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December 2nd   Leave a comment

I sea watched at Fife Ness for a half an hour before work on the 30th and today on the basis that if you don’t buy a lottery ticket you can never win. There are still so many good sea birds in the North Sea and they were topped up by the storm of the 27th. Yesterday a Brunnich’s guillemot went past Fife Ness and there have been a slew of other sightings along the East coast. The last local Brunnich’s guillemot recorded was an ill bird in Anstruther Harbour (see September 25th 2016) allowing close and easily identifiable views. But a flyby is a different matter. I didn’t have anything unusual past that on my two quick sessions, but I looked very closely and critically at every guillemot and razorbill going past. It will have improved my ability to identify auks and pick out a Brunnichs when I do finally get lucky. I suspect that there are quite a few in the North Sea in little auk winters but it takes a brave or very persistent birder to call one out. It has been an odd winter for auks really. First the very big numbers of guillemots and razorbills close inshore in September, then the higher numbers of black guillemots, then lots of little auks and finally lots of puffins close inshore. Today puffins were one of the commonest auks past Fife Ness (although small numbers of everything today). I saw little auks on both days, but they are becoming scarcer now. And another great northern diver past this morning. I am now well into double figures for great northerns. In some winters I might be lucky with one or two. Another Arctic bird further southand much more common than usual this winter.

A common guillemot – sadly not a dark headed, white underwing, rugby ball (John Anderson)

Posted December 2, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 28th   Leave a comment

I missed another white-billed diver past Fife Ness this morning. This one with a generous margin of an hour, rather than a minute, but still painful. It was a diver morning. I had five great northern divers, a black-throated diver and about 10 red-throated divers past between Fife Ness and Crail. The great northern divers were appropriately heading north, probably to redress being blown south in the storm on Friday. Only a few little auks, also heading north and a couple of puffins. Earlier in the day as I sea watched from the back of my house I had two frustrating grebes past – I only saw them for a second but they had the shape of black-necked or Slavonian: the former is really rare past Crail, but anything seems quite likely at the moment. A manx shearwater also came past Crail early afternoon – another very late bird. I hardly ever see them in the winter (if ever). It was the fourth cold day in a row, with the temperature around zero first thing, and the wind adding to it. For the first time this winter I felt birds were finding it just a bit harder. The gulls and waders on Balcomie Beach were tolerant of walkers passing only fifteen meters away, and there were robins, stonechats and wrens foraging along the strandline.

Black-throated diver – on the one I saw today, I could see uptilted feet, flapping slightly. A feature I haven’t ever seen on a red-throated diver. (John Anderson)

Posted November 28, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 27th   Leave a comment

It was impressively windy last night in Crail. There were trees down and buildings damaged this morning. The seas were monstrous. I looked out first thing at what I though was an average swell until the first gannet came by, completely dwarfed, to give the proper sense of scale – 5 to ten meter waves. It was interesting looking at the fallen trees – one in my Mum’s neighbour’s garden (now sadly in my Mum’s garden as well…) and then later one in Denburn. In both, there were tit flocks foraging in the branches with a very high rate of feeding. It was if insects or other invertebrates had been dislodged, or been made easier to find. A small silver lining on a very cold day with the continuing, keen north wind.

One of the victims of last night’s storm in Denburn Wood. there is an invisible tit flock feeding amongst the fallen branches

I sea watched for half an hour mid-afternoon at the end of Roome Bay, hunkering down out of the wind. Not many birds passed, but nearly all of them good. The second auk was a black guillemot heading towards Fife Ness. It looked like an immature – not quite clean enough for a wintering adult. We have had a lot of black guillemot sightings this autumn which suggests we have one or two wintering. That said, everything is fairly crazy in the North Sea this winter. To underline this, I had a European storm petrel passing between me and the May Island, heading into the Forth. An unusually late record, but there are occasional November records from the east coast. I watched it carefully for a hint of the slightly less unusual Leach’s Petrel, but even though distant I got no hint of anything other than the fluttery, direct flight of a European storm petrel: not one bank or glide or shearwater. A great bird to add to the Crail year list at this late stage. There were a few little auks heading west in small groups, nine in total, and the same number of razorbills and guillemots. A few gannets, including some juveniles, a red-throated diver, and some kittiwakes made up the rest of the passage. There was also a flock of six female common scoter and a male goldeneye in the more sheltered waters of Roome Bay.

