Monday, 28 January 2013


Living in Exeter you can't ignore the wildlife that flocks to the river Exe and the Exe estuary. The river that is currently gushing and roaring only a little way from our flat is home to so much life, and is tidal right up to just south of the city.

By the quay in Exeter you'll find cormorants, gulls, mallard ducks, swans, pied wagtails, grey wagtails, long tailed tits, blue tits, robins, maybe even the occasional otter; the list goes on and on! But even with all this wildlife in the city centre this isn't the wildlife hotspot of the area.  For that you need to head south, and down river to the mouth of the estuary at Topsham.

Here the river is clearly tidal. At high tide boats move in and out of the river and gulls soar overhead. Ducks paddle around (not just mallards here but teal, wigeon, sometimes red breasted merganser and recently a female long tailed duck) and waders are pushed up onto the topmost banks. As the tide reduces, the mud flats are revealed and waders flow from their high tide feeding grounds (such as the RSPB Bowling Green Marsh reserve) back to the estuary to feed. Curlews and redshank comb the mud while flocks of dunlin scatter across the shore living up to their old nickname of sea mice. I'm always surprised to see lapwings on the shore searching for food, as I grew up watching them in Northamptonshire fields far from the coast, but there they are too, mixed in with oystercatchers and godwits.

I learnt a great fact this week, that oystercatcheres ad split into two groups by the way they feed. Some, the hammerers, which break open shells using brute force and others, the stabbers, which drive their bill between the halves of the shell and level them apart. These feeding methods are taught by parents and once one technique is learnt they stick to this all their lives.

But while a walk along the shore at Topsham will be full of wildlife it's nothing compared to a boat trip out into the middle of all that mud. I've been on two Avocet Cruises now along the Exe and both were fantastic. The birds on the mud aren't bothered by the boat at all which means you can see everything close up and personal. Flocks of avocet, the estuary's flagship species, can been seen close enough to make out their blue legs and among the rocks and pebbles turnstones can be made our with their orange legs  and brilliant camouflage feathers. You might even catch a glimpse of a seal out there too or a kingfisher on the bank.

The ebb and flow of the tide carries on as is had done for centuries. New species are becoming familiar sights, such as little egrets, and it's hard to remember that avocet's only returned to these shores in the last half a century or so. There's always some new or unexpected to see on this ever changing landscape.

If you don't fancy a boat trip or a walk along the shore try to Avocet line trains that run from Exeter to Exmouth giving a fantastic view of the mudflats and fields surrounding them. Or take the number 57 bus and read about the species you can see on the walls as you go. If you're local try and play bus bingo to see all the different wildlife pictured on the side of these buses too. Just look out for the RSPB logo on the back and some wonderful wildlife on the side as you drive past.

However you do it exploring the Exe estuary's wildlife is a wonderful way to spend a day, half an hour or anything in between and as I've found it's never the same twice!

Friday, 25 January 2013

Wildlife Wonders and the Big Garden Bird Watch

I am beginning to think my new year's resolution should have been "upload blogs on time"! I haven't been snowed under this week but I have had a few fantastic nature moments.

Last weekend as I was driving through the slightly snowy Devon countryside I caught a white flash out of the corner of my eye as I turned a sharp bend in the road. At first I thought it was a large gull but a quick turn of my head (and then back to navigating the winding road) revealed the clearest view of a barn owl I think I've ever had in the wild. It flew across a field and then landed in a tree on the corner of the road. It's easy to see how these gorgeous birds are sometimes mistaken for ghosts on dark misty roads. I'm not sure I've ever seen a barn owl perching on a branch before either. It's normally the summer months that I'm more likely to see barn owls as they swoop over fields hunting for rodents in the late sunshine of dusk. Maybe the snow pushed this one out into the open to look for food. I hope it found some. Wildlife moments that make you want to stop whatever your doing just to watch are brilliant. Easily the highlight of my weekend!

But with the start of the new week the wildlife didn't stop. I'm still discovering what's living in my local patch and walking back through Exeter on Monday the fiance and I both stopped and stared as a fox crossed our path, crossed a main road and went off to wander the grounds of the County Hall, looking for food or friends? The street lights were too bright to see the fox's eyes flash green (I love that foxes have green eyes!) but we watched for several minutes as it wandered around on the grass. Like the barn owl, this was the closest I've seen a fox and probably the longest I've seen one for too. Later in the evening, as the snow fell, I heard a fox calling behind our house screeching again and again for about 5 minutes. It made me think how pleased I was to be same and warm inside.

