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December 10th   Leave a comment

The birth (red) and wintering (blue) sites of the black-headed gull – yellow 2BE7 – that I saw at Saucehope on the 4th November 2018

I heard back from the ringer of the other black headed gull that I saw with a colour-ring  (Yellow 2BE7) at Saucehope on the 4th of November. This bird was ringed as a chick in the Forvie Nature Reserve on the Ythan, just north of Aberdeen on the 30th May 2016, and then seen again as a juvenile there 25 days later. It hasn’t been seen since so my record confirms it is still alive and its likely wintering site. Few breed by two years of age so this bird is likely to have its first breeding season next year and it is also likely to breed at it natal colony or nearby, like the Norwegian bird that was with it has done (see November 21st entry). The Aberdeen black-headed gull has only travelled 124 kilometers as the gull flies from where it was born, but it will likely now be a Crail winter resident for the next 30 years if it gets lucky.

The colour-ringed black-headed gull at Saucehope


Posted December 10, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 9th   Leave a comment

I have been checking stubble fields this weekend, hoping to find a Lapland or a snow bunting. Saturday it was the fields around the airfield and Kilminning, and today the fields east and north of Kingsbarns. I didn’t find anything unusual but it was encouraging walking across the fields and putting up lots of reed buntings, corn buntings and yellowhammers. Probably several hundred in total across both sites, with about 50 being corn buntings. Other birds of the stubble were hundreds of linnets, woodpigeons and tens of starlings, but surprisingly few skylarks and meadow pipits. The big numbers last month have moved inland. In a small patch of flooded field by Kilminning, holding a few small pools after the rain of last week, I flushed 8 common snipe. A really good number for Crail. At Kingsbarns there was also a big flock of herring, common and black-headed gulls, rooks and jackdaws all feeding on the spilt grain among the stubble. There was a flock of tree sparrows closer to the woods by the beach car park road, dashing out to feed in the fields as well before retreating back to the safety of the trees as a dog walker or car went by. Stubble fields really are a great habitat for birds in winter.

Female reed bunting

The sea from Kingsbarns was fairly quiet. Some gulls far out, dipping down like terns to feed from the waters surface, but not kittiwakes as in the autumn. Instead they were all black-headed gulls. There were hardly any other “serious” seabirds – no auks, gannets or fulmars and only a couple of red-throated divers. I scanned the surf breaking on the rocky shore below the car park and found a few purple sandpipers among the redshanks and turnstones. It’s a reliable site for purple sandpipers but as always they were hard to see. Perfectly camouflaged as they ducked between the rocks and the waves.

Purple sandpiper

Posted December 9, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 5th   Leave a comment

The weather and short days hasn’t been very conducive to seeing birds. If it is bad weather on the weekend, that is my opportunity gone. I have been seeing a lot of roe deer though. I take them for granted but probably shouldn’t. It is fantastic to have such a large wild mammal fairly common about Crail. You don’t have to look in more than a few fields before you see one and then it is often a small herd of them. I decided to find out a bit about them and so had a look in the Handbook of Mammals of the World this evening. This multi-volume work is still in progress – when it is finished there will be a detailed article for every species of mammal in the world. Luckily deer are in Volume 2. Roe deer are split into two species – a Western and an Eastern species. They look similar and this probably reflects separation of an ancestral single species into two isolated “refugia” in southern Europe and Asia during the last ice age. Since then the two forms have spread back across all of Europe and Asia to meet at the Ural Mountains, and when they did they had probably evolved sufficiently that they were then incompatible. So speciation goes. Western roe deer are one of Europe’s commonest large mammals with a population estimated at about 9 million animals. Amazingly, nearly 3 million are killed by human hunters each year, yet the species remains widespread and common. It has been overhunted in the past but game protection laws and hunting licences have resulted in a stable population. In the past, wolves and lynxes would have been their main predator – that so many roe deer can be harvested by us without the population declining perhaps indicates how many wolves and lynxes there would have been before we got rid of them. The key to the roe deer’s success is of course its ability to thrive in man altered habitats. It most favours the open areas, scrub and light woodland that humans tend to create, and it is small enough to be able to hide in these habitats. They have particular adaptations to cope with a high tannin diet so can eat pretty much any vegetation. It is estimated that a roe deer needs 2 – 4 kg of vegetation a day. That is not that much greenery really, although on a frosty winter’s day, in competition with the rest of a group, that might be a problem. Roe deer also don’t tend to have much in the way of fat reserves so have to forage much of the day. They are active at night as well. The roe deer around Crail don’t seem to have too much of a hard time. I often see quite large groups (8 or more animals), and often they are lounging or lying on the ground rather than feeding. Another measure is how sensitive they are to disturbance, and Crail deer tend to run away at long distances – hundreds of meters. Animals that are starving take greater risks. Of course, they may feel more threatened, but I don’t think they are shot at too often around here. The greatest danger may well be being hit by cars. I do quite often see road kill roe deer, despite the fact that a freshly hit deer is a good bootful of venison and so is often quickly removed from the scene.

