Birds to spot at RSPB Arne nature reserve this winter

PUBLISHED: 10:24 18 February 2016 | UPDATED: 10:24 18 February 2016

Hen harrier female  hunting

Hen harrier female hunting

Andy Hay (

Spoonbill or avocet, firecrest or harrier, Morwenna Alldis reveals why winter is the perfect time to visit RSPB Arne nature reserve with your binoculars

With the onset of winter the breathtaking panorama of RSPB Arne’s expansive heathland plays host to an annual showstopper as over 30,000 wintering wildfowl and waders descend upon this special nature reserve. In fact, the numbers of birds visiting Arne in winter are internationally important and a must-see spectacle for any nature enthusiast.

Black-Tailed Godwits

RSPB Arne nature reserve plays host to over a 1000 wintering black-tailed godwits, which are viewable from Coombe Heath, in the Middlebeare Channel. These waders travel all the way from Iceland to spend the winter months in the UK.

Key Characteristics

• Long legs and grey-brown plumage with decorative black and white stripes across their wings.

• An impressively long, pointed beak which is always longer in the females (who are generally bigger than the males). These extra inches help to avoid competition between the sexes when feeding. The female forages at a deeper depth than the male. Their powerful beaks are the perfect shape to needle into the estuarine mud and pick out juicy morsels.

• They feast on insects, worms and snails, as well as plants, beetles and grasshoppers.

• They typically make a ‘kik’ or ‘kik-ki’ call when in their graceful flight.


RSPB Arne nature reserve boasts the largest UK flock of wintering avocets with numbers soaring to over 800 birds - the best view is from Coombe Heath, in the Middlebeare Channel.

Avocets are the emblem of the charity and they returned to breed at RSPB reserves in Suffolk in 1947 after being extinct in Britain since 1840. Their long absence was due to loss of habitat, egg collectors and the use of their feathers in the millenary trade.

Key Characteristics

• White body, sports a black cap and markings on wings, tail and back. Long, thin bill that curves upwards. Melodious call which carries across the mud banks – ‘kluit kluit’ sound.

• Feeds on crustaceans, worms, aquatic insects and larvae at the edge of lagoons or tidal mud. In murkier water they scythe their curved beaks from side to side, disturbing the sediment to reveal tasty treats. In deeper waters, they upend like ducks to find food.

• Breeds in Europe and western and central Asia.

Dark-Bellied Brent Geese

Also observable from Coombe Heath, in the Middlebeare Channel. in groups of over 1000. They migrate to Arne nature reserve from Siberia and are the smallest goose to visit the UK. There are three sub-species of Brent geese, dark-bellied, pale-bellied and black. They fly in loose flocks as opposed to the tight V-formations of grey geese. These large, important flocks are only found in a few places.

Key Characteristics

• Same size as a mallard duck with a black head and neck, greyish-brown back and in this case a darker underbelly.

• Eats inter-tidal eel grass and coastal vegetation including green algae

• The word ‘Brent’ comes from the Norse word, ‘brand’ which translates as ‘burnt’ and reflects their charcoal-like colouring

• Can live up to 27 years old and during their lifetime they can travel over 135,000 miles

Wintering Raptors

In the winter of 2014, the RSPB Arne team counted five hen harriers, and 12 marsh harriers around the Poole Harbour area of the reserve. Along with peregrine and merlin (the UK’s smallest bird of prey) who were hunting dunlin flocks at Coombe Heath.

Key Characteristics

• Males are a pale grey colour; females and juveniles are brown with a white rump and long barred tail.

• Eats small birds such as meadow pipits and small mammals including voles and mice.

• Males guard a territory of around 2.6km and can mate with up to five females during one season.

• When hunting hen harriers pull their wings in to form a tight V-shape and fly low so as to hug the land and be in a better position to dive for dinner.


With their magnificently spoon-shaped bill, these are one of my personal favourites. RSPB Arne nature reserve is home to the largest flock of wintering spoonbills in the UK with up to 50 birds enjoying the reserve last year and their numbers have increased every year.

Key Characteristics

• Long black legs, white colouring, large bird comparable in size to a grey heron.

• They fly with their necks and legs extended.

• Eat aquatic insects and small fish.

• Fabulous spatula shaped long, black bill sweeps in a side-to-side motion in the water seeking out tasty morsels which they scoop out of the water and slurp down.

• In the breeding season the tip of their bills, breast and white feathered crest are a mustard hue.

Join us at RSPB Arne - Wednesdays in February & March

Discover Arne: Join our free guided walks every Wednesday to track down a whole host of wildlife, from Dartford warblers to avocets. Runs 10am - midday.

For more details visit and click on Arne or call 01929 553360.

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