The creatures, both great and small, that call Dunwich Heath home...

Stone Curlew Adult

Dunwich Heath and Beach is home to a vast array of wildlife, with hundreds of different species to be found across the site. We’d need an enormous webpage to list all of the equally fascinating creatures, so instead what follows is a brief foray into the rarer species, and those that provide a particular spectacle to those lucky enough to see it...

Beautiful Birds

Dunwich Heath is famous for its bird life, owing to the scarcity of the birds which call its unique habitats home. Some are resident species and if you’re lucky can be seen all year round, while others migrate here for the summer or winter. Of those which live here permanently, there are four very rare species protected under Schedule One status…

Firecrest:

  • The Firecrest is tied with the Goldcrest for the title of UK’s smallest bird, but brighter and ‘cleaner’ looking.
  • The best time to see them is in Autumn and Winter, moving through trees and bushes searching for small insects to eat, but can be seen all year round and more likely in evergreen woodland.
  • Firecrest’s breed in very small numbers, and mainly in South-East England, so therefore are under Schedule One status despite their conservation status being green. However, we are lucky enough here at Dunwich to have had Firecrest’s breeding on site for the last twenty five years!

Cetti’s Warbler:

  • Cetti’s Warblers are small, rather non-descript birds, which are difficult to see. You will probably hear their loud bursts of song first and a glimpse of them diving for cover.
  • They eat insects and larvae and prefer damp areas close to wetlands for their habitat.
  • Cetti’s Warblers are the UK’s most recent colonist, first discovered breeding in Kent in 1972.

Dartford Warbler:

  • Dartford Warbler’s are small, dark, and long tailed.
  • They perch on Gorse and Heather to sing their scratchy song, but you will more often see them bobbing between bushes and staying out of sight.
  • Dartford Warbler’s need lowland heath to be successful, hence their scarcity in the UK, but are also scarce due to a population crash in the 1960’s. Happily their numbers have recovered since!

Woodlark:

  • Woodlark’s can be found on heathland and, given their name, in woodland, feeding on insects and seeds.
  • They have a peculiarly short tail and broad, rounded wings, with a deeply undulating flight including closed wing glides.
  • Listen out for their mesmerising song and try and catch a glimpse of them with their excellently camouflaged plumage.
Clockwise from top left; a Dartford Warbler, Cetti's Warbler, Woodlark and a Firecrest
Dunwich Heath resident birds
Clockwise from top left; a Dartford Warbler, Cetti's Warbler, Woodlark and a Firecrest

 

Summer Migrants...

As Spring starts in Britain, flowers bloom and nature wakes from its slumber. Then from March and April the Schedule One summer migrants arrive to add their rare numbers to the locals, accompanied by other less rare but truly spectacular species.

Hobby:

  • Hobbys are about the size of a Kestrel, and reminiscent of a giant swift with its long, pointed wings.
  • They hunt insects and small birds, chasing them and catching them in its talons then transferring the catch to its beak in flight.
  • Hobby’s arrive from April, and leave in September to October, and are best seen on warm days over heathland or woodland where there are plenty of dragonflies and other prey.

Stone Curlew:

  • Stone Curlew’s are both strange and rare, crow sized with a large head and eyes, and long yellow legs.
  • They are found from March to October on dry open landscapes with bare, stony ground or very short vegetation, but are most active at night where their large eyes help them find food.
  • Despite the name, Stone Curlew’s are not actually related to Curlew’s. They get their name from the similarity between their call and that of the wading species.

Sand Martin:

  • Unlike the former bird species, Sand Martins are plentiful despite two population crashes in the last fifty years because of droughts in Africa.
  • They arrive in March, then stay until October, nesting in sandy cliffs and along or around waterways.
  • Sand Martins are the smallest European Martin, making them agile flyers, feeding mainly over water then perching on overhead wires or branches.

Nightjar:

  • Nightjars arrive in the UK from April and stay until August but being nocturnal birds, they are most often seen at dusk and dawn.
  • They live on heathland, moorland and in open woodland, and are of a similar shape to a Kestrel or a Cuckoo, with pointed wings and a long tail.
  • Nightjars are almost impossible to spot during the day because of their excellent camouflage and are still difficult to find at dusk. They fly silently, so the first indication of their presence is usually the males churring song, rising and falling.
Clockwise from top left; a Stone Curlew, Hobby, Sand Martins and a Nightjar
Dunwich Heath summer migrants
Clockwise from top left; a Stone Curlew, Hobby, Sand Martins and a Nightjar

 

Winter Visitors...

