Archive for April 2022

April 30th   Leave a comment

There has been a fair bit of visible migration over the last two days. Yesterday there were flocks of common gulls passing steadily north and I had a flock of 60-70 redshank at Sauchope. The resident redshanks have almost all gone, and this flock was a classic migrant flock, resting on the rocks, calling softly to each other. Occasionally they would fly up in a tight group and circle round calling more intensely before landing back on the rocks and roosting again. They were getting up group enthusiasm for departure north. A couple of my local wintering colour-ringed redshanks have turned up breeding in Iceland and I suspect this flock was on its way there. Even though we have lots of wintering redshanks around Crail, at this time of year, the ones we see are most likely to be long distance migrants – some will have come from sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps as far as Angola.

A migrant flock of redshanks at Sauchope yesterday

Today it was barn swallows. Small flocks moving down the coast out at sea or along the beach – most, oddly, going south. The wind went round to the west today after a long run of easterlies so perhaps there was a bit of compensation going on. There was a good passage of red-throated divers too, but they were going in the expected direction. One or two every five minutes, with occasional flocks, one of more than 10 past Crail at lunchtime. There were more wheatears, whitethroats, sedge warblers, blackcaps and willow warblers around today. The first spotted flycatcher of the year turned up at Lower Kilminning. They seem to come on a westerly in the spring, so probably a Scottish bird with not much further to go. There were several whimbrels at Balcomie and two of the first late spring passage dunlins at Fife Ness. The high Arctic waders, such as dunlin, turnstone, sanderling, knot and bar-tailed godwit, will now be passing for the next 6 weeks.  

Spotted flycatcher at Kilminning

Posted April 30, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 27th   Leave a comment

When I got up this morning, the first message that I saw was that there were some barnacle geese passing Fife Ness. I made a cup of tea and then looked optimistically out of my son’s bedroom window (where my sea watching telescope is and my son was not thankfully this morning). Within a minute I heard a high pitched yappy honk and watched a flock of 25 barnacle geese flying over the garden at rooftop height. It’s great when it is that easy. Barnacle geese over or from the garden is not that unusual – but usually in September. They were probably off to Spitsbergen – hopefully not too fast because I should think the snow hasn’t melted up there yet. Down at Fife Ness itself a little bit later, no more geese, but lots of sandwich terns passing, finishing their journey rather than starting it. On Balcomie Beach, there were at least three white wagtails and a wheatear on the rocky beach at the northern end, but best of all, a couple of whimbrels lounging on the mud. They were fairly laid back – I imagine birds from some busy beach in South Africa or Namibia where they get used to lots of people. Or maybe they were just tired after their last four thousand kilometer flight. Whimbrels are in my top five list of best birds. When they did eventually get fed up with the people on the beach, they did their brilliant seven whistles to say goodbye and headed off north.

The two whimbrel on Balcomie Beach this morning – probably wondering where the fiddler crabs have got to

Posted April 27, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 26th   Leave a comment

More rain overnight and continuing easterlies, but despite, this morning was very quiet at Kilminning and Balcomie. Literally. Perhaps it was a bit cold for things to sing early: a single burst of willow warbler and the first definite common whitethroat of the year, singing briefly from a bramble at Balcomie Cottages. It was nice to see a whitethroat again, especially after a winter writing and thinking about them in the context of one of my students finishing their PhD research on whitethroat migration. Their study was based in Nigeria, but we tagged some birds and followed them over the Sahara into central and north-eastern Europe in April. After just four months they were already heading back to Africa, with a week or two stopping along the way close to the Mediterranean. We found that whitethroats then spend September just on the southern edge of the Sahara – which should be at its greenest after the summer rainy season – before heading back to spend the rest of the winter where we caught them in central Nigeria. Excluding their migratory stops, whitethroats are a second to third home species – their first the breeding ground (a small bush somewhere in Europe), the second close to the Sahara (a small bush somewhere in the Sahel), and the third in central West Africa (a small bush – you get the idea – somewhere in Nigeria). They move south as the dry season kicks in and the edge of the Sahara becomes less suitable (although the best birds, who found the best bushes, might stay in their second northerly bush home all the winter). In dryer, harsher African winters then more whitethroats will move to a third home, in wet winters very few might make it to Nigeria. My “Scottish” whitethroat this morning will have been further west in Africa – perhaps Senegal or Mali – just two or three weeks ago. Trading a temperature of 42 degrees for a cool 8 degrees: it probably is a bit of a relief to get back to their first home, small bush in temperate Scotland.

