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Where to watch birds in Dorset

Dorset is one of the UK’s top birdwatching counties. Ron Toft takes a look at which birds you can see and where.

All manner of bird species have been recorded in Dorset down the decades, including such notable national rarities as the much sought-after wallcreeper, which frequented the Winspit and Seacombe areas from November 1969 to April 1970, and the red-flanked bluetail, which visited Winspit in October and November of 1993.

The Brownsea Island lagoon is an important site for wintering for avocets

The Brownsea Island lagoon is an important site for wintering for avocets

Few people know as much about Dorset’s birds as recently-retired aquatic ecologist/manager, Dr George Green. A former bird recorder for Dorset, author of the definitive Birds of Dorset (published in 2004) and a founder member of Dorset Bird Club, George has introduced countless people to the avian wonders of Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, through his talks and field trips.

For the past two-and-a-half years, George’s priority has been completely rewriting the popular Where To Watch Birds In Dorset, Hampshire & The Isle of Wight (Christopher Helm, £18.99, www.acblack.com), the first edition of which he jointly penned more than twenty years ago with Portland Bird Observatory warden, Martin Cade. ‘Once you’ve worked on a book like this, it becomes your baby,’ George explains, ‘you nurture and become very possessive about it.’ He visited each of 90 sites spotlighted in Where To Watch Birds…, of which 34 are in Dorset.

George selected his favourite twelve, specifying: ‘Among them are a variety of habitats and geographical locations. Some sites are noted for lots of different birds, while others are renowned for one or two special species. Some places are well known and visited by thousands of people every year. There are some sites, however, that I would call secret gems – really nice little spots.’

Lambert’s Castle

Mature woods, short grass swards, patches of scrub and a small area of heathland are found at this hill fort, which rises 840 ft above Marshwood Vale. Top species is the migratory common redstart, ‘a rare breeding bird in Dorset.’ It is best sought in the mainly beech woods on steep, western slopes of Lambert’s Castle. Other species include green and great spotted woodpeckers, spotted flycatcher, common crossbill, common whitethroat, linnet, yellowhammer, meadow pipit, European stonechat and common buzzard.

The Fleet/Chesil Beach

For eight of its eighteen miles, Chesil Beach encloses the Fleet, a shallow estuarine lagoon. The Fleet attracts thousands of wintering and migratory waterfowl, such as dark-bellied Brent geese, wigeon, coots, mute swans (1000-plus in recent years), Canada geese, common teal, pintail, shoveler, gadwall, pochard, tufted ducks and common goldeneyes. Flocks of common wintering gulls sometimes include more unusual species, like the Mediterranean gull, whose numbers have ‘increased phenomenally’ in recent years in the Ferrybridge and East Fleet area. Little egrets are a familiar sight throughout the year. The Fleet’s wader speciality is the Kentish plover. Chesil Beach is home to Dorset’s only little tern colony, although breeding success ‘has been very poor’ of late.

Redshank can be seen on the Fleet and attempts are being made to establish them at Winfrith

Redshank can be seen on the Fleet and attempts are being made to establish them at Winfrith

Portland

The Isle of Portland is a limestone massif, which juts five miles or so into the English Channel. Habitats include cliffs, old quarries, farmland, dense scrub, rough pasture, clumps of sycamore trees and residential gardens. One of the UK’s best-known birdwatching areas, Portland is renowned for its migratory birds and passing seabirds.

Hoopoes in spring and melodious warblers and ortolan buntings in autumn ‘are more likely to be seen here than anywhere else in mainland Britain.’ The migrants most likely to be seen are northern wheatears and common chiffchaffs.  Portland’s rarity list ‘is truly impressive’ and includes Britain’s first calandra lark (1961), desert warbler (1970), savannah sparrow (1982) and lesser short-toed lark (1992). The main attraction for avid seabird watchers is passing pomarine skuas – usually between late April and mid-May. More common are Arctic and great skuas. The cliffs support a variety of breeding seabirds, including common guillemots, razorbills and a few puffins.

Portland is a popular spotting place for northern wheatear

Portland is a popular spotting place for northern wheatear

Radipole Lake/Lodmoor reserves

Although these are separate wetland reserves, George treats them as one for the purpose of this list, given that they are very close to one another and there is a considerable interchange of birds between them. Radipole’s bird line-up includes reedbed species, such as bearded tit, reed and Cetti’s warblers, wintering waterfowl and a range of both common and rare gulls, among the latter being Mediterranean and ring-billed gulls. Lodmoor is now ‘the favoured site’ for the small population of scaup, which previously frequented Radipole, and also has a ‘good track record’ for attracting wild grey geese – mainly white-fronted. There has been a marked increase in the ‘diversity and numbers’ of breeding wildfowl at Lodmoor.

