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Blog - Isle of Purbeck in July

Where?  Dorset SW of Poole & Bournemouth.  Why?  A summer weekend chasing dragonflies & relaxing.

Blogs?  Weblogs - diaries, profiles and reports recorded on the web for others to read - and enjoy!

Friday - late morning:  With Spring birdwatching behind us, Autumn migration still a month or so away, and a decent weather forecast for the weekend, we decided to enjoy a few days in the sun chasing butterflies and dragonflies.  The dry heaths of Dorset promised new species and some old favourites too and so we set off on a sunny Friday morning in mid July with a welcome forecast of a hot and sunny weekend, absolutely ideal weather for dragonflies and butterflies.

Silbury PicnicDriving across country to avoid the manic Friday motorways we stopped for lunch at Silbury Hill in Wiltshire and found an unbarriered(!) car park nearby with adjoining grassed picnic area complete with a super view of the ancient hill.  As the weather was so good we got out the table and chairs and lunched al fresco, joining the occupants of two continental campers doing the same - but they were sitting in the shade of course! 

We walked off lunch by climbing the hill across the road to see West Kennet Long Barrow. Neill saw it referred to on TV recently and was reminded that he'd been there as a kid when the new side chambers had just been excavated and were hot news.  I said I'd like to see it so a lunch stop was duly scheduled!  After a modest Guard Stones at West Kennet Long Barrowwalk up the hill you can walk past the impressive guard stones to go right inside this burial chamber built by the Beaker people 5,500 years ago.  People must still regard this barrow as mystical as there were candles in the rock crevices and a simple “shrine” of feathers, flowers and wheat had been assembled on the floor.  A fascinating experience enhanced by swallows swooping past our ears to feed their young in a nest tucked on top one of the massive stones deep in the chamber - though this did seem to rather spook some later visitors!

This whole area is dotted with ancient sites and from the top of this long barrow you can see Silbury Hill, East Kennet Long Barrow and the three prominent round barrows on the Ridgeway - quite a sight - made even more significant to know a thousand years elapsed between the building of the barrow and Silbury Hill!

We continued on our way south picking up the A350 and stopping for coffee in a lay-by at about 5pm.  Skirting round Blandford and Wareham, with the help of a Garmin GPS Neill is reviewing, we made our way onto that piece of coastal land SW of Poole known as the Isle of Purbeck - bounded by Lulworth Cove in the West, Swanage & Studland in the East and Poole Harbour in the North.  Corfe CastleWe arrived at our target of Corfe Castle to check out a reputed “sleepy spot”.  The main NT car park had new signs forbidding overnight parking but a motorcaravan was already installed in the lay-by parking in the lane opposite - a little too close to the main road for we country bumpkins.  We already knew that the Ferry Road Sleepy Spot was now off limits, so we headed for a CCC CS field at Church Farm in Church Knowle a couple of miles away and arrived about 8 pm. It turned out to be quite a large field, with a tap and bins, rather sloping, but level enough at the bottom and with good views of the Purbeck Hills especially from the top. The church nestles in the corner of the adjacent field and the farmer has made a small pool which should attract more wildlife when it has matured, there were damselflies and a common hawker dragonfly in residence and meadow browns in the field too - so wildlife already then.

We didn’t disturb the farmer but settled down on our Fiamma levelling blocks at the top of the hill and sat out in the evening sunshine with an aperitif to enjoy the view.  There was one other motorcaravan, a Swift/Marquis Lifestyle, and also a caravan already ensconced and we were delighted to hear the sound of evening birdsong with no traffic accompaniment!  As the evening cooled further we retired indoors to enjoy a Lamb Rogan Josh and a bottle of Rosemount Chiraz Cabernet and to watch the sun set in a clear sky.

Saturday morning:  felt cooler but the sun was already well up when we ventured outside to have a quite leisurely breakfast and coffee.  We drove down the field to service the camper and as the tap was close to the other motorcaravan, we got talking to a nice couple from Southampton.  They were lucky enough to have retired and are enjoying their first motorhome (but why wait that long?!!).  After chatting for some time we gave them our web address and went to pay at the farm.  Camping & Caravanning Club LogoThe farmer was not about so we left our 6 in an envelope in the conservatory by his site book - he was obviously well organised, certainly much better than average, with the site book and tariff being easily found.

By this time we had been accosted by a pleasant German girl who had been walking the Ridge with her English boyfriend.  They were looking for the Woodland Park campsite with 'facilities' suitable for tent campers and we directed them a mile or so down the road where we had noticed the campsite entrance the previous evening.  As we drove into the farmyard to find the CDP we noticed that they looked hot and tired and the girl seemed inappropriately dressed for walking, wearing a long black dress and pulling a suitcase on a little trolley behind her!  Her taciturn boyfriend was carrying an enormous backpack no doubt containing their tent and camping paraphernalia.  They perked up no end when we offered them a lift to the site and climbed on board with alacrity – chatting to us enthusiastically as we drove down the lane and deposited them right outside the site office where a notice greeted them proclaiming “Party Tonight until Midnight” !!