Thinking of the cold it's time to clean out the birds feeders, fill the bird bath and settle down with a cup of tea and a biscuit ready for the Big Garden Bird Watch this weekend. This mass participation science event has been going on for longer than I've been alive and I think last year may have been the first year I failed to do it. But this year I'm back and ready to go. I'll be spending one hour watching the garden (unfortunately not my own but a friends I'm visiting) to see what birds are about. Along with over half a million other people I'll send my results into the RSPB and then their very clever scientists will spend several months sorting through and analysing the numbers. Then in March, we'll discover how garden birds are doing, what's going up and what's going down.

As a nation of wildlife lovers I'm amazed only 600,000 people do the Big Garden Bird Watch each year. Half of the UK's adults feed garden birds but only one in ten do this fantastic count. It's one of my favourite types of bird watching, sitting with a cup of something hot (maybe even in dressing gown and pj's) and watching the wildlife that lives closest to your home. Some years I see nothing, which is still important because it helps to build a picture of what is missing from our gardens that used to be plentiful. Other years I see loads, including  species I'd never known lived close to me. The pheasant I saw during my first year at university was definitely a surprise in the middle of Durham! This year my friends have been promised hot chocolate and a commentary of what's going on in their garden - although most of them are wildlife lovers already. So, if you're a BGBW veteran like me, find a friend who isn't and introduce them to this fantastic January tradition. And if you're a BGBW virgin, take the plunge and do it this weekend, it's only an hour and you could even use it as an excuse to avoid the chores for a while!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Back in the Green

Happy new year! After a few weeks offline (and lots of phone calls to internet providers) we now have internet up and running in our new flat and I'm back blogging. The river's roar is easily heard with the windows open and we've been getting some interesting species on our window list; including cormorant.  I'm looking forward to discovering what else lives around here and will always be looking out hopefully for the local otters that fish along the Exe.

Along with the unpacking we've been rediscovering Christmas presents (doesn't that feel a long time ago!?) and my nearest and dearest definitely know me well. Some of the green gifts I received were a bottle of local cider made from apples collected from roadside wild trees (ones that spring up from apple cores thrown out of car windows), the new River Cottage cook book Veg Every Day with lots of new ideas for yummy new recipes to tempt me away from meat in every meal, a grow your own fruit kits, a DIY wedding book and a sloe gin set for slightly more sophisticated bottling and presentation compared to my normal lemonade bottles.

This week I decided to do a bit of bulk cooking. With no freezer in the flat this means a bit more creativity than just cooking a massive pot of one dish and freezing portions. Starting with a big pot of cooked mince I took some out to make tonight's shepherd's pie, then by adding tomatoes, garlic and herbs what remained became a pot of bolognese sauce for later in the week, and then half of that has finally turned into chili con carne with kidney beans, chilies and a bit of grated carrot. Two packets of mince turned into three meals and 6 portions with very little effort. I was really surprised how far the meat when once all the other ingredient were added. I'd bought three packets of mince and only ended up using two, so any novel recipes for mince would be welcome since it needs eating soon!

Cooking in bulk is a great way to cut down on cooking costs. It doesn't take a lot more energy to cook double quantities and then reheating in the microwave is very quick and low energy. The cooker was on for maybe an hour (no more than would be needed to cook one chili con carne) but we wont need to turn it on again for at least three days. Planning your meals also means less waste food as you can make sure you use any leftover ingredients in other dishes later in the week.

Speaking of waste I'm slowly coming to terms with the recycling system in Exeter. There's no glass collection from homes which feels very odd. I haven't taken glass to a bottle bank for years but thankfully there's one just around the corner from us so it's not actually a problem at all. Other recycling seems fantastic though. ALL plastics including food wrappers, containers and plastic bags can be recyced as well as the normal paper, cardboard, tins and aluminum. I just wish there was a food waste collection here. That was one of the best things about the recycling in Preston because throwing away vegetable peelings and any food that we really can't use up feels like such a waste. Hopefully though I can avoid some of this by enlisting a friends help. Hopefully I'll be able to donate my non-cooked food waste to a friend who looks after an allotment plot and is always looking for more stuff to compost. One woman's rubbish another woman's treasure...

So that's where I'm up to in 2013 so far. Figuring out recycling, bulk cooking yummy winter warmers to save energy and having fun playing with the new gifts from Christmas. Still on my green to do list for the coming weeks are plant various seeds and bulbs, explore along the river for wildlife and try out some new veggie recipes as well as maybe an exciting visit to the local RiverFord farm where my veg boxes come from.  Keep reading for more next week.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Technical Difficulties

Happy New Year!

Due to lack of internet this week's blog has been postponed. But I'll be back soon blogging about the green Christmas gifts I received, my 2013 wildlife list and resolutions and all the normal stuff too. 

Thanks for reading!