May 28th   Leave a comment

There is a fundamental birding law – something equivalent to sod’s law – that if a family member has an important celebration in another country, that cannot be missed, then something will turn up on your local patch while you are away. I left Crail on Wednesday as the easterly winds continued and I watched the text messages start to come in from the May Island on Thursday – a short-toed lark, icterine warblers, red-backed shrikes and a marsh warbler. David Steel the warden of the May Island has been a little down (and if you have met him you will know that it takes a lot to get Davey down) because of the lack of birds this spring. But this has all changed: his series of euphoric texts last week indicated that there might even be some migrants appearing at last around Crail. Sure enough, a red-backed shrike was found in the walled garden at Balcomie on Sunday morning. I got a text about it as I was heading back to Crail, but got home too late to go and see it. Migrants head off early evening if they are going to continue their journey, so the fact that it was still around late afternoon didn’t mean very much (although better than nothing of course).

I headed down to Balcomie at 6 this morning. The aftereffects of the family celebration on Saturday night precluded an earlier start: first light is not really a realistic option at this time of year in any case (well before 4 am now). I consoled myself that shrikes like big insects and big insects like to get up late too, when its warmer and dryer. If it had been an isabelline or a woodchat shrike, and so new to my Crail list, perhaps. Even so I had Balcomie and the haar to myself. It was quite thick first thing with visibility down to about 50 meters. I think it probably worked in my favour. I entered the garden and straight away saw the shrike perched on a bit of dead bush in the middle about 30 meters away. I watched it and it watched me moving slowly past it until I was about 10 meters away. It then stopped watching me and flew down to grab one of those late rising large beetles and resumed its perch. Not really bothered about me at all. I had one of my closest ever encounters with a shrike. Very close, but I was confident it wasn’t disturbed as it changed perches, sometimes closer to me, sometime further away, fully concentrating on feeding. It would pause between sallies, perched immobile on a washing line post or branch and I could fully admire every little crescent mark on its underparts and the slight mask and subtle shading on the head. A really special moment even if this hadn’t been the first Crail shrike for three years.

One hundred years ago red-backed shrikes were common in many parts of Britain. 38 years ago I saw my first red-backed shrike at one of its last nesting sites in the Brecklands of East Anglia. It was a Young Ornithologist’s Club – the old and stiff name for the RSPB’s young people section – trip out from Cambridge. The leaders got a telling off at the time for showing us such a rare bird. But I am glad they did. That this was the last nest in England of a bird that had once been a common made a big impression on me. I learned that you shouldn’t take things for granted on that trip. And the excitement of the unusual made me come back for others, reinforcing an interest that still brings me joy every day.

I left with another happy heart, even with a day of marking students’ exams ahead. And the haar blew away as I reached Crail revealing a sunny, warm day. Perfect for a shrike to refuel in. It was still there last thing this afternoon but tonight will be clear. If it is still here tomorrow, it will be visible from the track just before you get to the entrance Balcomie farmyard. Check the dead branches of the trees and bushes in the orchard between the sheep field and the walled garden, or the steel washing line supports under the big sycamore. It is well worth seeing. Red-backed shrikes have started breeding again in Britain but it will be a very long time – if ever – before they become commonplace here.

The female red-backed shrike at Balcomie this morning

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Posted May 28, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 20th   Leave a comment

Spotted flycatcher

The weekend was a quiet one for this time of year. There was only a little migration. A few waders at Fife Ness, Arctic terns still passing steadily out at sea, a male wheatear on a wire during my Sunday morning corn bunting circuit and a final tiny surge late on Sunday afternoon with a spotted flycatcher and a lesser whitethroat at Kilminning. I was cooking supper for my family but felt compelled to go and twitch the last two birds just because it had been so quiet. And if you ignore something like a lesser whitethroat then it will certainly be the last one that turns up in the year. The spotted flycatcher was dashing around the treetops so was easy to find, but the lesser whitethroat was silent or had moved on. I couldn’t find it in the twenty minutes I had before I had to dash back to my cooking. Still a spotted flycatcher is always a nice bird and they have been one of my favourites since I started birding in 1979. They were a fairly common garden bird then (in large, well treed suburban gardens) and they were always entertaining as they lined up on fence wires or washing lines to flycatch. The closest place they breed to Crail is Cambo and at Boarhills along the burns, but not every year. They are still fairly common on the west coast and every self-respecting midge-infested holiday rental has its pair of spotted flycatchers visiting the back garden.

