Nature in Dorset: highlights November 2017

If you put some soil in a jar, add water and shake it up you get a clouded, swirling mass! Leave it for a while and gradually the bits will settle and you will have a much clearer picture. It might seem an odd analogy but that is a reflection of October and November in the countryside. In October a lot happens, especially birds movements, and things can seem clouded. It can be difficult to appreciate what is actually happening but in November things settle and you can see the results of the October chaos.

Out at sea the scene has changed from the summer and autumn and, almost unnoticed, a number of seabirds have arrived and are becoming more visible offshore. Great northern divers can be seen on the open sea as well as in the harbours and black-throated divers and red-throated divers are about too but less frequent. That said, great northern divers are not that common! As well as the divers a number of grebe species can be seen at sea with great crested grebes on open water and little grebes in greater numbers than in summer now found in harbours and estuaries. New arrivals for the winter period only include black-necked grebes along with occasional red-necked grebes and Slavonian grebes. Red-breasted mergansers are usually about in quite good numbers along with a small number of their cousins, the goosander.

The most noticeable change between October and November is on the mudflats and saltmarshes of Poole Harbour, Christchurch Harbour and the Fleet. Where the exposed mud at low tide was sparsely populated up until October by Novembers the numbers of wintering waders and wildfowl now make this environment the best place to watch birds. A good number of avocets, usually in large flocks, can be seen in Poole Harbour and other waders such as dunlin, redshank, greenshank, ringed plover and grey plover can be commonly seen along with some less common species including spotted redshank. Large numbers of Brent geese have also arrived by November along with big counts of wigeon and teal. In amongst these will be gadwall, shelduck, shoveler and some pintail. Inland ponds become more populated too with tufted duck and pochard arriving to supplement the numbers of mallard and coot which are also swollen by incoming birds.

Whilst the big increase in birds around the coast is marked so to is the big drop in the numbers of birds inland as many breeding species migrate south for the winter. That said incoming redwing and fieldfare boost the counts on open farmland and in the hedgerows.

No two winters are the same and each brings its own surprises. In some winters we get an irruption of one particular species and this year it seems to be hawfinches. Not normally a common species in Dorset, this autumn has seen a big influx and reports from all over the county have been received. Churchyards with yew trees have been a major attraction for them. As well as an irruption of hawfinch there are a good number of crossbill in suitable conifer habitats this year too and the diminutive firecrest has also been reported from a number of locations.

Going back to my jar of soil and water analogy you will probably find that once settled floating on the surface of the water are some bits and pieces; twigs and leaves. Well, this year we had some odd bits about birdwise too! The stilt sandpiper, spotted sandpiper and the lesser yellow-legs remained in their chosen sites for much of the month and a number of great white egret and cattle egret sightings were received. Amongst smaller birds that lost their way on migration were Radde’s warbler, Pallas warbler, yellow-browed warbler, snow bunting, Ortolan bunting and hoopoe. Always expect the unexpected at this time of year!

You can see the complete list of reported species along with photographs, maps and charts here:

Peter Orchard