Birds of the River

Birds are by far the most visible of the larger creatures that inhabit the river system and there are many of them that can be seen in the vicinity of the water - either because of the water itself or the richly vegetated banks and habitats through which it flows combined with the year-round humidity make for the perfect habitats for insect life and insect life attracts many species that feed on them. There are however several 'signature' species of bird that directly depend on the river and the riverine environment.

KINGFISHER

It's the bird that everyone wants to see, but few do! The Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) is a relatively common bird on the River Teign - more so in the lower reaches than higher up, especially in the breeding season, as suitable quiet, soft and steep banks are what it needs to breed and these are a much more common feature in the lower reaches. However having said that there are a few places where they manage to get a toe hold and the loud strident piping of a bird in flight, and the fleeting glimpse of an ultra-marine rump winging its away around the next bend in the river is possible almost anywhere but the moorland sections of the headwaters.

Kingfisher with a Minnow © Jack Perks - A common bird on the Teign, can be tricky to see!

The Kingfisher, when seen properly, cuts a dash, an iconic bird, a specialist piscivore (fish eater) it probably doesn't need much of an introduction. All head and beak with a short tail, tiny legs and long wings give it a distinctive if un-balanced profile. Despite being relatively common, few folk know they are there.

It's just the fact that it is small and secretive and rarely as 'in your face' as the TV or the magazines will have you believe that they are rarely seen or known about. They also infrequently stop still for long enough to enjoy properly and when they do unless you see where they land they can be deceptively difficult to spot despite the bold orange breast and azure and electric Blues feathers on the back and head.

Their plumage, which is fittingly exotic looking for a family of primarily tropical birds in their distribution, appears to change in brightness and colour depending on the angle on which the bird is viewed. This is mainly due to the fact that the bright blues and greens that their feathers exhibit are not true pigments at all, but as the body of a ground beetle or the colours of a hummingbird are what are known as physical colours, the structure deep within the feather splits, defracts and refracts the actual light that falls on them.

They will take any fish that they can handle, normally nothing much bigger than an adult Minnow or Stickleback which they usually hunt for from a perch above clear shallow water (although they will hover as well) exactly the sorts of places that minnows and other small fish will congregate and can be easy to both see and catch. They do this by lining up their aim and dropping from their perch into the water to grab with their beak with pinpoint accuracy any unwary fish of appropriate size. Then after the characteristic splash, they return to a perch, to mercilessly beat and smash the unfortunate fish against its perch. This stuns or kills the fish before it is flipped into its bill and swallowing head first. Doing this means any spines and fins fold flat as they are swallowed.

Kingfishers nest in a self-excavated burrow in a steep river bank where the soil is soft and friable. The nest tunnel can be over a metre long with a nest chamber at the far end, in which the eggs are laid. There is no nest material as such but in the latter stages of the nestlings development, I've had it on good authority that it is a disgusting mire of fish remains and droppings! They might look beautiful but they probably smell terrible.

Spend a bit of time slowly walking the river banks and you will eventually see a Kingfisher.... guaranteed.

dIPPER

Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) © Tim Smith (Instagram @casualsnap)

The Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) is the 'James Bond' of the bird world. Bedecked in a smart and dapper tux and cummerbund of chestnut brown it is a handsome if understated bird. Here's an extract from an essay first written for the Whiddon Parish magazine winter 2020/21.

