Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Trip to Portland and South-west England: A Day in the Poole Harbour Area (9/4)

I know , I’m absolutely MILES behind with this blog. It’s true that I won’t be up to date with it for a long while yet, as I have been very busy in the past few months and have thus not had much time to write my blog at all. However, now the summer holidays have come, a time of tedium for most teenagers, I’m endeavouring to get that bit closer to getting up to date by posting as much as much as possible. I hope you haven’t lost all faith in me; and if you have, I will aim to make you restore it!

9/4: 20 past 6 (a bit later than the previous day) and off it goes again, that horribly effective phone alarm! I woke up, momentarily bewildered after having been in the middle of dream just seconds earlier, but soon regained my senses and quickly pounced out of bed, opening the curtains to check what the weather was like. Oh dear.... clear skies again; a no-hoper on the migrant front, surely? Rather convenient though seeing that the plan was to spend a day in the Poole Harbour area looking for resident species such as Mediterranean Gull and Dartford Warbler. One might as well hang around for a couple of hours at the Bill though in the event of something kicking off, of course, so we quite quickly headed into the Obs to see if hanging around would pay off. Furthermore I was quite eager to explore other parts of the island, such as the Top Fields and the East Cliffs. On our arrival in the Obs we soon found Peter, who told us he hadn’t ringed anything thus far that morning and that he expected the day not to be dissimilar from the previous one. Not a great sign... Looking out to sea proved equally unproductive as it had done the day before, with a trickle of Common Scoters and commoner auks past but little else. In the 45 minutes or so that we remained solely in the Obs Peter came up only on two occasions, once with a female Blackcap and the other time with a Whitethroat. Lovely to see in the hand, but it didn’t succeed in easing the general disgruntled atmosphere that birders were experiencing at the Obs. After some breakfast we knew that it wasn’t worth hanging around at the Obs much longer, so we planned to investigate the Top Fields and the East Cliffs, and then drive off to the Poole Harbour area.

Portland’s Top Fields are basically just across the road from the Obs, and are very easy to access. As my Dad and I went round part of the Fields, it became immediately noticeable that in good conditions the Top Fields may be teeming with passerine migrants as there was extensive and promising bush cover all around us. However that morning the bushes didn’t have anything notable to offer about from a couple of migrating Chiffchaffs and a Whitethroat. Quite regularly the odd group of Swallow was seen zipping quickly over the fields, an indication of the spring migrants starting to arrive in more substantial numbers (I can’t believe I’m talking about spring migrants when it is now mid-summer!). Once a circuit round the Top Fields had been completed we headed down through an equally quiet Obs Garden (there were a couple each of Chiffs and Willows plus a male Blackcap here) till we reached the cliffs, and headed northwards across the East Cliffs. The scenery was dramatic here and was a pleasant distraction from yet again was seemingly very quiet, save a few shrieking Oystercatchers passing overhead and Rock Pipits sporadically popping up onto rocks both in the quarry areas and in the grassy, level areas of the walk. We walked along the cliffs for about 15 minutes, and then decided to turn back. Once back at the Obs, we quickly got some food to take with us, said cheerio to the crew standing on the veranda, and headed off at about 9:00 to spend the day in Poole Harbour. Below are a few pictures from the Top Fields and the East Cliffs respectively - appealing in their different ways but devoid of entertainment that day. Also below is a map of the Poole Harbour area.

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.

We continued our walk feeling much more positive than we had done previously –seeing the Dartford Warbler was the first thing to have really lightened up our day. As U neared to where the woodland fringing the heath came to a close, an unfamiliar, explosive call came from very close by in the trees just behind me. Behind me, my Dad was signalling me to come over to where he was standing. I did so, and I could see what he was looking at; a pair of Marsh Tits. This was a pleasant surprise and views were astonishingly close, the two of them only 6 or 7ft away from us, busily scuttling up and flitting around the nearest tree to us, presumably in search of small insects beneath the bark. It was undoubtedly these two birds that we had both heard calling. I tried to get some pictures of the birds, but unfortunately they were a bit too quick for me. Marsh Tits are yet another one of those species that you just don’t get in Scotland, so it was lovely to see them so close up, with their glossy black caps, white cheeks and brown plumage making them appealing on the eye. Not only that, but I had not regarded this species as on the agenda on the visit to Arne or Dorset by any means, so it was a valuable year tick for me (remember, I am all the way up in the North-east of Scotland!). They remained on the tree for just under a minute, and then flew higher up and out of sight. Suddenly, it seemed that the day had kicked off. The path then took us round onto open heathland, sparse of trees apart from the odd one scattered here and there, plus plenty of gorses. Walking a long it you could really get an idea of the expanse of the heath. As we walked along we heard another Dartford Warbler singing and soon located it on top of a nearby gorse – a female, although it didn’t stay there long and soon dipped out of view. A bit further on from there, we heard yet another one, and this time located it diving into an area of gorse about 10ft away from us, a male with a couple of small sticks in its mouth. It quickly came back out, and returned with another couple of sticks. This was fantastic to see, as the sticks it had in its mouth were irrefutably there for the making of a nest – and it’s not often in the UK that you’ll come across a Dartford Warbler in the process of nest-making. Very nearby, as the Dartford Warbler passed them, I was able to locate a couple of pipits briefly foraging on the ground. One of them duly went up and sat on top of a nearby tree and started to sing – confirming that they were indeed Tree Pipits, my first of this species for the year.

