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October 17th   Leave a comment

Long-tailed tit

There has been a flock of long-tailed tits foraging along the trees of Marketgate off and on for the last week. This morning they were crossing the road from Roome Bay Avenue into Denburn as I walked to get my lift to work. You can’t miss them if they come through your bit of Crail – they make thin “zee zee zee” contact calls constantly – and follow each other from tree to tree in broken lines. They are quite tiny with ridiculously long tails. They are very sociable and stay very close together. They even roost closely together. I have only seen photos of this: they are very cute at the best of times but a pink bundle of them huddled side by side on the same branch must be irresistible. Long-tailed tits are not always in residence in Crail but we had a good flock last winter as well.


Posted October 17, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 16th   Leave a comment

There was a huge influx of thrushes today. The sky was full of dark specks that turned into redwings. Big flocks over passing over the fields that would normally be starlings turned into blackbirds as they came closer. There were thousands of redwings around Fife Ness and a few ring ouzels reported from Kilminning. The wind is back to a south westerly so the big arrival doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of the weather, but there is almost no wind over Scandinavia and further south on the continent so perhaps the departure conditions last night were perfect.

One of the many redwings that have been coming through Crail since last Thursday, with a huge passage today

Posted October 16, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 15th   Leave a comment

I spent a couple of hours first thing out at Balcomie Farm looking for the little bunting. There are good mixed flocks at Balcomie – yellowhammers, reed buntings, tree and house sparrows, chaffinches, greenfinches, linnets and the odd dunnock and corn bunting – feeding out in the stubble fields. I checked a lot of buntings and sparrows. Like the chiffchaffs of the weekend, looking at every individual very critically is a great way to learn the details of a common species: I know juvenile reed buntings and yellowhammers a lot better now. It was good fun even if I didn’t refind the little bunting. I like it when there are birds everywhere and when you have finished checking them you can start again because everything has changed. And there was also the redstart still in the sycamores, flocks of pink-footed geese going over and a couple of redpolls to add extra interest.

A juvenile reed bunting

Posted October 15, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 14th   Leave a comment

I returned to Balcomie Farm this morning to look for my strange calling chiffchaff. Again it was a parade of ordinary looking and calling chiffchaffs and the female redstart. At least the weather was much better than the day before. I got distracted by the yellowhammers and reed buntings heading out from the farm into the stubble and spotted an unusually small looking reed bunting among them. Intrigued I stalked it down the stone wall that heads down towards the Balcomie golf course. It was a bit frustrating because it kept on moving away down the wall, but every view I got of this smaller bunting pointed to a little bunting – a fairly rare bird, a first for the Crail list and the first one I have ever seen. It is one of those species that after 40 years or so of birding I really should have seen, but there are always a few by chance that elude you. I have been looking for a little bunting a long time. It finally popped up onto the top of the wall and showed a crucial thick black stripe on both sides of its crown, a reddish orange face and a nice white eyering – it looked like a reed bunting in bad makeup, heavy on the eyebrow pencil and heavy on the fake tan. It then disappeared and I spent more frustrating minutes trying to resight it a bit closer: this was my first little bunting and I was feeling a little short of confidence after the fuss I made about the chiffchaff yesterday so I wanted to make doubly sure. But the bunting flock eventually headed off out of sight to the other side of the stubble field or the golf course. I decided not to call it in until I or someone else refound it, although I mentioned it to John and another photographer who had come down to photograph the redstart. Later in the afternoon it was photographed well, up at the ruined cottage, and John confirmed the identification. Number 227 for the Crail list and 2434 on my world list. That’s three new Crail birds this autumn so that officially makes it a good autumn for me, despite the westerlies.

The common redstart at Balcomie farm cottages today and yesterday.

I came back down to Balcomie as fast as I could after I heard about the photo and searched for another hour but the buntings were scarce again. Another one to look for again tomorrow. I should probably camp out at Balcomie Farm. There are worse places – this afternoon as the sun finally came out it was full of skylarks, starlings and linnets in the stubble fields, flocks of both barnacle and pink-footed geese going over, and the redstart still in residence. During the day as I searched for the little bunting I found lots of redpolls, some bramblings, a blackcap, large flocks of tree sparrows, a great spotted woodpecker and a mistle thrush. All nice birds to see on any ordinary day around Crail. The redpolls were everywhere this morning flying over in small flocks with even one bird first thing over my garden. Elsewhere redpolls are very common but they a good bird for Crail, only really reliably turning up in October as the redwings and siskins come in.