Radipole is a good place to catch sight of a bearded reedling

Radipole is a good place to catch sight of a bearded reedling

St Aldhelm’s Head, Winspit and Dancing Ledge

St Aldhelm’s Head, with its spectacular cliffs, is the most southerly part of Purbeck, Winspit is a sheltered valley and Dancing Ledge a former limestone quarry. St Aldhelm’s and Winspit are good places from which to observe passing coastal and seabirds. Winspit often turns up interesting land birds during the spring and autumn migration periods. Over the years, these species have included whinchat, black redstart, firecrest, pied flycatcher, ring ouzel and the previously mentioned wallcreeper and red-flanked bluetail ‘mega-rarities’. Anything can turn up – and often does! Dancing Ledge’s main claim to fame is that it is ‘the most reliable site’ in Dorset for puffins.

Dancing Ledge is the ‘most reliable site’ in Dorset for puffins

Dancing Ledge is the ‘most reliable site’ in Dorset for puffins

Durlston Country Park

High, scrub-cloaked cliffs, several woods and copses, open downland, small fields and a deep, scrub-filled gully are Durlston’s main features. The park is ‘one of the most important sites in the region for studying bird migration.’ Many scarce and uncommon birds have been recorded at Durlston, ‘while numbers of some of the more common land bird migrants often match or exceed those recorded at Portland Bill.’ The park is one of the best coastal sites in the region for migratory wood warblers. Other scarce migrants, such as turtle doves and pied flycatchers, are regularly seen. The cliffs attract breeding seabirds in spring and summer, the most abundant species being common guillemot. Autumn is a good time for migratory birds of prey, such as merlins, hobbies and short-eared owls.

Common guillemots can be seen at Durlston and also at Portland

Common guillemots can be seen at Durlston and also at Portland

Brownsea Island

The biggest island in Poole Harbour, Brownsea harbours a range of habitats, the most important being a large, brackish, non-tidal lagoon – a refuge for feeding and nesting waterfowl, waders and gulls. The lagoon supports a large colony of breeding terns and is the best place in Dorset to see roseate terns (late May to early autumn). ‘On occasions the abundance and diversity of birds is truly spectacular.’ The lagoon is the most important wintering site in Britain for avocets. Brownsea is where little egrets first bred in Britain (1996).

Arne Reserve/Middlebere

Poole Harbour’s Arne Reserve boasts a blend of estuarine, heathland, forestry and woodland habitats. The local speciality is Dartford warbler. Arne, along with neighbouring Middlebere and Wych Lakes, is one of the top sites in Poole Harbour for wintering spoonbills and avocets. It is also the most reliable place in Dorset for lesser-spotted woodpeckers. Arne and Middlebere Lake are the top two places in Poole Harbour in autumn for ospreys.

This Dartford warbler is pictured at the Arne reserve

This Dartford warbler is pictured at the Arne reserve

Hatch Pond reserve

Despite being virtually surrounded by housing and the Nuffield Industrial Estate, Hatch Pond – a small, well-vegetated lake – offers an especially rich diversity of habitats and is ‘a remarkable site’ for birds. It is the best place in Dorset – possibly the region as a whole – in winter for normally elusive bitterns.

Christchurch Harbour reserve

Christchurch Harbour is ‘probably the best all-round birdwatching site in the three counties,’ thanks to its smorgasbord of habitats – muddy creeks, mudflats and marshland to 120-foot-high Hengistbury Head (a noted migration hotspot). In spring, from late March to mid-May, there can be ‘impressive falls’ of migratory northern wheatears and various warblers. Rarities have included hoopoe, wryneck, golden oriole, short-toed lark and Richard’s and tawny pipits. Little egrets are a familiar sight in the harbour and Mediterranean gulls are being reported in increasing numbers.

Christchurch has a range of habitats and is often a favoured visiting site of various warblers, like this reed warbler

Christchurch has a range of habitats and is often a favoured visiting site of various warblers, like this reed warbler

Holt Heath reserve and White Sheet plantation

Holt Heath is the ‘finest remaining example of heathland and bog in East Dorset,’ while White Sheet Plantation has become ‘an interesting transitional habitat of heathland, gorse, birch scrub and young forestry’ after being mostly destroyed by fire in 1979. The extensive bogs are a noted feeding area in summer for dragonfly-hawking hobbies and a hotspot in winter for hunting hen harrier and merlin. European nightjars nest on Holt Heath and in White Sheet Plantation.

Badbury Rings, King Down and Tarrant Rushton airfield

This large area of chalk downland supports an important breeding population of corn buntings – best seen at King Down, Abbeycroft Down and Tarrant Rushton Airfield. The airfield is also noted for quail, raven and breeding stock doves. In winter, the avenue of beeches at Badbury Rings sometimes attracts a large flock of brambling.

<i>Where To Watch Birds</i> author, George Green, has been a birdwatcher for nearly fifty years and seen nearly 500 British and foreign species during that time. Of one thing he is certain: ‘The counties of Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight offer some of the best birdwatching to be enjoyed in Britain.’

Where To Watch Birds author, George Green, has been a birdwatcher for nearly fifty years and seen nearly 500 British and foreign species during that time. Of one thing he is certain: ‘The counties of Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight offer some of the best birdwatching to be enjoyed in Britain.’

Photography
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Tom Marshall (rspb-images.com)
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
John Bridges (rspb-images.com)

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