The plan was to head Wareham first, where in the wetland area surrounding this small town a lost Cattle Egret had temporarily found a new abode, according to Birdguides having been: ‘present and viewable from the bridge over the River Frome’, 11 days prior to our attempted search for it. Once clear of Weymouth the drive to Wareham was swift, and we were there within 45 minutes or so, finding what we presumed was the bridge that Birdguides had mentioned across the River Frome and drove into the very quaint, animated town of Wareham (in which we parked up before commencing our search for the Egret). We started our search by walking up to the bridge and scanning the expanse at both sides of it. I had noticed on Birdguides that it warned birders that the Egret was distant, and on the first side we checked there was a massive expanse of wetland in which it could have easily been hiding in without being see-able. I scanned both sides with the bins quite slowly and carefully, but with no success. Perceiving a public path that ran alongside the wetlands, I decided to take it in the hope that it would increase my chances of seeing this seemingly elusive Cattle Egret. At several points I stopped with the scope and meticulously checked the ground I was previously unable to cover. A Little Egret that flew by caused momentarily excitement before I caught onto it with the scope, but as far as I could see there was no Cattle Egret. Was there more than one bridge? Had I come to wrong place? Such questions filled my mind as my Dad and I headed back a little half-heartedly towards the car. It had been a quiet start to the day, and with the heat of the day becoming more intense a soporific air was descending on us. We needed some stimulation in the form of some better birding, and it seemed that our next stop, Arne RSPB, would be most likely to do that. It so happened that no-one else was to ever see the Cattle Egret at Wareham again, the 8th April (the day before we went) being the last day it was seen. Our ‘target species’ at Arne RSPB were essentially Dartford Warbler and Spoonbill (on the adjacent Middlebere Lake). I wasn’t sure if the task ahead of me would pose any difficultly - only the near future would be able to tell me the outcome of that.
Arne RSPB wasn’t very far from Wareham at all, and we were in the Arne car park within 10-15 minutes, having witnessed a transition from wetland and field like habitat to lowland heath scattered with gorse bushes – quite dramatic and pretty, as well ideal for Dartford Warbler (and Nightjar at the right time of year). On our arrival we headed into the hut to pay, and as my Dad did so I had a look at the sightings board. It seemed that Tree Pipits had already returned to the area, and that Dartford Warblers and the Spoonbills on Middlebere were being seen daily. This made me hopeful, and as I entered the vast expanse of heathland I was quietly confident that I may have a good time and find the species that I was in search of. The mix of old oak woodland and heathland was just fantastic, and was quite lively with birds. At various points I could hear Nuthatches, shrieking Green Woodpeckers and the intensely loud and rapid drumming of the Great Spotted Woodpeckers, something you just don’t hear up here in Scotland, mixed with the resonant calls and songs of commoner species. Very early on I picked up a party of 5 Ravens heading southwards over the heathland, their hoarse croaking call sounding rather ominous, as well as a Great Spotted Woodpecker at the top of a tree. As we walked along, we kept our eyes peeled and our ears at the ready just in case we were to hear the unmistakable song or chatter of a Dartford Warbler –sounds I had grown extremely used to on my trip to Corsica the year before. On our way we met a birder who confirmed that there were 3 Spoonbills showing from Middlebere Lake and also told us that he had seen several Dartford Warblers. Ironically enough it was just after the birder we met walked on that we stopped in our tracks as we heard a quiet, single noted call coming from an area of gorse bushes nearby – a definite Dartford Warbler. On hearing it I was keen to locate it, and made my way off the path and into the heathland, stealthily walking towards the area of gorse in which I had heard it. Once there I stood in silence, waiting for it to call again. 20 second past and quite suddenly it started calling again, this time inserting an extra note and sounding much closer. On hearing it I scanned the gorses and duly caught onto a superb male Dartford Warbler, sitting proudly on the highest pinnacle of the gorse it was on just 20ft or so away, its tail attentively cocked. Fantastic! My Dad had taken another route round to the gorsey area so as to increase our chances of seeing the bird, and when I caught onto it I signalled to him. He too caught onto this magnificent little Dartford Warbler, and we stood there for a while just watching it. It was something special to see this species in its very confined, British range, and it was only the second time I had seen the species within the UK (first time in Suffolk 2006). It was a rather fearless and inquisitive little creature, not afraid to make itself apparent and not flying away as it noticed us, staying put for at least half a minute on the pinnacle of gorse that it was on. I admit that in comparison to my views of Dartford Warblers in Corsica, this view was far more prolonged – I was really able to see its dark vinous red breast standing out and its eyes staring intensely around the place, rather than a brief fleeting view. I tracked it as it flitted onto another gorse a bit further away from me and closer to where my Dad was, chattering as it went. Once it had found its new piece of gorse to sit on it duly started to sing – a high speed, rattling warble with a few whistled notes – a very pretty song. We watched it for about a couple of minutes before it eventually decided to fly far away from us. A lovely experience – and hopefully not our last with this species that day, I hoped.
