Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Patch of the Day - Kev Rylands, Dawlish Warren

Since moving to Devon some 20+ years ago I have been fortunate enough to have Dawlish Warren as my local patch visiting the Warren regularly since 1991. Over this time I have managed to accumulate a decent patch list (92% self found), comparing favourably to many inland county lists and a far cry from the woodland and old gravel pit sites I used watch back in North Hampshire.

Following a couple of years of listing, first UK and then Devon, I had decided 2013 would be more low key and patch based so the Patchwork Challenge seemed ideal to keep the enthusiasm going. One PC rule I won’t be following however is to include birds seen from the patch - this is only acceptable for house/garden lists. I didn’t go through 15 years of Nuthatch induced torture just to be able to record it on an almost daily basis!

Dawlish Warren is a double sandpit some 1.5miles long and roughly 0.5miles wide at the mouth of the Exe Estuary in south Devon. The recording area (and my patch) covers c215 ha extending from Langstone Rock in the south to Cockwood Harbour in the north with the railway line creating the western boundary, however only about 40% of this area is above the high tide line and much of this is a golf course to which there is no public access.

Langstone Rock at the SW corner of the site is a 15m high red sandstone megalith, very distinct from the spit which extends NE from it. The base of the spit has largely suffered from tourism development and sea defence schemes but the remainder of the spit is semi-natural. The sandy, gravely beach and intertidal banks, which stretch over a mile out to sea, are in a constant state of flux with rapid rates of creation and erosion.

The majority of the Outer Warren is semi-fixed dune grassland and bramble with a heavily eroded seaward dune ridge, these two habitats are linked at the eastern end on Warren Point.  
The depressed central zone of the Warren (Greenland Lake)is an old tidal creek and becomes flooded in winter, it supports maturing willow-birch-alder scrub with ponds, small areas of dune slack and marshy grassland.

The Inner Warren is fixed-dune grassland, with stands of gorse and dune heath on the golf course; there is also a small Turkey oak copse. The estuarine side of the spit supports an area of saltmarsh and thereafter are large expanses of estuarine mudflats.

The recording area list is hovering around 300 species, with two still in BBRC limbo, Elegant Tern and Western Sandpiper. In terms of quality of rarity Dawlish Warren has always punched well above its weight, ever since the Great Black-headed Gull of 1859! As a consequence it is known to most UK birders, with many having visited and trudged along the sand dunes at some time or other, either calling in on the way to Scilly or twitching Semipalmated Plover and/or Long-billed Murrelet. Some may even remember Lesser Crested Tern, Greater Sandplover or Great-spotted Cuckoo.  The latter was my first visit to the site - twitching it from the south east, a great decision as it turned out as I dipped the site’s second record in Feb 2001 and the 1990 bird is still on permanent display!

As to be expected with an estuary site waders are the main focus with American Golden Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs, Semi-palmated, Baird’s, White-rumped and Broad-billed Sandpipers all recorded in the last 15 years with Kentish Plover expected annually. Amongst the flocks of terns midsummer Caspian and Gull-billed Tern have been unearthed.

However rarities can be found anywhere on site not just the estuary with other gems including Dusky, Raddes, Savi’s and Great Reed Warblers, Penduline Tit, Lesser Grey Shrike and even Red-eyed Vireo. But despite this track record in terms of migrants, the site can be hard work – there have only ever been c40 records of Pied Flycatcher with species such as Redstart, Whinchat, Lesser Whitethroat and Cuckoo rarely exceeding 10 records a year, a poor return for a well watched coastal site.

The Warren’s position in the middle of Lyme Bay means it is not ideally suited for seawatching but it can do fairly well in, and especially, after the right conditions with species such as Sooty Shearwater, Little Auk and Long-tailed Skua just about annual.  The same goes for visible migration and despite the added hindrance of being at sea level this can also be exciting, especially in cold weather.  Recent notable flyovers include Crane, Glossy Ibis, Red-rumped Swallow, Red-throated, Tawny and Richard’s Pipit - just don’t mention the Short-toed Eagle!

It’s far from just rarities and migrants though, the Warren is part of the Exe Estuary SPA and is designated for nationally important numbers of wintering wildfowl and wintering and passage waders whilst offshore Balearic Shearwater, Slavonian Grebe and Roseate Tern are also notable.
Away from birds Dawlish Warren is famous for the Sand (or Warren) Crocus and is internationally designated for its dune flora. Over 2000 species of invertebrates, including 650 species of moth, 630 species of plants and250 species of fungi and have been recorded with discoveries on-going, a new weevil for the UK was even found last year!

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