Brownsea Island - May 3rd 2011
I know Red Squirrels can't fly, so I suppose that officially they aren't birds, but seeing one in England would be a 'tick' for both Penny & me, so during our holiday in Dorset we planned a visit to Brownsea Island, nestling snugly in Poole Harbour. I thought there must also be a fair chance of some birds, as I remember Bill Oddie including it in one of his birding programmes.
As we were staying near Dorchester to the west of Poole, the best way of getting to Brownsea was via the ferry from Studland Penninsula across to Sandbanks, then taking the ferry from Sandbanks to the Island. The Studland ferry leaves every 20 minutes, costs a quid return and there is a free (to National Trust members) car park; the parking isn’t expensive to non-NT members either. The ferry's timings are co-ordinated so passengers don’t have a long wait at the dock-side; a lesson there for the railway/bus companies!! The trip from Sandbanks to Brownsea takes about 20 minutes and costs a fiver return: there is a small 'landing fee' to non-NT members and the whole ferry experience is very good, with great views of the beautiful Poole Harbour and Common and Sandwich Terns diving for fish close to the boat.
Brownsea Island is one and a half miles long by about three quarters of a mile wide and is owned by the National Trust which leases a large area on the north of the Island to the Dorset Wildlife Trust. There is a diverse mixture of habitat including extensive woodland, heathland, reed beds, a shore-line which ranges from sandy beach to rocky cliffs and a sea-water lagoon reaching into the harbour.
The first call that greeted us as we began our walk was the strident hooting of the resident Peacocks! Soon, however, we were noting the songs of more familiar birds; in fact the woodland was ringing with Blackbird, Wren, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler whilst Jackdaw chakked among the trees and a Raven 'coughed' loudly as it passed above our heads.
It is very noticeable that there is a large variety of tree species in the woodland; Scots Pine seemed most prevalent but there is also a good mix of native trees including Oak, Beech and Chestnut. Also very evident is their Rhododendron problem, with many areas being cleared of this invasive species. All this variety augured well for birds and so it proved; most of the native Tit species were located, Siskin twittered merrily and Goldcrest seen busily feeding in one of the Pines were a welcome sighting. We were told that there are Dartford Warbler breeding in the heathland area, but we were unlucky and they remained as elusive as ever.
The views from the cliff-top were superb, helped by a calm, warm spring day. Most of the familiar Gull species were seen including some menacing Greater Black-backs searching for unwary chicks for their lunch, which prompted us to open our sandwich box and join them! (Is it PC to eat chicken rolls whilst out birding?)
In the afternoon we ventured onto the section of the Island managed by the Dorset Trust, making a bee-line for the hides that overlook the Lagoon. Absolutely superb!! The hides are sympathetically situated, affording great views across the lagoon where a number of shingle islands are populated by a variety of nesting birds. Immediately noticeable was a very large flock of both Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, numbering into the hundreds; two Greenshank pecked busily on the sandbank in front of the hide whilst Knot and Dunlin, many in summer breeding plumage, were visible feeding around the edge of the islands. Gadwall, Shoveler, Teal and Shelduck fed, nested, argued and generally fossicked around the lagoon.
Closely adjacent to the MacDonald hide (Bill Oddie's favourite) is a small island containing a Sandwich Tern colony of some 100+ nesting birds. Whilst we were there we observed plenty of pair-bonding activity, male feeding mate, with pairs displaying and mating, all just 5 metres away! The whole scene was quite magnificent; the blue of the lagoon shimmering in the spring sunshine, hundreds of birds swooping and calling over the water whilst in the distance boats and yachts of all sizes and colours bobbed in Poole marina. Could have been Greece!!
The path to the hides passes through reed beds with singing Sedge Warbler, whilst Mallard and Tufted Duck dabbled happily in the pools. Close by, the HQ of the Dorset Trust has a squirrel feeding station alongside bird feeders that attract the usual collection of woodland birds. For anyone taking a birding holiday in Dorset, Brownsea Island would be a useful addition to the itinerary; our feelings were of an Island being very sensitively managed, with a good variety of habitat and a good cross-section of birds. As with all National Trust properties the welcome is warm and friendly, with plenty of useful information to guide you - and a great tea-room!
Oh yes, we got our red squirrel tick and also saw Sika Deer - another tick! The first ferry for the island leaves Sandbanks at 10:00 hrs and the last boat in the evening leaves at 17:00; we spent 5 hours there, which was plenty of time for a no-rush day.
No birder could visit Dorset without including a trip to RSPB Arne, this is a lovely reserve with a nationally important area of heathland covered in gorse and heather, famous of course for being the home of the elusive and scarce Dartford Warbler. The day we visited the warbler was showing well, a Cuckoo was calling and there were a goodly variety of waterbirds on the estuary at Shipstall Point, including Whimbrel.
As regards accommodation in Dorset there is plenty available, both B & B and self-catering; we chose a cottage just east of Dorchester which was centrally situated for the places we wished to visit, including the amazing Jurassic Coast - well worth visiting - we saw Fulmar nesting on 100 million year old cliffs. The roads in the area are pretty good, a few single-track ones through the villages and a regular bus service runs along the coast. There are plenty of good pubs serving local ales and food. We stayed with Character Farm Cottages in a lovely cottage situated on a working farm in a small hamlet very close to The Fleet and Chesil Beach. Top class.
And for the literary-minded, a trip to Thomas Hardy's cottage is de-rigueur: a superbly preserved slice of nineteenth century life, wonderful gardens set within a beautiful wood, carpeted with bluebells, very tranquil and far from the madding crowd.
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
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