Dorset

Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta ©Neil Gartshore Website

The recording area of Dorset (area 9 in the Watsonian system) is co-terminus with the ceremonial county of the same name. It is a county in South West England on the English Channel coast. Covering an area of c. 2,600 km2 (1,000 square miles), it has a population of around 800,000 people. Around half of the population lives in the South East Dorset conurbation, which contains three of the county’s largest settlements of Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch; the remainder of the county is largely rural, and its principal towns are Weymouth and the small county town of Dorchester. Dorset borders Devon to the west, Somerset to the northwest, Wiltshire to the northeast, the Isle of Wight across the Solent to the south-east, the English Channel to the south and Hampshire to the east.

Dorset has a varied landscape featuring broad elevated chalk downs, steep limestone ridges and low-lying clay valleys. Over half the county is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The quarries on the ‘isle’ of Portland still supply stone for dressing monumental buildings. Three-quarters of its coastline is part of the Jurassic Coast Natural World Heritage Site due to its geological and palaeontological significance. It features notable landforms such as Lulworth Cove, the Isle of Portland, Chesil Beach and Durdle Door. Dorset is very much a coastal county. The soils created from sand and clay deposits support a heathland habitat which sustains all six native British reptile species.

Much of the county drains into three rivers, the Frome, Piddle and Stour which all flow to the sea in a south-easterly direction. The Frome and Piddle are chalk streams but the Stour, which rises in Wiltshire to the north, has its origins in clay soil. The River Avon, which flows mainly through Wiltshire and Hampshire, enters Dorset towards the end of its journey at Christchurch Harbour. The rivers Axe and Yeo, which principally drain the counties of Devon and Somerset respectively, have their sources in the north-west of the county. In the south-west, a number of small rivers run into the sea along the Dorset coastline; most notable of these are the Char, Brit, Bride and Wey.

Birding Dorset

To most birders Portland, and its observatory at ‘The Bill’, is famed for finding rarities at almost any time of year, including many species that turn up annually, and is the best sea-watching spot in the county. Hotspots along the coast, from east to west, include Christchurch Harbour – Poole Harbour is one of the largest natural harbours in the world and includes Brownsea Island home to breeding birds and the most southerly population of red squirrels. The RSPB’s Weymouth Reserves (Radipole Lake & Lodmoor, which are amongst the best urban birding sites in the UK) – and the Fleet stretching from Portland Harbour/Ferrybidge to Abbotsbury.

Inland sites shouldn’t be neglected. Corn Buntings (resident) and Golden Plover (winter) can be found at Maiden Castle (Dorchester); Redstarts at Lambert’s Castle (Marchwood); Goosanders on the River Stour at Crawford Bridge (Spetisbury); Dippers at Maiden Newton; Nightingales at Lydlinch and Deadmoor Commons; and wintering Short-eared Owls on Wyke Down between Cranborne-Sixpenny Handley.

With many internationally important heathland sites, Dartford Warblers, Woodlarks and Nightjars thrive in Dorset and wintering Great Grey Shrikes are regular… the best sites include Arne, Avon Heath Country Park and Morden Bog (part of Wareham Forest).

The reed beds at Radipole/Lodmoor have breeding Marsh Harriers, wintering Bittern and resident Bearded Tits. Although not a well wooded county, its plantations and deciduous woodlands add a variety of other species.

Little Egrets became established here first when they began to colonise the UK., first breeding in 1996. Marsh Harriers re-colonised in 2009 and are breeding in Poole Harbour as well as Weymouth; Great White and Cattle Egrets are now regular and Spoonbills have reached up to triple figures! Poole Harbour is also home to Osprey nests and often visited by White-tailed eagles from the English reintroduction scheme.

