Birds of Devon Rivers

Birds of Devon Rivers

Most of Devon’s rivers have their source on Dartmoor or Exmoor such as the rivers Exe, Teign, Dart, Plym, Torridge and Taw, but others like the rivers  Axe, Otter and  Tamar rise outside the county.

They are important for recreation, agriculture, industry and fishing, but also provide natural corridors bustling with wildlife and surrounded by stunning scenery. These rivers provide a rich habitat for many of our commoner birds but also to less familiar and rarer species.

Any walk alongside these rivers will surely bring you into close contact with some lovely sights, whether it be a Swan gracefully floating by or the dazzling blue flash of the Kingfisher as it races past you at high speed close to the water’s surface.

A rivers journey will begin at its source which can be a simple moorland spring and it is hard to imagine that this small trickle will eventually evolve into a mighty river.  The upper reaches of the moorland rivers are often rocky and fast flowing as they descend from the higher ground and race through gullies and steep sided rocky valleys. It is these areas that I particularly love as they are wild and isolated and it is here that you are most likely to see Grey Wagtails and Dippers.

The Dipper (above) is one of my favourite birds and is a short-tailed, wren-like bird about the size of a thrush. It gets its name from its constant dipping and bobbing when perched on a rock or other perch. Its white throat and breast contrasts with its dark body plumage and is remarkable in its method of walking into and under water in search of larvae, invertebrates and insects. It is our only songbird able to do this. I have spent hours watching and photographing these unique birds and they often return to the same spot each year to raise their broods.  I know of some locations where they have nested in the same spot for at least the last 20 years.

Wherever you find the Dipper you will often see the Grey Wagtail, resplendent in spring and summer with its bright yellow breast.It too loves the wilder areas of the river, but can also be found on the middle and lower reaches and even near the coast. It’s seldom still and will often leap into the air to catch passing insects.  It truly is a beautiful bird and always a delight to see.

The Middle reaches of our rivers run more gently and after the high energy flow of the upper reaches, it now seems much calmer as the river widens on its journey to the coast, often through deep wooded valleys, filled with songbirds, buzzards and woodpeckers. There can still be rapids and cascades here and the main river may be joined by tributaries of smaller rivers.

Here the river will often flow over a gravelly, stony bed and Dippers and Wagtails are still prominent here.  The Goosander (left), a relative  newcomer  to Devon, can also be seen in these areas.

Goosanders are diving ducks of the sawbill family, so-called because of  their long serrated bills used to catch fish and are one of Devon’s breeding successes of recent years. They first bred on the river Dart in 1980 and now breed on many of our larger rivers such as the Exe, Dart and Teign making use of holes in trees to lay their eggs.

I regularly see them on The Exe, which is my local river, both on the upper and middle reaches. In winter they can be seen congregating in groups on lakes and larger ponds and in early spring they spread out again to their breeding haunts.

Also on some rivers  you  can catch sitings of the colourful Mandarin Duck, an introduced species which also breeds in tree holes or hollows.

As the river continues its descent towards the sea it widens again and its high banks are often bordered by flood plains and farmland.In these lower reaches the flow is more sedate as the river meanders slowly through the countryside. Wagtails can still be seen here but this is now the main area to see Mute Swans, mallards, Coots and Canada Geese and as well as one of our most beautiful birds,the Kingfisher.

Kingfishers are by no means rare in Devon but their colourful plumage ensure that the bird is surprisingly camouflaged as it sits on overhanging branches and foliage by the river making them difficult to spot.

The Kingfisher will dive for small fish from a favourite perch returning time and again to the same branch or post. If you can find one of these perches and then sit quietly you will almost certainly get good views of this stunning bird.

They make good use of the high sandy banks of the river here in which they excavate a small tunnel at the end of which is a hollowed out chamber where it lays its eggs. Heavy rain and any subsequent flooding is the main threat to the Kingfisher and many nests are destroyed by rising river levels.

You are also likely to see here that stealthy and silent hunter, the Grey Heron, as it stalks the shallows by the river edge trying to catch fish, eels and frogs. Its smaller cousin the Little Egret can also be found here and often congregates in small groups in fields by the river.

Little Egrets have also moved from mainland Europe in the last few years, probably due to climate change, and now nest at several locations in the county. The larger Great White Egret has also colonised parts of Somerset and is occasionally seen on our rivers and estuaries and it is hoped that it too will soon breed in Devon. Eventually, our rivers will complete their journey when they reach the sea. They bring with them nutrient rich sediments eroded from the river banks and river beds, which help create our lovely estuaries and provide a rich food source for invertebrates and molluscs, which in turn provide a bounty for Waders, Geese, Shelduck and Grebes.

Hopefully, you will now be aware of how our rivers sustain a unique eco-system for birds and other wildlife and it is of course essential that they are maintained and protected. We can all play a part in this by ensuring a cleaner, pollution free environment so that our rivers can be enjoyed and appreciated for ourselves and future generations in the years to come.

Andy Stuthridge
All images © Andy Stuthridge

Many thanks to Andy, I’m sure you’ll agree that his photos are stunning – Editor.

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This article was written by
Andy Stuthridge

Born in Cyprus to Cornish Parents, Andy grew up in Cornwall. He joined the RAF as a Police Dog Handler and then subsequently Devon and Cornwall Police. Recently Andy retired from the Police after a career of nearly 30 years of service in Devon. Still living in Mid Devon since a young boy, Andy's had a great interest in wildlife and nature and in recent years has developed a passion for wildlife and landscape photography, specialising in photographing the wonderful wildlife and varied landscapes of the West Country. Andy has a particular love for Exmoor and Dartmoor, both of which are close to home and where many of his images are taken.