Friday 21 August 2020

Birding in Fife

East Sands, St. Andrews

Possibly the only positive to come out of COVID-19 is that working from home has become completely normal, and companies like mine have invested in the technology that makes this extremely straightforward. This means I can work from almost anywhere that has an internet connection; I am no longer tied to Canary Wharf. So this week I have been working remotely from a small village in Fife and there has been no difference whatsoever - I brought a computer monitor and a keyboard up with me from London and which I intend to leave here, plugged in my laptop and worked with two screens just like I do from home. The only giveaway was a different background to my Zoom calls.

I view Fife almost as a second home county. My parents have lived here for many years, and I end up visiting quite frequently, either solo or with the family. As they get older I naturally find myself coming up more than I used to, to the point where I have what amounts to a second wardrobe up here and, now, the main components of a home office so that if needs be I can just grab my laptop and get up here extremely quickly. I've had to do so in the past, and in all likelihood I will have to do so again, such is the way of things. I will also make sure to grab my binoculars, and as I gravitate back towards pure birding rather than birding photography, my telescope, for the birds up here from the perspective of an impoverished urbanite are simply fabulous.

I have not done a great deal between kids, family and work, but I've managed a few early morning and late evening jaunts to my usual haunts as well as discovering a couple of new places. And thanks to the magic of eBird I have also discovered the joys of county listing. I only started using eBird in earnest last year and I'm gradually discovering all of the functionality that this amazing citizen science undertaking can offer. One of these is the ability for it to collate all your records into useful lists of what you have seen where, and then to match this against the totality of the underlying database to show what other people have seen. So if for example I wanted to compare my Fife list against birds seen in Fife in August this year, or indeed in August over a number of years, that is easily done, and a few seconds later it might spit out that I have not seen a Gadwall in the county which is a reasonably expected bird at this time of year. Personally I don't believe a word of it, but clearly there are some gaps in the many historical records that I painstakingly uploaded last year. The system is only as good as the people that use it, which in Fife is really not very many, and so in my quest for Gadwall (found at the second place I looked....) I also found Shoveler and Water Rail, neither of which I had seen in Fife, and neither of which had apparently been seen by any other Fife eBirders in August either. In some ways it is simpler just to ignore it and go birding with no preconceptions at all, which is largely what I ended up doing.

A short seawatch at Fife Ness one morning added Black Tern and Little Gull, a quick walk around a nearby nature reserve added Redpoll and Siskin, and Out Head at St Andrews had a few Whinchat, all of which I find hard to believe I have never seen in fifteen years of birding here but there you have it. What I found far more plausible is that I had never seen a Little Egret in Fife. Coming from down south where they are abundant it seems strange that this species should be so scarce up here, but I remember being really quite excited to see my first one in Perthshire three years ago. Things are clearly changing though as when I rolled up at the Eden Centre at Guardbridge there were no fewer than ten visible from the small screen that faces down the estuary! Ten! Rarity is a fleeting concept, far better was finding a Spotted Redshank sheltering amongst hundreds of its commoner cousins.

Spotted Redshank - dodgy phone-scoped shot.

And it is the waders and sea birds that I have enjoyed most whilst up here. My parents live fifteen minutes from the coast, and so almost everywhere I have been this week has had a backdrop of Oystercatcher and Curlew, Redshank and Turnstone. And not just a few individuals - hundreds. On my seawatch I gave up trying to count the Comic Terns, Gannets and Kittiwakes, the numbers of waders on the Eden estuary at low tide was incredible, and the Little Gull flock off Kinkell Ness currently measures in the hundreds. I am sure you get used to it but coming from suburbia I find this sensational and can't get enough of it. The weather has been rather so-so for most of our stay, with a fair amount of wind and rain and a haar that lasted for days, but in a way this has added to the birds' place in the landscape. An Oystercatcher against a bright blue sky and a calm sea is always nice, but an Oystercatcher against a leaden sky, calling plaintively with waves crashing behind it is even better.