Brownsea Island & Jurassic Coast – red squirrels, seabirds and peregrine falcons

So, last Friday evening, we took the train down to Poole for the weekend. We arrived at around 9.30pm and made the short walk to our accomodation. We were staying at the RNLI college and to be honest, we were not sure what to expect. Would it be like university dorms? We were wrong to worry, it was really nice en-suite accomodation with a view over Poole Quay. There was a nice restaurant and a bar and balcony also looking out over the quay. We’d definitely stay again.

The next morning, after a good buffet breakfast (they even had veggie sausage), we walked a short 10 minutes to the harbour to catch the ferry to Brownsea Island. There are a couple of companies that run the ferry, but we got our tickets with Brownsea Island Ferries. The trip is only 20 mins, with commentary along the way of various sites around the harbour (although the trip back takes 40 mins, going round the other side of the island and round the rest of the islands in the harbour).

Go to Brownsea Island, go now! It’s beautiful with shady woods, wild beaches and is also home to a nature reserve managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust. It’s owned by the National Trust, so if you’re a member its free to enter, otherwise you’ll be asked to pay £8 on arrival. We looked round the ubiquitous National Trust shop and then bought some drinks and snacks to take with us as we explored the island .We made our way to the south shore path, past the church and the visitor centre (with peacocks and chickens strolling around outside).

We soon found a lovely wild beach on the shore of what is known as White Ground Lake. We laid out a blanket, had our lunch and watched the oystercatchers picking in the mud and pebbles for food. After this short rest, we resumed our walk back in to the interior of the island, passing through the campsite first used by Baden-Powell when he set up the scout movement and still used by scout groups from all over world to this day.

After about half an hour walking we came across some red squirrels, which is what we were really looking for today. We stayed and watched them for a few minutes, until they finally climbed up in to the trees and out of view. We only had a short time before the last ferry was to leave, so quickly entered the DWT reserve (suggested donation £2) and visited a couple of the hides to see what we could see, which was mostly black-headed gulls with a few oystercatchers in the mix.

After the ferry back to the harbour (again with interesting commentary, we headed straight out on another boat trip, again with Brownsea Island Ferries, but this time on one of their Puffin Cruises, which they only run a handful of times during the year. Puffins, this far south? We’d seen puffins in Skomer and the Farne Islands, but I was a little skeptical that we’d see any. the boat had some experts on board from the Birds of Poole Harbour charity, who provided insight to what to look for and knowledge of their behaviour. The boat took us out past Studland Beach, the Old Harry Rock, past Swannage and to and area known as Dancing Ledge. As we motored along we saw numerous guillemots, dotted with the odd razorbill, gulls and terns, including sandwich terns.

Sure enough, soon found some puffins both in the water and on the ledge, around 4 in total (there are apparently 4 breeding pairs in the area). No, it’s not the thousands that you see in the Farne Islands, but these are just 2 and a half hours from London!

To add to the excitement, we also saw a family of peregrine falcons, the first time I had seen the fabulous birds. We saw a mother and 3 or so juveniles being fed on the ledge. Amazing.

We headed back to Poole, having dinner at the Banana Wharf restaurant before heading to bed for a decent nights sleep.

Back to Burnham – Will there be seal pups?

So, only 2 months after our last trip, we’re back in Burnham-on-Crouch to see the common seals. The difference this time is that there might, just might be a chance to see some pups, even opthough they’re often not born until July.

We stayed the night before at our usual haunt, the White Harte Hotel, for a comfortable nights stay and some poached eggs for breakfast. The day started with some bright weather, but just before 11.00 when the boat (Discovery Charters 2 hour boat trip) was to pick us up to begin the trip, the clouds darkened and we felt a few spots of rain on our faces. There was also a strong, constant breeze coming in off the sea, but this helped to drive the clouds away and it thankfully stayed dry. We were accompanied on the trip by Noodles, the boat’s resident dog, complete with his own little life-jacket. Noodles takes a keen interest in the seals and seems to love the tours.

As usual, the trip started off with an update on the work to develop the RSBP reserve at Wallasea Island. This area is becoming an increasingly important area for seabirds and waders which was evidenced by the large numbers of black-headed gulls we saw, along with some common terns, Canada geese, brent geese, oyster catchers and little egrets. We even saw 5 avocets on route to and from the seal area.

We soon saw our first solitary seal on the bank of Wallasea Island before heading further along the river and spotting a group of 12-15 on the Foulness side. As we neared the group, what looked to be bits of driftwood next to the seals, sure enough, turned out to be seal pups. There were 4 or 5 in this group, with the bigger ones only 48 hours old and the smaller ones, according to our skipper Steve, only having been born the night before. The pups were incredibly cute, and both mothers and babies didn’t really seem too bothered by us being there.

We stayed slowly cruised a couple of times past this group, before heading a little further up, back on the Wallasea side, to see another group of 12-15 seals which, again, had a few tiny pups with them. We another cruise past them, so both sides of the boat could get a good view, before heading back to to the harbour past the other seals.

It was another lovely trip with Discovery Charters and great to see pups for the first time on our trips to Burnham. I’m sure we’ll be back again in the future.