Wishing them the best of luck we quickly made our escape and set off to drive along the narrow lane across the heath towards Arne stopping by the roadside for lunch at one of the highpoints. In the distant heat haze ponies were grazing and nearer to butterflies were fluttering about in the sunshine. We quickly spotted a Gatekeeper in addition to the usual Meadow Browns, lots of Small Heaths and Skippers, a Marbled White, a Lulworth Skipper - a first, a possible Grayling and several  6-Spot Burnet moths - all within a 20 foot radius of the camper!  The heather all round was a haze of purple flowers and alive with grasshoppers and Soldier Beetles.  A very special habitat.

Saturday Afternoon:  After lunch we drove to the RSPB Arne Reserve and managed to find a shady spot in the car park.  There are no restrictions on entry but members park free while non members are charged 4 for parking.  A short walk to Spittal’s Point took us to a tiny beach with a view across the harbour.  The tide was well up so there were no birds feeding there.  We climbed up to the viewpoint for a panoramic view of the harbour and all the islands in wonderful light, Brownsea, Long Island, Round Island, and more.  Poole is claimed to be "One of the World's largest natural harbours" - quite a sight.  Common Terns were fishing in the Bay, diving from a height like little white darts shooting into the sea.  Ospreys are occasional too.

Poole Harbour Panorama

We could have watched for hours, but it was now very hot and we elected to do the Woodland Walk for the welcome shade.  The pathway gave us super views over the Saltings where we spotted some distant Sika deer with young calves through the heat haze.  We soon came upon some pools and our first Large Red Damselflies.  Broad Bodied Chasers were defending their territories over the water and we got a brief sight of a possible Keeled Skimmer, one of the species we hadn't seen for a very long time.  We moved on to the next couple of pools to find a magnificent Emperor dragonfly patrolling up and down and flashing electric blue - then he perched and posed for us (most unusual) and allowed us to look at him in detail at close focus through a monocular.  Most of the time we wander around with 10x50 binoculars but an ultra close focussing monocular is excellent for insects!  Broad Bodied ChaserThese pools were alive with damselflies - Blue Tailed, Large and Small Reds and also dragonflies in profusion - Southern Hawker, Four Spotted Chasers, more Broad Bodied Chasers, Common Darters and undisputed Keeled Skimmers both male and female.  Excellent!

We walked further on a boardwalk which took us through the woods and suddenly realised that we were approaching a small group of Sika deer half hidden in the dappled light of the trees ahead.  They were aware of our presence but seemed unafraid as long as we stuck to the boardwalk.  They are such pretty deer especially with the several little ginger-brown calves among them and so confiding too - well they are here at least.  We reached the hide and found it gave us a wide view over the Saltings and across the harbour to Poole.  More terns were fishing near the hide and in the distance many boats filled the harbour.  We could see everything from small sailing dinghies to large ferries.  Looking at some brown dots through the binoculars revealed about 500 Curlew roosting on a little island, some feeding Oystercatchers and a couple of Redshank.  A pair of Shelduck were roosting on another island along with their fluffy ducklings.  A Sika deer was feeding out on the Saltings with two Starlings sitting on it’s back like a couple of oxpeckers on an antelope!  High tide was approaching and slowly more and more deer came out onto the Saltings to graze until there were eventually 18 including a small bachelor group with an adult stag with antlers in velvet.  Small Red DamselflyThese deer are often seen in the late afternoon and evening.

We left the hide after a time - and after a welcome cool drink from a Ribena carton - and walked to the pool close by where there were more red damselflies laying eggs in the water, another Emperor patrolling in earnest and yet more Keeled Skimmers and it was 6 pm by now!  We walked back over the heath and spotted a family of Green Woodpeckers calling to each other and flying into the woodland.  A female Stonechat flitted past the car park as we approached the camper and the sun was still shining as we drove back to the site at Church Farm, surely we must be in Spain not England?!

Fully relaxed now, we enjoyed a little smoked salmon and a glass of White Grenache al fresco before tucking into minted Lamb Kebabs and rice and a bottle of Gallo Cabernet Sauvignon with fresh grapes to follow.  Ah this is the life!  The farmer came to visit to collect his dues and told us he had been a dairy farmer for 40 years and still got up at dawn!  We confessed to 'not doing mornings' unless birdwatching and received that disbelieving look that all early risers give you!  He's a really nice chap though with family in New Zealand and is looking forward to a long visit in the new year.  The “Lifestyle” couple arrived back later and parked in the same place as before.

Sunday:  dawned to sunshine yet again!  We breakfasted at leisure, outdoors again, and had the field all to ourselves.  We left about 10.30 for Studland Heath stopping at Godlington Heath on the way for a high level view of the harbour.  Studland was packed with day trippers, the car parks overflowing and cars were parked on the verges both sides of the road most of the way from Studland to the ferry!  We stopped to ask an NT man for a map and drove up the road to get away from the crowds until we found a space off road big enough for the Hymer and close to a well hidden walkers gate into the woods adjoining Little Sea, a well known land locked coastal lake.  Most approach it from the seaward side but we thought it would be quieter in the woods.

