Monday, 13 June 2016

To Brownsea for a Sandwich 11th June 2016

I think we all have places in the back of our mind that we wish to visit and never quite get round to doing so. Brownsea Island at Poole Harbour in Dorset was such a place for me. Year after year I would determine to definitely go and see the nesting terns and gulls but never quite got round to it.

Finally, with the option of visiting Otmoor or Brownsea on Saturday I headed for the latter although having serious second thoughts at missing out on the social side at Otmoor where my fellow Oxonbirders traditionally gather on a Saturday morning. The weather was also none too good, as following a week of sunshine I faced a morning of grey cloud and slight drizzle.

My resolve remained strong. I was going to Brownsea come what may and I cheered myself with the news that the drizzle was forecast to pass although the cloud would remain which is not so good for photography. 

The ferry to Brownsea goes from Sandbanks, well known as being the most expensive place to live in the UK and arriving there at 9.30am I was left in no doubt about the affluence - driving down leafy boulevards, enlivened by purple rhododendrons hiding huge, modern, architect designed houses, all plate glass and electric gated. Strangely though, it was possible to park a couple of roads back from the seafront for free, so leaving the car outside one of the temples to mammon I got my stuff together and walked a few hundred yards to the ferry.

The first ferry is at 10am and then sailings are every half an hour. I parted with £6.75 for a return ticket for the five minute crossing, dispensed by a friendly and helpful lady in the booth and awaited boarding. 
The ferry to Brownsea Island
I knew that to visit Brownsea on a weekend would mean there would be a lot more visitors than during the week so aimed to get the first ferry crossing. What I had not taken into account was that it was also the day where the UK went on one of its periodic departures from sanity, this time to celebrate Mrs Windsor's ninetieth birthday.  Brownsea Island is also where Baden Powell held an experimental camp in 1907 which led to the formation of The Scout Movement in 1908 and today it seemed every local scout and guide pack was descending on Brownsea Island to go over and have a picnic and celebrate. I failed to get on the first crossing as this was packed with guides and scouts but achieved success on the second.

Brownsea Island is now owned by The National Trust so on arrival I was given the option of joining the trust for £63.00 a year or part with £7.00 for a day visit. I sensibly settled for the latter and duly gained access to the island's interior. 

Houses by the landing stage at Brownsea Island
One hundred hectares on the north side of the island is leased from the National Trust and managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT), including the internationally important brackish lagoon. The first Little Egrets to breed in Britain nested here, up to 1500 Avocets spend the winter here and in summer it is renowned for its nesting terns and gulls which was the purpose of my visit today.

Swiftly making my way to the Dorset Wildlife Trust section I parted with another £2.00 and  walked down the track to the two hides overlooking the lagoon. 

Trail to the DWT Visitor Centre
Thankfully at this comparatively early hour there were hardly any other visitors on the island and those that were, including the guides and scouts, took the National Trust track to either the picnic area with its semi wild Peacocks or the trail beyond.

I ventured into the first hide, Low Hide, where I was alone and looked out on a number of small scrapes providing nesting places for the ubiquitous Black headed Gulls and, on another scrape a congregation of Common Terns. I checked the nesting gulls and found my first target, a Mediterranean Gull brooding a chick. This gull when in breeding plumage has to be one of the most attractive of gulls around. Marginally larger than the Black headed Gulls, it has a solid black hood set off by blood red bill and legs, and red and white eyelids. I could not help but think how patriotic on this day of ceremonial nonsense. Its upperparts are a delicate shade of palest grey and its flight feathers are pure white giving it a ghost like appearance when in flight or with wings spread. I savoured this vision for some time as it is not often I get to see Mediterranean Gulls in summer plumage. I should add that the nesting birds keep up an endless cacophony of noise, screaming and squawking  with constant movement as birds come and go from the scrapes or bicker with rivals who get too close. Quiet it most certainly was not.