Common whitethroat (John Anderson)

Posted April 26, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 25th   Leave a comment

There was a little rain overnight so I went out first thing this morning hoping that some migrants had been brought down. I saw my first house martin with some swallows over the airfield, and then had my first sedge warbler singing at Lower Kilminning. There were some new willow warblers and chiffchaffs in as well I think. But still nothing very unusual. The spring is now turning out to be fairly typical in arrival times – the colder weather slowing things down to make the birds arrive at their “usual” times rather than early as has been the case in a few recent years. I may have heard a common whitethroat at Upper Kilminning, and certainly they should be back in the next couple of days too.

Sedge warbler (John Anderson) – they are back and singing. You can hear them most easily in the bramble patches, just on the edge of the town, at either end of Crail on the main road. They have a continuous scratchy and variable warble, chuntering along noisily, usually from cover but every so often they sing in the open, or do a little song flight

Posted April 25, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 24th   Leave a comment

Today was replay of yesterday. Still a strong north-easterly, and a steady stream of the local seabirds close in at Fife Ness. There was some migration. More manx shearwaters today: about one every 10 minutes. Some small flocks of turnstones and purple sandpipers. There was an interesting carrion crow on the rocks at Balcomie. Half a hooded crow – some pale grey plumage in the right places, but not quite enough to make a full hoodie. Hooded crows and carrion crows have been considered the same species, and two separate species. They hybridise along a slender line through the middle of Scotland, and pure hooded crows are very rare on this side. But some of their genes have made it over here.

The carrion crow/hooded crow hybrid at Balcomie this morning. There was one like this on the shore here in November 2020 – it is probably the same bird

Posted April 24, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 23rd   Leave a comment

It was a beautiful day today but somewhat spoiled by the wind. A strong north-easterly makes the sea interesting and it was impressive watching the gannets, kittiwakes and fulmars shearwatering past Fife Ness in the wave troughs this morning – but it is hard to see really what is going on when your eyes won’t stop watering. I managed half an hour at Fife Ness – a lot of close guillemots and razorbills and a single manx shearwater being the highlights – before I sought some shelter in The Patch. A different world in the lee of the gorse bushes – warm, still and very spring like. But only a couple of willow warblers. Kilminning was the same. There seems to have been another pause in migration for the last few days except for the influx of white wagtails. I had a flock of 5 very handsome grey, black and white birds on the golf course at Balcomie, and a few more on the beach with four northern wheatears and a whimbrel. All good migrants, but the commoner migrants are not here in the numbers I might expect by now – sand martins are conspicuous by their absence and barn swallows disappeared yesterday and today. The winds might have potential to bring in some rarities if we had some rain to bring them down, but none is forecast for quite while.

As I cycle around Crail mapping the corn buntings I come across grey partridges often. They are all in pairs now and will be getting ready to breed. It is hard to estimate their density because they are hard to detect. I must miss many more than I see, and usually it is the ones that flush close to me that I notice. But making a rough minimum guess – maybe 3-4 pairs per square kilometer. This is good, although densities in areas intensively managed for grey partridges can be three times greater.

Grey partridge pair (John Anderson)

Posted April 23, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 19th   Leave a comment

There were some white wagtails down on the beach at Kilrenny Mill today. Every year they pass through on their way to Iceland or Scandinavia from wintering in sub-Saharan Africa. Just as exciting as yellow wagtails, but because white wagtails get lost among our resident pied wagtails, and are a little bit tricky to identify, they don’t get the same attention. Mid-April is the best time to see them. Best thing to look for is the pale grey back contrasting with the black crown, rather than a black or dark greyish back merging indistinctly with the crown. A white wagtail’s call is more melodious, less di-syllabic than a pied – but that might be pushing it as a reliable character. It did draw my attention to my first one this morning among the pieds at Kilrenny. There was a greenshank calling more obviously in the background – another sub-Saharan migrant on its way to northern Europe.

White wagtail (John Anderson)
Pied wagtail (John Anderson)

Posted April 19, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 17th   Leave a comment

This weekend has been more of the same, with more swallows, wheatears, willow warblers, chiff-chaffs and blackcaps in (two singing in Denburn yesterday), and at last my first sandwich terns past Balcomie Beach this lunchtime. I missed the early first pulse of sandwich terns in late March. There were redwings and fieldfares passing through Kilminning as well. I had my first swallows singing around the airfield, as they now become ubiquitous for the summer. There was a tree sparrow singing at Upper Kilminning from the middle of a bramble. Initially I was puzzled. I could hear typical tree sparrow chipping but interspersed with quite a Sylvia like warble. I think this might be the first time I have really heard a tree sparrow singing well because I have never noticed how unsparrowlike it is before. I don’t usually expect tree sparrows in spring at Upper Kilminning, but they seem to move territories a lot between years. This is quite unusual, birds usually stick with the same territories for life.

