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The best winter walks in Dorset for spotting birds

Guided birdwatching walk at RSPB Arne. (Photo: Annie Parsons/
Guided birdwatching walk at RSPB Arne. (Photo: Annie Parsons/

Immersing yourself in a natural environment has a beneficial effect on both physical and mental health. So, wrap up warmly and set off on a winter walk and feel your mood improve as nature gives your immune system a boost. I especially love the fact that in winter I can watch the sunrise without having to get up ridiculously early.

Great British Life: Eurasian wigeon can be seen off Shipstal Beach. (Photo: Ben Andrew/ wigeon can be seen off Shipstal Beach. (Photo: Ben Andrew/ (Image: RSPB Ben Andrew)

Ancient Woodland and Winter Waders 

The RSPB has seven reserves in Dorset including Garston Woods, near Sixpenny Handley, in East Dorset. Meander along the trails that criss-cross this small ancient woodland, admiring the architectural beauty of the hazel coppice stools. This traditional woodland management technique of cutting the hazel at the base results in straight regrowth and creates habitat for rare wildlife such as the hazel dormouse.  

There are eight trails to explore at RSPB Arne near Wareham. One of these is the Red Trail which takes in heathland, evergreen tree stands, ancient woodland, saltmarsh and a sandy shoreline. It’s a great place to experience a winter sunrise. There are stunning views to admire within minutes of the car park - Corfe Castle can be seen to the west and on a misty winter morning it appears to float between the Purbeck hills. 

A firm favourite with RSPB Arne visitors is the Dartford warbler. When the RSPB bought the reserve in the 1960s, there were just 10 pairs left in the UK. Now we have over 90 breeding pairs at this Dorset site. The thick gorse offers Dartford warblers respite from plummeting winter temperatures. Sometimes, the young birds might be seen in small flocks, an uncommon behaviour that only exists in winter before they establish their fiercely guarded breeding territories. 

Take time to soak up the views across Poole Harbour as you emerge from the woods to walk along the shoreline. You first pass saltmarsh where you might see Sika deer grazing, before reaching Shipstal Beach where flocks of overwintering waders including avocet, teal, wigeon and brent geese, feed in the shallows. They are at peak numbers in December.  

Continue through Big Wood, another area of ancient woodland, or take a shortcut, back to the café along the bridleway where you will see and hear birds feasting on bright red berries from the hedgerows. Conclude your winter walk with a coffee and homemade pastry or a bowl of soup, either outside or inside the café. Then browse the shop for Christmas gifts and tasty treats to feed your winter garden visitors.

Great British Life: Water rail a shy wader that is easier to spot in winter at RSPB Radipole. (Photo: Ben Andrew/ rail a shy wader that is easier to spot in winter at RSPB Radipole. (Photo: Ben Andrew/

A Ramble at Radipole 

If you’re doing your Christmas shopping in Weymouth, then RSPB Radipole Lake is just a short walk from the centre of town. Our Discovery Centre in the corner of the Swannery car park, at the reserve entrance, offers homemade cakes and hot drinks as well as a fabulous viewing window that looks across the lake. 

On a walk across RSPB Radipole, you might see bearded tits flitting around the reeds, catch a flash of electric blue as kingfishers dart across the water or even spot a bittern silently stalking along the edge of the reedbeds. Look out for water rails, a beautiful wader that is easier to see in winter. Their call sounds like a squealing pig! 

Guide Walks & Courses

If you would like some company, then join one of the guided walks here such as the Wednesday Winter Bird Guide Walk (starts 10am). We also have a ‘Hire a Guide’ option where an expert guide takes you and up to five others of your choosing on a bespoke guided tour of any of our Dorset reserves. A Hire a Guide voucher also makes a great gift. We also run Introduction to Birdwatching courses. More details at

Great British Life: Long-tailed tit. (Photo: suerob/iStock/Getty Images Plus)Long-tailed tit. (Photo: suerob/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

What to look for... 

Winter is a great time for birdwatching as deciduous trees have lost their leaves, leaving birds exposed as they flit from tree to tree in search of food. You may even spot species that remain invisible to you for much of summer. 

One of my favourites is the long-tailed tit. These raucous little birds have a long black and white tail, pale pink belly and a thick black eye strip which frames their white head – reminiscent of a punk rocker hairstyle. They move in small noisy flocks from tree to tree scouring for insects. Their tiny bodies make them susceptible to hypothermia so on cold winter nights they roost in groups to preserve body heat. If you walk at dusk, you might spot them as they cosy up to each other along a tree branch.  

It’s not unusual to see other birds gathering in the same vicinity, this is known as winter flocking as there is safety in numbers. Listen to see if you can identify where the calls are coming from and then look up. You might see blue tits and goldcrests at this time of year. The latter is our smallest bird, it has a vivid yellow or orange stripe running from its beak across the top of its head. It always takes my breath away when I see that flash of bright colour as it flits about in the pines, plucking insects from their hiding places in the bark.  


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