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April 11th   Leave a comment

Another cold day. Some brief snow showers in the afternoon, but the morning was sunny and with only light northerly winds so it didn’t seem so wintry. There were many more sandwich terns about today – over 25 at Kingsbarns, and I had two chiffchaff and one barn swallow in my 18km. I did have my first whimbrel of the year passing along the shore north. After a winter of curlews, its more business-like, slimmer and more plover-like body shape stood out, drawing my attention to it to check its distinctive bill as it shot past. The corn buntings were singing only a little and, I think, more quietly, this morning – I thought this yesterday. As if they really want to sing but don’t want to expend too much effort when it is so cold. And again, by late morning they became invisible as the singing birds resumed feeding in the middle of the fields.

I got as far as Boghall Farm at Kingsbarns this morning and checked out the sheep fields. A small flock of eight corn buntings among the three birds territorial singing there. And the twite are still there. At least a 100 and I suspect closer to 200. There were several flocks of 30-40 in the sheep fields, the beach and the rocky shore. The twite must surely leave soon: a couple were singing on the fence. It’s not a million miles from the habitat of a Hebridean or a Highland field along the beach at Boghall…Amongst the twite, and at one point forming a compact flock on their own by the drinking troughs, were nine redpoll. There have been redpoll there for the last couple of months, but this is the first time I have seen so many, and so well. They were feeding on the ground alongside the twite and linnets. Redpolls are smaller and compact compared to both other species, but otherwise it is variation on the theme of brown streaks. A couple were showing the blush pinky red on the throat and breast of a breeding male, and many had their distinctive red foreheads (the redpoll). But not all, and on a couple the red was quite orangey, presumably young birds gaining their breeding plumage for the first time.

The redpoll flock at Boghall Farm, Kingsbarns today
For redpoll aficionados – these three birds show well why I don’t believe in splitting them into separate species

Posted April 11, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 10th   Leave a comment

Strange weather. The cold is back again with a heavy snow shower this evening. Despite this it was a beautiful day for most of it, with not much wind, and from the south or south east. The conditions were good for migrant arrivals to resume, but despite covering 30km today (now I’m corn bunting surveying I am keeping an exact track of where I go), I only had two barn swallows at Wormiston, three chiffchaffs, and five sandwich terns. I think the cold weather is extending all the way to southern Europe so the way is blocked, with migrants pausing at the Mediterranean. Next weekend might be more interesting with a wave of impatient migrants arriving as the temperatures go back to normal and the wind goes southerly again. The pink-footed geese were using the good conditions, however, with hundreds heading north over the East Neuk this morning.

More sandwich terns were about today, passing Kingsbarns and Fife Ness (JA)

Posted April 10, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 9th   1 comment

I have been worried about the cold weather freezing the pond surface for the last three nights and its effects on the frog tadpoles. But so far so good – they are growing well, have broken free of their jelly and today were snacking on pondweed in the sun in a huge shoal (or school or whatever the collective noun for tadpoles is).

Lots of tadpoles enjoying the pondweed that I curse for the rest of the year

Only a short walk around Crail this afternoon after work. But it’s always worth it. A couple of chiffchaffs calling, singing and feeding very actively in the garden above the old boating pond. A male red-breasted merganser hauled out on the rocks, looking surprisingly dumpy as it preened. And a lesser black-backed gull with the more usual herring gulls bathing at the mouth of the Brandyburn. There will be lesser black backed gulls regularly there now until September.

Lesser black-backed gull at the Brandyburn today, back for the summer – one or two pairs nest on the rooftops of Crail, the rest on the May Island

Posted April 9, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 8th   Leave a comment

The temperature went up by 10 degrees today. The tadpoles in my pond were wriggling again. But we had a westerly gale making any kind of birding not very enjoyable. I tried to survey some corn buntings but they were keeping their heads down. When scanning the early season fields I can’t help but see hares. There are one or two in almost every field at the moment which is great to see. I have been seeing a bit of mad March hare action in the last few weeks with hares chasing and boxing at each other. I saw a pair mating yesterday. A speedy affair as you might imagine.

