Last weekend John and I had gone away on our annual birding trip, this time to Dorset; more specifically to the Poole Harbour area, which abounds with nature reserves. The harbour is a natural feature known as a ‘ria’ (a drowned valley) that was formed after the last ice age when sea levels rose – many such rias can be found throughout the west country. Being very shallow it is an excellent place for waders and waterfowl, both when breeding and migrating, this makes the RSPB reserve of Arne a big draw for birders.

Arne is a fairly large reserve consisting mainly of lowland heathland, woodland, pastureland and has views over the mudflats of the harbour. Upon arriving John and I were greeted by some very friendly wardens at the visitor center who immediately pointed out a delightful Spotted Flycatcher perched in an Oak. The feeders were bristling with activity; greenfinch, chaffinch, great, blue and coal tits were swooping in to grab seeds and even a couple of siskin (banana-yellow and shiny-black finches of diminutive size) alighted on the feeders. I must mention the enormous marmalade cat that was stretched out on a picnic table; it looked like a Lynx with tufted ears and shaggy fur that was so soft it is impossible to describe, it’s tail was as long as its body and as bushy as a foxes – the creature was nearly as big as one too.

On our walk round we passed a large, fairly tame herd of Sika deer browsing on the edge of the wood, some of the males had fresh, small antlers just breaking through – there was also one albino. We soon had a great view over the estuary, with lots of islands dotted about the water, the nearest one had a colony of black-headed gulls nesting and hidden amongst those were a few brightly-coloured Mediterranean gulls with impressive black heads and red bills. Half-way across the reserve we came to a cross-roads and just then I noticed a solitary, huge Spoonbill flapping disconsolately over our heads that promptly disappeared behind some trees. We were aware of the presence of these amazing birds at Arne but had hoped for a better view than that, still it was the first one John had seen in this country and the first I had seen for many years.

One of the hides overlooks some grey-green salt-marsh fringed with newly-leaved trees, out of this one we spotted the imposing figure of a Great Black-backed gull sitting on a sandbank looking very much the master of the air. Sharply-dressed Oystercatchers were piping away, a redshank was being harassed by some gulls, great-crested grebes were bobbing on the waves and curlews were bugling their names all over the marsh. John got on to some dodgy-looking curlews that were a bit small and after a few good views we agreed they were Whimbrels – the curlews weedier cousin. I quite like whimbrels though, with their mint-humbug striped heads, slim dark build and that bill which looks as though someone bent it by accident.

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Poole Harbour

We set off over the other side of the reserve, the bit where few visitors bother to walk (we didn’t see anyone), a lovely bit of proper heathland with a hide overlooking a reedy channel. As soon as we walked onto the heath we distinctly heard the scratchy, insect-like song of a certain Sylvia warbler emanating from a flowering gorse bush next to the path. With our binoculars up, the bird soon popped into view, clear as day – a Dartford Warbler, his jagged little crest raised and sporting lovely colours of wine-red and smoky-purple. Further over the heath some Stonechats very obligingly flitted up out of the heather onto the tops of gorse bushes flashing their white, black and orange plumage. A meadow pipit gave us a run for our money when it decided to imitate its rarer cousin the tree pipit with cryptic plumage and a lovely song-flight ending with a plummet onto the top of a bush. Swifts were slicing through the afternoon air with aplomb and we managed to hear snatches of cuckoo song drifting across the valley.

We ended our trip with a stop in the aforementioned hide that gave a clear high-up view over some mudflats and reeds in a hidden creek of the harbour. Shoveler, teal, swans, gulls and three black-tailed godwits were spread wide over the shining mud and a single female marsh harrier wafted lazily over the far reedbed with all due elegance. John picked out a not-often-seen Grey Plover and as we watched it our attention was drastically diverted by the arrival of no less than seven Spoonbills gliding in formation down the creek. They swooped around like an airplane at Gatwick airport then all landed at the waters edge, long legs dangling and massive cutlery-shaped bills clapping open. Some of them just sat and preened and some fed by sweeping their spectacular bills back and forth through the mud to sift out morsels of dead or living invertebrates. We enjoyed this rare (but increasing) spectacle for some time before heading back to our B&B, heads full of great birds and tummies grumbling for some grub.

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5 of the 7 spoonbills (through a scope)
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