Steart Marshes, 22nd January, 2023
Our first outing of 2023 saw us venturing out of Devon and into the adjoining county of Somerset. We ventured into the lowland abutting the Bristol Channel, this area is known as Steart Marshes.
Skirting the snow covered heights of Exmoor reminded us that we were still in the midst of Winter. The most common bird encountered on our journey was the magpie, some as a single bird and some as pairs lingering near the traffic hoping for a roadkill to feed upon.
Steart Marshes, situated on the north Somerset coast between the River Parrett and Bridgwater Bay, is managed by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust. Completed in 2014 by WWT and the Environment Agency this wetland reserve provides a buffer for nearby housing from rising sea levels. In turn it provides a habitat for wildlife such as otters, owls, waders, wildfowl, water voles and other small mammals. Water levels are managed to ensure the mud is full of invertebrates for the birds to feed on.
These salt marshes lock away thousands of tons of carbon every year providing a long term and sustainable solution in the fight against climate change. Numerous water channels and creeks act as an important nursery for fish.
Donning our warm Winter clothes we set off along the well prepared tracks towards one of the numerous hides dotted around the reserve, Either side of us were small ponds covered in a thin layer of ice. A kestrel was spotted sitting atop a hedge and a flock of wigeon were seen in the distance as a great tit chirped nearby. Alongside the path were newly planted hedges around four to five feet high which will be layered to thicken them out to provide shelter for small birds and mammals. Evidence of this was seen further the path.
Nearer the hide a flock of lapwing graced the skies with their seemingly energy sapping flight. A marsh harrier was seen above the distant skyline and a stoat zipped across the path.
Sitting in the relative warmth of a newly constructed hide, fingers and toes were given the opportunity to thaw out. Looking out over some teasel growing on top of the protective bank we were rewarded with wigeon, pintail, shoveler and avocet. On very high tides the river will flow over the top of these banks creating a salt marsh environment. This will in turn, encourage plants such as glasswort and sea aster. Various ground levels have been created which it is hoped will create a diverse array of species.
Moving on to another hide we decided to eat our packed lunches. Whilst doing so we had the sighting of the day of a hen harrier. It was then decided to drive up to the top most car park and then walk up to the tall hide at the very tip of the peninsula. On the way a merlin was seen sitting on top of a telegraph pole and obligingly stayed long enough for photographs to be taken. Whilst walking up the pebbly channel side path the misty outline of the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant could be seen in the distance. Cattle and sheep graze these salt water lagoons so as to enhance the flavour of their meat.
We arrived at the northernmost hide under slate skies with the murky heights of the Brecon Beacons looming across the Channel. Whilst in the hide, the weather changed, lighting up the white washed houses of Burnham-on-sea across the bay. Pleased with our day’s sightings we made our way back to the cars in the face of blazing sun.
Annual indoor meeting, 22nd February 2023
Our Annual Indoor Meeting was held on 22nd February in the Castle Centre, Barnstaple, North Devon at 7.30pm. We were delighted to welcome our guest speaker Rick Minter, expert on Big Cats and author of “Big Cats – Facing Britain’s Wild Predators”. Rick gave a fascinating insight into how these predators are surviving in the UK. He talked about sightings, people’s reactions and attitudes towards the cats and projected colourful photographs throughout his talk, helping us to recognise the tracks and signs that big cats in the wild may leave as an indicator of their presence. Rick’s research continues and he is always pleased to hear from anyone who has witnessed sightings of big cats. You can listen to other people’s experiences from his many podcasts which can be found on his website at bigcatconversations.com. You can also contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was a fascinating evening and very well attended – so well that the tea, coffee and biscuits almost ran out! The raffle went down well and we still have plenty of nest boxes for sale at only £12.00 a box. Speak to our branch chairman Brian Sims on 01271 343607 if you would like one.
The lower reaches of the River Torridge,Sunday March 12th 2023
For our early Spring walk we all gathered on the roadside between Northam and Appledore at a spot called “Bloody Corner”. Here there is an old lichen encrusted slate stone in a wall behind protective metal bars. It bears an inscription stating that near this spot an invading Viking force led by King Hubba the Dane was defeated by King Alfred the Great.
It was from this spot that we wound our way down the narrow lane towards the banks of the River Torridge. It was not long before a flock of redwing were spotted on the far side of an adjacent meadow. These birds will have arrived here last Autumn from their breeding grounds in Iceland and Scandinavia and will soon be departing once more. Lesser celandines decorated the edges of our path. These early Spring wild flowers are members of the buttercup family and are aptly named as the “Spring Messenger”.
Other early flowers were now emerging such as red dead nettle and the white flower heads of the abundant alexanders. A path side wild rose was sending out it’s tender young yellow leaves. It was nice to see the elusive jay in all it’s vibrant colours. Other birds were now pairing up as displayed by two wrens scuttling through a nearby hedge.