Common redpoll – they have a very distinctive flight call as they fly over at this time of year “chicky-chicky-dweeeee”. A good job because few actually stay any length of time around Crail and I hardly ever see them perched.

I spent some time at Kiliminning. There were a couple of yellow-browed warblers at the top, mostly around the first sharp bend near the entrance. They were hard to watch, constantly moving from tree to tree, although at one point one individual was chasing the other. I heard another yellow-browed warbler at the bottom of Kilminning and a single twite flew over making its creaky bedspring call. There were a couple of treecreepers feeding in the treetops with the warblers, with one looking very exotic – like a South American woodcreeper in a bromeliad – as it fossicked among hanging brown clusters of ash keys.

A yellow-browed warbler – usually the star but a bit neglected today. Still lovely birds to find – I am up to about 8 different individuals since last Thursday

Posted October 14, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 13th   Leave a comment

It was a rainy day and birding was very damp. I had to go out though: there must be more out there to find with the fall yesterday. Most of the thrushes have moved on though. There were only a handful of redwings at Kilminning first thing. The blackbirds were back as the commonest thrush and the ring ouzels were gone. I heard one or two yellow-browed warblers at the top of Kilminning, and another down at the bottom. But it was hard to find anything in the persistent light rain that soon made my binoculars of little use. Balcomie was more rewarding. I was watching some chiffchaffs when I heard an unfamiliar repeated “see-uuu” call from the sycamores behind the farm cottages. The call was totally different from a chiffchaff call: loud and with a clear down slur, and quite different from any of the Phylloscopus warbler calls I know well (including willow warbler, greenish and Siberian chiffchaff). I soon located the bird and was disappointed to see it was coming from one of the chiffchaffs. It was a bit dull for a chiffchaff but then everything looked dull this morning. It was only after about thirty seconds of it calling that it occurred to me that I had heard this call before although only on my “Eastern Vagrants” call CD – an exotic collection of almost all the species you might dream off turning up (but mostly never will) on an east wind. The bird had disappeared so I checked my calls and found it under the title “Eastern chiffchaff” A perfect match. I tried a bit of playback but no response from any of the chiffchaffs including a few that were calling as normal with their upslurred “hoo-eet” call. I tried to relocate the calling bird and I did find a female redstart and another yellow-browed warbler for my pains, both that were keeping well in the canopy and I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been searching so hard. But the “mystery” bird did not call again and neither did any of the other chiffchaffs after the calling bout that attracted my attention initially. The rain was becoming more persistent and I had to leave to pick up my family from the airport.

Later I browsed xeno-canto (the web site that has many recordings of most species globally) and confirmed the call I was hearing was a perfect match for Eastern chiffchaff, but what I didn’t realise until then, that this is an alternative name for Mountain or Caucasian chiffchaff. A potential first for Britain and one of the more unlikely ones, being a relatively short distance migrant. I had to go out again to look for it, even though it was still raining with the haar coming in. Balcomie was much as I had left it – I checked five or more chiffchaffs feeding in the same area very carefully but none showed any of the plumage characteristics of a Mountain chiffchaff and none called at all. I learnt a lot about chiffchaff plumage and structure checking every bird from bill to tail tip. The yellow-browed warbler was still there but relegated to a distraction rather than the star. Being in one place for an hour I was able to note that it called once about every ten minutes and was only visible in total for about a couple of minutes: a good lesson in how easy they are to overlook and this one was more or less in the same few sycamores twenty meters in front of me the whole time!

I got soaked again but was actually quite relieved and happy – refinding such a difficult bird to identify on my own would not convince anybody, least of all me. If the strange chiffchaff really is around, better found with a few others and when photos and recordings can be made in the better conditions forecast for tomorrow. The most likely thing is that some common chiffchaffs occasionally make all sorts of calls in the same way that plumage aberrations turn up. But all very exciting and I have learnt a lot about all the characters that make up chiffchaff identification today. Roll on tomorrow.

