Winter sunshine and avocets on the Exe

I am not a big fan of winter. I like snow, but I don’t do well in the cold and dark, and would be more than happy to have hot sunshine all year round. However, in recent years I’ve come to realise that while winter wildlife watching may involve plenty of layers, frozen extremities and the challenge of using binoculars with gloved hands, it actually offers some of the year’s best birdwatching opportunities.

With this in mind, over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to defy the cold and dark to get out and enjoy some of the wildlife spectacles that winter has to offer. So far, I’ve been surrounded by owls at Portbury Wharf in Bristol, seen the first Bewick’s swans and other migratory wildfowl arrive at WWT Slimbridge, watched a peaceful pastel sunset over Chew Valley Lake and seen starlings, deer and winter thrushes at RSPB Ham Wall reserve in Somerset. And the weekend before last I got the chance to travel down to Devon to see some less familiar bird species on one of the RSPB’s “Avocet Cruises” on the River Exe.

View over the Exe Estuary

Avocets on the Exe

A beautifully dainty black and white wading bird with a distinct up-curved beak, the avocet is the emblem of the RSPB and a conservation success story, having made a comeback from near extinction in the UK in the mid 1900s. The Exe Estuary in Devon is a great place to see large numbers of this elegant bird, and every year the RSPB runs a series of cruises around the estuary with great opportunities to watch them. The estuary is also home to thousands of other wintering birds, including gulls, geese, ducks and a variety of waders, so it’s also a great opportunity to see a variety of interesting species. With luck you can even spot the local grey seals!

Led by Ed Drewitt and wildlife TV presenter Nick Baker, the trip I joined was part of the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Avocet cruises, which are one of the RSPB’s “Date with Nature” projects that aim to get people watching wildlife across the UK. More details on the cruises and how to book can be found on the RSPB’s website at

Winter sunshine

The weather on my trip was glorious – a little chilly, but perfect winter sunshine followed by a gentle pastel sunset. As well as the avocets, we managed to spot cormorants, shags, red-breasted mergansers, brent geese, curlews, dunlin, oystercatchers and even a couple of goldeneye.

Avocet at sunset, Exe estuary Avocets in flight

Shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) Red-breasted mergansers (Mergus serrator) in flight

(Clockwise from top left: avocet; avocets in flight; red-breasted mergansers in flight; shags)

There were plenty of gulls too, including black-headed, common, herring and great black-backed. Many of the gulls were flying up with shellfish which they were then dropping to the ground, to break open the shells:

Gulls dropping shellfish

Great black-backed gull (Larus marinus) walking up the sandbank
Great black-backed gull
Black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) in flight
Black-headed gull in flight

And yes, we did even manage to see a grey seal – this is not the best seal shot ever, but it did give us some good views and eventually surfaced with a large flatfish in its mouth! –

Grey seal (Halichoerus grypus)The trip was topped off with a beautiful sunset, a great end to a bird-packed day.

Sunset over the Exe estuaryGull at sunset, Exe estuarySilhouetted cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) perched on boat

The next adventures…

Despite managing to go birdwatching somewhere different every weekend for about the last six weeks, I’ve still not run out of winter sights I want to see – I definitely need to make a second attempt at watching a starling murmuration as on my trip to Ham Wall they decided to switch roost sites and go somewhere else! I also want to get back to Slimbridge now the numbers of Bewick’s swans and other species have started to build up, and if we get some colder weather I’m sure there will be lots of new photo opportunities to be had. There are also a few species I have yet to see, so at some point I may be trying to track down short-eared owls or even the elusive bittern!

I will just have to start learning how to move about in hundreds of layers and how to stop my binoculars steaming up when they get cold, because getting out and about is definitely the perfect way to beat the winter blues!

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