Leaving the lane and over a style into a riverside field we followed the edge of a tree lined stream flowing down into the river. Goldfinches flitted amongst the branches and we stopped to listen to the clear notes of a song thrush which stayed annoyingly hidden. Down the opposite bank of the stream a few linnets flew overhead. A few years ago a white swallow was seen in this area which attracted several curious birdwatchers.
We skirted a natural marshy basin protected by the river bank. A notice read of water birds nesting in this location. The local owner of this site has, on more than one occasion, unsuccessfully tried to get planning permission to turn it into a marina surrounded by accommodation and supporting boat servicing buildings. Due to local opposition, permission has so far been refused.
Walking through the ever in flower gorse and up on to the river bank we were confronted by a ships graveyard of rotting wooden hulks.. Amongst these were a pair of lovely looking shelducks feeding on the now exposed mud as the tide receded. Some of our group were now getting peckish so we stopped a little further on to eat our packed lunches on a slipway leading down on to a shingly beach. Not far away several teal swam up and down in the muddy waters of the river. Lunches consumed we proceeded to walk along the beach as the first drops of rain were felt. This decided us to take a shorter route up through a steep field alongside National Trust woodland.
Great tits and green finches could be heard proclaiming their presence and bittercress was seen emerging from the base of a hedge. Zigzagging this field was the unusual sight of a man with a metal detector and spade. He was looking for evidence of the aforementioned battle which took place in this area several hundred years ago as stated in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles. Passing clumps of snowdrops we made our way back to the cars having avoided the heavy rain that was forecast for later in the afternoon.
Horner Wood and Chetsford Water, 22rd April, 2023
As we slowly wound our way up the western slopes of Exmoor the question on our minds was the hoped for arrival of early Spring migrants. Were we too early because of our late Spring or were we too late to spot them amongst the emerging leaf canopy.
Our first destination was Horner Wood which consists of over 800 acres of predominately ancient oak woodland. It is part of the Holnicote Estate which is owned and managed by the National Trust. It is home to fifteen of the UK’s bat species and is a haven for mosses, fungi and lichens.
Several clumps of golden yellow primroses lined the hedgerows and before our arrival a murder of crows arose from an adjacent field. A short stop before the woods saw us looking at a herd of some twenty red deer many of which were “in calf”.
Descending through a beautiful steep sided Exmoor valley along a narrow winding lane we arrived at our destination beside a stream which a little further on gushed across the road before continuing it’s journey to the sea. After a quick cup of coffee we began our steep climb up the path through the woods to the summit about 1000 feet above sea level. The songs of blackbird and chiffchaff accompanied us as a great tit flitted amongst the catkins of a birch tree, either looking for food or nesting material. A green woodpecker was heard “yaffling” in the distance.
At the top of our climb we paused for a rest so as to enjoy the magnificent vista before us. Looking out over the tree tops and through steep sided wooded valleys we could see the Bristol Channel in the distance. Behind us a siskin flew out from a fir tree and a raven flew overhead as a mixed flock of swallows and house martins graced the blue skies.
Any confusion over bird song identification could be sorted out as some of our group had the Merlin Bird Song app on their mobile phones.
Moving along we entered into another area of ancient oak woodland where the tree trunks and branches were covered in mosses, lichens and polyploidy ferns. Then to our delight, a redstart was spotted, which was one of our target species, followed by another and then several more. For some of us this made their day but little did we know what was to come.
Back down over the hill now to eat our packed lunches to the accompaniment of a blackcap and the bubbling of the nearby stream before moving on to Chetsford Water. More red deer were seen and then a very new Exmoor pony foal.
As we approached Chetsford a hen harrier was flying gracefully over the combe. Down we walked through the narrow valley alongside a stream, which we subsequently crossed, down to it’s junction with Embercombe Water. Blackthorn trees, which were in full bloom, were beginning to show their young green leaves. Suddenly a bird similar in size and colouring to a blackbird with a white crescent on it’s chest, appeared. Yes it was a male ring ousel then joined by a female. This was a “lifer” for several of the party. This was followed by a spotted flycatcher and a whinchat amongst the bright yellow gorse.
Coming down from this high excitement we gathered around our mobile phones at 3.00pm to listen to the Government’s emergency alert system. Nothing happened, although, some twenty minutes later some of appliances burst into life but in the meantime we had all heard our first cuckoo of the year.
The day was forecast to be very wet but not a drop of rain fell on us as we had blue sky and hazy cloud all day. Buoyed by our very successful day we celebrated by enjoying a very nice cream tea in the nearby village of Exford.
Yes, it was a day to remember! JS
Hunter’s Inn at Heddon’s Mouth, 21st May 2023
We arrived in the car park of Hunter’s Inn to the clear notes of a song thrush and the melodic tune of a blackcap. Our aim was a walk alongside the clear waters of the River Heddon which had tumbled down from the heights of Exmoor before gushing out into the Bristol Channel.
