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Birds of the estuary

The Ducks in Winter - Wigeon - Teal - The Bittern - Rarer Birds.
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During a really hard winter, such as we have not had for the past dozen years, the estuary and flats are alive with many kinds of duck; they being of course driven to the coast, or the brackish water, owing to the freezing of their inland meres and marshes.

Dr. C. Butler, of Syon House, East Budleigh, has shot Pintail duck and grey goose, in addition to the regular winter visitants such as wigeon, teal, and mallard. I have myself seen shelduck and Pochard. A pair of Tufted Duck were also shot a few years back: while Mr. C. Crier obtained a fine pair of Hooded Merganser - perhaps one of the rarest birds to be seen on the estuary.

The mallard, or wild duck, is of course distributed all over the country; remaining here to breed, although the nest is by no means confined either to river banks or to the immediate vicinity of water. On long country walks through coombes or dingles, the nest may be found alongside any small swamp or marshy bottom; a straggling structure, softly lined, containing perhaps ten eggs, which have been carefully covered by the mother before she slipped off them on your approach.

The sight of wild duck has so far been the only reward 1 ever reaped from getting up at daylight in June in order to fish. On the three different occasions that I tried this experiment, I never caught a single trout, though on the hank side at half past three; but each time I put up wild duck, twice well within range.

On many winter mornings, provided the marsh and estuary have not been much troubled by guns, wigeon can be seen along the margins of the ponds, usually well out of gunshot. They are so wary that it is only now and then that a brace are bagged after much careful stalking. The wigeon does not breed here but makes off north in the spring as far as the arctic circle.

Teal are far more common on these ponds, though they too are very shy at anyone who might be carrying a gun. In looking at the ponds from a quarter of a mile away it is difficult always to tell teal from moorhens, but after watching for a short time, you may see one dive, which settles the question for you, as teal never dive when feeding - in fact never at all unless when wounded. I have never found their nest either upon or near the marshes, but it is extremely probable that they remain to breed in the locality.

Among uncommon birds, it is pleasant to know that the bittern can occasionally be included. Dr. Butler has a fine specimen stuffed and set up, which he obtained on the marshes, and writes under date of January 22nd, 1912, 'on referring to my game book 1 find my bittern was shot on January 13th, 1909. There seems to have been a cold snap of weather at the time.' It may be some time before another example either of the bittern 01 the marsh harrier are seen; although observers with glasses are more common now than five years ago.

Speaking of disappearing birds prompts one to notice, those which are becoming more familiar. Two which can be cited are the Reed. Warbler and the Sedge Warbler. During the past summer or two I have located many nests of each species in a swamp which I will not particularise. In the case of the Reed warbler this place has only been occupied lately, so that I hope to find them again next season. The nest is quite unmistakable being suspended between reed stalks or willow branches.

Every angler can hear the sedge warbler as late as ten o'clock; so much so that in Devonshire its song at that time probably accounts for rumours of nightingales. But I never knew any person thoroughly familiar with the nightingales' notes who could make such a mistake.

I quote the following brief lines pencilled for me by A'lderman C. E. L. Gardner, J.P., of Clifton who has a residence near the estuary and who, in addition to the finest powers of observation with field glasses, has acquired a reputation as an outdoor naturalist superior to that of many scientific ornithologists.

' A few years ago on an August bank holiday I found my first Ringed plovers' nest at Budleigh-Salterton. I noticed the bird creeping up over the beach and settle down. On going over to the place I found the nest with one egg. I say nest, but there was really none, as the egg was on the stones. Unfortunately the place was crowded with people and the egg was either stepped upon or taken: although I believe the Herring gulls are the worst enemy the Ringed plovers have.

I have since found a number of nests - the earliest date May 17th - and watched many rear their young ones in safety. Occasionally the bird selects a patch of tide refuse for its nesting spot; but usually I have found the eggs on the bare beach. Although a heavy pebble beach and very extensive, yet I once found the eggs in precisely the same place two years following, as proved by a peculiar stone by which I marked the spot.

This reminds me that I once found a Butcher bird's nest (Red backed shrike) three years following in the same bush. The first one contained five eggs on June 2nd - the next year on May 27th. On the first occasion after the young birds had flown I removed the nest, and finding the birds built again the second year I again removed it. In the third year, for some reason, the birds deserted nest and egg; and never came back to the same tree.

I had an unusual experience (April 19th, 1911) with a Golden Crested wren. Seeing a nest which I could not reach I got a boy to climb up. He brought me down one egg although he had broken another in the nest which he said contained a lot. I naturally concluded that the birds would desert, so a week afterwards thought I would secure the nest for the Bristol Museum, but strange to say found eight eggs in perfect condition, the old birds evidently having removed the broken egg. Near by I have found both Chiffchaff and Willow Wren's nests.

A pair of Shelducks usually build near the estuary although I have never located the nest. Two years following I found a Kestrel's nest in the cliff by the river side, also several King fishers' and dippers'.

Among the birds I have seen are Land rail and water rail, once a pair of Eider ducks, Great Northern Diver, Oyster catcher, Redshank, Dunlin, Tern, Puffin and Curlew. Of the latter, twice a pair built at the bottom of the railway bank near the marsh, but I only discovered them as the young ones were clearing off. On the common one of my little ones called out, and I found a Nightjar showing fight: on my coming up it few off leaving a slight nest and two eggs. In Otterton Park besides many woodpeckers' I have found one nest of the Ring ousel.

Unfortunately too many people have discovered that the Ringed plovers nest upon the beach; and take the eggs. Consequently, the birds have left the. locality. Last year I counted a large Hock, about eighty, in the spring; and yet there was not a single nest this year. I hear the same applies to Exmouth warren Years ago there were dozens of nests, now only one or two.

In 1909 I located during the season a total of 156 birds' nests containing in all 416 eggs, and 103 young birds: in 1910 133 nests, with 373 eggs and 131 young; and in 1911 197 nests, 440 eggs and 170 young birds.'

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