When Summer finally wanes, and Autumn is starting to creep in, the summer migrants head for warmer climes. However, they are replaced by our Schedule 1 winter migrants, who come for our ‘warmer’ winter weather, at least compared to their usual homes in the much colder parts of the world!

Merlin:

  • Merlins are the UK’s smallest bird of prey, with shorter wings than Falcons, flying with rapid wingbeats and occasional glides.
  • They migrate from Iceland in August to October, then return home in April to May, most often found roosting at the coast in reedbeds, bogs and on heaths, often alongside Hen Harriers.
  • Merlin populations are recovering from a crash in the late twentieth century and are still on the conservation Red list and have Schedule One status.

Hen Harrier

  • Hen Harrier males are a pale grey colour, while females and juveniles are brown with a white rump and long, barred tail. They fly with their wings held in a shallow V, gliding in search of food.
  • They are the most intensively persecuted bird of prey owing to their previous predations on free-range fowl, hence the name, threatening the Hen Harrier’s survival in some parts of the UK.
  • Hen Harriers live in open areas with low vegetation normally, then from October to March move to lowland farmland, heathland, coastal marshes, fenland and river valleys.

Brambling:

  • Bramblings are similar in size and shape to a Chaffinch, and are sometimes found in flocks of them, or forming their own flocks of thousands.
  • Their numbers vary between winters depending on their food supply, but their usual winter period in the UK is from mid-September to March and April.
  • Bramblings are found in woodland and on farmland fields near woods, searching for seeds to feed on.

Crossbill:

  • Crossbills are chunky Finches, with large heads and a distinctive bill crossed over at the ends, which they use to extract seeds from conifer cones.
  • They arrive in the UK in August and September, staying until March or April, and are most often encountered in noisy family groups or larger flocks, flying close to treetop height.
  • Crossbills are an irruptive species, and may be widespread and numerous in some years, less so in others.

Fieldfare:

  • Fieldfares are large, colourful thrushes, standing very upright and moving in purposeful hops.
  • They arrive in October and stay until April, and are best seen in countryside, along hedges and in fields, hawthorn hedges with berries especially. In late winter they can be seen on grass fields, playing fields and arable fields with nearby trees.
  • They are very social, often seen in flocks of anything from a dozen to several hundred, sometimes with Redwings mingling amongst them.

Redwing:

  • Redwings are the UK’s smallest true thrush, the vast majority arriving in the UK from September and October and staying until March and April, though there is a tiny resident population.
  • They roam across the countryside, feeding in fields and hedgerows, rarely visiting gardens except in the coldest weather when snow covers the fields.
  • They are under Red conservation status, with only 13 UK breeding pairs, though as mentioned many more migrate here over the winter and can often be seen amongst flocks of Fieldfares.
Clockwise from top left; a Hen Harrier, Brambling, Fieldfare, Redwing and a Crossbill
Dunwich Heath winter migrants
Clockwise from top left; a Hen Harrier, Brambling, Fieldfare, Redwing and a Crossbill

 

All that walks, swims or slithers...

As mentioned the feathered life on Dunwich Heath and its surrounding habitats is its most famous draw, and rightly so. However, there are species of mammal and reptile living here that are equally spectacular to witness, or equally rare. They are the majestic Red Deer, elusive Water Voles and Otters, and the mesmerising Adder…

Red Deer:

  • The Red Deer is the UK’s largest deer, with males growing large, branching antlers, increasing in size with age.
  • Red Deer live on moorland and mountain sides, as well as grasslands near to woodland and heathland, feeding on grasses, sedges, rushes and dwarf shrubs like heather.
  • Males bellow in the breeding season, known as the Rut, to proclaim their territory and will fight off other males who invade their territory.

Water Vole:

  • Water Voles are similar to a brown rat, but have a blunt nose and small ears, with a furry tail. The Water Vole is famously known as Ratty in Wind in the Willows, but despite being sometimes referred to as a water rat, there is in fact no such thing!
  • Water Voles live along rivers, streams and ditches, around ponds and lakes, and in marshes, reedbeds and areas of wet moorland.
  • Look for burrows with a nibbled ‘lawn’ of grass at the entrance, or for their eating spots (they only eat in one place) identifiable by piles of nibbled grass and stems by the water’s edge.

