Fast forward to April 2012 and on checking the sightings pages on the inty-net on Wednesday evening (25th April) there were 3 black-winged stilts reported on Exminster Marshes. Oh, Crap! I was working the next 2 days so was keeping my fingers crossed that they would stay around until Saturday which would be the earliest I could go to see them.
And so Saturday 28th April arrived and I headed off on the train to the River Exe. It was sunny on leaving Plymouth but by the time the train arrived at Totnes it was cloudy and wet - not the forecasted weather at all, it was supposed to be overcast but dry. By the time I arrived at Exminster Marsh it was drizzly with occasional showers and it felt cold, I wished I had brought some gloves with me. The first birds I saw were swallows and my first house martins of the year flying around a small group of trees by The Swans Nest pub, desperately trying to find something to eat in the miserable conditions.
The road to the canal was flooded on the S-bend where a swans nest had apparently been washed away but I managed to get across without getting my feet wet as the water wasn't too deep. The Marshes were well flooded, ironic considering the Authorities had called an environmental drought for the region a few days ago and since when it has rained quite regularly hence the flooding.
|Flooded road at Exminster Marsh|
The most notable birds were whimbrels. There have been some very high counts of whimbrels on The Exe this week and there must have been about 200 birds on the Marsh today. They were flighty and mobile, regularly giving their whistling call and I have never seen so many whimbrels together.
Another bird that was very noticeable were sedge warblers which seemed to be singing and song-flighting everywhere despite the weather, again I have never seen so many sedge warblers and I managed to get some very good close views of them as they sang.
On the Marsh I was surprised to see a few ducks, expecting them to have moved to breeding grounds by now. A male pochard, a male pintail, 2 pairs of tufted ducks, at least 6 male and a female wigeon, teal, gadwall and mallard were seen across the Marsh. A lone lapwing and a winter plumaged dunlin were also seen amongst the curlew, coot, shelduck and Canada Geese. A bar-headed goose was found with the Canada geese, presumably the bird I saw in Powderham Park last month and I also found a lone greylag goose. An Egyptian goose was reported but I failed to see it. A 2nd Winter Iceland gull was also reported amongst the large gull flock but again I failed to see it although I did find a first summer Mediterranean gull and a few adult Lesser black-backed gulls.
And talking of failing to see things, I failed to see the black-winged stilts because they had gone! Oh, crap! On getting home and checking the sightings pages the stilts had not been seen at Exminster all day but 2 birds had appeared in North Devon and a single bird had appeared in North Cornwall so I guess these are the 3 Exminster birds moving on. 2 of the stilts had been seen mating on Friday, maybe they will return South at some point so I may get to see them yet - hope springs eternal. If they had any sense though they would fly south and back to Southern Europe to get away from the cold, wet and windy Spring weather we are having here in the UK, I bet the hirundines on the Marsh wish they had stayed South too.
However there were plenty of good birds to see on the Marsh as compensation and the best bird of the day was a short-eared owl flying around the Marsh near the small reservoir, a different area to where I saw one back in December. It was noticed by a local birder while I was chatting to him and it showed well if a little distantly before flying off towards Turf and out of sight, being mobbed by a few gulls and crows as it went. A close follow up for bird of the day were 2 yellow wagtails feeding around the feet of the cattle on the Marsh, a bird I rarely see in the Spring here in Devon and one I struggle at times to see in the Autumn.
Other highlights were 3 reed warblers singing and showing very well, Cettis warblers singing and showing briefly and 2 skulking whitethroats. Swallows, house martins and sand martins buzzed all over the Marsh and small groups of swifts flew low overhead looking very dark and surprisingly large. A peregrine was perched on the electricity pylons and a buzzard flew over being mobbed by a carrion crow. Blackcaps were heard and seen including a few females. 2 winter plumaged bar-tailed godwits flew over the estuary calling and a summer plumaged great crested grebe dived for fish near the Turf lock gates.
I did walk along the estuary to Powderham Church as I could see a large group of people with tripods stood along the embankment near the railway crossing and wrongly assumed they were birders looking at the stilts on the flooded fields - wrong! They were in fact train enthusiasts and were assembled together to take photos of a steam locomotive that chugged past in a cloud of smoke, nice to see but not stilts!
Walking back to The Swans Nest to catch the bus to Dawlish Warren meant I had to cross the flooded road again, the water level had risen by now and this time my feet did get wet which wasn't very pleasant. Trudging around Dawlish Warren wasn't much fun with wet, cold feet but I did see a few interesting things to keep me going. Best bird was a bedraggled looking female redstart, its red tail looking amazingly bright in the dull weather. A pair of blackbirds were mobbing a male kestrel perched in a tree and a male stonechat sang from a bramble bush. A whitethroat sang briefly from a small area of shrub near the car-park and showed briefly and a second unseen bird was later heard on the reserve. Swifts flew low over the reserve and a small flock of 12 birds were seen coming in low off the sea. Swallows and house martins also flew over and I thought I saw 2 sand martins resting on the man-made sand martin bank before I realised they were models to attract the real thing in to the bank! A smart summer plumaged little grebe was on the pond and a moorhen was sat on a nest. 2 reed warblers were singing away hidden in the reeds and a grey heron flew off from the reeds as I walked by. Offshore 3 summer plumaged great crested grebes were on the sea and gannets and Sandwich terns were diving for fish offshore. 5 eider, 3 male and 2 immature males, flew past East before appearing to head up the River Exe.
|Man-made Sand Martin bank with 2 model Sand Martins - but I didn't see a single real Sand Martin here!|
Brown tail moth caterpillars were seen in their cocoons on the bramble bushes but there were far fewer seen than last year, presumably due to the poor Spring weather.
|Brown Tail Moth Caterpillars|
|Brown Tail Moth Caterpillars|
Some small Forget-Me-Nots were flowering, I think it is Early Forget-Me-Not.
Portland spurge was seen growing around the reserve including this large, bright coloured plant in the marram grass dunes.
And so I headed home stiltless but I had had a very good days birding despite the weather and wet feet, I had seen 7 new birds for the year and both my trains were First trains and not Virgin trains, so I can't complain. And maybe 3rd time is a charm when it comes to seeing stilts in the UK.