The tuneful, singing tree sparrow at Upper Kilminning this morning

The highlight of the weekend was a good sighting of an otter at Balcomie today. One was reported swimming past the beach at midday and I cycled down from Kilminning straight away to try my luck. I hardly ever see otters around Crail even though they have been becoming more common in the last few years. An otter is now seen every few months at Fife Ness but I always miss them. But not today. I staked out the shore at Stinky Pool and after about 20 minutes finally spotted the head of an otter as it swam along the shore back towards Balcomie Beach. I realized why I keep missing them. It dived straight away, and then it was just pure luck whether I was looking in the right place as it surfaced for a few seconds before diving again. It was only visible for about 10% of the time – it was mostly underwater and moving fast so when it was close it very hard to keep track off. It was only more obvious when it swam across the bay at Balcomie Beach, its dark shape clear in the calmer water when I could easily scan a much larger area at the same time. At one point when it was closer in and less conspicuous, some herring gulls began squawking and flying above it, or perching on nearby rocks, presumably hoping to scavenge some fish. They helped me relocate the otter today, but then there are always herring gulls making a fuss at Fife Ness so I am not sure how helpful it is when I don’t know already there is an otter about. Anyway, it is always great to see an otter, and better still it was around and about, doing its thing despite lots of people and dogs nearby on the golf course, coastal path and Balcomie Beach. The upward trend in numbers of otter sightings in the East Neuk is very encouraging, perhaps one day they will be as easy to see down at Balcomie as the seals.

An otter out in the waves (John Anderson)

Posted April 17, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 15th   Leave a comment

There were more migrants in today. I heard willow warblers singing from the Secret Bunker woods this morning, more chiff-chaffs, and there were a couple of northern wheatears up near the old railway line by Kippo Farm, where I often see passage wheatears. There were more swallows over the sheep fields at West Newhall Farm. The swallows are not everywhere yet, but they will be by Monday.

Migrant northen wheatear this morning – perhaps on its way to Shetland or Iceland

Posted April 15, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 14th   Leave a comment

There was a sudden pulse of migrants arriving today. I had my first Crail blackcap tuning up from the trees by the entrance to Sypsies; my first Crail swallow at Lochton Farm and a male yellow wagtail back at Oldbarns. There were some willow warblers reported from Anstruther and I also had a snipe in a wet pasture that was almost certainly another migrant. There will be more migrants in tomorrow, and the forecast for this weekend and next weekend looks great with some interesting southerlies and then easterlies.

Newly arrived male blackcap (John Anderson)

Posted April 14, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 13th   Leave a comment

The weather has finally warmed up a bit after a week of cold slowing everything down. There are lots of migrants on the move at last. The May had a good spring day, there were wheatears and a grasshopper warbler reported around Crail today, and I had two barn swallows over the harbour at St Andrews this morning. But nothing at Lower Kilminning at midday. The newly planted trees are looking good though, with leaves coming out everywhere. The wet weather of the last two weeks (a wet April’s worth of rain has already fallen this month) was just what was needed to give the trees a good start.

Freshly in today – a male northern wheatear at Fife Ness (John Anderson)

Posted April 13, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 10th   Leave a comment

The weekend resolutely failed to warm up in terms of temperature or the arrival of summer migrants, although the things are closely linked of course. I did have my first whimbrel of the summer roosting at Fife Ness among some curlews before taking off and heading north with its distinctive whistles. But elsewhere I didn’t see any swallows, wheatears or sandwich terns, all of which I might expect by now. Balcomie Beach and the adjacent rocks was exceptionally quiet – only a few redshanks. There is always a quiet period wader wise in April before we get the high Arctic species through on passage in May. There was some migration going on this weekend though. There was a steady passage of red-throated divers going north this morning – I counted 17 past Fife Ness in 30 minutes. Yesterday it was small flocks of common gulls going north all day along the coast. And throughout the weekend there were good flocks of pink-footed geese going north over Crail.

One of the many red-throated divers heading back north past Fife Ness this weekend (John Anderson)

Posted April 10, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 9th   Leave a comment