A brown hare yesterday at Old Barns doing what it does best

Posted April 8, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 6th   Leave a comment

So much for the early spring. There has been ice on my pond the last two mornings and cold near freezing winds since Sunday. My tadpoles have hatched and can’t be enjoying the weather. They seem none the worse for wear, which is more than can be said for many of the plants that were making an early start. It will be tough for the early migrant birds too, although there was a chiffchaff singing bravely at Kilminning this morning and another sandwich tern past Sauchope.

The chiffchaff singing at Kilminning this morning – fairly well puffed out against the cold, but happy enough to be back

Posted April 6, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 3rd   Leave a comment

There were more sand martins in today. I saw a pair at Balcomie and then later a pair at Roome Bay, zipping around their occasional nesting holes there as if very keen to get started. Breeding at Roome Bay is a hit and miss affair – I think it happened successfully last year. They probably need a dry spring so that the pipes they nest in are not dripping with water. It has dried up these last two weeks following the pattern of the last few springs. If that is the case we can look forward to dry, sunny weather until June. I had my first blackcap of the year at the Patch. In a mist net, which is handy when they are not singing. There were two male blackcaps caught and ringed at the patch this morning but I didn’t hear any song at all. It might be the cold night last night. None of the corn buntings were singing this morning until about 10:30, and then only a few. Blackcaps, like chiffchaffs are occasional winter residents in Crail so its hard to pin down early arrival dates. But assuming that today’s birds were migrants (and again there was a wave of blackcap sightings in Fife today and yesterday) then these are early birds. I usually expect blackcaps to arrive in the second or third week in April. Today’s blackcaps equal my earliest spring migrant blackcaps on the 3rd April 2016. The early spring continues.

Blackcap(JA)

Posted April 3, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 2nd   Leave a comment

As I walked down Kingsbarn’s High Street this morning on my way to see if the corn buntings flocks were still there, I heard some crows making a fuss. I looked up and there was a red kite, circling over the village at barely more than treetop height. Only my second ever record, with last being a pair near Crail on June 9th 2019. Considering how widespread as a breeding bird red kites now are, it is surprising that we record so few in Fife. It does seem to be finally increasing in the county, with a handful of records already this year. The East Neuk is a perfect place for kites to breed and it can only be a matter of time before they become a Crail area resident, rather than the glamorous rarity that they are now. The kite this morning circled over Kingsbarns a bit before heading towards Cambo and Fife Ness.

Red kite over Kingsbarns this morning

I had my first barn swallows this afternoon. Two at Lower Kilminning. A lot of swallows were reported today all over Fife. The 2nd April is my second earliest arrival date (the earliest being the 29th March in 2012): the average arrival date since 2006 is the 12th of April.

Barn swallow (JA)

There are still spectacular numbers of twite at Boghall Farm, next to the beach. I counted a minimum of 90 perched together on a wire fence but there may be up to 150. There were several flocks at various times, including one of 40 just sitting on the red sands of the beach. They are very tame, and I could approach the flock on the fence to twenty meters. To see them just follow the coastal path from Kingsbarns beach carpark towards St Andrews for 1.5 km. They are in the fields by the derelict caravan.

Twite at Boghall today

Posted April 2, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

April 1st   Leave a comment

Another harbour seal today! My daughter phoned to tell me she had found a “baby seal” on harbour beach this morning. After the injured one at Balcomie on March 29th, I thought it must have just relocated. But no, a different individual, lacking the wound on its head, although otherwise the same general size and appearance. Again, a seal born last year, about a meter long. It was right at the top of the far end of the beach at the harbour. I suspect it had swum onto the sand this morning on the high tide, hauled out and had a sleep in the early morning sun. When it woke up it found the sea just a bit far out, so it was waiting out the day, snoozing, for the tide to return to it. It looked happy enough although there is always the issue of dogs and stranded seals. But it was attracting a bit of attention from people on the beach, so the word was being passed to be careful as newcomers arrived.

