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!

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