I have just spent the first half of this week staying in the delightful Dorset town of Wareham, on the west side of Poole harbour; a truly stunning area for both scenery, history and wildlife. The main focus of the trip was the RSPB’s Arne reserve which sits on a peninsular sticking out into the harbour, it is a really diverse place with large areas of heath, woodland, salt-marsh, bog, farmland, reed-bed and open water. This mix of valuable habitats makes Arne a hive of wildlife activity, at this time of year however it is the birds which are the main attraction.

Day One:

I arrived at Wareham station just before mid-day, I picked up my hire bike and immediately set off down the road for Arne. The weather was splendid; bright warm sunshine with scattered cloud and a slight chill breeze to remind you that spring is still young. I have been to this part of the world a few times before but the beauty of the landscape here still makes me gawp. The long straight line of the Purbeck hills rise dam-like just south of Wareham, patches of rugged heath lie at their base giving way to the floodplain of the river Frome stretching right up to the town walls.

Four Buzzards swooped over the blasted heaths in the warming air, mewing like cats to each other. At the reserve entrance the feeders were buzzing with the constant traffic of tits and finches, among them a humbug-headed Coal Tit grabbed a seed and shot off to find a secluded branch to feed – they are shy birds, being so tiny. I wandered along the trail that runs across the southern edge of Arne peninsular, on one side ancient pastures lined with veteran oaks, on the other was open sunny heath scattered with green and yellow gorse scrub. It was in this scrub that I saw a male and female Dartford Warbler and a pair of Stonechat; the former is an Arne speciality and a national scarcity – lovely birds the colour of red wine and purple heather.

I reached the top of a viewpoint and was treated with the view of all Poole Harbour, looking delightful with the sunlight and cloud shadow playing across the water. The tide was out and waders were scattered over the mud; Oystercatchers, Shelduck, Curlew, Wigeon and Black-tailed Godwits probed and plodded on the shiny muck.

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I gradually made my way over to the northern side of the reserve and settled in a hide overlooking salt-marsh and distant water. Four Teal were dabbling in goop just in front of the hide – these are great birds to see close-up as you can appreciate their gorgeous plumage in detail. Little Egret and a distant Red-breasted Merganser were also in view.

I then made my way back to the entrance and headed out past that into a large area of heath that lies in the far west of the reserve. A female Kestrel was patrolling through the pines and keeping an eye on me and another on the Meadow pipits that kept shooting up from out of the heather. There is another hide here that overlooks an isolated muddy creek, it is from this viewpoint that I was able to pick out (despite the intense glare of the falling sun) two Spoonbills – swaying their namesakes rhythmically through the silt and dwarfing the egrets and curlew that surrounded them.

Day Two:

In rather different weather (milky-grey unbroken cloud cover with drizzly patches) I returned to Arne, wondering to myself how today would compare with the first. As I headed out onto the western heathland the first bird that was not on yesterdays list flew past – a Raven. Despite the dull weather a few Meadow Pipits were singing their ditties and I came across two separate female Dartford Warblers – both at close range.

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From the viewing screen overlooking the creek (with a fast retreating tide) I was able to enjoy the sight of around 350 Brent Geese cruise in from the harbour in tight formation and land in a squabbling mess on the water. These are gorgeous geese, probably my favourite, with their compact shape and smart sooty-black and white outfit. From the hide further along the creek I was met with a huge crowd of waders all feeding on the freshly exposed mud; Black-tailed Godwits were plentiful among Redshank, oystercatchers and some distant Grey Plover.

I wandered back into the heart of the reserve and had a nose around the bushes that grew up amongst the chapel and houses which make up the hamlet of Arne. Around five singing Goldcrests were flitting through the holly and ivy-clad oaks, along with an amorous-sounding Stock Dove and a loose flock of Redwing. With some patience I located two Great-spotted Woodpeckers that were busy pecking wood, funnily enough, but my eye also caught some movement further down the lane. Through my binoculars I was quite astonished to see a Firecrest moving energetically through the hedge, but it got better when I noticed a second individual out of the corner of my eye – not more than two meters from me!

Later, as I sat in a hide eating lunch, I saw what I took to be a gull plunge like a bullet into the water – on closer inspection it was actually revealed to be a Sandwich Tern, one of three birds all fishing in a distant creek. Not far from where the terns were hunting, on a shingle bank alongside two bullish-looking Great Black-backed Gulls, was a solitary Spoonbill, which had seemingly appeared out of nowhere as I had not seen it there on previous scans.

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Merganser pair

Right at the eastern tip of Arne peninsular is a small sandy beach, I sat here eating a bag of mini-eggs (I also had an apple to balance it out), enjoying the view and enjoying the antics of a very tame group of Oystercatchers feeding on the shoreline. They weren’t the only tame birds here though; a very bold Robin approached me with a warble and perched literally 4cm away eyeing up my chocolate. I managed to dig out a worm from the wood behind the beach and offered it to the Robin, who happily gulped it down and then sat digesting it right next to me. To round off the day a brightly patterned pair of Red-breasted Mergansers drifted past the beach quite close in so I was able to observe the males splendid colours and punk hair-do.

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I came away from this trip delighted that I was able to see such a range of great birds even at this time of year, and it was interesting to note that visiting a place two days in a row does not necessarily mean you will see all the same birds – both days were quite a different experience. I thoroughly recommend this part of the world for both birding trips and casual holidays; it is beautiful, peaceful, diverse, fascinating and has a real feeling of wildness.

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