Photo of a gannet in flight

The hottest weekend

According to the Met Office, July 19, 2022 was the first time 40°C (104F) has been recorded in the UK. It was recorded at Coningsby, Lincolnshire, exceeding the previous record by 1.6°C. A total of 46 stations across the UK exceeded the previous UK record of 38.7°C.

The date for the BirdFair had been set months before, it was just bad luck that the two would coincide that weekend. Because, if we were going to drive 260 miles each way to the BirdFair, we might as well have a look at some nature reserves while we’re in that area.

Global BirdFair

The British Birdwatching Fair had been going for several decades, but, like nearly everything else, came to a stop during the pandemic.  It was revived this year, under the title ‘Global BirdFair‘, moved from its usual Rutland Water Nature Reserve site to the Rutland Showground, and was a rather smaller affair than before.

We travelled to Rutland on Thursday 15th, stayed at the Market Harborough Premier Inn, thought we’d have Friday at the BirdFair before the weather got too hot, then go on to Bempton Cliffs and maybe a few other places in the north.  Day by day the weather forecast was changing – always for the hotter.  Saturday was going to be the hottest, then Sunday, and finally they were saying Monday would reach 40C – previously the British Record had been set at 38C in Cambridge a couple of years ago.

The Friday was somewhat cool and cloudy.  We were stuck in traffic for the last half mile of the journey, but still got into the showground soon after the BirdFair opened.  It really was much smaller in scale than before – perhaps because it was like a new event, perhaps the pandemic had meant fewer people were travelling, perhaps inflation was getting in the way . . . Who knows.  Bob said it lacked atmosphere, but really, Fridays were always the quietest days.  It was the day when stall-holders did their networking, talking business, and especially networking between overseas holiday companies and local guides. 

We bought a few books, looked at some photographic equipment, went to a couple of talks, met up with Ian S and Anne and later with Ian T – who had (inevitably) just negotiated an exotic birding trip to somewhere on the other side of the world. 

The bird fair isn’t just about birds. Any conservation can be part of it, and this photo was taken at the Mammal Society stand.

photo of a harvest mouse
Harvest Mouse (captive)

When the BirdFair was at Rutland Water, the entrance fee also gave visitors access to the adjacent Rutland Water Nature reserve, so you could split your visit between bird watching and the hustle of the fair.  It’s disappointing that we can’t do that now – well you can, but the two sites are several kilometres apart.

We left as the fair closed for the day, most people had already gone, and we missed any rush-hour traffic jams.  The journey to Lincoln Premier Inn was uneventful.  (My sister) Jane and Bill having moved back to Edinburgh meant we couldn’t stay with them this time.

The BirdFair raises money for international bird projects. This year it was the turn of the ‘Revive la Janda’ project which aims to revitalise a lake in Andalucia, Spain, that has largely been drained for agriculture. It is a vital link for migratory birds en route between the UK (and elsewhere in north-west Europe) and Africa. Water birds still attempt to spend winter on the semi-flooded fields, but the area available for them is decreasing drastically, and the nutrient status has been damaged by farming practices.

The total sum being donated by Global Birdfair to the 2022 Conservation Project is an incredible €100,000


RSPB Blacktoft Sands

Previously the BirdFair had been held in mid-August, so we would go on to visit a few sites good for bird migration as part of the same trip.  Migration starts in July, perhaps even late June, but as it’s mostly birds that have failed to breed successfully in the early part of the season, there might be nothing much to see anywhere.  So I didn’t have much expectation for the RSPB reserve at Blacktoft Sands on the south shore of the River Ouse, where it meets the River Trent and becomes the Humber Estuary.  Weather mostly warm and muggy.

A sign on the visitor centre door said ‘back in 15 minutes’, so we turned east and walked to the Singleton Hide, which was at the end of the trail.  It was too hot to hurry, so we admired dragonflies and damselflies, and other insects along the way.  The view from the hide was quiet – plenty of birds, but not doing much in the heat.  We listed 20 species, and took a few photos.

After a while we moved to the Townend Hide, which at first seemed even quieter.  However, there was more exposed mud, and we began to see a few things happening – birds coming and going, a distant marsh harrier looking for lunch, a greater variety of waders, etc.

And then some small brown birds on one patch of much at the base of the reeds. It took a while to sort them out through the heat haze, even through our long telephoto lenses. They were juvenile bearded reedlings presumably looking for seeds or invertebrates on the mud. Twenty-five species seen from this hide.

