Jem and I decided to go for a three-day guided birding trip to the New Forest through Naturetrek. I’d used Naturetrek twice before – both for trips to Sweden – so I was confident it would be a good trip. I’d only been to the New Forest once before – for Rich and Sarah’s wedding in October 2011 – even though I lived in Southampton for three years whilst doing my first degree.
We got the train down to Brockenhurst on the Friday morning and had a nice lunch in the Snake Catcher pub. I knew about the Snake Catcher (Harry ‘Brusher’ Mills) from when I authored an e-book about snakes as part of my MA back in 2002. He was a famous resident of the Forest who took it upon himself to be a professional snake catcher. It’s believed he caught up to 40,000 snakes during his lifetime – something that would actually be illegal nowadays – and he lived for much of his life as a hermit in a tiny shack in the Forest. In 1905 his shack was burnt down – possibly by the authorities who wanted to prevent him from claiming squatter’s rights – and he was moved on. Sadly he died one evening soon afterwards in an outbuilding of the Railway Inn. The inn has since been renamed in his honour and his grave is found at the nearby church of St Nicholas.
After lunch we made our way to Lyndhurst where we were staying in the Forest Lodge Hotel (which was very nice), and then went out for a short walk in the Forest nearby. This brought us several Robins, Great Tits, Blue Tits, a brief sighting of a Common Buzzard as it flew through the woods, and Jem’s first Coal Tit. We also walked through Lyndhurst itself to Bolton’s Bench, where we saw plenty of Rooks and a Mistle Thrush sat on the grass. In the evening we met up with our guide Jon Stokes and the other guests in the hotel foyer and we discussed plans for the weekend over dinner. Jem and I went out for a short walk after dinner to listen for Tawny Owls at Jon’s recommendation, but one hoot was all we got.
Saturday morning took us out of the Forest itself and into a not-particularly-pleasant housing estate in Romsey. A small patch of grassland between the houses and a few rows of tress were, astonishingly, temporary home to around a dozen Hawfinch. We got great views of them flying from treetop to treetop, and also kept our eyes open for other finches in the same area. House Sparrows and Chaffinches were easily found, plus three Bullfinches – one male and two females. Jon then asked us if we wanted to see Goshawks or Bitterns next. We all agreed on Goshawks…but then Jon decided to take us to see Bitterns instead because they were nearer! At Blashford Lakes we saw an incredibly rare fungus – Scarlet Elf Cap – Song Thrush, Lesser Redpoll, Chaffinch, Siskin, Coal Tit, Great Tit and Blue Tit, and then made our way to the hide for the Bitterns…which failed to show. On the way back to the visitor centre we heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming in the trees overhead, but when we finally got our eyes on it it was flying away. As just a speck in the distance it wasn’t even as good a sighting as I’d had of the one that flew past me in Serbia last year, and so I still don’t feel that it’s worthy of ticking off as a species I’d ‘seen’. We did also get some info from another birder that two Bitterns were on the edge of a different pond nearby, and with a bit of careful binocular work we finally found them.
Whilst eating lunch in a car park above a large area of heathland, Jon excitedly pointed out a Goshawk…which on closer inspection turned out to be a Kestrel…but then we made our way to Denny Woods to view another fungus. This one (I’m still trying to find out what it’s called), on a fallen Poplar, is the only known occurrence of this particular species in the whole of the British Isles. We then went off to feed some close-range Marsh Tits, Coal Tits, Nuthatches, etc, and then off to look for the resident Great Grey Shrike. The shrike was nowhere to be seen, but we got a bit excited for a moment when I spotted a large pale bird perched on top of a distant conifer…which turned out to be a very pale Common Buzzard. We also saw a Tree Pipit and at least one Treecreeper.
The following morning took us back to Romsey to look for Waxwings, after receiving a report of a flock in one particular street. They weren’t there so we decided to revisit the Hawfinches, which certainly were. Some of the party had spotted a Brambling too, which I didn’t see myself, but just as we were about to head off we saw five Waxwings arrive in a nearby back garden. Seeing Hawfinches and Waxwings together in a housing estate is a pretty rare – if not unique – sight. After that we headed off back to the Forest to look for displaying Goshawks. It was a large area and there was plenty of woodland canopy to scan, but another birder pointed us in the right direction to see a male Goshawk perched on a distant tree. It then flew off to do its display and then disappeared from view. Not a close-up view, but a good sighting anyway. After lunch and a quick – and ultimately fruitless – stop-off to look for Crossbills, we made our way to Pennington Marshes near Lymington, getting a great view of three Ravens on the way. There were plenty of good waders, such as Common Snipe (Jack Snipe too, although I didn’t get a good enough view to give it a tick), Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Avocet, but sadly it was too windy for the Dartford Warblers to appear. There was a nice close Common Buzzard and some Little Egrets too. On the way back we saw a mega-rare American Green-winged Teal – probably one of only two in the country – and then a few Ruff near to where the van was parked.
American Green-winged Teal
After we’d said our goodbyes and Jon had dropped Jem and I off in Brockenhurst (he’d wanted to drop us at Southampton Airport Parkway, only for the station staff to tell me that our tickets wouldn’t be valid from there, and so he’d had to drive us all the way back), we went over to the churchyard to look for the Snake Catcher’s grave before the sun had completely disappeared. On the way we disturbed another Buzzard that swooped across the lane in front of us, and despite it getting too dark to read most of the gravestones, we did indeed find the grave of Brusher Mills. A hot chocolate back in the Snake Catcher before our train arrived finished the weekend off nicely.
Grave of Harry ‘Brusher’ Mills