A Lark in the New Forest

Trip Start Jan 05, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Monday, June 4, 2012

There was not so much in the way of Jubilee celebrations happening today and the forecast was reasonable so long as the huge band of rain affecting much of the country stayed northeast (just) of us so we thought that today would be a good day to do what we had expected to do for most of this long weekend - get out ans see some places that we hadn't seen before. A quick check of the recent bird sightings showed us that there were a couple of good birds at a reserve near Lymington that we had earmarked as a possible destination and to get there it was necessary to drive through the New Forest which was another possible so we made our minds up quickly and set off.

The idea of another service station breakfast didn't appeal much and we were fairly sure that the zombies around the M27 would be just as bad as those on the A34 so our first stop was Lyndhust which is a pleasant small town well within the New Forest National Park where we had a superb morning meal in a lovely little cafe called "Under the Greenwood Tree" which is on the high street and easy to find. Breakfast there was no more expensive than on the motorway but much better quality and the place was popular with pretty much all the tables in use for most of the time we were there.

We were ready for a walk after this so looked on the map in the Visitor Centre (in the main car park) for a place called Pig Bush which we had been told was a site for Woodlark, an uncommon species in most of the UK that has a stronghold in the New Forest.

Almost immediately after leaving Lyndhurst we came upon a sight more familiar from time spent in African game reserves like Chobe or the Kruger with cars pulled off at the side of the road and thier occupants watching animals. In this case it wasn't lions, leopards or elephants but New Forest Ponies, a semi-wild breed of horse that is surprisingly numerous in the parts of the forest we saw. Wikipedia has lots of information about these attractive animals and their history and provenance and we don't blame people for wanting to stop and take photographs.

There is a large car park at Pig Bush and in the absence of any particular plan we set off along one of several paths leading off this. Having been born and brought up in't north of England I probably have perception that the south is an area of overly planned and enclosed land with little in the way of genuine open spaces other than a few parks and marshes - this despite having spent time in pretty much all the southern counties and having visited many wild places, but prejudices are hard to shift. So I was quite surprised by the New Forest and in particular by the fact that you can wander about unhindered by walls and fences and also by the number of ponies grazing or resting or generally messing about. This was a rather nice walk and with stands of large trees in many places, interspersed with open pastures and larger heathy areas it wasn't long before we were out of sight of most of the normal trappings of the civilisation and people too. In fact without a map we were pretty much lost, although I have a decent sense of direction and always had a vague idea of which way to go, should we need to return to said civilisation.

The presence of lots of Mistle Thrushes was noted and there were Green Woodpeckers in reasonable abundance too. Redstarts were still singing in many areas. We walked west for a while and then struck out north until we came across  path that looked as though it might be well used, (there are lots of paths and tracks, some of which are undoubtdly used mainly by ponies) whereupon we started back east expecting to intercept the road for the final leg back to the car. At the edge of a large wood we came upon a large area of heath with some scattered trees and saw a bird fly out from a large oak that appeared to have an all white head. Through the binoculars we could see that this was a female Redstart carrying a large piece of eggshell, presumably removing it from the nest after a chick had hatched and carrying it to a remote location for disposal so as not to give away the location of the nest.

We decided to stand and watch for a while and before long we saw the male as well and both birds were frequently visiting what looked like a tiny crack in the tree where an area of bark had been stripped away. Whilst we were watching them we finally heard the sound we had been hoping for, the easily reognisable song of a Woodlark. As this was a UK first for Julie we really wanted to see the bird though and we spent about 30 minutes walking up and down the paths dilineating the large area of heath that the bird was singing from before finally getting a look at it as it rose up from the ground where it nests and flew into a nearby Hawthorn bush.

