I never thought I’d write my name next to those words: birding cruise. Cruise liner, cruise control, cruising along the Croisette in Cannes maybe, but birding cruise? I thought I’d give it a go. The 7am start did nothing to kick-start my mood. Why do birds have to get up so early?
My quest was simple – to discover the joy of ornithology in this beautiful estuary where the river Exe flows out of Devon into the Channel. There were about 15 of us on board. I can safely say I was the only one dressed like something from Blade Runner (albeit my electrical paraphernalia was hidden under layers of normal looking items).
If you’ve ever taken the train to Cornwall, you’ll know the Exe Estuary. South of Exeter, the railway runs alongside the coast for several glorious miles and you can look across the water and mudflats, fishing boats and yachts to the far shore and Lympstone and Exmouth. The estuary is almost closed off to the sea by a sandspit called Dawlish Warren and it’s this that creates the stable habitat of mudflats and shingle that the birds can’t resist. Every year, 40,000 birds including godwits, Brent geese and red-breasted mergansers flock to these warmer waters, from as far away as Siberia and Greenland.
At this point, it is important to note that on the avocet cruise, I was in the company of birders not twitchers. You probably know the difference. I didn’t. Essentially, birders imbibe the whole experience of being out in the wild world, while twitchers travel long distances to tick rare birds off their list. The rivalry is as palpable as that between Louis Walsh and Danni Minogue on The X-Factor. Disapproving glances were thrown across the boat when I asked for the qualification.
Thank goodness some birds caused a distraction. Some black-tailed godwits flew into view. These long-legged long-billed handsome birds have suffered a large decline in their breeding population in the past and they’re now known by the RSPB as a ‘rare breeder’.
Their bills really are extraordinarily long and slender – perfect for poking into the sumptuous mud of the estuary. It is this magical mud that attracts so many birds to the estuary. It contains all sorts of goodies including lugworms, molluscs, and small crustaceans. Yummy.
I really enjoyed watching the godwits, which I christened Winston Churchills on account of their long cigar bills and portly stomachs. Tony, my guide, looked at me as if I was mad, until he heard my description of the avocets, which we were eagerly awaiting.
Avocets are a huge success story and are the emblem of the RSPB because of their survival story. The drainage of coastal wetlands and unrestricted hunting lead to avocets becoming extinct in the UK in the early 19th century and it is only thanks to Hitler that they made a comeback. With the threat of Nazi invasion in the 1940s, the marshes along the English Channel were flooded as a defence, producing the perfect breeding grounds for these elegant waders to take their second chance.
Thanks to the RSPB’s work to create nature reserves like the one on the Exe and provide stronger protection from persecution, there are now 600 to 800 pairs of avocets breeding.
We watched a flock forage in the shallow brackish water and on the mud flats, scything their distinctive up-turned bills from side to side searching for crustaceans and insects. En masse with their long legs and dainty bodies they’re quite mesmeric to look at. “Well if the godwits are Winston Churchills – these are Kristin Scott Thomases!” I declared. I was told it is important to find a way to retain information about birds. Mine is a childish technique, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget godwits and avocets.
How to get there
Frequent rail service from Exeter. Or take J30 from M5 and follow A376 to Topsham.
Find out more
RSPB Avocet Cruises
4, 5, 18, 19 February and 4, 5 March. Lasts three to four hours.
Adults £14, children £6.
RSPB Mini Avocet Cruise
Trout’s Boatyard, Topsham
5, 6 and 16 February only. Lasts one to two hours. Adults £10, children £4.
Fore Street, Topsham EX3 0HZ
Lovely riverside location and ideal for an alfresco pint when the sun is shining.
Georgian Tea Room
35 High Street, Topsham
Award-winning tea room in a pretty village on the edge of Exeter. Has seven guest rooms.
Dawlish Warren National Nature Reserve
For more wildlife treats, explore this spectacular sandy spit at the mouth of the estuary.