Once we had had our lunch and had headed off we were slightly unsure of where to go and what to do the next. The primary target for the rest of the day essentially was to try and find basically what was my biggest bogey bird (at the time of course), a bird well known to breed in substantial numbers in the Poole Harbour area – Mediterranean Gull. Of course, Med Gulls could be anywhere in Poole Harbour, so we had to decide which areas of Poole Harbour we were going to investigate, with the additional knowledge that it was quite a big area and would take quite a while to get to different parts of it. We eventually decided on Studland Bay, on the south-eastern edge of Poole Harbour. It took quite some time to get round to Studland Bay and we had to take quite an obscure and long route to get there. Eventually, however, we made it, and I couldn’t help but notice the amount of people that had chosen to stop here and sit on the beaches, a bit putting off if you ask me. As a coastline itself, it was rather glorious, with a golden, sandy beach stretching for miles and views towards Brownsea Island, Poole, Bournemouth, and even the Isle of Wight. In noticing a dead end, we parked on the side of the road, and walked down to the very nearby beach, beholding the dramatic views we had seen from the car. No sooner had I got down there did I hear the inimitable and unmistakable shriek of a Sandwich Tern, and turned to find 2 of these beautiful birds close in, one flying underneath the other and communicating to one another. These were my first two Sandwich Terns of the year, and my first tern species of the year too. Once I had seen the Sandwich Terns I set up the scope and duly scanned the area for any Mediterranean Gulls that might be amongst the vast amount of Black-headed Gulls there were present and in doing so I noticed the presence of some 10 other Sandwich Terns in the bay, fishing together quite a distance away. I scanned the Black-headed Gulls for about 5 minutes or so whilst my Dad picked up on 9 Brent Geese feeding on an area of shoreline which I didn’t have my scope concentrated on, a nice sight and a rare one on land in Scotland (such numbers can be flying at sea in autumn however up in Aberdeenshire). Despite meticulous scanning of all the gulls in the area, no gull stood out as a Mediterranean, they were all Black-headeds. We took a walk up the beach and kept on checking gulls as we passed, but nothing. It seemed that Studland Bay didn’t hold any Mediterranean Gulls, but having noticed a report on Birdguides of an area of Poole Harbour called Lytchett Bay where over 30 Med Gulls had been reported a few days earlier, there was still a very good chance of seeing them. Having checked Studland, we were yet again out of ideas as to where to go next – as we didn’t want to go to Lytchett Bay until the evening. Below are a few pictures of the picturesque Studland Bay and one of a view down onto Poole Harbour from a viewpoint on the way to Studland Bay.
It was decided in the end that we would visit Durlston Head/Country Park, another area of the county that sticks out along way and is effectively like Portland in that it is a stop off point for migrants of all sorts. Of course, on such a beautiful day it would likely be devoid of migrants, but it would undoubtedly be quite a dramatic area, and why not casually check it anyway? Durlston Country Park is situated about a mile south of the seaside town of Swanage, and consists of many acres of very dramatic sea-cliffs – the complex geology of these cliffs being an absolutely fantastic sight. As we made our way in the direction of the Observatory at the bottom, we passed a big clump of bushes that look completely ideal for passerine migrants and undoubtedly would be filled with them at the right time of year; the problem was that there we didn’t see anything apart from the very commonest of species on the walk down, not entirely unexpected. Once we were by the observatory, we sat and looked out to sea briefly – as to be expected nothing was going past. We didn’t stay long, and soon made our way up back up to the Visitor Centre, had a refreshing cuppa, and then decided we’d set out for our final destination of the day – Lytchett Bay – for another stab at Mediterranean Gull. Below you can see where Lytchett Bay roughly is on the map, circled in red, and a picture of the Observatory at Durlston.
We were nigh on giving up, and I was becoming increasingly disappointed that I had missed out on a golden opportunity to see a bird that was undoubtedly an embarrassing bogey bird. We were just about to pack up and leave when all of a sudden I heard a sound that I had never heard before but was completely distinctive. It was a nasal sounding ‘yeaaa!’, coming from not far away. In response, we turned quickly to notice a small group of 5 gulls flying in to join the roost. The sound had definitely come from one of the birds in the group, and with that a moment of great joy came in the discovery in that we had been rewarded with not a group of 5 Black-headed Gulls, but 5 Mediterranean Gulls. Just when we were giving up, we had found some! In identifying them and noticing that they were splitting up from one another and about to place themselves amongst some 300 Black-headed Gulls, we tracked 2 of the birds in the bins till they landed, the other birds flying and presumably landing further away. Once they had landed I immediately got the scope on them, and there two Mediterranean Gulls stood beside each other. It felt absolutely fantastic, as I had finally seen a bird that I had long sought after, and had tried hard to find that and been rewarded at the last minute; it really was the icing on the cake for what was a very successful day’s birding. The two Med Gulls were just a little too far away to get really good views (couldn’t properly see the eyes of the bird), and the light meant viewing conditions could have been a lot better - but they were completely unmistakable. In comparison to the Black-headed Gulls they were beside they were noticeably bigger, stockier and thicker-billed. The fact there was no black on the wings, the head was darker, and the black on the head extended down almost to the neck also made them very obvious. We watched these two beautiful birds for about 15 minutes, and by this time it was getting much darker and there wasn’t time to try and re-find the other three birds.