The final leaving post: Portland Bill
After kicking off Autumnwatch 2009 in Herefordshire, we sent Chris and Kate on a mission down to the Weymouth area of Dorset to the last leaving post for many a gargantuan migration.
Autumn is the perfect season to watch movement. This could be in drips and drabs, smallish groups or by the thousand. It's a sight that happens all over the UK, with birds moving in, and out. Our coastlines and coastal reserves are a hive of activity, and whether you want to see birds leaving, or arriving over head, it's the perfect time to put your boots on, pick up the binoculars and get out there and see it happening.
At this time of year many species are setting off for foreign lands, chasing the summer sun and warmer temperatures, and escaping the chilly British weather.
Portland and Weymouth are perfect locations to witness this autumn event.
Portland Bill's famous Bird Observatory coupled with one of Britain's most urban RSPB reserves, Lake Radipole make this area of Dorset the ideal staging post for birds about to embark on their long journeys south.
(Read about Chris' visit to his old stomping ground.)
The reedbeds at Radipole are a warbler's dream as they heave with chiffchaff, reed and sedge warblers and other migrants as well as many resident species. It is also often the last feeding site for the hirundines (swallows and martins) before they take on the daunting 60-mile flight to the continent. This year the reserve made the news when marsh harriers were found nesting there for the first time in 50 years.
So our team drove down to Weymouth on Monday to join the camera team who had been there for three days. We had set them the challenge to see and film as many migrant birds as possible. The overwintering wildfowl and wader numbers were low still: Lodmoor reserve only had one bar-tailed godwit, and the UK's first brent geese only just arrived in the UK during our stay.
Whilst in Weymouth we were alerted to a slightly different seasonal story; about a familiar bird, but unusual behaviour. The pied wagtail traditionally prefer to roost in habitats near water such as reedbeds, but are commonly found now in urban areas, in parks and amongst buildings, where we think the heat is an attractive feature. It was in a ferry car park that we found our wagtails. Chris said afterwards that is was the noise that really surprised him. The sound of the wagtails beak snapping is simply weird. The strange distorted noise filling the ferry terminal in Weymouth added a brilliant sound to this magnificent sight.
Monday saw a glimmer of the Indian summer we had all been wishing for, but on Tuesday we awoke to fog, rain and winds, not the ideal conditions for wildlife filming. Not ideal for migration either, so many of the travelling birds had taken a break from battling the winds and rested up in the small shrubs and bushes within the Portland Bird Observatory waiting for it all to die down. This did however give us a good time to set out our mist nets and ring some of the birds.
Our last great find on our busy three Dorset days had very little to do with migration, but was a Springwatch/Autumnwatch first. Possibly one of Britain's most beautiful birds, some might even say 'cute', the bearded tit (Panurus biarmicus) completely displays some really amazing seasonal behaviour. In spring and summer it feeds on insects, but in autumn it has to change its diet to seeds, fruits and berries. During the autumn they can be seen 'irrupting' from the reedbeds; they reach 5-10 metre heights before floating back down into the safety of the reeds. Now is the best time of year to see this, particularly in the calm, warm mornings around reed beds.
Other great locations to watch the migration story: