Birding the Plymouth Area

If your think England’s 15th largest city is unlikely to be a good place to go birding, think again! Within the city boundaries you can find an excellent variety of habitat including woodland, estuary, parkland, seafront, lakes and marshlands, offering plenty of choice for birders.

The gateway to the city from the east takes you beside the Plym Estuary, one of Plymouth’s top sites. Here in winter, you will find flocks of waders including Curlews, Redshanks and Turnstones with small numbers of Common Sandpipers, Greenshanks, Dunlins, Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers. Whimbrels and Bar-tailed Godwits are annual passage migrants and occasionally the likes of Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit and Little Ringed Plover occur.

Blaxton Pool at the head of the estuary, whilst not well managed for birds, attracts some roosting waders and gulls at high tide. On the river, Kingfishers are seen from time to time, and Red-breasted Mergansers and Little Grebes are regular sights in winter. Ducks include the odd Wigeons and Teals plus Shoveler and Pintail now and again. It appears Ospreys are becoming annual.

Although a shadow of its former self for gulls (mainly due to the closure of the adjacent landfill site) the area still attracts a few hundred in winter including small numbers of Mediterranean and, in recent years, odd Glaucous, Iceland and Little.

Rarities over the years have included Spotted Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilt, Ross’s Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Laughing Gull, Franklin’s Gull, Ring-billed Gulls, Gull-billed Tern, Black Kite, Cattle Egrets, Richard’s and Red-throated Pipits, and in the distant past – Terek Sandpiper!

The adjacent Saltram Park holds woodland birds such as Nuthatch, Treecreeper, Goldcrest,  woodpeckers and Spotted Flycatcher, and is a good place for hirundines, Mistle Thrushes and common finches. Up to four Firecrests have wintered in recent years and in cold weather winter thrushes can flock in good numbers.

On the opposite side of Plymouth, lies Ernesettle Creek, easily the best place in the city to find Spotted Redshank, amongst the Redshanks, and it can be a good spot to see Snipes. Other waders may include Greenshanks, Common Sandpipers and Whimbrels; and it is a good place for gatherings of Teals and gulls. The occasional Green Sandpiper has occurred and the site has hosted Plymouth’s only two records of Lesser Yellowlegs (almost 60 years apart). The adjacent Tamar Estuary which divides Plymouth from Cornwall offers further opportunities to pick up birds such as Avocets, and the odd Spoonbill or Osprey which may stray onto the Plymouth side.

Jennycliff is on the city’s eastern boundary, overlooking the sea. Here, during Spring and Autumn, there’s a chance of finding passage migrants such as warblers, flycatchers and Wheatears and visible migration may be in evidence nb hirundine passage. Scarcities such as Woodchat Shrike, Yellow-browed Warbler, Snow Bunting and Ring Ouzel have occurred too. The bay attracts the odd Great Northern Diver and grebe, and Little Auk has occurred. Nearby, Radford Park Lake is worth a look – Little Grebes have bred, it can be good for gulls, and rarities have included White-winged Black Tern and Night Heron.

In recent years, Ford Park Cemetery located next to Central Park in the heart of the city, has produced an impressive run of interesting birds including Red-rumped Swallow, Woodchat Shrike, Wryneck, Ring Ouzel, Waxwing, Lesser Whitethroat, Redstart, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, and Turtle Dove.  It can also be a good for Black Redstarts and winter thrushes and the almost resident Ravens often give good views. Central Park itself, is also worth a look, especially the path between Barn Park and Ford Park gates.

Plymouth benefits from a number of local nature reserves – see details.

Of these, perhaps Efford Marsh offers birders the best prospects with the wetlands attracting wintering Chiffchaffs, Water Rails and crests plus a few Teals. It can also be a good place to see Bullfinches and rarer warblers such as Cetti’s, Yellow-browed and Hume’s have been recorded.

To the north, the National Trust owned Plymbridge Wood hosts a range of interesting species and can easily be accessed by bike as well as foot. Wood Warbler, Grey Wagtail, Marsh Tit, Dipper and Mandarin Duck have all bred in the vicinity and Goosanders are seen in different seasons. On the city border, Peregrines nest in Cann Quarry and during the breeding season, a staffed viewing site enables people to see them through telescopes provided.

Although one or two Great Northern Divers can be found in Plymouth Sound most winters, it is stormy weather that provides the best chance of seeing seabirds. In these conditions, Gannets, Kittiwakes and auks get forced inside the breakwater; and over the years all four Skuas, Storm and Leach’s Petrels, Grey Phalarope and Sabine’s Gull have been found. Occasionally grebes and terns (mainly Sandwich) also occur. Mount Batten, The Hoe and Devil’s Point all offer suitable watch points, and the latter can be a good spot for Mediterranean Gulls. Black Redstarts are occasionally encountered along the waterfront and nearby Peregrines breed in the City Centre and can sometimes be seen sitting on the Guildhall tower.

Drake’s Island, in the Sound is a winter roosting spot for Little Egrets which have also bred there. Very occasionally Spoonbills will join them (usually when their regular spot on Beggar’s Island, south of Saltash is covered by an especially high tide) and on one occasion a Glossy Ibis also roosted there.

Unfortunately despite the wealth of other birdlife in Plymouth, some – once regular – species are in serious decline, reflecting national trends, eg Purple Sandpiper and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker are all but gone. But for the optimist, keep an eye on the rocky shore at West Hoe for the Sandpipers and Saltram, nearby Hardwick Wood or Plym Bridge Wood for the Woodpeckers.

Finally, don’t be put off looking for birds in Plymouth outside the recognised sites. The potential for “anything turning up anywhere” is illustrated by Hume’s Warbler in the city centre, a Long-eared Owl in a flower pot in Peverell and – rarest of all – a Desert Warbler in a Mount Gould garden!

This information covers sites within the Plymouth city boundary. There are plenty of good sites just outside the city including Dartmoor, Staddon Heights, Wembury, Cann Woods, the River Lynher and Rame Head.

For more detailed information refer to Where to Watch Birds in Devon & Cornwall (5th edition) by D M Norman and V R Tucker.