Katherine Moore

Birdwatching by bike in Devon — Coast to countryside

Boldonian (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Birdwatching by bike in Devon — Coast to countryside

Bike Touring Collection by Katherine Moore

Chattering colonies of guillemots on the rocky cliffs, swathes of wading oystercatchers and curlew feeding on the mud flats, a kingfisher darting across the river, peregrine falcons nesting in the oak overhead, the nightjar’s dusk appearance on the common, busily drilling woodpeckers and the enormous spoonbills in the marshland; Devon has bird life in buckets.

With a huge range of habitats across this heavenly county, how better to explore them than by bike? This Collection links up some of the best places to watch birds and seek other wildlife too, including nature reserves and built hides as well as wilder spots. You’ll also learn what to look out for, and when might be the best time to visit to maximise your chances of some thrilling sightings.

You can visit the ancient pebblebed heaths of East Devon, enjoy the easy and mostly traffic-free route around the Exe Estuary known for wading birds, seek coastal species on the English Riviera and the North Devon coastline and visit lakes and reservoirs on Dartmoor and Exmoor alike.

Most of the Tours in this Collection are suitable for road bikes, although there are two that favour gravel bikes, sturdier tourers or hybrids or even mountain bikes as there are a few sections of gravel on these more remote routes.

For some of the reserves, to access viewing areas or bird hides you’ll either need to dismount and walk with your bike, or you can take a lock with you to secure your bike while you explore.

The Tours can mostly be accessed by public transport, including trains to Exeter, Plymouth, Newton Abbot, Honiton and Barnstaple. For the Lynton and Okehampton Tours, you will either need to ride to these or drive. You'll find options for pay and display parking at both.

A few last top tips for birding by bike; make sure you take some extra layers like a packable down jacket and hat in the colder months as you can quickly chill when you're patiently waiting for birds in hides or at reserves, a bird identification book or mobile app can be really handy, and don't forget the binoculars!

On The Map

Tours & Highlights

    24.9 mi
    10.6 mph
    325 ft
    300 ft
    Intermediate bike ride. Good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels. The Tour includes a crossing by ferry.

    The Exe Estuary is a haven for wildlife, especially when it comes to birds. Rolling green fields yield down to the edge of the water, where the receding tide reveals miles of mud flats, sandy coves and beaches that are home to many species of wading birds and seabirds.With the brilliant RSPB Bowling Green and Goosmoor, Exminster and Powderham Marshes and the Matford Marshes, there are many maintained nature reserves between Exeter and the sea, as well as wilder spots where you might be treated to wonderful displays of bird life.Over the last decade or so, this estuary has been transformed into a fantastic place to ride a bike, too, with the Exe Estuary Cycle Path allowing you to ride a loop of the whole estuary, including a short ferry from Starcross to Exmouth, or vice versa. Enjoying wildlife from the bike, along a trail that’s paved but mostly traffic-free has never been easier! This circular Tour starts at Exeter St Davids train station, heading out of the centre of Devon’s capital along the River Exe via the historic quayside. Your first opportunity to spy some birds comes as you cross the Riverside Valley Park. I’ve seen cormorants drying off here in the sun before by the Trews Weir, so keep your eyes peeled!You’ll then switch over to follow the canal on National Cycle Route 2 past Topsham Lock to Turf Lock, and the hotel here where you can enjoy a drink or bite to eat. This is where the canal ends and the cycle path follows right along the western shore of the Exe Estuary.For your best chances of seeing a great range of wading birds here, time your cycle to coincide with low tide, when the birds will be feeding on the mud flats. You can also enjoy different migratory species in this area throughout the year, as birds like brent geese tend to overwinter here.When you reach Starcorss, take the ferry with your bike across the mouth of the estuary to Exmouth, where you leave the busy town and marina behind to start heading north, now on the eastern bank of the estuary. The cycle path is mostly flat and traffic-free, bar a short stint through the delightful village of Lympstone. Don’t forget to stop where you fancy to explore and get the binos out!Possibly the highlight of the Tour comes next; RSPB Bowling Green marsh, where you can ride down the lane to the bird hide there, overlooking the marshes. Take a lock with you to secure your bike, and you can spend hours here if you like! Keep an eye out for black-tailed godwits, avocets, wigeons, brent geese and teal.After a coffee stop at Route 2 Cafe in Topsham, the loop concludes back along the canal path and along the other side of the River Exe back to the train station.