Walking through the woodland and bracken towards the 'Grebe Hide' we were surrounded by wispy clouds of Common Blue damselflies some joined in pairs - 'in cop'.  On entering the hide we could see a dense swirling cloud of them just above the surface of the water near some lily pads.  Under the water lily was a clump of pondweed and the females were laying their eggs on it, lowering themselves deep into the water to insert their eggs in the stem of the plant.  As a female came back up to the surface a male would “rescue” her, hooking her behind the head and pulling her through the water’s meniscus back to the safety of the air!  The females can stay under water for up to 60 minutes but often have to be rescued by the males because they can't break free from the water's surface tension.  Scores of life and death dramas in miniature completely ignored by most of the rest of the world!

Out on the water we could see a Little Grebe, Canada Geese, Tufted Duck and a Cormorant.  As we watched four little Tufted ducklings paddled round past the hide, diving and bobbing back up to the surface again.  They spotted the damselfly cloud and snapped up a few of them as they passed! 

Silver Washed FritillaryWe walked south through the woods and found more damselflies and a Common Darter and then in full sunlight, and resting quietly on a leaf, a female Downy Emerald dragonfly - a first for us.  It has a very hairy thorax and a stunning bronze body, a real beauty.  Further along in a clearing in the wood a bramble was in full flower attracting insect pollinators and there we spotted our first ever Silver Washed Fritillary butterfly, beautifully marked, delicate, and partly translucent in the sunshine.  We walked back to the camper well satisfied with our new sightings - and not having seen or heard another soul away from the road!

We decided to go up to the north end dunes to make our way to the beach side of Little Sea but found the road heaving with happy campers determinedly heading for the beach with lilos and windbreaks under their arms and their cars parked both sides of the road barely leaving enough room for the traffic to pass between.  Parking spaces big enough for a motorhome were definitely not available though they plainly had been earlier in the day.  We turned round at the end (the ferry to Poole) and tried to escape between the parked vehicles and oncoming traffic, several times kissing wing mirrors while breathing in hard!  Once away from Studland we stopped for a welcome ice cream - New Forest cornets - in a lay-by viewpoint overlooking the vast natural harbour before continuing up to the heath again for lunch nearer the woodland and scrub. 

RSPB Arne Sign with Dartford Warbler!This time we found we had parked in the territory of a family of stonechats.  The male and female and at least four young flew around us calling and begging for food.  Then we got our first view of a Dartford Warbler flying low over the heather, dark and small bodied and long tailed, it’s fluttery flight looked as if it was catching flies.  We enjoyed a salad lunch with a small glass of Grenache and then drove back to the Arne Reserve car park to walk the Coombe Birdwatchers’ Trail across the heather.

The small pool we came across had all our favourites, Small Reds, Common Blues, a few Spotted Chasers and a female Keeled Skimmer glowing golden in the sunshine.  We also noticed some sticks with little flags on them dotted amongst the heather and went to investigate.  They seemed to be insect traps - presumably a research project - they didn’t seem to have caught anything though.  The wonderful views across to Poole never seemed to pall and the added interest of dragonflies with wings like translucent gold in the afternoon sunshine helped produce a wonderful feeling of well being.  Common Blue DamselflyWhile enjoying more if somewhat distant views of the alternately fluttering and skulking Dartford Warblers we were careful to top up our protection against the unaccustomed strength of the Sun.  Eventually back off the heath we walked back across a “rabbit lawn” near the car park and put up two juvenile green woodpeckers, all spotty and somewhat silly. They perched on the fence and on a fallen tree for some time and we got good views of them there.

We left Arne around 7 pm hoping to avoid the Sunday night traffic on the way home.  We decided to drive home across Salisbury Plain and stopped for dinner at Stonehenge.  Although now often closed, fenced and gated, we know a track nearby where you can park up with a reasonable view over the monument. No sooner were we installed than we witnessed a minor “invasion”.  We were watching a group of about 50 tourists photographing and standing within the circle and commenting that we thought you were not allowed to walk among the stones any more when the police arrived!  They were evicted fairly promptly by a couple of bobbies who then handed over to a young security guard who had presumably phoned them in the first place!  The whole episode was quite bizarre.  Why is the car park closed on a Sunday evening when people want to visit the ancient stones in the sunset?  Stonehenge in the Late SunWhy is there such a high fence all around so visitors cannot view the monument properly “out of hours”?  If it really is necessary to keep people at a distance from the stones so they can be viewed in the landscape why have they developed the intrusive road which intrudes so audibly and visually on the scene?  Many foreign visitors there plainly thought it bonkers!

We finished the weekend watching the sun going down on Stonehenge over a meal of peppered chicken in white wine with mushrooms accompanied by french beans and new potatoes, plus a can of Boddingtons,  and listening to the skylarks in full song soaring up in the still clear sky.  A perfect end to a super weekend.



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