This afternoon saw the last birdwatching cruise of the season, after yesterday’s exceptional cancellation due to snow and ice on the roads. There was still the unusual sight of Lapwings and Golden Plovers feeding on the sandy shore of Warren Point, otherwise the tides and drizzle had rendered the intertidal areas free of snow.
There was no sign of the Great Northern Diver today, but the Slavonian Grebe was again midway between Cockwood and Exmouth and a dozen or more Great Crested Grebes were scattered up the estuary. The best bird was a female Scaup with Red-breasted Mergansers near Turf. Six Goldeneyes (1 drake) were on the river near Topsham and again a large flock of Pintail was around the mouth of the Clyst.
There were 275 Avocets scattered between Powderham and Topsham, all feeding actively. Along with the hordes of other waders and wildfowl around the Exe, they’ll be off soon back to their breeding sites, once they’ve restored their fat reserves for the journey.
So much for the Met Office’s ‘first day of spring’! With the temperature below zero, the ‘Beast from the East’ met with warm air from storm Emma heading up from the south, and the result was a blizzard of fine snow that covered the intertidal areas and brought in large numbers of Lapwings, Golden Plovers and winter thrushes, mainly Fieldfares.
Unfortunately, only five people turned up for this afternoon’s cruise, which is a shame because the weather provided some interesting observations. Lapwings were everywhere, including out on Pole Sands and at Dawlish Warren, where 250 hunkered down with dozens of Golden Plovers in the snow-covered dunes. All around the estuary, waders were behaving unusually, either feeding tight to shorelines or sitting disconsolately on the snow. It was weird to see Avocets, of which there were over 100, feeding in slushy shallows and several kept their legs retracted when they flew – something I have never seen before.
The Great Northern Diver was still off Cockwood and 10 ore more Great Crested Grebes were further up the estuary. Large numbers of Brent and Canada Geese had abandoned the fields and sat out on the snow-covered mud; two Snow Geese and two Greylags were with them.
Small passerines were also on the move: Fieldfares, Redwings and Meadow Pipits coming over from the east. A Pied Wagtail even joined the boat in mid-estuary, running around under our feet; we sent it on its way when we returned to Exmouth. Lapwings were even on the rocks at the entrance to the marina, and Ian Stuart said that later they were sitting on the pontoon where we disembark!
Today’s cruise was a bit challenging, with the ‘Beast from the East’ bringing a chilling easterly wind (the temperature barely rose above freezing) and occasional light snow flurries. We saw the Great Northern Diver off Cockwood, where the Slavonian Grebe had retreated eastwards, presumably to get out of the wind. No doubt for the same reason, many waders hugged the eastern side of the estuary, including most of the Black-tailed Godwits between Lympstone and Topsham.
A single Greenshank was at Powderham, a dozen or more Sanderlings on the central sandbank and there were at least 300 Pintail were around the mouth of the Clyst, the most I’ve ever seen on the Exe.
Grey Plovers were well-scattered today, although most of the (100?) Bar-tailed Godwits were at Topsham. Avocets were feeding across the mudbanks at Topsham, with a few also at Powderham. Five Goldeneye (one drake) were on the river at Topsham, giving us some great fly-by views. A Buzzard flushed a large flock of Brent Geese near Turf, where we could see two Snow Geese in the distance with Canadas (in a snow flurry!).
Guided Birdwatching review – Wednesday and Thursday 17-18th January
Both cruises were sandwiched between periods of heavy rain, but as is usually the case, the weather on the estuary wasn’t at all bad.
Great Northern Divers featured on both cruises, with one off Exmouth seafront and two others inside the estuary affording better views. Likewise, the ‘resident’ Slavonian Grebe was off Cockwood and about 10 Great Crested Grebes were seen both days. Only a few Shags were present in the outer part of the estuary, where a Guillemot was hanging around the Marina. On Thursday, a Kingfisher flashed past the entrance to the dock, but few of us managed to see it, and a Peregrine sat on Exmouth church tower – with its back to us!
A few Sanderlings and Greenshank were feeding in the central sections of the estuary, with hundreds of Shelduck, Dunlin, Avocets and both Godwits as we progressed towards Topsham. Dozens of Grey Plovers and Knot were also seen (although we couldn’t find any Knot on Thursday), plus a few Ringed Plover. Over 300 Golden Plover were roosting on the mudflat opposite Topsham, a regular site for them, but surprisingly no Lapwings were with them.
An outstanding sighting was a large flock of Pintail off Lympstone Barracks: I quickly counted 290 on Wednesday (the most I’ve seen here in 30 years), but there were only about 100 next day. Other duck interest was provided on Wednesday by a drake Goldeneye at Topsham and 6 (2 drakes) on the way back off Cockwood. Most of the Brent Geese and Wigeon are feeding on grassland around the estuary now – we could just about see large flocks of geese over the sea wall near Turf.
The large flocks of gulls gathering in late afternoon held a Mediterranean Gull on Thursday, but it was hard to spot amongst the blizzard of Black-headed Gulls.
Saturday 2nd December 2017
The light was lovely for today’s cruise, which saw very large numbers of birds, right from the hordes of gulls and Brent Geese around Pole Sands up to the large flocks of Avocets and Black-tailed Godwits at Topsham. Wigeon, Brents and Oystercatchers all seemed to be in larger numbers than usual – thousands of each.
The immature Great Northern Diver and the ‘resident’ Slavonian Grebe were both off Cockwood, while at least 21 Great Crested Grebes (more than I’ve ever seen on the estuary) were scattered between Lympstone and the Clyst. Around 100 Pintail were in the same area, while c50 Golden Plover flew in to roost on the mud to join the hundreds of Lapwings already present. A dozen or more Greenshanks were in the central areas, while 30 or more Knot were among large numbers of Dunlin towards Topsham. A Black Swan was with Mutes near Powderham
Before and after the cruise started, a Kingfisher and Guillemot, respectively, were seen from the boat at Exmouth.
A pair of Peregrines were very active off Exmouth, later sitting together on a sandbank; there may have been a third bird later, disturbing Starlings near Turf. We had three brief sightings of seal heads, perhaps relating to two Common (Harbour) Seals, while a Grey Seal hauled out on a floating platform off Dawlish Warren had as good a look at us as we did of it!
On Saturday just gone, I was thrilled to join my Dad on a Stuart Line Cruise up the Exe Estuary, which set off from Exmouth at 1pm. Dad has led some of these winter trips for many years now, and I always like to try and get on at least one a winter.
With no telescopes on the Stuart Line Cruise, it’s a great place to test out binoculars and get a true feel of their capabilities and limits. So no better place than this to try out the Nikon EDG’s that were sent to me to try out earlier in the week…