Annual Birdwatching bonanza. 30th January 2022
The day began by scraping off layers of ice encrusted on the car windows. Visibility restored and then the short journey to the car park where the group was to meet and amalgamate into fewer cars before our trip across Devon to the River Exe estuary. By now the sun was beginning to make an appearance and we were greeted by a song thrush in full voice atop a nearby tree.
Our main destination for the day was Bowling Green Marsh situated on the east bank of the Exe estuary and a designated SSSI. It is owned by Exeter City council and leased to the RSPB who manage the site.
Firstly however, a walk around the arable field adjacent to Dart’s Farm as flocks mainly of linnets flew overhead. Walking on to the hide through a small wooded area which enclosed some small lakes, the sun shone on the willow trees enhancing the red colouration of their branches. The hide looked out over an extensive wetland area interspersed with clumps of reed. A large flock of brent geese could be seen in the distance with the odd curlew and a couple of mute swans. Wigeon were plentiful whilst just outside the hide a reed bunting and chiffchaff were flitting about in some reeds.
On leaving the hide and emerging from the trees a kestrel gave us a fly past. The walk to Bowling Green Marsh took us alongside the River Clyst, a tributary to the Exe. Two neglected boats sat on the slippery mud and on the far mud bank a redshank and greenshank were feeding.
Further on and after emerging from under a railway bridge a mistle thrush was seen near the top of a tree laden with clumps of mistletoe. We were now alongside the marsh and peering through a gap in the hedge a heron, shoveller and little egret gave excellent photographic opportunities.
Arriving at the hide we were greeted by a greenfinch in full plumage and a clump of primroses by the entrance. Amazingly the hide was temporarily empty and we made ourselves comfortable on the benches in front of the open windows as we consumed our packed lunches. The marshland in front of us, with it’s freshwater pools and reed beds, offers a safe roosting site for overwintering waders and wildfowl as the incoming tide pushes them off the mudflats.
Looking out over a stout teasel plant, growing just outside the hide, and across the extensive wetlands greylag geese could be seen in the distance. Fluffy white clouds dotted the blue sky as ducks and waders displayed in front of us. A spoonbill gave us a nice surprise as it made it’s ungainly flight before landing in the marsh. A common snipe, wonderfully disguised, made a slow and cautious journey along the edge of a small island right in front of us. In the distance a fox in a resplendent red coat made its way along the edge of the reserve.
Lunches eaten, we continued along the track reaching the viewing platform overlooking the River Clyst from which common sandpiper were spotted. For a brief moment some darker clouds obscured the sun, the temperature seemed to drop suddenly and the dark silhouettes of the leafless trees were more apparent reminding us that we were still in the midst of Winter.
Moving on past the alder trees, with their empty black fruit cases and new catkins, we reached the Goat Walk on the shore of the estuary where the avocets were swishing their beaks through the mud ahead of the incoming tide. Here we were given aerial displays by flocks of both dunlin and black tailed godwits as a large flight of cormorants took off.
Our final destination was across the river where we saw a huge herd of fallow deer grazing in the grounds of Powderham Castle. Looking out over the river, the water now stretched across the whole of the estuary like a mill pond as several racing yachts could be seen struggling as the faintest breezes started to get up in the fading sunlight.
Annual indoor meeting, 22nd February 2022
It was our first indoor meeting for two years (the same for Devon Birds and the local DWT branch) and there was a good attendance. The speaker was Tim Jones who was the co-author of the book “The Birds of Lundy”. He said he has been to Lundy so many times since 1984 that he has lost count of the number of visits he has made, so he was well qualified to give the talk.
Lundy Island is mostly a granite rock about about 3 miles long and about half a mile wide at its widest point situated at the entrance to the Bristol Channel some 12 miles from Hartland Point and about 30 miles from the Welsh south coast. The more sheltered eastern side is where the greatest variety of birds are seen.
Everyone associates Lundy Island with puffins as the name is derived from the old Norse words “lundi”(puffin) and “ey” (island). About a hundred years ago puffins bred on the island in their thousands but gradually their numbers dwindled until at the turn of the century there were hardly any breeding pairs present. One of the reasons for their decline that was put forward was that their eggs and young were being predated by rats. So a programme of rat eradication was successfully undertaken and the puffins along with other birds such as manx shearwaters have benefited extensively with substantially larger breeding populations. Razorbills and guillemots breed in good numbers and they have been joined on the odd occasion by a mate seeking ancient murelet. Gannets are seen around the island but more often from the MV Oldenburg on its trips to and from the Island. .
Very occasionally a chough has been reported on the island but with their breeding in Cornwall and in South Wales it is surely only a matter of time before they are seen regularly as the grass is kept short by the Sika deer, goats, Soay sheep and the occasional rabbit.
Very few birds of prey are seen so there was considerable excitement when a white tailed eagle pitched up from the Isle of Wight release. Over the last few days storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin have given the island a battering and often in the past after such events some unusual birds have appeared including a soya rail, a yellow rumped warbler and a White’s thrush. The resident flock of house sparrows are very sedentary and have been studied extensively to see if in their isolation they become genetically modified to become a sub species to be known as the Lundy house sparrow like the Lundy cabbage.
