodcock are nocturnal foragers, coming out of the woods where they hide during the day, to feed in damp arable and pasture fields by night. Today’s woodcock must have been hungry and stayed out in the open (more vulnerable to sparrowhawks and buzzards) longer than usual. But the stubble field was very weedy and gave a lot of cover, and per usual for woodcock it only gave itself away as it flew off just a few meters away. As with the brent geese, this woodcock had probably made a strategic trade-off, able to continue foraging because it was in the relative safety of the nettles and taller grass in this particular field.

I only found corn buntings in any numbers (a flock of 25) in the wild bird mix at the deg of the stubble field sloping down to the Kenly Burn Mouth. Hillhead Farm is great for wintering small birds because of its weedy field margins, wild bird mix strips and retained stubble field, full of groundsel. Still, this winter there are many fewer birds there than last. I don’t think this is indicative of anything other than there being a wider range of options for small birds in the area this year because the milder conditions don’t require focused choices – Hill head may be the best, but so is Boghall, and then of course the stubbles extending from Kingsbarns up to the railway line are also really good. Not quite spoiled for choice, but enough of a choice that any walk through the area might not pick up a large flock because they are a kilometer or two away in another field. A burst of really cold weather will concentrate them much more into the most reliable and best spots.

Posted January 23, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 20th   Leave a comment

The waders were back on Balcomie Beach, a big flock of sanderling, with some dunlin and ten purple sandpipers in the mix. Sea watching at Fife Ness was good too. I picked up three common scoters flying by with a grebe in the front. A grebe at sea is always a good bird for the Crail patch so I had a very good look at it as it flew by with the ducks. The things to look for on a flying grebe are the neck length and the pattern of white on the wing. This one had a white patch on the forewing at the shoulder and a big white patch on the hindwing along the secondaries. This made it either a Slavonian grebe (fairly rare – one every other year) or a red-necked grebe (very rare – three in the last 20 years). Then it had a long neck – not ridiculously slender like a great crested grebe (which also have a white patch on the shoulder connecting the other white patches on the wing) but a clearly long neck. Slavonian grebes have a neck but it never looks particularly long. So, a red-necked grebe – with a final very conclusive character to clinch it. The grebe was the same size as the female common scoter behind it. Perfect for a red-necked. A Slavonian grebe is about two thirds the size of a common scoter. Red-necked grebes are always good birds to see anywhere in the UK, but they are major rarities at Fife Ness and great to get on the year list again. A great northern diver came past soon afterwards, heavy and high, heading north, and then a manx shearwater. Another unusual bird for the day – I don’t think I have ever had a mid-winter manx shearwater before. They are very common in the summer of course, but at this time of year they should all be off the coast of Brazil.

Sadly no chance of a picture of a flyby red-necked grebe at 400 meters, but a more obliging female stonechat at Fife Ness in lovely light this morning

Posted January 20, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 16th   Leave a comment

It was only after I had crossed Balcomie Beach this morning that I noticed how quiet it was. Only a few redshanks and oystercatchers. All the other waders were absent. It was mid tide and they weren’t at any obvious early roost points either. I was distracted by finding an adult Mediterranean gull in amongst the black-headed gulls: its more bandit mask head pattern the only thing really giving it away. The sea from Fife Ness was also quiet – very few auks and red-throated divers, no gannets or fulmars. The long-tailed ducks are still in good numbers. Twenty chasing each other continuously as they pair up. There was a greenshank on the rocky shore at Kilminning. The habitat there is very similar to the rocky shore they use at Fairmont (flat rocks, big rock pools and a fair number of freshwater pools by the burn outflow).

How to pick out an adult winter Mediterranean gull out amongst black-headed gulls: a blackish half mask instead of headphones. Balcomie Beach at 11 this morning.

Yesterday at Elie, Kilconquhar and  Colinsborough and today up at Lochty and Carnbee it was again boom and bust for small birds as I mapped the fields for corn buntings. I only had three large flocks of chaffinches and some single skylarks in 14km of fields yesterday. But today, after a tip off yesterday, I saw a big group of corn buntings (75+) in the cow fields of Lochty farm, a kilometer north of Carnbee. There was probably the same number of yellowhammers there too. I am quite surprised to find them up there. It is at the edge of the summer range and the habitat is all rough pasture. It is very scuffed up pasture though, with mob grazing making lots of small bare and muddy areas. Last year a similar, but even more highly grazed, and mostly bare earth field at Boghall Farm was very popular with corn buntings too.

