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Dorset Discovery Spring Tour Trip Report April 24th – 26th 2017

Both our spring and autumn tours are my favourite to lead as you quite simply have no idea what you’re going to ‘bump in to’. Throughout April millions of migrant birds are working their way up through Europe with peak numbers normally hitting the south coast around the end of April. So what would our Dorset Discovery Spring Tour produce at this exciting and evolving time of year?

Day 1 – Monday 24th April

RSPB Arne is a large peninsular that protrudes out into Poole Harbour. It consists of several important and rich habitats, all of which are incredibly important for wildlife. As with all our tours, day 1 begins at Arne, and for good reason too. Meeting at the Arne visitors center, where Siskin and the standard ‘feeder species’ entertained, although the promise of extensive heathlands and stunning views was enough to tempt our guests away. Incredibly, we had no rain on our opening day (quite a novel experience considering previous tours) which allowed us set up our picnic lunch on what has to be one of the premier vistas out across the southern shores of the harbour. Sandwiches, fresh fruit, hot soup and nibbles welcomed our guests as they reached the summit of Arne Hill, as views across Corfe, the Purbeck Ridge and Wareham Channel inspired. Within minuets Stonechat and then Dartford Warbler were added to the list when out of nowhere a male Redstart starting singing near our eating establishment. After a few minuets we tracked the bird down and got great views of him trying to impress either us, or a newly arrived mate with his amazing voice. Like all our Dorset Discovery, thanks to the RSPB we get exclusive access to areas of their reserves that are normally out of bounds. This meant we were able to head west on to a large and spectacular expanse of heathland where Willow Warbler, Woodlark and Tree Pipit sang for us as Siskin dashed overhead. This side of the reserve also held a newly created reptile survey area and it wasn’t long before Rob was presenting us with several Slow Worms and not one but two Smooth Snakes, a juvenile from last year and a full adult. Just stunning! This northern edge of the reserve also provides incredible views out across the Wareham channel, a large and very shallow body of water which on a low tide provides good feeding for waders and wildfowl. A quick scan of the exposed mud returned Curlew, several Black-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, several Shelduck, Gadwall and numerous gulls. We made our way back towards the car park, which produced another Dartford Warbler and Stonechat as well as singing Chiffchaff when all of a sudden one of the group called…”what’s that”? Just then a newly arrived Hobby flew low across a conifer tree line but sadly disappeared as quickly as it arrived. What’s great about these tours is the freedom we have to move from one site to the next as we try and track down great wildlife. A quick decision was made to head up to a site on Hartland Moor, which was en route to the hotel anyway. As we pulled over we were welcomed by a herd of grazing Donkey’s which tried their best to nab our cream tea that we had set up on the heathland. But it wasn’t only the Donkey’s that impressed, as we gorged on scones and jam a handsome, crisp, pastel bandit Great Grey Shrike appeared on some wires above us where is happily sat and hunted for the whole duration our group walked around that particular site. A few Swallows also dashed through and Meadow Pipits watched as we went in search for more reptiles with a few more Slow Worms found. By now the sun had gone, the temperature had dropped and a chilly wind was blowing so we decided to call it a day, but what a great start to our spring tour with so much more to look forward to over the coming days too.

Smooth Snake - RSPB Arne

 

