The New Forest is the jewel in the crown of Hampshire’s landscape and is home to one of the finest breeding bird assemblages of anywhere in the UK. Across a range of habitats from ancient woodland, conifer plantations, heathland, bogs, ponds and streams, one can find a great diversity of all flora and fauna. Given the continuous nature of the habitat, isolating particular birding sites is something of a challenge, so what follows is a summary of the birdlife and a list of some of the most popular locations for birding.
Breeding and resident birds
The woodlands of the New Forest are home to many of the most sought after species for birders. The forest is perhaps the most important stronghold in Britain for the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, which is best found in late winter and early spring, typically in ancient oaks or areas of alders or birches. The Hawfinch is relatively common but elusive and most likely to be observed at roost sites such as Blackwater Arboretum. The Wood Warbler has sadly declined significantly in recent years and is unlikely to be encountered at many sites away from the Boldrewood area. Firecrests were first discovered breeding in the 1960s but have now become very common and easily found. The number of Crossbills varies from year to year but they can usually be located in areas of conifers. Other common breeding species of the woodlands and woodland edges include Marsh Tit, Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, Tree Pipit and Siskin.
Raptors are another attraction for visiting birders. The most sought after is the Honey Buzzard, although it is scarce and only likely to be seen at specific viewpoints, predominantly from mid-May to mid-June. The Goshawk, however, has increased considerably and can often be chanced upon soaring over areas of woodland. Hobbies are a declining summer visitor, but there is a good chance of encountering them hunting insects over boggy areas.
The flagship species of the open heath is the Dartford Warbler. Its numbers fluctuate considerably depending on winter weather conditions, but it is likely to be found in most areas of open heathland. The Woodlark is another notable species that can be found on the open heath, although it can also be found in woodland clearings. The same is true of the Nightjar, which is a common summer visitor, best looked for on warm, clear evenings from mid-May. The commoner species of the open heath include Stonechat, Meadow Pipit and Linnet. The Cuckoo is still a relatively common spring visitor and is also most likely to be seen in the open areas and woodland edges
The last important habitat is the wet areas, where Lapwing, Curlew, Redshank and Snipe continue to breed in varying numbers. Woodland streams are home to a breeding population of Kingfisher and Grey Wagtail, while Mandarin Ducks are resident and best seen on the ponds
Winter and passage birds
Winter can feel a quiet time in the forest, as many of the breeding birds have long since headed south. However, there are new arrivals that attract interest from birders. The Great Grey Shrike is in annual visitor in small numbers, with between one and four birds typically present, often at traditional sites such as Bishop’s Dyke or Holm Hill. Hen Harriers continue to over-winter in small numbers, as well as Merlin and less often Short-eared Owl. In the woodlands, Bramblings can appear in large numbers and Redpolls are often found in areas of alders. In the wetter areas, a few Teal over-winter in the bogs and mires, while Goosanders can often give good views on the ponds
Passage migrants are not a notable feature of birding in the forest, however Wheatears and the occasional Whinchat can be seen in the open areas, while Pied Flycatchers are seen regularly. In late September and October, Ring Ouzels are seen in small numbers, mostly at traditional sites such as Leadenhall.
The majority of the New Forest’s species are widespread enough that they can be found in most areas of suitable habitat. Therefore, the following summary is by no means intended to be exhaustive, but may provide some ideas of likely areas to find birds. For the more adventurous birder, the best strategy is often to simply take a map and go exploring!
Beaulieu Road Station (SU349063) is one of the most popular places to begin a New Forest walk and is accessible by public transport. The surrounding heathland is good for Dartford Warbler, Woodlark and Nightjar. Crossbills are occasionally seen in the pines around the car park (SU348063). The bogs to the south and west of here, particularly around Shatterford Bottom, are one of the main areas for breeding waders in the New Forest and also a traditional winter area for Great Grey Shrike. To the west of Shatterford is Denny Wood, an area of broad-leaved woodland good for woodland birds including Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Yew Tree Heath, to the east of Beaulieu Road Station, is good for heathland birds including Nightjar (car park at SU364063). Further south, to the west of Beaulieu itself, the large open expanse of Beaulieu Heath (centred around SU3500) is good for heathland birds and waders.
