Winter Bioblitz challenge: 24 hours in Devon

On a cold, crisp winter's day, science communicator, zoology graduate and outdoor adventurer Sophie Pavelle heads to the wilds of deepest, darkest Devon to see what winter wildlife she could find...

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On a frosty winter’s evening, I set off on a 24-hour challenge to embark on a whistle-stop tour of my home county of Devon. My mission is to find as much winter wildlife as possible across Devon’s diverse health and moorlands at night. I also planned to end the adventure with a brisk sunset swim on the Jurassic coast. 

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17:00 –  Heathland night hike  

My journey begins in the early evening as I hike across the heathlands of Woodbury Common and RSPB Aylesbeare Common nature reserve. Biodiversity hotspots East Devon Pebblebed Heaths are celebrated across Europe for their conservation importance and designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Ayslebeare is considered one of the UK’s top wildlife areas so I have high hopes for my night time wanderings.

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Woodbury Common heathland in East Devon has wide swathes of gorse and heather  © Copyright Lewis Clarke and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

I begin with a diligent scour of the common, log lifting, undergrowth crouching and tree peering in the hope of spotting a perching long-eared owl or raptor. Unfortunately, my efforts are unrewarded. I do however, stumble upon the UK’s largest species of slug, the ashy-grey. Generally, restricted to areas of mature woodland, this finding was testament to the quality of woodland habitat fringing the Pebblebed Heaths. I later catch the formidable shadow of a buzzard silently gliding across the heaths, which puts a spring in my step as I continue my foray into woodlands and farmland further inland.

22:00 – Woodland wander

By 19:00 a crisp layer of frost blankets the countryside and it appears that most wildlife is safely hidden out of sight. Guided by the light of a full moon, there is something bewitching about a moonlit wander through the frosted fields. I find myself tuning into nocturnal stirrings and I eavesdrop on a male and female tawny owl calling to one another, their chilling hunting screeches emitting across the landscape as field voles and other small mammals in the undergrowth became their likely prey.

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Tawny owl (Strix aluco) perched on tree stump in meadow at forest edge./Credit: Getty

With the temperatures plummeting and the wildlife on the down-low, I retire home to my own village nest in Woodbury around midnight, hopeful that dawn would bring better sightings.

05:00 – Dawn on Dartmoor

Early the next day, I drive to the wild rugged moorlands of Dartmoor.  The largest upland area in southern England, Dartmoor National Park is home to a diverse mix of wildlife. The ancient woodlands and moorland habitats attract migrant birds of conservation importance, so I felt hopeful that arriving in time for sunrise on a crisp and clear winter dawn would offer a good display.

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Sophie enjoys sunrise on Dartmoor/Image: Sophie Pavelle

Renowned for its imposing rocky outcrops, I try and fail to climb an ice-covered Haytor as my feet slip and slid across the frozen granite, however I delight in the sight of pied wagtails and chiffchaffs. Almost indistinguishable from its cousin the willow warbler, chiffchaffs are usually the first migrant songbird to arrive in spring, however greater numbers have been recorded wintering in the UK in recent years.

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Sophie spotting wildlife/Credit: Sophie Pavelle

Leaving Dartmoor I enjoy a stunning drive across the frostbitten open roads to Emsworthy Mire, a Devon Wildlife Trust nature reserve. Famed for its spring bluebell carpets and summer dragonflies, Emsworthy is a wonderful display of moorland biodiversity. This being winter however, things were predictably subdued, but I enjoy a wonderful encounter with a hardy bunch of Dartmoor ponies – a true icon of these moors, with records showing their presence dates back as far as AD1012. Their role is now one of conservation, as they graze the invasive plant species and encourage the growth of native plants. Their windswept manes and striking colours add a touch of magic to the stark winter landscape.

09:00 – Low tide treasures

Winter offers a fantastic opportunity to spot migrant species while they overwinter. Next I swap car for bike and pedal down to the River Exe Estuary on the beautiful Exe Estuary Trail, which is home to some of the largest tidal reed beds in Devon.