Many birds such as swallows, chiffchaffs and wheatears use the island as a staging post on their way to and from their wintering quarters to their breeding grounds. Apart from lapwings and golden plover there are not many waders seen partly due to the lack of extensive mud flats. Similarly the scarcity of mature trees means that there are not many records of woodpeckers and then the only ones are of the great spotted woodpecker.
During the migration period especially in the Autumn, the tiny goldfinch can be seen in its hundreds and is the second most frequently trapped bird on the island after the willow warbler. Bird ringing started in 1947 the year after the formation of the Lundy Field Society. Various devices have been used for trapping including Heligoland traps, mist-nets, drag- nets, fleyg nets, chardonneret traps and clap-nets as well as dazzling. After the war the two most trapped birds were herring gull and guillemot, nowadays they don’t feature in the top nine. Over 170 different species have been trapped and recoveries have been made worldwide like the woodcock in Russia or the sedge warblers in Senegal. It was a fascinating talk about a place that is so near yet so far. My thanks to all to attended, donated raffle prizes and helped in any way
Fremington Quay and surrounds, 20th March 2022
What a glorious day for our (very early) Spring walk of 2022. After a few days of stiff easterly winds they had veered around to a more southerly direction and became a brisk breeze. Our walk today started at the once busy port of Fremington Quay alongside the river Taw. This port was once served by a railway line running between the quayside and a station. The railway line has now become the “Tarka” trail and has been tarmacked over for use by walkers and cyclists. The old railway station is now a thriving cafe looking out over the Taw and has an attached visitor centre displaying the site’s history. Where boats were loaded and unloaded, the hardy English fisherman can often be seen along the quay wall trying his luck in all weathers
On arrival the tide was low and looking out over the wall a small group of black tailed godwits were seen feeding on the exposed mud. As we made our way along the Tarka trail the sun was shining through fluffy white clouds in an otherwise clear blue sky. Semi mature trees lined the path not yet having burst out into leaf, enabling us to have good sightings of a goldcrest and greenfinch. Chiffchaffs flitted around in the branches and their familiar call could be heard heralding the onset of Spring. Blackthorn alone was in full blossom and lifting our spirits even more so was a small tortoiseshell butterfly which alighted on the flowers.. The red breast of a robin showed up well against the white petals.
Our progress was slow as the adjacent trees seemed to come alive with bird activity. It was nice to see a male bullfinch in its bright Spring mating colours. The sight and sound of a great tit was noted as a bumblebee flew past. Occasionally we would come to a break in the trees lining the route where the banks sported a yellow mass of primroses. Also spotted were some scarlet elf cup fungi. Further along gave us the rare sightings of three individual flowers of the snake’s-head fritillary whilst up in an overhanging birch tree were good examples of withes broom. Our first brimstone butterfly of the year fluttered past and then dived into a bramble thicket.
This stretch of the path gave us the rare opportunity of seeing a pair of long tailed tits in the midst of their building their nest part way up a semi mature tree with a good covering of ivy situated between the main tree trunk and a short stubby branch. These intricate oval shaped nests consist mainly of mosses and are lined with feathers and held together with spiders webs and camouflaged with birch bark and lichens.
Leaving the trail we crossed over a stone bridge encrusted with lichens from where we were able to look back down on to the trail and get good views of a hazel tree laden with catkins. Walking across the higher ground gave us beautiful clear views of the surrounding countryside and river before descending to the Fremington Pill. This is a tributary of the Taw and is navigable for around half a mile when the tide is in. When the tide ebbs it reveals a large expanse of mud flats. Today it provided us with the usual array of waders and the much hoped for sighting of a pair of glossy ibis. These come from Africa and a single bird appeared a few years ago but the population has now increased to at least five birds.
Walking back alongside the Pill it was time for some refreshment at our starting point as we looked out over a wide expanse of sand of the now nearly empty Taw, in the late afternoon sunshine. We left with the sound of a curlew’s eerie cry echoing in our ears as a dunnock hopped around in the grass verge by the cars.
Hawk Combe Wood. 24th April 2022
The overnight rain having cleared, we made our way up the slopes of Exmoor to our meeting point, a small car park at the summit of Porlock Hill, the steepest – 1 in 4 in places. The first official day of Spring was over four weeks ago but Exmoor, always a little later, sported clumps of primroses and daffodils along it’s roadsides, these flowers now fading at lower levels.
We were greeted in the earthy car park with the clear descending notes of a willow warbler obligingly perched on a nearby rowan tree. Amalgamating into fewer cars we began our bumpy descent down a steep, winding, stony track through the woods to the valley bottom far below. Concentration was definitely needed. Thankfully we all reached the bottom without mishap and with engines switched off and all sensibly parked we emerged out into the stillness of the woods. Hawk Combe Woods is a National Nature Reserve consisting of 101 hectares of mixed woodland situated near the quaint village of Porlock on the North Somerset coast. It is owned and managed by the Exmoor National Park Authority and is a designated SSSI. Noted for its large population of sessile oaks, red wood ants and a good variety of lichens some of which are rare. Unfortunately it is at present suffering with a serious problem of ash die-back.