Harbour seal appropriately enough on harbour beach

Posted April 1, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 31st   Leave a comment

The early spring in terms of migrant birds continues. The wind started of southwest but swung easterly by mid-morning and is now north-easterly. There was enough easterly that the haar blew in at Fife Ness. Just before it did I had my first sandwich tern of the year. No calling, just a single bird flying very fast north, in very business-like migration mode. The first week in April is the usual time for them, and my two previous earliest dates were the 2nd of April.

Sandwich tern (JA)

I also had my first northern wheatears on the beach at the east end of Sauchope (by Kilminning). Three, two males and a female. They flew off into the rocky shore where they disappeared. I suspect I cycled past a few more wheatears today, lost among the rocks of the low tide shore at Balcomie. The wheatears are also my earliest ever – the 1st of April being the earliest in 2018, and most appearing in the second week of April or even much later. As yesterday with me picking up my first chiff-chaffs and them appearing all over Fife on the same day, the pattern is being repeated today with wheatears. There was some other obvious passage today – hundreds of meadow pipits along the rocky shore, a flock of 30 whooper swan over Crail late morning, and a flock of 10 greylag geese, and hundreds of pink-footed geese north over Balcomie. It’s been a good two days after the disappointment of last week, carrying my Crail year list to 119. I did a bit of seawatching from my house at lunchtime (but only close in because of the haar further out) in a bid to see a velvet scoter that often pass on early spring days like these and to take the list up to 120 before the end of March. No year list additions, but three purple sandpipers, obligingly flying above house height into the rocky shore just below my house (the Brandyburn) to add to my garden list, now standing at 139.

One of the three northern wheatears on passage at Sauchope late morning. This is a female which is about 11 months old, the contrasting more rufous feathers on the wing retained from last year’s juvenile plumage.

Posted March 31, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 30th   1 comment

More signs of spring passage today with the warm southerly winds. I heard my first chiffchaff of the year – the first proper summer migrant chiffchaff – singing from the garden of the yellow house at Wormiston. Then two more singing at Lower Kilminning later. I felt sure I would see my first barn swallow too and although I didn’t, there were some reported from west Fife today. As the summer migrants come in, so the winter migrants leave. A flock of greylag geese north past Fife Ness, and small flocks of pink-footed geese and a single yapping barnacle goose, also going north but cutting across the peninsula at Kilminning.

Greylag geese (JA)

I was at Kilminning for an hour talking over possibilities of removing the tarmac and creating a wetland with a landscape engineer. It all seems possible which is very encouraging. The devil is in the details and there will be a big bill to pay. But some of the best bird reserves in the UK – Minsmere and Dungeness, for example – are almost entirely man made. I think the important thing is to see what might be, rather than accept what is. That said, Kilminning is still a good place to bird despite just being a lightly wooded car park. As I dreamt, I had my first siskin of the year over, a sparrowhawk, kestrel and a merlin hunting past me in the space of five minutes, and as mentioned, that noisy barnacle goose. Maybe there will be a marsh for it to pitch down on in a few years.

Kestrel (JA)

Posted March 30, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 29th   Leave a comment

It’s a given that I am fairly obsessed with birds, but occasionally other groups of animals get a look in. Today it was my first ever harbour seal I have seen around Crail. Harbour or common seals are the other British seal species, that used to be more common on the East coast thirty years ago. When I first came to St Andrews twenty years ago, there were hundreds that hauled out at the tip of West Sands. There are none there now and there are only a hundred or so in the inner Forth. Their strongholds are the west of Scotland, the Northern Isles and the Wash in England, and their populations are building up after a disease epidemic in 2002. But there still only a few hundred in eastern Scotland. So, a good sighting for Crail. I saw the harbour seal yesterday at Balcomie but wasn’t 100% sure because although they are easy to identify with a good view, on a bad view as yesterday, it could just be a small grey seal. Today it was hauled out on Balcomie Beach at high tide so its small size was obvious (half the size of a grey seal) and as it swam off (it spotted me first) I could see the distinctive dog-like head and V shaped nostrils. In short harbour seals look cute (big eyes and short snouts) while grey seals look a bit less so, cow-like and sad (relatively smaller looking eyes and long faces). I could also see, unfortunately, that it had a huge, old head wound. It looked like a propeller strike. It must have been horrendous, but it was mostly healed. The seal was a vigorous swimmer and the age of the injury must mean that it is now fairly healthy. I hope it is finding Balcomie a good place to recuperate.

