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.
16th November 2017
The first cruise of the winter season got off to a great start with a Kingfisher sitting on one of the boats off Dawlish Warren … unfortunately before anyone had boarded the Pride of Exmouth! The weather glorious for the first half of the cruise, a little cloudier later.
Offshore there were large numbers of gulls, Carrion Crows and Oystercatchers on Pole Sands, with small numbers of Shags and Brent Geese in the water. A few ducks a long way out may have been Common Scoters. Someone noticed a Peregrine sitting on the church tower, no doubt eyeing up its next meal.
Back inside the estuary, a seal seen spotted briefly before it dived. The next excitement came with a juvenile Great Northern Diver off Cockwood – let’s hope it stays for the winter. The other denizen of this part of the estuary, a flightless Slavonian Grebe, didn’t show us its face until the return journey later! We had distant views of Red-breasted Mergansers and some lovely, close views of Shags, shining green in the sun.
Lots of Brent Geese were grazing between Exmouth and Lympstone, while Little Egrets were widespread and a single Greenshank was feeding in the shallows off a large sandbank. Beyond Lympstone huge numbers of Wigeon lined the mudbanks, with over 100 Pintail likewise at the mouth of the Clyst. We had close views of two Harbour (Common) Seals hauled out, one of them a brownish youngster.
After Turf we started to Avocets scattered across the mudflats, feeding with flocks of Dunlin and Black-tailed Godwits. Hundreds of Lapwings were also here, joined by a flocks of Golden Plover that landed in close proximity (450 counted on photographs later). At Topsham there were hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits feeding off the Goat Walk with Avocets, and a group of 35 Knot got up from the riverbank and flew past us.
As we turned round at Topsham, a Kingfisher flew across the river and landed on an old wreck: it took a while for everyone to see it though! Yet another Kingfisher flew past the boat shortly afterwards. The seals were still on the sandbank as we returned, and the diver was still feeding off Cockwood. Frustratingly, as we approached Exmouth, the regular wintering Bonaparte’s Gull was feeding off Bull Hill Sandbank, but too far away for comfort, to put it mildly.
Tuesday 14th March, 2017
The final birdwatching cruise of the winter found a hint of spring in the air, with a Skylark singing its heart out over the dunes at Dawlish Warren. After a few days of summer visitors arriving, clearly some of the winter visitors had also begun departing, including many of the Avocets that normally leave in early March. But there were plenty of birds left for us to see ….
Offshore there were again hordes of Herring Gulls feeding over extensive areas exposed by a very low tide. Groups of Brent Geese were also taking advantage of the algae exposed, while both off Exmouth and inside the estuary small numbers of Shags were still diving for fish. We were able to get the boat reasonably close to the two Slavonian Grebes off Cockwood: one of them showed signs of breeding plumage. Further up the estuary, most of at least 10 Great Crested Grebes were in breeding plumage; at one point, seven of them flew past the boat – quite a sight!
19 Sanderlings foraged along the edge of one sandbank and a wintering Greenshank was near the Kenn outflow as usual. Five Goldeneye, including a nice drake, gave us reasonably good views in the middle of the estuary. Due to the low tide, we got stuck on the mud for a while near Lympstone, but it gave us chance to look at a Harbour (Common) Seal that swam by. Several groups of Pintail, maybe 50 in total, were dabbling on the oozy mudbanks here too.
As usual, most of the waders were feeding busily on the mudbanks between Turf and Topsham, including a roosting flock of maybe 500 Golden Plovers that really glowed in the late afternoon sun. Groups of Knot were also fairly conspicuous amongst the still large numbers of Dunlins and Grey Plovers. The Avocet flock had declined to only a couple of dozen, but as ever they looked stunning amongst the hundreds of Black- and Bar-tailed Godwits. Lots of Teal were still feeding around Topsham and we had great views of Red-breasted Mergansers, showing off their glorious colours and patterns in the sun as the drakes postured in display to the ducks.
