Osprey Nest Platform

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Weekend of sunshine in the reed-beds at Saltpill Duck Pond


18 students from Bristol University Conservation Group joined our usual volunteers at the weekend.  The goals for the weekend were to clear invasive scrub from the Saltpill reed-bed and to put 2 new Gaia Trust cycle racks in on the Tarka Trail at either end of the Reserve.

The Reed-bed

We started by clearing an area of alder; most of which had been coppiced before so there were about 8 stems on each coppice stool.  Alder grows very fast and is well adapted to growing in and around water.  Back in the days of old, it was grown on 12 year cycles and used for charcoal and, because its wood is extremely light, for making wooden soles for shoes and clogs.


Tim and Geoff dragging the cut alder through thick reeds and water – hard work

Tamarisk is a very adaptable plant! – I knew it could tolerate salt, wind and poor soils but here it is flourishing in 2 feet of water.  Covered in bramble and twisting and rooting in every direction and growing out of the water and thick mud; made progress slow to begin with.


Clearing the bramble to get to the tamarisk

Birds and Butterflies

We were treated to the sounds of water rails screeching and squealing close to us in the reeds.  They start nesting at the end of March so we will keep an eye on the reed bed to see if they stay with us.  The other notable bird was a cetti’s warbler – its very loud clear song is unmistakeable – cetti’s is a recent coloniser and was first recorded breeding in the UK in 1972.  A brimstone was purposefully following along the sunlit hedges.  Brimstones spend the winter hidden deep in dense vegetation such as ivy and it is the bright, lemon yellow males that wake up three weeks before the paler females, heralding spring.


Jumble of tamarisk growing out of the reed-bed

Cycle Racks


The cycle racks are made of locally grown oak from Tapeley Park and the lettering is hand carved by woodsman John Bowden.

They mark the West and East Reserve boundaries along the Tarka Trail and will encourage cyclists to get off their bikes and visit the Reserve.  They might also make it easier for our regular volunteers and recorders to travel to the Reserve by bike.

The students enjoyed digging the holes! – each post was set 2.5 to 3 feet into the ground so that no cement had to be used.


Bird ringer Lowell in the evening sunshine propped up against the East Gate Rack 


The West Gate


Cooking sausages on the beach

What have Bumblebees got to do with it?

Bumblebees? – I thought it was all about the honey bee.  I was wrong….

I recently attended a Conference hosted by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust at Royal Holloway University in Surrey.

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There are 250 known bee species in the UK; 225 of these are solitary bees, 24 of them bumblebees and just one species of honey bee.

The common carder is the only common UK bumblebee that is mostly brown or ginger.

Perhaps surprisingly surveys indicate that honey bees comprise only 2 – 3 % of visits to  flowers.  Bumblebees are very efficient pollinators and they are the main pollinators  for commercial pea and bean crops.  Their size and hairiness mean that they have both; more contact with the stigma of the flower and more pollen sticks to them.  Bumbles are not hoarders like honey bees so they have to be out every day, early and late in the year, collecting pollen for their grubs.   In fact some British Bumblebee species are out and about nectaring right through the winter.  Consequently they are endothermic, meaning they can generate their own body heat and are specially adapted to cool, wet climates.

They are used commercially in soft fruit production and are known to have a positive impact both on yields and the quality of the fruit.  Economists in the US have started putting million dollar figures on Bumbles contribution to the National Economy.

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These solitary bees above nest in holes collecting mud and using it to ‘plug’ the end to protect their eggs.  They also have a significant role in pollinating  both our food crops and wild flowers.

02062011245In recent decades the geographical area where bumblebees occur has declined by over 70% and their abundance by more than 75% – why?

The most likely reason for this massive decline is a lack of pollen and nectar for food especially at the beginning and end of the year (March – October) when commercial flowering crops such as oil seed rape have been harvested and their nectar is no longer available.  It in these periods when availability of food is low that wild flowers ‘fill the gap’ providing essential pollen and nectar at key times of the year.  An estimated 97% of our flower rich grasslands have disappeared.