Grey seal left (JA) and the Balcomie harbour seal right to show how to split them. Labrador versus King Charles’ spaniel.
The harbour seal at Balcomie this afternoon. They also have slightly upturned snouts compared to the long, Roman noses of grey seals. The head wound is on the other side.

Posted March 29, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 28th   Leave a comment

I’ve been feeling a bit flat birding wise the last few days as another new Crail bird got away from me. Despite being at Fife Ness in the morning of the 25th, an alpine swift turned up sometime in the afternoon. Sadly, it was only reported last thing in the evening. Swifts can be hard to connect with, but even so. An alpine swift is unlikely to pass by Crail again in my lifetime. Alpine swifts are huge swifts with a very strong and fast flight: even without their rarity in Scotland, they are a bird that anyone can appreciate. I associate them with high, remote places in Africa, or Mediterranean cliffs. Last Thursday’s bird will have been “overshooting” on its way back from Africa with strong southerly winds behind it. A detour to Scotland from the south of France by an alpine swift is only a day’s worth of flying. That said, they really should consider doing it more often. Birding should never be about disappointment, but sadly it sometimes is. If you are passionate about your patch and seeing as many birds there as you can then it is inevitable.

Still, there was some birding to be had around Crail this weekend. With the strong winds, there was a steady auk passage, but much lower than last week. Tens rather than hundreds every five minutes, and more guillemots. There were more kittiwakes and gannets as well. I had two drake goosander heading north over Fife Ness on Saturday morning, making it a good spring for them. Wader wise, nothing much new is coming through yet. Still the same 30 sanderling and a few dunlin but today a bar-tailed godwit at Balcomie after an absence of a couple of weeks. There are still lots of twite at Boghall. I counted at least 80 around the sheep fields behind red sands on Friday. And the flocks of corn buntings are still in the remaining stubbles at Kingsbarns, now massively outnumbered by passage flocks of meadow pipits. There were more corn buntings singing this weekend though, with three singing already from Crail airfield.

Bar-tailed godwit (JA)

Posted March 28, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 25th   Leave a comment

My first “real” summer migrant of the year today. Chiff-chaffs and lesser black-backed gulls don’t quite count because they can overwinter. I saw a fluttery shape charging low over the rocky shore at Balcomie. Something obviously different. A proper look at it and I could see it was a sand martin, although it was gone in a few seconds northwards. From Senegal or another West African country only a few weeks ago. On its way to a riverbank somewhere in the north of Scotland. And in a hurry even though this is my earliest sand martin record for Crail. The next earliest sighting was April 1st 2006. Sand martins are classic early migrants with many arriving in England late March, but not particularly so for Crail. I sometimes don’t see one until late April; it’s the same for northern wheatears (which pretty much guarantees one for tomorrow 🙂 ). The first summer migrant of the year always cheers me up. The passage season staring up again. Another migrant flew over Fife Ness a bit later. A goosander, again flying very fast. Another one for a Scottish riverbank somewhere in the north of Scotland.

Female goosander (JA)

Posted March 25, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 23rd   Leave a comment

As we passed the equinox and race towards light evenings, it turned colder again today, with a cold south-westerly. The wind still suits the whooper swans. Four went over Crail this morning, heading northeast. Yesterday there was a steady passage of razorbills past fife Ness heading north too. I counted about 150 passing every 5 minutes, making 1800 an hour. Mixed in were a few guillemots and the first puffins of the year. There was also a slow but steady passage of kittiwakes heading north. As I seawatched I picked up a stiff winged bird far out, low over the sea. Not the most likely fulmar, but an adult female peregrine cutting the corner off from the Aberdeenshire coast and heading for the Lothians. Peregrines migrate huge distances in some parts of the world – Greenland to Mexico, for example – but I suspect this was a “local” movement. A peregrine’s daily local is at the county scale.