After we turned around at Topsham, we were surprised to hear the staccato song of a Cetti’s Warbler drifting on the breeze from the tidal reedbed beside ExeterCanal! Further down the estuary, Little Egrets, which had been quite abundant today, were flying into their woodland roost site near Powderham. At Dawlish Warren, Oystercatchers were in pre-high-tide roost gatherings, Turnstones and Pied Wagtails foraged along the shoreline, and that Skylark was still singing away over the dunes!
What a great end to another season’s exciting bird cruises on the Exe. I can’t wait for November!
Saturday 11th February, 2017
There was a raw easterly wind blowing this afternoon, but at least the morning’s snow flurries had ceased.
The afternoon’s birdwatching began with a splendid male Black Redstart that appeared on scaffolding as passengers were waiting to board the boat. Apparently there was also a Peregrine nearby, having caught a pigeon earlier.
There were hundreds of gulls, mainly Herring Gulls, feeding and roosting off Dawlish Warren, taking advantage of the lowest tide for several years; we failed to spot anything rare amongst them though. A Harbour (Common) Seal popped up briefly near Exmouth. The two Slavonian Grebes and a pair of Goldeneye were off Cockwood, and a few Great Crested Grebes further up the estuary. A Greenshank was in the Kenn outflow as usual.
Hundreds of Avocets, Dunlins and both godwits were scattered over the mudbanks at the northern end of the estuary, and a flock of Golden Plover flew over. Flocks of Brent Geese flew up and down from the fields over the sea wall and some were resting along the river channel. Lots of Common Gulls were amongst even larger numbers of Black-headed Gulls as we approached Topsham, where again the female Long-tailed Duck was with Red-breasted Mergansers. The Long-tailed Duck behaved very well and actually flew right around the boat giving us lovely views – a definite highlight! A further pair of Goldeneye were also at Topsham.
Friday 10th February 2017
Another chilly day with an easterly breeze. Again, many gulls were around Pole Sands, together with fair numbers of Oystercatchers and Curlews. The 2 Slavonian Grebes were off Cockwood, as usual, plus four Goldeneye (one drake) there as well. Two Greenshanks were seen off Powderham, and a few Great Crested Grebes.
Hundreds of Avocets were well scattered over the mudflats near Turf, together with large numbers of Dunlin and small numbers of Grey Plover and Knot. As we approached Topsham, there were about a hundred Golden Plovers with Lapwings by the edge of the river, giving nice views. We had even better views of a female Long-tailed Duck with Red-breasted Mergansers – the highlight of the cruise. Good views were had of both Black-tailed And Bar-tailed Godwits at Topsham.
Although not seen on the cruise itself, two Little Grebes were diving close to boats in Exmouth marina.
Thursday 9th February 2017
Sunshine took the edge off a keen easterly wind today, and made the Shags and Red-breasted Mergansers shine like green bottles!
Large numbers of gulls were loafing around on Pole Sands and also on several of the sandbanks and mudflats. As usual, they were mainly Herring and Black-headed, but with a fair number of Common and Great-blacked Gulls as well. Just inside the estuary off Exmouth, the adult Bonaparte’s Gull gave us nice views (as it did during a low-tide count cruise yesterday).
As usual, a Greenshank was feeding in the outlet of the River Kenn at Powderham and the first of about 500 Avocets were seen soon after. Brent Geese gave great views near Turf, after which we had spectacular displays by the myriad waders at Topsham. Hundreds of Avocets, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin, Redshanks and a few Knot wheeled around the boat before landing in their masses near the Goat Walk.
Three Goldeneye gave nice views as they flew around the boat at Topsham. Large flocks of Lapwings and Golden Plovers over Exminster Marshes were rather too distant to appreciate properly, perhaps having been spooked by a Peregrine or the wintering Marsh Harrier. Having missed them on the way out, our regular ‘couple’ of Slavonian Grebes were picked up on the way past Cockwood. Finally, we passed close to a group of Turnstones roosting on a buoy.