Top Sites
  • Christchurch Harbour

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    In comparison to Poole Harbour this is a much smaller site and easily covered in a day. Has a good variety of habitats, is well watched and regularly turns up rarities. A number of areas can be visited: north side – Fisherman’s Bank, Mudeford Quay and Stanpit Marsh (small visitor centre here); south side Hengistbury Head and Wick. Good during migration time and during the winter, area very busy in the summer (but quieter bird-wise). During the right conditions can be good for sea-watching. Dartford Warblers are found on Hengistbury, small numbers of Purple Sandpiper winter on Mudeford spit.
  • Hartland Moor

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    Often missed by birders speeding down to Arne this delightful old heath, with some heathland reclamation projects being carried out on it, is a great place for the typical species of lowland heath; Dartford warblers, nightjars, and hobby making any summer evening magical.
  • Poole Harbour

    WebsiteSatellite View
    This is an internationally important harbour with many sites available to visit individually or combined over a few days. Sites include Arne, Brownsea Island (open end Mar-end Oct), Holes Bay, Lytchett Bay, Middlebere, Studland and Swineham (Wareham). The site is important for its wintering waders and wildfowl including good numbers of Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit and Shelduck. Quieter during the summer but Common and Sandwich Terns breed on Brownsea Island and Marsh Harrier, Bearded Tit, Mediterranean Gull and Little Egret also breed around the harbour. Winter bird boat trips are a ‘must do’ experience.
  • Portland

    WebpageSatellite View
    The Isle of Portland is a magnet for common, uncommon and rare birds during migration times and can turn up excellent birds at any time of the year. Birding activity on the island focuses around the Portland Bird Observatory… always worth checking out their website/twitter feed or calling in for the latest info. Birds can turn up anywhere on the island and good coverage by local and visiting birders means that many of them will be found. Sea-watching from the Bill is the best in Dorset. Enjoy the local Little Owls, regularly seen in the Obs Quarry.
  • Purbeck Heritage Coast

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    From Durlston Country Park/NNR (south of Swanage) in the east to St Aldhelm’s Head/Chapman’s Pool in the west, follow the South West Coast Path to see the area at its best. Migrants in the spring and autumn can turn up along the coast, particularly in the valleys heading inland from the coast including Durlston, Winspit and Seacombe. In good autumn weather birds can be seen flying through (‘Vis Mig’) and may include scarcer species such as Hawfinch, Tree Sparrow and Lapland Bunting. A few seabirds breed along the coast (Razorbill, Guillemot, Shag and Fulmar), mainly at Durlston, and a handful of Puffins and Kittiwakes still hang on respectively at Dancing Ledge and Blacker’s Hole (near Langton Matravers).
  • RSPB Radipole Lake & Lodmoor Reserves

    WebpageSatellite View
    Two of the best urban birding sites in the country – both worth visiting at any time of the year. The RSPB’s visitor centre at Radipole Lake is a good starting point to see what birds are in the area. The large reed-beds with open water here are a great place to see Bearded Tit, Cetti’s Warbler, Marsh Harrier and Bittern (winter). The site has always turned up rarities, check out the gulls for any unusual species. Lodmoor is the ‘wilder’ of the two sites – again good areas of reed-beds and open water but with more marsh and mud. Good selection of waders and ducks, Bearded Tit, Cetti’s Warbler, Marsh Harrier and Bittern (winter), regular rarities - especially amongst the waders. Common Terns breed here.
  • The Fleet: Ferrybridge to Abbotsbury

    WebsiteSatellite View
    There are a number of sites accessible individually or it is possible to walk from one end to the other (about 10 miles). Ferrybridge has a Dorset Wildlife Trust visitor centre and is a good starting point. In winter, The Fleet’s Brent Goose flock is often here (look for Pale-bellied and Brant individuals amongst the dark-bellied majority), Mediterranean Gulls can be seen in their hundreds and it is a good place to see a few waders. Divers, Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers can be seen here, or more likely in the adjacent Portland Harbour. Heading north: the Bridging Camp, East Fleet, Herbury, Langton Herring and finally Abbotsbury can be visited independently. The good numbers of duck usually include occasional Scaup, Long-tailed Duck and Smew (usually at the Abbotsbury end). Quieter in the summer, the main attraction is the Little Tern colony at Ferrybridge. The occasional rarities that turn up, can be anywhere along The Fleet.
  • Wareham Forest