A Crail roe deer – this is a yearling, so born last summer

Posted December 5, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 1st   Leave a comment

There are more long-tailed ducks out at Balcomie and they were showing well this morning. After a week of wind and rain, the sea was flat calm with a diffuse grey winter light highlighting the strikingly marked males. There were about 20 long-tailed ducks in total in the bay and more came past Fife Ness later. The number of common scoters at Balcomie is also much higher than usual, with a flock of about 30 still about, although much further out than the long-tails. Both species feed on the same thing – mostly molluscs like mussels, and also crustaceans – so perhaps feeding conditions are better than usual this winter.

Male long-tailed duck

Posted December 1, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 30th   Leave a comment

I was paced by a huge flock of woodpigeons as I travelled into St Andrews this morning. They were going a little slower than the car I was in. We joined them at Fairmount and we were still passing them as we got to St Andrews. The flock of well over 1000 then began overtaking us and then it was woodpigeons all the way to Strathkinness. There are some 70 million woodpigeons in the world and they may be a pest but they make a good show when they get together.


Posted November 30, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 25th   Leave a comment

There have been some good high tide gatherings this weekend. At Balcomie on the midday high tide on Saturday there were a couple of hundred black-headed, common and herring gulls picking for seaweed fly maggots on the tide line, with the same number of redshank, turnstone, starlings and purple sandpiper doing the same a few meters away on the strand line piles of seaweed. They would all fly up every thirty seconds or so as a particularly big wave washed in before reassorting back into their wet and “dry” zones. It made for the usual exciting spectacle of birds constantly in motion and having to check and recheck them just in case there was something more unusual among them. John had a Mediterranean gull with the black-headed gulls yesterday, but it was not there today.

Left black-headed gull and right Mediterranean gull – at Balcomie on Friday. A great photo to show their differences as if they were posing for a field guide

If you have been around St Andrews first thing in the morning the last few days you will have noticed the large number of pink-footed geese heading out from the Eden estuary to feed in the East Neuk. Weeks with a full moon are always good for movements of geese as they can feed during the night. Pink-footed geese are doing well in the UK – almost all of the Greenland and Iceland population winter here. There are estimated to be about 360,000 pink-footed geese, up by 50% in the last ten years. It is good that some things are increasing, although two hundred years ago I suspect they would have been much more common.

Pink-footed geese – they are nocturnal on nights with good moonlight

I had another flock of about 15 corn buntings at Kingsbarns today, in the stubble field directly alongside the road to the beach. This year there was a really high density of singing males as you headed north along the coast from there. There may have been as many as 7 territories. And they seem to be hanging around them this winter as do the local Crail birds.

Posted November 25, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 23rd   Leave a comment

There has been a hen harrier reported hunting behind Crail for the last couple of days, particularly in the rough grass fallow field behind Bow Butts and Denburn. Look out for a thinner winged buzzard with a long tail and a white rump. The hen harrier is the species which gets a very hard time because of illegal persecution on grouse moors. They should be regulars each winter round Crail but their population is much lower in Scotland than it should be and we haven’t had a hen harrier around for a couple of years. The field behind Denburn is great at the moment with a lot of tall dead grass in it making it a good habitat for voles which harriers love. I didn’t see it myself today when I went out looking – but did enjoy a sparrowhawk, a kestrel and a couple of buzzards enjoying the “harrier” field and adjacent stubble fields. I also put up lots of skylarks and a flock of 17 corn bunting from the stubble north of Saucehope between the airfield and Pinkerton. Walking through a winter stubble field is a joy and they are great habitats for birds – I hope a few stay unploughed through the winter.

Female hen harrier similar to the one around Crail at the moment

Posted November 23, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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