    39.0 mi
    9.1 mph
    3,100 ft
    3,100 ft
    Expert bike ride. Very good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Would you like to meet the south coast’s largest breeding colony of guillemots? Berry Head National Nature Reserve’s high cliffs are well-known for these charismatic sea birds which number around 1,400 over the season. But, you also might see cirl buntings, razorbills, sparrowhawks and even eider ducks too!Time your visit between October and July for a chance of seeing the Guillemot colony.This Tour is an easily accessible loop from Newton Abbot train station. It takes in some spectacular coastal views as you make your way along the English Riviera from Torquay to Paignton and then Berry Head at Brixham, home to one of the largest fishing fleets in the UK.Isham Marine Drive is bound to be a highlight as you ride through Torquay, with wonderful seascapes out to Thatcher’s Rock and the English Channel beyond. If you’re looking for a relatively flat Tour, this coastal cycle won’t be the one for you. With 3,117 feet (950 m) of relentless hills, make sure you pack your climbing legs! The second half of the Tour, after you’ve jollied down the coast and marveled at the guillemots at Berry Head, takes you inland on much quieter lanes. You’ll skirt around the charming town of Totnes, which could make a great detour, before heading north through Ipplepen to complete the loop back to Newton Abbot.

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  • Difficult
    30.8 mi
    8.3 mph
    2,100 ft
    2,075 ft
    Expert gravel ride. Very good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    The pebblebed heaths of East Devon are a number of neighbouring commons, including Dalditch, Withycombe, Lympstone, East Budleigh, Bicton, Woodbury, Colaton Raleigh, Hawkerland, Venn Ottery, Aylesbeare and Harpford. They characterise much of the rural landscape to the east of Exeter.These areas were formed some 245 million years ago, formerly a wide, dry riverbed, which explains the rounded pebbles that you can find miles from the coastline.Managed in tandem by the Clinton Devon Estates, the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust and government grants, the heathland was opened up for public access in 1930, and has since been enjoyed by both locals and visitors on foot, bike and horseback.These pebblebed heaths provide a wonderful, varied habitat for wildlife, with over 140 species of birds, including some rare and threatened species.This Tour, which is best ridden on a gravel, mountain or sturdy hybrid bike to access the rocky trails across the commons, takes in the RSPB Aylesbeare Common, the Devon Wildlife Trust’s Venn Ottery, as well as Harpford and Woodbury Commons. The loop from Honiton, which can be accessed by rail as well as car, also passes through some gorgeous woodland, especially as you ride along the top of the East Hill ridge at the end of the Tour back to Honiton.The first reserve you’ll ride to is Venn Ottery, which can get pretty boggy underfoot or tyre! You’ll then take tracks to cross the main Sidmouth road from the Harpford and Aylesbeare commons over to Woodbury Common.Keep your eyes peeled for yellowhammers, dartford warblers, tree pipits, and stonechats as they dart between the low vegetation and gorze bushes. If you visit on a still summer’s evening, you might even see or hear a nightjar. I used the ‘Bill Oddie’ technique a few years ago, waving a white hanky about at dusk to attract them, and it worked!If you’re riding during the day in the summer, look out for adders and small lizards sunning themselves on the trails. You should also make sure you check yourself thoroughly for ticks when you get home.

    64.6 mi
    9.9 mph
    3,375 ft
    3,375 ft
    Expert bike ride. Very good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    From the town of Barnstaple out west to the border of Cornwall, this Tour takes in some of the best of the North Devon coastline and country, including part of the traffic-free Tarka Trail, and visits to the RSPB Isley Marsh nature reserve and Devon Wildlife Trust’s Marsland and Meresfelle nature reserves.At over 64 miles (100 km) it’s a fairly challenging route, with plenty of climbing over the hills of North Devon. But, the spectacular views and quiet lanes make it all worthwhile.From the train station in Barnstaple, the route heads west to start, following the cycle path alongside the River Taw, passing by the Isley Marsh nature reserve on your right. Scout the mudflats for curlew, greenshank, dunlin and even impressive spoonbills in the winter!After an easy flat warm up to Bideford, you’ll cross the River Torridge to head south-west, parallel to the coastline along a series of lanes through Parkham and Woolfardisworthy. Soon you’ll pass Meresfelle nature reserve on your left, which is well worth an explore with beautiful grassland meadows.At the furthest point, you’ll find Marsland nature reserve, a mix of woodland, coastal cliffs and meadows right on the border between Devon and Cornwall. Keep your eyes open for dippers here, especially near the streams.After enchanting Marsand, you’ll head back east through sleepy Devon countryside and farmland, through Bradworthy to pick up the Tarka Trail again (National Cycle Route 27), following the River Torridge back to Bideford and then retracing your steps on this traffic-free cycleway back to Barnstaple.

