November 22nd   Leave a comment

The sea has been really rough the last couple of days – it settled down a bit today but yesterday the waves were meters high crashing into Crail on the south easterly wind. The nearly full moon last night added to the drama, with lots of pink-footed geese passing over to feed in the moonlit fields between Crail and St Andrews.

A shag and the rough sea yesterday – you can see the colour ring on this bird showing it is a May Island breeder


Posted November 22, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 21st   Leave a comment

A map of all the sightings of JP08 – winter in blue, spring and autumn black, and red summer (one where it was born and the other where it now breeds)

I saw a couple of colour-ringed black-headed gulls among the roost on the rocks just below the entrance to the Saucehope Caravan Park (always a good place to check!)  on the 4th of November. I googled the colour-ring register – there are pages of schemes for individuals ringing gulls throughout Europe. Each has their own “scheme identifier” – a particular colour of ring or a particular sequence of numbers. Gull rings can be larger and so many have alpha-numeric codes as you can see from the photo. They are a bit trickier to read but with a photo through a telescope you can be very sure you haven’t made a mistake. I found the two schemes within a few minutes: the yellow ring bird comes from a scheme in Aberdeen, so I assume the bird was ringed there and the green ringed bird from Norway. I emailed both schemes and heard back from the Norwegian Natural History Museum a couple of days ago. JP08 was ringed as a chick on the 15th June 2014 near Oslo; it winters with us at Crail and Kilminning, having been seen twice in 2017 and now by me this year, and it breeds near Oslo, about 17 km from where it was born, and 880 km from Crail as the gull flies. The longevity record for a black-headed gull is over 30 years so watch out for this Crail winter resident over the next few years. Like most migrant birds, it is very likely to stay faithful to its winter and breeding site for the rest of its life.

The colour-ringed black-headed gulls at Saucehope on November 4th

Posted November 21, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 18th   Leave a comment

I was out around Crail yesterday and Fife Ness and Balcomie this morning. A relatively quiet weekend but there are always memorable moments. In Denburn yesterday afternoon I was watching the now resident long-tailed tit flock moving noisily through the canopy when a blue tit with them gave a frantic alarm call and they all dived into cover, down to the still leafy bushes below the trees. Seconds later a male sparrowhawk passed through, zig-zagging through the upper branches, too late to catch anything. It was gone just as quickly as it appeared and within half a minute the tit flock was reinstated, noisy and bustling again. I watched grey wagtails along the stream in Denburn and further down at its mouth in Roome Bay, enjoying their bright flash of yellow as an inoculation against the dull grey of the weather this weekend. I flushed a couple of woodcock at Fife Ness – they disturbed the stillness of an almost empty Patch. Sea watching was all the usual winter wildfowl – long-tailed ducks, common scoters, eiders and goldeneyes passing – but exciting because of the now easterly wind building up the waves. The red-breasted mergansers and the shags fishing the surf were having a hard time in the disturbed water. There were a couple of kittiwake flocks far out and as I watched one, trying to dream up sabine’s gulls from the juveniles among it, I picked up a skua chasing a kittiwake even further out. A herring gull then tried to join in the chase giving a good size comparison to clinch the identification as an arctic skua – this late it is almost more likely to be a pomarine skua. The only slightly unusual bird of the weekend was a redpoll on a gorse bush alongside Crail golf course. Being perched rather than the more usual flyover, I could identify it as a lesser redpoll, the British sub-species of redpoll (and formerly a species in its own right). Redpolls were split into several species but they are really only one, varying in size and the paleness of their plumage along an east-west and north-south gradient. But when paler Arctic birds jump down, or browner, larger continental birds jump across to join the British redpolls, then they can seem quite different. A really pale Arctic type redpoll is a thing of great beauty and well worth seeing even if it is not a full species, so I will keep checking for them.

