Dorset Discovery Spring Tour Trip Report, April 25th - 27th 2018

Spring is an exciting time of year, but for the birds it can be brief. Both resident and migrant species are focused and fixated on reaching their breeding grounds as soon as possible meaning you have to be in the right place at the right time to try and catch up with birds as they move through an area. Our 2018 spring tour itinerary saw us visit as many sites as possible over the three days but with start of year seeing snow and ice covering most of Dorset, how would that have affected the birds?

Day 1

We began our adventure at RSPB Arne in the hope of catching up with the reserves exciting heathland species both avian and non-avian. Part of the tour allows us to explore and reach areas of RSPB reserves that aren’t normally open to the public and it was with excitement that we ventured out to the NW side of the reserve, aptly named ‘West Track’. Getting our guests fed and watered is always high priority to begin with so we’d set up an alfresco lunch, nestled in the middle of some pristine, rich Dorset heathland. As we sat and ate cake, drank tea and chomped on fruit, Dartford Warblers welcomed us and provided some lunchtime entertainment as they hopped from gorse head to gorse head just beyond our picnic table. With lunch finished and energy levels back to full, we continued NW to a stunning viewpoint that looks out west across the Wareham Channel. As we reached the summit of the hill a large raptor took off right in front of us…’OSPREY’, the guests shouted, and we were treated to one of these magnificent birds soaring overhead until it drifted off south. Another focus of the tours is to explain to our guests about the management techniques used to help restore and maintain RSPB reserves and Ed did a great job in explaining and showcasing the RSPB’s recent use of Mangalitza Pigs on their heathland habitats to help regenerate growth. A cold wind had now set it but the sun was shining bright and in shelter, the warmth of spring could be felt and we set off in search of reptiles. En route Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and a single Blackcap were singing and on to another private area of Arne, Grip Heath a couple of Stonechat were ‘chatting’ away. We went and checked the RSPB Arne reptile survey area and weren’t quite sure what to expect with the recent cold snaps in March. A good look under all tins produced numerous Slow Worms and then, spotted by our keen-eyed new starter Georgia an adult male Sand Lizard was found tucked away in a sheltered sunny spot….just stunning! Our walk led us down to the shores of Poole Harbour where a few passage Whimbrel were out on the slat marsh and a number of Black-tailed Godwit were feeding. Other heathland species encountered were Green Tiger Beetle, several large Wood Ants nests and we also got see Poole Harbours important Black-headed and Mediterranean Gull colony from one of the view points. All in all a great first day albeit a tad chilly at times!

Sand Lizard - Arne - Nick Mudge

Meadow Pipit - Arne - Nick Mudge

Day 2

Our search for spring migrants continued this morning with a trip to migrant hot spot, Portland Bill. The early start combined with a cold NW wind meant that gloves (and even a couple of scarfs) were being utilized as we waited to see what would be drawn from the Portland Obs nets. Sadly migration was slow that morning but we weren’t disappointed as both Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler were extracted from the nets and allowed us to highlight up close the differences between these two very similar species. The seasons first Pomarine Skua also passed out past the bill which we managed to get on to just as it headed back out to sea. We ventured down towards the bill in the hope of catching up with more migrants and as luck would have it a fall of Wheatear had settled down at the bill including a stunning male Greenland race too. Out on the water a nice passage of Manx Shearwater passed close to the cliffs and both Guillemot and Razorbill were settled on the water as Rock Pipit called around us. Frustratingly a thick blanket of fog descended upon us meaning we had to abandon our Portland vigil and head back down to the mainland which was fine anyway as lunch was now on the menu. Hot fish and chips always goes down well after an early start so we headed to RSPB Radipole where a few migrant Swallow and House Martin were darting around outside the visitors center and out in the reedbeds Reed and a single Sedge Warbler had begun setting up territories as several Cetti’s Warbler called out loud. Pochard, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and Teal were out on the water and a couple of Snipe were hunkered up on the edge of the far reedbed. With the fog lifting slightly were ventured to RSPB Lodmoor in the hope of some extra waders and as we arrived both Black and Bar-tailed godwit were feeding right next to one another which was handy! Lesser Whitethroat sang from the scrub behind us and one of the breeding Lodmoor Marsh Harrier quartered the marsh directly in front of us. Lapwing, Oystercatcher and 2 newly arrived Swift were added to the list and then we were off. We ended the day nice and chilled with a 30 minuet watch from the Middlebere Hide near Arne where Dunlin, Ringed and Grey Plover plus 3 Spotted Redshank were out on the mud along with a few Little Egret, Shelduck, Curlew and a single Whimbrel. By now it was dark and overcast with a light spitting of rain in the air, but knowing we weren’t far away from a good reptile area we tried our luck for some more reptiles and came up trumps with a pile of Adders and some more Slow Worms…..a great end to a cold but varied day.

Adders and Slow Worms - Hartland - Nick Mudge

Northern Wheatear - Portland Bill - Nick Mudge

Day 3

The nice thing about our tours is that we have the freedom to chop and change the locations depending on weather conditions and birds present at any given site. With the forecast indicating bright sunshine but strong winds we decided last minuet that after visiting Challow Hill near Corfe, we’d head over to Brownsea Island where the shelter of the hides and the lagoon could offer us a comfortable mornings birding with some great birds on offer. Challow Hill is a stunning hillside near Corfe Castle that offers stunning views and a nice range of resident and migrant birds. It was still cold, and quite windy but both Common Whitethroat and Yellowhammer were showing nicely and a Cuckoo dashed past towards the end. Chiffchaff and a few Blackcap were singing but to be honest, warmth and a good sit down were beckoning after another early start. We headed to Sandbanks and caught the 10am ferry from the Sandbanks Quay…destination…the Brownsea Lagoon! The lagoon offers a sheltered retreat for over-wintering, breeding and migrant birds and at the end of April we could encounter all three such types. There were still Black and Bar-tailed Godwit lingering on from the winter, the first Sandwich and Common Terns had arrived back to breed and passage Greenshank and Spotted Redshank had settled to refuel before moving on further north. A few Ringed Plover and Grey Plover were still present, Dunlin, Redshank and Oystercatcher were well represented and a handful of Avocet remained. Wildfowl such as Gadwall, Shoveler and teal were still around in small numbers and a lone Brent Goose helped bolster the tally. Sitting back and relaxing in the Brownsea Hides was a good decision as the wind had built in strength over the course of the morning and as we absorbed the sounds (and smells) the lagoon had to offer our time had sadly come to an end all too quickly. To help savor our magical time on Brownsea we posed for a scenic group shot on the Brownsea Quay before making our way to our final destination…Hyde’s Heath, Arne. Hyde’s Heath is a newly acquired piece of land that the Dorset RSPB team is currently fundraising to purchase. They already have the land management agreement on the land, which allowed us access to this private and vast newly cleared conifer plantation. So, after our slap up lunch in the RSPB Arne café we headed out onto Hyde’s Heath in the hope of seeing Woodlark and Tree Pipit. Sadly by now the wind was bellowing meaning many birds were keeping their heads low. What we didn’t see in birds we certainly made up with in views as Hyde’s Heath offers a unique and special vantage point, looking out across to Swineham, the Wareham Channel and Arne Moors.

Wow, what a three days. Although spring struggled to break through the habitats, the birds, the views and range of locations certainly kept us entertained and we (as always) can’t thank our guests enough for making our Dorset Discovery Tours so special.

Our group on Challow hill, Corfe - Nick Mudge


Greenshank - Brownsea Lagoon - Nick Mudge

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