Skirting the Inn we set off under a clear blue sky and after passing over a couple of old stone bridges we found ourselves on the hard surface of a path adjoining the river. Since recent rains had been followed by warmer, Summer days, there was no shortage of wild flowers surrounding us. Bluebells were still abundant but just beginning to “go over”.Interesting names of these flowers include cuckoo’s boots, lady’s nightcap and witch’s thimbles. It is the time of year when we may find many different flower colours bunched against the green background of the grasses. Together with the bluebells we could see the blues of speedwell, the whites of stitchwort and cow parsley, the reds of valerian and campion and the yellows of buttercups and archangels.
Making our way down the valley, steep cliffs rose sharply upwards on either side of us topped by rocky outcrops, A buzzard soared effortlessly in the blue sky above their summit whilst far below a lone heron stood silently in the waters of the Heddon ready to dart it’s beak below the surface in search of a fish. Midges, seemingly in their tens of thousands, swarmed above the surface of the river.
Our hope for the day was to see some rare fritillaries. The population of the high brown fritillary has declined over 90% since the 1970’s largely due to the ending of wood coppicing. It is a fast flier. The dark green fritillary, like the high brown has the violet as the food plant for their caterpillars, however it prefers a meadow environment and although we were a little early to see both of these species on the wing, we also failed to find caterpillars. Dark green fritillaries are on the wing in July/August. In August soon after the eggs are laid, the caterpillars hatch. They eat their eggshell and go straight into hibernation until the following Spring. A few fritillaries were seen flying around but apart from the pearl bordered, the rest were too quick to be identified. A pair of orange tip butterflies were photographed in what was some sort of courtship arrangement.
The Heddon Valley is owned by the National Trust and is an SSSI. At various points the Trust have erected wooden information posts with the names of the flowers that may be seen in the vicinity. An insect hotel was amusingly called the “critter castle”.
As we neared the sea there were clumps of thrift and bladder campion. We found an ideal spot to sit and have our packed lunches looking out over the blue sea. Some razorbills disappeared behind the rocky outcrops and the steep cliffs were dotted with patches of gorse and heather. Grey wagtails paraded up and down the river.
After “drinking in” the beautiful surroundings it was time to make our way back up the other side of the river to the now modernised Victorian Hunter’s Inn for our cream tea which we enjoyed on the lawns by a copper beech tree and a couple of wellingtonia. A recently created pond produced a large red damselfly, a beautiful demoiselle plus a moorhen and lots of tadpoles.
Before heading home some of the party visited the nearby Trentishoe church to see the bats hanging down from inside the church roof. A full species list, as always, is available from our Branch Chairman, Brian Sims. JS
Bossington, Sunday 13th August 2023
For our August trip we journeyed out of Devon across the heights of Exmoor and into the neighbouring county of Somerset, to the picturesque coastal hamlet of Bossington nestling below the hills along the curve of Porlock Bay. Descending down narrow lanes and passing idyllic cottages the road leveled out into the National Trust car park. Shortly after our arrival four buzzards were seen soaring high above the surrounding hill tops.
Suitably clad and with packed lunches safely tucked away in our backpacks, we slowly made our way towards the sea. A narrow water channel, adorned with the bright blue colours of the forget-me-nots, ran alongside our pathway. This stream originating from the heights of Exmoor, was crystal clear. Several groups of pond skaters were seen scuttling across the surface of the water. What was thought to be a small elver moving with the current quickly swam out of sight. A green woodpecker was seen and heard, and butterflies occasionally kept us company.
Through a creaking wooden swing gate, we were soon walking on the pebble ridge which stretched in a curve along Porlock Bay. A couple of grey wagtails searched for food on the pebbled beach as oystercatchers and a little egret made their way along the shoreline.
It was now time for refreshment as we settled down beside a circular, concrete WWII turret with what would have given 180 degree views out to sea and along the shoreline. These were now obscured by the increased height of the pebble ridge caused by the repeated pounding of the sea over the years. Further along stood the remains of an old abandoned lime kiln giving us a glimpse of past activity in this seemingly isolated spot.
On our way again under threatening clouds, we passed through a narrow path with ripening sloes on either side of us, to join the track along the landward side of the ridge as a linnet and some wheatears put in an appearance.
The ridge protects the vast area of salt marsh behind it, which in turn is criss-crossed by several narrow, muddy channels. When the tide rises the area can be flooded with sea water and the salinity is then reduced as the fresh water mixes in as it flows down from the hills. This gives rise to a group of plants which have adapted to survive these conditions.
Close to the ridge grew isolated pockets of the unmistakeable rock samphire and in contrast with the lovely greens and yellows of this plant, were the white flowers of sea campion and clumps of the bright yellow bird’s-foot trefoil. Well into the salt marsh, the most conspicuous flower was the sea aster. Growing in loose clusters they displayed striking yellow disc centres surrounded by purple rays.
Walking across a well constructed boardwalk we made our way back alongside crops of ripe barley to a cafe where several cream teas were consumed and we were pleased to have ended our walk having avoided the rain. Those that took the coastal route home had breathtaking sea views obscured by the drizzly rain. JS