    43.9 mi
    9.0 mph
    3,475 ft
    3,450 ft
    Expert bike ride. Very good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Keep your eyes peeled for woodland species and waterfowl on this Tour, heading to Dartmoor National Park from Plymouth via Warleigh Point nature reserve on the edge of the River Tamar and the gorgeous market town of Tavistock, as well as taking in the wildlife around Burrator Reservoir.Starting from Smeaton’s Tower on The Hoe, just a short ride from the train station, the first section is an urban ride north out of the city. You’ll soon be rewarded with the woodlands at Warleigh Point, where you can look both for woodland birds including greater spotted woodpeckers seen here, as well as birds on or near the water’s edge, such as shelducks.You’ll then follow the River Tavy north along lanes, crossing at the Maristow Wier to ride to Tavistock. If you’re hungry or thirsty, there are many charming cafes in the market here to refuel.There’s a big climb up onto the moor next, but thankfully this ascent from Tavistock isn’t too harsh. Keep an eye out for Dartmoor ponies as well as small moorland bird species and birds of prey overhead.After circling the pretty Burrator Reservoir, you’ll head back to Plymouth along the Plym Valley Trail. In the oak woodland near the River Plym, you must pause a while to see if you can glimpse the nesting peregrine falcons here, if of course you visit at the right time of the year.

    39.4 mi
    9.2 mph
    2,600 ft
    2,600 ft
    Expert bike ride. Very good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Heading north from Okehampton, a high market town on the northern edge of Dartmoor, this Tour used quiet country lanes and the odd cycle path to link up two superb Devon Wildlife Trust reserves; Meeth Quarry and Halsdon. These both also have bird hides, so don’t forget the binoculars!With a glorious view of Dartmoor after climbing out of Okehampton, head north through Jacobstowe to start, paying a visit to the quintessentially Devonshire rural town of Hatherleigh.After crossing the River Torridge bridges further west, you’ll loop back to Meeth Quarry, right by the Tarka Trail. You can sometimes see great crested grebes and goosanders at the flooded quarry, so make sure you factor in some time to explore here before rejoining the Tarka Trail.To the north-east, Halsdon nature reserve consists mainly of woodland, set around the River Torridge. Settle down on the banks of the river for a while to see if you can lure out the colourful flash of the kingfisher! If you’re really lucky, you might even spot one of the otters that live here.The ride concludes with lanes to the east, through Broadwoodkelly and Exbourne as you head back towards Okehampton and those spectacular moorland views once again.

    33.0 mi
    7.4 mph
    3,875 ft
    3,875 ft
    Expert bike ride. Very good fitness required. Mostly paved surfaces. Suitable for all skill levels.

    A shorter, but by no means flat loop from the North Devon coastline into Exmoor National Park, this Tour is best ridden on a gravel or mountain bike, as it takes in some off-road segments. Enjoy coastal views to South Wales (on a clear day), waterfowl on Wistpoundland Reservoir, history and rugged moorland as you pass close to the Somerset border.From Lyton, start by hugging the coastline heading west, passing the Valley of the Rocks and Woody Bay to pick up a gravel trail with incredible views over the Bristol Channel. As you ride, keep your eyes peeled above you for peregrine falcons and buzzards, as well as for deer and woodpeckers.When you reach the River Heddon, follow it inland through Parracombe and then up to Wistpoundand Reservoir. You’ll need to dismount to reach the bird hide, where you can look over the water for western cattle egret, and even great white egrets sometimes in the winter months.Take National Cycle Route 3 through Bratton Fleming to head east now into Exmoor National Park, stopping to marvel at the old earthworks of Shoulsbury Castle. Next up is a spectacular gravel trail that forms part of the Two Moors Way, a very fun descent for you heading north.It’s pretty much all downhill from here back towards the sea, where you can enjoy something to eat and drink at the end of your ride in the wonderful towns of Lynton and Lynmouth.

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Collection Stats

  • Tours
  • Distance
    276 mi
  • Duration
    30:29 h
  • Elevation
    18,800 ft

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Birdwatching by bike in Devon — Coast to countryside