It feels like I am watching an old black and white film as a tightly-knit flock of Black-tailed Godwits wheel against a white sky. Their contrasting black and white bodies flicker. A very light mist has enveloped the reedbeds rendering the houses in the background into monochrome. If I listen carefully, over the whoosh of passing cars, I can hear the waves of the sea lapping on the gravelly seashore. I am birdwatching at RSPB Lodmoor, a little piece of natural magic on the outskirts of the southern coastal resort town of Weymouth. Amazingly, Weymouth has two RSPB reserves within walking distance from the town centre. RSPB Radipole Lake is a three-minute walk from the railway station. In fact, trains travelling to and fro from Weymouth pass one border of this lovely reserve of reedbeds and freshwater pools.
RSPB Lodmoor is further away, at just over a mile (1.6 kilometres) from the railway station. One can walk on the surfaced path beside the beach or simply take a cab which will cost around a fiver each way. We had started the morning at Channel View, one of several pretty B&B guest houses on Brunswick Terrace, a short walk from the railway station and about a 15 minutes walk from the reserve. The sea lies across Brunswick Terrace, a small road that runs a few hundred meters into a dead end. The terrace is at the bottom of the U-shaped bay with cliffs of white chalk on one side and on the other Weymouth's harbour and an area of sandy beach. The bay is on the South West Coastal Path and serious walkers with back packs stride along it. What we liked the most about the location of our guest house was that the beach was just a few meters away. Throughout the day we could hear the waves lapping on the beach, occasionally mingled with the calls of Herring Gulls. On a clear morning, the sun appears to emerge out of the sea at day break.
We had taken the beach path toward the SeaLife centre which was next to RSPB Lodmoor. A drizzle had set in. Birdwatchers who are warmly dressed and with their waterproofs on are seldom bothered by a light British drizzle. Other birdwatchers, some with telescopes had already arrived at the reserve to scan the wader flocks and to seek out a Spoonbill that was in the area. Our first notable sighting was a feeding party of Bullfinches. The males were stunning with crimson underparts and a black cap. The head appears to have sunken into the body with the neck almost absent. The males contrasted with the greyness of the drizzle filtered landscape. The plainer females were more aligned with the sober hues.
It was the first week of March and wintering waterfowl were still much in evidence. The males of Shoveler, Teal and Wigeon were brightly hued in full breeding plumage. Ducks come into breeding plumage early on, during the winter unlike with many other birds. I scanned the flock of Black-tailed Godwits. Most were in winter plumage, an overall muted brown, with a pink base to the long bill they use for probing the deep mud. However, a few of the godwits had turned into breeding plumage and were dressed in a rusty red. A footpath runs along the western boundary of RSPB Lodmoor. The reserve has 24 hour open access all year. Many local people use this path for a walk and a result of this is that birds are habituated to people. Teal and godwits feed on the mudflats much closer to people than they would at other reserves. However, the most habituated are garden birds such as the Robins and Dunnocks. In fact, if anyone wanted to take frame filling images of Dunnocks, this is probably the best place in Britain. They have got used to people putting out food and if you sit on one of the benches before long you will find two or three Dunnocks approaching you fearlessly. Even more tame are the Robins that will perch next to you. The Robin is one of the commonest birds in Britain, but I never tire of photographing this beautiful and captivating bird. I could not resist taking more close up portraits of a Robin as it sang a sweet subsong as a light breeze tugged at its crown feathers deforming it and giving it a punk rocker hairstyle.
Reed beds fringe a number of pools of water. On the islands in the middle were resting duck including Shelduck and a variety of gulls. Herring, Black-headed, Lesser Black-backed and a pair of the much larger Great Black-backed Gulls. A gull in flight looked a bit different from the other Black-headed Gulls. The upper wing was largely white without the contrasting white leading wedge in a Black-headed Gull. It was a Mediterranean Gull. As soon as I had got my eye in I began to notice several mingling with the similar sized and similar looking Black-headed Gulls. Some were in breeding plumage with jet black heads, white eyelids and bright red bills. Others were in winter plumage with a darkish mask around the eye different to the ear phone pattern in the Black-headed Gull. One of the 'Meds' displayed to another and its 'aw aw' call had a hollow timbre to it. The call was distinctive and broke the grey stillness which was also periodically punctured by the tinkling calls of Teal and the occasional explosive outburst of a Cetti's Warbler.
The footpath along the reserve connects to the adjoining Lodmoor Country park. At the border of the two we encountered a mixed species feeding flock which held Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Blue and Great Tit. On the lawns, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes allow a close approach. The expansive reedbeds in the northern border of the reserve are patrolled by Marsh Harriers who fly over the locals who are out dog walking.
Weymouth is a popular seaside town and I had not really thought of it as a location that combines a seaside setting with birdwatching in the same fashion as for example Cley-next-the-sea in Norfolk. Luckily, my wife spotted a feature in 'Nature' s Home', the quarterly magazine of the RSPB, on their reserves which are close to railway stations. The RSPB manage over 220 reserves in the UK and they are probably the most influential conservation NGO in Europe. I would recommend membership to anyone in Britain with an interest in nature as membership supports their work and provide free access to their whole network of reserves.