From where we were standing we could see both the railway line and the road so were fairly confident that we knew where we were and identified a stand of trees on the horizon as the likely location for the Pig Bush car park so we set off in the genral direction of the trees using any paths that seemed to be heading where we wanted to be. After a short while we heard a birdsong that sounded typical of one of the Sylvia family which includes Blackcaps, Whitethroats and many others but it was certainly not one of those that are common in most of the UK. Within a few seconds we found the singing bird, a male Dartford Warbler sitting atop a gorse bush and our secondary target for this site as we had a couple of other possible locations for them tomorrow

I had read that Little Terns often fed in a small watercourse between Keyhaven and Pennington overlooking the Solent and that they came close enough for photographs. To get there meant going through Lymington and we speculated as we drove down there, rather hungry after walking for three hours, whether we might get anything to eat and drink. Lymington was packed. It is a small harbour town on the west bank of the tidal section of the Lymington River with steep streets and a few narrow corners and we passed an open fish & chip shop as we drove up the main street. We were quite lucky to find an on street parking space and a few minutes after parking we were in the queue for chips and mushy peas which we ate whilst sitting on a seat overlooking the small harbour and the many sailing boats on the river.

The drive to Pennington Marsh from Lymington is a short one but not well sign-posted and we took two attempts. The trick is to turn left at the roundabout coming out of Lymington towards New Milton and then turn right immediately into Little Pennington Lane and then continue along this narrow road until you reach the small car park. This site might be of some use ...


Having consulted and photographed the map of the reserve in the car park we set off along the path down Fishtail Lagoon and we soon realised that there was an abundace of birdlife here with lots of warblers singing including our first definite Lesser Whitethroat of the year and also our first Cetti's Warblers. There were also plenty of photographic opportunities with the calm conditions meaning that birds moving in the reed beds were easy to spot.

The inland section of Fishtail Lagoon which looked more like an abandoned canal than a lagoon to us was quite overgrown and it was hard to see the water but lower down it was more accessible and we saw a tern flying towards us. It was clearly too big to be a Little, though and as it got closer we were able to confirm our expectations that it was a Common Tern. I don't think I have ever been closer to this species than with this particular bird that was patrolling back and forth with occasional forays over the main marsh for the whole time we were there and it was a good opportunity to see what smart birds they are in full breeding plumage.

Moving on we continued along the embankment with views over the Solent and towards The Needles and the Isle of Wight. A Roseate Tern had been seen in the area earlier that day so we set the 'scope up for a look but couldn't find it (this is now a very rare species in the UK with probably less than 100 breeding pairs) although we did find a small group of male Eiders that we weren't expecting and also the much more expected Mediterranean Gulls along the tide line. 

The last stages of the walk were along the edge of Lower Pennington Marsh where two Black-winged Stilts had been seen. We couldn't see any suitable habitatat for them, though and decided that the obvious pool that we had seen from the car park before we set off would be the place to look. On getting back to the car we saw a couple of birders who were just coming back from the pool and they confirmed that these extravagantly long-legged black and white waders were indeed there.  

One of the birders offered to walk back down with us to make sure that we found them and although we were quite confident in our ability to identify them, having seen thousands of them in southern Europe and Africa we are always grateful for a bit of local knowledge. They were easy to spot without disturbance albeit a little distant for decent photos but our new friend showed us some pictures he had taken recently around Hampshire including a couple that held our attention, Glanville Fritillary and Burnt Tip Orchid. He them asked if we would like to try for the Night Heron that had been seen nearby earlier in the day so we agreed to accompany him, dropping the telescope off in the car because it was beginning to feel rather heavy now and retracing our steps to a point where we had noted earlier that the grass beside the path was flattened, a good sign that twitchers had been around. On the way back to the car park Julie had spotted several Bee Orchids at the side of the path on the bank that were in marvellous condition. Although not particularly uncommon these fascinating plants are always nice to see.

The heron had been roosting in trees beside a pond just inland of the marsh. This pond was heavily obscured by luxurious plant growth and viewing spots were limited. There were two birders on site when we arrived and they seemed unsure if the heron was still about. We had a look for 30 minutes or so and saw nothing convincing and I don't think that it was recorded as having been seen after early afternoon. It was now getting quite late and our plans for a night out in Southampton were beginning to look jeopardised so we agreed that enough was enough and returned to the car for the easy drive back to the hotel.

A taxi from the hotel took us to Oxford Street in Southampton where there are a few pubs and more restaurants - perhaps not out preferred ratio. It was after 9 p.m. so we had a quick pint in one of the pubs, I forget which and then finished off the evening in an Italian restaurant, Scoozi where starters, main courses and a bottle of red wine set us back about 50 quid, which we thought was fair enough.
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