I am not a bird watcher by any means but there is something special about seeing large numbers of the emblematic Avocet at first hand.
To that end, on Saturday 15th November we crossed the border into England and headed for Starcross and the River Exe in Devon where we had booked to go on the 2.00pm sailing of the RSPB Avocet Cruise.
With an hour or two to kill before our sailing we had a walk along the beach at Dawlish with it’s red tinged sand where there were a 20 or so Turnstones milling around the waters edge. These energetic little birds seemed oblivious to me after a while, continuing their seemingly never ending search for food as the waves gently lapped around their feet. At times they seemed to jostled for position to feed on a mussel at a certain spot, rather than pick out there own from a the many that lined the rocks & groins. Crabs also seemed to be a major food source for these particular Turnstones and the many Herring Gulls.
One of the Herring Gulls had caught a Runner Crab (or Square Crab), Goneplax rhomboidesis normally an offshore crab that frequents muddy areas. This was a new species for me, one which is quite striking in appearance, given that it has extremely long front legs and a straight or square leading edge to it’s carapace.
Amongst the shingle and boulders at the top of the beach was a very obliging Rock Pipit which soon had me pointing my large white Canon 100-400 at it. This in turn attracted the attentions of passers by who innocently enquired was it “a rarity” that I was looking at and “anything rare about,” questions which always prompt me to stutter in embarrassed horror that “I’m not a bird watcher!” Dragonfly geek yes, birdwatcher no!
At the rear of the beach I noticed that there were also a few Common Stripped Woodlice - Philoscia muscorum – So perhaps I should add Woodlouse geek to my previous confession!
Back to Starcross and on the rising tide we had a flotilla of Mute Swans to see us off on our cruise aboard My Queen. My Queen was built in 1929 and is a Dunkirk veteran, proudly displaying a brass plaque inscribed Dunkirk 1940 on the front of the wheel house.
We headed seaward initially, following the sweep of the sandy strip of Dawlish Warren across the mouth of the estuary to Exemouth with Brent Geese, Redshanks, Oystercatchers, Little Egrets, Cormorants (drying their wings), Turnstones, Lesser Black Backed Gulls, Black Headed Gull, Herring Gulls & Shags all making an appearance.
From the mouth of the Exe My Queen then made her way slowly up river, passing a couple of people out on a sand bar who seemed to be getting ready for a para surfing session, fisherman digging for bait & those already out with their rods. There seems to be room for all interests on this incredibly valuable resource for wintering birds.
For those like me who did not know their birds perhaps as well as they should, help was at hand in the form of a very informative expert commentary throughout the trip, along with a team of RSPB volunteers who ensured that we missed nothing. Sadly photography was never going to be at it’s best on this trip with low light levels compounded by the vibrations of the boat , making it difficult to get anything other than record shots.
Closer to the gate of the Exeter Canal at the Turf Inn the numbers of birds was amazing and came thick & fast including Curlew, Greenshank, Grey Heron, Teal, Pintail, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing, Knot, Great Crested Grebe, Mallard, Shelduck, Goldeneye, Dunlin, Grey Plover, and of course the Avocets. How can a black & white bird look so beautiful? Perhaps it their elegant stature, the long legs & long gently curving bill. Seeing large numbers of them together reminds me of seeing vast flocks of Flamingos in some exotic lake through that little window on the world that inhabits the corner of the nation’s lounges. Smaller in scale here perhaps but just as impressive in the flesh, under a fading autumn sky and the chill of the open water.
Now & again flocks of Oystercatchers, Brent Geese, or Lapwings would take to the air as My Queen passed just a little too close for comfort adding to the spectacle of the scene before us, and each in turn adding to the unique soundtrack of the estuary in winter so typified by the iconic call of the Curlew.
After reaching Topsham My Queen turned and headed for home. With the light rapidly fading it became progressively more difficult to pick out individual birds, but the lights from the shore gently reflecting across the water and the calls of the waders echoing across the gathering darkness provided us with a magical end to a great trip.
The RSPB River Exe Avocet Cruises run throughout the winter between November and the beginning of March and last for between 3 to 4 hours.
Details can be found here: http://www.rspb.org.uk/events/details.asp?id=tcm:9-191726