By Peter Moore
My relationship with my local patch at Swineham in Dorset sometimes reminds me of the joke by the late comedian Sean Hughes about why he wasn’t into one night stands: ‘too much commitment’. In my defence, living within what has been claimed as the most biodiverse 10km square in England, it would be rude not to take in the other excellent birding sites which are also within easy reach on foot or by bike. This ‘site infidelity’ might be frowned upon by more assiduous patch-watchers, but I think of my relationship with Swineham like that with an old friend: I don’t have to visit every day to know it’ll be there for me when I need it most. And even if it has nothing to offer but a birdless trudge when I do visit, I know I’ll be comforted by its familiarity anyway.
Within easy walking distance from my home in Wareham, Dorset, Swineham’s gravel pits and wet meadows are sandwiched between the River Piddle to the north and River Frome to the south. The latter is the larger of the two and notable in southern England at least for having a reasonably intact floodplain—so many of the rest having been built on or otherwise compromised from performing their natural functions. One benefit of the riverine habitat is regular encounters with Kingfisher—more often heard than seen, one can occasionally be viewed at close quarters perching on the wooden piers erected for boats which moor along the Frome.
My regular walk from home to Swineham takes me through the graveyard of Wareham St Mary’s Church, a reliable site for Stock Dove and an occasional haunt of Black Redstart. It’s one of my favourite sites en route and a reminder that patch watching is about the journey as well as the destination. Thanks to its stock of ancient Yews, the churchyard attracted small numbers of Hawfinch during the winter invasion of 2017-18—this unusually bold female was forced to feed in the open during the cold snap of March 2018.
At the opposite extremity of the patch, both Jack Snipe and Common Snipe can be found in winter, the best location being Swineham Point, a large area of saltmarsh and reedbed pointing into the western part of Poole Harbour, bounded by the Rivers Frome and Piddle. There is a reasonable chance of flushing a Jack Snipe if the intrepid visitor is prepared to indulge in what I suppose sticklers for the law would call a spot of trespassing. Being the law-abiding sort, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen one—and only twice have they done the decent thing and stayed in the air long enough for a photograph.
Swineham offers some of its best birding when it’s cold and wet—the latter more likely than the former these days as our winters get warmer. But when it’s chilly here, that means it’s even colder somewhere else, and birds will move from near and far to the relative warmth of the gravel pit which rarely freezes over. My best views of Bearded Tit, a scarce breeding bird of the area, have been in such conditions when they seem more inclined to leave the depths of the extensive reedbeds covering Swineham Point for the milder micro-climate of the water’s edge.
As a kid thumbing through the Reader’s Digest Book of Birds, the Spoonbill seemed like an impossibly exotic species. Happily they have become a regular feature of the wintering birdlife in Poole Harbour. They can be seen from Swineham feeding distantly out in the Wareham Channel but this one was forced into the shelter of the gravel pit by the ‘beast from the East’ which hit in March 2018—the only Spoonbill I have seen before or since with icicles hanging from its breast feathers. A couple of individuals of this species were found dead during that same cold snap—a reminder of the devastating impact which extremes of weather can have on our birdlife.
When I ‘rediscovered’ birding in the late 1990s, after a couple of decades of disconnection from nature, I mistakenly got the impression from various site guides I read at the time that I would have to go to Titchwell or Minsmere to see reedbed specialities like Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tit. I soon realised there were many other places to see them closer to home without having to drive for miles – but I am particularly blessed to have both species within walking distance of home at Swineham.
Spring on the patch is awaited with much anticipation. A Cuckoo, occasionally two, has returned to Swineham every year at this time in all the years I have been birding here but the lockdown spring of 2020 was exceptional for them. The bird pictured was one of three males competing for the attentions of a rufous-morph ‘hepatic’ female which summered in the area. Usually a shy species, the males were so absorbed in each other that I was able to photograph them from the riverbank as they sparred overhead.
