RECORD breaking numbers of spoonbills have been spotted in Poole Harbour with the figure surpassed twice in the past week.

Britain's largest ever flock of the white water birds was reported in October last year when a group 47-strong was counted.

However last week keen-eyed bird spotters at the RSPB's Arne nature reserve in Purbeck counted 54, which then grew to 60.

Large numbers have been spotted from the Shipstal hide, exciting visitors and staff who undertook a co-ordinated count. "I was thrilled when I manage to count 53," said Luke Phillips, Arne information officer.

"Later this week we've managed to record an incredible 58 at Arne and we've confirmed that there are a total of 60 in Poole Harbour.

"Spoonbill numbers have been rising year on year in Poole Harbour and the UK, largely down to the European population rising and spreading westward. Poole Harbour is such an important area for birds and other wildlife which is why the spoonbills have decided to call it their winter home," he said.

Tony Whitehead, spokesman for the RSPB in Dorset predicted numbers would continue to increase.

"It is one of these species we are going to start seeing over the next decade as commonly as we see little egret," he said. "It's great news. They are doing well.

"Poole Harbour is amazing. It's warm, shallow and there is lots of food. Just the sort of place they like."

Conditions were similar to those in the Camargue in southern France and the Low Countries, where the birds had probably come from, he said.

He added that he would hope to see them staying on to breed in Poole Harbour in years to come.

"They have been breeding sporadically in East Anglia, just one or two. I think with this influx of birds we have now, we will see them breeding in the next few years in Dorset."

Easily recognisable by their elegant spatulate black bills and long black legs, they fly with necks and legs extended and feed in the water on aquatic insects and small fish, with sidewards sweeps of their bill.