This summer’s family holiday in Dorset (in a tipee, no less) and then Devon (in a caravan) gave me the chance to go in search of a couple of birds I’d never seen in the UK or abroad: Dartford Warbler and Cirl Bunting. I’d spent some months reading up on the area and planning my early morning jaunts to likely sites. Unfortunately, my wife had forgotten I was a birder (again) and seemed surprised when I revealed my modest plans to see these species while in their national hotspots. So, with my plans scaled back somewhat, I ended up spending a lot of time on the beach and in café’s feeling like a bit of a dude*, wondering how I was going to get to see anything.
(*dude - a posh bird-watcher, who doesn’t really know all that much about birds
- Bill Oddie’s Little Black Bird Book, Bill Oddie, 1980)
Day 1 – It appeared to be starting quite well. During the six-hour journey from Bradford to Dorset, I persuaded my wife that it was a great idea for all the family to visit Lodmoor RSPB near Weymouth, to see the Stilt Sandpiper that was reportedly there. I spent two hours at staring at some mud. I did a Green Sandpiper on the mud. For about five seconds. Some nice Dunlin, Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher and Lapwing, and the usual gulls, crows and ubiquitous Little Egrets too, further west on the reserve, but no unusual North American waders. Meanwhile the kids spent two hours on the very pebbly beach, apparently loving it.
My wife was particularly happy: she thought we’d “done” the birding now, so we could get on an enjoy the rest of our holiday…
Day 2 – Studland beach, near Poole harbour. Ah, getting closer to Dartford Warbler territory here, but not close enough. We walked through the woods and dunes to Littlesea Lake, some lovely Butterflies (Speckled Wood, Comma, Large White, Common Blue), plus a Black-tipped Skimmer and a Sika Deer by the lake.
Day 3 – I spent some time enjoying the birds on our campsite (Longthorns Farm – highly recommended, if you don’t mind tanks driving past until midnight every night), including ace views of Pied Wagtail family groups bobbing around, a couple of fat Mistle Thrushes, and cool low-flying Swallows. We got to Arne RSPB late afternoon after another day on the beach (not my favourite pastime…) and my two-year-son was asleep. So it was just me and my Dora-the-Explorer daughter Rowan who ventured out to find some Dartford Warblers.
Arne RSPB, Purbeck, Dorset - August 2011
The warden told us how the Dartford population had dropped by 70% since last year because of the severe winter weather, and therefore the birds were not easy to find this summer. Undeterred, we set off hoping to return with great news of a hitherto undiscovered Dartford Warbler population on the reserve. Things didn’t quite go to plan. We found a pair of Stonechats (“to find a Dartford, first find a Stonechat”, so the saying goes), but not much else. Fortunately, Rowan seemed happy to the free of the car and enjoyed finding all kinds of weird bugs. Alas, while I was watching a Meadow Pipit that was seemingly trying to shoo me away, my scope blew over in the wind. The scope’s focussing mechanism broke! Arrgh! The pipit immediately let out a wittering, cascading call as I ran over to assess the damage, and my daughter said, in a glorious dead-pan voice: “That bird is laughing at you”. Thanks for that, Rowan.
Earlier, my daughter had already made feel foolish while I was “pishing” for birds near some gorse. I was having no success whatsoever, when I realised we were stood right next to a hide. She pointed at a sign on the side of the hide: Quiet Please, it read.
So this was the only Dartford Warbler we saw at Arne:
Dartford Warbler!, Arne RSPB, Dorset - August 2011
It was just as we arrived back at the car park that we realised we’d left the badge a kilometre back up the path. Rowan wanted it back, so… Luckily we got some great views of Sika Deer and Green Woodpecker as we walked back around the reserve, and the badge was found too. Despite being a quiet day, there was no doubting it is a lovely reserve.
Sika Deer, Arne RSPB, Dorset - August 2011
Day 4 – Hmmm, I was enjoying this holiday up until now. It had rained overnight and the tipee was not as waterproof as I’d been led to believe. I hadn’t slept much because of the rain pouring on my face, and when I got up we found most of our clothes were wet. Then I remembered my scope was still bust. Grrr.
