I'm in the northeast this weekend visiting my daughter at Durham and so we went out for a drive today.  Would it be the highly educational attendance at a major twitch to try to see the eastern crowned warbler at South Shields or a visit to the relatively new RSPB nature reserve at Saltholme?  Although I felt slightly drawn to the first British record of an oriental warbler there really wasn't any difficulty about the choice.  Saltholme it was.Transporter bridge in background

We'd last been there in February on another parental visit (!) and there were lots of signs of progress since then - more paths were open, the children's play area was open (and being used) and the place had more of a lived in atmosphere! 

We're talking Teesside - an industrial landscape near Stockton.  We'd driven through Hartlepool (seeing a purple sandpiper by the statue of Andy Capp) and then past the controversial Able UK site with the 'ghost' ships.  And then the landscape is flat wetlands with lots of metal work on the horizon.  First, there is the famous transporter bridge across the Tees which formed the backdrop to so many scenes in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and then there are wind turbines, power lines and an amazing collection of chemical works.  It feels like one has been put down in a chemistry set - strange pipes, tubes, flasks and towers are dotted around.  Smoke, of a variety of colours and smells, emerges from them.  Occasionally flames dramatically shoot skywards.  Even in the flat grass fields pipes emerge from the earth with stopcocks and valves on them.  It feels like an enormous single factory clothed inadequately in wet fields.  But the wildlife doesn't seem to mind at all.

We watched a fox hunting for voles in a field around midday.  It looked very much at home amid the chemistry set - and seemed to be catching quite a few small rodents in the grass. 

Later a stoat scurried across the path with another rodent in its mouth.  My godfather told me how to tell stoats from weasels - weasels are weaselly identified because stoats are stoatally different (I've remembered that for over 45 years)!

There were lots of ducks at Saltholme - flocks of wigeon and teal, quite a few shoveler, gadwall, tufted duck and pochard, and a few pintail - although I didn't see a mallard they must have been around too.  Big flocks of golden plover were roosting and occasionally taking to the air making it difficult to know how much time to spend watching them wheel in the sunshine and how much time to spend looking for the peregrine that might have scared them.  But they just seemed to be spooky - I saw no danger to them.Rather good looking visitor centre

A Slavonian grebe was buffetted by the waves and fed mostly in a small creek in sheltered water.

Common seals looked like enormous, grey, beached bananas on the muddy shore.

A rare blue-winged teal from the other side of the Atlantic was just down the road so I joined the group of birders taking a look.  I overheard one of the party say he'd driven for five hours to try to see the eastern crowned warbler and failed - but that it was better than sitting at home smoking too much and worrying about missing it!

Some will remember this day for the blue-winged teal and the missed eastern crowned warbler.  But I'll remember the fox as well.  And I'll also remember that the sun shone some of the time and that there were a lot of happy people enjoying nature whether it be really close views of beautiful ducks such as gadwall or distant ones of blue-winged teal.  And that all this nature was framed in what would normally seem to be an unpromising industrial landscape of an enormous chemistry set.


  • Great comments Mark. One of (if not ,the) best birding experiences was a little bit north of Saltholme at Aberlady Bay to the east of Edinburgh. A glaucous gull flew over a surf scoter recalling being 3,000 miles to the west. This was a normal winter day on the east coast. Slavonian grebes at Carnoustie and we were there to see an Arctic redpoll. The species list is growing on the east coast and setting up a place where they can go will put this and more places around the UK on the map.

  • Mark,  

    Sally and I managed to visit Saltholme for the first time earlier this year on the way back from Newcastle.  A short visit but I was very pleased with what I found, enthuastic staff, good restaurant and clearly attracting lots of visitors and new members.  It was a bit rainy but still a lot around to see.  Still a 'raw' site but one that is going to develop for many years to come.

  • Yes Mark RSPB membership must be great value and nice that even non members get to use some of the facilities just a pity that if walking their dogs as soon as possible they let them off the lead.