December 12th   Leave a comment

As I walked through St Andrews today I was struck by the number of grey wagtails I could hear above me. It is the same in Crail during the winter. Grey wagtails desert the streams and rivers and adopt the damp slates of the rooftops. From above, on a wet day, an old town like Crail probably looks just like a huge inverted river to a wagtail, with the depressions the dry bits and the water on the peaks. Grey wagtails have only started doing this in any numbers for the last 50 years. They are becoming urban birds in winter now rather than the slightly exotic birds of remote fast flowing upland or West coast streams from my childhood. What makes a species change to become an urban bird? Blackbirds, for example, moved from woodland to towns only in the last 150 years. They were shy country birds and now they make a good living right in the centre of towns. It is hard to say – evolutionary change, behavioural innovations copied between individuals, new opportunities arising with new habitats being created – all must play a part. Regardless, grey wagtails are very welcome. A brilliant splash of yellow against the grey winter rooftops.

Grey wagtail in its traditional waterside haunts


Posted December 12, 2017 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 10th   Leave a comment

It was below freezing all day today, although with little wind it barely felt cold in the afternoon sunshine. The ground stayed frozen though and every bit of fresh water was also frozen making it a difficult day for birds. Even the edge of the stinky pool – the muddy tidal pool on the left after crossing the golf course just before Fife Ness – was partly frozen, with thin jumbled panes of frozen seawater left at the edges after the water below had drained out at low tide. Crail ducks are always to be found on the shore but there were many more about today as our birds were joined by ducks from further inland where everything must be frozen even harder. There were about 50 wigeon on the shore just north of Balcomie and probably the same number of mallards; there were also a lot of teal but they are much harder to count. Out at sea there were goldeneyes: they are now back for the winter, with a few also in Roome Bay.

Drake goldeneye

Meadow pipit

The stubble fields between Wormiston and Balcomie also are benefitting from the cold weather with hundreds of meadow pipits added to the usual tens there. Right down by the shore where the fields must be the warmest there was a flock of maybe 300 linnets with the meadow pipits. Other things were scattered through this huge flock – skylarks, tree sparrows, corn bunting, reed buntings, yellowhammers and probably a few twite. The flock was too noisy to be able to pick out twite calls for sure. It was a great spectacle when they all flew up onto the overhead wires.

Posted December 10, 2017 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 7th   Leave a comment

There are two sorts of dabbling duck down at Roome Bay at the moment. About 30 or so mallards and at least a couple of pairs of wigeon. Everyone can identify male mallards – the classic duck –with a bright green head. Wigeons are equally easy to identify with the males having an orangey red head with a broad central crown stripe of much paler orange. Female ducks are trickier to identify, but usually come with an accompanying male to help you sort them out initially, ready for when you do see a female on its own. Wigeons have a very appealing whistling call, a “whee – you” that is evocative of cold winter days and the coast.

Male wigeon

Posted December 7, 2017 by aboutcrail in Sightings

December 4th   Leave a comment

Pheasants were brought to my attention this morning when a neighbour brought round a road kill bird for identification. It was a female pheasant that must have been hit by a car and then died close to the side of the road. Apart from being dead, it was in good condition and if I was so inclined I could have plucked and eaten it without any problem after lying overnight in the equivalent of a fridge. Even if I wasn’t a vegetarian I would be off road kill after spending a summer sharing a house with a road kill enthusiast. The smell of several days’ old hare slow cooking on the top of a stove all day would test the resolve of most carnivores.

An understated female pheasant

I have been noticing a lot of road kill pheasants in the last couple of weeks. They must be on the move, looking for good foraging areas further afield as the colder weather reduces their local options. Striding between fields rather than flying makes them an easy target. And when pheasants do fly they tend to do it quite low also making them a target. There seems also to be another peak in pheasant road kill at the end of the winter when the males start looking for females. The carnage on the roads makes you start to do some mental maths to convert the number of kills to a density per kilometre, and then to multiply this up to the huge length of roads we have in the UK. You soon end up with an unfeasibly large number where millions of pheasants are being squashed per year. It is certainly true a lot get squashed (but then tens of thousands get released for shooting each year…but that is another story), but you can’t do this kind of back of the envelope calculation. For a start you only begin this exercise when you see a few road kills and we travel inevitably on the busiest roads most of the time. So the initial number is inflated, and when you multiply this up the error gets inflated much, much more.

