October 6th   Leave a comment

One of the reasons I love birding so much is that birds can and do turn up anywhere – in dull places, in routine moments – suddenly transforming them into something special. This happened this evening on a dog walk. I hardly ever go out dog walking in Crail at dusk – you can’t really see anything – and there is something a bit suspect about walking around town at night with a pair of binoculars. Anyway, we are dog sitting at the moment, and as often happens when teenage daughters are tasked with something, the afternoon dog walk didn’t happen, so it was left up to me and my wife to walk our dog guest, Jack, last thing. I nearly left by binoculars behind but there was just a bit of light left and so I hoped that if we headed down to Roome Bay we could at least appreciate the gulls coming to roost. It was a beautiful evening tonight, so Jack and daughter were quickly forgiven. Birds or no birds, Crail is a lovely place to walk around just after sunset. We ended up on Roome Bay beach admiring the May in the gloaming when I heard a bird calling from the gorse bushes at the east end of the bay, above us. A distinctive “ping” – a bearded tit! They have very distinct metallic pinging calls and when you start birding their call is one of the first ones you learn. Because it is very distinctive and also because bearded tits are reedbed specialists and are great skulkers. If you want to ever see them you have to learn their call so you can locate them flying suddenly between dense reed clumps. And so here is the problem – bearded tits are one of the most habitat specialised birds in the UK. They only ever occur in reedbeds: I have never seen a bearded tit except on a reed stem, in a reedbed. Of course, they must disperse between patches of reedbeds and I have read very occasional accounts of people seeing a flock flying up from a reedbed noisily and heading high and with purpose away from it, presumably on the start of a hunt for somewhere new. But these are like stories of narwhals (real unicorns) – I would never expect to see one unless I go to the special places where they live.

A male bearded tit – obviously not the Crail one tonight because this is in a reedbed where they always are.

But here was a bearded tit, pinging among the ticking robins in a gorse bush in Roome Bay. Just as I was pointing out the possible bearded tit (only a possible at this point because although I know their call really well we were in unicorn territory here) to my wife, who knows the call too, Jack started barking picking up on my excitement. A rapid turnaround from the hero of the hour for getting me out, to the zero of now, making it impossible to hear the bird. I ran away as fast as I could up from the beach back onto the footpath and along to the side of the gorse bushes, reaching for my phone to play back bearded tit call so I could double check it wasn’t all wishful thinking. As my phone started pinging too, a bird popped out of the gorse immediately. Despite the waning light, it was a lovely view – a male bearded tit – they are like painted porcelain and this bird was unusually out in the open, moving along the fence just above the beach towards me. Bearded tits are one of the most social bird species. They hate being on their own and I have always seen them in flocks. This poor dispersing male must have thought it had hit the jackpot and found some other bearded tits in Crail after hearing my playback. I turned my playback off feeling guilty, but perhaps not very guilty because this was now definitely a bearded tit, in Crail, not just a possible unicorn. Number 226 for my Crail list and not one I was ever expecting to get. The closest ones in Fife are over on the Tay estuary and as I have said they never go anywhere but reedbeds.

The bird was a beautiful male. Bearded tits are unusual in that first year birds adopt full adult plumage straight away in their first autumn so this could easily have been a dispersing juvenile. It pinged away in the gorse bush for another few minutes as it began to get properly dark. I imagine it will be roosting there tonight. John and I will try to get a photo at first light tomorrow before it sets off on its continued journey to find a reedbed and some real bearded tit companions.

New Crail birds notwithstanding, today was a nice autumn day, with just the hint of promise to it. The wind was just a bit from the north overnight and this morning there were a couple of redwings – my first for the winter – two chiff-chaffs, and a lot of robins and goldcrests, that probably all came in last night. Some obvious small bird migration at last. By mid-morning the wind was back westerly and the brief hope was extinguished. Conditions were good for sea-watching though and I spent an hour mid-afternoon at Fife Ness. It was all long distance stuff, but in an hour I had three sooty shearwaters (my first definites for the year) and about five manx shearwaters milling around with the hundreds of kittiwakes, gannets and auks feeding in dense flocks out at the horizon. There was a steady stream of great skuas passing through the flocks – 12 or more in the hour – and at least three arctic skuas harassing the kittiwakes. There were even a few bottle-nosed dolphins to make it a real seabird spectacular. Shame it was all happening out at 60x magnification on the horizon. But the visibility was great, only a light breeze and no heat haze, and there was something to look at continually for the hour. It would have made it great Crail day, never mind random bearded tits later.

Sooty shearwater – at last making it onto the year list today. There were three out with the gannets and kittiwakes at Fife Ness this afternoon


Posted October 6, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

September 30th   Leave a comment


The winds were less strong today although it was still windy from the west. It was much quieter at Fife Ness. No skuas and barely any kittiwakes. The gannets saved the day as always. It is easy to take them for granted, but really, the sight of 50 or more gannets plunge diving simultaneously into a choppy sea always makes it a good day. I walked the coastal path in a loop from Kilminning to get to Fife Ness and counted at least 15 stonechats on the way – a record. The cold winter must have been offset by a great breeding season and there are stonechats all along the coastal path now.