It takes you by surprise when you hear it for the first time. A sound that seems out of place. When all else is dour, it cuts through a sparkly jingle of optimistic anticipation. A winter river bank, all dead stems, dank leaves set in a palette of dreary browns and greys seems an unlikely setting for this sound ….but there it is again.
It weaves in and out of the waters own music some of the notes borrowed from the sound of the splashing riffles. Sometimes it’s clear and defined then it dissolves back into the rivers own song. It’s nearly always the sound of the Dipper that announces its presence before you actually see one. But it is well worth seeing. The Dipper is an unusual and highly specialised bird, a bird of fast-flowing, high energy upland rivers and streams and for this reason alone it is one of the birds that brings a sense of uniqueness to a place. Just hearing its thrush-like serenade or more usually it's strident explosive piping as it is flushed from an unseen perch pins you to a certain kind of place. The kind of place threaded with wild water; kinetic and rapid, with a backdrop of mossing rocks and roots.
The Dipper for me is one of the joys of living where we do. It is as much the signature of the upper stretches of mountain and moorland rivers as sea trout and salmon, the Caddis and the Golden-ringed Dragon.

Dipper © Geoff Simpson

If you hear it -stop. It’ll take a moment, but usually, a careful visual un-picking of the shores, banks, rocks and other furniture will reveal it. Give it a moment, Dippers are rarely invisible for long unless they’ve got their back to you. They are stocky birds, reminiscent of a giant Wren in shape. Overall they’re a dark, plush brown, but with a dapper white bib, a flash of brighter brown below this. But it’s not their subdued aesthetic that makes them so intriguing but what they do. They are the only aquatic songbird in the world and with this accolade comes a host of fascinating physical and behavioural adaptations of which unseasonal singing is just one.
With a blink and a bob, they plop from a perch into the most violently swirling and agitated of rapids in pursuit of their food. Outward appearances don’t give any clues to its life of derring-do. So when one plunges into the water it often comes as much of a surprise as if you saw a Blackbird disappear beneath the surface of your garden pond!
Such is the specialist nature of their trade, they can be found nowhere else. The habitual bobbing of their entire body and the flicking of their tail is what gives them their name or rather names. What most would call a Dipper (as fitting a descriptive moniker as it is) has also been referred to by equally brilliant titles as Bessie Ducker in Cornwall, Water Pyot and Water pie (on account of its pied appearance) and Water Ousel (Ouzel being the old English for Blackbird). Its scientific name Cinclus cinclus also refers to this habit although is a little less than accurate as Cinclus translates as ‘bird with a habit of moving its tail’ when in fact it moves the whole body as if hinged on its ankle joint.
It has been theorised that this incessant bobbing is actually a form of physical camouflage - a moving bird is less obvious against its constantly moving background of fast-flowing water, but probably closer to the truth is that it is a way of signalling and communicating to others in a world where the rush of water dominates the soundscape and makes getting your message across by singing alone much trickier.
Watch one on a rock and you’ll notice it blink. A first this seems unremarkable but how many times can you say you’ve noticed the same of the Blackbird on your lawn, let alone at a hundred metres? This simple action is rendered obvious by a white feathered eye-lid, not, as some suppose an adaptation to underwater vision but again thought to be an accessory to the dipping as a form of social signalling.
Other adaptations to its water world are a large oily preen gland used to waterproof its particularly plush and dense feathers, strong and sturdy well-muscled legs and toes, each tipped with sharp claw, valves in its nostrils, highly accommodating muscles within the eye that allow it to switch between surface and subaquatic environments, it also has a nictitating membrane - a second eye-lid which provides some protection to the eye like built-in swimming goggles.
While these adaptations are much more subtle than other aquatic birds - with not a webbed digit in sight. Don’t be fooled. The moment the bird dissolves into the aquatic realm, it becomes a hunter of invertebrates second to none. Using its short, broad wings as paddles is ‘flies’ like a silvery penguin (its feathers trap an insulating layer of air against its body) and occasionally uses its feet to walk on the river bottom for up to 30 seconds at a time. It pokes around boulders and flips stones with a singular focus, seeking out the nymphs of many winged water insects, as well as small crustaceans and the occasional small fish. Cased caddisflies are brought to the surface quickly undressed and de-cased with a characteristic flick of the head.

