As the weather continues to hold the East Devon countryside in an icy grip there is a little warming cheer to raise the spirits of any countryside visitor at this time. While the winter chill is something of a shock to us, our relatively mild climate has brought untold wild riches to our midst.
Record numbers of birds have flocked to the Axe Estuary this winter, as ferocious frosts and snow brought the country to a standstill. As the countryside froze to the North and East of us, so the birds were forced further and further South west to find feeding opportunities.
Probably the most notable single bird of the winter was a bittern, a wetland bird famously scarce and elusive. Bittern are not birds that appreciate icy conditions. When your method of feeding is to stand very still with your feet in the water, you can appreciate their dislike of the cold. Freezing water also hampers their finding of food, as they prefer to fish in the shallow area amongst reeds, which are the first places to ice over when a chill hits. The bittern was seen on several occasions as it searched for feeding spots on the estuary.
I heard a rumour that someone was overheard proudly claiming that he had managed to flush the bittern three times while looking for it on the Axe wetlands. This raises a very important issue at this time of year: disturbance. Disturbing birds at any time is not desirable, but when the mercury drops it becomes even more important to leave birds unmolested. Any waste of energy; flying off in fright from a berk with binoculars, for example, can rapidly reduce the energy reserves in a bird and lead to its swift demise. It baffles me that people with an interest in birds can take such a casual approach to their welfare, sadly this behaviour seems particularly rife in a few self-styled ‘twitchers’ to whom the viewing of a bird for selfish ends is the over-riding importance.
You can tell this riles me somewhat, and I apologise for my ire, but as it is my job to encourage people’s interest and understanding of our fabulous wildlife, it saddens me when people behave irresponsibly towards our wild neighbours. Fortunately, this behaviour is restricted to a very few individuals and I for one always step in if I see such a cavalier attitude. Its interesting to note that the Devon Wildfowlers Association stopped shooting on the Exe during the worst of the weather, recognising that to carry on shooting in those conditions would jeopardise the whole population. Well done them! 
Anyway rant over, and back to the encouragement to don an extra layer and enjoy the winter spectacle!
Throughout the Axe there are a number of very useful bird viewing opportunities to be had from hides and platforms which the birds are accustomed to associate with people. The view from the Colyford Common bird hide last Friday was staggering!
A record number of wigeon were to be found on Colyford Marsh, feeding with an appetite honed by the cold weather. These little ducks use open water as a refuge, feeding on grass of the surrounding marshes. I like to think of them as a herd of little winged cattle, grazing their way across the open fields. If danger is sensed they will take off in a single cloud of birds, and fill the air with their piping alarm calls. White flashes on the wings mark out the male birds in the air and most flocks will be largely a 50:50 male female split as these birds pair for life and seldom stray far from their partner.
Wigeon are the most handsome ducks. The males have a russet head with pale cream stripe down the front, their blue bill is very smart and the look is finished off with a grey marl on the back. What a dandy! The female duck is far more drab, but both birds have an endearing call, a gentle whistle which keeps the pair in constant communication.
The record flock of 1,800 ducks were munching their way across the tussocky marsh in front of the bird hide, and the combined volume of 900 whistling calls being answered by a second 900 was enough to mute the sound of the Axmouth road on the other side of the estuary. A haunting winter sound of the wetlands.
Snipe are a favourite bird of mine. They have elaborately long beaks, three times as long as their heads, which they use to probe into soft earth in search of invertebrates. When the ground is frozen solid they have a very hard time feeding and flock to the estuaries where the salty influence tends to keep the freeze at bay. This winter we saw ice forming on the brackish estuary water, it was that cold, so snipe would have been pushed to breaking point in search of a feeding location.
Which was why it was so nice to see the marshes covered with snipe, all busily feeding in the recently thawed ground. Snipe are so well camouflaged that you normally spot a single bird before realising after about 15 minutes that you are looking at a field containing hundreds of them!
The snipe were feeding amongst flocks of tiny teal, another beautiful duck, and were displaying some curious behaviour. When two snipe came within a few metres of each other they would happen to notice each other, and make a dash forward. Dipping the head down and raising a fanned tail in the air, they would momentarily joust their long beaks before one or other of the birds would retreat away from the dominant individual.
Perhaps this behaviour was induced because of the extreme temperature and food shortage stresses, but it served to remind me that things have been extremely difficult for wild birds in recent weeks and we should be doing all we can to ensure their survival as the thermometer begins to climb back to a more comfortable temperature.