We left the Tree Pipits and the Dartford Warbler to it, and proceeded towards the adjacent Middlebere Lake, which soon appeared to our left. We walked a little further until we came to what appeared to be a screen-come hide to look out across the lake. Much for Middlebere being called a lake, it is actually a tidal inlet off the much larger Poole Harbour. You could see for miles from where we were, right across towards Brownsea Island (famous for its ternery) and even towards Poole itself. Once sat down at the screen, I had a scan with the scope in search of the Spoonbills that the man we had met earlier on had mentioned seeing. I couldn’t see any close in, which meant they would be quite a distance away. It was a gull haven, with thousands congregating over the entirety of the area. I searched meticulously for those white birds that would be just that bit bigger than the gulls, and eventually, at great distance (far enough that I couldn’t see its eyes), I spotted a single Spoonbill; far bigger and more elegant than the gulls it was amongst and its spoon-shaped bill fairly obvious. When located it was standing still, but after about 20 seconds or so it started spooning in that archetypal swaying motion. With seeing this bird I really felt that my mission had been accomplished at Arne RSPB and that day was really coming on strong. As I watched the distant Spoonbill continuing to spoon in the scope, my Dad caught onto what, as far as he could see through his bins, the other two Spoonbills. I moved round to where he said they were, which was again at great distance and not easy to pick out through the bins (although slightly closer than the first one), and indeed, there were other two Spoonbills. These two were roosting, and at the distance they were at of course you’d want them to be have been more confiding – but even at distance it was great to see them. After looking at these two birds and the more active one further away, I handed the scope to Dad, who watched them for a while. As far as I could see nothing much else was on the lake, save a few commoner duck and wader species, so once we’d had our fair share of seeing the Spoonbills, we decided to head back to the car. It was going on 13:30, so a good time to leave so we could get back for some lunch. On the way back a party of 5 Long-tailed Tits were seen at fairly close range, plus another Dartford Warbler, this time a male oddly placed on top of a tree. We left very pleased with our success – having seen 4 Dartford Warblers, 2 Marsh Tits, 2 Tree Pipits, 5 Ravens and 3 Spoonbills and taking the year list up to a respectable 155. Below are some pictures of Arne and Middlebere Lake, well worth a visit for the diversity of wildlife and the beauty that goes with it.

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.

Now Durlston CP to Lytchett Bay was an annoyingly long drive – with it taking at least 50 minutes to get there, maybe even an hour. It was about 6:00pm by the time we were getting close, and it so happened that we were hitting rush hour, and the main road in the direction of the nearby Lytchett Minster and Poole was clogged up with cars. We sat for at least 20 minutes in quite a lengthy queue, until we finally reached our little turn off towards the small villages of Upton and Hamworthy on the B3068, which would duly take us towards Lytchett Bay. Once we were in the little village of Hamworthy we found a left turn, and took it in the hope that it would take us down to Lytchett Bay. We found ourselves to be lost briefly going round a housing estate, but soon noticed an area of water that was undoubtedly Lytchett Bay, and we parked up and headed down to it. Suddenly, from having been lost in the middle of a housing estate, we were down by the water’s edge at the scenic Lytchett Bay, the sun just starting to look as if it wanted to set. Lytchett Bay was surprisingly expansive, stretching along way. We took a small path alongside a large wall placed just behind the back of some of the houses on the housing estate, and quickly noticed a large number of gulls in the distance presumably getting ready for roost, mostly Black-headeds, so a good chance of Mediterranean Gulls being amongst them. On first noticing them we were a bit far away, and decided to take the path round a little further so we could get closer to them. As we were doing so we heard the shriek of a familiar wader call, and looked up to see 3 Greenshanks flying at speed away from us. This was a very pleasant surprise and a notably early record for this species, our first of this species for the year. Eventually we were lucky enough to find a little area of beach just off the path for us to watch the birds from, and I thus set up the scope and scanned all the gulls in the immediate area, hoping that a Mediterranean Gull, or maybe more than 1, would be amongst them. I alone scanned the flock for about 15 minutes as meticulously as I could, checking out every bird, but honestly, none of them at that distance stood out; they would be obvious – however, I was rather happy to pick up a group of about 40 Black-tailed Godwits feeding together just in front of where the distant gulls were and a few Little Egrets. The fact that we weren’t getting any luck with Med Gull was a little distressing, and I let my Dad take over to see if he agreed that really weren’t any stand out Med Gulls amongst the hundreds of roosting Black-headed Gulls. He scanned the more distant birds just as I did, whilst I scanned the closer birds. He too put in about 15 minutes of scanning, and he came to the same conclusion as I did – there were no obvious Med Gulls out there. It was now about 7:00pm, and dusk was nearly upon us, the light giving the surrounding water and land a beautiful, scenic, golden tinge (see below). This did, however, mean that viewing conditions were poor.

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.

And with the setting of the sun, ended a fantastic day and a successful trip to Poole Harbour in which I had successfully seen almost all my targets for the day + some nice added extras – Dartford Warbler, Spoonbill, Med Gull, Marsh Tit, Tree Pipit, Black-tailed Godwit and Greenshank. We ended the day very content, and drove back to Portland very content and with the yearlist now on 158 species. It had been a truly great day, but would the final 3 days of the holiday match up to it? Tune in to my next entry to find out more.

Thanks for reading, and sorry for not being more up to date!



  1. Hi Joseph , a really great read , and well done on seeing some really good birds , looking forward to your next post already .

  2. Hi Rob, thank you very much for the comment. In the next post I think I'll aim to finish up the Portland trip report and then talk of my spring exploits in Aberdeenshire.



  3. so what happened those last three days? ;)

  4. Wow, looks like you have some good birds! I want to buy some. I can pay you three candybars. Send them to Washington Correctional Facility.

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