(First of all, an apology - not only is this a bit of a beast of a blog, but there's no photos to relieve the monotony!)
Nice to get a new year off to a good birdy start... Pre-dawn, the peace was shattered by a Tawny Owl (according to Na - I was fast asleep and missed all the excitement), with a January dawn chorus filling the air a couple of hours later: the local Robins ensuring their territories are still secure, reminding themselves where their neighbours are - and sneakily checking to see whether next door made it through the night, and if their patch of land could in fact be annexed.
As it's been a rather mild winter so far, in stark contrast to the last two, there is a bit more to our January chorus. Dunnocks have been adding their silvery little warble to the mix for a couple of weeks now and a Song Thrush started some proper song about 10 days ago. The Blackbirds haven't yet got into full-throated melody, but a male has recently been singing to himself at the bottom of the garden; perhaps getting in tune for some early breeding, should the weather hold mild.
A little later - once there is some proper light in the sky - the Woodpigeons begin their raspy growls and the nearest Mistle Thrush can be heard shouting a simple strident series of notes into the air. Throw in some chirpy House Sparrows and there's a not-too-bad early morning chorus going on. There is something particularly satisfying about New Year's Day - there is so little traffic on the road in the early morning that the birds sound especially clear and crisp - we will have to wait until sunrise is about 4.30 in the morning before the dawn chorus is that peaceful again now.
We managed to get out before the hangover-cure walkers staggered along the river, adding a smattering of the local woodland birds to the new year's tally. The pair of Mandarin Ducks is still present and looking mighty furtive - perhaps they will settle in and breed successfully in the woods this year. Would be nice to see them more often (not something you can often say about non-native species, but there doesn't seem to be a negative impact associated with Mandarins, though I may have missed something in the literature somewhere) as they really brighten up a dull winter's day! Another early sign of spring - or perhaps a winter territory being reinforced - a couple of the local Dippers were in full song on bankside rocks, one interspersing his mix of chirps and jangles with a bit of mimicry of Grey Wagtail song.
Buoyed by a fine start to the day we returned home, collected my in-laws and headed on out to the Exe. Although there isn't a lot of water around the marshes yet this winter, there was sufficient shallow flooding to have ducks peppered across the fields and pools. The bulk of the birds were Wigeon; males calling out their slightly suggestive whistle whilst the females growled and chattered amongst themselves as they waddle busily across the grass. On the shallowest water fringes, pairs and small groups of Teal were feeding and calling their 'preep' calls; males occasionally breaking off from feeding to surround a female and swim in excited circles, head-feathers raised to prove they really do have a neat crest.
Further onto the water again were pairs of Shoveler, powering across the pools with heads submerged, then occasionally lifting their heads clear so we could see their bright golden eyes and outsize rubbery-looking bills. Finally, deepest of all, were a pair of Pintail, supremely indifferent to the hustle and bustle of the rest of the duck, upending calmly and quietly in the depths the others couldn't reach.
Surrounding the ducks was a rustling, chattering, squalling mass of Starlings, who were swirling around a mix of Lapwings, Black-tailed Godwits and Curlew, all busily probing in the wet grass for invertebrates. Every so often something would spook this whole crowd of birds, so there would be a rush of wings, a cacophony of calls and the duck would suddenly be mid-pool, whilst the waders and Starlings swirled and dived in the air above. Opposite all this fuss and palaver, a small group of Canada Geese fed with the complacency of birds which know they are too big to be bothered by most things here - and with them, a rather fine Glossy Ibis.
We eased our way down to the Turf Locks Hotel, where hot chocolate and tea beckoned. The ebb tide had fallen enough for a broad scatter of waders busying themselves across the mud (including the Dutch-ringed Redshank C73). Avocets, Grey Plovers, Redshank and Dunlin were busily feeding in every direction, and the first gulls came drifting downriver like confetti in the breeze, to settle in to their roost on the river; which seemed a suitable cue to take for us to head home too, leaving the birds to follow the edge of the tide into the gathering dusk.