Site Guide to Christchurch Harbour


In the early 1980s Christchurch Harbour was welcomed into the county of Dorset as part of a county boundary reshuffle that saw it moved from Hampshire. Because of its comparatively smaller size, Christchurch Harbour can be often overshadowed by nearby Poole Harbour, but what it lacks in numbers it certainly makes up for in variety.

Christchurch Harbour is a natural harbour formed by the confluence of the Rivers Avon and Stour. The harbour is bordered to the north by the town of Christchurch and the south by Hengistbury Head. The area itself does not cover a large area but has, to date, had over 300 species recorded within its boundaries. The area is close to the large urban areas of Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch, but thankfully enjoys protection as a Local Nature Reserve.

A wide variety of habitats can be found, ranging from saltmarsh, freshwater marsh and reedbed to woodland, meadows, scrub and sea cliffs. There are four main birdwatching sites that are easy to visit and access is relatively unrestricted: Stanpit Marsh, Priory Marsh, Wick Fields and Hengistbury Head.

Brent Goose: Counts regularly reach one hundred or more. (Photo: Steve Botham) Great Northern Diver: Birds can be found during the winter. (Photo: John Malloy)

During the winter months the harbour teems with a diverse selection of wildfowl and waders, often holding surprisingly large numbers of waterfowl for such a relatively small expanse. Ducks dominate, with particularly high numbers of Wigeon and Teal, and lesser numbers of Gadwall, Pintail, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Pochard, Tufted Duck and Shoveler. These species are most frequently observed on and around Stanpit Marsh and Priory Bay, where during periods of colder weather, Scaup, Goosander, Smew, Bewick’s Swan and White-fronted Geese can be regularly seen seeking refuge. Brent Geese are a very conspicuous feature of Stanpit Marsh during winter and counts regularly reach one hundred or more. Sea duck, divers and the rarer grebes are uncommon visitors to the harbour but can often be located off Hengistbury Head and around Poole Bay. Eider and Common Scoter are the commonest of the sea duck to be found, along with the odd Great Northern Diver and Slavonian Grebe.

Purple Sandpiper: Typically found on the groynes that spread along the beach at Hengistbury Head. (Photo: Andrew Easton) Jack Snipe: Priory Marsh is one of the most reliable sites in the region for this secretive species. (Photo: Jerry O'Brien)

Waders can be a little more unpredictable in occurrence than wildfowl, but good numbers of Black-tailed Godwits, Redshank, Snipe, Curlew and Lapwing are usually present, often joined by Knot, Avocet, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit, Greenshank, Common Sandpiper and Ruff. Two winter wader specialities are Jack Snipe and Purple Sandpiper. The small regular flock of Purple Sandpiper typically frequent the groynes that spread along the beach at Hengistbury Head and continue round to Southbourne. Priory Marsh is one of the most reliable sites in the region for Jack Snipe, but true to type they are very difficult to observe.

Firecrest: The small wood on the harbour side of Hengistbury has recently become a regular wintering site for this jewel. (Photo: John Wilmer) Chiffchaff: In common with many sites, this is now a regular wintering bird of the area. (Photo: Sue and Andy Tranter)

Aside from the wildfowl and waders, Christchurch Harbour does have a selection of interesting birds that can be found in the winter. Water Pipits have taken to wintering on Priory and Stanpit Marsh, being more regular of late with flocks occasionally reaching double figures. Bearded Tit, Cetti's Warbler, Kingfisher, Water Rail, Reed Bunting and Little Egret can all be found and every now and again a Bittern puts in an appearance. The small wood on the harbour side of Hengistbury has more recently become a regular wintering site for Firecrest and Chiffchaff, along with occasional Brambling, Woodcock and Crossbill.

Due its geographical position, Christchurch Harbour is an excellent place to watch migrant birds in the spring and autumn. Wader numbers and diversity significantly increase from early March onwards in the spring and from mid-August in the autumn. Stanpit Marsh is the favoured haunt of the majority of the wader species, although smaller numbers can be found around the shores of Hengistbury Head, Wick Hams and Mudeford. Numbers of Curlew, Lapwing, Redshank and Oystercatcher increase and are often joined by large flocks of Whimbrel, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-tailed Godwit, and small but regular numbers of Greenshank, Knot, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Spotted Redshank, Little Stint, Little Ringed Plover, Avocet, Ruff, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper and Curlew Sandpiper.

