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Avocets on the Exe

John C writes:

Having missed, for obvious reasons, a birding trip in the winter of 20 – 21 we went down to Exmouth for the weekend of 19 – 21 February, almost exactly two years since our last visit. We hoped that we wouldn’t be too late for the winter migrants, particularly the avocets on the Exe estuary.

We had intended to go down on the Friday but storm Eunice put paid to that idea and we left Witney on the Saturday morning in sleet and a temperature of 4C. It didn’t look good but by the time we reached Exeter the sun was out, it had warmed up to 12 degrees and, instead of going straight to Exmouth, we went directly to Exminster Marshes, which is a large reserve managed by the RSPB. There is no access onto the reserve but good views in from a (very) minor road, a raised path alongside the ship canal, and a footpath by the railway. Together these make a good circular route of a couple of miles around the marshes.

From the road, first up for us were a couple of peregrines, and a marsh harrier flapping over some reed beds; there were plenty of wigeon, teal, shovelers and pintails in the pools, and large flocks of lapwings and golden plovers. Also present were large numbers of canada geese but not a single greylag. Several curlew, making their wonderfully evocative calls (*), flew over as we walked along the canal path.

At the Turf Inn, where the canal joins the Exe, we found our avocets on the mud close to the west side of the river; in previous years we had seen them mainly on the far side, near Topsham. There were only about thirty so probably most had moved on because we have seen many more there before. As well as avocets there were three red-breasted mergansers and the ubiquitous dunlins and redshanks. Whilst we were watching the avocets, some teal flew in and walked around with their beaks in the mud, hoovering it up and filtering out anything edible (to them!).

Returning along the footpath, we kept our eyes open hoping to see the glossy ibis that someone we met in the car park had seen earlier that afternoon. Needless to say, we were out of luck; we later heard that there was a rumour going round that there had been eleven of them there recently.

The next day, which was grey and windy, we visited the hide at Bowling Green Marsh, near Topsham. Rather than struggling to park in Topsham we left the car at Dart’s Farm and walked. It’s about a mile and follows the Exe cycle path. There’s a long boarded section by the railway with several viewing places over a marsh and the river Clyst. From one of these we had good views of some curlew and a greenshank.

There were plenty of the usual suspects – teal, wigeon and pintail at Bowling Green Marsh – but because the tide in the estuary was going out most of the waders, which come inland at high tide, had returned to the mud. A local birder pointed out a lesser black-backed gull nicknamed ‘Psycho’ that preyed on the ducks and had been known to swallow a moorhen whole (apart from its legs). The ducks certainly scattered when he (or she) took to the air. We spent most of our time there searching for snipe, but with no luck.

Our next stop was a viewing platform that looks out over the mudbanks where the Clyst joins the Exe. There were plenty of curlew and redshank, and we were lucky enough watch a spoonbill for a few minutes before it flew off and disappeared behind a mudbank.

We had intended to spend some time on the Topsham ‘Goat Walk’ which gives views over the estuary but it had started to rain and blow so heavily that we just had to keep moving.

Monday was bright and sunny but as the wind was again touching 60 mph (storm Franklin!) we abandoned our idea of going to Woodbury Common for a different habitat and different species and again went to the hide at Bowling Green Marsh. This time, with help from the same local birder, who had also abandoned his plans to go ringing, we found some snipe. They are so well camouflaged that unless you know where to look they’re almost impossible to find, and easier when they’re moving. Sometimes they showed nicely on the edges of the pools but mostly they simply blended in with the vegetation.

Whilst we were there, a male and female shoveler went continually round and around in a very tight circle, sometimes tails in the air. At first we thought this might be a courtship display but our birder friend told us that they do this to create a vortex which sucks up food from the bottom.

By the time we reached the Goat Walk, the wind had dropped and we watched several large flocks of black-tailed godwits in the estuary. There were also quite a few shelduck and some more, or possibly the same, red-breasted mergansers further up river which we saw from the quay.

Although the weekend could have been less windy, it was great to be out and about again after a long time. We only ‘ticked’ about 56 species, but might have got a few more with better weather.

John Cobb & Sue Morton, February 2022

* If you are of a certain age you may remember “The call of the curlew introduces the BBC naturalist” which was on the Home Service around Sunday lunchtimes in the 1950s. For one of us – JC – the call of the curlew will always evoke the smell of roast beef! Back.