A Walk Along the River Otter: Part 2

The lower reaches of the river Otter turn from fresh water to brackish as the river joins the sea. At low tide, mud and salt flats are exposed creating a safe habitat for the hundreds of seabirds and waders that feed, breed or rest on migration there. This area, including its wildlife, I have written about earlier – it can be found by clicking here.
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This post describes a walk a little further upstream where the river flows through fertile fields of wheat and where cattle and sheep graze in lush riverside meadows.
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The river – which like our river in the secret valley – is really little more than a stream (or ‘brook’ as we say where I originate from – English dialect is another fascinating subject that I might write about one day!). One moment fast flowing, the next slow, but always crystal clear, the view is one of steep banks and stony bottom. It is here, in the shallower water, that the trout – huge in comparison with our tiny ones at home – sway in the current, waiting for food to be swept down towards them and their ever open mouths. At one place where the river runs across a steeply shelved weir, a salmon run has been built: a series of steps for the salmon to leap to reach the upper levels of the river for spawning after their long migration. Whether they still do, I do not know, for salmon stocks in England are dwindling fast.
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Wood and water, just nothing but water and wood, for the crowds of visitors that explore the river close to the beach and form long queues at the ice cream stalls have all been left far behind. Now the sights, sounds and smells are only those of nature on this glorious late summer’s day. The trees are only just beginning to show a hint of the autumn to come but, somehow, their berries have already stamped their mark on the autumn landscape, glowing in and reflecting the sun’s warmth.
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Along the river bank, swamping much of the native flora, the Himalayan Balsam is giving a final explosion of colour before the first frosts destroy them for another year. And explosion is the correct description of their bursting seed heads which throw the seed far and wide as they split open. Found in many damp places throughout the country, for its seeds are also dispersed by the movement of the water, the Himalyan Balsam is an unwelcome immigrant to Britain which is virtually impossible to control. A member of the Impatien family, its seedheads are similar to those of our familiar garden Busy Lizzie.
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Along the final stretch of our walk, the river is backed by the same red sandstone cliffs that can be seen by the coast. How many millenia did it take for this gentle stream to cut its way through to its present level? My photography skills – or perhaps my patience – did not allow me to get shots of the kingfishers that darted up and down as a flash of azure along this reach of the river. High up in the rock face, their nesting holes (or were they the breeding sites of the sand martins that had already begun their long flight south to winter in Africa?) were more easily photographed.

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The ten mile walk to the source of the Otter will have to wait for another visit to the West Country. Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention, otters can be found – but rarely seen – along the whole length of the river.

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A Walk Along the River Otter: part 1

The River Otter although not long in length – barely 20 miles from its source in the Blackdown Hills to the sea – is rich in wildlife. Mostly flowing through Devon, in Britain’s West Country, it rises just over the border in the county of Somerset. Passing through rich and fertile farmland it enters the English Channel at Budleigh Salterton where its estuary is protected from the sea by a large pebble bank. It is here that this walk begins.
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The mudflats, reedbeds and adjoining fields are all part of a relatively small nature reserve, backed by the town on one side and high red sandstone cliffs to the other. The whole area forms part of a World Heritage site for it is part of the English coastline known as the Jurassic Coast, famous for its rock formations, clear water and abundant fossils. The underlying stone of the Otter valley holds one of the most important aquifers in England supplying drinking water to 200,000 people (source: Wikipedia, where else do we go for this sort of infortmation?!).
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The birdlife, especially at this time of year as migration takes place, is spectacular. In my excitement in trying out my new telephoto lens, I forgot to take general views of the coastline and town. However, as tourism plays such an important part of the Devon economy, it is easy to visit and stay locally – it is well worth adding to your ‘places to visit’ list.
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There is no public access to the mudflats which means that the birds are relatively undisturbed. However, there are good footpaths along the edges and also hides, where it is possible to view the wildlife with the aid of good binoculars or camera. The Little Egret, below, was a rare visitor to England until very recently. Now, although still not often seen, they are more frequent and breed here. We have even had them occasionally visit us in the secret valley. The Canada Goose also was once a rare escapee from wildfowl collections – now they are seen everywhere and are one of our commonest geese.
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Glossy Ibis are an extreme rarity and thirteen had arrived here earlier a few days ago. If they were about they remained hidden from view. Strutting about – and unaware of how comical they look when away from water were a pair of Bar-tailed Godwits. These birds breed in Scandinavia and the Arctic and thousands pass through Britain on the migration back south with a few staying all year round but never breeding. Despite their numbers they are easily missed so being able to photograph this one was a real treat!
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Of all the birds to be seen that day, none were so plentiful yet so beautiful as this Mediterranean Gull. Or, at least, that is what I think it is. Living as I do, as far inland as is possible in the British Isles, my seabird identification skills are not as good as they might be. No matter, it had a grace unlike the majority of the gull family, yet I don’t think it was a tern. I wait to be corrected.
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