Archive for the ‘Sightings’ Category

February 17th   Leave a comment

February always seems to be the quietest month of the year. The excitement of starting the New Year is done by the end of January when most of the usual birds are on the year list, and there is then little change in the bird community until March. True this year spring does seem to have started early but this is just the resident birds getting more active rather than any new birds coming through. We might expect the first migrants to only start passing in March with the meadow pipits, lesser black-backed gulls and if we are lucky with some easterlies, a black redstart or two.

I was out at all my usual haunts this weekend – Balcomie, Kilminning, Fife Ness, Kingsbarns and the fields and shore between them and Crail. The most unusual bird was a little grebe diving amongst the flooding rock pools at Balcomie. I have had little grebes there before in the winter but only very rarely. This, the one at Crail harbour last month and the tens at Carnbee Reservoir still fit the pattern of a great breeding season last year and low mortality this winter. Every little pond should have a breeding little grebe this year – maybe even the pond at Cambo. Other birds of note were a good number of twite in with the linnets in the sheep fields just north of Kingsbarns; a roosting grey plover on the shore at Kingsbarns and quite a few red-throated diver past Fife Ness.

Little Grebe

The gardener at Wormiston House found a dead bird of prey on Thursday 15thand dropped it round to my house for identification. She was also suspicious that there might have been some foul play because it was lying intact on a path with no sign of injury. It was a young male sparrowhawk and it was about as skinny as a bird can get. No fat at all on it and its breast muscles were so reduced that its keel was almost sharp. I doubt it could fly very well. It had starved to death: not too an uncommon fate for a first-year bird with limited hunting experience. Bad luck is a terrible thing for an athlete predator. Once a bird of prey starts losing condition, then they are less likely to be able to hunt successfully and so they lose even more condition. A positive feedback spiral that results in rapid starvation. Sparrowhawks breed every year from 1 year’s old, can live for several years and can produce 5 chicks in a season. They are not uncommon, but we are not overrun with sparrowhawks. So – as Darwin famously worked out – most must never get to breed. The poor hunters, the less capable and the unlucky meet natural selection, and this can be as brutal for sparrowhawks as it is for their prey. It is worth bearing in mind when a sparrowhawk crashes through your bird feeder, carrying off a hapless tree sparrow or chaffinch. They have a quick, sudden, unanticipated death. The failing sparrowhawk will have days of getting less and less able to feed itself, before starving to death. Not every young sparrowhawk dies in their first winter of course. I saw two today doing much better. One with a newly caught yellowhammer at Kingsbarns – in fact the length of the footpath by the sheep fields was punctuated by little piles of feathers from previous kills, mostly linnets. The second, only noticed because of the blue tits alarming as it approached, slipping silently and quickly over the wall of my garden, with just a centimetre to spare to better surprise anything in my neighbour’s garden. There is a such a duality with a sparrowhawk hunt –rooting for the prey but also rooting for the hawk. I see many more unsuccessful hunts than successful ones – it’s about 10-15% success rate for a sparrowhawk. Their margins are tight.

The dead male sparrowhawk from Wormiston – that’s my foot on the left to show how small males actually are

Greenfinches have been declining throughout the UK because of an epidemic of trichomonosis. They have been relatively hard to find around Crail in the last few years. But this spring they seem to be all over Crail and surrounding area. Hopefully they are over the disease and their populations are bouncing back. They are very cheerful spring singers and brighten up any garden, so I am very glad they seem to be returning.

Greenfinch – welcome back


Posted February 17, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 14th   1 comment

It has almost begun to feel a bit like spring these last few days. This morning it was ten degrees and there was a lot of birdsong as I walked through Crail first thing. The robins and wrens have been singing a while, but they are now joined by great tits, blackbirds, song thrushes, greenfinches and dunnocks. This evening, just as it was getting dark – now nearly at 6pm – there was a single blackbird singing from a rooftop on the High Street close to my garden. It was perfectly still and in between the occasional cars otherwise perfectly silent. The blackbird had the air all to itself, broadcasting its territory and readiness for spring to Crail. Blackbirds may have the nicest, most beautiful song in the world: I have heard a lot of them, but still think it is hard to beat a solo singing blackbird.

A beautiful male blackbird – one of our best, if not the best, singers

Another sign of spring is the returning fulmars. Some come back to sit on their nests in February even though they won’t lay any eggs until May. Older birds seem to visit their nests constantly through the year except for mid-winter. How the pairs synchronise their visits to coincide seems to be a mystery, but perhaps one just has to wait until its mate appears. This might explain why there is such a lot of hanging around.