    InformationSatellite View
    A large forestry plantation on the edge of Wareham with plenty of open heathland and areas of clear fell. Within the forest, Morden Bog is a NNR and is probably the best area holding Dartford Warbler, Nightjar and Woodlark. Exploring the forest may also find Hobby, Peregrine, Cuckoo, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Tree Pipit, Redstart and Crossbill – some species more localised than others. The spring to the autumn provides the best birding but still worth visiting in the winter when Great Grey Shrike is often in the area.
Contributors
  • Neil Gartshore

    Wareham, Dorset | enquiries@callunabooks.co.uk

    Website
County Recorder
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 432

    County Bird - Hoopoe Upupa epops
Checklist

  • Dorset Bird Club

    Checklist
    The Dorset List is the official list of wild birds recorded in Dorset and is maintained by the Dorset Records Panel on behalf of the Dorset Bird Club. It is based on The British List maintained by the British Ornithologists' Union (BOU). The taxonomy follows the latest IOC World Bird List.
Useful Reading

  • Best Birdwatching Sites Dorset

    | By Neil Gartshore | Buckingham Press | 2011 | 248 pages, 65 sites | Out of Print | ISBN: 9780956987600 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Coastal Birds and Marine Mammals of Mid Dorset

    | By Richard White & Andrew Webb | Joint Nature Conservation Committee | 1995 | Paperback | 48 pages, B/w photos, line illustrations, tables, figures | Out of Print | ISBN: 9780861396849 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • The Birds of Dorset

    | By George Green | Christopher Helm | 2004 | Hardback | 520 pages, Col photos, illustrations, figures, maps | Out of Print | ISBN: 9780713669343 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Where to Watch Birds in Dorset, Hampshire & the Isle of Wight

    | By Keith Betton, George Green & Martin Cade | Helm | 2021 | Edition 5 | Paperback | 382 pages, 44 b/w illustrations, 60 b/w maps | ISBN: 9781472985408 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Wild About Dorset

    | The Nature Diary of a West Country Parish | By Brian Jackman | Bradt Travel Guides | 2022 | Paperback | 176 pages, colour illustrations by Carry Ackroyd | ISBN: 9781804690321 Buy this book from NHBS.com
Observatories
  • Portland Bird Observatory and Field Centre

    Observatory WebsiteSatellite View
    Portland Bird Observatory and Field Centre, situated at the Old Lower Light, Portland Bill, in the county of Dorset on the south coast of England, was established in 1961 to provide a focal point and accommodation for naturalists, particularly birdwatchers, visiting Portland. The origins of the Observatory date from the pioneering work by Dr Ken Rooke and friends who began studying bird migration at the Bill in 1951.Warden: Martin Cade, Old Lower Light, Portland, Dorset DT5 2JT 01305 820533 obs@btinternet.com
Museums & Universities
  • Dorset County Museum

    Website
    The focus of this collection is plants and animals from within the boundaries of Dorset, including insects, birds, molluscs, marine invertebrates and plants, and much more. Included are a collection of 5,000 native herbs, as well as bird specimens collected by local resident Alfred Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, on his travels around the world
Organisations
  • Birds of Poole Harbour

    Website
    Welcome to ‘Birds of Poole Harbour’, a charity completely dedicated to educating people on the stunning variety of bird life in one of the country’s most picturesque locations, helping you make the most of this truly breathtaking natural harbour. From local schools, passionate residents and intrigued tourists 'Birds of Poole Harbour' offers a unique learning opportunity to a large audience. We see our role as the link to raising the profile of bird conservation and preservation in the harbour for everyone to enjoy.
  • Bournemouth Natural Science Society

    Website
    Ornithology - This Section promotes the Objects of the Society through lectures and field meetings, and the availability for study of Museum specimens and Ornithological books and magazines
  • Christchurch Harbour Ornithological Group

    Website
    CHOG watches and records the birds of Christchurch Harbour, which is situated on the south coast of England and includes the well known birdwatching areas of Hengistbury Head and Stanpit Marsh. Despite covering an area of only 9 square kilometers, over 300 species of bird have occurred in the harbour.
  • Dorset Bird Club

    Website
    In 1987 local birdwatchers decided that there was a need for an independent bird club in the county and The (New) Dorset Bird Club was formed. The Club took over the role of collating bird records, producing the annual Dorset Bird Report ever since.
  • Dorset Environmental Records Centre

    Website
    Dorset Environmental Records Centre was established in 1976 as an independent organisation to collate information on all of Dorset's wildlife. It provides an opportunity for local naturalists and conservation organisations to work together
  • Dorset Wildlife Trust

    Website
    The Trust's main activity is to acquire and manage nature reserves for the benefit of the wildlife of Dorset. We have 40 established reserves, ranging from a tiny island in the river Stour to our most recent acquisition, Upton Heath…
  • Holton Lee

    Website
    This reserve is open to disabled users and has specially designed facilities - as far as we know it is the only such facility in the UK
  • Portland Bird Observatory and Field Centre

    Website
    We are an independent organisation and a UK registered charity. We cater not just for birders but for naturalists of all persuasions, and our accommodation in the Old Lower Lighthouse is available to anyone who wishes to stay with us and enjoy any aspect of the natural environment of Portland.
  • RSPB New Forest Local Group

    Webpage
    We are an active local RSPB group covering the whole of the New Forest and neighbouring areas in Hampshire & Dorset. We have an extensive programme of walks throughout the year, plus monthly meetings ( 2nd Wednesday each month) in Lyndhurst Village Hall. Members and non-members welcome
  • RSPB South Dorset Local Group

    Webpage
    This is the website of the South Dorset Local Group. RSPB local groups are a great way to meet friendly, like-minded people in your area while learning more about birds and wildlife.
Reserves

Abbreviations Key

  • *Dorset Wildlife Trust Reserves

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    Find a nature reserve near where you live or plan your visit to any of our 40 nature reserves or four visitor centres across Dorset. Entry is free to all and our nature reserves are open 7 days a week.
  • Abbotsbury

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    Abbotsbury Swannery is the only place in the world where you are able to walk through the heart of a colony of nesting Mute Swans. A visit to this beautiful place is considered to be one of the best things to do in Dorset.
  • LNR Hibbitt Woods

    WebpageSatellite View
    Keep your eyes peeled for the many varieties of breeding birds including bullfinch, spotted flycatcher, and song thrush. Take a stroll in the evening as the light fades and you might see one of our natterer's bats emerging from their maternity roost!
  • LNR Higher Hyde Heath

    WebpageSatellite View
    Aside from the wonderful reptile life, there are also lots of rare and interesting heath dwellers at the site, including the ground-nesting nightjar, Dartford warbler, woodlark and tree pipit.
  • LNR Wild Chesil Centre

    WebpageSatellite View
    It features important areas for bird life, which include dunlin, oyster catchers, little egret and ringed plover as well as hundreds of brent geese and other migrating and wintering wildfowl. In spring, there is a rare colony of little terns which breed on the beach.
  • NNR & CP Durlston Country Park

    WebsiteSatellite View
    Durlston Country Park and National Nature Reserve, situated 1 mile from Swanage in Dorset, is a fabulous 280 acre countryside paradise, consisting of sea-cliffs, coastal limestone downland, haymeadows, hedgerows and woodland. With stunning views, walking trails, the historic Great Globe, superb geology and fascinating wildlife there is always something different to see…
  • NNR Holt Heath

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    Birds include large populations of Dartford warbler, stonechat and nightjar. The heath is Dorset’s only site for breeding curlew and all six of Britain’s reptile species are found here.
  • NNR Kingcombe

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    Gateway to the Kingcombe National Nature Reserve (KNNR), Kingcombe Meadows offers the opportunity to step back in time on a traditional working farm complete with flower rich grassland, ancient hedgerows, rough pasture and wet woodlands.
  • NNR Morden Bog

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    To the north of the reserve, dry heath areas are dominated by heather. Here the site supports birds such as woodlark and nightjar, and reptiles such as smooth snake and sand lizard.
  • NNR Purbeck Heaths