The First Hide is the one nearest the visitor centre. A magpie pattered around on the hot tin roof for a while before investigating why the occupants weren’t feeding him.  The other occupants threw out a few crumbs, and he obviously wasn’t shy.  Eventually, he got bored and went elsewhere.  Fewer species here, but again including the elusive bearded tits.  There was less open water to be seen, but something moved along the channel below the hide, hidden by the reeds.  Probably a deer, but no-one actually saw anything.

By the time we got back to the visitor centre itself, the warden was unlocking the door.  He had been checking a water pump – pumping water into one of the lagoons while there was still any water to pump anywhere.  We had a drink and flapjack while he told us what was going on at the site.  Then we moved on slowly to the hides to the west, missing out on the Xerox hide because it wasn’t in use, and then settling in at the Marshland hide (above).  This is usually the best hide for wader-watching, and overlooked the lagoon that the water was being pumped into.  We didn’t get around to asking if they filled naturally on high spring tides (the reedbeds kept the estuary itself out of sight), or by water from drainage ditches, but if there was no water, there would be no food for birds, and therefore no birds to watch.  When the water pump ran out of fuel, we enjoyed a short period of quiet before the warden came out and fuelled it up again.  There was another hide, further west, but the afternoon was just too hot for us to want to make the effort to get there.

Still, we had 27 species here, and a tally of 44 species for the site today.

It was late afternoon as we continued our journey north, following the satnav directions to the Wrangham House Hotel near Filey.  The place seemed to be a bit of a madhouse, but this was explained as a big celebration that had been delayed since last year (or was it the previous year) because of covid.  Fortunately, it was quiet in our room, and we managed to book a late dinner when the partygoers (or at least the younger generation of them) were winding down.


RSPB Bempton Cliffs

The RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs was only a short drive away – I might have been tempted to walk if it wasn’t for carrying camera stuff in the heat.  A cool offshore breeze made the day more bearable, but stop long enough in a sheltered place and you got covered with tiny flies that didn’t want to leave.

The gannet colony was as noisy and busy as expected – but a few dead birds had Bob speculating that the dreaded bird flu may be affecting them here – some seabird colonies in Scotland are already being badly affected.

Like most seabirds, gannets are long-lived (20-30 years) and produce only a single chick per nest per year.

On our last visit – August 2019 – gannets were the only species here, but now, earlier in the season, the ledges still held quite a few razorbills and guillemots with some well-grown chicks.

There were also plenty of active kittiwake nests (above). The two birds in the middle are chicks, and those dark markings on the neck remind the adults that these are youngsters to be looked after rather than rivals to be chased off. Unlike most other gulls, these nest on sheer cliffs, and it’s a long way down if you fall off! As with other species of gulls, each pair can lay three or four eggs, though usually only one or two chicks will survive to fledge.

Many people were keen to see the albatross that has taken up residence here.  Apparently it has a regular spot on the cliffs, though it can really only be seen from a distance, and it was difficult to make out which of the mostly-white birds it was – people with telescopes were convinced it really was there.  But later it took to the air, flying amongst the swirling gannets.  I was trying to video the gannets in flight along the cliffs, though it was difficult with the bright sunlight on the LCD screen.  It wasn’t until we were back home that I could be sure I really had got the albatross in there too.

Someone mentioned a Daurian/Isabelline Shrike – a vagrant from the area between the Caspian Sea and China – and told us roughly where to find it.  Having walked to the southern end of the reserve, we thought we might as well cross the two fields to see the bird while we were here.  A few others birdwatchers were already there, and the bird had been showing well along a particular hedge.  The lack of a huge crowd for it could be put down to the bird having been there a few weeks already, so it had been seen by most avid twitchers long ago.  I didn’t bother getting the camera out – a distant small brown bird through the heat haze wasn’t worth the effort.  It worked its way along a hedge, until eventually a couple of cyclists on the track on the other side of the hedge caused it to move further away.  So we headed back to the visitor centre for a late lunch.  Then we spent the afternoon looking at the cliffs along the northern end of the reserve.

While bird flu didn’t seem too obvious during our visit, later in the summer things definitely got worse. At Bempton, most of the losses took place in August, when hundreds of gannet chicks died in the densest area of the colony, and some dead adult birds were recorded on the sea. For most of the 13,000 pairs of gannets nesting elsewhere in the colony, the impact “has been thankfully very small”, according to site manager Dave O”Hara in an interview for the Yorkshire Post “We are not complacent for next year – it will be a worrying time.”