Posted February 14, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 10th   Leave a comment

Balcomie Beach hasn’t changed much in the last week. Lots of a sanderlings and a few dunlin, although the golden and grey plover have moved on. At sea there seem to be more long-tailed ducks – probably 20 out from Fife Ness – in a busy flock with some of the males displaying to the females.

One of the 25 or so sanderling on Balcomie Beach at the moment

Yesterday I saw a colour-ringed juvenile great black-backed gull roosting with some herring gulls by the boating pond at Roome Bay. The ringer got back to me very promptly this morning after I googled the ring number and type to find their identity. It was ringed as a chick on Rona (the northerly bit of the May Island) on the 25th June 2018, and was seen again at Fife Ness in August and now again in Crail, 230 days later and only 8 km from where it was born. Some birds don’t disperse very far. Gulls are long lived and this gull may be here for next 40 years, so I will be keeping an eye out for it future winters.

Yellow 097:M. The colour-ringed great black-backed gull at Roome Bay yesterday.

The shag ring on harbour beach – you need the colour and the 3 letters. This is a white ring that has got dirty and dull in the 5 years the shag was wearing it.

I was also handed a shag ring yesterday found on harbour beach. I emailed Professor Jane Reid at Aberdeen University, one of the leaders of the project that has been ringing shags on the May Island for many years now, to find out its history. This bird had led a slightly more interesting life than the great black-backed gull. The shag was also ringed in June as a chick on the May Island, but back in 2013. It has bred on the island ever since although in winter it has wandered as far as Aberdeenshire. It was last seen alive at Fife Ness in September and considering that the ring has now washed up in Crail, minus a corpse, it probably died soon afterwards. If you have ever looked at the shags flying past  Crail, or hauled out on the rocks at Fife Ness, you can’t fail to have noticed most are ringed with their own three letter code and colour. If you ever note down a combination or find a ring (often on a washed up corpse after a winter’s storm), then let me know and I will pass it on. The study has thousands of sightings now but the more the merrier because like the gulls, shags can live a long time, and finding a ring can complete a history of a bird, showing categorically that it has died rather than having gone somewhere else to live where there is no-one to spot its rings.

A shag breeding on the May Island – almost all of them are colour-ringed, and many of them were ringed as chicks on the island

Posted February 10, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

February 2nd   Leave a comment

Balcomie Beach was much busier than the past few weeks. Some of the birds, like the flocks of starling, were taking advantage of the frost free seaweed piles to forage in, but I am not sure why there were more waders unless the colder weather elsewhere has pushed more our way. There were probably 50 sanderling on the beach and 20 dunlin. Really noticeable were the two grey plover and the 20 or so golden plover foraging along the tide edge. Golden plover aren’t that unusual on Balcomie Beach but they tend not to be foraging. Today they all were, probably because of the frozen ground elsewhere. Grey plover have been absent from Balcomie Beach for the whole winter until now: we usually have at least one resident. Splitting grey and golden plover is slightly tricky, but grey plovers are, well, grey in tone, and never show any golden brown, or any brownish tones that golden plover do. There are some structural differences but today both species were hunched up because of the cold so they were no help. If you see one flying, just check the underwing. Grey plovers have a big black patch on their armpit (wing pit!) whereas golden plover just have a uniform pale underwing.

Grey plover – all greys and blacks

Golden plover – lots of yellowy brown. For once the names are really helpful for identification.

As I watched the beach a sparrowhawk made an attack dash from the southernmost headland. It headed out so it was parallel to the beach, well out to sea and so I think hoping it would be much more unexpected and inconspicuous. Sparrowhawks don’t usually make their attacks from the sea side and shorebirds will respond to an alarm call by flying out to sea. It’s plan didn’t succeed and the golden plovers spotted it first tens of meters out. The beach emptied and the sparrowhawk continued over the beach and disappeared over the golf course. The waders were back in a couple of minutes. When its cold they can’t afford to waste energy flying about and they can’t waste feeding time. A sparrowhawk can just try again and again on a cold day.