One of the highlights of spring at Swineham is the return of the commoner acrocephalus warblers – Sedge and Reed—from their African wintering grounds. Late April sees their numbers peak and, in most years, over 50 singing Reed Warblers can be heard holding back-to-back territories in the linear reedbeds fringing the River Frome. Nesting Sedge Warblers such as that pictured are a bit more hit and miss—only a fraction of those which pass through stick around to breed.
Birds are the main attraction for me at Swineham but it’s pretty good for other wildlife, particularly Adders which can be seen in double figures on warm spring mornings along a sunny bank near the gravel pits. Very occasionally males can be observed competing for the attention of females in a mesmerising ‘dance’. Dog walkers and pedestrians often ask what I’m looking at when I bump into them at Swineham and while non-plussed when I point out the birds, which to be fair are usually little brown jobs, they are invariably more impressed by the Adders!
Short-eared Owl is generally considered an occasional winter visitor to Swineham, but my closest encounters with this species have actually been in summer. Last June I flushed one from the path onto the saltmarsh where it was given short shrift by a pair of Redshank. Their calls alerted me to the presence of three recently fledged chicks making for a red-letter day on the patch—breeding Redshank is a rare treat here. The bird in the photograph, taken in 2012, was also present until June and gave regular fly pasts as it hunted on Swineham Point.
Wetter winters are something we are going to have to get used to as the climate warms and, while summers are generally expected to be hotter and drier, the increased incidence of extreme weather events means that we may still get the odd wet one. 2012 was one such summer, and parts of Swineham that would ordinarily have dried out remained water-logged throughout the year. One wet meadow by the gravel pit became a mecca for passage waders that year, including the only Wood Sandpiper I have seen there in over a decade. It stayed wet well into the following spring during which we were treated to a visit by a magnificent male Ruff.
My interest in birds led to a passion for wildlife photography. Passion sometimes becomes obsession and so it was with a Swineham rarity, a Red-necked Grebe which spent a few weeks on the gravel pit in March 2019. Usually distant, it took until my seventh visit to get even a half-decent photograph when it emerged from the lakeside vegetation to give close views.
As well as being an absorbing pastime, bird photography can occasionally help with a tricky identification conundrum. I dashed down to the gravel pit on the bike in heavy rain one evening to photograph a reported juvenile Black Tern and, having obtained a few shots, saw my good friend Marcus Lawson rapidly approaching with a demeanour that suggested I ought to take a second look. Marcus thought that it might be the much rarer White-winged Black Tern, and this photo helped us convince ourselves that indeed it was! Two years later we were treated to a spectacular second-summer individual of the same species hawking over the same gravel pit.
Nothing frustrates a patch-watcher more than unsympathetic management and Swineham has certainly suffered from its fair share of that, along with disturbance from an eclectic mix of sources. In the last year alone bird-unfriendly activities have included kayaking, wild swimming, kite-surfing and even low-flying micro-lights! Once in a while though something positive happens, even if by accident: a few years ago a big pile of muddy rubble which probably should have gone to a landfill site appeared on the edge of the gravel pit, inadvertently creating the best bit of wader habitat we’d seen in ages. This summer plumaged Bar-tailed Godwit took a break from its long spring migration to rest up for a few minutes. (And one of the micro-lights flushed a previously unseen Grey Phalarope into view, making me feel a bit guilty about shouting at it a few minutes earlier!)
In another rare outbreak of positive land management, intentional this time, 2019 saw the creation of two new wader scrapes at Swineham under a stewardship agreement negotiated by our excellent local Natural England team. This has made the site a lot more interesting and during the course of 2020, with it being my go-to site for lockdown exercise, as well as commoner waders like Lapwing and Curlew, I managed to find a Temmick’s Stint and the Grey Phalarope mentioned above at different times on a pool which would probably would have dried up had it not been for these works.
