Dorset Discovery Winter Tour - Jan 9th - 11th 2017

Three years in already and it seems our Dorset Discovery Tours are proving quite a hit. This year our winter tour was again fully booked and we were treated to wonderful range of guests that had quite literally travelled the width and breath of the country to come and sample some of Dorset’s winter delights.  With a full schedule planned and a whole suit of birds to try and find, how would we fare with what looked like a full house of weather systems forecast?

Day 1 – Monday 9th Jan

As with all our trips we began our tour at Arne RSPB reserve at midday, meeting our new friends at the visitors centre which allowed us to gather our thoughts and our selves before heading out onto the reserve. As usual species such as Siskin, Nuthatch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and all the common tit species were the first ticked off the list as the feeders played host to a busy and hungry community of birds in the car park. With heavy rain forecast we decided to skip lunch and make our way straight out on to a private part of the Arne RSPB reserve called Grip Heath. This low, picturesque heathland winds and bends down towards the shoreline of the Middlebere Channel and just as a Stonechat was distracting a silhouette of a small falcon caught our eye. As we approached the marsh edge, a male Merlin took off from in front of us and flew away down the channel. Looking out on to the exposed mud, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit and several Avocet were feeding as Shelduck, Wigeon and Teal all dabbled their merry way around the spartina fringes. With the clouds looking ever threatening we decided to head back for cover and back to the RSPB work centre where freshly made homemade soup and a buffet  awaited us……just what we needed! By this time the rain had started but looked as if the worse had passed, so with brave and willing guests we ventured out for part two. Our next stop was another private area called Coombe Fields, another spot bringing us closer to the Middlebere Channel edge. Upon reaching our destination, a flock of Spoonbill were found feeding up towards Round Island as more and more Avocet flew past us along the channel. Redshank, Oystercatcher and Dunlin were recorded but by now the rain was increasing and we were getting wetter by the minute…..”to the hide” was the call, “agreed” was the response. So late in the afternoon, with rain lashing in from the west our group were confined to the shelter of the Coombe Heath hide, a spot which is actually very good for birds, but in heavy rain. Fogged binoculars didn’t help but suddenly a call of “harrier” rung out and sure enough what was definitely at least one but possibly two Marsh Harrier along with a ringtail Hen Harrier were seen soaring about at the far end of the channel before they moved off. Whilst in the hide more Avocet, a very wet Buzzard, plenty of miserable Teal and a shivering Grey Plover were all noted. Still full of optimism but beaten by the wet, we decided to call it a day, allowing everyone to get back to the hotel, dry off, have a hot toddy and prep them selves for the busy day ahead.