Black guillemot (John Anderson). Obviously my flyby view was nothing like the view John had of this bird, but it shows the mottled, black and white wings and the white head with the black eye line that makes even a distant flying bird very distinctive

Posted November 27, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 25th   Leave a comment

Great northern, black-throated and red-throated divers (top to bottom): (John Anderson). Head shape and eye position is a really good way to split them. Bill shape is also good but seems to be more useful only with closer views.

To finish off divers…John got another series of great black-throated diver pictures on the water today which made me think again about what makes them very different. If you look at their heads, red-throated divers have their eye very far forward, almost touching their bill (making them look beady eyed even in flight) and a gradually sloping forehead. Black-throated divers have a forehead extension that makes their eye look closer to the middle of the head, but still obviously closer to the bill than the back of the head. Their forehead is steeply sloping. Great northern divers are more so – eye now looking like it is in the middle of the head because of a bulbous forehead extension that is now very steeply sloping, giving a square front to the head. There are lots of other differences of course, but in bouncy sea at a distance, the head shape and relative eye position is usually visible. If you want to get some diver practice in, try Outhead (the end of West Sands, St Andrews), at the Eden mouth and just out to sea. A mid tide seems pretty good to get the divers coming relatively close, as they fish in the river channel.

Posted November 25, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 24th   Leave a comment

It has been a very good autumn for divers. We always get lots of red-throated divers. You can count a hundred passing Fife Ness in a few hours on good days. This year there have been a lot of black-throated and great northern divers too. Some of it has been because there are more northerly and westerly wintering birds in the North Sea this winter. But some of it is because there has been more sea watching than usual in response to the poor showing of landbird migrants. It takes a bit of experience to reliably identify divers as they fly by at sea and I have been trying to work out the best ways to communicate what the differences are between the species to shortcut the process.

When we look at a familiar bird and identify it, we integrate a lot of features unconsciously and the name of the bird pops up in our brain. Explaining how that has happened to someone without the experience is difficult because we haven’t consciously run through a checklist. Think of the question “why is that a blackbird?” The answer can’t really be “because it looks like one”, but for most of us we have a picture in our head of what a blackbird looks like and we have pattern matched. But the key to solid identification and being able to communicate why something is a blackbird is the ability to run through a list of defining characters. Good birders should be able to articulate this list for everything they identify. To reconstruct the bird character by character in words until the unique combination adds up to the identification for everyone. So that a black bill, eyering, sooty black uniform plumage everywhere except on the wings where it is a bit browner can only equal a young male blackbird.

So what about divers? I was looking at some excellent photos of black-throated divers from John Anderson yesterday trying to articulate why they look so distinctive. I just couldn’t work it out – something to do with the relative length of the front part of the body and the back, but what? I laid out some of John’s similar angle photos of the three common diver species side by side and scaled them to their average size. Then I measured the length of their head and neck relative to their tail and feet expecting them to be very different. But the relative lengths are the same for all three species. I kept looking at the photos until it dawned on me – obvious when you see it – it is all to do with the length of the front of the body and the back of the body relative to the width of the base of the wings. Black-throated divers have both extended necks and tails and feet so they are long and skinny both sides of the wings. In the field guides this is conveyed as black-throats looking evenly balanced, with the wings in the middle of the body, but my comparisons (see below) show that isn’t the case. It’s just because black-throats are longer either side of their wings so they appear more balanced. This is then made more pronounced by the equality in size of the feet and the head, bulging in a similar way all along their length back and front: much less of a bulge for the head as you find in red-throats and much less of a bulge for the feet as you find in great northerns. This might seem very esoteric. But this is what makes birding constantly interesting and challenging to me. For every set of characters I might learn to nail a species’ identification at distance, in brief and poor views, there are hundreds (thousands on a global scale) more to learn. And occasionally to puzzle out yourself, which is really satisfying.

