National Trust Purbeck Wildlife

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Brand’s Bay Birdwatch

Low tide at Brand’s Bay, Studland

This is a great time to visit Brand’s Bay, the arm of Poole Harbour bordered by the Studland Peninsula and Greenlands Farm, where the numbers of wintering waders and ducks are at their peak.  A fascinating part of birdwatching here is the change through the day as the rhythm of the tides affects the numbers, species and behaviour of the birds present.  At low tide waders search for food, probing the soft mud with long bills to capture ragworms, lugworms, shrimps, clams and mud snails.  As the tide flows in, the birds are forced to move closer to the shore and this is a good time to visit the hide.  Eventually the waders are forced to leave the mudflats to roost on the small islands or surrounding marshland.  Then the grebes and diving ducks move in, disappearing underwater to pursue small fish and crustaceans.



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Great Eggcase hunt

Mermaid’s purses washed up on Studland Beach

from left to right eggcases of undulate ray, spotted ray and thornback ray.

Organised by the Shark Trust, the Great Eggcase Hunt aims to get as many people as possible hunting for shark and skate eggcases along the seashore.  Commonly known as mermaid’s purses these capsules provide protection and nourishment for the developing fish before it emerges as a miniature version of the adult.

Recently, a group of students from Kingston Maurward College combed the entire Studland beach from Shell Bay to South Beach finding a total of 33 eggcases. Each species has a slightly different structure so if they are in good condition it is possible to identify the fish that laid them.

The most significant species here is the undulate ray. Classed as endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) they are protected and cannot be landed by commercial fishermen.



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Ain’t nothing but a houndshark

Common smooth-hound on Studland Beach Kate Mayo

Yes I know it’s a tiddler but it’s still a shark.  This common smooth-hound or houndshark was washed up on Studland beach.  It was just less than 3 feet, the maximum size they grow to in the UK.  Smooth-hounds are an inshore species and the shallow waters of Poole Bay are ideal for them.  Harmless to humans, they eat mainly crustaceans like crabs and lobsters.

Around 40 types of shark have been recorded around the British Coast, the porbeagle being the most common and the basking shark the biggest.  Recent research from the University of Southampton suggests some notorious shark species such as hammerheads, blacktips and sand tigers, already present off the coasts of Spain and Portugal, could be coming our way in the next few decades as sea temperatures rise.


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Strangers in the Night

Prime nightjar habitat at Studland

Now is a great time for a walk on a moonlit, windless night over the heath as nightjars are back on their breeding territories.

They are invisible during the day when they rest brilliantly camouflaged on the ground or motionless on a tree branch.  But come nightfall they take to the wing to hunt insects.

If you are lucky enough to be close to where one is flying you may just make out a shape similar to a kestrel or cuckoo, with pointed wings, a long tail and perhaps even the white patches in the wings.

Much more likely though is that you will hear the rise and fall of a sustained ‘churring’ made by males from a perch on a small tree or post.

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Newt Alert

a collection of palmate and smooth newts

It was quite a surprise when workmen carrying out access improvements next to the Knoll Beach visitor centre came in to the office with a handful of newts.  They were in a winter sleep, cold and torpid.  Looking closer behind the loosened wooden revetment, many more newts were emerging from the bank, 24 in total, a greater number than were recorded in the whole of the three year Cyril Diver project.

Advice was quickly given by our ecologist, David Brown, and consequently work was put on hold to a later date.  The bank was reinstated and the newts returned to their slumber.  One night in a month or so, probably unseen, they will become active again and have to crawl across the car park to the nearest pools behind the sand dunes.

The question now is how many more newts are tucked away for the winter in similar spots around the car park?


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Seabirds on the Edge

Kittiwakes nest on sheer cliffs

It comes as quite a shock when a bird you are familiar with is reported as being at risk of global extinction. So my heart sank when I read that kittiwake has just been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List (IUCN is the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it).

Kittiwakes are a type of seagull but a true seabird as they are ocean-going, only coming to the cliffs between April and July to raise their young. Around 30 pairs nest on the Purbeck Coast but the vast majority of British birds are in northern England and Scotland. I have worked at and visited many seabird colonies, including NT’s Farne Islands, where the sound of thousands of nesting kittiwakes is a stirring part of these wildlife spectacles.

Their decline is likely to be the result of overfishing of sandeels for animal feed and fertiliser and rising sea surface temperatures reducing the abundance of plankton on which sandeels feed.

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Seal Spotting

Grey seal

Common seals, also known as harbour seals, are seen fairly often within Poole Harbour and a survey by Dorset Wildlife Trust recorded up to five present during this year.  One individual, originally tagged in France, has been resident since 2008.

Seals seen at sea off the Purbeck Coast are more likely to be the larger Atlantic grey seal.  Sightings increase in the autumn as pups move away from their breeding sites in Devon and Cornwall.

Both species can be very friendly and approachable and the local press featured several stories this summer about seals in the harbour nosing around small fishing boats and even swimming alongside children in a little rubber dinghy.

In the winter of 2014/15, a cheeky female grey seal, which was christened Smiley, seemed to enjoy swimming around rowers and kayakers off Studland Beach, even attempting to clamber aboard.

DWT is monitoring them through the Dorset Seal Project.  Please report sightings and photos if possible to ‘’.