Now is a good time to see red-breasted mergansers. A few are around the rocks of the Roome Bay, the harbour and West Braes. They are unmistakable if you have a close view – and they are often fishing close in, in very shallow water. Like little Chinese dragons.   

Red-breasted mergansers (JA)

Posted March 23, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 21st   Leave a comment

Yesterday I went looking for goshawks at a one of the most reliable sites closest to Crail. I spent a very enjoyable morning watch the skyline above the woods hoping to see a displaying bird: lots of buzzards, one or two peregrines, a couple of sparrowhawks and a brief view of a soaring female goshawk. Despite being the biggest, baddest raptor around, they are very hard to see. Late March is the best time when they display over their territories. Otherwise, they keep to the trees, and out of sight. There are now quite a few pairs in Fife but without hours of watching with a good view over their forest patches they are almost undetectable. There may well be a pair of goshawks breeding on the Crail patch, but we haven’t found them yet.

This morning I was trying to catch the corn buntings again at Kingsbarns. Despite very light winds and 80 corn buntings in two flocks they never came close to being caught. They are spending a lot of time sitting in trees and bushes alongside the fields, many of the birds singing, rather than moving around and feeding. I did see the single colour-ringed corn bunting from last week sitting on a wire, its white ring glowing and obvious. It was only about 150 meters from where we caught it. Good in two respects: first that their rings will be easy to see and second, it is always good to see any bird you have ringed, back to doing exactly what you expect it to be doing, unaffected by being caught and handled. The Lapland bunting was still present, in the same bit of stubble field as last week and again on its own despite the large number of yellowhammers and of course, corn buntings around. As I waited fruitlessly for the corn buntings, a flock of whooper swans flew over, heading north-east. There was a lot of whooper swan migration reported through Fife today, taking advantage of the light south-westerly winds. And later three common crane over Crail late this morning, also heading north-east: I missed them by ten minutes. Very frustrating. They soared over Pinkerton and headed off towards the airfield; three were seen over Aberdeen later in the afternoon.

Whooper swans heading north-east earlier this month (JA)

Posted March 21, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 18th   Leave a comment

I’ve been out a couple of days trying to catch corn buntings to start colour-ringing them. Then I can map how individuals use territories and move around the East Neuk. The flock of over 100 corn buntings still at Kingsbarns, for example. Where are all these birds from? Last year’s local birds or from further afield? With a proportion of corn buntings marked with different ring combinations then we will be able to follow individuals. Easier said than done. It’s been windy and I have mostly been watching corn buntings flying over or bouncing off my nets. But this morning, I caught my first bird at Kingsbarns. All long journeys start with a single step and this is an important one. I have been working on chats for the last few years – wheatears and whinchats – and corn buntings seem huge in comparison. The bird I caught this morning weighed 46 grams! I know this is not a lot really but compared to a 14 gram Cyprus wheatear, a corn bunting is a much chunkier bird. Males are bigger and heavier than females so I should be able to tell the sex of my bird, but this one was bang in the middle with its mass, with a female wing length and a male length tarsus. More experience needed I think. Today’s corn bunting was not only the first corn bunting of my new research study, it was the first corn bunting I have ever caught. Anyway, there is now a colour-ringed corn bunting at large in the East Neuk – WMRY – left leg, right leg, top to bottom, so white over metal on the left leg and red over yellow on the right leg. Finding it again will be a needle in a haystack but with a few tens more then we should start finding out much more about why the corn buntings are doing so well locally, but are only expanding out to the rest of Fife very slowly.

MWRY – my first colour-ringed corn bunting at Kingsbarns today

Some bonuses of following around corn buntings in the few remaining stubble fields: a snow bunting and a Lapland bunting. Both single birds and just in the same fields as the corn buntings but not really associating with them. I was really pleased because I identified both correctly by the pitch of their “truup” call as they flew by me, before I saw them: it has been a good season’s worth of experience this winter. The Lapland bunting obligingly landed in the top of a tree and even started a little singing – not the melodic song I know from Arctic Alaska but a more scratchy sub-song. Still, great to hear, and nice to be able to see a Lapland bunting well, rather than just a dashing shape in a windswept sky.  