So, let’s all go to town for breakfast while our clothes dry, eh? What could go wrong? While walking through rainy Wareham to a launderette, I managed to knock my BAHA (bone-anchored) hearing aid out of its metal prong that’s drilled in my head. The very expensive, and practically irreplaceable) hearing aid bounced twice then fell down this drain:
Drain, Wareham, Dorset - August 2011
Without it I’m pretty much completely deaf. And silence is not golden, I can tell you, so I wasn’t happy. There was a car packed over the grid at the time too... But while I fell to my knees in the street, cursing my luck, my wife popped into the fishing tackle shop we were next to and emerged 30 seconds later with a long-reach gripper thing. A minute later the hearing aid was back in and working Perfectly. (Well, it was working as well as it has done since someone stood on it in the mosh pit at a Godflesh gig in Birmingham last October…)
The weather cleared and Lulworth Cove was great. I even managed to get the focussing on my scope to sort of work again.
Shore Crab, Lulworth Cove, Dorset - August 2011
Day 5 – Today was the time we were to leave Dorset and head off for a week in Devon. I'd be leaving the prime Dartford Warbler territory. Using all my negotiating skills, I wangled a solo trip to Studland Heath, west of Poole Harbour, first thing in the morning while the rest of the family visited Monkey World.
It was a beautiful morning. No sooner had I walked to the top of the slope from the layby where I’d parked, and I saw a pair of Dartford Warblers! Fantastic! Two bobbing little shuttlecocks, floating from a gorse bush to the heather and thistles. In flight, each bird looked like a tiny grey Long-tailed Tit on the end of a string. The big head, slight body, and long cocked tail were obvious as they perched. Ha! Lovely stuff. Very happy.
So, I was grinning as we set off for East Devon, and even more so when my wife agreed that another trip to Lodmoor RSPB. The Stilt Sandpiper was apparently “showing well” on the western end of the reserve. My luck was in, and I got some great views of that bird and lots of others. Click here for a full write-up with photos and video.
Stilt Sandpiper, Lodmoor RSPB, Dorset - August 2011
Day 6 – Pretty much a birding-free day, as we enjoyed the delights of the West Somerset Railway Association Steam Fair, near Taunton. My son Luke sat awestruck and watched the tractors, while Rowan drove a train: a full-sized diesel shunter from the docks of the Manchester Ship Canal…
Day 7 – Now then, this is how to go birding: from a tram! Seaton Tramway travels between Seaton and Seaton and Colyton (near to where we were staying) and passes through the nature reserves of Seaton Marshes and Colyford Common, along the lovely Axe estuary. You get such a great view over the mashes from the top deck of the trams – they even run special bird-watching-by-tram trips, using the trams as mobile hides. Even though we weren’t on one of these specials, we had great views of Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher, Curlew, and the ubiquitous Little Egret, plus loads more.
Day 8 – Common Buzzard over our farm in the morning. The afternoon was spent on the beach at Lyme Regis and I managed to sneak off for a while to check out the birds around the harbour. I’d bought Dr Colin Dawes' great book Bird-watching Where Dorset Meets Devon, and he recommends checking out the area around the Cobb.
Me sat on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, Dorset - August 2011
From here, looking west over the shingle, I could pick out at least five Rock Pipits among the Pied Wagtails. Taking a closer look I came across a lovely female Northern Weather feeding on the tideline.
Northern Wheatear, Lyme Regis, Dorset - August 2011
Day 9 – While my wife and kids visited a friend on their farm near Honiton, I went deep into Devon in the hope of seeing a reported Black Kite at Kennerleigh. To cut a long story short: I didn’t see it, despite there being plenty of food for it:
Black Kite food? - Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011
But, I did have an excellent few hours at Ashridge Farm. I’ve never seen so many Common Buzzards in one place. Or seen so many Ravens in one place, and so close.
Common Buzzards, Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011
Common Buzzards, Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011
Common Buzzard and Raven feathers, Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011
The sun was out and I took the opportunity to lie back and watch the Buzzards and Ravens soar overhead and the butterflies flutter through the wheat, while listening to the hoo-weet of the Willow Warblers and the chitter of Swallows. Idyllic.
Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011
Sunflower, Ashridge Farm, Kennerleigh, Devon - August 2011
Day 10 – Pecorama! Brilliant, brilliant place. The kids loved it too.
Small Tortoiseshell, Pecorama, Beer, Devon - August 2011
Day 11 – The last chance of the holiday for me to get to see that Devon speciality, the Cirl Bunting. And there are few places better to try than Labrador Bay RSPB, near Teignmouth. Successful? Oh yes – full story, photos and video here.
Cirl Bunting, Labrador Bay RSPB, Teignmouth, Devon - August 2011
Days 12 and 13 – Some fossiling at Lyme Regis and whatnot, and then making our way home.
A top, top holiday in fabulous countryside. The family activities were great, as was the birding. Must get back down there again soon.