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December 9th   Leave a comment

At last a perfectly sunny winter’s day: low sun and high tide at Balcomie Beach mid-afternoon. Hundreds of gulls surfing, sanderlings still rushing about and the group of goldeneyes getting frisky inshore. The males must be recently moulted young males, looking magnificently glossy and clean, their golden eyes shining, and keen to find a mate to get a head start for next year’s breeding season. But with the major problem of there being six of them and only one female. They were working hard to impress, sticking up their mushroom shaped heads on stretched necks and then throwing them flat across their backs. Back and forth, while following this poor female, who looked really like it wanted just to get on with a bit of feeding in the surf. Every so often one of of the males would be so distracted that a big wave broke over it and it was forced to dive out of the way. Goldeneyes are completely at home in the waves: they emerged each time from a dive completely dry, immaculate and ready to start their ridiculous head craning all over again.

The goldeneyes at Balcomie at the moment – a skewed sex ratio leading to a lot of showing off (WC)

Posted December 9, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 8th   Leave a comment

It’s hard to sustain an interesting narrative at this time of year. The days are very short and have been mostly wet and dark this week. This weekend, at least for some of today, has been a bit brighter. But the birds remain the same. There’s still a lot to see but the chance of seeing something even slightly out of the ordinary is greatly reduced because everything is staying put, conserving energy and keeping out of the way. This morning for example I sat in the hide at Fife Ness and watched an energetic sea chased by a south-westerly gale but hardly saw anything apart from gulls, eiders, oystercatchers and shags. In thirty minutes only one auk passed – too far out to identify – a red-throated diver and a turnstone. It is always nice to look at a wild sea, especially when you are sheltered from the storm in a hide but its nicer to see something passing over it. I am really missing the gannets. In a few months there will be hundreds passing in any thirty minutes and it seems an empty sea just now without them.

Balcomie Beach remains mostly a show of sanderling and redshank, with eiders and gulls in the surf, and now about six goldeneye on the sea a little further out. It was high tide at midday and the sanderling were half feeding, half roosting on a raft of washed in seaweed on the tideline. It was precarious and every so often a strong wave would send the flock flying up to circle over the sea before returning. Sanderling seem to be so full of energy it seems impossible that they gain enough of it when feeding. 

Male goldeneye (JA)
Sanderling – always on the move (JA)

There are a lot of pink-footed geese about, especially as you head out towards St Monans. I walked from Kilrenny to Crail yesterday morning and there were small flocks regularly heading along the coast or coming down into the soggy fields. It is certainly weather for ducks and geese. There is a really nice flooded field pool just above the old pig fields between Kilrenny and Caiplie and visible from the road as you drive from Crail to Anstruther. It has about 20 mallard on it and a few curlews strutting around the edge. I scanned it optimistically for some more exotic duck but with no luck. There was a single pintail that used to spend the winter with the mallards at Kilrenny but it hasn’t been there for a couple of winters now. Mallards are real opportunists which explains their widespread success in the habitats we create or change. They can use water bodies of any size and type and happily move around to exploit transient pools. And of course they can just head down to the rock pools of the coast when it gets really dry. Other duck species need specific depths of water, or more constant lakes, so they are rare in the East Neuk. I still haven’t seen a shoveller or a pochard for the Crail list: we really need a lake. Especially for a dull winter’s weekend.

A flock of pink-footed geese coming in to land in a wet stubble field (JA)

Posted December 8, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

December 5th   Leave a comment

With the short days there really isn’t much time to get out. I had a productive morning writing so rewarded myself with an hour and a half walking along the coast at Balcomie and then back through the stubble fields of Balcomie itself. The sanderlings on the beach were very tame, walking up to a few meters from me as they fed in the strong wind. It wasn’t particularly cold this afternoon and the feeding is I think good on the beach, with the remains of the seaweed well rotted down now, but the sanderlings were behaving as if feeding really was their priority. It’s a dangerous strategy – I flushed a sparrowhawk with a newly caught starling at the top of the beach. Any sanderling not paying attention as it races up the strandline is in danger of being tomorrow’s meal. That said, there are many more starlings than sanderlings on Balcomie Beach, and they feed closer to the cover that the sparrowhawks use to conceal their approaches. So the starlings must act as a shield for the sanderlings. But as the winter goes on and the starlings get whittled down, and the wariest remain, then it may work in the opposite direction. The sanderlings may then get targeted by a Balcomie specialist sparrowhawk trained by its daily successful starling hunts. There was a purple sandpiper right down on the strandline that probably has the best strategy – stay well out of the way. Although on a high tide they too will be pushed close to the killing zone. But purple sandpiper kills by sparrowhawks are rare. I have found a few and I am always surprised at just how colourful their feathers are. On a dull day like today, scooting past in the distance they just look dark grey or even blackish, but close up they have a beautiful purple sheen like the head of a mallard.

One of the tame sanderlings on Balcomie Beach this afternoon (WC)
Purple sandpiper (JA)

Posted December 5, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 27th   Leave a comment

It has been a while. I returned back to Crail last Friday and I don’t think I have seen much daylight since – certainly no sun at all, to contrast with my two weeks before. And it’s been raining a lot I can see – my weather station is up to 83 mm this month which is close to, if not a record breaking monthly total. I finally got back out to Balcomie Beach this morning in the mist and near gloaming. The beach is covered with seaweed indicating the easterlies that must have been going on while I was away. With seaweed, lots of birds of course. Hundreds of starling and tens of black-headed gulls all over, with sanderling, turnstones, redshanks, oystercatchers, curlews and two bar-tailed godwit closer to the sea. There was a group of male goldeneye in the surf and further out wigeon and red-throated divers passing. No gannets at all – they are off on their winter break to the Bay of Biscay or further south. It was too dark to take photos – instead I’ll post some African pictures to brighten things up.