Caddis Fy larva © Nick Baker

Back to the singing. This may seem unseasonal but like so much about the unorthodox Dipper, this can be explained by the fact that it is an early breeder. Because Dipper prey is available all year they tend to defend their linear territories up and down a stretch of river through the seasons. But during the early months, other young birds and singletons looking for territory tend to move around. Displaced by spate and colder conditions and so the resident birds turn-up their own proclamations. A pair may stay together on the same 500 metres of river all of their lives and both birds sing too - another oddity as they share the job of owning their patch.
The untidy football sized, rounded nests are early in the year, with the aim of being ready to lay a cutch of some 4-6 eggs as soon as the risk of flooding has subsided. Go and seek out a Dipper, it’s a bird watchers bird and the longer you listen the more you’ll hear and the more you look the more you’ll see of them and the river all of our lives are inexorably linked to.

 

GREY WAGTAIL

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) © Tim Smith (Instagram @casualsnap)

Why is it called a Grey wagtail when the thing that hits your eyeballs the hardest when one flies past is the Yellow? Well, it's quite simple, there is a Yellow wagtail that has more Yellow on it than the Grey. However nothing should detract from the enjoyment of these perky birds as they go about their business. Like the dipper they are a bird of moving water, but unlike the Dipper they are less restricted to the fast, dashing flow of the upland sections - the Grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) can be found flitting and flicking around at almost any point on any river bank walk.

They are pretty and noticeable, a hyper-active, constantly wobbling and wagging river resident. The long tail is the longest of any of the wagtails and lends an elegance to this striking bird. A warm grey back and head contrasts with the marigold yellow underside,. black wings and tail centre and in the male during the Spring and Summer a black throat patch. Part of its energy comes form the fact it is a catcher of flies - it is forever making areial sorties and performing loop-the-loops as it snaps and snatches various river flies as they emerge and cling to rocks and vegetation at the river side.

 

During the Spring the birds pair up and start the process of nesting. One of the reason behind their dependance on rivers is they seem to be dependant on the crevices and overhanging roots on river banks. Such nest sites give the birds a degree of security from predators especially if they overhang the water, they have a foundness for man-made structures and crevics between the stone work on weirs and rievrside buildings seem to be popular. The nest is made of fine grasses and lined with hair and feathers, in which a brood of some 4-6 are incubated and stuffed full of the finest insects the river can provide. You might not like the flies and midges but they do - think of them not just as building blocks for Salmon and Trout but as protein snack for almost every creature on the river from bat to bird.

Grey Wagtail  (Motacilla cinerea) © Tim Smith (Instagram @casualsnap)

GOOSANDER

It’s a duck but not in the normal urban, bread scoffing, semi-tame kind of way. In fact everything about the Goosander is about as un-duck-like and as wild as you could possibly imagine. In fact take everything you know about ducks and tear it up as far as Mergus merganser is concerned. This is an excerpt from an article written for 'Dartmoor Magazine'.

A river side walk at almost any season may turn up a sighting of this bird. My first sighting was on the River Dart, just below Dartmeet, back in the 90’s - I had gone there to look for a famously non-native species of Duck, one that has naturalised on some of Dartmoor's rivers, the Mandarin - a diminutive duck, so prim and perfect that its presence in a rugged Dartmoor landscape was so incongruous it had to be seen. While I was watching a funny little drake, glistening in the early light and spinning reels on the water, up popped another bird just behind in the view of my telescope - this one surprise chance sighting instantly eclipsed the Mandarin.
The bird in question was a drake Goosander in finest fettle, a bird that was hard to ignore. A pinkish white belly, with a dark back topped off by a dark polychromatic green head. This stunner was almost the antithesis of the Mandarin - a long, lithe, spear headed bird, as aerodynamic as it is hydrodynamic - a bird who’s appearance means business and it contrasted so completely with the dumpy, frivolous and fancy looking Mandarin … that looks a little like the product of a design a duck competition at a primary school…all cute and coloured in with bright crayons.

