Finding time to bird watch on a family holiday can be a challenge

Freelance writer Dr Amanda Tuke gets a 'pass' from the family holiday to go birdwatching at Horsey Island. In this guest blog she describes why this is such a special place.

We’d decided to go ahead with our July visit to the Taw-Torridge estuary, reasonably confident that we’d be welcome in the area if we took all sensible precautions. The intention, as it is every year, was to distract our teenage children with surfing and sailing.

Part way through the week, I spotted the opportunity to get a “pass” for bird watching. So I set off for Braunton early one morning to visit the Trust’s Horsey Island Reserve. It wasn’t the ideal time of day, with the tide only just beginning to go out, but I’ve learnt to take what’s on offer. 

I haven’t been to Horsey Island before but, as I reached the reserve from the River Caen path, I had a sensation of familiarity. Earlier this summer I wrote an article about the reserve for Devon Life magazine, drawing on telephone conversations both with knowledgeable local residents and Gavin Bloomfield, Caen Wetlands project officer.  It wasn’t how I’d planned to write the article but lockdown put a stop to me visiting in person. So I was looking forward to finally being there myself.

Swallows on barbed wire

Photo, Dr Amanda Tuke

In the morning sun, swallows skimmed over the water and fledglings, lined up on a fence wire, gaped automatically when any adult bird flew near. At last the parent did swoop in to feed one causing a flutter of sibling jealousy. Something my family know all about!

Saltmarsh plants growing on mud cracked by the sun

Photo, Dr Amanda Tuke

I lay on the grass of the inner bank watching the water gradually receding, which was as much as I had energy for in the heat and surprisingly therapeutic. As the minutes ticked by an army of marsh samphire tufts were revealed. Local ecologist, Mary Breeds, had told me that this was the first salt-tolerant plant to colonise the reserve following the breach in the outer bank.  This plant also known as common glasswort is both edible (which I can vouch for) and was used in glass-making. Mary thinks that in time sea lavender, another salt-tolerant plan, will colonise the reserve too.

Four little egrets lined up along the shore

Photo, Dr Amanda Tuke

Above me a sparrowhawk circled upwards on the thermals. A pair of buzzards, mewing to each other, followed the sparrowhawk’s flight path until I lost sight of them all in the cloudless sky. Then a family of crisply-white little egrets flew in and elegantly probed for food in the shallow water. I reflected how commonplace these birds seem now, which I once thought of as quite exotic.

Across the water, came the rhythmic burbling pulses of a curlew’s song, a constant sound in this estuary. On a mudbank which was now exposed I could see one feeding. Earlier in the year I read Mary Colwell’s wonderful book Curlew Moon so despite their reassuring presence here, I’m aware that their numbers are falling.

Craving shade and with my pass about to run out, I returned to Braunton, already hatching plans to visit again in the winter.