The three common diver species (John Anderson) to illustrate what I mean about the difference in relative proportions between the three elements – front, wings and back. The right hand bars are the relative lengths side by side. Red-throats and great northerns are the same, but black-throateds are longer front and back. The species are all exactly to scale illustrating the size difference as well.

Posted November 24, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 21st   2 comments

One of my favourite walks, and perfect for 2-3 hours on a Sunday morning, is to do a loop starting from Kingsbarns Church, down the Drony road and along the coastal path to the mouth of the Kenly Burn, then back inland through Hillhead and Pitmilly. It’s important in the winter to do it this way round so the low sun is behind you along the coastal path. There are usually a lot of small birds along the way, particularly in the forage turnip and sheep fields of Boghall Farm, the wild bird seed mix field edges at Hillhead Farm and the new woodland at Pitmilly. Today, the twite that are often along the shore at Boghall must have been out of sight in one of the more inland forage turnip fields, although there were some, later, in the big stubble field on the west side of Kingsbarns. There was a small flock of corn bunting at Boghall at least. The best flocks were at Hillhead. There is a really nice stubble field just behind the coastal path as you reach Kenly Water. It has a wide fringe of wild bird seed mix, and this had a flock of over 100 – maybe 150 – tree sparrows, chaffinches, yellowhammers and reed buntings. It still feels like most birds have not really flocked up for the winter though. It was colder today, but still not winter cold. There did seem to be more skylarks about, with fifty or so popping up out of the big stubble field at Kingsbarns where I had the twite. And a surprising number of bullfinches. I had small groups in four places along the walk. Bullfinches are surprisingly inconspicuous considering how showy their plumage is, but their soft whistles and white rumps flashing as they fly give them away.

Male bullfinch (John Anderson)

Posted November 21, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 20th   Leave a comment

There were more little auks passing today heading south, most very far out, but some passing by Crail into the Forth this morning. I walked on the loop from Kilminning to Fife Ness along the coastal path and then back along the road. Great visibility but a bi t breezy and damp. The best bird was a snow bunting coming in off the sea at Fife Ness. I heard its distinctive “trrrrip” call and got onto it as it came in over the rocks and headed towards Kilminning. A classic late November migrant and very appropriate as the weather finally starts to get colder.

Snow bunting (John Anderson)

Posted November 20, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 17th   Leave a comment

This morning first thing it was rock pipits, sanderling and dunlin on Balcomie Beach. Some more siskin coming in from the sea, and a great northern diver lumbering north, high out to sea. Things have quietened down, although there are some strong northerly winds and cold weather predicted for next week.

Two perfectly synchronised sanderling on Balcomie Beach

Posted November 17, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 14th   Leave a comment

The sea has become much less busy compared to last weekend. Although there are still little auks going by Fife Ness – I had 7 in about 30 minutes after lunch today – there was only an equivalent handful of guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes. Even the gannets are becoming much less common as they head south for their Christmas break in the sun. The ducks are coming back to Roome Bay for the winter though. A goldeneye, a common scoter female, and a small flock of wigeon, either feeding at the mouth of the Denburn or roosting at the mouth of the Brandyburn.

A pair of wigeon back for the winter (John Anderson)

Posted November 14, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 13th   Leave a comment

West Quarry Braes is a piece of regenerating woodland out at Ribbonfield, northwest of Crail and by the old railway line. It is a Scottish Wildlife Trust Reserve, although owned by Fife Council, much as Kilminning was. It is a neglected (not necessarily a bad thing) tangle of brambles, scrub and quite a few now large trees. There is a lot of building rubble in one area that makes walking through it difficult, and a huge badger set which also makes it tough going. At the east end is one of the few proper ponds in the Crail area (today it had 27 teal on it joining the resident moorhens). I was there this morning thinking about asset transfers to the Crail Community Partnership on the basis that even though the area is currently unloved, it is a bit of rewilding in progress, and it could easily be sold by the council for development. Definitely something to think about – every tiny bit of woodland or meadow we can keep for the future is worth it. As I left, I stuck my head into the only building still standing on the site to look for a roosting barn owl. I found lots of pellets and a few feathers, but no barn owl. Definitely one around but not currently in residence.