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The Goosander drake was soon joined by another, this one a female - less tidy, and more Grey, swapping out the males dark and cleanly demarked head colour for one of a foxy brown. She popped up briefly as the male had before, this time a little further downstream.
This is a trait that sets them apart straight away from most of the ducks you might be familiar with. While a dabbling Mallard (or Mandarin for that matter) will just bob around dabbling away, until you almost get bored of looking at it. The Goosander keeps you guessing, just as you drink in another non-duck like feature, in a graceful arc of the body and a fold of water - it’s gone, vanished beneath a ripple in pursuit of the next meal.
It is the diet of these birds and their cousins - the Merganser (a bird of Estuary) and the rare Winter visitor to mainly Eastern counties the Smew, that helps to make them a duck apart from the others. The Goosander is a predatory piscivore, an obligatory fish hunter..
The first thing about these birds that makes you double-take and realise what you’re seeing isn’t just any old duck is the overall shape of the bird … a feathered spear of leanness, designed for sub-aqua manoeuvres. Sure it bobs about on the water and has webbed feet (you’ll rarely see them unless you manage to catch them in a private moment hauled out on a boulder or beach) like all other ducks but its shape is all wrong. Those webbed feet are much further back on the body, a sure sign of a bird that uses them to propel itself through water and at the sharp end of its sleek form there really is a sharp end - a device that doesn’t look like the classic blunt ducks bill by any stretch of the imagination.
Instead a long skinny rapier fronts up the head hard-wear. It rapidly tapers to a hooked point and is lined along its length by sharp serrations, over 120 in total - a feature that it shares with other members of its tribe and which gives them their collective name of the ‘Sawbills’ or ‘Sawbill ducks’. These lamellae are the equivalent of the fine filters found in the bill of dabbling duck such as a Mallard - but in the Goosander's case these have been transformed into sharp, slightly backwards pointing teeth. All of these features whenever they’re found in nature - whether a Gharial crocodile or a River Dolphin are the analogous tools of the trade for catching and gripping the slippery and smooth bodies of fish and this they do to perfection.
The birds I first saw were doing what I’ve since witness countless times and that is engaged in a strange kind of synchronous snorkelling. A pair of birds work systematically along the pools with their heads and necks periodically submerged a behaviour that might suggest actual feeding if they were any of the dabbling ducks, but not our Goosander.
It is scoping the water below for fish. They hunt by sight and so rather than waste energy chasing around nothing and bubbles, they put the time in first. A reconnaissance, only diving when they’re onto a target and then they set off in a focused pursuit. They have been recorded in deeper lakes diving for around two minutes but these longer forays have been suggested to be linked to deeper water hunting and they’ve been recorded getting down to over 30 metres. Try timing them on a shallow Dartmoor river and you’re more likely to loose sight of them for less than 30 seconds.

Rarely do you get to actually watch them underwater, apart from that last blur of white and Silver as they vanish into the tea stained waters - so it’s a moment ripe for the imagination. The fact you rarely see them on the surface creates the illusion of a failed fishing attempt but they apparently can swallow most of the fish they catch while still under the water, occasionally an awkward snag or a larger more ungainly species will be dealt with on the surface, re-positioned and swallowed head first (keeps all the fin and spines folding the right way making an easy swallow).

Watching Goosander whether as a small flotilla of roosting birds on one of the reservoirs in Winter or like this fishing in the sun dappled, wider stretches of out Moorland river, you could be forgiven for thinking things have always been this way, they seem so at home and their wild ways seem to fit with the wild landscape and untamed rivers but as far as birds go their presence on the Moor is a relatively recent thing.
First recorded in the UK as breeding birds back in the 1870’s and even then only a couple of pairs nested in Scotland , then began their slow expansion and by 1950 they were breeding in England. Devon got its first breeding birds as recently as 1980 lower down the Dart although a few were known to occasionally winter with us prior to this. Eventually they spread up River with the first breeding records for the around 1950. They appear to be pretty much stable now, and with a few pairs dotted away here and there on the quieter stretches of our rivers, a day with a Goosander sighting is always a good one.
What seems to be limiting their expansion? Well it could be the specific feeding requirements, clear water, deep enough to support good numbers of fingerling sized fish or it may simply be down to yet another odd feature of this very different duck …. they nest in holes; tree holes are preferred. Although this isn’t totally unique to ducks .. several species do so. Most of them are quite a bit smaller and it may simply be a lack of trees of the right age and size to provide a hole of the right bore for for a duck of the Goosander’s caliber.