A male stonechat – one of the many along the coastal path between Crail and Fife Ness at the moment

Posted September 30, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

September 29th   Leave a comment

The relentless westerlies continue. Today it was too windy to do anything but seawatch, and the barnacle geese seemed to agree. They must be taking a break from migrating today, with only a few flocks battling it up the Forth past Crail in late afternoon, just above the waves. Fife Ness was busy but again all very far out – in an hour I had three great skuas, an arctic skua, a possible pomarine skua, and even a couple of possible sooty shearwaters (right on the horizon and barely above the waves –if they hadn’t been the first of this year I would probably have put them down as definite). There were also a few manx shearwaters, sandwich terns and velvet scoters but otherwise it was wall to wall gannets, kittiwakes and a very large passage of guillemots and razorbills.

More barnacle geese today struggling against the very strong westerlies

Posted September 29, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

September 27th   Leave a comment

I walked out to Caiplie Caves this morning looking for a black redstart that has been seen there for the last week or so. It was grey and blustery and I know how difficult it can be to find a black redstart in such conditions. They tend to forage under the big rocks of the rocky shore and don’t fly about much. On a sunny still day they sit up on more obvious perches. So perhaps not surprisingly I didn’t find it. There were a lot of other small birds foraging among the rocks though: passage meadow pipits and a couple of wheatears, and resident rock pipits, linnets and starlings. A flock of barnacle geese flew by, struggling against the westerly wind. A few flocks were reported coming in yesterday – the first of the winter – and they should be passing Crail for the next few days. They are distinctively black and white with pale grey upper wings, short necks and a distinctive yapping call as they fly by. Mine today were silent though, probably saving energy because of the adverse winds.

Barnacle geese

Juvenile pomarine skua

The wind went round to the north late afternoon and almost immediately the sea watching got better. In 50 minutes looking from my garden I saw a dark juvenile pomarine skua, a couple of little gulls, a great skua, and flocks of hundreds of kittiwakes spread out all over the Forth.

Posted September 27, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

September 26th   Leave a comment

After a cold couple of days, this afternoon the temperature was back up to 20 degrees. It was a beautiful evening, and there were at least three fields being ploughed on my way back from St Andrews to Crail, the tractor in each followed by a blizzard of gulls glowing in the late sunshine. One of the gulls caught my eye as particularly clean and pure white as it flew over the road in front of me just north of Kingsbarns – an adult Mediterranean gull. It is always a thrill to see a Mediterranean gull, even if they are not the big rarity they used to be 30 years ago.

An adult Mediterranean gull – easy to spot with no black in its wings at all, a black smudge directly behind the eye and a dark red bill

Posted September 26, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

September 23rd   Leave a comment

One of the redshank on Balcomie Beach at the moment

The westerly storms have cleared out most of the summer migrants from around Crail. It wasn’t until I got to Kilminning, after Wormiston, Balcomie and the patch at Fife Ness, that I found a couple of willow warblers and a few swallows and a house martin flycatching in the sheltered, sunny corner that had the spotted flycatcher last week. The wheatears and whitethroats have gone, and most of our swallows. From now on any further summer migrants will only appear if we get favourable easterly or south-easterly winds, although we should have a trickle of Scottish swallows passing for the next month regardless of the winds. In contrast, Balcomie Beach was quite busy, with good numbers of dunlin, ringed plovers and redshanks – here now for the winter – and there were still lots of pink-footed geese going over heading south. A flock of four Canada geese also flew over the beach to remind me that they were the commonest goose in the area until the end of last week: they will be outnumbered again as the barnacle geese arrive as well, in the next week or two.

Posted September 23, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

September 22nd   Leave a comment

Little grebes

I don’t go up to Carnbee Reservoir – beside Kellie Law – often enough, especially considering it is the only lake on my Crail patch. I was hoping for some ducks today, like pintail or gadwall, but it was just teal (about 50) and mallards (about 15). There were a lot of little grebes. They can be elusive in the winter but today there were about 20. They have obviously had a good breeding season. The water level is very low after the hot summer but that means exposed mud for waders along the edge. This is hard to see from the road so I walked all the way round the reservoir. I was rewarded with a ruff flying up. There have been a few passing through Fife in the last week and John had one at Fife Ness briefly a couple of days ago. Ruff are fond of all habitats from ploughed fields, to lakes, to beaches and estuaries, and rocky shores – and in Africa they like rice paddies.


I sea watched from Fife Ness this afternoon hopeful that the strong winds might have brought some grey phalaropes our way. It was more interesting than the last couple of weeks. Great visibility so I could see large flocks of hundreds of kittiwakes out at about 4 kilometers through my telescope. Each flock – and there were about seven I could see – seemed to have one or two, and occasionally three arctic skuas with them. Whole flocks would fly up from the sea and then I could usually see a skua chasing one of the kittiwakes and this would then be joined by another for a frenzied tail chase for a few seconds before the skua(s) descended back to the sea and disappeared from sight, followed by the kittiwakes over the next minute. This was happening more or less constantly for the 90 minutes I was watching and there may well have been up to 20 arctic skuas out there. It was quite exciting, although all very distant. I was sitting next to John who doesn’t use a telescope – the better to be ready with his camera – and he barely saw any skuas. Even further out were lines and lines of pink-footed geese coming relentlessly into the Forth and continuing on to the Lothians. At least there were a couple of knot that joined us on the rocks briefly, at closer quarters.

Arctic skua chasing a kittiwake (they steal food from other seabirds, although the larger skuas sometime kill other seabirds like birds of prey)

Posted September 22, 2018 by aboutcrail in Sightings

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