Bowling Green Marsh
Family-friendly birding in the West Country
Sunrise. The Exe Estuary shrugs off its duvet of mist, nighthushed stillness dissolving into daytime. Early morning light bathes a mercurial waterscape, shaped by tide and time. With the rising tide, the expansive mudflats, on which a wealth of birds depends, are gradually covered, robbing the birds of breakfast. It will be hours before this rich source of food becomes accessible again. But this is good news. For just around the corner lies Bowling Green Marsh, one of the RSPB’S Exe Estuary reserves, and a superb place to watch the resting and feeding birds displaced from the mudflats. My first encounter with the Bowling Green Marsh bird hide was more years ago than I care to think about. A favourite spot, great for birds but distinctly chilly in winter. Birding was often cut short by the need to go and find somewhere to warm up with a hot drink. But goodness, how things have changed. I dropped in recently on a Saturday afternoon. “You’ve really got to get here, mate!” the man with a mobile phone in one hand and binoculars in the other was saying to an unseen friend. “We’ve got godwits, we’ve got Redshank, we’ve got Shovelers, Teal, Little Ringed Plover. “Just get here! We’ve even got coffee and sofas!” His enthusiasm was infectious; a courier driver delivering locally, he had happened upon Bowling Green Marsh completely by chance and was, appropriately, bowled over by it. And rightly so. In the summer of 2014, significant changes happened at Bowling Green Marsh. Bryan Baker had co-founded the Topsham Birdwatching and Naturalist Society in 1969, and was also the first chairman of the Exeter and District RSPB Members’ Group. He sadly died in 1990, and money donated in his memory funded the earlier hide. From this has sprung a new, exceptional and inspired facility – something that takes birdwatching to a different level. Peter Otley, the RSPB site manager for the area, explains: “We extended the existing hide and this is when we added The Lookout, which was designed by a local architect and built by the Wild Deck Company. Work was then carried out in 2015 to put in the wildlife garden and some further improvements were made to The Lookout in terms of lighting, heating and flooring, and the furniture was put in place.” It is this Lookout which makes the place so unusual and so enticing. Adjacent to, and accessible from, the
excellent conventional hide, the warm and welcoming Lookout, with its huge glazed windows, comfy seats, hot drinks for grown-ups and activities for children, is the perfect place for families who wish to introduce youngsters to the joy of birding, without upsetting purist birdwatchers who, understandably, like a bit of hush in their hide.
Something for everyone
Andrea Ayres, the RSPB area reserves manager for Devon and Cornwall, said: “This Lookout section has been developed to encourage visitors who come here as families, somewhere they can sit and chat and look out of the massive window – novice birdwatchers who might feel a bit intimidated by the more traditional bird hide full of knowledgeable people. “It’s also one of the few hides with a disabled parking bay outside and easy access up a ramp for wheelchairs and buggies. You don’t have to trek across a field and negotiate stiles and at high tide the birds come in really close; Little Egrets can be right outside the window.” RSPB staff and volunteers are present whenever the Lookout is open, setting up spotting scopes, showing children how to use binoculars, talking about the work of the charity – and making coffee. There are books, identification charts, colouring-in sheets – everything is designed to make birdwatching a fun and enthralling journey of discovery. Children love it. And so do adults. I, for one, am far happier watching birds a few metres away from my seat on a sofa with a cup of hot chocolate, than I am with my fingers turning February-blue in the hide next door. That may seem a wimpish admission from a long-term birdwatcher, but what this lovely facility does is cater for all styles of birding, from the hardy to the hothouse flowers; the knowledgeable to the newbies. Peter Harrison, RSPB membership officer from the Exeter office, said: “It’s the kind of place where the RSPB hopes
to really enthuse people. In a more traditional hide I’d feel very selfconscious with my young son. Here, where it’s custom-built for little ones, I really enjoy bringing him and you can just close the door between the Lookout and the main hide.”
Birds and bugs...
Enthusing people is not difficult here. It’s a place to get up close and personal with teeming wildlife, although one tiny girl who was being helped to see a Little Egret through binoculars was mildly more captivated by the train she spotted on the distant embankment, passing on its way to Exmouth. A team of around 40 volunteers is involved with the site, and the beautifully-created bug hotel, built into the understorey of the hide and Lookout, was designed by some of them. Peter Otley talks about the conservation work here. “The area in front of the hide (on the marsh side) was redesigned in 2018, bringing the areas of water closer in to the hide. This also involved resculpting the land, creating some islands and increasing the amount of muddy margin that is present on the site, and therefore the habitat available for key wader species. “The area is grazed with cattle during the summer to maintain the open grassland. Rush management is carried out every year to prevent this from over-dominating the grassland, and we also have the ability to slightly adjust the water levels on the reserve to help manage the site. “We also use the site for occasional school groups to help teach them about the conservation work we carry out in the local area.” And it’s not just about the wetlands. On the off-marsh side of the hide a delightful nature garden has been created, with wildlife-friendly planting schemes, a small pond and plenty of places to sit and relax among it all. Bird feeders attract a wealth of species, including Brambling in winter. Elusive newts inhabit the pond. Just along the lane from the hide is a substantial viewing platform. Closer to the main estuary than the hide, here you get a greater sense of Bowling Green Marsh’s proximity to the coast. The path between the lane and the platform passes through an area of grassland and drainage channels, on which I once spotted a Glossy Ibis, a rare treat that created a serious frisson of excitement around the marsh. A further stroll brings you to Goat Walk, a pleasing, raised-up, estuary-side path from which wintering Avocets are easy to spot. Goat Walk leads into the delightful town of Topsham, known for its nautical air, good eateries and Dutch-influenced architecture. There is so much on offer in the area and now, whatever the weather, it can be relished to the full. Here in The Lookout, watching birds has evolved from being something for the stoic and has morphed into a warm and sociable activity. Given the multi-faceted challenges inflicted on our natural world and the environmental problems we face, anything that encourages more people and younger generations to watch wildlife and realise just how much conservation matters, has to be high up on the list of ‘Things That Are Part Of The Solution’. Gather up your people – and go!
Ducks and Canada Geese at Bowling Green Marsh
Visitors of all ages enjoy the Lookout’s comfort and views
View across Bowling Green Marsh
Discovering what delights lie in the site pond!
The site’s bug hotel is a draw for youngsters