Mediterranean Gull
A pair of Shelducks shepherded their five tiny young across the mud and an Oystercatcher waded thigh deep through the gloop, its normally red bill and pink legs turned black by the cloying mud. Further out a large number of its fellows were roosting on a mud bank together with a couple of Curlews.

Female Shelduck and young
Male Shelduck and young
Looking to my left from the hide I could see the other hide that looked to be very close to a few larger scrapes containing Sandwich Terns and Black headed Gulls so headed there, conscious that as the time passed more and more people would be landing on the island and the hides would become crowded.

The second hide called Macdonald Hide looked directly out onto the lagoon and the scrapes. The closest scrape was crammed full of Sandwich Terns and Black headed Gulls and the noise was incredible, mainly coming from the Sandwich Terns who emitted ear jarring kiirrrick cries at every possible opportunity. 

The tern and gull scrapes as seen from the MacDonald Hide
Nesting Sandwich Terns
The comings and goings of the terns kept me constantly attentive as parent birds arrived with a variety of small fish or sandeels to feed their small young, circling the island and then settling in the midst of the throng to deliver the fish and inevitably being greeted by their mate, who was guarding their offspring, with another ear splitting kiirrick. Having delivered its fish the adult would then depart with another harsh cry  leaving its mate to guard their young and bicker with the other terns. I noticed that the adult terns displayed a considerable variation in the amount of black on their heads, most were completely black whilst some showed only a little black, possibly a sign of early moult. Frayed tail feathers and worn wing feathers testified to how hard the adults have to  work in raising their young. 

The Black headed Gulls regularly attempted to mug the incoming terns carrying their fish but the Sandwich Terns, robust and with formidable, black dagger bills were not about to relinquish their hard won fish and would swoop up and away from the gulls and make another circuit of the scrape before coming in to land, still with the fish. I never once saw a Black headed Gull make a successful attempt to gain a fish from the terns.

The scrapes were surrounded by posts each with its attendant Black headed Gull on top. I only ever saw one Sandwich Tern and one Common Tern perch on these posts while I was there as they seemed too busy bringing food or deterred by the ever present gulls. 

Sandwich Tern
Common Tern
The posts were holding up a wall of chicken wire around the scrapes to some height as a protection from marauding larger gulls such as a couple of Greater Black backed Gulls which lurked on one of the other unprotected scrapes and indeed managed to gobble down at least one Black headed Gull chick. There were gull chicks of varying sizes and some of the larger Black headed Gull chicks ventured further out from the protective wire, large enough now to be safer from the attentions of the Herring and Greater Black backed Gulls. 

The tern and gull scrapes in the lagoon as seen from the MacDonald Hide

Black headed Gull
Gimmee that fish..........
Black headed Gull fledglings
A few Mediterranean Gulls were also nesting amongst the gulls and terns, discreetly hidden away in the short vegetation and more to the edge of the throng. Eventually I tired of taking photos, the day remained dull and grey and the light was awful for photography, so I just sat, looked, listened and enjoyed the constantly evolving spectacle of a seabird nesting colony.  An hour or so passed very pleasantly and slowly the hide began to fill up. It was time to move on and I followed the trail to the DWT Visitor Centre, housed in a large Gothic style villa and there on the bird feeders was, for me, the other must see sight on Brownsea Island, a Red Squirrel scoffing peanuts as fast as it could. 

Dorset Wildlife Visitor Centre on Brownsea Island
A very old tree by the wooded trail to The Visitor Centre

Ever so cute, whatever position they adopt they are instantly adorable and attractive, our only native squirrel and here safe from the depredations of the more robust non native Grey Squirrel.

I planned to spend three hours on the island but after two hours the island was rapidly becoming populated by troops of guides, scouts, visiting parties of birders and just people out for the day. Nothing to complain about there but I felt, for me that I had got the best of the island when it was quiet, so I headed back to the ferry and in a few minutes was back on the mainland and after lunch in a very nice cafe near the seafront I headed for home.

Another of life's little milestones achieved.

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