West Quarry Braes

I continued down to the shore through Wormiston. It was high tide and very calm at Balcomie. There were more teal along the shore and some long-tailed duck; a pair of goosander flew over, again like the bird last week, it is unusually late in the year to see them. There was an adult puffin fishing close to the shore: the first adult among the many juveniles that I have seen over the last couple of weeks. Otherwise, it was very quiet. Kilminning was just blackbirds.

Long-tailed duck (John Anderson)

Posted November 13, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 12th   Leave a comment

A rainy day, with a strong south-easterly wind to start. The consequence late this afternoon, as I spent a quick hour down at Balcomie Beach and Fife Ness, was migrants coming in. A woodcock, starlings, fieldfares and blackbirds all arriving low, in from the North Sea. A flock of five fieldfares and a starling landed on the first rocks they encountered at Fife Ness, looking tired and confused. After five minutes of collecting themselves, they were off further inland – I hope to nice, safe roost in the Patch or at Kilminning. But this is not necessarily a sure thing, even when the apparent safety of land is reached. A blackbird, also resting on the shore by Stinky Pool, was promptly grabbed by a sparrowhawk. John and I accidentally then flushed the sparrowhawk just afterwards and it took off over the golf course, eventually carrying its prey to the denser cover of the gorse bushes below the club house where it could feed in peace.

The sparrowhawk with the newly arrived, but sadly ex-blackbird (John Anderson). All that way across the North Sea…migration is the major time of mortality for many bird species.

Posted November 12, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 11th   Leave a comment

I was out looking for corn bunting flocks again this morning. My route took me to Cellardyke, Anstruther and Pittenweem. Occasional corn buntings in ones and twos, particularly in stubble or forage rape fields, but only one large group between Anstruther and Pittenweem. There were about 40 birds dispersed over two fields (again a stubble field and a forage rape field), with some congregating on the wires, and even a couple singing. I came across a lot of grey partridges as I checked the fields – the largest covey was 17 at Pittenweem, but I had several others in double figures. There was a big flock of several hundred pink-footed geese behind the Waid Academy at Anstruther. They were wary but actually very tolerant of people passing. It is testament to the fact that they are being left alone here (and generally in the East Neuk) despite it being such a busy place. I eventually ended up at Carnbee and couldn’t resist looking for a water rail. One eventually squeaked back at me from the marshy west end of the reservoir: number 174 for the Crail patch year list breaking last year’s record of 173. Otherwise Carnbee Reservoir was dead. No ducks apart from a few mallard and 12 teal: another indication of the mild winter so far.

No. 174 for the record breaking Crail patch year list – a water rail (John Anderson). This is John’s stock water rail photo which I have posted before but they are tricky to see and photograph. I didn’t see today’s bird even though it was squeaking a few meters away from me.

Posted November 11, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 9th   Leave a comment

Over the last week I have been hearing siskins passing over nearly every day. Siskins are not very common in the East Neuk, but there are periodic “irruptions” when larger numbers pass through. Siskins are seed eaters like crossbills and so when there are good tree seed crops they have a very good breeding season and can then suddenly become common in new areas when they disperse for the winter. The males are quite obvious on good views – yellowy green and black, but they tend to stick to the tops of trees. Their “see-uuu” flight call is the best indication that they are about: it’s one of the commonest sounds in the wooded Highlands and the West of Scotland, but usually rare here.