A whinchat fitted with a geolocator last year – I haven’t recaught this one yet
A whinchat ringed last year but with no geolocator fitted to act as a control: I got exactly the same proportion of these birds back as those fitted with tags showing they have no effect on survival
I caught this whinchat just after dawn ten days ago and retrieved its geolocator: I set the nets at 4 am and watched the shooting stars until the whinchat woke up and obligingly flew straight into a net
An unringed whinchat – hundreds were still passing through on their way south
A red-billed hornbill
Green woodhoopoes – they live in tight knit family groups
Sunset over central Nigeria

Posted November 27, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 7th   Leave a comment

I was out at Kilminning first thing this morning and yesterday dodging the rain showers and hoping for a late season migrant brought on by easterlies of the last few days. I am off to Nigeria today so it makes me a bit edgy that something very rare is about to turn up – this late it is unlikely but some very good birds have been turning up along the east coast over the last few days. I didn’t find anything except a late season chiff-chaff. Yesterday there was a common and a black redstart about: they may well be still about. It is very hard to find things in heavy rain and they are unlikely to have gone somewhere else overnight considering the weather. I did see lots of fieldfares both days and a huge flock of hundreds in the field just to the north of Kingsbarns this morning. These are migrants in from the continent for the winter. Normally they don’t stop long in the East Neuk but perhaps the weather is also keeping them from moving on. Although I may miss a late season migrant as I head south with them, I won’t miss the current weather.

One of the many late season chiff-chaffs that have turned up at Kilminning this year – taken last week by John when the sun was still shining (JA)

Posted November 7, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 3rd   Leave a comment

It is still blowing a good breeze from the east although it is a swirling easterly around a low in the North Sea rather than a wind blowing across from the continent. Still it inspires hope, especially with the frequent rain showers for the last 24 hours. I spent 30 minutes in the hide at Fife Ness, grateful for the shelter. Viewing conditions are the best on days like these. Bright, but grey, making the birds contrast well, and the showers removing any dust or haze so you can see well to the horizon. Sadly, not much to see though. Gannets and a few auks and kittiwakes; a flock of male long-tailed ducks heading north, barely visible between the wave troughs, and a goosander and a male goldeneye doing the same.

Male goldeneye (JA)

When I arrived at Kilminning on the way back to Crail I immediately heard the high, soft ringing trill of a waxwing. I thought it was bird flying over but I kept hearing it. I found the bird on top of a willow, being buffeted in the breeze, calling constantly and looking around intently to find some companions. Waxwings are very, very gregarious and spend the whole winter in big flocks moving from berry bush to berry bush. It looked very lonely, and after five minutes it flew off strongly towards Crail, still calling. Waxings are very boom and bust birds for Crail, and Scotland in general. Some winters we have them everywhere and they become familiar to people because they are tame and like supermarket car parks (which are often planted with berry bearing rowan or whitebeam trees) and gardens. Other winters they are a great rarity. The last one I saw in Crail was 2012 so it has been a while, although I am often away in November when they tend to pass through here on their way further inland. The waxwing today may the first of many so it is worth checking out your garden this week, particularly if you have a big berry bearing bush or tree.

The lonely waxwing at Kilminning this morning (WC)
Waxwing (JA)

Posted November 3, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 2nd   Leave a comment

There has been some late season migration going on at the end of this week. This morning I put up two woodcock at Kilminning and then a long-eared owl. It was roosting in a dense sycamore by the top entrance and I only found it because I was following a flock of long-tailed tits deeper into cover. The owl flew to the edge of the road and perched, glaring at me. I could appreciate its distinctive orange eyes and even its “ears” – you hardly ever get to see them, but this bird had stuck up its feather tufts on either side of its head in annoyance at me disturbing it. I should think it came in last night after crossing the North Sea from Scandinavia and had pitched down into the first trees it found to escape the heavy rain. Long-eared owls are strictly nocturnal. You only ever see them in daylight if you find them roosting or flush them, or catch one out still crossing the sea. The long-eared owl this morning took off again after about half a minute of regarding me through the trees. It flew off to roost in the corner of the walled garden at Balcomie until disturbed again and it headed off towards Fife Ness. Later in the morning I saw a short-eared owl coming in off the sea at Fife Ness. Another Scandinavian migrant, but one much happier with flying in daylight. It’s nice to see the pair of them so close together (it’s been 6 years since I have seen a long-eared owl in Crail – 166 for the year list as well) to appreciate their differences. Long-eared owls are much more orangey brown in colour, rather than yellowy brown (and they have bright orange eyes rather than bright yellow eyes), and are much less stripey than short-eared owls. They look more camouflaged – like a woodcock – whereas short-eared owls have more distinct black barring and black wing tips. But its all pretty subtle. Luckily, long-eared owls tend roost in dense trees and fly straight back to cover when flushed, and short-eared owls tend to roost on the ground, in long grass, and go for long, high and airey flights when flushed.

Long-eared owl (JA)
Short-eared owl (JA)

Posted November 2, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings