13/05/2009
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Birding the New Forest in late spring and summer

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The New Forest has long been recognised as a hotspot for rare and scarce breeding birds, including iconic species such as Honey Buzzard and Hobby. In recent years Goshawk and Raven have also become established and numbers of Nightjars and Firecrests have dramatically increased, although Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are slowly declining. This short article is intended to provide a brief overview of some of the New Forest target species, their current status, and the tactics required to see them during the late spring and summer.


Raven at sunrise (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Note that many of the species outlined in this article are protected and special care should be taken not be disturb them during the breeding season. As a consequence, the only specific sites listed are those where birds can be safely viewed from roads, major tracks or well-known watchpoints. In particular, don't wander from paths in heathland/wetland areas, as ground-nesting birds (and Adders!) occur in these habitats.

Finally, always check yourself for ticks when you get home, especially after walking along woodland rides with long grass or bracken. A leaflet outlining the potential risks of Lyme Disease derived from tick bites can be found here.

Honey Buzzard

This species is still a rare breeder in the New Forest, with no more than four pairs reported in recent years, supplemented by a small number of non-breeding birds. The first Honey Buzzards usually appear on territory in the first half of May, and displaying males can then be encountered over suitable blocks of woodland into June. Birds are then seen sporadically throughout the summer months.

The best tactic for this species is to settle in at an elevated watchpoint, preferably overlooking a large expanse of mixed forest. The favoured site is Acres Down (SU270090), and the optimal conditions are warm days, with sun or light cloud, and a bit of breeze in the air. Most raptors become active from mid-morning onwards, as the air starts to warm up. The period from 09:00–12:00 is often the most rewarding. Once you start seeing the abundant Common Buzzards taking to the skies then it's time to start concentrating!

Other raptors are frequently encountered during such watches. For example, I have seen Osprey, Red Kite and Marsh Harrier migrating over the forest in the last two springs, and there have been tantalising reports of unidentified eagles seen by experienced raptor watchers in recent years.


Female Honey Buzzard: a decent garden tick! (Photo: Russell Wynn)

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Goshawk

Goshawks are a major success story of the last decade, with a marked increase in the number of breeding pairs and high productivity. For example, in 2007, eight pairs were reported to have raised 18 young in the forest, with Grey Squirrels and Woodpigeons being favoured prey. In addition to the breeding pairs, immature non-breeding birds are also regularly encountered, and the total population may now exceed 40 individuals. There have been reports that the increasing population is leading to occasional conflict with Honey Buzzards and Hobbies, although it is not yet clear whether this is affecting the populations of these species.

The breeding cycle of Goshawk differs from that of Honey Buzzard, and by late April most display has ceased. However, birds are regularly seen soaring over woodland areas in suitable conditions throughout spring and summer. As with Honey Buzzard, it is rare to come across Goshawks while wandering through the forest, so dedicated mid- to late morning raptor-watching sessions from elevated viewpoints (e.g. Acres Down) are the favoured tactic. Listen out for alarm calls of small birds, while groups of Woodpigeons suddenly bursting out of woodland, or the calls of agitated corvids, may also indicate that a Goshawk is on the prowl nearby.


Male Goshawk (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Images of breeding Goshawks in the New Forest can now be viewed at:

Hobby

This aerobatic falcon arrives in the Forest from mid-April onwards, and the total summer population is probably in the region of 100 individuals. Birds can be seen over any part of the Forest, but the best views are often obtained when loose flocks (sometimes containing ten or more birds) gather over wetland areas to feast on dragonflies and damselflies. Early in the season these gatherings consist of pre-breeding adults, but later in the summer a significant proportion of birds are non-breeders in first-summer plumage. Favoured areas include the Woodfidley Bog/Bishops Dyke area (SU3405), and peaks of activity often occur during mid- to late morning and again in the early evening. Sitting quietly in cover adjacent to a feeding area can produce great views, with birds often flying close enough to allow the crunch of dismembered insects to be heard!