Male red-breasted merganser

Posted November 18, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 16th   Leave a comment

It was very mild and without any wind this morning. The sea was just a rolling light swell and relatively calm. I took a visitor out to Fife Ness first thing to see some gannets – they live in Paris and seabirds are in short supply. Unusually no gannets apart from a distant juvenile struggling past in the absence of wind. It is getting late in the season and gannets head off for their winter holiday in the Bay of Biscay about now for the next three months. The consolation was an extended pod of bottle-nosed dolphins passing by at about 100 meters giving great views. They were heading up the coast towards St Andrews bay in a long line, with some nearly leaping out of the water and others milling about as if fishing. They are always hard to count but at least 30 and probably 50 passed over ten minutes.

Bottle-nosed dolphin

Posted November 16, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 13th   Leave a comment

I was scanning out to sea this morning at Fife Ness through my telescope, zoomed in at the horizon, when I picked up a female merlin chasing a skylark. They were high above the sea, the merlin tail chasing the skylark, catching it up and then missing it as the lark suddenly plummeted down. The merlin would dive after it, getting underneath and then the skylark would fly up again. I watched the series of stoops for about a minute, the merlin getting closer and closer to the skylark each ascent. Then they joined, the skylark just a dot, suddenly gone with only the merlin remaining visible. They had been moving out to sea during the chase and the merlin was barely identifiable now it was so far out. The merlin started a steady flight back in the direction of Balcomie. I watched it expecting it to pass close by when it regained land, but I hadn’t realised how far out it was. Five minutes later it was still nowhere near the shore – I had picked it up several kilometres out and it gone even further out during the chase. The energy expended during a merlin pursuit chase – especially when they chase skylarks – is legendary. Both species are endurance flyers. I have timed some chases as lasting more than 11 minutes and this chase must have covered at least five kilometres as the crow flies, never mind the tortuous flight paths during those 5 kilometers of chase and stoop. Then during the long flight back the merlin also had to twice accelerate and climb during its flight when it was chased first by a herring gull and then a common gull trying to unsuccessfully steal its prey. I can’t imagine that once it got back to shore and plucked the skylark that ended up in calorie surplus.

A female merlin at Fife Ness – this is carrying a meadow pipit I watched it catch last October, also well out to sea

Posted November 13, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 12th   Leave a comment

The May Island is very busy at the moment with seal season – they are breeding now. The pups are very vulnerable to storms and high tides and often get washed off the beaches. I found one poor such victim at Pittenweem yesterday.

A grey seal pup – now dead after being washed off the beach on the May and ending up at Pittenweem

Posted November 12, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 11th   Leave a comment

There was a water pipit reported from the beach just west of Pittenweem yesterday afternoon. This would be a new bird for the Crail list so I went out this morning to look for it. I didn’t find it but it was good trip out because I hardly ever look at rock pipits properly and I had to check every single one between Pittenweem and St Monans to make sure I wasn’t overlooking the bird. Rock pipits used to be considered just a subspecies of water pipit so you can imagine they look very similar – and this is particularly so in the winter. I have seen a few winter water pipits and they usually stand out as greyer and whiter with cleaner, brighter patterning and neater streaking. But it can be tricky. Some of the rock pipits this morning looked promising in the bright early morning sunlight but none really survived a closer look through the telescope. One did have bright white outer tail feathers as it flew up but the joker in the pack was the occasional meadow pipit also on the beach – they also have white outer tail feathers. I suspect I missed it, but I’m better prepared to find my own water pipit out at Balcomie after this rock pipit master class.

Rock pipit

Meadow Pipit

As I stumped around the beach I heard a corn bunting singing from the field edge at the top of the cliff just before the garden centre towards St Monans. This is a summer territory and not far from where lots of corn buntings now winter. Although I am hearing corn buntings sing in the winter more often now as they increase in density, it is still an unusual sound at this time of year.

I headed back to Crail for the remembrance service. As I stood outside the Kirk by the war memorial for the two minutes silence I listened to the skylarks and meadow pipits calling as they flew over, the grumpy mistle thrushes arguing over the holly berries and a robin singing sweetly. Only a human silence. I was reminded – and it is one of the most poignant images of the First World War for me – of soldiers describing hearing nightingales, blackbirds and robins singing from no man’s land, and watching the swallows, whinchats and wheatears passing over in the spring. And what that contrast must have meant to those stuck in the trenches.

Posted November 11, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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