Waterside species to spot on Dorset riverbanks this spring

PUBLISHED: 11:36 26 April 2016 | UPDATED: 12:03 26 April 2016

Kingfisher (Photo by Stewart Canham)

Kingfisher (Photo by Stewart Canham)


Every river has a story to tell and residents to meet. Sally Welbourn of Dorset Wildlife Trust shares her top five waterside species to spot on the riverbank this spring

Many of us have spent happy hours by a river whether exploring, relaxing, walking or paddling on it. Rivers also provide a unique habitat which offers a haven for creatures, large and small, whether they are living in the river or on the riverbank. With the arrival of spring wildlife becomes much more active, so why not take a stroll next to your local river and see if you can spot these five species that call the river their home.


The Moors River in Cranborne Chase supports the largest and most magnificent of all dragonflies, the Emperor Dragonfly. This large and impressive insect is rarely found away from water, and is one of the largest dragonfly species in Europe. Both males and females are bright blue in colour, with an apple green thorax and a distinctive stripe running down their body. With their broad powerful wings emperor dragonflies are a spectacular sight in flight and this, combined with their large size and bright colours, make them easy to identify.


The kingfisher is a ‘must see’ for many – and with its electric blue back and vivid copper breast you won’t have any problem identifying it. Sometimes you hear its shrill double note call before you see it, as it flies fast and low over the water. You can often spot this dazzling little bird sitting on low-hanging branches above the water, patiently waiting to spot a minnow or stickleback and then diving in after its prey. Kingfishers breed near lowland rivers and lakes which have suitable banks for burrowing nests and shallow edges for feeding. Kingfishers can be seen on most rivers in Dorset, notably the South Winterborne.

Water vole

Water voles are Britain’s fastest declining wild mammal, but fortunately here in Dorset this shy semi-aquatic rodent, also known as a water rat, can still be found on well-vegetated banks of rivers. Water voles build extensive burrow systems in the banks, with sleeping and nest chambers, where there is established vegetation along waterways. Dorset contains core populations of water voles in the lower Frome, the area around Gillingham and the rivers Wey and Brit. Listen for the distinctive ‘plop’ sound it makes when entering the water, then look for the V-shaped wake that a swimming water vole makes in the water. Water voles are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and must not be disturbed if you are lucky enough to see one.

Grey heron

Like the kingfisher, the heron is a distinctive riverside resident and can often be spotted standing stock-still in the shallow waters of rivers, lakes and ponds, searching for their next meal. The grey heron is one of Britain’s most familiar birds and is easily recognisable with its long legs and large beak, perfectly formed for patiently hunting fish just beneath the surface of the water. Herons are also rather partial to goldfish and have been spotted in gardens with ornamental ponds!


The otter is well suited to river life. They are excellent swimmers thanks to their webbed feet, dense fur to keep them warm, and can close their ears and nose when under water. Otters are in the water by 10 weeks of age, after being born in underground burrows known as a ‘holt’. A rare but locally widespread animal, a good place to see otters in Dorset is on the River Stour around Blandford Forum which has many tributaries and streams and lots of hollow trees for shelter. Otters are extremely territorial, so the length of the mighty Stour makes it ideal for them to all live harmoniously!


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