Annual indoor meeting, Friday 21st February, 2020

Our speaker Rupert Kirkwood, a retired vet, is now an ardent kayaker. He therefore aptly entitled his talk “Up the creek and……beyond”. Since his enforced early retirement some 15 years ago he has kayaked around the coast of South West England and up most of the rivers as well, covering some 20,000 miles in the process. The silent approach of his kayak has enabled him to get very close on a number of occasions to a range of wildlife, and he has had some amazing experiences, such as beavers and otters as well as swimming badgers and roe deer. He witnessed a stoat attempting to lure some mallards to come within striking distance and a crow that tried to steal a newly hatched baby duckling as it’s mother took her brood down to the river for the first time. He also showed a video of a great crested grebe struggling, but successfully swallowing a large pike. In fact given half the chance, the pike would have swallowed the grebe!

Many of the Devon and Cornish fishing villages were pictured from the flat calm sea backed by a pale blue sky. Real tourist boards snapshots – idyllic. However, it was when he went out to sea on lovely calm days that he got his real surprises. One day last August off Berry Head, he had some 30 dolphins and 14 porpoises. Some of which were leaping twelve feet out of the water and even swimming under his kayak. On another day on the coastal waters of Penzance, he not only saw the hump of a humpback whale, but saw it breaching as well. He has seen bottle nosed dolphins in Mounts Bay and Risso’s dolphins near the Brisons rocks between Sennen and St Ives. In fact so relaxed is the wildlife around him that on one occasion a seal hauled itself out of the water and rested on his kayak.

On one lucky day he saw another humpback whale and a minke whale within minutes of each other off St Michael’s Mount and during the same day he had common dolphin, porpoises and a giant blue fin tuna. During his trips he has observed an exceptional number of great northern divers several miles off shore. He had only just come back last week from a trip to Antarctica so we were the first people to see some of his photographs of wildlife in that area. His greatest impression was of an endless expanse of snow and rocks, devoid of any vegetation, reflected in the dead still, calm sea and apart from the chatter of the terns and the cackle of the gentoo penguins, the extraordinary silence. He was lucky enough to see a snow petrel and they also came across a mother humpback whale with her calf asleep on the surface of the water.

What an incredible show he put on in his relaxed, laid back manner with not only superb colour photographs but lots of video clips complete with sound effects. We really could have stayed and watched all night. The only comment was “fantastic”. My thanks to all those who attended our Annual Indoor Meeting and in whatever way they helped to make it an enjoyable and profitable evening.

 

Seaton Wetlands, Sunday 8th March 2020

We set off under dark skies and continuous rain, skirting along the southern edge of Exmoor to our destination near the south eastern coast of the county. The Seaton Wetlands is a relatively new nature reserve created in 2008 alongside the River Axe. It comprises of a large area of saltmarsh, reedbeds and tidal lagoons. These can be viewed from a number of excellent hides, one of which, the island hide, is situated out in the middle of the flooded wetland and accessed by a man made walkway. A number of artificial islands within the flooded area have been created. On one island close to the hide, a couple of large white eggs could be seen among the reeds, thought to be those of a pair of guarding Canada geese.

Last year the reserve won a Green Flag award given for it’s high quality of management. Soon after we arrived, donning our walking boots, the clouds rolled away and the sun made a welcome appearance lifting everyone’s spirits. Signs of Spring were all around us as we made our way along the path to our first hide. Alongside us the blackthorn had burst into flower and we were serenaded by a dunnock in full song. We passed occasional clumps of celandine with their yellow petals showing brightly against the green of the verge-side grasses.

After a short stay in the first hide where a brown rat was seen feeding on the spillage from the bird feeders, we decided to head for the hide at the northern end of the reserve. This required a more lengthy walk over largely unsheltered terrain. After a few yards some dark clouds rolled in and we all dived for cover provided by a circular shelter which had a roof of reeds and supported by wavy wooden poles. The rain shower quickly passed and we continued on our way to the hide. Another heavy shower greeted our arrival, but this turned out to be the last of the day leaving us once again in bright sunlight together with the remnants of a rainbow. As we sat in this hide scouring the countryside with our binoculars, a tram passed by, not 15 yards in front of us, as it rattled along the Seaton tramway alongside the River Axe. It’s passengers were like minded birdwatchers with whom we exchanged hand waves as they passed!

