Wildlife watching

Red squirrel Brownsea Island

For nature lovers there's lots to love and look out for that heralds the arrival of spring on Brownsea. The coming and going of different species of bird on the lagoon as well as the charming, calming sound of the spring orchestra from other birds as they gear up for the new breeding season. Step into nature and see our top tips for wildlife watching and becoming a red squirrel detective.

Spotter's guide to Brownsea

Our rare resident - the red squirrel

There is a population of over 200 red squirrels on the island who depend on the woodland to provide up to 80% of their food in order to survive. 

Red squirrels are naturally woodland dwelling seed eaters and deciduous woodland offers greater opportunity for foraging through the seasons. Whilst the seeds contained within pine cones make up a large part of their diet, they also eat many other seeds and nuts, dependent on availability and the changing seasons. Although most people think their main diet includes eating acorns, red squirrels cannot actually digest mature acorns, favouring only green or young ones. Their diet also includes fungi, green shoots, fruit and berries. 

Here we share the ‘tell-tail’ signs to help you spot our resident reds this spring and summer. 

Squirrel detective tips

Red squirrel on Brownsea Island, Dorset.

1. Listen

Often you can hear a squirrel before you see it. Listen for claws climbing up and down the trunks of trees, the noise of a cone being chewed, or the drop of leftover food from the canopy hitting the ground.

Seasonal Scottish Red Squirrels (Red Squirrel), Rothiemurchus Forest, Highland, BWPA competition 2018, Neil Mcintyre

2. Look up

Look to the sky for signs of nesting squirrels. You may be able to find a squirrel nest. Similar to birds’ nests, these are called dreys, found in the forks of tree branches. Look for an untidy ball of sticks with a soft lining of mosses, leaves and grasses. You may even see a squirrel as it leaps from tree to tree.

Beechnut husks on the woodland floor

3. Look down

You're looking for signs of feeding – a great way to tell if squirrels are in the area. Cones here make up a favourite of our red squirrels so you''ll often find them nibbled on the ground – a result of the cone being nibbled to access the seed within. On a walk around you may spot squirrel snacking stations. Often they favour a stump of a tree or similar upon which you may discover the remains of their past meals.

A red squirrel at Allan Bank in Grasmere Cumbria

4. Look around

Squirrels can often be seen feeding on the woodland floor. Food can be scarcer during spring and summer, when their diet extends to include plant shoots, bulbs, flowers, wild fruits and berries, and even insects. At this time of year, especially on hotter days, the dappled shade and the variety of food offered by the woodland floor buffet means a look around or across the woodland floor can provide good spotting opportunities.

Spotting seasonal behaviour

  • The red squirrel breeding season starts with mating chases in January, and a first litter of three to four babies, which are called kittens, is usually born in March. So you may be lucky enough to spot a young kit as they gain independence as the season goes on as they are weaned after 10 weeks, though some may remain in the drey until Autumn.  
  • If a female squirrel gains sufficient food over the summer months, she will have a second litter in July/August. So if you spot a squirrel busily gathering leaves and climbing trees, it may be a new mum.
  • Much like our Scouting and Guiding friends on the island, a squirrel’s motto could well be, ‘be prepared’. Squirrels start stockpiling for winter early, so later in the summer you may catch a squirrel beginning the act of ‘scatter hoarding’. This is a process that splits the risk of losing their stash to another squirrel for example, by stashing their food in several scattered hordes. This may include seeds, nuts, tree bark, leaves, pinecones, buds, acorns, fungi, fruit, insects, and more.. 



While some species sing throughout the winter months (like the territorial male and female robin, for example), others resume singing at this time of year with gusto, after a winter interval, with their songs designed both to attract potential mates and to signal to other birds the extent of their ‘patch’ or territory.

Undoubtedly, it is April and May that this spring chorus is at its best on Brownsea - and spectacularly so at dawn - but with no predators on land, the island is a haven for woodland birds such as the blackbird, robin, chaffinch, chiffchaff and wren who sing out to their hearts’ content, undisturbed. 

Chiffchaff, perching on hawthorn bush
Chiffchaff, perching on hawthorn bush
Chiffchaff, perching on hawthorn bush

Soak up the sounds on the Woodland Walk

Spending time amongst the tree-lined paths or pausing on the Woodland Walk will allow you to soak up these sounds, but don’t forget to look up. There is a hive of activity in and amongst the tops of the trees to be enjoyed. From spotting feathery silhouettes against the backdrop of the changing skies to hearing the fevered pecking of a woodpecker, with its resonating 'drumming', instantly recognisable. The woodland offers some magical mindful moments as our resourceful little birds go about their business.

Brownsea’s tern colonies 

Common terns, which despite the name, are not that common, have one of the longest migrations of all birds, with an average round trip of 35,000 km each year. They generally arrive on Brownsea from their wintering grounds in Africa in April, with many UK breeding Sandwich terns arriving from late-March also. These tern species take up residence on specially created gravel islands on the Dorset Wildlife Trust-managed Brownsea Lagoon that you can visit for a small donation. The terns are also regularly seen flying back and forth from Brownsea jetty, the Villano Café  and may be spotted during the ferry ride to and from the island, as they come and go from Brownsea in search of small fish. 



Other creatures to look out for as spring blossoms on Brownsea include:

  • Spring butterflies. A sure signal that the season is springing into action is the sight of butterflies that appear as the sun shines and the temperatures rise a bit. It is always exciting to see the first butterfly of the season on Brownsea. Look out for brimstone, red admiral, small white, green veined white, speckled wood, large white, peacock, holly blue and small copper. 
  • Damsels and dragons. Damselfly and dragonfly species to keep an eye out for include: large red damsel, common blue damsel, hairy dragonfly, broad-bodied chaser, black-tailed skimmer, and downy emerald dragonflies. 
  • Deer. Spring brings plenty of food for sika deer on the island after a long winter. During this abundant time, they will feed on grass, buds, tender shoots and fruit. This food is especially important for does as spring is when they have their fawns.