Day 2 – Tuesday 10th Jan

I think its called sods law, but within minuets of us leaving Arne the afternoon before, the clouds had parted and we actually had a clear, crisp evening to enjoy which luckily continued into the following morning. Our 8am departure left on time and we made our way over to the Weymouth and Portland area so sample some west Dorset magic. Our first stop was Chesil Cove, a stunning viewpoint looking all the way up Chesil Cove. Here a fine male Black Redstart posed for us on the seawall along with Rock Pipit and out on the water 2 Gannet passed with 3 Ravens on the beach. Up to the cliffs, looking south a few short glimpses of Fulmar teased us, but annoyingly never stayed in view for very long. At Portland Castle 3 displaying male Red-breasted Merganser seemed to impress not only their female counterparts but our guests too as the Shags and Cormorants looked on. Ready for a quick break we made the short journey to the Chesil Beach centre where Brent Geese and Mediterranean Gull were hunkering down in the building wind on the Fleet and another Rock Pipit played dodge in the car park. After a quick snack and coffee refuel we trekked round to Sandsfoot Castle, a nice sheltered area of Portland Harbour where calm water gave good views of Razorbill, Great Crested Grebe and up to 11 Black-necked Grebe, their long skinny necks obvious and defined in our telescopes. Despite having had a short snack break, hunger was beginning kick in and the smell of the fish and chips that were waiting for us at Radipole very much acted as a lure so off we went. Upon arriving at Radipole, out on the water a few more Med Gulls, loads of Tufted Duck, Gadwall and Shoveler all welcomed us as well as commoner fresh water species but there was a particular super star we all wanted to see. Food took priority but once gobbled down we headed out onto the Radipole reserve in search of one of the RSPB’s star species. It wasn’t long before the bellows of Cetti’s Warbler came hurtling out of the reedbeds and several Reed Bunting were also doing their best to attract the attention of our crowd, but it was futile when just around the corner a stunning flock of Bearded Tit fed next to the path, giving wonderful views and a true eye full. Half way around the Buddleia Loop we stopped to check the dabbling duck and found ‘Hoody’, the reserves Hooded Merganser along with more dabbling duck and a Chiffchaff for good measure. We were definitely still hungry for more so decided to leave the Weymouth area and get back to Poole Harbour where a calm and tranquil setting had settled across the area. At Middle Beach, Studland a Great Northern Diver was feeding and another group of Black-necked Grebe were feeding as Common, Herring and Med Gulls came into roost. Light was fading and temperature dropping but a quick check of ‘the Houseboats’ at South Haven, Studland welcomed a flock of Sanderling feeding at close quarters and some Ringed and Grey Plover along with Turnstone too. Out on the water several Goldeneye were also feeding but the true grand finale was just about to begin. As darkness fell, a large crowd of onlookers (including us) gathered in the Shell Bay car park but what for? Well, as luck would have it, only a few days before our tour had started, each evening a large Starling murmuration had formed over the sand dunes of South Haven, using the reedbed next to the wooden boardwalk as their safe haven. With tiered eyes and weary legs we watched in amazement as the Starling flock grew and grew in size before twisting and contorting into all manner of shapes and images, then out of nowhere a Merlin shot up into the flock and grabbed an unlucky individual out of the 10,000-12,000 present…..truly memorable. And…..if our guests thought that was it we had one last sneaky treat for them up our sleeves. After dinner, we headed out into the darkness of Arne Moors, a site we’ve been carrying out a lot of Woodcock monitoring and ringing this winter. Armed with all the equipment needed to carry out our research, I headed out onto the Moors in the hope of catching a Woodcock to show our group to teach them about the serious declines these birds are facing and the work we’re doing to try and help them. The bright moon certainly wasn’t helping, but luckily, after a 15 trudge around the site our luck was in and I was able to catch Woodcock to show the group, an experience that still thrills me no matter how many I see. A great end to a great day.


Day 3 – Wednesday 11th Jan

Over night the wind had built and by dawn a steady 15-18 knot wind was blowing. We did our 8am pick up and were at Poole Harbour entrance ready for our chain ferry over to Sandbanks. Once on the other side it was then only a short wait for our ‘water taxi’ over to the renowned and beautiful Brownsea Island in the hope of finding waders and wildfowl galore! The island is closed to the public during the winter, so it was a luxury having the hides to our selves on the DWT managed Brownsea Lagoon and the birds certainly didn’t disappoint. Once we had settled in the first hide, Avocet, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Black and Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Curlew were all noted as well as the Spoonbill flock on the far side of the lagoon. If the mass of birds wasn’t enough, yet another Merlin made an appearance, this time upsetting almost everything on the lagoon several times by dashing through and giving us a series of close fly by’s. Pintail, Shoveler, Brent Geese, Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal and Mallard were also feeling the chill as the cold NW wind blew in over the lagoon, but our sheltered spot became even more pleasant as we headed for the villa and logged Goldcrest, Siskin and Red Squirrel. With our time almost up on Brownsea we checked the lagoon one last time to make sure we hadn’t missed anything before making our way back to the Brownsea Quay, where surprise number 2 was waiting for our guests…..their own private charted ferry trip around Poole Harbour! Our pre-arranged yellow Brownsea Island Ferry picked us up at 11:30am and we spent the next very windy 2 hours trying our best to pick out open water species, but by now the wind was peaking 25 knots and white horses were dominating the sea view. Despite the wind, it was a glorious sun-kissed day with pure blue sky and although a few of us did manage to sneak in a brief view of Common Scoter and another Great Northern Diver it was more the scenery that was being appreciated rather than the birding! Windswept and cold we made our way to our last two locations of the trip, Soldiers Road, near Arne and Arne Moors, another ‘off limits’ RSPB reserve which we were granted permission to access for our tour. The wind was still bellowing but as the sun dipped down, a calmer more relaxed atmosphere resonated amongst the group as we stood, watched and waited for Hen and Marsh Harrier to come in to roost. A Kestrel sat happily watching us as we watched him but frustratingly the harriers never showed…..perhaps they’d been blown to pieces too?

Full Winter tour 2017 Species List


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