Lapland bunting – note the amazingly long primary projection (really long winged compared to corn buntings) and also the very long hind claw (hence the American name of “Lapland longspur”)

Posted March 18, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 17th   Leave a comment

My daughter stuck her head round the door this morning and let me know that there was a bird in the greenhouse. I asked her what sort and she replied in true teenage fashion that she didn’t do birds and had no idea and why was I asking so many questions. I duly went down the garden to the greenhouse expecting the usual sparrow or a false alarm: house sparrows often go in to eat the aphids and then happily find their way out of the open door. But when I got there, not a sparrow but a sparrowhawk. A first year male that was trying to get out through the glass rather than looking behind it and seeing the open door. Sparrowhawks are great at what they do – stealth, surprise hunting and ruthless determination – but they are not the brightest bird on the block. I caught the bird easily as it continued to try to get through the glass. I’ve handled a lot of sparrowhawks and still have a licence to catch and put radio tags on them (a fairly arcane qualification, but handy today). But sparrowhawks are actually not much trouble in the hand. Even if they get their sharp claws into your hand their grip is not very strong, and their bill the same. I imagine it’s a different story if you are a blue tit. I took the sparrowhawk out of the greenhouse and showed it to my daughter who, at last, was moderately impressed. Sparrowhawks have such an indomitable stare, as if they are sizing everything up for a fight – even something many times its size. Perhaps something a teenager can relate to. I let it go and it shot away over my house, blue tit alarm calls and grumpy gulls following it away.

That teenager death stare – the young male sparrowhawk. If you look closely you can see it has a tick just behind its eye.

Posted March 17, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 16th   Leave a comment

A cold north-westerly, but warm out of the wind and in the sun. The frogs shifted up a gear, with over 50 in the pond and now 12 clumps of spawn. The volume of their croaking matched the temperature, turned up to 11. At Balcomie it is still quiet; the sanderlings roosting even at mid-tide. There are still lots of teal passing, pairs stopping to feed in the shallows of the rocky shore for a few hours with the resident mallards and eiders.

Teal (JA)

Posted March 16, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 14th   Leave a comment

There are still some corn bunting flocks about. I bumped into a flock of at least 60 just west of Kingsbarns this morning. The stubble fields are still there too, so probably not a coincidence. Everywhere else they are disappearing fast: I could hear the ploughing and the gulls throughout my walk from Kingsbarns to Kenly Water and back. There are only a couple left at Hillhead now, but there seem to be just skylarks in these fields anyway, apart from the big chaffinch flock down by the burn mouth (minus any bramblings now). The twite are still in residence at Boghall, in the sheep field behind Red Sands. At least 90, which I think removes the remote possibility that the similar size twite flock I found out at Kilrenny last Monday were the same birds. Coming back into Kingsbarns I checked the gulls roosting on the sea and found my first proper summer migrant of the year – a lesser black-backed gull, back from North Africa or southern Iberia.

My first lesser-black backed gull of the year at Kingsbarns this morning. They are pretty much the first migrant back, only having to come back from Southern Europe. The birds on the right (bottom to top) are a nice sequence of 1st winter, 2nd winter and then adult herring gulls.

Posted March 14, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

March 13th   Leave a comment

There was a pair of shelduck on the rocky shore at the north end of Balcomie this morning. This is where they usually breed, in a sheltered, enclosed spot or down a rabbit hole. I have never found the nest there so I suspect down a hole. They can breed inland quite happily so it may be well away from the beach in a bank above the golf course or alongside one of the fields. The chicks will then be walked across the golf course to the sea after hatching. It starts to feel like spring when the shelduck come back to Balcomie. The frogs in my pond feel it is spring already though – spawn was visible for the first time today although it hasn’t risen to the surface yet. The pond has been a mass of grappling and croaking frogs all week even though the temperature has still only been about six degrees most days.

Pair of shelduck at Balcomie – female on the left and male on the right. (JA). This is a photo from last year but shelduck mate for life and live a long time so the pair I had today are very likely to be the same birds. Older birds start breeding earlier than new pairs as well.

Posted March 13, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings