Wildlife watching

A red squirrel at Allan Bank in Grasmere Cumbria

Brownsea Island is now closed for winter. We will be re-opening on March 19, 2022.

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 and through autumn, 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.. 

 

Birds

While some species sing throughout the winter months (like the territorial male and female robin, for example), it won't really be until spring now that the bird orchestra resumes singing with gusto, after a winter interval. 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. The calls of winter birds on the lagoon in their internationally important numbers, as autumn begins builds and it begins to hand over to winter, is quite something to see and hear.

A robin at Lanhydrock
Lanhydrock Autumn robin
A robin at Lanhydrock

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 winter waders and wildfowl

Brownsea Lagoon, managed by our partners on island, Dorset Wildlife Trust, plays a vital role in providing a safe haven for overwintering birds including avocets, black-tailed godwits and large numbers of wildfowl. By October, spoonbill numbers, often a lagoon favourite with visitors, often reach 40+ individuals. Come winter, it’s possible see internationally important numbers of avocet and larger groups of spoonbill from Brownsea. These tall birds can be seen swishing their bills through the water as they feed. 

Numbers of avocet start to build and peak at over 1000 and black-tailed godwit at around 2000, which is an impressive spectacle. Expect a riot should a merlin or peregrine come hawking over the lagoon as birds take flight in fright en-masse. 

 

 

Other flora and fauna to look out for as autumn arrives and takes hold include:

  • Fabulous fungi - it wouldn't be autumn without these colourful, beautiful, diverse mushrooms, toadstools and moulds appearing. This curious kingdom starts to appear on rotten logs and dead trees amongst other places, all over the island. 
  • Autumn fruits - laden trees and shrubs start to change colour and the sweet chestnut, beech and hazel in fruit, offer a fine bounty for squirrels preparing for winter. An abundance of blackberries nestle proudly within the brambles providing a crop for Brownsea's birds to enjoy.
  • Deer - Brownsea's sika stags make eerie cries at this time of year, usually at dawn or dusk as they begin the rut. 
  • Rutting activity is most intense soon after dawn, though some activity occurs throughout the day. 
  •  A characteristic high-pitched whistle, which is audible over large distances, may be heard.
  • Mature stags are often territorial, marking their stands by scoring trees with antlers and thrashing vegetation.
A Brownsea sika stag peers through the bracken
Stag
A Brownsea sika stag peers through the bracken