Different species of bumblebees favour different species of flowers – bumbles have differing tongue lengths and tubular flowers favour longer tongues.  The loss and decline of harebell and sheeps bit scabious is associated with the decline of specific bumblebee species.

It was noticed that flowers from the pea family – clovers and vetches seemed to be the most attractive to bumblebees and it has been discovered that these plants have the most high levels of protein in their pollen and nectar.

What can we do at Home Farm Marsh for Bumblebees?

There were some inspiring examples of managing farms to encourage bumblebees, as well as for other nectar and pollen loving insects.  There has been enough research to formulate best practice and much of what is already being done at Home Farm Marsh is benefitting bumblebees.

Several smaller 0.25 ha (0.6 acre) areas of high yielding pollen and nectar plants is better than one bigger area.  The Bumblebee Conservation Trust suggests having field margins 6 metres by 400 metres around a farm.  These strips need to be on the south side of hedges for maximum warmth and sunlight.

images The famous picture gallery at Royal Holloway has a dozen or so paintings of pastoral and rural scenes and it is interesting to note how many of them show small areas of unkempt ground where plants have been left to grow and flower.  Our modern farms tend to be very clean and tidy environments and unmanaged areas tend to have very high levels of nutrients that make them unsuitable for wild flowers.  We need to find ways to recreate these areas of colour and biodiversity.  Urban gardens are something that most of us can have an immediate impact on and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has some great advice for those wanting to increase Bumble numbers.

2013-06-19-485There was some disagreement about whether it is better to establish specific pollen and nectar seed mixes or if more general wildflower mixes are better.  In April this year we planted a pollen and nectar mix at Home Farm Marsh  with limited success.  Several experts at the Conference confirmed, not only the difficulty of establishing these plant mixes, but also their limited life span of 2 or 3 years.  Wildflower mixes are easier to establish and last 10 years or more.

We are planting a wildflower meadow in April in Gutter Marsh field and hope that this will provide abundant nectar and pollen for our many pollinators.  Home Farm Marsh is 80 hectares and could support 40 bumblebee colonies.

Anyone wanting to take part in surveying for Bumblebees at Home Farm Marsh or the other Reserves in Cornwall can get in touch with the Gaia Trust

September Gaia Trust Work Party at Home Farm Marsh

11th September

The pedestrian gates were originally fitted without self-closing mechanisms and the grazier was concerned that they might be left open by visitors.  Pat the contractor who supplied the gates had some fittings made up so that we could retro-fit the existing gates rather than having to replace them.

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Geoff supervised proceedings: we removed the gates and hangings, drilling new holes in the posts and cutting out sections to let the new fixings in.

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It was a tricky job and each gate was slightly different but after several attempts all the gates were done and hopefully will now close even if someone fails to shut them properly.  Let us know if they are not working!


Way-markers, dogs & otters

2013-09-11-948Another big part of the day was spent fixing new oak way-markers to gates and posts.  These have been made by local woodsman and craftsman John Bowden who harvests oak from his own wood and specialising in making bird boxes and way-markers.

10 way-markers were installed and it was agreed that a further 15 are needed to complete the new permissible path.  It is surprising how many way-markers are needed.

Mike and Roger also fitted wire to the stile at the Fremington end of the Reserve where dogs have been getting in.  Having otters on the Reserve is another reason to keep dogs off and walking along the embankment we were amazed at the number of ‘runs’ through the long grass and bushes.  Research shows that otters are in fact remarkable tolerant of human disturbance and there are plenty examples of them living in cities and towns.

Otter dens have various names including holts where they breed, and hovers and couches where they will rest up on their travels.  Couches are generally associated with reed-beds and it seems likely that they have at least one couch on Home Farm Marsh.