Seabird passage off Hengistbury Head in spring can be particularly productive, when quite large numbers of terns, gulls, waders can pass through in a day. The most frequent species include Common Tern, Little Tern, Arctic Tern and Black Terns, plus Little Gull and Kittiwake. Manx Sheartwater, Storm Petrel, Velvet Scoter and Gannet are frequently observed, and Skua passage can be obvious, with Pomarine Skua, Great Skua and Arctic Skua being fairly regular. During gales and storms, Hengistbury and the surrounding area can be excellent for storm-driven birds taking refuge, with Grey Phalarope, Sabine’s Gull, Little Auk, Leach's Petrel and Storm Petrel often lingering around for some time if conditions persist.

Garganey: Regularly to be found in the area during passage periods. (Photo: Russell Wynn) Spotted Crake: Often seen at Stanpit Marsh and Priory Marsh in the autumn. (Photo: Marek Walford)

Two other local specialities to be found around Stanpit Marsh and Priory Marsh in particular are Garganey and Spotted Crake. Both species have become more regular of late, Garganey more so in spring whilst Spotted Crake are becoming a regular feature of autumn passage.

Small bird passage at Hengistbury Head can be at times conspicuous and begins as early as late February. The first arrivals include large numbers of Wheatears, Chiffchaffs and Sand Martins, and smaller numbers of Ring Ouzel, Firecrest, Black Redstart and Tree Pipit. Late April and early May sees the appearance of Pied Flycatchers and Spotted Flycatchers, Wood Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Yellow Wagtail, Redstart and Whinchat. Commoner migrants can be present in good numbers, typically Willow Warbler, Whitethroat, Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler.

Hoopoe: Sometimes a highlight of a spring day (Photo: Paul Bowerman). Wryneck: Despite their cryptic plumage, Wrynecks are regularly encountered during the spring and autumn (Photo: Mike Watson).

Spring and autumn always brings a few surprises. Hoopoe, Wryneck and Serin are annual, along with a variety of rarer waterbirds such as Spoonbill, Kentish Plover and Purple Heron.

Christchurch Harbour has an impressive list of rarities, including Aquatic Warbler, Savi's Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Melodious Warbler, Barred Warbler, Pallas's Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Dusky Warbler, Subalpine Warbler and Bonelli’s Warbler. Amongst the buntings, Lapland Bunting, Snow Bunting and Ortolan Buntings are near annual in autumn, as well as Woodchat Shrike, Common Rosefinch, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Tawny Pipit and recently a Bobolink.

Bobolink: This bird attracted large numbers of visitors to the area in November 2002. (Photo: Mike Campbell) Caspian Tern: Rare visitor to the area, with 6 previous records. (Photo: Kit Day)

Vagrant water birds have included Squacco Heron, Caspian Tern, Blue-winged Teal, Little Crake, White-winged Black Tern, Glossy Ibis and Pacific Golden Plover.

During the summer, the area is very popular with tourists but a few birds do breed including Dartford Warbler, Cetti's Warbler, Reed Warbler and Sedge Warbler, Stonechat, Lesser Whitethroat, Reed Bunting, Sand Martin, Bearded Tit and Grey Heron.

The best sites to watch birds at Christchurch Harbour are:

  • Hengistbury Head: The car park is approached along the Broadway at SZ163910. There are many paths that cross the entire area. Seawatching is best done from the base of the sand spit where beach huts provide a bit of shelter. The small wood (known as the nursery) is private but can be viewed by following the tarmac track that leads from the car park at Hengistbury Head to the beach huts at the end of the spit.
  • Wick Fields: These can be reached from the same car park as Hengistbury Head; they are crossed by many well signposted footpaths.
  • Stanpit Marsh: Best reached from the recreation ground at SZ173925 (this lies just south of the Ship in Distress pub), where paths lead from the scout hut out onto the marsh, Priory Marsh can also be reached from here by walking around Stanpit Marsh near to where it borders the golf course and then walking over the stile that leads off towards Christchurch Priory.

The Christchurch Harbour Ornithological Group (CHOG) has a website with more information. Check it out at www.chog.org.uk.