Cutting scrub in the reed bed

The reed-bed at Saltpill Duck Pond is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest being a relatively rare habitat on the Taw / Torridge Estuary.  We have had a screechy water rail over the winter and will be looking out for signs of breeding. IMG_7225

Tamarisk is a very adaptable plant; seemingly being able to thrive with its trunk growing out of a swamp or high up on a dry bank and it doesn’t mind salt laden spray and wind.

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We cut 30 or 40 tamarisk & willow stems and cleared away bramble and rushes from the reeds.  It was difficult work with patches of deep mud and water – well over wellie boot high in places.  It is important to stop the reeds from being overtaken by trees and scrub because they also provide habitat for warblers and reed buntings – a cetti’s warbler treated us to its loud bursts of song throughout the day – probably as grateful as us for the spring sunshine and warmth.

Elusive otter

Elusive otter

There have been lots of signs of the otter over the winter but I still haven’t managed to capture a picture of her.  The camera trap shows the date, time, state of the moon and the temperature and the picture above – of a fox.

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Lots and lots of tracks all across the mudflat – we could even see the footprints under the water

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Bright ‘pearls’ were scattered in the long grass behind Saltpill Pond – finger-nail sized scales from a large fish img_7088

There was lots of frog spawn in the reed bed back on the 17th February.  Frogs can make up an important food source for otters in the spring and easy prey for young cubs trying out hunting for the first time. img_7087

Shovelers

These pictures of male and female shovelers were taken from the main hide with a mobile phone through Tim’s new scope.

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The huge wide ‘shovel-like’ bill is very distinctive and is used to strain food through water as the duck dabbles. Shovelers are especially adapted to muddy-bottomed marshes; their bills having small comb structures on the inside edges to filter insects from the water.

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The female looks more like a mallard but the broad bill makes it easy to identify.  Shovelers are a widespread species; breeding in Europe and Asia.  In the UK they breed in the South East of the Country, nesting on the ground, typically laying 9 eggs.  The birds wintering at Home Farm Marsh are more likely to be from Ireland and Iceland.

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Winter Homes for Ducks and Waders

Winter Homes for Ducks and Waders

The main pond at Home Farm Marsh has been getting really crowded at times over the winter months.  There are often large numbers of wigeon, teal and canada geese with total counts regularly over 500 birds last winter.  The Gaia Trust made a small extension to the pond last Autumn 2015 and over the winter 2015 / 16 there were record numbers of teal, snipe, lapwing, shovelers, redshanks and golden plover.

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The increase in pond size and apparent corresponding increase in abundance of 6 species was more than our regular birder and volunteer Geoff could stand; and he soon made a plan to raise some money for a further extension and some winter ‘scrapes’.img_0938

Geoff cycled 425 miles with his wife and  2 other ladies between Cherbourg and Roscoff camping out each night along the way, raising more than £600 through sponsorship – GREAT WORK Geoff!

The Tarka Country Trust kindly gave another £500 towards the work.

The digger has created more standing water and reduced the profile of the pond to a shallow slope giving more roosting space for ducks and waders and making it easier for them to access the water.  The bare soil attracts golden plover, godwits and redshank.

Geoff overseeing works

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The scrapes will hold water over the winter. This water as well as the mud around the edges will attract both waders and ducks.

img_5844 One of 4 shallow scrapes that will hold water over the Winter months

Osprey Nest Platform

Ospreys can be seen fishing on the Taw Torridge Estuary in North Devon in the Spring and Autumn.

img_5270These large rangy hawks are on passage between their breeding grounds further north and Africa where they see out our winter. Research shows that they have favoured migration routes that they stick to throughout their lives.

We watched an Osprey on the 26th August from Home Farm Marsh.  Birders Tim Smith and Geoff Taylor spotted it sitting on a post on the other side of the estuary – here they are watching it.  It flew up the river towards Barnstaple hunting for fish.  We saw it drop into the water 3 times without any success – it must have been close on one occasion because we saw a fish jump up out of the water next to it.

Here is a picture of the Osprey taken with a mobile phone through binoculars – it was more than 700 metres away sitting on top of a post in the river.  There are no suitable perching posts on the Home Farm Marsh side of the river making seeing Osprey from the Reserve tricky.

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The Gaia Trust has remedied the situation by putting up an Osprey nest platform on the edge of the Reserve.  Western Power kindly offered to put the posts up – big thanks to all the guys involved at Western Power.

The next stage of the Project is to install a high quality camera with pan, tilt and zoom on the second pole above the nest platform that will send a signal to the Fremington Quay cafe and from there, a live stream on the web.  The camera will enable viewers to both look at the surrounding estuary and zoom in on birds on the mud and sand banks, as well as hear the sounds of the birds – and wind!

The nest platform base was made using treated softwood with a wire mesh stapled to it.  We made sure that there were no sharp edges or places where a bird could trap a foot or claw.  The sticks on top of the platform are to resemble a natural Osprey nest and we wanted them to be long-lasting in the harsh estuary environment.  The Forester at Tapeley Park gave us access to the drive where we collected some old dead chestnut branches – they were incredibly dense and hard so they should last well.

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Here is the nest platform being attached to the pole and the pole being craned into the 8 foot hole that Western Power had bored into the stoney estuary ground.  The last picture taken at low tide shows the platform with the second camera post above.

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Geoff’s bird boxes

Geoff took some of the oak off-cut scraps from when we built the bird hides and has knocked up some high quality bird boxes.

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We put one of the boxes up on the lane before the hides on a hedgerow elm and 3 more in the copse.

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The open fronted boxes are designed for robins and spotted flycatchers and the little round holes suit tits, sparrows and nuthatches.

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Spring at Home Farm Marsh

Friday was a bright sunny morning with swallows swooping over the main pond, dipping to take big beak-fulls of water. There were 2 male shelduck on the pond – in fine conditions with their bright red beaks I’m guessing that there are females in burrows on eggs.

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The hay rattle is thick on the ground along the sea defences embankment. A small patch that is already in flower is attracting bees working hard for early spring nectar.  Along with the dandelions there are other flowers in bloom – apple, gorze, oxeye daisy, hawthorn and hemlock water dropwort.

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The hemlock water dropwort is becoming dense on the flowery bank and it is smothering flower-rich turf.   Dropwort is also one of the most toxic plants in Britain; the leaves and roots ‘dead man’s fingers’ are highly toxic and can cause massive seizures and sometimes death.

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This Large Red Damselfly has just emerged from its nymph stage – you can see its discarded nymph body at the top of the picture.  Damselfly / Dragonfly nymphs spend anywhere between 2/3 months and 5 years! under water in their dark bodies crawling about in the mud before they climb out of the water, their skin breaking open; they emerge – transformed into a brightly coloured winged predator.