Meanwhile, the good news is that kittiwakes had the best breeding season for over ten years with 44,000 pairs producing around 30,000 chicks.

With the forecast for record-breaking temperatures still in force for the Monday, and recommendations that people should stay indoors with the curtains shut where possible to keep the heat out and avoid heat-stroke, we had to consider our plans.  By leaving very early in the morning, we should get past the area predicted to be the hottest long before lunch, and probably get home by Monday evening.  And maybe there would still be an opportunity to stay out somewhere overnight near another nature reserve.

The hotelier agreed it was sensible, but no, they couldn’t do us breakfast THAT early – not that we had asked them to.  However, they had a portable fridge which we could have in our room, along with milk, yoghurt, fruit, cereal, etc. 


We started out about 6am, with guidance from the satnav on my phone rather than using the old unit which has a few quirks likely to send us off to parts unknown.  Things went smoothly for the first couple of hours, but then came a warning that there would be a delay of up to twenty minutes due to a vehicle fire on one section of motorway.  We found a different route through a town, feeling that keeping the car fan going on the move was better than sitting still in an oven.  The motorway was just clearing as we rejoined it.  The newscasts kept us up to date with the temperature situation, and we kept going (apart from a comfort stop) to the RSPB Burton Mere reserve on the west side of England.


RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands

Burton Mere was hot.  Very hot, and quite dry – though really we’d only seen it in early spring before.  We had a quick look around the visitor centre, then walked out to the Marsh Covert Hide.  Despite the 360 degree views from that hide, there was not much to see as the water levels were so low, but at least it was a chance to stretch our legs for half an hour.  There was no shade between here and the further hides, so we walked slowly back through the woodland to the visitor centre.

There was more water in the area in front of the visitor centre, so we sat there in the shade for a while and enjoyed a coffee and snack – they weren’t keeping much food in the shop because of the heat. Altogether, we had 33 species of birds – the last of them being something of a surprise. A huge skein of pink-footed geese flew in, calling as they swirled around and then landed in grassland some distance away. Surely these geese should not be arriving until September, at the earliest? But the staff said they had been around for the last few days.


Record temperatures in Wales

On through North Wales, and more warnings about the heat on the news.  The car’s AC hasn’t been working properly for a while now, so the best we managed was the ordinary fan on cold.  Better than nothing.  The west coast was supposed to be the coolest area, so we went that way.  The Craft Centre at Coris was open, and we managed to get a decent, but late, lunch there.  Further south, as we went through Bow Street the car thermometer was reading 36C – which is what we were hearing on the radio, and at the time it was said to be the highest temperature in Wales.  Later, when all the data had been looked at, apparently the hottest place in Wales – 37.1C – was at Hawarden which we passed soon after leaving Burton Mere.

There didn’t seem to be much point in stopping anywhere else en route. Another time, we would have added a couple more nights and a few more reserves into the itinerary.

It was a relief to get home with the car and our sanity intact.


Bookshop

Click on covers for more information

Picture of book cover

Sadly out of print, but worth looking out for – covers all the RSPB reserves at the time of publication

An interactive guide to use on an iPad on-site at Bempton – sounds interesting, but I haven’t seen it myself.

The standard guide to birdwatching places in Britain – there are some regional versions too.

Note that buying books through these links earns a small commission (at no extra cost to you) that goes towards the cost of maintaining this website.


More places to go nature-watching in England

RSPB Pulborough Brooks

A visit to the RSPB Pulborough Brooks Reserve in Sussex, England, is about far more than birds.


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photo of eagle owl in snow

Best places for wildlife in January

When I first travelled around Europe, in the days before the internet, finding out about the best places and when to visit relied mainly on word-of-mouth and a couple of ‘where-to-watch’ type books. My instinct was to head south, to Andalucia, but I discovered a lot of interesting places en route. Going north, to colder climes did not appeal, yet there is so much to see if only you know where to go.

Start with the brochures/websites of companies offering nature-based trips. Even if you don’t want to go on an organised trip, these will at least give you ideas of the top places.

After this list of organised trips, there is a list of posts on this website of more places worth a visit in winter.

photo of a red-breasted goose
Red-breasted Goose

Bulgaria

NatureTrek – Winter Wildlife of Bulgaria & Romania – On the Trail of the Red-breasted Goose. A 9-day winter tour in search of geese, ducks and other wildlife, taking in the Black Sea coast in both Bulgaria and Romania as well as some forest and steppe habitats.

