Bowl­ing Green Marsh

Fam­ily-friendly bird­ing in the West Country

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - Words: Si­mone Stan­brook-byrne

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

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