Day 2 – Tuesday 25th April

This is our third year of Dorset Discovery tours and on the morning of the second day of each of the spring tours we’ve visited Portland Bill Observatory. On our visits here in years one and two we experienced cold, strong NW winds….very tough birding conditions. So, how did we fare this spring? Yep…cold, strong NW winds…however this spring our fortunes would change. Despite the icy wind migrants were making landfall at the Bill and some of the first birds we saw were Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler, but not through our binoculars but in the hand at the Obs ringing station. It didn’t stop there when Blackcaps were then being presented to us when all of a sudden a fine male Ring Ouzel appeared out of the scrub in the obs garden and flew out across in front of us. Spurred on by all this action we took to the footpaths around the Bill and added 15+ Wheatear, Rock Pipit, Whitethroat, Gannet, Razorbill, Guillemot, Fulmar, Peregrine and Kestrel to the list. The wind was so cold though that we thought a cup of tea back at the Obs would be a good plan….and what a plan it was! As we supped on tea and coffee on the Obs patio a net round was completed by the Obs wardens and they came back with several red, wriggling bags. The wardens produced several more Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and handsome male Blackcap, leaving two bags until then. Both birds were reveled at the same time, wowing our guests as both Pied Flycatcher and Garden Warbler were extracted. Seeing all these birds in the hand was a real treat and provided a wonderful opportunity to see the finer details of birds that are often just an image in your optics. As we were about to leave a Whinchat was found on a fence line just outside the Obs garden with several more Wheatear. As we dragged our selves away from the Obs we decided to make an impromptu stop at two other Portland hotspots known as Reap Lane which leads to a section of the SW coast path. Although the cold wind was still blowing, the sun had warmed things up slightly which got a Sedge Warbler singing along the path as well as Whitethroat, Whinchat, Wheatear and an early Swift seen. After another short warm up session back in the mini bus we made a quick stop off at Chesil Beach and the Fleet but with nothing than a few distant Sandwich Tern we headed straight for Radipole aka RSPB Weymouth Wetlands. Upon arrival 2 Common Sandpiper, Pochard, Tufted duck and Cetti’s Warbler were counted from the car park and then our group smelt their fish and chips and all interest in birding was soon gone! With lunch munched and energy stores replenished we headed out onto the Radipole reserve. The wooden viewing structures conveniently placed along the track provided great views of Cetti’s Warbler as it crept through the base of the reedbeds silently at first before belting out a classic Cetti’s anthem. Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and then Lesser Whitethroat added to the chorus before our group came face to face (literally) with a pair of Bearded Tit that were feeding young close to what’s known as the concrete bridge. The birds flight line took them right past the heads of our group as they looked on in amazement. We ambled slowly down towards the RSPB’s new and improved viewing area which had only recently been installed after their hide structure sadly had to close due to continuous flooding. However, upon arrival it was evident that the new viewing screens offered not just good, but excellent views of the famous Radipole Marsh Harriers that nested only around 50m away from the screen with 2 males continuously flying around the newly scraped areas. Sand Martin, Swallow and House Martin were all darting about over the reedbeds whilst Common Sandpipers, Oystercatcher, Gadwall and Teal all lazily watched on. On our walk back to the Radipole visitors center 'Hoody' the Hooded Merganser was feeding just yards from us back at the Concrete Bridge catching numerous Sticklebacks and Minnows. Having really enjoyed our time in the Weymouth and Portland area it was time to make our way back to Poole Harbour where we made a quick stop off at Swineham and Bestwall where Egyptian Goose, Whimbrel and a big Sand Martin flock were feeding and up on Hartland Moor we tried for Adders once more but sadly…..no luck. What a great second day though, wind burnt and red-cheeked we finished off with a fantastic meal back at our hotel ready for our third and final adventure. 

Pied Flycatcher and Garden Warbler - Portland Bird Obs

  

Day 3 – Tuesday 26th April

Day 3 began once again with crystal clear skies and a cold, cold NW wind so we decided to venture to Durlston CP first instead of our planned stop off at Challow Hill which would provide us with much needed shelter as we took the lower coast path along the cliff tops. Durlston is a special place, scenic, dramatic and great for birds. The wind didn’t make things easy trying to find migrants but a few Willow Warbler, 1 Wheatear, singing Common Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat and a handful of Swallow went through, but it was in fact the seabirds that stole the show. Gannet, Fulmar, Razorbill, Guillemot and a fly by Great Northern Diver were the pick of the bunch and in sheltered sunny spots we also found 2 Adder's which we were able to creep up on and show our group. With the wind increasing we decided to eventually head to Challow Hill, a site normally great for Nightingale, however sadly, for whatever reason they had failed to turn up this spring. Whether they were just late or simply ‘no longer with us’ we were still treated to great views of numerous displaying Common Whitethroat, Stonechat, Yellowhammer, Blackcap and Chiffchaff not to mention offering views of a true Dorset scene as we ascended the hill before eventually looking down on the spectacular Corfe Castle and the rolling hills of the Purbeck Ridge. By now we needed a rest and a sit down and what better place to do this than Middlebere, a quiet and sheltered channel with an excellent hide. Getting the tide right at Middlebere is crucial.Too high and the birds will move off and too low, the birds feed much further down the channel. Luckily we hit it spot on and as we lifted the viewing flaps, c200 Dunlin, c20 Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Knot, Black-tailed Godwit and Redshank were all feeding out in front of us and with scopes we were able to get cracking views of several fully summer plumaged individuals. With our third day drawing to a close we headed back to Arne and were again granted access to several private areas of the reserve including the wonderful Arne Clay Pit, a newly created habitat which has been transformed from a large ball clay extraction site into a massive saline Lagoon that will hopefully have public access in the near future. From here more passage Dunlin and several Ringed Plover were on the shoreline with a gaggle of pesky Cormorants hogging the newly installed Tern rafts. On the approach road to the clay pit we took a short walk and eventually connected with our first Cuckoo of the tour which called only a few times before flying away out in front of us. Time was now nearly up and it was almost time to say goodbye but we couldn’t quite bear the fact it was almost over so we squeezed in one last site, RSPB Grange Heath, a reserve only 2 miles away from Arne but holds breeding Tree Pipit and Woodlark as well as numerous other heathland species. This was a reserve we’d never visited on our tours before, but with our aim being to try and promote new areas for people to visit it was great to be able to introduce this area to our guests and we hope to see more and more people visiting this reserve in the near future.

Fulmar - Durlston CP

By the end of our three days we had connected with an excellent 107 species and despite the cold wind for almost the full tour, we all had a wonderful time and we can’t thank our guests enough for making our third Dorset Discovery spring tour so special. 

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