Neophron – The northernmost part of the Bulgarian Black Sea coast – Coastal Dobroudzha – is famous for being the wintering ground for hundreds of thousands of wild geese, among which almost the whole population of the globally threatened Red-breasted Goose. In the recent 20 years up to 62 000 Red-breasted Geese have been spending the winter in the area of the lakes of Durankulak and Shabla.

Neophron – Wolves & Vultures of Bulgaria. The Eastern part of the Rhodope Mountains is locked between the valleys of the big rivers Arda and Maritsa in southern Bulgaria, near the border with Greece. This area hosts exceptional biodiversity – a result of the mixture of Mediterranean and continental climate. This is the realm of the wolf packs, as here is one of the densest populations of the Wolf in Bulgaria. The most spectacular birds of the region in winter are the vultures – Eurasian Griffon and Eurasian Black vultures.

Estonia

January-February – the best time to observe Steller’s Eider when flocks can reach 1000 or more. Saaremaa, the biggest island in Estonia, and the most north-eastern point of the mainland at Cape Põõsaspea are the best places to see them, along with thousands of long-tailed ducks, goldeneye, goosanders and white-tailed eagles. Can’t see any trips advertised, but Natourest are probably the best people to advise.

France

Check my page The naturalist in France in Winter for ideas

Photo of 4 white pelicans on water

Greece

Greentours – Lake Kerkini National Park is a winter bird-watching paradise and a haven for Pelicans, Waterfowl & Eagles! Let us take you on a week-long exploration of the Lake and the surrounding fields, forests, mountains and coastal lagoons to enjoy diverse and bountiful bird life!

Neophron – Dalmatian Pelican Photography – Nestled picturesquely between two separate mountain ranges, Lake Kerkini is one of the true jewels of European birding and the core of a nature reserve that is a relatively unexplored wonderland of beauty and biological diversity. Plenty of Great White PelicansDalmatian PelicansGreater FlamingosPygmy Cormorants, herons, ducks and other waterbirds, riverside forests and fantastic panoramic view from the mountains of Belasitsa and Krousia give it a characteristic atmosphere. The combination of wildfowl, flora and fauna, good weather for a large part of the year and a virtually traffic-free track around the lake make it ideal for birding and bird photography.

Neophron – Winter Photography in Bulgaria and Greece – To take photos of Dalmatian Pelican we visit either the Bourgas wetlands in the South-eastern Bulgaria or Lake Kerkini in Northern Greece, depending on the winter conditions and your preferences, and for Eurasian Griffon Vultures we visit the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria, where we manage several fixed hides.

Neophron – Winter Birding in Northern Greece. In winter the wetlands of Northern Greece hold huge numbers of birds that have escaped from the harsh weather in Central and Eastern Europe. Join us for a great birding experience with opportunities to see a variety of highly sought-after species! This tour starts from Thessaloniki on the Aegean Sea. If time allows, we visit Kalohori Lagoon in the vicinity of Thessaloniki, which is a very good site for waterfowl and shore-birds in winter.

Photo of the Lanzarote coast

Spain

See my round-up of the best of Spain in January

If it’s plants you’re after, then the Canary Islands can be good at this time of year. Flowering depends more on rainfall than on date, and earlier is often better, as I discovered when visiting Lanzarote.

Sweden

NatureTrek – Northern Lights & Winter Wildlife. A 6-day holiday, including one night of “glamping” in Swedish Lapland, in search of spectacular winter scenery, wildlife and the Northern Lights.

photo of a flock of waders

Portugal

Classic places for winter birdwatching in Portugal include several wetlands in the Algarve easily accessible by public transport and from tourist resorts, and the Tejo estuary near Lisbon where a car is definitely needed.

Poland

NatureTrek – Poland in Winter. A 7-day winter adventure to Poland in search of large mammals rare or even extinct in much of western Europe.

UK

Oriolebirding – An action-packed five days birding in Norfolk maximising the daylight hours in the field. We normally walk around 3-4 miles per day and it can be wet and muddy at this time of year. At least two evenings finish with a roost for raptors and wildfowl.


More nature-watching in winter

Photo of Rocina Marshes

Doñana National Park

How to get the most out of a visit to the Doñana National Park. My recommendations after several visits.

