Wildlife paradise in an industrial landscape

Seal Sands

Fog on the Tees – the walk to Seal Sands

Teesside’s industrial landscape with its oil refineries, chemical works and wasteland isn’t the obvious hot spot for wildlife watching.

So it comes as a surprise that this is one of the best places in England to see birds, marine life, flora and fauna.

Teesmouth is brilliant for seals, raptors, wading birds, little egrets, wild geese, ducks and owls.

There’s a good chance of seeing a Peregrine Falcon watching its prey from an industrial tower or bitterns flying low into the reed beds.

Just one problem… our weekend trip was shrouded in winter fog and poor visibility. But we still managed to spot some interesting wildlife whilst squinting between the banks of mist.

Seal Sands

Seal Sands on the Tees estuary is a brilliant place to see harbour and common seals lounging on the mud flats or swimming along the channel at Greatham Creek.

Seals may be slow on land but they’re masters of the waterways.  As you walk along the creek, it’s worth watching how fast the seals move. You can see the ripples of their bodies and their heads bobbing up and down for air.

Adult seals can move at a racy 20-30 miles per hour but they are rather clumsy once they lumber onto land.

At low tide they’re best seen out on the estuary sand banks whilst at high tide they tend to swim down Greatham Creek to the mud flats.

The new seal hide

The Teesmouth National Nature Reserve is a site of national importance for a very good reason.

Its gloopy, muddy banks are like a giant restaurant for birds with their abundant supplies of invertebrates and shellfish.

On this trip, Tony spotted lots of wading birds including an elegant Black-tailed Godwit and dozens of brightly coloured Redshanks.

Tony looking for seals at Greatham Creek

Tony looking for birds at Greatham Creek

Walk down the main Greatham Creek footpath (just off the A178) towards the coast and look out for birds along the water channels and on the ponds.

Glance over the salt marshes where you might spot some interesting birds and winter visitors on the lagoons.

There’s a hide at the end of the walk overlooking the estuary where you get a great view of birds and seals, depending on the tide times.

We were hoping to see flocks of knot flying in from Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, but none were spotted on this trip.

This industrial landscape proves that nature can flourish in the most unpromising locations. It may not be pretty but it does have a weird ravaged beauty.

In the medieval period the area was important for salt. In the 20th Century modern industries such as petrochemicals followed… and then a power station.

But nature loves Teesmouth’s unfinished, unkempt environment and its mix of cheek-by-jowl habitats.

Saltholme’s brilliant birds

Saltholme Reserve

Saltholme Reserve

Up the road at nearby RSPB Saltholme the new reserve was packed with winter birds including wild geese, swans and ducks.

Last winter we spotted a fox making its way across the frozen lake to steal a bunch of grapes. This time we weren’t so lucky on the mammal front but the bird count was pretty good especially on West Saltholme Pool.

Barnacle Geese had flown in from the Arctic whilst Greylags were feeding on the fields surrounding the reserve. There was also a stunning White Egret preening itself in the reeds by the main pond.

It was too cold to linger long so we skipped the far part of the reserve where we saw long-eared owls last year… next time I need to wear a toasty-warm ski jacket and woolly hat!

Last winter we stood for over an hour in frozen temperatures to catch sight of the resident bittern but no bird emerged.

‘Gordon the Warden’ told us that he’d seen it several times- but the bird was proving elusive, skulking around in the reed beds.

Cold and disheartened we headed back to the cafe where a fellow birder popped over 20 minutes later to tell us that the mysterious bird had emerged and strutted its stuff as soon as we left our vantage point!

There’s a better chance of seeing birds nearer to the main reserve building where there’s a lake, small ponds, the North East Reedbeds Hide and Paddy’s Pool Hide. Look out for finches and winter birds in the bushes and trees too.

Tammy by the new picnic table

Tammy by the new picnic table

To cap off your wildlife trip, head back to the visitor centre and don’t forget to warm up with a cup of coffee and a bacon bun in the cafe which has good views over the reserve.

Wildlife sightings – November


Wigeon watching at Saltholme

  • Common seals
  • Grey seals
  • Kestrel and Sparrowhawk
  • Barnacle Geese
  • Little Egret
  • Greylag Geese
  • Mallards and Teal
  • Canada Geese
  • Black-tailed Godwit
  • Pintail
  • Tufted Ducks
  • Reed Bunting
  • Moorhen and Coots
  • Redshank
  • Goldfinch, Chaffinch and Greenfinch
  • Blue Tits, Coal Tits and Great Tits
  • Mute Swans
  • Pochard and Wigeon
  • Lapwings
  • Mergansers (in estuary)
  • Starlings (huge roost of 22,000 birds at Saltholme)

Tammy’s top tips

There’s wildlife watching year-round with the seals being a constant presence at the aptly named Seal Sands. Check tide times to make the most of your bird watching and seal spotting trips.

Parking is available at the Cowpen Marsh car park near Greatham Creek.

Download the Teesmouth national nature reserve guide before you set off for a visit.

RSPB Saltholme has a visitor centre, large car park and regular wildlife events for all ages.

Worth a diversion if you’re in the same area…

Nearby Hartlepool boasts the historic Trincomalee ship and quayside heritage area, both of which are excellent.

Other nearby attractions include the interesting and slightly surreal Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge and the MIMA art gallery.

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