Otter:

  • Otters are one of the UK’s top predators, feeding mainly on fish, waterbirds, amphibians and crustaceans.
  • They are excellent swimmers, with webbed feet, dense fur for warmth and can close their ears and nose when underwater. They start young too, the cubs in the water by just 10 weeks of age!
  • You’re more likely to see evidence of otters than the animals themselves. Look for five toed footprints next to waterways, or piles of droppings called Spraints, which the otters leave to mark territory and find mates.

Adder:

  • Adders are the UK’s only poisonous snake, hunting lizards and small mammals as well as ground nesting birds.
  • The males are silvery grey, females light or reddish brown, both with a distinctive zigzag pattern on their backs, and live on heathland and in woodland, often seen basking in the sunshine.
  • Adders hibernate from October into the first warm days of March, which is the easiest time to see them as they bask to ‘re-energise’!
Clockwise from top left; a Water Vole, Adder, Otter and a Red Deer stag
Dunwich Heath animals
Clockwise from top left; a Water Vole, Adder, Otter and a Red Deer stag

 

Small but stunning...

It is one of nature’s great wonders that the most colourful and remarkable of its creations are its smallest. The insects hidden away in the soil, in the undergrowth, or flitting between the bushes can be hard to find, and some are simply so rare that spotting them is an event in itself. When you do get a glimpse though, the phrase good things come in small packages may well come to mind…

Green Tiger Beetle:

  • A large, metallic green beetle with purple-bronze legs and eyes, and large powerful jaws.
  • They are found on heathland, moorland, sandy grassland and sand dunes.
  • Green Tiger Beetles are fast, agile hunters, chasing down their prey of invertebrates, such as spiders, caterpillars and ants.

Silver Studded Blue:

  • Silver Studded Blues are found mainly on heathland, often congregating late afternoon to roost on sheltered bushes or grass tussocks.
  • The males are blue with a dark border, whereas the females are brown with a row of red spots. The undersides of both are brown-grey with black spots, a row of orange spots, and small greenish flecks on the outer margins.
  • Silver Studded Blue’s distribution is restricted but occurs in large numbers in suitable heathland and coastal habitats. Unfortunately, they have undergone major decline through most of its range, so they are becoming an increasingly rare sight.

Green Hairstreak:

  • The Green Hairstreak is the UK’s only green butterfly, always holding its wings closed except in flight, showing green undersides with faint white streaks. These streaks are variable, frequently just a few dots and sometimes almost absent.
  • They live on a variety of habitats from chalk grassland, heath and moors, to railway cuttings and old quarries. The colonies are small in number but widespread and have undergone local losses in several regions.
  • Look out for males engaging in spiralling fights close to shrubs, though you’ll have to search harder for the less conspicuous females.

Grayling:

  • Graylings have excellent camouflage, making them difficult to see on bare ground, tree trunks or stones, but look out for them in their looping and gliding flight.
  • They rest with their wings closed, the underwing being mottled-brown, and appear large in flight thanks to the visible pale yellow-orange bands.
  • Graylings are widespread on the coast of Britain, and on heathland in southern Britain. However, like many other species, they have been declining in many areas, including inland.

Painted Lady:

  • Painted Ladies are migratory butterflies, travelling from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, recolonising mainland Europe and reaching the UK in the summer. The migrants that arrive are not the same that left though. They are up to the sixth successive generation after them, each generation carrying the butterfly population to its next stop on the way.
  • They prefer dry open areas but can be seen anywhere in a good year, frequenting gardens and other flowery places in late summer.
  • Painted Ladies have orange, black and white mottled wings with a brown body.

Emperor Moth:

  • Emperor Moth females are larger than males, with slightly different markings, paler colour, and their antennae are not feathered. The females fly at night, while both sexes fly in late March, through to April and May.
  • They live on heathland, moorland bogs, fens, hedgerows, field margins, woodland ridges, mature sand dunes and other scrubby places.
  • Emperor Moths are widely distributed in most parts of mainland Britain.

Hummingbird Hawkmoth:

  • Hummingbird Hawkmoths have orange-brown hindwings, greyish-brown forewings and a black and white chequered body.
  • They are found in many habitats from coastal areas to gardens, woodland rides and urban areas, flying from May to September, with occasional sightings throughout the year.
  • Hummingbird Hawkmoths are widespread throughout the UK, but are most numerous in southern and eastern England, South Wales and the Midlands.