Winter birds at the Tejo Estuary

Some 70,000 water birds spend their winter on the Tejo estuary near Lisbon in Portugal. That can mean some serious birdwatching there.

The naturalist in France in winter

France isn’t an obvious place for nature-watching in winter, but there are plenty of birds, and even some mammals to see. Here are some suggestions of where to find them.

The Lauwersmeer in winter

The Lauwersmeer National Park, in the northern part of the Netherlands, provides a fantastic winter feeding ground for geese and other birds that breed further north.

A winter day at Santoña Marshes

The Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Marshes Natural Park is probably the best, and most easily accessible, wetland in north-western Spain.

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RSPB Pulborough Brooks

“Ooh, it’s a wonderful place.  I used to live there, we took the (school) kids there for days out, even before it was a reserve.  There’s a wonderful cafe – people often go there just for the cafe . . . ”  Trixie was gushing, she had been a teacher in the village school, and now that I’d mentioned I had been there, she was really selling it to me all over again.

The reserve covers 256 ha of wet grassland, woodland, hedgerows, meadow and heath and is located within the South Downs National Park. The wet grassland has SSSI and Ramsar status and is part of the Arun Valley SPA and SAC in recognition of the important populations of overwintering wildfowl, and the specialist plants and invertebrates in the ditches. 

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) bought the land in 1989, thanks to a generous bequest from a member who had lived in the area.  Winifred Smith Wright wanted the brooks to be restored to the wildlife-rich landscape she remembered from her childhood, and the RSPB has been working towards that end ever since.

The meadowland had been drained for farming, but the RSPB has now blocked the drains, realigned the watercourses from straight narrow drains to shallow meandering ‘grips’ (streams) and pools, and now controls the overall water levels to suit the waders and wildfowl that are there from autumn to spring – with a few remaining to breed in the summer.

But the RSPB isn’t just about birds.  Under the slogan Give Nature a Home, they make provision for other wildlife too.  The water vole above was photographed in this grip in front of Nettley’s Hide.  And meadows, scrub and woodland provide habitat for a host of plants and invertebrates.

About the Water Vole Arvicola amphibious

The water vole is widely accepted as the fastest declining mammal in Britain. Population estimates were around 8 million in the 1960s, 2.3 million in 1990, and probably less than a quarter of a million now.

Reasons for the decline include unsympathetic management of waterways, water pollution, changes in farming practices, and the depredations of the American mink. Populations of the latter have grown since their escape/release from fur farms in the 1960s and 1970s, and their habits make them difficult to eradicate.

But there is hope. Water vole populations are increasing in some areas – canals around cities seem unattractive to mink. Increasing otter populations also seem to help – otters will prey on mink. They will also take water voles, but unlike the mink, are too big to follow the voles into their bank-side tunnels. And there are re-introduction projects in areas where the habitat is now considered suitable for them – particularly on nature reserves.

The water vole is found across Europe, though Russia to Lake Baikal, and from north of the Arctic Circle to parts of the eastern Mediterranean. It is an adaptable species, found in rivers, streams and marshes in both lowlands and mountains. In some areas, they live away from watercourses during the winter months. They are mainly vegetarian, feeding of lush vegetation in summer, and roots and bulbs in the winter, but they also take some insects, molluscs and small fish.

On the continent, the water vole has a different set of problems. It co-evolved with the European Mink, and does not suffer the same depredation as where there American mink has been introduced. However, it does face competition for food and space from the introduced American musk rat. In some areas it has even been considered an agricultural pest, for example in the rice fields of Macedonia in the 1980s.

While it seems unlikely it will become common again in Britain in the near future, efforts to conserve and expand the existing populations should help it survive here in the long term.

Watch a video of water voles here

Human visitors are well-catered for.  As well as the cafe (which was as good as Trixie said), there is a circular trail of about 3.5km (2 miles) which takes in views across the pools, stops at four hides, and several seats where you can just sit and soak in the atmosphere, as well as the other habitats.  Children’s playgrounds and educational trails, a visitor centre, a program of activities and events, all make this a popular spot.

And anywhere along the trails, you are likely to come across these small signs with information about a plant, insect, bird etc that is likely to be seen nearby.

There is relatively little bird activity at Pulborough (or anywhere else) in July – midsummer is when youngsters are finding their feet/wings and the adults are keeping their heads down while they are in moult (they can’t fly so efficiently when they are missing a few feathers).  But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see.

