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August 20th   1 comment

I haven’t been down to Balcomie Beach for a few days but it was much as last week this evening. The waders began to accumulate as the tide went out and thirty meters of beach became exposed. About 25 dunlin and the 35 ringed plovers, 5 turnstone and a scattering of redshank and oystercatchers. There were more redshanks staying roosting on the rocks and a flock of 12 knot flew in to join them – presumably some of the same birds as last week, although John had over 50 yesterday, so the numbers have been increasing. There were two juvenile northern wheatears on the rocks to the north of the beach – they should be a regular occurrence down there now for the next couple of months as birds pass through slowly on their way south. Young wheatears take their time on first migration, spending several weeks going back to Africa. Adults know where they are going and may take only a couple. It definitely starts to feel like autumn is coming when the wheatears appear at Balcomie. Another sign, of course, is the swifts going. They are late leaving this year, with tens still over Crail at the weekend, but I think many may have gone today. There should still be passage birds for the next couple of weeks to cheer us up.

I count about 50 knots in this photo that John took yesterday (JA): Stop press – Harry Bell told me that there were more than 170 at Fife Ness on the 20th. I should have gone round the corner!
A closer view of one of the knots (JA)
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Posted August 20, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 15th   Leave a comment

Today’s wader was a knot, or more accurately 38 of them. My highest day count ever for Crail. There was a big flock down on the rocks in front of the hide at Fife Ness, and another 6 down at Balcomie Beach. Fife Ness is a regular haunt for passage flocks at this time of year and John sits right out at the very tip to get his close up photos.

Some of the many knots at Fife Ness this week – plus an odd one out to spot (answer below): (JA)
A knot – in winter plumage: grey, dumpy looking and with short legs (JA)
The odd one out – a redshank (JA)

Posted August 15, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 14th   Leave a comment

The wet wader fest continues. All we need are some pools and then we get the waders. Today it was a greenshank flying over Crail calling to attract attention (a three note whistle “tu-tu-tu”) – I called back and it circled over me before heading down towards Sauchope to land somewhere by the shore. This is only my third greenshank this year: some years we get several, some years we are lucky with one. The other two were in January around the Kenly Burn mouth where they regularly winter. Today’s bird will be a migrant from the highlands or Scandinavia, probably on its way to Africa, where most greenshanks winter. This evening I checked out the Old Barns pool again hopeful for more. Just gulls and a single juvenile redshank (this could easily be a migrant from far afield of course). The pool itself is becoming scarce and will be gone by tomorrow unless it rains heavily again. Pool watching is addictive: I went in search of even more by Thirdpart and Troustie. Most pools have gone already leaving muddy patches but at the weekend it must have looked like the Arctic from the air, with silvery ponds everywhere. There are still a few at Ribbonfields, including the more semi-permanent one now replenished. I flushed a green sandpiper from one of the pools closest to the road, and then again later from a smaller marshy hollow in an adjacent stubble field. You wait six years and then three come along at once.

Greenshank (JA)

Posted August 14, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 13th   Leave a comment

Today’s field pool wader was a grey plover. An absolutely perfect summer plumage bird feeding in the flooded brassica field at Old Barns. It was there all day and you only had to watch it for a few minutes to work out why. Every thirty seconds the plover pulled up an earthworm. This great feeding rate – perfect for refuelling for a bird that might have been in Siberia a couple of days ago – didn’t go unnoticed by the black-headed gulls also feeding in the field. The plover had to keep moving because the gulls would try to grab any worm it got. A long, dangling muddy earthworm is not a quick mouthful and about once in four attempts the plover would lose the worm as a gull made its snatch and grab robbery. Black-headed gulls often feed in fields with golden plovers and the same thieving behaviour occurs. I expect to a black-headed gull, any plover with a worm is a target, they just don’t get to hang out with grey plovers very much. Grey plovers are much more shore specialists when not breeding and are a rare sight inland in an arable field (athough when they do this, usually on migration like today, they can be confusing – a juvenile grey plover can look just like one of the rarer American or Pacific golden plover species). No confusion possibility today with this nice nesting plumage bird – all blacks and whites below, with a brilliant back pattern of rocky lichen tones above that spangled against the brown muddy field, but that would be a stealth suit on an Arctic pebble plain.

The grey plover at Old Barns today (JA)
A black-headed gull having a go at worm stealing (JA)
And again (JA)

Posted August 13, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 12th   Leave a comment

There is another flooded field pool at Old Barns, in the first big field on the right as you head towards Anstruther. It has been getting larger over the week and is now a substantial pond, just at the right water level for waders. It has been attracting gulls, curlews and oystercatchers all week and today it had two ruff. John gave me a call this evening: I was down at Roome Bay getting some big sky – watching gannets and a bonxie – after being indoors all day. I biked down to Old Barns as soon as possible and jumped in John’s mobile hide (aka his car). The ruff were obligingly right beside the side road up to the farm so I was glad of the cover. I would have put them up if I had tried to get close on my bike. With the car we could approach to within a few meters. Two juvenile ruff – cinnamon buff below and with dark, neatly pale fringed back feathers. They fed together happily amongst the brassica plants and the black-headed gulls, keeping close together even when passing woodpigeons made them start and fly across the pool. I left them to it and John hoping for better light as the setting sun passed below the clouds.