Bee Wolf:

  • Bee Wolves are large, solitary wasps, most often found on sandy areas of lowland heath and coastal dunes. For your best spotting chance head to Docwra’s ditch.
  • Female Bee Wolves prey on Honey Bee workers, paralysing them with a sting and carrying them back to their burrow. Up to six Honey Bees are placed in one chamber, then an egg laid, and the chamber sealed. The larvae hatch then feed on the Honey Bees, before spinning a cocoon and hibernating until emerging in the Spring.
  • Bee Wolves used to be extremely rare, but in the last few years have expanded their range dramatically.

Ant-Lion:

  • Ant-Lion larvae dig pits in sandy soil, often on sandy banks, around 2-5cm deep and 3-7cm wide at the edge. You’ll likely see the pits on a walk along Docwra’s ditch.
  • The larvae hide at the bottom of the pit, waiting to feed on the insects and spiders that fall in, and if an insect tries to climb out the larvae flicks sand at it to knock it back down.
  • Ant-Lion larvae eventually spin themselves into a cocoon of sand and spun silk and transform into a damselfly-like adult.
Clockwise from top left; a Silver Studded Blue, Green Hairstreak, Painted Lady, Hummingbird Hawkmoth, Bee Wolf, Ant-Lion Larvae, Green Tiger Beetle, Grayling and an Emperor Moth
Dunwich Heath insects
Clockwise from top left; a Silver Studded Blue, Green Hairstreak, Painted Lady, Hummingbird Hawkmoth, Bee Wolf, Ant-Lion Larvae, Green Tiger Beetle, Grayling and an Emperor Moth

 

Good to Know...

Now for some more frequently asked questions, and maybe a few facts that you did not know before:

Where can I see Dartford Warblers/How do I find them?

Dartford Warblers can be seen all across the heath, and the best spots are along the central path running through the heath, and at the top of the heath where it meets the trees. As for how, look for Stonechats and more often than not you will find Dartford Warblers nearby. However, Dartford Warblers are quite fragile birds, so you will find it a lot harder seeing them in wet/windy/cold conditions as they prefer to stay hidden. For your best chance visit on warm, calm days.

Where can I see Adders?

Adders love the sunny sheltered spots on the heath to bask in, and hunt for lizards, small mammals and ground nesting birds through the heather. Walk slowly through those sorts of areas and with luck you'll spot one!

Do you see seals on the beach?

Yes, seals passing by will occasionally haul onto the beach for a rest, or if they have been battered around by a storm out to sea. Please don’t approach them though, and if you see one in distress please let a member of staff know.

Where and when can I see Starling murmurations?

The best place to witness the spectacular murmurations is at the southern end of our site, overlooking RSPB Minsmere. The Starlings come in their thousands and perform their incredible dance around dusk, then fly down to roost in the reeds. Murmurations can be seen in the autumn and winter months, when many more Starlings migrate to Britain from Europe.

What are the small birds flitting about the cliffs?

They are Sand Martins, which make their nests in the cliff face and then hunt over and around the cliffs for food.

What are the best walks for...

Heath birds – The Pink walk covers most of our heathland and offers plenty of chance to see the variety of heathland birds, such as the Stonechat, Skylark and Dartford warbler.

Seabirds – Head down to the beach and spend some time sat on the shingle, or walk along the cliff top path for the best chance of spotting seabirds

Reedbirds and Waders – Follow the Grey walk if you are a reedbird and wader enthusiast. The more southerly section along Docwra’s ditch is perfect, and there are benches dotted along its length to stop and search with your binoculars.

Woodland birds – Either the Orange or Pink walk is your best bet, as they both travel past or through good patches of trees where you will find the more tree bound varieties.

What are the best walks to see Red Deer?

The best walk would be a combination of the orange and pink walks. Head up the diagonal orange path through the heath, then turn left and follow the pink walk in the loop around and back to the car park. Keep your eyes peeled for the deer as they are surprisingly hard to spot. As for when to spot them, the colder months are best, but especially the Autumn when the ‘Rut’ happens and males proclaim their territory and fight for females.

What are the best walks for butterflies?

Any of the walks through the heath and the woodland will give you a decent chance of spotting butterflies, though given the scarcity of some of the species that appear on site it’s sometimes luck of the draw. Head out and keep your eyes peeled!