One last oddity - come mid-May, something else strange happens - the Drakes vanish.
Almost as soon as the female starts to incubate the eggs and certainly before the clutch of ducklings propel themselves out of the trees; all the Drakes in the UK leave the females to take care of the brood and fly off to moult their feathers! What is even more extraordinary is where they go. It was a mystery for many years but in the early to mid 80’s studies using dyed and ringed birds confirmed that all UK birds fly over 2000 km to coastal Northern Norway to the Tanafjord to be precise to join nearly all the males from Western Europe in doing the same.
Here they congregate and undergo a complete moult, in the relative safety of the sheltered fjords, complete with predator free sandbanks and a hearty population of Sand eels. Why only the Maes do this while the females squeeze it in after breeding this isn’t quite understood - but it explains why over the next few months you are more likely to see just the ‘brown-heads’ and their attendant formation of fluff-ball ducklings.

 

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mandarin

It's always a surprise to stumble across this dainty looking duck. To see a drake Mandarin (Aix galericulata) in full spendour, perched on a fallen bough in a wild and wooded section of the river is rather incongorous. He looks out of place. A pallette of reds, golds, blues and greens is exotic enough, but the form and shape of his various crests and contours make him look like an over designed Disney character, certaily not the sort of species that you'll find in a cool and driping, dark and dank woodland river on the edge of Dartmoor. and you'd be right. The Mandarin really doesn't belong. It's a duck from the far East. But the wooded river systems and the climate of parts of its native range in Japan, China and Russia are not dissimilar to that provided by the wooded river valleys of Dartmoor and so this duck has quietlly slotted into place.

The first record for Dartmoor was in 1960 a single Drake on a reservoir and then in the 1970's the Plym in the South - probably escapees from Saltram House. With the beginings of an established population in the early 1980's. It has since then expanded its local range to the Dart, the Bovey and is now breeding in many of the wooded sections of the Teign. A walk by project officers in early 2021 sighted at least 30 pairs between Teignbridge and Dunsford, although they become less common urther upstream.

They are a very small duck and while pretty obvious once you see them close-up but n the 'wild' situation their small size and shy demeanour can keep them out of the awareness of all but the keenest observers eyes. They are a perching duck, not a habit that is assumed of many birds with webbed feet, but the Mandarin is a woodland adpated duck. It also nests in tree holes up to 15 m off the ground and will if it needs to fly quite high and far away from the river to find the perfect spot.

As a non-native little is know about how it affects the ecosystem of the river. It is an omnivorous bird and will feed on anything from plant material, seeds, algae and invertebrates but little has been studied on food preferences here in the UK. Being a tree cavity nester they may also compete for this resource with other species, but again little is understood.

For now at least it seems they are here to stay, as they quietly go about their business. In the spring they pair up and nest, the male leaving to form bachelour groups with other birds that havn't bred and then later on in the year once the females have finished rearing the ducklings, they can be seen in small mixed groups and is probably when they are their most visible.

Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata) These pretty ducks are not native but seem to be doing quite well in Devon, the lower Stretches of the River below Dunsford are particularly good for them. © Tim Smith (Instagram @casualsnap)
Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata) These pretty ducks are not native but seem to be doing quite well in Devon, the lower Stretches of the River below Dunsford are particularly good for them. © Tim Smith ((Instagram @casualsnap)