The beetle above is a hornet longhorn beetle Leptura aurulenta.  The first impression you get of it buzzing around is that it is a hornet.  Once it settled, however, it is clearly a beetle with long antennea.  This species is widespread in central and southern Europe, but in Britain is confined to the south, and is considered Nationally Notable A, which basically means it is pretty scarce.  It can easily be confused with the much more common and widespread four-spotted longhorn Leptura quadrifasciata which has black legs and antennae. The larva develops in the cambial layer (the layer just under the bark) of large sections of freshly dead broad-leaved trees. The adult is usually found on oaks, and rarely occurs on flowers – though the individual in the photo obviously hadn’t read the book because it was flying around a wildflower meadow, and photographed while it explored a ragwort plant.

The marbled white butterfly Melanargia galathea is a much more common and widespread species, occurring as far north as Yorkshire.  But for some reason it is rarely seen in my home area of west Wales.  So it was a delight to see and photograph at Pulborough.  In Britain there is a single species of marbled white, which also occurs across central Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. In northern Spain there are four species, plus this one which is found only in the western Pyrenees there.  The adults, which fly in June-July in Britain, show a liking for the nectar of blue and purple flowers, such as this creeping thistle Cirsium arvense.

The bright orange upper-side of the Comma butterfly Polygonia c-album makes it easy to mistake for a fritillary species when in flight. In fact, it is related to the tortoiseshells, red admirals and painted ladies. You can just about see the comma-shaped white mark on the underwing here.  Although in recent years it has been abundant and widespread, fifty years ago it underwent a massive decline.  It overwinters as an adult, and probably the relatively mild winters of the past twenty years have helped its recovery.

Marshes and woodland at Pulborough

Oh, yes, this IS a bird reserve. And on this particular visit we did see 40 species – nothing special or spectacular, but a steady selection of the birds we’d expect to see in July at a wetland site.


What’s nearby?

As Pulborough Brooks is only a 45 minute drive from Gatwick Airport, it can be a handy stop en route to elsewhere.

It’s also only a 20-minute drive from the Wildfowl and Wetlands reserve at Arundel, just a few miles downstream.


Bookshop

Click on the covers for more information

Info about all RSPB reserves
Appreciate the Sussex countryside
Rewilding Knepp Farm

Buying books through these links provides a small commission, at no extra cost to yourself, that helps with the cost of maintaining this site.


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Photo of a gannet in flight

The hottest weekend

In July 2022 we made a road trip across Britain, visiting three RSPB nature reserves. It just happened to coincide with the hottest days ever recorded in the UK

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.

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Red Kites at Gigrin Farm

One of the most fantastic spectacles anywhere is a huge gathering of birds – especially birds of prey.  Gigrin Farm in mid-Wales probably has the biggest gathering of red kites anywhere.  And you get so much closer to them here because of the hides/blinds.

Red Kite can be seen across most of Europe – distribution map here – usually in small numbers, up to half a dozen, but occasionally dozens of them together at food resources like rubbish tips. I thought the dozens of birds floating over the rubbish tip at Reinosa in northern Spain was pretty impressive when I saw it in 1989, but that pales by comparison.

The late Mr Powell started feeding the kites on his farm in the 1980s, and the farm became an official feeding station open to the public in 1992/93.  There were six red kites regularly using the area at the start, but by 2015 six hundred wasn’t an unusual number.

The feeding station is located near Rhayader, in central Wales.  It is surrounded by mostly livestock farming – often the only viable farming in this cool wet climate, but is close to the large reservoirs of the Elan Valley (supplying water to cities such as Birmingham), forestry plantations and open hill country.

But why feed kites?  Can’t they find their own food?

Kites are basically scavengers, large but lightweight birds that float on air currents looking for scraps to eat – though they can kill small prey if they have to.  They are not strong enough to open a carcass of any size, and have to wait for a raven, crow or buzzard to do that before they can feed.

There aren’t many carcasses left on the land these days – farm hygiene and bio-security mean that such things are cleared away, buried, etc.  So young kites in particular have difficulty finding enough food, therefore survival rates were low.

Kites start looking for food when they wake up hungry in the morning.  At Gigrin food is put out in the afternoon, so any bird that has fed well doesn’t need to come here for more.  But those that are still hungry, know where to find supper.