Hobby, probably in first-summer plumage (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Nightjar

The churring of Nightjars is a familiar sound of the New Forest heaths on summer evenings, with the most recent survey in 2004 producing a population estimate approaching 600 territories. Most of the larger heaths hold several pairs, with Acres Down and Bishops Dyke being popular sites. The best tactic for encountering Nightjars is to settle in on the margins of a heathland area an hour or so before dusk. Roding Woodcocks and calling Tawny Owls are also regularly encountered as darkness approaches. Try to ensure that you wear dark clothing, and avoid standing silhouetted against the western sky.

Nightjars are most active on sultry, warm evenings, but these are also optimal conditions for small biting insects, so be prepared! Birds start calling at dusk and can often be seen hunting and displaying as darkness approaches. Positioning yourself so that you look west over your target heath will help you see birds in silhouette against the fading light. Some birders apply the 'Bill Oddie' technique, and wave around white tissues to try and encourage territorial males to come in close. However, this distracts the birds from their normal activities and makes you look like you need help; it is definitely not something I would recommend!

Although most birders traditionally look for Nightjars at dusk, some of my best views of displaying birds have been at dawn. This requires a very early start in mid-summer, but it does provide the opportunity to follow birds as they return to favoured perches.


Day-roosting male Nightjar (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

This species appears to be declining in the New Forest, possibly due to increasing numbers of Sparrowhawks and Great Spotted Woodpeckers. The latter species often predates the nest of its smaller relative, while the remains of adult Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers have been found in Sparrowhawk nests in recent summers. In 2007, no more than 40 sites held Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, with the most reliable locations being areas of mature deciduous woodland such as Mark Ash Wood (SU2407) and Denny Wood (SU3305). Territorial males can frequently be heard calling into May, but this species becomes much harder to encounter in the summer months. The best tactic is to move slowly and quietly through suitable woodland areas, stopping frequently to listen and scan for movement in the middle and upper sections of mature deciduous trees such as oak, beech and birch.

Woodlark

Survey work in 2006 located a total of 152–171 Woodlark territories in the New Forest, a slight decrease on the 181–185 pairs found in 1997 but still much higher than the 55–80 territories recorded in the late 1980s. The favoured habitat is heathland margins with scattered trees and bushes. Acres Down and Bishops Dyke usually hold multiple territories. Bright sunny mornings are the best time to encounter the rich, fluty song of territorial males, but breeding birds can be seen at any time of day.


Woodlark (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Dartford Warbler

This New Forest resident can be found at most heathland sites, with survey work in 2006 indicating a minimum population of 400–500 pairs. Birds are most active and vocal on warm, sunny mornings with light winds, and in these conditions singing males can often be seen perched on top of elevated perches such as gorse bushes. Dartford Warblers are frequently seen associating with Stonechats, so if you find a pair of Stonechats keep an eye on the underlying heather, as there will often be a Dartford Warbler lurking underneath. Both species are relatively easy to see in the Bishops Dyke area.


Dartford Warbler (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Wood Warbler

Wood Warblers arrive on the forest during late April and May, and the total population is likely to be in excess of 100 territories. Singing males can be encountered at any time of day, especially early in the season, although bright, sunny conditions are optimal. This species is most regularly encountered in deciduous woodland, especially in small valleys adjacent to streams and ditches. A favoured area is the small valley at Barrow Moor, running northwest from the car parks adjoining Bolderwood Ornamental Drive (SU257066 and SU254067). Birds are often heard singing from the car park but, if not, a walk along the valley for a few hundred metres is normally successful.