The estuary provides rich picking for otters and cubs can easily catch crabs until they learn to hunt for fish.  Otters are resilient and adaptable – below is a picture I took in February in the Swedish Arctic where the temperature regularly dips below -40 centigrade.

The tracks are across a snow covered frozen river.  The snow is nearly a metre deep and it is easier for the otter to push with its feet and glide across the surface than to wade through the snow.

Berries & hedges

There are lots of berries in the hedges at Home Farm Marsh and these provide food over the autumn and winter for birds and small mammals.  In order to provide an abundance of berries it is important to manage the hedges intelligently.  Tom ‘Mr Hedge’ Hynes is visiting the Reserve in October to guide the Gaia Trust on how best to manage the hedges for the future.

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Here are blackberry, honeysuckle and an abundance of rosehips

Flowers in Autumn – ragwort

In order of appearance here are ragwort, agrimony, sea bindweed, water mint and honeysuckle.

Ragwort is an essential plant for at least 30 known species that are entirely reliant on it – 10 of these species are thought to be rare.  Ragwort is also an important nectar source for 100’s of butterflies, bees, moths, flies and beetles.  It fulfils an very important role in supporting our wildlife.  Cases of livestock and horse poisoning are rare.

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Lunch in one of the hides and the view from the hide.  Last Saturday Geoff watched a female Marsh Harrier sitting by the side of the lake before it took off flying straight towards him swooping over the hide!

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There were still plenty of butterflies on the wing.

Small copper on fleabane.  Speckled wood on the grasses that its caterpillars feed on.  The plain old Speckled Wood is a ‘one-off’ for British butterflies – the only one which can spend the winter in two different stages of metamorphosis – caterpillar or pupa.  The caterpillars hibernate in  grassy tussocks coming up to feed in warm spells over the winter months.

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Wall Brown on a mushroom – they love to bask in the sun and are difficult to photograph because they are very sensitive to movement.  This was taken by Nicky Heading – good job Nicky!

August Gaia Trust Work Party at Home Farm Marsh

Friday 16th August 2013

We met at the new bird hides at 9 am.  Geoff was already waiting there and was looking at a Green Sandpiper  which he pointed out to us. It was difficult to see as it picked its way around the edge of the pond in amongst the rushes.

The first job was to clear around the hide; both the access into the viewing area and the hedge beyond the hide that was starting to obscure the view of the field.
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In the nettles to the right of the hide we saw lots of tiny dropping on the leaves and soon found a caterpillar and then another and another.  These were Small Tortoiseshell larvae.  The butterfly lays its eggs in batches of 50-100 on the underside of Stinging Nettles.  When the eggs hatch the caterpillars spin a communal silken web over the head of the plant; offering them protection while they feed on the leaves which they strip to nothing.

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We saw Common Blue Damselfly – I think this is the blue form of the female.  On the Flowery Bank we saw this Six Spot Burnet on Knapweed – the caterpillar needs Bird’s Foot Trefoil as its food source.

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The Lane leading down to the Flowery Bank was full of nectaring butterflies.  Lots of meadow browns and blues.  The photos above are of Common Blue showing both sides of the wing.  The yellow flower is Fleabane – it was burnt to deter fleas and its generic name Pulicaria refers to this property; the latin name for flea being Pulex.

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Here are Gatekeeper, also known as Hedge Brown, and Small Copper.  Small Copper caterpillar feeds on docks and sorrels.


Soil tests

Cathy, John and Mike took soil samples from Gutter Marsh field where a crop of oats has recently been harvested.  We are hoping to sow a diverse range of less common grasses but we need to learn about the condition of the soil so that we know if the grasses will grow successfully.  The grasses will benefit grass loving moths and butterflies such as Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Gatekeeper and Skippers.  Natural England has advised that levels of phosphate are critical and if levels are too high then it will not make sense to plant the grass mix.



We found an animal trail across the embankment leading down into Duck Pond and followed the trail back through the grass down to the river mud to find some tracks in the mud.