Monday 17 January 2022

Winter birding in Fife

I've just been in Scotland for a week - visiting family as I had not managed to get up over Christmas due to an emergency trip away. Mainly I just worked - my chosen career is relentless, particularly so just after the end of a calendar year. But at the weekend I managed to go on a birding tour of Fife which was simply brilliant. Sadly there are almost no photos, the type of birding up there requires a scope which meant that the camera got left behind.

I started at around 9am at Tentsmuir, which is the top eastern corner, so above St Andrews between the Eden and the Tay. My main target were a small group of Snow Buntings that had been on Kinshaldy beach for the past week or so. Kinshaldy beach is very hard to access at the moment - heavy rain has created a long series of lagoons in the dunes that are more or less impassable for a stretch of about a mile, without wellies I had to walk quite a way north to find a point to cross. This may be working to the advantage of the Buntings with fewer people on the beach. That said the the beach is huge, and even with lots of people there would still be plenty of quiet spots in which to remain undisturbed. Maybe as a result it took me ages and ages, five miles of walking in fact, in order to find 15 out of the reported 25+ birds, and the views were frustratingly brief as they flew over my head back in the direction I had just come from. Still, a county tick is a county tick. A Peregrine flew over early doors.

There are some more permanent lagoons at the northern end, not far beyond the current crossing point, and these held two Mergansers, two Long-tailed Ducks, a Greenshank and a Little Egret (still reasonably scarce in Fife). Offshore there were plenty of Common Scoter, single Slavonian Grebe and Red-throated Diver, and a good number of Grey Plover on the surf line. It had been a good morning of birding but I needed to move on as I would lose the light early.

I skipped the Eden Estuary - a shame as I always enjoy it, but I had managed a short visit during the week where I had finally found Brent Goose as well as a big flock of Scaup in the outer estuary - nearly three figures. I've been birding in Fife for years, my parents moved up from England in about 2005, but my prior list-keeping has been somewhat slack. Brent Goose is scarce in Fife but there is often a small wintering flock on the Eden. I vaguely remember seeing them some years ago but I could find no record of having done so in my spreadsheet, and as my historical eBird records were nearly exclusively generated from this it was missing there too. 

My next stop was instead Cameron Reservoir, where the male Smew was easily picked out about half way down - another new county (well, Kingdom) bird. Loads of ducks today, Wigeon, Goldeneye, Teal and Tufted Duck, with ten Whooper Swans in the field next to the entrance track and a further two out on the water. I had no time to walk around the edge, and the views are mostly not very good until you reach the far end so this felt a little bit like tick and run.


From here it is a short run to the coast - via flocks of Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer - and I emerged near Largo and soon found myself at the entrance to Shell Bay. This has been for years one of my favourite spots to go birding in Fife - Ruddon's Point on a good day can be peerless. I hurried past a huge swirling flock of Linnet up on Kincraig Hill (rumoured to also contain Brambling and Twite) and made my way to Largo Bay. The water was like glass, absolutely brilliant for birding, and I had magnificent views of the Eider flock, of Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters. On the Cocklemill Burn I put up a small flock of Twite with some Reed Buntings, always good to see. I have clear memories of regularly seeing Twite in good numbers on the Fife coastal path, but once again I have no written records. That wrong is now righted. As I made my way back two Ravens cronked overhead and a Mistle Thrush whirred. I nearly trudged up the hill to get a view of the finch flock but decided instead to spend the last hour of the day at Leven where a Black-necked Grebe had been reported earlier - with the water so calm it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up.

I parked in my usual spot near the crappy snack van and scoped the water. There were Long-tailed Duck really close in, what a shame I had no camera, and really good views of Velvet Scoter. The Grebe was a little more distant but I'll take it - the scarcest of all the Grebes in Fife and one I'd never seen up here. Slavs are positively common in comparison. A Black-throated Diver with a couple of Red-throats completed a very successful day.

The birding up in Fife is wonderful, a huge contrast to my local patch in Wanstead at this time of year. Almost everything I saw would be a wonderful bird in London, and I am very pleased that I have the opportunity to visit not just as a one off but on a regular basis. My Fife list is not too far away from 200 these days. Obviously I can't chase rarities as I don't live there, but there are still quite a few common birds I've never seen, or at least not ever noted down. I am suspicious about Crossbill for example, but would be more confident that I've never seen a Barn Owl or a Cuckoo. I've also never spent an autumn in Fife, so I've never seen any of the more regular scarce migrants like RosefinchBarred Warbler or Red-backed Shrike. Maybe that could be a plan for this year?

Of course most of my birding last week was incidental - the odd moment snatched between meetings, gazing out of the window whilst on a conference call. My parents have Bullfinch and Tree Sparrow in their garden. I am sure I have mentioned this before but as a Londoner this is nothing short of sensational. The best bird of the week however was a Jay, a new garden tick for Fife, and only the second or third I've seen in the area. For whatever reason they are far scarcer than they are down here, or at least so it seems, and I only saw my first last year and had to search quite extensively for it. I was just scanning up the hill for Partridges and so on and it flew right across and into the woods towards Star. #53 for my second garden - a long way to go!


  1. Have you seen this Fife-based birding blog? Could give you some hints and tips if not -

    1. I've bumped into Will as he was monitoring the Corn Buntings near Crail, but never knowingly met John.