National Trust Purbeck Wildlife

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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 ‘’.


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Is it a bird…?

The brilliant late August sunshine brought a reasonably good showing of our most colourful butterflies – red admirals, peacocks, commas and an occasional painted lady (though hardly any small tortoiseshells). But these were eclipsed in my view by seeing one of our most unusual moths.


Hummingbird hawk-moths look and behave just like tiny hummingbirds. Not only do they hover over flowers and flit about like hummingbirds, but they also appear to have ‘feathers’ and a ‘tail’, which are actually elongated hairs.  The moths feed from flowers using a proboscis which, at one inch long, is almost the same length as its body.


They are migrants from Southern Europe and are one of the species currently being studied by Butterfly Conservation to map the arrival, spread and departure of migrant insects.  You can report your sightings through their website (search for ‘migrant watch’)


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Pond Life

new pond at Middle Beach

In the long term, landscape-scale conservation projects, such as acquiring new land, advising farmers and landowners, working with business and influencing national policy are essential to maintaining a healthy natural environment.  This is exactly what our Land, Outdoors and Nature strategy is all about.  But there is still room for small projects that can make a difference to wildlife diversity.  So check out the little pond recently made by the Studland Beach Rangers behind the huts at Middle Beach.  Already it is surrounded by lush vegetation with impressive spikes of purple loose-strife and colonised by whirligig beetles, water boatmen, pond skaters and three types of damselfly – large red, azure and blue-tailed.


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Six of the Best

Heath tiger beetle by Bryan Edwards

Head for the heath this month for a chance of seeing hobbies, a small falcon that looks like a giant swift hunting dragonflies and swallows in high speed chases.  Stay on to dusk and you’ll hear nightjars churring and with luck, see one in its strange, mechanical flight, silhouetted against the darkening sky.

In damp, boggy areas, cross-leaved heath, the prettiest of the common heathers, is showing clusters of pale pink flowers and where there are areas of bare ground or very short heather, look out for the lovely silver-studded blue butterfly.

Sand lizards are widespread on the dry, sandy parts of the heathland and this is also the place to look for heath tiger beetles, a charcoal-black beetle with distinctive yellow markings.  This is a nationally scarce and endangered species so please let us know the date and location of any sightings.


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Warbler Explorer

Grasshopper warbler (

Affectionately known as LBJ’s or ‘little brown jobs’, warblers can be tricky to identify.  Some do what it says on the tin, so a whitethroat has a white throat and a male blackcap has a black cap, but try picking out willow warbler from wood warbler or chiffchaff in a leafy tree.  The answer of course is to listen – they all sound very different.  Learning the song makes identification so much easier.

This is most useful with the ‘skulkers’, secretive birds like Dartford warblers that creep amongst the thick heather or reed warblers that stay low down in the midst of a dense reedbed.  I was lucky enough to come across a grasshopper warbler earlier this week.  These are champion skulkers so I didn’t get a sight of it, but still enjoyed hearing its distinctive reel, rising and falling as the bird turned its head.