The Natural History Group of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society

8:10am Friday 13th October 2006

A MEETING of the Natural History Group of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society was held at the Otter Estuary, Budleigh Salterton on October 7. The leader was Dr Phillip Radford, with the aim of identifying the birds of the area, and noting their behaviour.

Wading birds appeared to be scarce, but some curlews were present and seen to be either feeding or resting. One curlew was watched as it seized a surprisingly large food item, possibly a small frog, which it eventually managed to swallow, although with some difficulty. Herons were noted taking their rest, as well as several little egrets. The little egrets were certainly easy to identify in their pure white plumage, and one of them obligingly displayed its feet with bright toes, which contrasted sharply with the black legs and blackish bill. So often the little egret's legs and feet are seen when they are covered with river mud, so that the true colouring is overlooked.

Numerous mallards were resting on the river mud-banks as well as a good sized party of Wigeons. The colours of the adult male Wigeon were particularly admired, especially the yellow crown streaking of the chestnut head. Wigeon have an attractive whistling call, providing at least one characteristic sound for the estuary. Other sounds heard by the river included the strident calls of the many herring gulls present as well as the harsh, rasping cries of the numerous black-headed gulls, which were feeding on exposed tidal mud. Other sounds heard at the estuary included the occasional loud and penetrating cry of a vigilant grey heron. On previous visits to the Otter Estuary the honking of Canada geese was often a dominant sound; however, on this occasion, no Canada geese appeared to be present.

As well as herring and black-headed gulls, several lesser black-backed gulls were noted. Amongst these gulls, a few of the adults showed the dark black wings of birds of Scandinavian origin. Black-backed gulls of the western form have slate grey wings, both forms of the gulls will winter on the estuary.

One attractive diving bird watched was a little grebe, its skill in diving was much admired, as well as its dumpy brown and buff body. Several little grebes were watched diving along the course of the river. Another attractive bird seen was a kingfisher, although there was only a fleeting glimpse of iridescent blue as the bird flew speedily upstream, low over the surface of the river.

In addition to birds, the naturalists were able to watch some dragonflies as they flew in the sunlight up and down the river banks. Migrant hawker dragonflies were watched, as well as several common darters or sympetrums.

The unexpectedly, clouded yellow butterflies were observed, both at rest and in flight. Other butterflies seen were red admiral and peacocks, no doubt lured out by the bright sunshine.

Hawthorne berries shone red in the sunlight and a good supply of sloes and blackberries were noted along the hedges. Madder was present too, much to the interest of the naturalists. It was concluded that the walk has been well worthwhile, with so many items of interest for those members who attended.

The next meeting of the Natural History Group will take place on Saturday, November 18 at 2.30pm at the Adam Library. Taunton Castle. This will be a social afternoon, with short illustrated talks by members. Additionally, members will provide refreshments, normally very tempting ones too.

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