Male siskin (John Anderson)

Posted November 9, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 8th   Leave a comment

I had planned to be in Nigeria these two weeks, but serious civil unrest where I work has made that problematic. Still, this gives me some clear time here to see what is happening with the corn buntings. It was a joy to get out and about again through the fields – I have been missing this. Not quite summer weather, but warm enough and no wind. So warm and still that were insects everywhere and also lots of parachuting, small black spiders, dispersing in the good conditions. My face got covered in silk as I cycled along. I found a few corn buntings, but the only big flock was one of 30 along the old railway line where a strip of wild bird seed mix and a pile of old grain makes a great area for them. Also, for other buntings, tree sparrows (flocks everywhere today), chaffinches, and even some bramblings. The real find was three flocks of twite: one at Upper Kenly (12), one at Boghall in the field corner by Red Sands where they were last winter (70) and one in the stubbles by Kingsbarns (15). Best of all was a colour-ringed bird. I have seen them before at Boghall but this is the first time I have been able to get the full combination. Black over white left leg, and metal over yellow right leg. I have sent the details off to the people I think are responsible for the colour-ringing project. I am looking forward to hearing this particular bird’s story and joining up some migratory dots.

The colour-ringed twite at Boghall today. It took a few photos to get the ring combination clearly.
More of the twite at Boghall – one showing its pink rump nicely. You can see a little thread of spider silk crossing in front of them – there really were little spiders everywhere today

Posted November 8, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 7th   Leave a comment

The sanderlings are really back on Balcomie Beach now. There were 55 at least this morning. It was hard to be exact in the keen north westerly wind this morning. There were a few gulls on the beach too, including a pristine adult Mediterranean gull. This is probably the one we see every so often when sea watching. At Fife ness this morning there was a steady stream of little auks, almost all well out to sea. I was there from about 10 onwards and earlier many had been leaving the Forth and heading north. But by the time I was there, most were heading south. Probably three or four every minute. There were certainly many fewer little auks than yesterday, razorbills were the commonest auk today. Still a few puffins as well. Without the auks it would have been very quiet: a few goldeneye, red-breasted merganser, long-tailed duck, common scoter and pink-footed geese. The wind died down by lunchtime and Kilminning was quiet in all respects apart from blackbirds, long-tailed tits and goldcrests. I think the autumn – in terms of rare migrants – is pretty much over, even if it never really got started this year.

Adult Mediterranean gull at Balcomie Beach this morning (plus one of the 55 sanderling)

A photo of black-headed, Mediterranean and herring gulls which shows well how the structure changes across small, medium and large gulls. Note the bills (delicate, medium and chunky), how the head shape becomes flatter, and the shift in the leg position on the body. Black-headed like most small gulls are more front than tail; Mediterranean is more tail and wings than front; herring has a much more extended back compared to front so the legs look far forward.

Posted November 7, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 6th   Leave a comment

I had to get a piece of the seabird action that I have been missing this week, so I was straight down to Fife Ness this morning. A grey morning – with rain threatening, and never getting really light. And a strong south west wind. It was little auks again today. Lots of little auks throughout the day. Hundreds past Fife Ness, and then later at Kilminning, I counted 380 passing in just 15 minutes. Passage was continuous, but in pulses, sometimes only a handful were visible, at other times there were flocks visible wherever you looked. There were more little auks on the water, invisible until they flew up and joined the passage. Almost all were heading into the wind: there must now be thousands, probably tens of thousands in the Forth. When the wind eases on Monday, they will head back out again. Something to look forward to. Little auks were the commonest auk today and then also unusually, puffins came second. Some years I might not see a puffin from September to April, but over the last couple of weeks juvenile puffins have been common, and today there was one or two juvenile puffins (again heading into the Forth) passing all the time. I saw – for the first time – a mixed flock of little auks and a puffin, with the puffin being the smallest bird in the group. Usually, the tiny auk in a mixed auk flock is the puffin. And I could appreciate just how small a little auk is. Barely thrush sized. They seem lost and so vulnerable among the waves. It is a false impression. If you ever get to handle a little auk – and every so often one turns up disorientated at night, blown inland in a storm – you find they are incredibly tough. All dense muscle and a robust compactness to weather anything. Some days it is just one bird that is the star – like a dusky warbler. Others it is the spectacle. Today it was both.