Firecrest

This species has shown a dramatic increase in recent years, with a peak of 145 territories located across the forest in 2007 (compared to no more than 20 in the mid–1990s). Firecrests arrive back on territory in early spring: for example survey work carried out this year revealed that most birds arrived between 21st February and 15th March. Singing continues throughout May and June, sometimes later, but birds become harder to see from mid-summer onwards. The highest density of territories is based around Rhinefield and Bolderwood Ornamental Drives in the central forest, and birds are usually heard singing adjacent to the car parks at Bolderwood (SU243086) and Rhinefield (SU268047). Note that early mornings are optimal for hearing singing birds at these sites, due to the inevitable influx of cars and tourists.

Hawfinch

The New Forest is a national stronghold for this species, with pairs thinly scattered across most areas of mature deciduous woodland. In winter Hawfinches are relatively easy to locate at their communal roost sites; however, they are much harder to see in late spring and summer. A working knowledge of their strange calls, including a penetrating 'pix' and various subdued squeaks and whistles, will greatly increase the chances of encountering one of these birds, especially once the trees are in full leaf. Open areas of beech and oak woodland such as Mark Ash Wood and Denny Wood regularly hold breeding pairs, and the best tactic is to keep ears open and eyes on the treetops, while moving slowly and quietly. Alternatively, choosing an elevated viewpoint or clearing overlooking a suitable area of woodland can produce flight views of birds passing overhead; Acres Down is one area where birds can be seen in flight and sometimes perched in distant treetops.

Crossbill

Numbers of Crossbills in the New Forest fluctuate from year to year. A few pairs breed annually, but by late spring/early summer breeding has finished and roving parties of adults, juveniles and non-breeders can then be encountered. Area of large conifers adjoining open heaths often hold the largest numbers, with Beaulieu Road Station (SU348063) and Bolderwood car park (SU243086) being popular locations. Birds can sometime be seen drinking from puddles (following periods of wet weather) at both of these sites, although early mornings are best as they are both well populated with tourists later in the day. Crossbills can sometimes be picked up while roving through coniferous woodland: just listen for the crunch of pine cones being split open and/or look for discarded pine husks dropping to the floor. If you see or hear this, it will either be a Crossbill or a Grey Squirrel at the top of the tree!

Other notable bird species

Breeding Water Rail, Lapwing, Curlew, Snipe and Redshank can be found in wetter areas of the forest, although the latter four species are all declining and under increasing pressure from disturbance. Tree Pipit, Redstart, Marsh Tit and Spotted Flycatcher are present in most large blocks of mature deciduous woodland. Willow Tits are also sporadically reported, but there are no records consistent with a breeding population, and it is likely that many reports refer to misidentified Marsh Tits. Siskins can be found in several coniferous inclosures, but Redpolls are now restricted to just a handful of sites, mostly in deciduous trees alongside streams or boggy areas. Ravens now breed at several locations within and adjacent to the New Forest, and are regularly seen flying overhead or heard 'cronking' in the distance. Mandarin Ducks, Little Egrets, Kingfishers and Grey Wagtails are occasionally encountered alongside larger ponds and streams.


Red Deer can also be seen in the New Forest (Photo: Russell Wynn)

In summary, the New Forest remains a fantastic area for the visiting birder, and with a bit of luck all of the target species listed above can be encountered in a single day. Aside from the popular, easily accessible sites mentioned here, there are vast areas of open forest that are very under-watched and where you can walk all day without seeing another person. Remember to keep an eye open for late migrants; for example I have found Quail and Golden Oriole in the Bishops Dyke area in early summer, and overshoots such as White Stork, Bee-eater and Red-backed Shrike have also occurred in this area between May and July in recent years. And not all surprises are avian; while ranging across the forest I have stumbled upon copulating couples, satanist rituals and even a mock 'swords and shields' battle!

Further information about visiting the New Forest can be found at:

Finally, I'd like to acknowledge the important contribution of the editorial team of the Hampshire Bird Report and the Hampshire County Recorder, John Clark, in the establishment of population estimates. Copies of the Hampshire Bird Report can be obtained via the Hampshire Ornithological Society website.

Written by: Russell Wynn, New Forest, Hampshire