John was out at the beach a bit later and saw a sparrowhawk making a similar attack in exactly the same place. This time the sparrowhawk caught a turnstone. Turnstones rely a lot on the camouflage and will sometime crouch when a raptor attacks. This is a great strategy for peregrines which catch in flight but very poor for sparrowhawks which catch prey on the ground. The sparrowhawk was a young male and turnstones represent the upper end of the comfortable size of prey they can handle easily. The sparrowhawk carried its prey to the edge of the beach and but had to land to readjust its grip on the struggling turnstone. This attracted the attention of a couple of carrion crows who were quick to come in to steal the turnstone. Carrion crows are much larger than a male sparrowhawk and when they work as a pair the outcome is pretty certain: the sparrowhawk gives way. When I was doing my PhD many years ago on the other side of the Firth of Forth, I studied sparrowhawk hunting behaviour, and many of their hunts on shorebirds – sometimes 25% – resulted in a theft of their prey by a carrion crow. Sometimes the prey even escaped during the scuffle between the hawk and the crows. The crucial factor for the sparrowhawk was whether it could get the prey into dense cover before the crows caught up with it. There is no cover at the back of Balcomie Beach except marram grass, and although even this puts crows off a bit, it is not much cover at all. I wonder if this influences their hunting tactics: attacking something small and more portable like a starling or a pipit would seem to be a better strategy.

Sparrowhawk with the just caught turnstone

A few minutes later – after a carrion crow stole the turnstone from the sparrowhawk. The technical term is “kleptoparasitism”

I did a quick sea watch from Fife Ness. It was a bit cold for a sustained watch. There were some long-tailed duck, a couple of red-throated divers and a distant adult little gull heading north. They are fairly unusual at this time of year. As I returned to Crail there were more golden plover spread out across the field east of Balcomie Caravan Park. That’s another way to identify golden plover – you will almost never see a grey plover in a farmland field.

Posted February 2, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 30th   Leave a comment

Woodpigeons are a very common bird. Probably our most abundant larger bird. You can’t have failed to notice the big flocks around Crail this winter. So much available food for large birds of prey. It’s a shame we don’t have any goshawks about: there are enough woodpigeons to support several pairs. I did see one of our peregrines having a go today though as I returned from St Andrews, early enough that there was still light in the sky. A female (big!) was stooping at a flock of several hundred woodpigeon wheeling around the sheep fields just north of Bow Butts, trying to get a meal sorted before a very cold night. I didn’t see whether it was successful but I have been seeing lots of piles of plucked woodpigeon feathers in the stubble fields over the last couple of months. Buzzards and sparrowhawks catch woodpigeons as well so these will not all be peregrine kills. Even so, numerically, the peregrines will barely be making a dent in the thousands of woodpigeons in the East Neuk. They will, however, be making a difference in how long woodpigeons can feed and how much energy they use: when you see the trees covered with alert woodpigeons, or a wheeling flock, they have probably been spooked by a predator and they have to wait to be sure that the coast is clear. After all who wants to be the first to break cover if the peregrine is still around? In cold weather like today, this might make all the difference between breaking even energetically as individuals use more energy than they gain. Some woodpigeons will be starting to starve because they are too frightened to feed for as long as they need to. The fear of predation has a much bigger effect than the actual act itself. That peregrine being around Crail this evening may have pushed some of the weaker birds over the edge and a very cold night may then finish the job. And if not, these starving birds will be easy pickings the following day for the buzzards and sparrowhawks and foxes, less well adapted to catching a healthy, fast flying woodpigeon.

Peregrine – you just need one around for it to have big effects on its prey

Posted January 31, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 27th   2 comments


It is a great twite winter. They keep on being reported from all over the East Neuk and today I had over 100 birds – probably many more than this – in the stubble and harvested cabbage fields (now with sheep in them) going east out of Boarhills towards the sea. As you leave Boarhills heading for the coastal path, you can go either left or right at the doocote but if you continue east along the road past a few houses one field on from the main village, you then hit the twite fields. I have never seen so many together. They are keeping together in 2-3 large flocks, occasionally mixed in with the many yellowhammers and corn buntings that are also down there. I continued down to the pond and Kenly water. All was much as on New Year’s Day, and no luck again getting a water rail to respond.

Posted January 27, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

January 22nd   Leave a comment

There is a flock of 6 bullfinch going around the gardens of Crail at the moment. Bullfinches come and go in Crail – we can have several years without them – but there seem to be a lot about at the moment. I have been hearing them all over the East Neuk, their soft whistling “who” that they use to keep in contact is a giveaway. Despite their very bright plumage they can be quite inconspicuous, often staying quite still – it is only their calls that really draw attention.

Male Bullfinch

Posted January 22, 2019 by wildcrail in Sightings

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