A common chiffchaff

Posted October 13, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 12th   Leave a comment

The winds became more southerly overnight but there was heavy rain just after dark and during the early part of the night. Great conditions for a fall of migrants. Sure enough, at first light at Kilminning there were literally hundreds of redwings flying up from the trees and the ground, and there were flocks passing all morning, some still coming in from the sea. There were many blackbirds and song thrushes as well, with a few fieldfares, and lots of bramblings going over. But the real thrush highlight were the ring ouzels. I saw at least three this morning, starting off with a young female in the rowan at the entrance to Kilminning, by the go-kart sign. It helpfully was sitting in the middle of the road as I drove in before retreating to the rowan tree. It is full of berries and on the sheltered side of Kilminning – the wind has remained strong all day making it hard to locate birds, and making it hard for the birds to find sheltered spots. It was really instructive to see this bird – obviously a ring ouzel when I first saw it out in the open, and because it gave the pebbles struck together chacking call that is so distinctive – but then pretty much like a blackbird when it was less obviously on display in the middle of the rowan. It made me realise I could easily have overlooked a couple among the blackbirds yesterday. The moral is – on easterly stormy winds – double check every sooty billed blackbird for a first winter female ring ouzel. A much more obvious male joined the first bird a bit later, with a clear, large white breast band, and I saw a third bird, another obvious male on the golf course out at Craighead. I suspect there are a few ring ouzels feeding away in Crail gardens right now being overlooked as blackbirds.

How to spot a first winter female ring ouzel when it is doing its best to look like a blackbird and be overlooked

The Patch at Fife Ness had at least two yellow-browed warblers – two were calling at the same time from different areas, and I suspect there was a third there as well. There was a pied flycatcher – the first of the autumn – happily catching insects in the sycamore canopy in the more sheltered sycamores with the yellow-brows. I had a frustrating brief view of the tail end of a greyish bird with white tail tips disappearing into a bramble – probably a barred warbler – but just not quite good enough view to be sure. I couldn’t tempt it out with playback or refind it, but that means little with super skulking barred warblers. There was also a chiff-chaff and a female blackcap that I didn’t see yesterday suggesting that these were new in migrants – I found almost nothing in the Patch yesterday except redwings.

Sea watching at Fife Ness was exciting – strong winds and gannets like albatrosses soaring by at close range, auks shooting by like cannon balls. The highlight was picking up thrushes and flocks of starling far out and watching them come in from the sea. There were a few red-throated divers, wigeon, common scoter and velvet scoter passing.

The rain has now set in for the rest of the day and probably through tomorrow. This will keep the current migrants here and may bring some more down, although I suspect we won’t be able to find them in such poor conditions until it clears up a bit.

Posted October 12, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

October 11th   Leave a comment

There were easterly winds all day yesterday and they became quite strong overnight. There was a haar first thing but still with a strong south-easterly wind. A change in the weather at last and although it has made a murky and damp day today, it has brought some birds in at last. I found a yellow-browed warbler at the top of Kilminning almost immediately I arrived – I was trying to track down a calling chiff-chaff and then picked up the yellow-brow that was with it. Quite a dull bird and I thought of Hume’s Warbler – the even more eastern, rarer version of a yellow-brow. It had dark legs and a subdued back pattern consistent with Humes, although two clear wing bars and the yellow bill base of a yellow-browed almost certainly made it wishful thinking. I waited for it to call to clinch it but it remained silent. Great views though and I am glad to have caught up with one at last this year – an autumn without a yellow-browed warbler in Crail is unthinkable. I heard another one calling a bit later from the garden of the ruined cottage at Balcomie and also met a birder who had seen one at Craighead. So there are a few about at last.

Yellow-browed warbler – here at last

There were other birds that had been brought in. Probably 20 or so bramblings around Kilminning (the first of the winter), 50 or so redwings and lots of blackbirds and song thrushes. The Patch at Fife Ness had goldcrests and redwings but I didn’t find anything else of note. The haar cleared a bit by late morning so I sat at Fife Ness for a few minutes before the rain set in. A great northern diver flew by as close as they ever get, just along the edge of the rocks. When you see them close up you realise what a monster they are – as big as a cormorant, and with their huge flappy feet, making them seem even bigger.

Posted October 11, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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