National Trust Purbeck Wildlife

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Bees Beware

Something is busy underground in the dunes leaving little piles of sand beneath small D-shaped holes.  Wait patiently and a striking wasp will reverse out of the opening dragging a fresh excavation as it adds another extension to its burrow.  It’s a beewolf, a solitary digger wasp that lays eggs underground and not in a hive.

Beewolves eat nectar and pollen, but there is a grisly side to the story.

Females capture honeybees, paralyse them with a sting and carry them back to the burrow where they seal them into a chamber still alive along with a single egg.  When the egg hatches into a larva, the entombed bee is food until the larva is big enough to spin a cocoon and pupate for the winter.  Come the summer a new wasp will emerge from the burrow.

Beewolves were once considered a rarity but there has been a huge increase in range and abundance since the late 1980’s.


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Swollen-thighed beetle

Beetles are fascinating creatures with a wide range of forms and lifestyles and around 4000 species in the UK.

Some are very familiar to us, ladybirds for example, but did you know there was such a thing as a swollen-thighed beetle? This one was feeding on pollen from a scabious flower at Shell Bay.

Bloody-nosed beetles have always been a favourite of mine, lumbering along Purbeck’s coastal paths and producing bright red fluid from their mouths when picked up while anything to do with poop becomes of immediate interest to children so dung beetles are always a great find for them.

Look for heath tiger beetles, a charcoal-black beetle with distinctive yellow markings, in the dry, sandy parts of the heathland. This is a nationally scarce and endangered insect and one of the heathland species targeted by the ‘Back from the Brink’ project ( so let us know the date and location of any sightings.

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A Prickly Character

Gorse flower

As a naturalist you have to admire gorse.  It’s tough – able to thrive in harsh environments; it’s resilient – cut or burn it and it grows back even thicker than before; and it’s diverse – there are three different species in Dorset.  It’s full of spiders and mites and a favourite perch for stonechats, linnets and Dartford warblers.

 It’s a leading character in a sensory nature walk.  In full bloom the yellow clusters of pea-flowers are a treat for the eyes and scent the air with coconut. The edible flowers can be decoratively sprinkled on salads but be careful collecting as the spines are fierce to the touch.  Then in the heat of midsummer the seed pods pop and crackle.

 And it has good stories too – it burns fast and exceptionally hot so ideal for traditional bread ovens in times gone by and goes by several different names including whin and furze.


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Business as usual

The view from Priest’s Way

On a wild, blustery day when getting things done outside feels like a battle it’s wonderful to see how birds adapt to and even revel in these conditions.

Coming across the ferry in high winds today, a cormorant flew into the harbour more or less perpendicular to the wind direction.  The bird appeared to be flying sideways, its body angled at 45 degrees to the direction of travel so generating enough forward momentum to stay on its desired course despite the fierce wind.

A pair of crows crossing from Sandbanks to Shell Bay flew low to the sea, skimming the waves like true seabirds and of course the gulls, looking sleek in the wind, were having a ball.

It was a similar story yesterday.  While digging post holes with the Rangers on Priest’s way, it was entertaining to watch the rooks flying up from the field, doing some aerobatics and then landing in virtually the same spot as well as the buffeted gangs of jackdaws going about their business as usual.


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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.