In Search of…

Wading Birds

Image Source: Alan D. Wilson

Most of the lockdown restrictions here in the UK have now ended. The city of Exeter is once again bustling with activity, as people flock to the centre to do some shopping, meet up with friends, or visit the newly-reopened restaurants. But on this particular day, Alex and I were here for none of those reasons. For us, this cathedral city was merely the starting point for what would be our longest walk so far: nearly 12 miles along the River Exe to the village of Starcross.

We departed from Exeter’s quaint quayside, walking along the towpath of the Exeter Ship Canal, which runs pretty much parallel to the river. It was a warm, beautiful day. Swans and ducks glided gracefully across the smooth surface of the water, while on our other side, sparrows, dunnocks, and robins could be heard chatting and singing from the hedgerows lining the path.

Our route took us onto an island wedged between the canal and the Exe, and there, in the Riverside Valley Park, we were treated to the sight of dozens of house martens flying around us in search of insects, turning this way and that with marvellous aerial agility. A few were on the ground by a small stream, collecting mud with their short bills with which to build their nests under the eaves of buildings.

The Exeter Ship Canal is one of the oldest surviving canals in the country, having first opened in 1566.

Soon, we had rejoined the canal and left the city behind. A short detour led us to a place called the Old Sludge Beds, which, despite its unappealing name, was actually a small, pleasant wetland reserve. The name does at least hint at the history of this area – it was once the final breakdown site for treated sewage. However, when a new treatment works opened in 1969, the Sludge Beds were abandoned and gradually developed a cover of wetland vegetation. Boardwalks allowed us to get among the reed beds and ponds of this often-overlooked little site, and we saw a male blackcap singing heartily from the dense cover of a bush, but it was a little waterlogged in places so we were forced to return to the main path.

It wasn’t long, however, before we headed away from the canal again. Crossing over a now-derelict lock, we decided, while we were passing, to make a brief foray into the flatland floodplains of the nearby Exminster Marshes. This is often considered to be Devon’s premier wetland site. Its rivers, canals, and arable fields are home to a wide variety of birds – including, quite recently, some visiting white storks. Sadly, the storks had long gone when we were there, but there were still several species of waterfowl visible in and around the pools of water: Canada geese, greylag geese, wigeon, and the large, goose-sized shellduck.

Although it seems as though there is a missing ‘l’ in the shelduck’s name, the word ‘shel’ has nothing to do with shellfish. It’s an old Dutch word meaning ‘variegated’, in reference to its pied plumage.
Image Source: Hobbyfotowiki

The masts of moored sailboats appeared on the horizon as we reached the sea lock that marked the end of the Exeter Ship Canal. From there, we continued onwards, but the body of water that we now walked along was that of the ever-widening Exe Estuary – and it was there that we saw some of the birds that we had originally set out to see. A couple of little egrets were wading through the shallow waters. A small flock of redshanks was flying across the mudflats, their loud, piping calls attracting our attention. Further out on the estuary, I could make out a few bigger birds: black-tailed godwits and curlews (the latter of which can be seen in the image at the top of the article). The curlew has a long, curved beak (the longest of any wading bird; up to 20 cm in length), which can reach down deep enough to drag lugworms out of their burrows.

The trail soon crossed the railway line and joined a small, quiet lane. In the fields to our right, male pheasants were chasing each other, their wings whirring as they jumped in the air. Further ahead, just beyond an old country church, was Powderham Castle, which told us that we were getting quite close to Starcross now.

Powderham Castle is a fortified manor house with a 600-year-old history (you can find out more on their website). The grounds have been home to a herd of fallow deer since before 1723, and we could see several of them in the distance, resting under a large oak tree. Fallow deer are not native to the UK. The earliest were probably brought over from continental Europe by the Romans, while others were introduced by the Normans. They were hunted by the nobility and poached by commoners, and they’ve also been decorative attractions to parks surrounding stately homes for centuries now.

As we stood by the low stone wall, looking over at Powderham Castle and its grounds, we spotted a couple of unusual birds by the side of a nearby stream. They were Egyptian geese, which, like the fallow deer, are not originally from the UK. This striking, rather odd-looking species is widespread throughout much of Africa, including Egypt. Their exotic appearance has long attracted the attention of wildfowl collectors, who introduced the bird to Britain as far back as the late 17th century. Until the 1980s, though, the Egyptian goose was largely confined to the ornamental lake at Holkham Estate in Norfolk, but it has since spread across southern and eastern England. Today, more than 1,000 pairs breed in the UK.

But despite its name, the Egyptian goose isn’t really a goose. In a similar vein, the shelducks that we saw earlier aren’t really ducks. Both of these birds sit in the same subfamily, Tadorninae, which is essentially an evolutionary middle ground somewhere between true geese and ducks.

Egyptian geese were considered sacred by the Ancient Egyptians and appeared in much of their artwork.
Image Source: chris Maier from Pixabay 

At this point, we realised that we had lingered for too long and that if we didn’t reach Starcross soon, we would miss our train home. So began a mad dash down the country lane to the train station. We got there with only a minute to spare, but before we boarded the train back to Paignton, we were treated to one final surprise: a small flock of starlings at the top of a bush just outside the station, their beautiful, iridescent plumage visible in the sunlight.

Also seen on this walk: Swallow

Running Total (Bird Species): 58


  • Jason Woodcock

    With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

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