Nature along the Dorset Coast

Why the Dorset coast

Spectacular Jurassic limestone scenery

Lots of large nature reserves

Plenty to see at any time of year

Best place for Lulworth Skipper, great raft spiders, smooth snakes and others

The section of coast between Poole Harbour and Exeter is popularly known as the Jurassic Coast, for its abundance and variety of fossils laid down in the Jurassic period – 200-145 million years ago. However, the geological time period of the rocks also covers the Triassic (250 – 200 million years) and the Cretaceous (145 – 60 million years ago). The Jurassic Coast website gives plenty of information for visitors interested in the prehistory of the area.

There is, however, much more to this section of coast than just the geological spectacle. The South-West Coast path provides a walking route from end to end – and beyond. It offers the hiker stunning views of many coastal features, from the sheer cliffs and limestone formations such as Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door (top photo) to a great range of birds, flowers and butterflies including the rare Lulworth Skipper Thymelicus acteon (well, rare in Britain as it is only found in this area, although widespread and even common in parts of central and southern Europe).

The Lulworth Skipper is like a large skipper (with the orange patches on the wings) but is much smaller.
The Essex skipper is like a small skipper but has black-tipped antennae

Poole Harbour

Just inland from the sea is a series of nature reserves. Many of these are associated with Poole Harbour, providing refuge for a variety of birds during winter. The harbour itself is a huge shallow bowl with a relatively small outlet to the sea. It has double tides, which means lots of shallow water over mudflats, and lots of food for waders and wildfowl. On the west side, there are several heathland nature reserves which include the shoreline eg Studland Heath and Arne.

Dark -bellied Brent Geese at Poole Park in January

On the east side is the town of Poole – an extensively built-up area with considerable boating and recreational activity on the water. Nevertheless, Poole Park, an area of municipal parkland between the harbour wall and the town is excellent for birdwatching – with a large flock of dark-bellied Brent geese Branta bernicla among the other wintering wildfowl and gulls.

Brownsea Island, within the harbour is important for its red squirrel Sciurus vulgaris population. The island is owned by the National Trust, with managed forestry and heathland areas, as well as parkland.

Avocets in the lagoon at Brownsea Island in January

The northern part, however, is leased to the Dorset Naturalists Trust. Here there is a large lagoon surrounded on the outside by a high sea wall, areas of alder carr and other wet woodland, and generally much more natural habitats. The lagoon is frequented by waterbirds, especially herons, egrets and spoonbills Platalea leucorodia, and holds Britain’s largest single wintering flocks of avocets Recurvirostra avosetta and black-tailed godwits Limosa limosa – over 1000 birds of each species at times. Within the harbour are a number of small gravel islands, used by terns and gulls for nesting.

The RSPB reserve at Arne has been in existence since 1965. Like the nearby Studland Heath National Nature Reserve, it is important as one of the main sites to see all six species of British reptiles – adder Viperus berus, grass snake Natrix natrix, smooth snake Coronella austriaca, slow-worm Anguilis fragilis, common lizard Zootoca vivipara, and sand lizard Lacerta agilis.

Rare plants on the site include Dorset Heath Erica ciliaris (left), while the freshwater pond is one of only three sites for the great raft spider Dolometes plantarius in Britain. The wasp spider Argiope bruennichi is also found here (below – photographed in July).

The heathland provides a breeding stronghold for the secretive Dartford warbler Sylvia undata, as well as European nightjar Caprimulgus europeaus, woodlark Lullula arborea, and stonechat Saxicola rubicola. Waterbirds commute between the shore here, and Brownsea Island lagoon.

Weymouth area

Some 35km (22 miles) to the west of Poole Harbour is the town of Weymouth, and another set of nature reserves. Within the town itself is the RSPB reserve of Radipole Lake – a long finger of open water and reedbeds. The southern end, with a small RSPB information centre, is next to the railway station, is very popular with families wanting to feed the ducks and swans, so the birds here tend to be quite tame and tolerant. Following the footpath to the north hide takes you to more secluded areas, often quiet in winter except for the explosive calls of Cetti’s warblers Cettia cetti. It is also a good place for bearded reedlings Panurus biarmicus again a species more often heard – pinging calls as they move through the reedbed – than seen.

It is also a good place for a variety of plants, dragonflies and butterflies in the appropriate seasons.

On the eastern side of Weymouth, is the RSPB reserve of Lodmor. This is an area of open water, saltmarsh, wet grassland and scrub, separated from the sea by a shingle embankment and road, and with the ever-increasing housing development of Preston on the north side (view from south side below).

Birds move between here and Radipole, so the species seen are similar. However, it does have one of the largest common tern Sterna hirundo colonies in south-west Britain, and autumn migration can be spectacular. On a rather blustery late August day, we saw more than 50 species easily from the footpath (wheel-chair and push-chair friendly). The last few common tern chicks were being fed by their parents, while large numbers of swifts Apus apus gathered with the swallows and martins preparing for migration south.

Sunburst over Portland Bill

Portland Bird Observatory

A programme of bird ringing (bird banding) has been carried out since the earliest days of ornithological exploration at Portland in the 1950s. Bird Observatory staff and suitably qualified helpers use ringing as a tool to assist research into the migration patterns, population changes, biometrics and longevity of birds. The majority of ringing is carried out within the grounds of the Bird Observatory, where over 225,000 birds of 200 species have been trapped and ringed to date. There have been subsequent recoveries of birds marked at Portland from as far north as Finland, as far south as Ghana and as far east as the Republic of Georgia in the former USSR. (from the PBO website)

Portland Bill is a narrow promontory at the southern tip of the Isle of Portland which is connected to the mainland by a shingle spit, the eastern end of Chesil Beach. Jutting out some 8km (5 miles) into the sea, it makes a convenient departure and arrival point for birds on migration, and also catches birds moving along the coast.

The Portland Bird Observatory occupies the Old Lower Lighthouse just before the Bill (tip) itself. The observatory is open all year round.

Back in around 1982, I visited Portland Bill in migration season, just because it was said to be good for birds. The first afternoon was pleasant enough, and somebody mentioned that a hoopoe had been seen. OK, so we kept a look out for it, but weren’t too bothered if we saw it or not – our philosophy was to enjoy the place, and the birds would be the icing on the cake. In the evening we pitched our small tent in a seemingly out-of-the-way place. The next morning we opened the tent only to find a dozen birdwatchers about 50m away, all looking through binoculars and telescopes at the hoopoe feeding right in front of the tent!

Chesil Beach

There are other places to watch birds, or just to enjoy the coastal scenery and plants, on Portland Island. Then just to the west is Chesil Beach – 30km (19 miles) of pebble beach, separated from the mainland by the Fleet Lagoon for most of its length. At the western end is the Abbotsbury Swannery which is the only managed colony of nesting mute swans Cygnus colour (above) in the world.


Bookshop

Click on the book covers for more information

This is the updated version of the book we used. Each of the sites mentioned in this article is given several pages of text and maps, It gives the history of sites, the location and access provision, what you will see in each season, and much more. We found it very useful and will be using it to find more sites on our next visit to the area.

Obviously, it is about bird-watching sites, but most sites will have other nature interest as well.

Buying books through these links earns a small commission that helps with the costs of this website.

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