The end of this cold and snowy weather has been heralded by numerous sightings of Redwing and Fieldfare, and our bird feeders have been bustling with green and gold finches, chaffinches, robins and blue and great tits. On warmer days, the first Robins and Dunnocks can also be heard singing in our hedgerows. Goldcrests and Yellowhammers can also be spotted in the woods and hedgerows.
Bird counts in January revealed large numbers of Godwits, Avocets, Redshank, Curlew and Dunlin, as well as our usual numbers of Teal, Wigeon, and other ducks and geese. There has also been small groups of Pintail ducks and Snipe, and a couple of Grey Plovers were seen earlier this week.
The snow and rain has restricted some of our work on reserves: the past 2 days have seen the production of more than 20 new nest boxes by residential volunteers, ready for placing around the Exe Estuary over the coming weeks.
Plans for the new pond dipping platform at Exminster are firmly underway, starting this week with localised lowering of water levels, in order to get the first posts in place. The rain isn’t helping! Hopefully we'll be able to run some family pond dipping events by the summer.
Our regular Thursday work party has been doing a great job of laying many of the hedges around Powderham marshes and Labrador Bay. This Thursday we're starting on some of the hedgerows behind Devington Park in Exminster.
Everything is changing down on the marshes and, I confess, the view from where I am sitting is very exciting and I am full of anticipation for the coming winter! The biggest change for the team has been the departure of our Site Manager, Sally Mills, to newer pastures: she will be sorely missed, but we wish her all the best in her new job.
Irrespective of internal changes to the RSPB team here, each of the Exe RSPB reserves are continuing, in full swing, with their winter transformation: the trees are looking distinctly barer, Redwing and Fieldfare have been frequenting the local hedgerows of Station Road (Exminster), and the spring/summer interpretation signs at Bowling Green have been exchanged for their wintry counterparts. Starling murmurations have also been appearing in the sky and, with the arrival of Avocets, the RSPBs popular Avocet Cruises have resumed their winter schedule (bookings for these trips can be made through the RSPB website).
The rain and flooding has affected the whole of the Exe Estuary, and our work on Exminster has been hugely disrupted when we found ourselves unable to access any of the fields! Instead, we took the opportunity to visit some of the other RSPB reserves in Devon, including nearby Aylesbeare, Labrador Bay and Chapel Wood (North Devon). On the upside, many interesting waders, including avocets and black- and bar-tailed godwits, have been spotted on the Exminster fields.
Chapel Wood RSPB Reserve
Labrador Bay RSPB Reserve
Exminster Marshes - 2012 Floods
Station Road, Exminster - 2012 Floods
It almost feels like a relief that we finally approach the winter months for real, and we can stop pretending that the weather will improve, that it will stop raining and we will be drenched in sunshine. Unfortunately the latter never happened and we never got to achieve all our management ambitions, but I can safely say that it wasn’t for the want of trying!! Although wet conditions curtailed our efforts, the areas we have managed to cut and clear are looking good. Rush and tufted hairgrass tussocks have been reduced to an acceptable number and the grass grazed to desired heights to provide enough to nibble on for our wintering wildfowl and tight enough when looking ahead to the spring for our breeding waders.
Regardless of our management challenges it all feels worth it when small numbers of teal start to congregate in the pools, then joined by their larger and noisy neighbours the wigeon. The small groups soon turn into flocks and the sights and sounds of the wildfowl soon become the reward for our efforts. Godwits are starting to gather and with the high tides of late coupled with high water on Exminster Marshes, the roost at Bowling Green Marsh has been a delight. Elegant avocets are joined by piping redshank and even a couple of unusual visitors were attracted by the gathering, with a male and female red crested pochard using the marsh for numerous days. That is the great thing about wildlife – you never quite know what might appear next!
Our volunteers continue to do an admirable job on people engagement work, groups of eager folk can be found every Friday and one day over the weekend at the hide, to show the delights of Bowling Green Marsh. Keen to engage all, from families to the experienced birdwatcher, they are on hand whether to introduce people to wildlife or to explain the differences between black and bar-tailed godwits, new to wildlife or simply want to know a little bit more why not go along and meet them. Our Wildlife Explorer group has gained a new momentum as has our school work with new volunteers coming forward with new enthusiasm. Don’t forget to check the website for an update of events, from Avocet Cruises to walks.
A key element of managing RSPB wetland reserves is the cutting and removal of wetland vegetation. This management work is both labour intensive and creates large volumes of waste material. In most cases the disposal of this material is problematic to the extent that it can limit the management achieved. Due to the restriction of manual techniques, there is a danger that habitat quality is lost and compromised. At the Exe Estuary Reserves we have a constant battle with species such as soft rush, which we treat, cut and clear annually. The rush thrives on the wetland conditions created to benefit breeding waders and wintering waders and wildfowl.
In an attempt to find a solution the RSPB has completed small-scale trials over a number of years to investigate ways of utilising this waste wetland biomass. So far this work has focused on the production of briquettes made from compacted reed, rush and wood, which can then be used in domestic heating. Although successful there are still many obstacles to overcome such as moisture content, emissions and ensuring the process is energy efficient and such work demands investment. However this work has interested the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) who are subsequently preparing to fund a 2 year competition to develop the complete process from wetland harvest through to the creation of bio-energy.
Over recent months RSPB have been working closely with DECC’s Science and Innovation team to explain the nature of the wetland management issue and to calculate the potential energy gains from processing the waste biomass. There has also been liaison with the consortium of wetland managers from the sites where the development work and demonstrations are proposed to take place.
The project has progressed quickly and DECC are launching the innovation competition on 8th October 2012 inviting industry and academia to apply to design, build and procure the machinery needed to create and deliver the wetland biomass to bio-energy process. At the end of the two-year project the aim is to have a process in place which will enable wetlands managed by nature conservation organisations and other land managers to be harvested economically, allowing us to further improve the habitat for wildlife, increase the area managed, together with producing bio-energy to reduce our carbon footprint and fund future operations. This is an amazing step forward for this work and the opportunity we have been waiting for to progress this aspect of nature reserve management to an effective conclusion.
Brambles laden with blackberries, small pockets of morning mist hanging over the water, large droplets of dew clinging on to the grass until mid morning and a small group of avocets in the high tide roost at Bowling Green Marsh are all signs that autumn is here. As we walk through the marsh at this time of year jack snipe rise silent from their muddy pools and teal nervously chatter as new arrivals they hide in amongst the wetland vegetation. It has been a poor year for dragonflies and butterflies but some can still be seen making the most of the sunny intervals, grabbing a sheltered spot to soak up the warmth.
As I write this we are amidst some of the worst September storms known, bringing cold temperatures and dramatic rainfall. I felt fortunate that the south west was the first port of call as the weather gained momentum as it moved north. But hours of persistent heavy rain have sent the marsh into flood and I am amazed that we have managed to achieve any management works at all. It has been purely down to determination, constant juggling and flexibility as we pit our wits against the good old British weather.
Somehow we have managed to cut and remove 40 hectares of vegetation, somewhat short of the 100 hectares we had planned. However by focusing on the priority areas we have tried to minimise the effect that this will have on the wildlife, but we are left with little choice as the damage we would cause would be far more detrimental. Unless the weather changes dramatically it is hard to see that we will be able to do any further work of this type, particularly as we will soon be required to maintain higher water levels ready for the winter birds.