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    Purbeck Heaths combines 3 existing NNRs at Stoborough Heath, Hartland Moor, and Studland and Godlingston Heath, linking them with a significant amount of new land which includes nature reserves and conservation areas managed by 7 partners. Declared in 2020, the Purbeck Heaths national nature reserve brings together three smaller areas of existing national nature reserve, along with the surrounding landscape to make a bigger, better and more joined up area for the animals, plants and their habitats to thrive.
  • NT & NNR Brownsea Island

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    The lagoon was reclaimed from the harbour in the 1850s to create farmland, but neglect of the sea wall and wind pumps led to its becoming a non-tidal wetland, which attracts a variety of birds whose legs and beaks fit them for feeding in brackish water and on mudflats. It is a habitat of national importance, providing a vital refuge for waders, especially when the tide is high and the mud flats around Poole harbour are covered.
  • RSPB & NNR Arne

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    Arne is the place to see heathland wildlife including Dartford warblers and nightjars. All six species of reptiles found in the UK live here: adders, grass snakes, smooth snakes, sand lizards, common lizards and slow worms. There are also 22 species of dragonflies…
  • RSPB Garston Wood

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    This ancient coppiced wood is especially worth visiting in spring, when there is a breathtaking carpet of bluebells, wood anemones and primroses. You can see many woodland birds, including turtle doves…
  • RSPB Lodmoor

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    This reserve has a grazing marsh with ditches, shallow pools, reedbed and bushes. You can see bearded tits and Cetti's warblers all year and there is one of the largest breeding colonies of common terns in the south-west…
  • RSPB Lytchett Fields

    WebpageSatellite View
    Pull on your wellies and come for a romp around a beautiful wetland reserve in Poole Harbour. From Marsh Harriers to Black-tailed Godwits, there's plenty to see at this ever-changing landscape.
  • RSPB Radipole Lake

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    Radipole Lake, an R.S.P.B. reserve of national repute, is found in the centre of the seaside town of Weymouth. Its location lends itself to easy access by either public transport or private car. It is within 5 minutes walk of the Weymouth railway station.
  • Wareham Forest

    InformationSatellite View
    Wareham Forest is an area in Dorset, England, consisting of open heathland, including Decoy Heath and Gore Heath, and plantations of conifers such as Morden Heath and Bloxworth Heath. The site is overseen by the Forestry Commission for conservation and recreation. Situated next to the A35 road between Dorchester and Poole; the forest provides a home for sika deer, the Dartford warbler and a population of sand lizards.
Forums & Mailing Lists
  • Birds of Poole Harbour Sightings

    Sightings
    Daily Sightings
  • Dorset Birds Sightings

    Sightings
    Daily sightings
Guides & Tour Operators
  • Dorset Bird Tours

    Tour Operator
    Join Dorset Bird Tours for a guided birdwatching tour of one of Weymouth and Portland's premier birdwatching nature reserves. Enjoy a relaxing personal guided service to see many species of birds. I cater for small groups with flexible tour dates to complement your holiday, leisure or Business schedule.
  • Naturetrek

    Tour Operator
    Join Tom Brereton for a winter outing in some of southern Dorset's most bird-rich and scenic habitats.
  • Poole Harbour Birdboats

    Tour Operator
    Apart from being an idyllic, tranquil and scenic oasis during the winter, Poole Harbour is also a haven for important over wintering wildlife and boasts internationally significant numbers of wading birds and waterfowl. The harbour not only hosts one of the largest wintering flocks of Avocet in the country but can also provide views of up 20 Spoonbill lazily flying over the Brownsea Lagoon, Common Seals popping up next to the boat to say hello or even a spectacular display from a Peregrine Falcon!
  • RSPB Dorset Discovery Wildlife Tours

    Tours
    This year along with a local partner, the RSPB are offering a series of 3 day wildlife tours around the beautiful county of Dorset. The tours are led by the actual people who manage and survey the sites we visit; by the people who know them best. The group has exclusive access to areas and even whole reserves that are not usually open to the public and profits go straight back into conservation; what could be better?
  • Wingspan