Our hope today was to spot some early migrant birds which are known to inhabit these woods. Our plan was to follow the stream as it winds down the valley towards Porlock before emerging into the Bristol Channel. As we made our way along the woodland path a great spotted woodpecker could be heard drumming in the distance. A goldcrest was seen flitting amongst the tree branches as a treecreeper scuttled its way up a tree trunk. The prominent songs of great tit, robin, blackbird and song thrush could all be heard above the sound of the babbling stream, making it sound like a late dawn chorus. Whortleberry plants were in profusion among the trees and the hawthorn was now in flower. Arriving at a grassy glade we took the opportunity to have our packed lunches whilst sitting on some convenient trunks of felled trees,just as the sun came out. True to form, as the sun appeared so the butterflies emerged, prominent among them were green veined whites. Interestingly a clump of small tortoiseshell caterpillars were seen on a stand of nearby nettles.
With lunches now consumed, we made our way back up out of the woods to make the short journey to Chetsford Water. Whilst walking down this typical steep sided Exmoor valley a buzzard glided effortlessly above us. A redstart, one of the hoped for migrants, was discovered in a hawthorn tree, its magnificent colours showing brightly against the surrounding greenery. A dipper suddenly appeared and flew up the course of the stream with its purposeful flight.
Finally we made our way back along the coastal road which overlooked the calm Bristol Channel, down the steep narrow lane to Jane’s beautiful house nestling in the slopes of Exmoor, where we we invited to tea. Sitting out in the late afternoon sun, we were confronted with an assortment of jams, creams, scones and a cake. Newly arrived swallows and house martins arrowed across the now blue skies above us. A perfect end to a perfect day. Thanks to Brian for the bird and butterfly lists and to Jane for her wonderful hospitality. JS
Field Irish Farm, Sunday 15th May 2022
Hidden in the gently rolling hills of the North Devon countryside lies Field Irish Farm. This 120 acre farm was our destination for today. It is run by Stephen and Julie Palmer, their aim being to farm the land alongside nature to provide a quiet, peaceful reserve for visitors to enjoy.
A self contained suckler herd of 40/50 pure and cross bred Belted Galloway animals are grass and silage fed with no bought in concentrate feed apart from a mineral/vitamin lick. No sprays are used and no artificial fertilizer has been applied for over 30 years, encouraging the flowers and making the farm self sufficient. It is run under the Countryside Stewardship scheme with no grass being mown for silage until July/August after the wildflowers have seeded and the hedges are only allowed to be trimmed every three years.
After an introductory talk by Stephen giving us the farm’s history and it’s associated aspirations, we set off from the farmyard into a nearby grass field which was ablaze the bright yellow of creeping buttercup intermingled with the red of the nitrogen fixing red clover. Normally there would be a good stand of yellow rattle and other wild flowers by now but a cold Spring followed by a spell of dry weather has made things a little later this year.
Undeterred we walked back across the farmyard with the gobble of turkeys and calls of other assorted poultry echoing in our ears from a nearby stone barn. These birds are only let out under supervision as they are apt to be predated by the foxes which breed on the farm.
Walking down a grassy lane bordered by thick hedges we disturbed green veined white and speckled wood butterflies patrolling their territories. A little further on a small rivulet of water crossed the lane giving rise to a damper patch which had a wonderful stand of white petalled, round leaved water crowfoot with an occasional water forget-me-not. About half a dozen roe deer roam the farm and their tracks could be clearly seen in the soft mud.
The hedges around the farm are mainly a mixture of hawthorn, hazel, blackthorn, sycamore, ash and beech. Some are over 300 years old. A wayfaring-tree was found and is unusual for this part of the country with its fruits turning from green to red to black by September. The thick hedges made an ideal habitat for the birds but made it difficult to spot them. Nevertheless we were serenaded throughout the day with songs of the chiffchaff, blackcap, willow warbler and wren.
Walking down over the gentle slope of a field two ravens were seen flying across the distant skyline whilst a hare bolted along the field edge. Young leverets were born on the farm earlier in the year. Entering a small wood displaying a carpet of bluebells gave us good photographic opportunities. One member had a large net which he waved about with great dexterity catching various flying insects from different locations and then proceeded to identify them.
Heading back up towards the farmyard we passed through a field of inquisitive young stock and further on saw some older stock with the farm’s Galloway bull plus a young calf less than two weeks old. It was now time for a cream tea and after travelling a few miles we arrived at Lizzies Larder accompanied by a lively discussion as to whether the cream or jam should be spread on first. To complete the day a red kite was then seen being harassed by a crow.
Thanks to Peter and Brian for keeping the lists.