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17 September 2014
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Portland Bill

Bird watching paradise

Portland Bill

Portland Bill is Dorset's most southerly point, jutting out nearly six miles into the English Channel.

In spring it's a gateway for thousands of migratory birds visiting the UK.

Portland Bill - great spot for bird watching

Portland is a wild and windswept place but it's a safe landfall and the first land many birds encounter as they cross the Channel to the UK.

At Portland Bill's Bird Observatory you can see migration happening before your very eyes.

The area's climate means that coastal vegetation abounds including blackthorn bushes covered in blossom which provide food for insects which in turn attract birds to feed.

Amongst the birds are White Throats which visit from Africa, south of the Sahara.

Also look for the Willow Warbler - it's not easy to see these small, shy birds, but thousands of them will stop off on Portland after epic journeys from the south..

Bird magnet

Willow WarblerThe garden at the Portland Bill Observatory is one of the few vegetated areas on the rocky part of the island so it's a bird magnet especially for smaller species.

The hedges provide a place for the birds to rest and feed on insects.

Common migrant visitors include the Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler - both are known as leaf warblers because they pick the insects from the underside of leaves.

The Willow Warbler is the longest distance migrant of two, travelling 5,000 km from west Africa, from countries like Ghana.

This bird spends much longer on the wing and can be recognised from the bright and prominent stripe on its eye, its lemon front and pale legs.

The Chiffchaff is a smaller bird with a more rounded body, drabber colouring and dark legs. It also comes from western Africa.

Another long haul migrant from north Africa, is the colourful Redstart - the male is easily recognised from its bright orange-red tail, black face and wings, orange rump and chest.

This bird visits Portland on its way to north and west England as it looks for oak woodland habitats.

Also watch out for the Pied Flycatcher - the male is characterised by its black and white markings.

These birds fly over the UK, having travelled from west Africa and also head mainly to oak woodlands.

First sight of Spring

For many people the most evocative sign of spring is the first sighting of a swallow.

Swallows are very long haul birds, flying nearly 10,000 kilometres on epic journeys from Southern Africa to spend their summers at Portland.

These small birds weigh just 20 grams, and, unlike the warblers, they don't bother to stop to feed in the garden at Portland Observatory.

These aerial masters find all they need to eat on the wing.

You might also be lucky enough to see some winter visitors called Purple Sandpipers, mainly around the coastal rocks.

These birds love rocky coastlines where they can pick crustaceans and insects off the rocks.

These migrant birds come to Portland for the winter and usually leave by spring as they fly north to Finland or Russia, although a few stragglers can sometimes be seen into early spring.

Sea watching

WhimbrelWhy not try a spot of sea watching?

Portland is famous for this activity which attracts a regular band of dedicated birders year round .

The birds use the English Channel as a watery motorway.

This is because some of Portland's migrating birds don't like to leave the comfort of the water on the way from Africa to their breeding grounds in Siberia and the Arctic.

Gannets spend the entire winter at sea, before heading off to their breeding colonies around the UK.

Another interesting bird is the Fulmar, which is related to the Albatross, and flies low over the sea on stiff wings.

Gulls can be seen in abundance year-round including Black Backed Gulls, our biggest gull.

Also look out for the Whimbrel which winters in South Africa and has reached these rocks for a short break before it will be off again on its way north to breed in Scotland.

The Linnet can also be spotted in Spring - this beautiful boasts a very melodious song and is recognisable from the bright crimson chest of the male, which is highly coloured at this time as he tries to attract a mate.

Also watch for Dunlins who've spent the winter at Portland and are just about to head north to their breeding grounds.

They develop distinctive black summer plumage on their undersides.

Moth show

MothBirds aren't the only animals that migrate - moths do too and, amazingly, they travel similar distances.

A good place to see the moths is at the top of the cliffs on the east coast of Portland, but you'll have to be prepared to be a night owl.

These moths are fantastic looking and include some of our largest flying insects

Look out for the convolvulus moth which has a five to six inch wingspan that has come thousands of miles from North Africa - it's possibly our biggest flying insect.

Also the Death's Head Hawkmoth which has a skull of bones design on it, hence the name, which is also from Africa and squeaks like a mouse if threatened.

It is thought these moths take off when warm winds are right and travel at up to 40mph.

 

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