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Wildlife watching on Brownsea Island

Red squirrel with a chestnut on Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour, Dorset
Red squirrel eating chestnuts on Brownsea Island, Dorset. | © National Trust Images / Arnhel de Serra

As well as red squirrels, there is plenty of wildlife to see all year round and things change with the seasons. Take a walk through the woodland or down to the lagoon, and don’t forget your binoculars.

Brownsea Island is now closed for the winter

Brownsea Island is now closed for the winter. We look forward to welcoming you back on Sat 16 March 2024.

Things to see and do on Brownsea Island this autumn

There's something for everyone to enjoy on the island, from self-led trails to guided walks, with plenty of wildlife watching opportunities. Brownsea Island is truly magical in the autumn, with the leaves on the trees changing colour and red squirrels at their most active searching for food and stashing it away for the winter months.

Autumn wildlife

At this time of the year it isn't just the leaves that change colour, the squirrels do too. So if you do spot a squirrel you may notice that their tails take on a darker tone, almost black. Join us on a red squirrel walk to find out more about these charming animals.

You may also hear the eerie whistling call of the resident sika deer, who will be going into rutting season, this species were brought from Japan to the island in the 19th century. Many of the deer escaped from Brownsea after a terrible fire in 1934 and can now be found all across the Purbecks.

There are lots of different species of fungi on the island particularly in the woodlands. They pop up in all shapes, sizes and colours and include, common earth balls, shaggy ink caps and waxcaps. Don't forget to look up and see if you can spot some of the bracket fungi too.

Birdwatching on Brownsea Island

Over 20,000 birds visit Poole Harbour each year to feed and roost and Brownsea Island is managed in partnership with Dorset Wildlife Trust, who look after the northern part of the island, including the lagoon and surrounding wetland areas.

The lagoon

Originally managed as pastureland this area of Brownsea was allowed to flood in the 1930s, becoming a non-tidal, brackish lagoon offering a sanctuary to a vast number of birds. In other words, if you're a bird in Poole Harbour, when it's high tide, Brownsea Lagoon is the place to be, offering a chance to rest and feed.

In spring common and sandwich terns arrive from Africa to nest and raise their young here over the summer. The terns set up home on specially-created gravel islands on Brownsea Lagoon.

Thousands of wading birds arrive in the autumn and winter, including avocet, godwit and some rarities occasionally appear.

A black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa) stood in the water at Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour, Dorset
A black-tailed godwit exploring the water | © National Trust Images / Rob Coleman

Autumn birds

Large flocks of wading birds start to arrive at the lagoon in the autumn, species to look out for include avocet, godwit and redshank, if you see a bird speed across the sky it could be a peregrine falcon, who returns every year to hunt over the lagoon during the autumn and winter months.

Three sika deer with their heart shaped rears at the front and heads turned around, bracken and trees in the background.
Sika deer showing their heart shaped rumps. | © National Trust Images

Red squirrels

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..

Sika deer

During your visit you may have heard or spotted a herd of deer munching in the undergrowth or on the acid grassland. Most active at dawn and dusk, they can occasionally be seen in small groups during the day. Look out for their heart shaped rumps, as pictured in the photo above.

The breeding season for sika deer usually takes place from early September to November. Males will often be heard making high-pitched noises or seen fighting with each other to help them secure a mate.

A cluster of deep purple amethyst deceiver fungi emerging from some fallen leaves at Sherringham Park in Norfolk
Amethyst deceiver fungi. | © National Trust Images/Rob Coleman

Accessing the Dorset Wildlife Trust area

The Dorset Wildlife Trust manage the lagoon and wetland areas and there is a suggested donation of £2 to enter this part of the island, which includes access to hides and admission to the Villa Wildlife Centre which has an exhibition, gift shop, toilets and a feeding station for red squirrels.

Live webcams installed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust and Birds of Poole Harbour offer the chance to watch the comings and goings live. Catch up with all the action here.

A close up of a red squirrel on a branch on the floor of woodland on Brownsea Island, Dorset


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