Retracing our steps we headed for the “Island hide” where we ate a leisurely packed lunch whilst watching a pair of moorhens showing signs of mating behaviour. Some of the birds were displaying wonderful seasonal colours. Most outstanding,  were the bright orange beaks of the oystercatchers and the green heads of the mallards resplendent in the Spring sunshine. The sighting of the day was a peregrine sitting motionlessly on a bank overlooking the river!

Our last visit was to the hide at Seaton Marshes, a short distance along the river, which produced tufted duck, little grebe and a chiffchaff. Walking back from the hide we decided to walk around an adjacent pond where we encountered a beautiful pair of mute swans which allowed us to pass without any fuss. Shortly afterwards we came across an elevated owl nesting box which had now been taken over by the resident kestrel. A perfect end to our day before travelling home back to North Devon and being greeted by a full moon.

 

N:B Please note that all BNA field trips have been postponed due to the current lock down situation as a result of Corvid-19. Please contact our branch chairman for further details.

Taw & Exmoor Branch Chairman, Brian Sims, can be contacted on 01271 343607

Stay Home, Safe Safe.

 

Halsdon Nature Reserve 19th April 2020 (or the trip that never was)

What wonderful weather we would have had on the proposed trip to Halsdon Nature Reserve. Initially when group outings were banned I was proposing to go and write up a report which would have gone something like “As the early morning mist rose slowly over the meandering River Torridge it might have revealed an otter or a kingfisher or sand martins nesting in the river bank, whilst the primroses twinkled in the early morning sun as the smell of the wild garlic pervaded the air. Would we have seen the wild service tree or the beefsteak fungus which we had on previous trips?” But that idea went out of the window when all but essential journeys were prohibited.

Hence I came up with the idea that if everyone was confined to barracks or to their immediate vicinity then you could all report on what you have seen or heard from your garden or when out on your daily exercise walks. Thus the habitats ranged from the edge of Exmoor to farmland to gardens on modern estates or established suburbia to very local reserves to riverside and beach locations.

Although it was not a competition, Norman with immediate access to the countryside and the river systems was the winner with 49 different birds. I thought I was going to get the most unusual bird seen from a garden when for the first time ever a red kite flew overhead but Norman beat that with an osprey flying along the River Taw but even Norman was trumped by Ray who saw from his patio a goshawk having a set to with one of the local ravens. Margaret did the best write up with her quivering goldcrests, nest building chiffchaff and the views of drifts of bluebells. Still she does bake a cake for the birds each week! So I shall know where to turn if I need someone to write up a report in future. Also one member reported that the cat had brought a vole into the kitchen and he found his wife self isolating on the kitchen chair. There was also a report of a wood pigeon that before even building it’s rudimentary nest laid an egg on a branch with the inevitable consequence.

I noticed that the cleanest birds were blackbirds and sparrows but the other birds were quite happy to drink the subsequent bath water. Richard has a cock pheasant that has taken up residence in his greenhouse whilst his wife has been fattening the hen pheasants by hand feeding them. Little do they know what fate might befall them.

Anyway, my thanks to all branch members who took part in this little survey.

