Birds on the Exe tide line

Apr 9, 2021 | Blog

Matt Knot writes about the birds he sees on the Exe estuary and surrounding area on his website: http://gobirdingexmouth.blogspot.com/. Here you can find out not just about the birds but also much more besides including moths, butterflies and wildflowers. His knowledge of these subjects is amazing, as is his photography. The wildlife in our area is rich and varied mostly thanks to the intertidal area that is such a rich food source.

As a keen birder, living in Exmouth, I think about the tides a lot. There are very few days in the year when I’m not out birding, although it has to be carefully fitted around work and family life. To get the most out of my often brief forays into the ‘field’, I have to have a constant awareness of the state of the tide, and Mudbank, just a couple of minutes from where I live, is my favourite spot. It offers panoramic views of the lower part of the Exe estuary and the views across to Haldon Hill are fabulous. The only problem is that when the tide is low, the birds are miles out, and even with a telescope the birds are usually ‘dots’ and often unidentifiable.
I try to time my visits to coincide with the birds being closer – an hour or two either side of high tide. The birds are pushed up, closer and closer to the stone-covered area beneath the railway line -the spot where the brook enters the river, complete with traffic cone and shopping trolley (which a Kingfisher regularly perches on).
On a good day in winter, numbers of Oystercatcher and Turnstone can afford good views. Smaller numbers of Redshank are often present and, if you’re lucky, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Greenshank, and Shelduck.

Redshanks sometimes gather in numbers off Mudbank, but when the tide is at its highest they need to move to alternative roost sites.

This juvenile Black-tailed Godwit has flown from its Icelandic breeding grounds, to probe the Exe’s invertebrate-rich mud. This bird was photographed from Mudbank, in Exmouth. Hundreds use Bowling Green Marsh, Topsham, to roost whilst the estuary mud is covered at high tide.

In the autumn it’s wildfowl that predominate, with hundreds of Wigeon and Brent Geese – birds that have travelled thousands of miles from Russia to feed on the nutrition-packed Eel Grass, that grows in Exmouth’s corner of the estuary. The star birds though are the Pintail – the most exquisite of ducks, and Exmouth is arguably the best place in the whole of the south-west to see them.

Female (left) and male Pintail. Mudbank is a wonderful spot to get close-up views of this winter dabbling duck.

Hundreds of Wigeon feed off Mudbank in the autumn and roost on the water at night – their evocative whistling combining with the grunting noises made by the Brent Geese.
Although the numbers and variety of species you can see from Mudbank are impressive, Mudbank is not a major roost site for birds that feed on the Exe. When the tide covers all the mud, birds have to vacate the feeding spots and move to safe sites where they can sleep and preen. The main sites are Dawlish Warren (at the south end of the river), Bowling Green Marsh (Topsham) and Exminster Marshes, both of which lie at the northern end of the estuary.
Dawlish Warren is a fantastic site, with hundreds of birds roosting in front of the bird hide, on Finger Point or on the beach. Unfortunately, as with many other sites on the Exe, birds are frequently disturbed by anything from dog-walkers, to kite-surfers, paddle-boarders or microlights.
Bowling Green Marsh, an RSPB reserve, suffers far less disturbance and roosting birds can be viewed from a spacious hide along Bowling Green Lane.
Exminster Marshes, another RSPB reserve, also holds roosting birds at high tide. The best place to view them is from the canal towpath. Numbers here can be impressive but the birds are often quite distant.
Without these roost sites the Exe wouldn’t attract the number and variety of species that it does. The birds depend heavily on the tides and associated availability of food and roost sites, and as a birder I have to be tuned into this.

 

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