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Marsh Harriers, Avocet, Long Tailed Tit – what a birthday!

by Darren

It’s my birthday today.  A couple of days ago I asked people on Twitter whether I should go to Pulborough Brooks or Rye Meads (two of my favourite reserves, both run by the RSPB).  Or should I go to RSPB Arne, down near Wareham in Dorset.  I’d heard great things of this reserve so have been itching to check it out for a while.

Ben Dames, the National Trust’s membership recruiter for Dorset very kindly invited me to join them for their monthly walk.  Indeed he suggested we might also meet up with a few of them for lunch beforehand.  In a pub just a couple of miles from Arne.  Hmm, dawn at Arne, the pub, and a walk with some great views in the afternoon.  it would be rude to say no!

We left at 5.45am (sorry Louise!) and drove to Arne, arriving just as Chris, the ranger, opened the gate shortly before 8am.  As I waited for Louise to park the car he asked “Are you here for the shrike?”  I’d not realised, but there was a rarity, a great-grey shrike on site and hundreds of people had descended on the reserve on Saturday.  Not liking the crowds much, and never being one to chase rarities (as you’ll know, I find common wildlife much more interesting) it filled me with dread.  But hey, we were here and at that moment there were just five people on the reserve.  Time to get going.

We decided to focus on the Coombe Heath part of the reserve rather than going up to Poole Harbour.  We’ll go back to investigate there.  The ranger gave me some tips on locations, and off we went, first to a viewing point and then the main hide.  It was Louise’s first time trying to photograph birds at a reserve, so I let her know about etiquette and good practice (keeping quiet, and trying not to stick lenses out (too far) from the hide).

We got some good views of avocet and oystercatcher, as well as a few pochard, but the channel was quite a distance from the hide so I resorted to stacking a 2x and 1.4x converter on my 500mm – a crazy 1400mm f11 lens.  Of course, that meant no autofocus but I had a bit of fun struggling to get some images of avocet feeding.  Even at that ridiculous length, oystercatcher were just too small.

Nevertheless it was enjoyable watching the tide push the waders up the channel, and got some nice scenics and groups of birds.  We then wandered on and found another hide (blind type rather than full covered) a bit further down the channel, right next to the waterside!  If only I had seen that an hour ago – all the birds were past it by then.  Oh well, a nice wander around the heath gave Louise a chance to practice her macro on some fungi while I ventured into a wood and watched a large group of long tailed tits (interestingly, the collective noun is ‘volery’).  It’s the second large group I’ve seen in the last month and I do think from reports that sightings are increasing.

In terms of pictures, I got very little in the way of close-ups at Arne, but it was mostly down to my own inexperience of the site.  We didn’t see the shrike (although I did play Louise the calls on my phone before we went up to the heath just in case we heard it) and we didn’t see the marsh harrier or peregrine that have been spotted at Arne recently.

Great lunch and chat with Ben and a few others who were joining the walk in the afternoon, including Mark Stanley who is going to walk from the Olympic sailing venue in Weymouth to the stadium in East London next year. Wow!

Onto the walk (some of the participants are pictured above), and all was going well although the route did take us across some farmland and the mud was pretty intense.  Both Louise and I have had flu all over Christmas, and although we thought it had gone, a steep hill got the better of Louise and she started having pain in her chest so we had to slope off and wander back down to the car.  She even managed to get stuck in the mud on the way back and accidentally slip her foot out of a boot so muddy socks!

Just as we got back to the car, a great view of a Marsh Harrier in the sky.  There wasn’t time to rush for a lens so  I just enjoyed the view as it turned and went back inland.  Then on the way home, a really close encounter with another flying right across the road.

Not a great haul of pics, but a fabulous day and an interesting nature reserve bookmarked for future exploration.

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