Guided Bird Watching cruise on 24 November 2018
Our afternoon cruise started with a Common Scoter in the mouth of the estuary and a Peregrine sitting on the top of the church in Exmouth. Off Cockwood we found the ‘resident’ Slavonian Grebe and then the Great Northern Diver first seen on the 22nd. About 15 Great crested Grebes were scattered in the central section of the estuary, where there were again many hundreds of Brent Geese and Wigeon, together with more than 100 Pintail, and 2 Greenshanks at Powderham.
Once again, the upper, ‘muddy’ section of the estuary held very large numbers of Avocets, Black-tailed Godwits and Dunlin, with smaller numbers of Lapwings and Golden Plovers, plus about 50 distant Knot. As we returned to the quay and started to disembark, someone spotted an immature drake Eider, in almost replacing the same spot as the Scoter seen earlier.
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.
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…
My first trip of the season featured divers.
Two Great Northern Divers and a Red Throated Diver. All three sighted in the Starcross area where
we also saw a Slavonian Grebe.
Wigeon numbers were very high especially round the Clyst where they were joined by Pintails.
This is one of the benefits of an early trip as there is an abundance of eel grass for Wigeon to feed on.
Brent Geese also in good numbers were well spread along our route, but we could only find two young,
indicating a poor breeding season.
Another Arctic visitor is the Sanderling and a flock of thirty showed well.
Usual spectacle of Avocets and Black-tailed Godwits at Topsham and amongst the Dunlin flocks were Grey Plover and Ringed plover.
Greenshanks were seen at various locations, up to ten in total.
Just a few Bar-tailed Godwits, Red-breasted Mergansers and Turnstones seen, but up to 300 Golden Plovers were
on the mud with Lapwing at Topsham and several Great crested Grebes were on the water.
At least three Kingfishers were seen and three Seals, including one young were pulled up on the mud.