Although it is a late season, there are plenty of birds fledging chicks now, or just about to. The house and tree sparrows in my garden are feeding quite large chicks now, and the starlings are getting very agitated about crows which indicates that their chicks are about to fledge. The adult starlings often go down to the beach to forage on seaweed flies, where they can collect beakfuls of food very easily. Of course, when the young fledge they head down to the beach as soon as they can fly well to get this easy meal directly. The “as soon as they can fly well” is important. There is no cover down on the shore if a sparrowhawk turns up, and the sparrowhawks themselves will soon have lots of hungry chicks to feed.

Starling at Balcomie collecting seaweed flies for its chicks

Now is a good time to track down a sedge warbler. These incredibly vigorous singers are most obvious at the moment, churring, reeling and chacking continuously from weedy bramble patches and ditches around Crail. Occasionally they will launch themselves up into a song flight, making themselves easily visible before descending back into cover. They also sometimes sing perched out in the open and show their big white eye stripe contrasting with a dark crown and face that makes them more distinctive than your average warbler. The rough ground above the cliffs of Roome Bay just before Saucehope Caravan Park is perhaps the easiest place in Crail to see sedge warblers. A pair was scrapping with a pair of common whitethroats yesterday which made them completely oblivious to their normal rules of skulking.

Sedge warbler – listen out for the continuous churring, buzzing, rattling and chacking song from a weedy patch

Posted May 20, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 16th   Leave a comment

The lure of such good weather was too strong today and I had to work at home so I could sit outside listening to the swifts and swallows and tree sparrows passing over. And rather surprisingly a red-throated diver going directly overhead making its quacking call that I more often associate with their passage to and from west coast lochans (where they nest) to the sea (where they often feed).

A red-throated diver – they have a deep slow quacking call in flight during the breeding season

And by the afternoon I just had to go out for a bit to see what was about. I staked out the yellow wagtail breeding field again. There may have been as many as 7 about this year so I am keen to confirm just how many pairs are breeding. I found a male quite quickly but it was moving a lot, all the way from Kirkmay to the horse fields in front of the Stockwell’s farm. That was it for 30 minutes but as I left it in the horse field and headed back to Crail, 3 more yellow wagtails came up from Kirkmay and flew over towards the field with the first bird. So, 4 yellow wagtails at least, suggesting more than one breeding pair. They should hatch chicks any day now so it should get easier to pin down just how many when they start going backwards and forwards to the nest(s) every few minutes.

Four yellow wagtails just outside Crail today including this male

Later I was passing through the Logan’s farm (immediately north west of Crail) looking for corn buntings when I flushed a flock of 14 feeding in a field corner. These birds were still behaving as a winter flock and certainly were not breeding yet. So, more territories are likely to appear around Crail. Good news for corn buntings but every field will need checking again…

Posted May 16, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 13th   Leave a comment

The sea was fantastically calm and flat this morning after the heavy rain overnight. There was occasional haar coming in on the feeble easterlies, but between the banks it was crystal clear without any heat haze. Perfect for watching seabirds come past. And suddenly lots of puffins were visible – the first of the year for me – although they have been at the May Island for several weeks now. There were Arctic terns still passing, probably thousands over the course of the day: in the afternoon there was a flock of over 100 feeding while I sat at Fife Ness. I also saw my first manx shearwaters of the year and a great skua. As I sea watched I heard a common sandpiper calling from the rocky shore. There are almost no waders on the shore now apart from late migrants like these. Inland it was much as yesterday – the marsh warbler was only heard briefly today at the Patch, but the willow warblers and whitethroats made up for it with another day of intense singing. I think there are a lot whitethroats about this year now – more territories than ever. Whitethroat numbers have been increasing (after declining hugely last century) and it does seem that there is a whitethroat in almost every hedge and bush around Crail.