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Birds and wildlife in the Exe estuary near Exmouth. © Copyright <a href=”https://www.geograph.org.uk/profile/11775″>Lewis Clarke</a> and licensed for reuse under this <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>Creative Commons Licence</a>

In winter, this estuary transforms into a haven for wading birds, waterfowl and even the northern-European short-eared owl if you’re lucky; annually welcoming over 40,000 overwintering birds to its rich mudflats. The Exe is particularly popular among avocet communities, feeding on the estuary fringes at low tide; accompanied by overwintering bar-tailed godwits, brent geese, oyster-catchers, common gulls and mute swans.

12:00 – Plastic reed bed

On my cycle home, I was appalled to find a reed bed littered with plastic, adjacent to a feeding wetland community. In the wake of the legacy left by Blue Planet II and the now daily dose of anti-plastic sentiment and environmental empathy – disentangling Lucozade bottles, nylon twine, ready-meal packaging and other single-use plastic from precious habitat, casts a shadow over my nature-filled day and is a stark reminder of the growing issue of plastic pollution.

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Sophie collects rubbish along the estuary/Credit: Sophie Pavelle

14:00 – Beautiful Bystock

Leaving the reed bed as litter-free as possible, I return to the car and travel to Bystock Nature Reserve – another wonderfully managed Devon Wildlife Trust gem and a mosaic of small lakes, heathland and meadows. Known as the best place for dragonflies in Devon, Bystock is a wonderfully accessible wildlife sanctuary. Despite choosing the wrong time to year to see either the Hairy or Emperor dragonfly on the wing, I was treated to a plump robin and another perky pied wagtail, after a glorious trudge through deciduous woodland and heaths.

Earlier last year saw Bystock welcome a new ‘mindfulness’ trail, composed of a network of 25 checkpoints around the reserve, encouraging visitors to ease the ‘pace’ of their visit and contemplate the nature around them.

15:00 – Wigeons and wild swims

Staying true to the challenge I had no time to waste, and as much as I wanted to delve into Bystock’s hidden corners, I was off to the Jurassic coast to make the most of my final two hours. It was golden-hour and I was greeted to a near-empty beach near the river mouth of the Otter Estuary. This area is a spectacular combination of a picturesque Pebblebed estuary, adjacent to a World Heritage Site stretch of coastline.

The mouth of the river was flecked with a flock of copper-headed wigeons overwintering from Scandavia, Iceland and Russia; bobbing about calling with their distinctive ‘whistles’. I spent 15-minutes watching two cormorants diving and feeding in the estuary, amongst several species of gull, redshanks, godwits and white egrets – and concluded that the Ottery Estuary and surrounding catchment was positively bursting with winter health.

Deciding that forgetting my wetsuit wasn’t a problem, I couldn’t resist a quick wild swim at sundown – woolly hat remaining firmly on. Refreshed, suitably numb and satisfied that I had well and truly connected with nature – I head downstream towards my final bioblitz location.

16:00 – Starling murmuration  

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Starling murmuration/Credit: Getty

The Otter’s biodiversity is boosted by areas of salt marsh, reed beds and nearby pastureland and it was over the reed beds at dusk I watch one of nature’s most startling winter spectacles – the starling murmuration. This mesmerizing swarming behaviour largely remains a mystery to science; thought to be a mixture of ‘safety in numbers’ tactics against predators and a safe space to facilitate exchange of information amongst the flock before they roost. It was lovely to see other people pause to lose themselves in this hypnotic natural event.

17:00 – Beaver field signs

My final destination leads me to the upstream catchment of the River Otter, which is also home to the River Otter Beaver Trial. Devon Wildlife Trust’s landmark re-introduction programme saw the return of these industrious mammals to Britain’s landscapes after 400 years. Without an infrared camera, I was unable to glimpse this remarkable species after dark, however there were plenty of tell-tale field signs, including gnawed tree branches with broad teeth marks. 27 beavers in six family groups are now thriving on the Otter – and it was exciting to see their engineering power first-hand.

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And with that – my challenge was complete. It was time to hunker down with a hot chocolate and cheese scone in the lovely Otterton Mill tearooms and reflect on the experience. Exploring less than 25-mile catchment area in 24 hours, I have managed to see some of the best nature Devon has to offer. It just goes to show how diverse and interesting winter wildlife can be, even right on our doorstep