The spectacle

Kites begin gathering over the site an hour or so before feeding time. It looks impressive then, and you can hear their long drawn-out whistling calls. When everybody is settled in the hides, a tractor appears, stops in front of the hide, the driver gets out and starts shovelling lumps of meat onto the ground. Almost immediately, one or two kites swoop in for a closer look, maybe even pick up a piece or two. The tractor moves to another part of the feeding field, and more meat is thrown out. By the now, the number of kites is increasing, and more and more are coming closer. The birds rarely land, just grab a piece of meat in passing. Sometimes one will try to grab a bit from another bird.

The spectacle lasts for 30 minutes or more. As the food is taken, kites begin to drift away, although there are usually still a few hanging around after an hour or more.

Red kites were once the cleaner-uppers of cities and countryside, until someone decided they were vermin.  Then they were persecuted until only a few pairs remained in the isolated hills of Wales.  Following decades of hard work – much of it by volunteers – kite nests were monitored and protected.  The small population meant that there was little genetic diversity, and so this protection was only half the story of their recovery.  The other half came when a bird of German origin, and probably migrating off-course, paired up with a Welsh bird and injected some new blood into the population.  Now, that has been augmented by birds reintroduced elsewhere in the UK from Spain and Sweden.

Red kites are now seen across much of Britain (they occur naturally across the whole of Europe), and I don’t need to go to Gigrin to see them (sometimes one even passes over my garden).  But it’s still worth stopping there occasionally to see this spectacle – it’s about a two-hour drive for me, so a convenient stopping place on a long drive north.

Of course, there are other birds to be seen at Gigrin.  Buzzards (above), crows, rooks, ravens, and jackdaws all regularly join in the feast.  Small birds – finches, sparrows, tits, wagtails, etc – are found around the farm, and particularly at the feeders by the car park.

Wildlife trail around the farm

In summer, there is a trail around the farm. It leads past the top of the kite feeding station to a small hide overlooking a small wetland. Then across a field or two to some high level ponds, where a path branches off to up onto the moorland. You then wind back across a couple of fields and down through a small dingle to the kite feeding hides. There is a badger sett on the farm, and polecats and otters have both been seen recently.

You may also see birds such as goshawk, black cap, dipper, hen harriers, redpoll, skylark, kestrel, woodcock, curlew, merlin and many more.

The small cafe is a good place to round off your visit – particularly on a cold winter’s day.

Gigrin Farm website – check opening times before visiting.

Other red kite feeding stations

Wales – Llanddeusant Red Kite Feeding Station

Opened in 2002 by a local partnership with support from the Brecon Beacons National Park, the Welsh Red Kite Trust and various other notable wildlife organisations and individuals. Visitors may sit in the specially built hide only feet away from diving birds and observe them competing naturally for the food provided by the feeding centre at regular times throughout  the year.

Wales – Bwlch Nant yr Arian

In 1999, Bwlch Nant yr Arian became a red kite feeding station as part of a programme to protect the small number of red kites in the area at that time. Nowadays, the red kites are fed by the lake at Bwlch Nant yr Arian every day at 2pm in winter (GMT) and at 3pm in summer (BST). The Barcud Trail (an easy access route around the lake) and the café offer fantastic views of this spectacle. There is also a bird hide overlooking the feeding area.

Scotland – Argaty Red Kites

A feeding site in Perthshire

England – Chilterns

A useful leaflet about where to see kites in the English countryside of the Chilterns (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire).

Covid-19 restrictions

Most sites now require advance booking to ensure that only a safe number of people can visit a site at a time. Details are on the individual websites, along with feeding times and details of all facilities available.

The websites of several other feeding stations are not available now, so these are no longer listed here.

If you come across other red kite feeding stations, in any European country, please let me know and I’ll add them to this page.

Welsh Kite Trust

The charity dedicated to the conservation of the red kite and other raptor species in Wales. Information about how to report a wing-tagged bird,

Bookshop

Where to watch birds in Wales – out of print – 5th edition due in 2022

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Other posts about Wales

photo of a puffin in flight

Skomer Seabird Spectacular cruise

A seabird spectacular cruise offers an alternative (or an addition) to landing on Skomer Island – and a great chance to see the Manx Shearwaters that are hidden in burrows, or are out at sea during the day.

Botanising on the Great Orme

The Great Orme is a huge limestone outcrop along the North Wales coast. It’s a great place for hunting plants and butterflies, or just for enjoying a long walk.

Environmental volunteering

Environmental volunteering is a great way of getting to know more about a place or a species. It can be done quietly on a local level, or by joining a working group or a vacation.