The Topsham Three: Darts Farm, RSPB Bowling Green Marsh and the Exe Estuary...

Devon’s Exe Estuary is at its best for wildlife during the winter months, as over 20,000 wading birds, ducks, geese, and charismatic avocets, make the Exe their winter home. The Exe is internationally important for its winter wader and wildfowl assemblage.

Park for free at Darts Farm in Topsham, pop in and pick up snacks and a takeaway cuppa for your walk, pay a visit the RSPB shop upstairs then cross over the road from Darts and begin your walk along the lovely Clyst Valley Trail towards RSPB Bowling Green Marsh.

Along the way look into RSPB Goosemoor - you never know what you might spot. Last winter 21 greenshank were sighted, a very significant number for Devon.

When you arrive at the Bowling Green reserve, you’ll find two hides to enjoy. The first is open 24/7 and offers a more traditional experience. Next door, The Lookout Hide is open from Thursday to Sunday, 10am-4pm and is a hide with a difference. Enjoy a cosy and comfy panoramic view across the marsh from the sofas situated in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows. The Lookout also sells hot drinks and snacks.

Exmouth Journal: Pintails at Goosemoor. Photo: Steve EdwardsPintails at Goosemoor. Photo: Steve Edwards

Look out for…

Bowling Green Marsh is a haven for overwintering birds and is a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), as well as a Natura 2000 and Ramsar site. Flocks of redshanks, greenshanks, dunlins, and hundreds of curlews arrive to find their high-tide roosting spots. The reserve is managed so that visitors can enjoy close-up views of the wildlife from both hides.

A short walk further down the road you will find the stunning RSPB Clyst Viewing Platform which boasts breathtaking views across the Exe towards Exmouth. This is where you can enjoy the winter wow factor, a congregation of thousands of wintering birds. The estuary view itself is stunning, but I recommend taking a pair of binoculars or a telescope along so you can get closer sights of the special winter visitors.

The Exe Estuary is a hot spot during the winter because of its invertebrate-rich mud. One square metre contains the calorific equivalent of a Mars bar and birds need these extra calories during the winter months just to maintain their body temperature.

Some species like common sandpiper, curlew sandpiper, and green sandpiper use the estuary as a pit stop, to rest, recharge, and refuel before continuing their long journeys towards their winter homes. Whilst others check into the Exe and surrounding marshlands for a prolonged stay, including: wigeons and pintail ducks flying in from the Arctic; stylish avocets from the east coast of England, shovelers from Russia; knot from far north; dunlin from Scandinavia and north Russia often reaching numbers of around 3-4,000 and black-tailed godwits.

The Exe Estuary and its surrounding marshland is the most important site in South West England for wintering black-tailed godwits. Whilst seen on the Exe year-round they are in much higher numbers during the winter, often topping 1,000. The Exe Estuary is home to one per cent of the global population of this species during the winter months.

Exmouth Journal: Teal can be spotted in the ditches at Exminster Marshes. Photo: Steve EdwardsTeal can be spotted in the ditches at Exminster Marshes. Photo: Steve Edwards

Exminster and Powderham Marshes

From the RSPB Exminster Car Park take the 20 minute walk along Station Road to the viewing platform.

Watch for fieldfare and redwings in the trees along the way. Depending on the time of your visit, you may spot short eared owls and barn owls hunting in the late afternoon dimpsy.

At the platform enjoy spectacular views across Exminster Marshes and watch flocks of ducks and waders up-close. The RSPB has carried out works to bring the birds here closer to visitors, by creating areas where ducks and waders feel safe. Rush and tall vegetation can make the birds fearful of hiding predators. The site team keeps these areas of vegetation low to put the birds at ease. Muddy areas for the birds to enjoy have also been created and water levels are managed - ducks particularly love to gather in the middle of larger pools, again for safety.

The wide, open landscape created at RSPB Exminster now enables birds to feel comfortable coming closer to the viewing structures.

Exmouth Journal: Snipe on Exminster Marshes. Photo: Steve EdwardsSnipe on Exminster Marshes. Photo: Steve Edwards

Look out for…

Wigeons grazing close to Station Road, teal in the ditches, and shovelers on the main pool. Less common species at the Lagoon include tufted ducks, pintails, and gadwall. Lapwings and golden plovers are dotted about the fields and often joined by large flocks of black-tailed godwits. Linnets, reed buntings, and other finches flock around the arable plots on Powderham land and the wet features also provide a refuge for wintering wildfowl.

Exmouth Journal: RSPB Aylesbeare is one of the few remaining southern lowland heathland habitats in the world. Photo: Steve EdwardsRSPB Aylesbeare is one of the few remaining southern lowland heathland habitats in the world. Photo: Steve Edwards

RSPB Aylesbeare

RSPB Aylesbeare nature reserve in East Devon is one of the few remaining southern lowland heathland habitats in the world and I must admit it’s one of my favourites.

Its stunning, open expanses and sweeping wild heathland makes me feel like I’m stepping into a scene from Wuthering Heights, especially on a windblown day with the bare skeletons of the birch trees towering the skyline.

You can feel yourself alone with nature here, in its far-stretching views, carpeted with purple heather in autumn and winter.

The reserve is part of the East Devon Pebblebeds, a unique geological feature formed by an old river system. Situated within a nationally important landscape, this East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is also internationally important for its wildlife, holding SSSI and Special Protected Area (SPA) protections.

RSPB Aylesbeare is home to many specially adapted wildlife species whose continued existence here depends on the careful conservation management of this special place. The reserve is nationally important for its resident Dartford warblers, which in Britain, can only be found on the few remaining patches of southern heathland. At this time of year, the chests of the Dartford warblers are the colour of winter bramble leaves.

Unlike most warblers which overwinter in Africa, Dartford warblers stay here year-round. In the winter they depend upon a thick and healthy covering of gorse and heather which helps them snaffle insects and spiders even if the ground is covered in snow. The structure of the gorse and heather creates an igloo-like, mini micro-climate, enabling Dartford warblers to still forage.

Exmouth Journal: Aylesbeare is a nationally important site for the rare Dartford warbler. Photo: Les Cater / RSPBAylesbeare is a nationally important site for the rare Dartford warbler. Photo: Les Cater / RSPB
Look out for…

Woodcocks leaving the woods at dusk and overwintering snipe in wet heath areas. Regular winter visitors include fieldfare, redwings, winter thrushes, and scarcer hen harriers and merlins.