And another thing about pheasants. Have you noticed how if you see a group in the fields at the moment they are either all males or all females? They are in groups because of safety in numbers, but the females don’t join the male groups because the males are so conspicuous. There is no hiding a male pheasant’s gilded plumage and they are beacons to buzzards and, where they occur, goshawks. A female, even in a group can flatten itself down in a field and disappear with its mottled pale brown plumage. This is essential when they are sitting on nests in the spring. Males just have to hope for the best. They are massively handicapped in terms of anti predation, but then again one that survives the winter and that still has that flashy plumage in the spring must have a good set of genes. Males play the male game where conspicuousness in the long run is a good thing.

Mr conspicuous – a male pheasant

Posted December 4, 2017 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 30th   Leave a comment

Every morning for the last few days I have been driving past a big flock of black-headed gulls feeding in the rough pasture field on the right just as you come into Kingsbarns from Crail. There is a wall between the road and the field and many of the black-headed gulls are hidden behind it. But as cars come past, the hidden gulls close to the wall and so the road fly up in alarm, presumably because of the noise. This then makes a wave of panic dragging up the gulls further away from the road. Even those who can see that the source of the disturbance is a passing car and so nothing to really worry about join the temporary panic. The gulls swirl around a bit but then soon settle down again. Until the next lot of cars repeats the process. You can imagine that if this goes on all day then the gulls will be using more energy than they will be gaining feeding in this disturbed place. And why should the gulls further in the field – both further from the disturbance and with better information that the alarm is false be drawn into this time and energy wasting? I think the answer might be that even though it seems the conditions are cold and difficult for the gulls, it is not really the case. They can afford to “waste” energy because the foraging is actually very good in the field. And from their point of view, with costs covered, they should not take any chances. The gull that cleverly stays on the ground ignoring its flock mates during each false alarm will sooner or later be the single sitting target in the field when it turns out to be a real alarm, when a hungry buzzard or peregrine jinks over the wall. Sometimes it pays to stick with the crowd even when the crowd is doing something foolish…just in case.

Black-headed gull flock – there is safety in numbers, but only if you stick with the crowd

Posted November 30, 2017 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 26th   Leave a comment

A clear, cold and bright morning. Balcomie Beach and adjacent rocky shores have their winter bird communities now. Hundreds of herring gulls loafing on the rocks; mallards, wigeons and eiders with the occasional red-breasted merganser in the water between; redshanks, oystercatchers, sanderling, ringed plover and turnstones on the mud patches with an occasional grey plover or curlew. The cold weather has meant that a few of the redshanks have been taking risks and have tried their luck feeding on the top of the beach or on the golf course behind: not much luck though – I found two fresh redshank kills, probably by sparrowhawks.

One of the 2-3 grey plovers at Balcomie now


Posted November 26, 2017 by aboutcrail in Sightings

November 25th   Leave a comment

MOBB first ringed in November 2012…

I have been in Africa for the last two weeks. Following the migrants to the middle of Nigeria. Catching nightingales, whitethroats, yellow wagtails and whinchats to put colour-rings and tags on to find out what they need during the winter and whether the changes in Africa will mean some will still come back again each spring. Three days ago I took an adult male whinchat out of a net that was already ringed. MOBB (Metal Orange Blue Blue). We first caught this one as a young male on the 10th November 2012, so it was born sometime in May or June that year. Probably in Eastern Europe or in Russia: most of the whinchats we have tagged have gone there to breed, although they range from Serbia to Finland to the Ural Mountains – about one quarter of Europe. And here it was again, about 100 meters away from where it was originally caught, but separated by 5 years of time and over 66,000 kilometres of travel in between. Not bad for a bird the size of a robin. It’s impossible not to like birds.

Back to eight hour days and cold weather, and no African birds here until next March or April.

MOBB recaught 3 days ago, still going strong 5 years later

Posted November 25, 2017 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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