The woodland to the west of Lyndhurst is the main area to search for many of the New Forest’s woodland birds, particularly Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Wood Warbler and Hawfinch. Boldrewood itself is one of the most popular tourist spots in the New Forest, with a viewing platform overlooking a Fallow Deer sanctuary (car park at SU242086). To the east of Boldrewood, Highland Water Inclosure and Holm Hill Inclosure are good for woodland birds including Wood Warbler. Further east, Acres Down is a popular area to watch for raptors, as the down provides a natural viewpoint over the surrounding woods (car park at SU267097). To the south of Boldrewood, the length of the Ornamental Drive is good for woodland birds, with Mark Ash Wood a popular area to search. The Knighthood Oak (SU264064) is the largest oak tree in the New Forest, thought to be 500 years old and also a good place to see Redstarts, while the conifers west of the road are good for Crossbill. The New Forest Reptile Centre (SU270071) is a good place to observe all of the UK’s reptile species, albeit in a captive setting, while the birdfeeders provide excellent views of Marsh Tit, Nuthatch and Siskin. The information hut usually has a camera on a Goshawk nest in the spring and summer
To the south of the A35, the Ornamental Drive continues to provide a good starting point for searching for woodland birds. Blackwater Arboretum is a traditional site for roosting Hawfinches and also good for Crossbill (car park at SU268047). To the south of here, the Holm Hill area is a regular site for wintering Great Grey Shrike, especially around Crab Tree Bog. Just to the east of Brockenhurst, Roydon Woods is a HIWWT trust reserve good for woodland birds. More information can be found here and a trail guide can be downloaded here
To the south of Burley, the Holmsley Walk area (centred around SU2101) is good for heathland birds and waders, as well as being regular area for Great Grey Shrike in winter. To the west of Burley is Cranes Moor, another traditional site for Great Grey Shrike. Holmsley Gravel Pit (SZ206988) is a HIWWT reserve good for Green Sandpipers in autumn and large numbers of Teal in winter
North of the A31
To the north of the A31, the most popular birding area is centred around Black Gutter Bottom, a large area of open heathland and valley mire to the south of the B3078. It is a traditional area for Great Grey Shrike and raptors, while the bushes around Leadenhall (SU204157) are the most reliable site in the New Forest for Ring Ouzel in autumn. Pitts Wood is a small inclosure but good for woodland birds. Several car parks are available along the B3078.
In the Fritham area, Eyeworth Pond is the best site in the New Forest for seeing Mandarin Ducks, as well as Goosander in winter. The car park is good for close views of Marsh Tit and Nuthatch (SU228146). To the west of here, Islands Thorns Inclosure and Amberwood Inclosure are good for woodland birds including Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Fritham Plain is a good area for heathland birds including occasional wintering Great Grey Shrike.
Just to the north of the A31, Slufters Inclosure and Milkham Inclosure (car park at SU217101) both have large stands of conifers and are good places to look for Crossbills. Bratley Plain is a good area for heathland birds including winter raptors and occasional wintering Great Grey Shrike, especially around Milkham Bottom.
Access and facilities
There are numerous public car parks across the forest which provide a starting point for any walk. Options by public transport are more limited, however Beaulieu Road Station is ideally located for beginning a birding walk, while Ashurst and Brockenhurst stations can also provide a starting point. Most of the forest is right to roam land, although it is desirable to stay on the many paths where possible, especially in the breeding season.
Much of the forest can be very wet in winter and so wellington boots are strongly recommended, although even in summer they are sometimes useful in certain locations. Be aware of ticks in summer, especially if you have been walking through areas of heather or long grass. Insect repellent is strongly recommended for birders watching Nightjars on summer evenings.
There are public toilets at Boldrewood, The New Forest Reptile Centre, Anderwood Inclosure, Blackwater Arboretum and Hatchet Pond. There are number of pubs that can be easily incorporated into a birding walk, including but not limited to the Royal Oak in Fritham, the New Forest Inn in Emery Down and the Drift Inn (by Beaulieu Road Station). Ice cream vans are usually at Boldrewood and Hatchet Pond in summer.
Foresty Commission – New Forest
Wild New Forest – Wild New Forest is a group formed to support conservation action in the New Forest National Park.