Little auks – the original riders on the storm (John Anderson)

There were some other star birds as well today. A sooty shearwater looping around off Kilminning. The strong wind paradoxically slowing it down as it tacked into the wind, yet still moved with it, heading around the tip of Fife Ness. A very late goosander. And a woodcock flying in off the sea. There is something very exciting about picking up just a dot, so far out to sea that you have to guess its identity. Then following the dot as it heads to land, slowly becoming identifiable and larger, and then suddenly a very real, individual bird dashing past you to the safety of landfall after what might have been a day of crossing the North Sea.

Goosander (John Anderson)

Posted November 6, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 2nd   Leave a comment

I have been stuck indoors working all day. More grey phalaropes were reported at Fife ness – over 10 – it is the best time ever to see them around Crail, but sadly not really visible from my kitchen today. John’s photo below cheered me up though. After about a three week absence, a handful of sanderling are back on Balcomie Beach: I first noticed them last Sunday but they got forgotten in the rain of the weekend.

Sanderling (John Anderson)

Posted November 2, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

November 1st   Leave a comment

Yesterday was a bad day to go out birding – and even worse on a bike. A gale and rain much of the day. It seemed worth it because a few things are turning up on the May Island including a yellow-browed warbler. Even if there had been a dozen at Kilminning yesterday, I wouldn’t have found them though. Today was much calmer and dryer and there was a reasonable chance to hear one even in the half an hour I could spare at lunchtime. Upper Kilminning remained resolutely empty of yellow-browed warblers again. Some blackbirds, redwings, goldcrests and a few woodcock as the only obvious new migrants. I had to enjoy the wrens that came out of cover to mob my dog – five of them close together. I am not used to them winter flocking but they must do so: it is just usually impossible to appreciate because they keep in the dense cover, low down, and you only see one or two at any one time.

One of the wrens coming out of cover to scold my dog, a few centimeters below this bird

Posted November 1, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 30th   Leave a comment

The weather was beginning to make things interesting again this morning: some north easterlies yesterday and this morning some south easterlies. Rain showers overnight and through the morning were also helpful. There were flocks of starlings coming in off the sea all day – mostly in flocks of about 25, but one of over 200 later in the afternoon. We get a lot of migrant starlings that overwinter in the East Neuk, but they are not often such obvious migrants. Usually, I just notice that the flocks seem a bit bigger, particularly when the weather gets colder on the Continent. No sign of cold weather yet here, or in Europe though. There were redwings, skylark and a few woodcocks coming in too. Three chiffchaffs in the trees behind the caravans at Fife Ness was a good sign too – it will be well worthwhile looking for yellow-browed warblers tomorrow.

Because of the rain I spent most of the morning in the hide at Fife Ness. Birding through a letterbox but a dry letterbox at least. There were a few little auks (ten or so in 90 minutes), a couple of puffins, little gulls, a manx shearwater, a great northern diver, lots of wigeon and a velvet scoter of note. And the steady stream of starlings. As I came out of the hide, I met two birders that had just seen a wheatear fly off from the rocks behind. Any wheatear at this time of year is worth a second look but an hour searching the area in the rain didn’t turn it up again. Perhaps tomorrow.

Lots of wigeon passing Fife Ness today, heading south (John Anderson)

Posted October 30, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

October 27th   Leave a comment

I looked for Lapland buntings this morning, trying a couple of stubble fields at Wormiston that even in a poor winter often have them. No sign, and very few skylarks. The lack of skylarks by this time of year is quite unusual, but with warm weather across Europe still then there is no reason for them to come over to the UK yet. I did put up some corn buntings, but a pair and then a singleton that almost gave a bit of song as it flew off. I wonder if they are as confused as the frogs in my pond, because winter has been cancelled. It was very calm at Fife Ness and I regretted my lack of telescope: a Mediterranean gull, a pomarine skua and a minke whale spotted by some visiting birders sitting next to me were all distant and unidentifiable. The no scope strategy wasn’t a wise move today, although I picked up a female merlin and a few red-throated divers close in. There was another merlin – a juvenile male – on the airfield as I cycled back to Crail, and a female at Balcomie, making three sightings during the morning. The merlins are here for the winter even if the skylarks aren’t.

Corn bunting (John Anderson)

Posted October 27, 2021 by wildcrail in Sightings

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