Cliff top wildlife

A butterfly on a purple flower

The rare chalk grassland environment on the White Cliffs of Dover provides the perfect habitat for birds, butterflies and wild flowers. You just have to know what to look for and with our spotters guides you too can become wildlife experts.

Fields of flowers

An Early Spider Orchid on The White Cliffs of Dover
A Early Spider Orchid

Amongst the wealth of wildflowers on the cliffs there is a surprising variety of orchids, the most nationally rare being the Early Spider Orchid. With yellow-green to brownish green petals with a flower that looks like the body of a large spider. This small plant flowers for just two months in April and May. 

Very similar in appearance to an orchid but not from the same family is the Oxtongue Broomrape. Best recognised by its yellow to straw coloured stems bearing yellow, white or blue snapdragon-like flowers, this delicate flower can be seen dotting the cliff top walk from June-September.

Another plant that adorns the cliff top is Viper's-bugloss. This highly flamboyant plant is easily seen due to its vivid shades of blue and purple with rough petals and red tongue-like stamens. Viper’s-bugloss can sometimes be overlooked in its longer flowering period of June-September.

Beautiful butterflies 

An Adonis blue at The White Cliffs of Dover
A blue butterfly

Such a wealth of wildflowers attracts an abundance of insect life, including around 30 different species of butterfly. So keep your eyes peeled for the graceful flutter of wings on your cliff top walk. 

Perhaps one of our most rare butterflies is the Adonis Blue. The male of this species has vibrant blue wings which are lined with a white margin, whereas the females are a rich chocolate brown. In contrast to the jewel like top, the undersides of the wings are a malty brown with a string of black spots and a row of orange near the margin. These can be seen on the wing in two broods, mid-May to late June and then again in early August to the end of September. 

Similar in appearance but far more abundant and specialist to chalk grassland is the Chalk Hill Blue. This butterfly can be distinguished from the Adonis Blue as the males are far paler in colour, although it does also have dark veins extending into a white fringe on the edges of the wings. These can be seen flying low to the ground, just above the vegetation, from mid-July to early August.

An, all most, all year round visitor to the cliffs is the Red Admiral, visible from February – November. The forewings of this butterfly are a velvety black-brown with an orange stripe dividing the white spotted tips from the rest of the body. The underside is simpler with just a marbled brown pattern. 

Far more modest in appearance is the Marbled White which displays an even balance of black and white with a delicate white border making the wings looked scalloped. The underside of this butterfly is also understated in a creamy yellow with blue-grey veins and eyespots. Look for this beauty amongst the wildflowers from June to August.

Get to know your birds

A Peregrine Falcon on The White Cliffs of Dover
A Peregrine Falcon on the cliff edge

If you can bear to take your eyes from the breath taking views over the channel and listen carefully you may be able to both see and hear some of the resident bird life who call the cliffs home. 

The rarest of birds that makes the cliffs their home is the peregrine falcon. These stunning masters of the sky are the fastest animal on the planet, being able to reach 200mph in a hunting dive. The peregrine is usually identifiable by its silhouette high in the sky, but up close they have a black hood and ‘moustache’ and grey bars that mark its white underside. Despite being very elusive, these birds can be spotted above the cliffs all year round. 

Although not as rare as the peregrine, the raven returned to breed on the cliffs in 2009 for the first time in 120 years. The world's largest crow, this giant has a wing span of 130cm and is easily identified by its obsidian colour. The tail of this bird is rounded or diamond shaped but the raven's most distinctive feature, however, is its deep, croaky call. 

By no means rare the cheeky jackdaw can often be seen outside the White Cliffs cafe. Similar to the raven in its colouring, but much smaller and more like a pigeon in size, the jackdaw has a distinct grey hood giving the appearance of a permanent scowl.

Following its recent and dramatic population decline the skylark is a Red List species but can be found all along The White Cliffs of Dover. Identifiable as somewhat larger than a sparrow but smaller than a starling this little bird is streaky brown with a small crest and a white-sided tail. It is perhaps most renowned for its display flight, vertically up in the air, and its distinctive call from the arable fields along the cliffs.

Of course we mustn’t forget the abundance of seagulls who call the sea buttressed cliff face home, the most common being the Herring Gull which can often be seen spiralling and squabbling above the cliffs. The adults of this species are instantly familiar with their light grey backs, white underside and black wing tips, whereas the young birds are a mottled brown. These birds can be seen, and heard, all year round.

Migration

A true wonder of nature, small birds arrive at the cliffs after completing incredible journeys of hundreds or even thousands of miles. Some of our summer migrants include the chiffchaff and the whitethroat, both small insect eaters.