Last week I looked in on a little nature reserve, tucked away in a sleepy corner of the district, on the hunt for a couple of my favourite birds.

Lying to the north of Honiton, about half-a-mile along the Farway road from the Hare and Hounds pub, Knapp Copse is a woodland, boggy mire and grassland site, whose beauty defies its history.

In the 1970s this steep valley was an active landfill site. A few years ago someone had the bright idea that the head of a valley, on a precipitously sloping gradient, was the ideal spot to dump all manner of rubbish and refuse, which could be quietly capped off with a bit of topsoil and no one would be any the wiser.

Through the intervening years a number of pollutants were traced back to this site and massive work was carried out to secure the landfill and stop the leaching.

This was done successfully, I am pleased to say, and now, 40 years on, it is an idyllic little spot if you are fit enough for the hills!

The site lies on the route of the East Devon Way, the gargantuan long-distance walking route which weaves its way sinuously through the district from west to east.

However, for those of you who will be puffed out quite enough by the slide down and climb back from exploring the site, it’s good to know there is also a convenient car park with permissive footpaths leading across the site.

Every so often I am able to indulge in what is termed ‘general rangering’. This is when I have no specific errand or job to carry out on a site, but a visit to check up on the place is necessary nonetheless.

Quite apart from anything else, this column would take some filling if I were never to venture out of the office! Last week’s visit turned up some broken fencing in need of urgent attention, and a host of wildlife treats for me to report back on.

For me, the highlight of this site is normally encountered in the first few hundred yards from the car park. The hedgerows and fields up here on the top of the East Hill escarpment are bursting with birds; there is always something exciting to be seen.

The gateway you pass through, shortly after negotiating the kissing gate out of the car park, has never failed to be filled with one of my favourite little birds, the bullfinch.

A specialist seed feeder, it is often encountered up here with charms of goldfinches, another seed-specialist. While the goldfinch’s beak is quite long and needle thin at the end, evolved to pluck from a diet of thistle and teasel seeds, the bullfinch has a big heavy bill adept at tackling far bigger items.

Not quite in the league of the hawfinches, which are seen around here every so often, a bullfinch beak is still an impressive piece of natural engineering.

A deep base gives the power needed to bite down on rock hard pips, while razor sharp edges assist in the cracking of big seeds, fruit pips and their favourite: tree buds. A long-standing foe of the fruit grower, bullfinch numbers were in dramatic decline for much of the second half of the 20th century.

However, if you know where to look, you can still find these dazzling birds flitting about in trees and hedges adding a splendid splash of colour to the greyest of winter days.

The female is a rather drab bird, poor thing. Brown, offbrown and grey-brown is about the limit to her wardrobe palette.

The male on the other hand makes a robin look tawdry. A jet black cap gives way sharply at the cheek to a bright pink face and chest, black tail with ID-clinching white rump and broad dark wings. Even if you don’t spot the pink, this dandy chap is easy to identify, even in flight.

A little way on from the bullfinch hedgerow, the field to the northwest of the reserve was crammed with hundreds of starlings and fieldfares, lit up beautifully against the frosty grass.

In the coming months, as temperatures begin to rise and days begin to lengthen, it will be time for the fieldfares to return to Scandinavia to breed. It’s been a particularly plentiful year for them in the south west, due to the exceptionally cold weather we have been treated to. I have grown quite accustomed to having them about.

But the good news is, as these guys move on, their place in the birding landscape will be filled by a host of migrating birds enroute to northern sites, and then our own summer visitors will be back, some from as far away as Namibia!