    Tour Operator
    Dorset Winter New Year Tour - Weymouth
Trip Reports


Click on WAND to see Fatbirder’s Trip Report Repository…

  • 2010 [06 June] - David & Amanda Mason

    Report
    …As we had not seen Dartford Warbler in this country since 1994 and had never previously seen Cirl Bunting in the UK, we decided to spend a few days in Dorset and Devon with two specific birding targets in mind…
  • 2011 [05 May] - Tony Jones - Brownsea Island

    Report
    I know Red Squirrels can't fly, so I suppose that officially they aren't birds, but seeing one in England would be a 'tick' for both Penny & me, so during our holiday in Dorset we planned a visit to Brownsea Island, nestling snugly in Poole Harbour. I thought there must also be a fair chance of some birds, as I remember Bill Oddie including it in one of his birding programmes…
Places to Stay


Click on WAND to see Fatbirder’s Trip Report Repository…

  • Holton Lee

    Accommodation
  • Knoll House, The (Studland)

    Accommodation
    To the north and west are nature trails and bird-watching reserves. Projecting out into the Channel, as we do, is a guarantee of better weather than on the mainland. We have our own micro-climate in Studland. The grounds extend to about 100 acres and include eight acres of Spring gardens at Studland Bay House which contain some rare and interesting species.
  • Sea Barn Farm Camping Park - Weymouth

    Accommodation
    The Park is part of a family farm bordering the fleet nature reserve
  • Top Parts B&B

    Accommodation
    Top Parts is set on high ground at the head of the Bride Valley just two miles from the village of Abbotsbury and the World Heritage Coast at Chesil Bank
Other Links
  • Dominic Couzens - Bird Words

    Website
    Hello, my name is Dominic Couzens and I am a writer, with nearly 30 book titles to my name. I have also been a regular birdwatching field trip leader since 1988 and organise and lead birding trips in the UK. I love meeting people and sharing with them the things that excite me about nature, especially my main area of expertise, which is bird behaviour. I believe passionately in communicating greater understanding about the natural world and am fortunate that the opportunities offered to me through my Books, Magazine Articles and occasional Television work enables me to share an understanding of birds and other wildlife.
  • Nature Diversity from Dorset, the New Forest and UK Landscape

    Website
    Locations are Dorset, The New Forest, Hampshire and around the United Kingdom. The nature albums have images of UK wildlife including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, plants, fungi and lichens.
Blogs
  • Nick & Jackie - TwO Owls Birding

    BLOG
    Nick started birdwatching as a child in Dorset and has since travelled widely but his roots are in Dorset and particularly Poole Harbour. Jackie began birdwatching in her mid-twenties and ran a YOC group in Middlesex. After moving to Dorset in 1986 and meeting Nick, together they started up a YOC group in Poole until 1997.
  • Peter Moore - Peter Moore's Wildlife Blog

    BLOG
    Welcome to Peter Moore's wildlife blog, created largely to compensate for a failing short-term memory by providing a record of my experiences watching and photographing wildlife. I have been fortunate enough to see over 450 species of bird and 61 species of butterfly in Great Britain, photographing most of these (badly) over the course of the last 15 years.
  • Steve Smith - Birding Poole Harbour and Beyond

    BLOG
    I've been a keen British birder since the age of 13. These days I generally bird locally around Poole Harbour, the Purbeck coastline & Dorset sites.
  • Tim Farr - Tim's Birding Blog

    BLOG
    Well here it is, my blog! I'm a keen birder and have been since I was a little kid and was given YOC membership for Christmas one year....
Photographers & Artists
  • Photographer - David Boag - Natural Focus

    Gallery
    The first acceptable photograph David took was of a Kingfisher in the early-70`s and this led him into a seven year photographic study of the species. David Boag has a very professional website and he certainly takes some stunning photographs.
  • Photographer - Guy Edwardes

    Gallery
    Some really first class images from this Dorset-based photographer
  • Photographer - Steve Carey Bird Photography

    Gallery
    I've Been Birdwatching Since 2005, My local patch for Birdwatching is Lodmoor Nature Reserve RSPB and Radipole Lake Nature Reserve RSPB in Dorset. I also Birdwatch the Cambridgeshire,Norfolk and Sufolk Area as my Brother lives up that way. I also have day trips out to other Birding Sites

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