The scene (WC)
One of the juvenile ruff this evening (JA)
Bathing (JA)

Posted August 12, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 11th   Leave a comment

The marsh harrier was still around this morning. I saw it hunting over the wheat fields between Wormiston Farm and Kingsbarns Distillery. I was close enough today to see the wing tags – a conspicuous yellow one on the left wing and a much less obvious purpley-blue one on the right. It was so inconspicuous that I didn’t notice it until I zoomed in a photo later, and I initially reported it as a different harrier to yesterday because I thought today’s only had one tag on. In the fog yesterday I saw them in silhouette flapping like extra feathers so both were equally conspicuous.

The marsh harrier hunting over the fields at Wormiston and just about showing its wing tags (WC)

Further along, down by the golf course there was a whinchat. The first for me this August. Like tree pipits, mid-August is their peak passage time for Crail, and any bird alertly perched on a wire fence or fence post is worth checking.

The juvenile whinchat – on its way to Liberia or Sierra Leone or Senegal

There were other migrants about. A common sandpiper at Balcomie, and another two at Sauchope later, and the first juvenile wheatear of the autumn at Fife Ness. In thirty minutes at Fife Ness I had lots of terns and one adult arctic skua. It was wonderfully close in, with tail pins showing well, chasing kittiwakes and sandwich terns before heading north. The knots were hanging around with the redshanks, and feeding mostly in the muddy tidal pool on the left just after you cross the golf course to get to Fife Ness – this is called stinky pool and is one of the great birding disappointments of Crail. Thirty years ago it regularly attracted a whole range of rarer waders, but during my time in Crail, today was its peak – 17 redshanks and 4 knots. One of the bar-tailed godwits of the spring also turned up in the pool so maybe things are getting better. On Balcomie Beach there was an adult and a juvenile turnstone with the handful of dunlin and sanderling feeding along the surf line. There was a lovely contrast of the bright summer plumaged adult with the more sober blackish juvenile – yet amongst the oranges and reds of the washed in seaweed, they were both equally camouflaged.

Adult and juvenile turnstone on Balcomie Beach this morning (WC)

The rain returned in the afternoon. We have had over 50 millimeters this month and are heading to beat the monthly rain record for the last two years by tomorrow – with nearly three weeks still to go for August. The water table has been well and truly replenished and the dips and depressions in the fields are turning into ponds. The pool at Ribbonfields, by the first crossroads on the way to the secret bunker from Crail is back in business although no waders yet. Just past the recycling centre at Pittenweem, the Dreel Burn has flooded a large area of field (about half a field’s worth) and this afternoon it looked like a proper wetland, the barley masquerading as reeds and with some quite large pools. There were mallards and tufted ducks to complete the picture. At the bend of the burn at Inch Farm, some earlier flooding has drained a bit revealing bare mud. Perfect for waders and two green sandpipers were there. Green sandpipers are not uncommon waders in the winter, favouring small pools, lakesides and even slow moving streams with muddy sides, but they are of course very rare in Crail where we don’t have very many of those habitats. My last Crail green sandpiper was in 2012, coincident with the last very wet year when there were near permanent pools in some of the fields around Crail, and before the farmers got grants to drain them.

The new wetland at Inch, Pittenweem. The recycling centre is on the left and I am looking towards the main road between Pittenweem and St Monans (WC)
Green sandpiper – this was the last one near Crail in 2012. They are not very fussy but need a pool or stream with open sides. Field ponds are ideal. (JA)

Posted August 11, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

August 10th   1 comment

The haar was in this morning so although Balcomie and Fife Ness were atmospheric, with invisible seal song drifting through the fog, it wasn’t great for finding that August special wader. That said I made out the six knots still in residence and a smattering of dunlin and sanderling. In thirty minutes seawatching in a small gap in the mist I had a bonxie and an arctic skua – the latter have been scarce so far this summer. Far out there were arctic terns dipping down to pick off the water looking beguilingly like black terns in the gloom, but the golden rule of – if the rare bird is always the one that you can’t see properly, then it probably isn’t a rare bird – applied. As I headed back between the golf courses I saw a harrier soaring low – a juvenile marsh harrier. I could just make out that it had a flappy tag on each wing but no details before it disappeared into the low cloud. It was probably one of the young from the nests that are being monitored in the Tay reedbeds. Marsh harriers are always a good Crail bird with one or two a year passing through in spring or autumn, and every few years a juvenile hanging around the stubble fields for a few days or weeks at this time of year. So worth looking out for – they are as big as buzzards, but look all blackish with longer thinner wings and a longer tail. I came back as usual though Sauchope where there were some sandwich terns and a single common tern roosting on the rocks at high tide close in, in front of the caravans. 

Marsh harrier – this one is an adult female but juveniles are very similar except darker (JA)
A sandwich tern juvenile being fed by an adult in the foreground, and a common tern in the background – more sandwich terns out of sight on the right, roosting at Sauchope this morning (WC)

Posted August 10, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

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