Yellowhammer (John Anderson)

Posted January 16, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 13th   Leave a comment

Elie and Earlsferry are like another country to me – they are not part of my local patch and just that little bit too far for a cycle ride and then birding. It’s a shame because there is some stunning scenery and good bird habitats in the woods and shore around Shell Bay and the headlands. I was there this morning mapping the fields at the extreme west of the corn buntings’ range. Although I have been to Shell Bay a few times, today was the first time in 20 years of being in Crail that I climbed up Kincraig Hill. It is a good walk, through normal Fife fields (although on a steep slope), and then suddenly coming to the cliff edge with the whole Firth of Forth in front of you, and a wild sea (at least today) below. An adult peregrine flew by as I reached the top. I looked down on it briefly then it caught the updraught and gained double the height of the cliff in just a few seconds. Cliffs and sea need peregrines to complete them. On the way up, on the edge of a kale field, was a large mixed flock of finches and yellowhammers. There were over 20 bramblings, 50 or so chaffinches, lots of linnets and at least a few twite. It is always encouraging to encounter a good winter flock of finches, buntings or sparrows, but as I have tramped all of the fields in east Fife over the last month, I have found that these big flocks are not that common. Not that uncommon either, but many fields are strangely empty, so there is a real boom and bust to my mapping. It’s a shame the bramblings were off patch so I couldn’t add them to the patch year list. Last autumn there was a good number of bramblings that came in around Crail but none stayed locally past November.

Linnet – the commonest small bird on Fife farmland

Posted January 13, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 9th   Leave a comment

Another 32 km through muddy farmland looking for corn buntings this morning and yesterday. They are very clumped: still flocks at Kingsbarns and along the old railway line to the north, and I found an unexpected flock of 50 in a stubble field just beside the parkland of the Balcaskie Estate (and another jay!). Perhaps not that surprising – as the corn bunting flies, this flock was only a couple of kilometers from the at least 150 corn buntings at Coal Farm between St Monans and Pittenweem. But otherwise, just flocks of yellowhammers, skylarks or chaffinches. Highlight was a female or juvenile (ringtail) hen harrier at Dunino. One was seen just 30 minutes before, and 2.5 km away beside Boarhills Kirk so I should think it is just one, wide ranging bird. Probably the same one I had at Boghall before Christmas and that has been seen a few times in the East Neuk this winter. The habitat in the East Neuk could happily support ten hen harriers – there are lots of small birds and mammals (ask the buzzards, sparrowhawks and kestrels). I wish they weren’t illegally persecuted.

Female hen harrier – half hawk, half owl (John Anderson)

Posted January 9, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 7th   Leave a comment

The cold weather has continued, but with a couple of days of contrast. Yesterday dull and stormy, and today, much brighter and clearer. It felt fairly raw on Balcomie Beach yesterday. The sanderling were roosting on the beach at mid-tide in a compact flock. There will be a trade-off: when running around looking for food loses more energy than can be gained. Then it is time to go to roost. A cold wind will make sitting tight in a flock a much more appealing thing to do. Not all of the sanderling were roosting – like all trade-offs, the point that they kick in is individual and context specific. Some sanderling will have run down their reserves, or will be poorer competitors and so could not afford to stop feeding. Overall there were about 60 sanderling on the beach, twenty purple sandpipers (perhaps avoiding the big waves along the rocky shore), and some dunlin and ringed plovers. There were a lot of gulls too. Mostly black-headed and common gulls hovering into the wind and picking up washed out invertebrates, their feet dangling into the water as they kited into the wind.

Two scenes from a wild Balcomie Beach yesterday – the sanderling conserving energy by roosting and the black-headed gulls doing the same by kiting into the wind so they could feed with little effort on the invertebrates being washed out by the tide

Today was quieter, with beautiful late afternoon sunlight. I spent the last hour of daylight at Balcomie. The beach was already deserted as all the waders had gone for an early roost again, except for the redshanks. Redshanks, for some reason, don’t tend to put on much in the way of fat reserves in the winter and so keep feeding all day and often all night when conditions are harsh. I saw a red-breasted merganser at Fife Ness making a creditable 91 for the year list after the first week of 2022. Through the week I added some easy ones: ringed plover, common scoter, gannet and song thrush, plus, not to be taken for granted yet, a group of four ravens flying over Coal Farm at Pittenweem on the 5th. Ravens have now been early birds on the year list for the last three years reflecting their colonization of the East Neuk. As long as they are left alone they should be here to stay. Another corvid (not covid) – the jay – is also becoming more common. I had my third this year (and my 4th in a month) squawking away in the wood at Dunino Church today. It is becoming too much of a coincidence: I think we have a few more jays around at the moment.

One of the highlights of my week was a male kestrel hunting over the Crail to Anstruther road at Caiplie. It was there in the morning and then still there at lunchtime when I came back to Crail. What made it special was the fact the kestrel was hovering over the middle of the road just above the height of the cars, as it scoped the hedgerow base alongside the road. Despite cars passing beneath it so close you could have touched it if you were in an open top (not likely this chilly week), it remained hovering, absolutely motionless except for its flickering wings, resolutely concentrating on the ground beside it. The view from my car was fantastic – passing just a meter below the kestrel both times. I could see the highlights on its claws. If you were on the road that day you can’t have failed to be impressed.