I had a major patch rarity today, but one that won’t impress anybody that doesn’t have the East Neuk as their local patch. Two red-legged partridges in the parsnip field at Hillhead Farm, by Kenly Water. My last, and only one, on the Crail patch was one crossing the road at Crail airfield back in 2005. In much of England and eastern Scotland (but not in Fife) they are quite common and they are frequently released by shooting estates just like pheasants. Where I grew up in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire red-legged partridges were the commonest partridge (even though the area was still a stronghold or grey partridges). Here I hear about occasional pairs, particularly up at Lower Kenly, and I spent a lot of time looking for them last summer there while I surveyed for corn buntings. Red-legged partridges are an introduced species – the farmer up at Kenly refers to them as “French Partridges” – their other name to reflect this. And whole populations can suddenly appear if an estate decides to raise and release them for shooting. Generally, landowners are now discouraged from releasing red-legged partridges where there are still good populations of grey partridges – our native species of partridge and a species which has disappeared from many parts of the UK over the last 70 years because of agricultural intensification. We still have some very high densities of grey partridge around Crail – like corn buntings, one of our local flagship species that are bucking the trend elsewhere in the UK. Considering how few red-legged partridges there are in the East Neuk (in the Fife Bird Atlas they were only recorded around Kenly in very small numbers), I don’t think anyone is releasing them (although grey partridges are released at Boghall Farm in some years). So I probably have just 1 or 2 pairs of red-legged partridges on the Crail patch, and they must be usually very inconspicuous considering how much ground I cover and how much time I spend scanning the fields when I am surveying for corn buntings. It was nice to see them again today – a bird of my boyhood birding, when their stripey heads poking up from a ploughed field furrow in early May always got the heart racing for a migrant dotterel, before reality set in.

The red-legged partridge at Hillhead Farm this morning, making a swift exit

At Boghall Farm this morning, in the usual sheep field adjacent to red sands, there were 70 or more twite. The largest flock I have seen this winter – they have moved down from fields in the middle of Boghall Farm where I can’t seem them well for counting down to the open field by the shore (and often on the shore) where they are easily visible. They did this last year as well. The sheep in the field seem to make it more attractive for twite. There were a lot of corn buntings foraging on the ground among the sheep as well (20-30 maybe?). Livestock late winter, in a heavily (overgrazed) field with lots of bare soil seem to be very attractive for finches and buntings.

Three of the 70+ twite at Boghall this morning taking some time off to sunbath and preen on the shore

Posted April 9, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 6th   Leave a comment

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but it is a start. Yesterday I saw my first barn swallow of the year flycatching at the Castle Course by the trees at Brownhills – a favourite spot for swallows in poor weather. It was cool and damp and I can’t think that this early bird was enjoying the conditions. The weather is improving so there will be a lot more back this weekend.

Barn swallow (John Anderson)

Posted April 6, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 3rd   Leave a comment

I was off patch again this morning at Kincraig Hill overlooking the woods at Shell Bay and then at Kilconquhar Loch. The field at Kincraig that had brassicas in it over the winter and that was full of finches and buntings, has now been cleared and was being harrowed as I sat beside it. Surprisingly, the finches and buntings were still there, feeding on the turned over soil. Hundreds of linnets, yellowhammers and chaffinches, with a few twite, brambling, reed bunting and corn bunting mixed in with them. The twite impossible to count and only noticeable because of a few calls heard amongst the linnets as they flew up in response to the harrowing. The bramblings – at least 5, probably more – much more obvious as their bright orange, black and white near summer plumage contrasted against the uniform dark brown of the bare soil. One corn bunting was singing at the field edge – this is right at the western end of their breeding range so will be one to look for especially next month when we start mapping the territories for 2022. At Kilconquhar it was nice to see a few great crested grebes. They are very rare on the Crail patch needing a good size loch to breed on. They do turn up on the sea and there are several that winter in St Andrews Bay but for some reason never offshore from there until about Elie. The great crested grebes today were looking very handsome in their summer plumage oranges and blacks, with their crests looking like a pair of black ears from behind.

Great crested grebes at Kilconquhar Loch (John Anderson)

Posted April 3, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 2nd   Leave a comment

I covered a lot of ground today: looking for early singing corn buntings and maybe a summer migrant too. I found the former, but in keeping with the chilly wind and the snow on the distant hills, no sign of any migrants. I checked out the ponds at Troustie, Ragfield, West Quarry Braes and Wormiston just in case of lurking garganeys. There were plenty of teal – 8 at West Quarry Braes, and mallards at Troustie and in the odd damp field corners. There were no ducks at all at Wormiston. The pond is over 60% infested with invasive Azolla (from tropical America) – this floating fern chokes everything out – and it looks like the tufted duck that usually breed there may have gone elsewhere. A snipe popped up from the pond at Ragfield. It looks a great wader pool and I am sure if I staked it out all year it would get some interesting visitors. At Balcomie it was high tide. There were roosting purple sandpipers, ringed plover and sanderling, but surprisingly no dunlin. I haven’t seen any there for a week now. A few red-breasted mergansers were passing today. Finally, Kilminning. No chiffchaffs and it was very quiet generally mid-afternoon.

Pair of teal (John Anderson)

Posted April 2, 2022 by wildcrail in Sightings

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