One of the many singing common whitethroats around Crail at the moment

Posted May 13, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 12th   Leave a comment

The first rare bird of the year turned up today. A marsh warbler in the Patch at Fife Ness. I got a text from John Anderson at lunchtime that it was around, having been found early this morning. I immediately biked down to Fife Ness and found a few people in the middle of the Patch staking out some gorse bushes and sycamores where it had just been seen – although briefly and not too well. It took a few minutes for me to find it. Luckily it was singing every few minutes so even though it was keeping to the dense vegetation and often very low down it was locatable and easily identifiable. Marsh warblers are very undistinguished birds – practically identical to reed warblers – and indeed a whole suite of even rarer warblers, but they have a fantastic and very distinctive song. They are famous mimics, throwing together lots of phrases of other species between the rhythmic churring phrases that characterise the whole group. Over 90 species have been picked out of marsh warbler songs, even including species that the marsh warblers spend their winter months with in places like Uganda or Tanzania. So even though I only had mostly brief glimpses through holes in the vegetation, it was a nice bird to encounter as it showed off its song. There were a couple of occasions when it flew up into the top of a sycamore and showed itself a little better. You could then just about make it its more olivey tones above and dirty white below, rather than the rufous and buffs of a reed warbler. But fairly technical and it would have been a stretch to identify without its song to help.

There was a lot of song at Fife Ness today. The willow warblers, whitethroats and sedge warblers seem to be trying to make for lost time. Out at sea I saw the first Arctic terns of the year passing. They are late as well but only by about a week. There was a steady stream of them heading north, on their final leg of their incredible migration from a winter spent in the Antarctic ocean.

Arctic Tern

Later I went out along the old railway track to Kingsbarns and then back along the main road looking for corn buntings. Another five singing birds to add to the list by the time I had finished although I suspect more – I picked up two initially just perched on low fences and then they barely sang. More repeat visits are needed. It’s not a bad thing though. It’s a nice route and on a day like today with everything else singing (especially the whitethroats) and the possibility of some more rare migrants hardly a chore.

More corn buntings today

Posted May 12, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 8th   Leave a comment

The swifts are back in. I came home this evening and heard a scream, I looked up and there were seven over the high street. Back for the summer. Their arrival is always pretty much all or nothing. No steady trickle of the first pioneers and then gradual accumulation like the swallows. They just appear. Usually in the evening, usually all together, and acting as if they have never been away. I would like to think that our swifts were in Spain or the south of France yesterday, and Morocco the day before. Four months of Africa back with us again.

The swifts are back

Posted May 8, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

May 7th   Leave a comment

There are still a lot of wheatears around: I saw several on spring sown wheat fields around Crail today, although there are only a handful left on the rocky shore at Balcomie. The whimbrels are still about in smaller numbers too including one with some wheatears in a field up at the Stockwell’s farm. I was out most of the day looking for corn buntings so was looking at a lot of fields. I discovered today that they take a bit of a singing holiday between 9 – 11 in the morning, and a repeat visit in the afternoon to the same fields I checked earlier in the day turned up quite a few more. The easiest place to see corn buntings around Crail is on the track past the rape field out from Balcomie Caravan Park to Wormiston. There is usually a singing bird right by the track on top of one of the taller rape plants. I think there are at least 3 corn bunting pairs around this field. Another easy one is half way along the second field on your left as you head out of Crail on the road to Fife Ness. There is a single bush about two meters high just by the road and the corn bunting is usually – and very conspicuously – on top of this.

The corn bunting that is singing in the rape field by Balcomie Caravan Park

I had a sea watch from Fife Ness mid-afternoon. The wind was southerly today so brought seabirds in fairly close. The usual early summer crowd of kittiwakes, gannets and auks were passing by. Two little gulls also came past heading north – they are much scarcer in the spring than in the late summer. A pair of common scoters came past heading south. The male, I noticed, had a white belly. I expect them to be all black. First year birds, however, have a white belly, and this male almost looked like a tufted duck as it came past. Which reminds me. The pair of tufted ducks is back on the pond at Wormiston House, and they look like they will breed there again.

Common scoter – the 5th one from the left is an immature male like I saw today. A typical all black adult male is the second from left. In the middle are two females.

Posted May 7, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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