Male kestrel (John Anderson)

Posted January 7, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 4th   Leave a comment

A cold day! Overnight there was a frost and this morning, with the wind chill, it was below freezing. But some sunshine, which makes a change from the very grey last December. I walked around the fields by the shore at Kilrenny Mill this morning. There are now over 50 corn buntings in the forage rape field there. I put up four common snipe from the damp grassy bank that forms the old eroded cliff face above the shore. Perhaps snipe from further inland looking for unfrozen ground today, or perhaps the birds that are always there. I usually walk along the coastal path rather than through the grass above: good snipe habitats are very wet and uncomfortable to walk through. Snipe have ridiculously long bills and they use them to probe deep into damp soil. When you handle a snipe or find the remains of one (they are quite often caught by sparrowhawks), you can feel that their bills are quite flexible at the tip. There is a central bone, but the covering and the last couple of centimeters is quite rubbery. Snipe can open and close just the tip (like a finger and thumb) and can even bend their whole bill a little. Good for grabbing and extracting worms from underground. But no good for frozen ground.

Common snipe (John Anderson). You can just see that the bill tip is more bulbous and this is the flexible bit.

Posted January 4, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 3rd   Leave a comment

You need a big stage to appreciate a peregrine. I was up at Upper Kenly – one of the highest points on the patch – and looking out over the East Neuk right round to the Aberdeenshire coast, with the North Sea and snowy Highlands in the background. A peregrine approached from the west. At first, it was just a falcon shape in the distant sky – with no point of reference for scale I had that Father Ted moment of not being sure if it was a small merlin close or a large peregrine far away. But as it came closer, the heavier wing beats and the chunky anchor shape of a female peregrine became clear. And as it came closer still, the black hood and moustachial stripe, and a blue-grey back became visible, making it an adult. I watched it from Dunino to Pitmilly. A transit of a minute – the peregrine not visibly hurrying. I lost sight of it but could still track it as the woodpigeon flocks in the fields responded to it, flying up in dense clumps to get above it. Then I picked the peregrine up again in the middle of a flock splitting rapidly into two. It was in full attack mode, gaining height and then power diving, wings beating strongly after a feral pigeon that was separated from one of the main groups. It swooped up behind it but missed. A pigeon may not be able to out accelerate a peregrine, but they are more maneuverable. The peregrine was back round in a second and aimed at a second pigeon. It seemed to have already lost heart and began pacing the pigeons rather than chasing. And then it was gliding and slow flapping again. Heading off towards Kingsbarns where it could regain the element of surprise.

Peregrine (John Anderson)

Posted January 3, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 2nd   Leave a comment

I saw two jays today. One at the secret bunker woods and a second up at the small oak wood at Hurlmakin (a kilometer north of Carnbee). Some years jays are very hard to find around Crail (few woods and even fewer oak trees). But I saw a jay at Hurlmakin in June, and the Secret Bunker Woods used to be my go-to place on Jan 1st to find a jay. They seem to be back, and hopefully they will be breeding as well. I picked up some other missing species from my Jan 1st bird list: a great spotted woodpecker and a redwing with the second jay, some grey partridges calling at Ovenstone, a flock of meadow pipits over one of the stubble fields I was mapping today. But I still haven’t seen a song thrush or a collared dove this year.

Great spotted woodpecker (John Anderson)

Posted January 2, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

Jan 1st   Leave a comment

January 1st and a new year, and a new year list. I spent all day doing my traditional bird race to see how many species I can see on the local patch. Today it was 76 – the record is 85, and last year it was 84. So not so good today. The reason? Not lack of effort – I was out 30 minutes before there was any hint of light, and kept going until dusk, covering Boarhills, Kingsbarns, Kippo, Carnbee, Denburn, Fife Ness, Kilminning and many places in between. The weather was to blame I think. Windy, very mild (thirteen degrees) and barely light until 11 this morning. Most birds spent the day roosting. I have never had such a slow start to the day, with only 25 species in the first hour. I got lucky with some species: a great northern diver and a goosander on the sea at Kenly, a water rail at the pond at Boarhills. But this didn’t compensate for the easy birds I missed: song thrush, meadow pipit and collared dove being bizarrely elusive. The first species of the day was a robin singing at 7:30 from a distant Crail garden as I headed off to Boarhills for my usual start. The last species was golden plover, flying in to Sauchope to roost after sunset, as I scanned the airfield in vain for another of today’s missing but usually easy species – grey partridges. I expect they will all pop up tomorrow. As always it is a very positive start to the year. Appreciating the commonplace properly again, and really looking hard at everything.

No. 43 for the day – a grey wagtail on the farmhouse roof at Kenly, at 11:10 when the sun finally came out
Nos. 70 and 71. Sanderling and a three purple sandpiper at Balcomie at 13:30

Posted January 1, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

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