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Accommodation in the New Forest area.

The New Forest

by Steve Portugal

Some critics have labelled the New Forest a disappointment bird wise, but with enough patience and an idea of where to start looking, the New Forest can be an extremely rewarding day out. The large area of ancient woodland and heathland lies between the suburban masses of Bournemouth and Southampton, and covers approximately 64, 707 acres (144 square miles).

In the summer the forest is alive with the sound of bird song and the bustle of visiting tourists. On a pleasant day, the place is teaming with thousands of visitors, leaving the birdwatcher wondering what their chances of seeing anything are in a place so full of people. However, the forestry commission has organised an excellent system of well-concealed car parking areas. From any of these, ten minutes' walk into the woods bring you complete solitude, where you can walk for hours and not meet anybody else.

Perhaps the most evocative sound of the broad-leaved woodlands in the summer is the shivering song of the Wood Warbler. These summer visitors are fairly abundant in the larger patches of woodland, although they often can be difficult to spot high up in the canopy. Another summer visitor that adds a splash of colour is the attractive Redstart. These birds prefer areas with plenty of dead and decaying trees where they can find suitable nest holes. A number of other commoner woodland birds are numerous in the broad-leaved stretches of woodland. Marsh Tit, Stock Dove, Nuthatch, Goldcrest and Lesser-HawfinchSpotted Woodpecker, together with such species as Tawny Owl, Woodcock, Turtle Dove and Hawfinch (left) can all be found.

The mature coniferous forests do not contain such a variety of species; they do however have their own specialities. In the 1950's the Siskin became an established breeding bird of the conifer plantations and in the 1960's the tiny Firecrest was discovered breeding in the New Forest and has continued to do so. Crossbills and Redpoll are also a feature, their numbers varying year to year depending on the success of the seed crop.

Birds of prey can be conspicuous on a warm summer's day. Buzzards breed throughout the Forest, as do Kestrels and Sparrowhawks. The real feature of the woodlands however is the Honey Buzzard. These raptors only occur in a few sites throughout the South of the United Kingdom. Although they have suffered a recent decline in numbers in the New Forest, they can still be seen with some regularity at certain sites.

The best sites for observing the woodland birds can be found at:

1) Bolderwood Grounds: This is more renowned as a Deer Park but is contained in an extensive woodland mass in the North of the forest. Probably the best place to hunt for Firecrest and Hawfinch.
2) Pitt's Wood: An area of mixed woodland surrounded by heathland in the West of the forest. Excellent site for Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker, Tree Pipit, Redpoll and Hawfinch.
3) Acres down: For many years this area has been a well-known site for watching Honey Buzzards. Goshawks have also been observed here.
4) Denny Wood: Large area of broad-leaved woodland in the South of the Forest. Good area for commoner woodland birds, Wood Warbler and Redstart.

HobbyThe heathland is perhaps what the New Forest is most renowned for. The true specialities of this area are the Dartford Warbler and the Hobby. The dashing Hobby (right) can be encountered almost anywhere, but favours the more extensive regions of bogs and heathland. The New Forest was the stronghold of the Dartford Warbler in Britain during the 1950's/60's and it can still be found in good numbers (up to 400 pairs). Its resident nature means its numbers can be severely effected by harsh winters, as was the case in severe cold of 1962/3 when less than ten pairs were located. Another bird also has its stronghold here, the Woodlark. This species inhabits both the open heaths and the woodland borders and often takes advantage of patches of heath that have recently been burnt. A number of other birds frequent the heaths, including Stonechat, Wheatear, Whinchat, Skylark, Meadow Pipit and Nightjar. The more large-scale, damp bogs are important wetland breeding sites for Curlew, Lapwing, Redshank, Teal, Snipe, Shelduck and Mandarin Duck.
The best sites for observing the heathland birds can be found at:

1) Beaulieu Road Station: Excellent locality for waders, Dartford Warbler, Hobby and the commoner heathland birds.
2) Ashley Walk, Hampton Ridge and Blackgutter Bottom: Good site for Whinchat and Hobby and good numbers of Dartford Warbler and Woodlark.
3) Fritham: Good mix of heath and forest can be found here. Whinchat, Woodlark, Nightjar and Tree Pipit are present, with Mandarin, Hawfinch and Lesser-Spotted woodpecker. Fritham Plain is also a good vantage point to watch raptors over nearby woods.

In the winter, the open heaths and woodland can appear desolate, but this is far from the case. Woodland species such as Hawfinch and Crossbill are much easier to locate in the foliage-less trees. The heaths are regular wintering grounds for a number of Hen Harriers, and Merlin, Peregrine and Short Eared Owl are also regular. The most exciting winter visitor is perhaps the Great Grey Shrike. A couple usually resides on the heath at regular sites at Blackgutter Bottom and Beaulieu. Jack snipe and Brambling can also be found.

Whilst the New Forest has a lot to offer, measures must be taken when visiting to minimise disturbance. The increase in visitors is probably the most likely cause for the recent disappearance of the Montagu's Harrier and Red Backed Shrike as breeding species.

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Steve Portugal is a marine biology graduate from Aberystwyth. He lives in Dorset and has been birdwatching around the country from a very young age. He starts a job with the RSPB shortly, and begins a PhD in Glasgow at the end of the year.