Knepp Safari – Red Deer, Rabbits & Bats

It was Heather’s birthday at the weekend, so as a surprise I took her to one of our favourite places in the UK, the Knepp rewilding project near Horsham in West Sussex.

Knepp is one of the largest lowland rewilding projects in Europe and they operate safaris from Easter to October. As the land is also crisscrossed with public footpaths, you can also explore much of the area by foot. As it was a special treat, we stayed at the lovely Ghyll Manor hotel in Rusper, but Knepp also has a camp site, (which we enjoyed last year) as well as some cool glamping accomodation.

This year we did the 2-hour dusk safari, starting at 8pm. We arrived a few minutes before it was due to start and had a quick briefing with the guide about the project, what we might see and the usual health and safety stuff before joining the other 10 visitors in bundling into the Austrian Pinzgauer (an ex-army 6-wheeled all-terrain vehicle) in our tour round the southern range of the project.

Soon after setting off, we saw Exmoor ponies (obviously no-longer in Exmoor) along with a load of rabbits. Rabbits seemed to be everywhere around the estate, which I’m guessing is one of the things that attracts the many birds of prey that inhabit the estate including buzzards, barn owls, osprey and goshawk. Although, we only saw a buzzard on this occasion, swooping low through the trees.

There are a few tree-top platforms around the estate and we stopped at a couple as we went round, with the great elevation giving great views of the environment and allowing you to fully appreciate the size of the estate. The guide was a keen birder and when we were on the first platform he pointed out all the birdsong we were hearing, including nightingales, robins, whitethroats, blackbirds, cuckoos and owls. We descended the platform and strolled into one of the fields to see if we could get closer to the cuckoos. As we stood there, one of the group spied some massive antlers belonging to a red deer sticking up from behind some scrub. Soon another huge stag appeared from the tree-line, followed by another. The dusk light made for a beautiful viewing and a good photo-op!

Back in the vehicle we made our way further round the estate, seeing more red-deer and some roe deer. We were also lucky to see a couple of turtle doves, one just strolling along the track. At another field we got out and checked on some corrugated-iron sun-traps to see if we could find some reptiles. No luck on the first one, but at the second we found a slow-worm and grass-snake. Some adders have also been reported at the estate, but we haven’t seen any on our three visits.

We ended the tour as the sun-light was almost gone with a sun-downer drink of white wine (or an elderflower soft-drink) and some home-baked cheese nibbles overlooking the pond. the guide also had a bat-detector which we used to track bats as they flew from a nearby house to the pond and back.

It was a great end to a beautiful early-summer day and we are planning to return to Knepp later in the year for the deer-rutting safari.

Gibraltar (unplanned day 2) – Whales 0 – Striped Dolphins 10

So, first apologies for the delay in posting, its been pretty busy and I haven’t been keeping up!

So, in the last post, we weren’t sure whether we were going on any whale-watching trips today, as the wind was too high (15-17 mph). We rang round all the companies in Tarifa and, sadly, all trips had been cancelled. We hastily put plan B into action, calling up a couple of companies in Gibraltar to see if they had dolphin watching trips on which, as they mostly stayed in the bay, would be sheltered from the wind. Luckily, trips were running and they had space for 2 more people!

We managed to book on two trips, one trip in the morning,  followed by another at lunch time.  The first, at 10.00 was with Dolphin Adventure, who run two boats in the Ocean Village marina. There office is right there too. The trip ran for about an hour and a quarter and after heading out through the marina, ran through the bay and just out into the straight of Gibraltar.  We did manage to see a few striped dolphins on the trip, which was a relief as we weren’t sure if we were going to see anything at all that day. The company seems to cater mainly for the tourists coming off the cruise ships that stopped at the Rock and as such, they were pretty efficient at getting everyone on and off, but it also meant it did feel kind of commercial and you share the boat with about 30 other people.

The second trip we booked was with Dolphin Safari, who are also based in Ocean Village and have an office there too. The boat did leave about half an hour late, but this can sometimes be the case depending on what the boat did/didn’t see on the previous trip. The boat is smaller and we only have 9 people aboard, which makes for more intimate viewing. The staff in the office were really friendly and also helpful on the phone when we were desperately trying to find something to do that day.

We headed out and across the bay (different route to Dolphin Adventure) towards Algeciras on the Spanish side of the bay. After about 40 minutes of cruising without any sightings, we turned out towards the Straight of Gibraltar and rougher waters. Just as we thought it was probably time to turn back, we started to see striped dolphins. Soon we saw probably 20 or so in different groups, many of them leaping out of the water and getting the “classic” dolphin encounter of them jumping in the bow wave as we motored along. This was really good viewing and although it didn’t quite make up for the cancelled whale trips, it did mean we saw something great that day.

We picked up our hire car and made the 1 hour journey to Tarifa and just as we were about to descend the hill down into town, we spotted some Griffon Vultures riding the thermals and pulled over to observe them for a few minutes.

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Griffon Vulture, Tarifa Spain

Wildlife watching is a game of patience, you can spend hours and see nothing at all and, often you may have to wait until the last minute until you finally see something that will make it all worthwhile. It’s important to just the experience being out in the open enjoying nature and if you’re luck, you might be rewarded.