Field Irish Farm, May 17th, 2020 (or it should have been).
This would have been a new venue that John S had found for us so we were all disappointed that we couldn’t go and explore it and perhaps have our first post outing cream tea of the year. John will try and arrange for us to go next year if we are all able to go out in a group by then.
Branch members were asked instead to make a note of any birds nests or fledglings or relevant breeding behaviour you found in your garden or whilst out on your local exercise walks. I received a very good response and have tried to make some sort of list from all your observations. Some members gardens were bursting with activity whilst others like mine where it cost me a fortune to feed the birds all Winter hardly had anything at all. At least my only nest was a success with four young blackbirds being seen around the garden being fed by their parents.
Apart from a rookery of about 20 nests, blackbirds seem to be the most frequently reported nests (or fledglings) followed by house sparrows with blue tits and great tits occupying nest boxes. The list below is where a nest has been seen or there has been probable breeding evidence (such a territorial behaviour, courtship displays, persistent singing or food being collected) or juveniles sighted or pairs hanging around together or discarded egg shells.
Blackbird, wood pigeon, house sparrow, long tailed tit, blue tit, great tit, coal tit, starling, wren, dunnock, blackcap, dipper, siskin, great spotted woodpecker, song thrush, herring gull, robin, jackdaw, carrion crow, rook, goldfinch, greenfinch, collared dove, pheasant, redpoll, nuthatch. What a very good list.
Other creatures of note that were seen, red deer, badger, fox, slow worm, pipistrelle and noctule bats and marauding grey squirrel. One member found a badger latrine and an otter spraint  (I do wonder about our members sometimes). Thanks to all of you, who took the trouble to send in your observations.
Other news:-
1) I have noticed on twitter that other branches and organisations have now started to ask their members to report their natural history findings. So once again The Taw and Exmoor branch leads the way.
2) One of the white tailed eagles that were released on the Isle of Wight has been seen in Somerset, so keep your eyes peeled as it could easily appear around here.
3) At the Devon Birds reserve at Godborough some enterprising person thought it would be a good place to grow some cannabis. It has been reported to the police and the plants removed.
4) The BNA head office has a new address.
27 Old Gloucester Street, London, WC1N 3AX. Tel no. still 08448921817
The next outing should have been to Braunton Burrows but instead, besides anything interesting to report, there are two things to look out for.
i)  There has been a steady and worrying decline (about 50%) in house martin numbers over recent years. Devon Birds are carrying out a survey asking people to report any sightings of active house martin nests. If you could let me know the numbers and locations (Map Ref preferable) I will collate all the information and pass it on.

ii) Keep a look out for small tortoiseshell butterflies. Over the last 10 years there has been a slump in their numbers with a 50% reduction in the South of England. It is possible this slump has coincided with the arrival of a parasitic fly – sturma bella– in the late 1990’s which lays it’s eggs on the leaves of stinging nettles and are unwittingly eaten by small tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillars which is their favourite food plant. The fly’s eggs develop inside the caterpillar’s gut and literally eat them alive from the inside. So if you see any of these butterflies track them down to see if they lay any eggs on stinging nettle plants and collect a few of the subsequent caterpillars and if they hatch out then just release them but if a fly hatches out, send it to be identified. Full details from Butterfly Conservation at butterfly-conservation.org
iii) Finally stay safe. Better to be 6 feet apart than 6 feet under!

Sunday 28th June 2020 Braunton Burrows (or it should have been)

Braunton Burrows July 2020 EB

The sand dunes of Braunton Burrows are the largest sand dune system in the country extending to over 2000 acres. The area is a special area of conservation and a site of special scientific interest which in 2002 formed the core of the 55 square mile UNESCO biosphere reserve. The first one in the UK.

There is a wide range of habitats from the strand line, foredunes, dry dunes, dune turf, dune slacks, dune marsh, dune grassland, dune scrub plus ponds and salt marsh. There are some 1780 plants to be found in Britain and over 600 can be found on the Burrows. The winds are always changing the shape of the dunes and with the varying water table this enables this wide selection of plants to be found. This is why we would have needed John and Mary Breeds to lead the walk as they would know where to find some of the rarer flora such as sea stock, round-headed club rush, water germander and sand toadflax. Eleven species of orchids have been identified there with the five most widespread being the early marsh, southern marsh, marsh helleborine, pyramidal and twayblade. On previous visits there we have clocked up over 100 plants in one afternoon. Many years ago I can remember visiting the area and easily finding lapwings nests but I don’t think there have been any for some time now.

At home I have been visited on several nights lately by a hedgehog but I have yet to find any slow worms which usually inhabit one of my compost bins. Endymion also has had hedgehog sightings but other people have been plagued by grey squirrels. Hugh and Val reported seeing a roe deer from their property overlooking Kipling Tors. A young roe deer was photographed at the Devon Birds reserve at Godborough and one of my Rotarians photographed two roe deer on the Appledore lifeboat slipway. How they got there nobody seems to know!

The members of our Taw and Exmoor Branch continue to be busy and each month actively take part in a project. This month we have been involved in a house martin nest survey locally, and next month we are monitoring butterflies. Members Jackie and Maria via Rosie have put together a British bird puzzle to keep us all focused. Lock down hasn’t stopped us from celebrating nature!

Toad on the boardwalk EB