Thanks to my more regular visits, 2020 was my best—ok, my only—good year to date for finding patch rarities at Swineham—as well as the Temmink’s and the Phalarope, I also discovered a Pectoral Sandpiper on neighbouring Arne Moors which later hooked up with a second ‘Pec’ before both birds relocated to Swineham. Arne Moors is on the other side of the River Frome and views are obscured by reeds so it can only be viewed by climbing a small oak on ‘my’ side—I excitedly tweeted out news of the Pec’s discovery from this oak which led to some raised eyebrows on social media and a memorable message on Birdguides advising visiting birders to ‘take care when climbing trees to view’!
Waders provided the main excitement on the patch during 2020 but my run of luck in turning up minor rarities also extended to passerines. One morning I heard an unfamiliar acro singing near the church and suspected it might be a Marsh Warbler. The wind was blowing hard though and the faint snatches of song I was hearing proved inconclusive. Returning in the calm of the evening, things become a lot clearer – it was indeed a Marsh Warbler which proceeded to entertain local birders with a virtuoso singing performance over several days and nights.
A patch watcher’s story would not be complete without a tragic ‘dip’ to complain about bitterly. Mine features the arrival of a frisky pair of Black-winged Stilt which chose the occasion of a family trip to Cornwall in 2014 to spend a couple of days cavorting on an area at Swineham which, annoyingly, has been known ever since as ‘the Stilt Pools’. Occurrences of Black-winged Stilt in the UK have been increasing in recent years, possibly climate related, so I may yet get another shot at seeing this exotic wader in my backyard.
And on the subject of exotics, one of the joys of watching a patch regularly is that a bird which would be considered common elsewhere can represent a major rarity. I remember punching the air on finding this Turnstone in 2015—I think there have been more Black-winged Stilts at Swineham in the decade and a half I have been going there than Turnstones!
Another feature of watching a patch over time is observing the change in species which occurs. Sadly, this change often comes in the form of the decline of a once common species. Sometimes, however, new species also appear: when I started visiting Swineham about 15 years ago, an Egyptian Goose would have been a novelty, and a Cattle Egret an extreme rarity. The former is now more often present than not, and the latter is expected annually, with a flock of 10 treating me to a flyover in May 2019.
Among my many failings as a birder is my record-keeping, which is, frankly, dismal. I blame my occupation as a local government officer—this involves more than its fair share of bureaucracy which makes me disinclined to engage in anything resembling paperwork in my spare time! Fortunately the area is watched by others who document the birdlife more religiously. One gentleman, also called Peter, does the early shift, watching at dawn from a distant vantage point to the south, assiduously recording the comings and goings of raptors in the west of Poole Harbour over many years, providing unique insights into the intermittent breeding attempts of the local Marsh Harriers. Another neighbour, Trevor, who is, shall we say, less of an early morning person, regularly monitors the area and also completes the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) count for the sector. So this photo—of the sun rising over Swineham—is dedicated to these more diligent regulars: Peter for so often watching over us at first light—and Trevor so that he at least knows what first light looks like!
While the first lockdown in 2020 led to me visiting Swineham more than I otherwise might have done, the good birds I saw and found during the course of the year provided renewed enthusiasm for patch birding. And even when I fancied a change I found myself checking out other local sites on foot or by bike. As lockdown eased, I could not resist the temptation to venture a bit further afield, having particularly missed visiting my favourite sun-kissed island with its unique culture and friendly natives—you may know it as Portland. But if I started 2020 visiting the patch regularly more out of necessity, by the end of the year I was doing so much more out of choice, seeing more birds and enjoying it more as a result.
With just a couple of days of January left as I write, I’ve yet to get into a car so far in 2021, and feel healthier, and probably more fulfilled in birding terms, as a result. Climate change may be bringing some exotic species to our shores and we can of course celebrate these vagrants and potential colonisers when they do arrive. I certainly wouldn’t say no to another pair of Black-winged Stilts at Swineham. But we also know that climate change and extreme weather generally spell very bad news for most species, including our own. All the more reason then, to embrace local birding whenever we can.