Wednesday 9 November 2022

Middle Marsh is now an e-Bird Hotspot

I should have done it ages ago, but yesterday I, at last, got round to suggesting Middle Marsh Nature Reserve as a hotspot on the global bird-sightings database (and website and phone app) that is e-Bird, so it is now possible for anyone with an e-Bird account to enter sightings of birds seen at Middle Marsh, or to view data about sightings  from there, made by other birders.

In case you haven't heard of it before, e-Bird  is an online database which was set up in 2002 by the famous 'Cornell University Lab of Ornithology'. Since then over a billion bird records have been submitted to it by over 2 million people around the world. I've had an e-Bird account since 2018 but until recently didn't use it very much. Since September I have been using my phone to record all of my birding trips on e-Bird and am now going through my old notebooks to enter all my old data from Middle Marsh, the site in North Ormesby, Middlesbrough that was designated as a Local Wildlife Site (LWS) in 2020, under the name Middle Marsh Nature Reserve.

So now I'm going to tell you a bit more about Middle Marsh than (I think) I have told you before.

Middle Marsh is a 'brownfield site' (meaning a site which has previously been developed but which has returned to nature) in east Middlesbrough, immediately south of Middlesbrough Dock and the Riverside Stadium (home to Middlesbrough F.C), and just across the A66 from North Ormesby. I've been going there since 2016 and in that time have seen or heard 68 species of bird, as well as 220 species of flowering plant, 13 butterflies, three dragonflies and various other insects and wildlife.

Middle Marsh in the wider context - the red line is the current boundary of the 
Local Wildlife Site (LWS). The purple lines are around two extra areas
which I'm hoping will be added to the LWS in the future, and the blue line is
Ormesby Beck (photo ⓒ Google Earth 2022)

Historically (going back before the railway was built in the mid 19th century, when North Ormesby was just a few houses) the area would probably have been nearly all saltmarsh, and tidal mud with two streams, Ormesby Beck and Middle Beck, running through it into the River Tees. I've not been able to find any detailed maps from before the railway was built but I think the two becks would have entered the Tees separately. A third beck, Marton West Beck, now joins Ormesby Beck at the south-west corner of the nature reserve and I think probably did in those days too (but I can't be sure). After the railway was built the courses of the three becks were altered so that they all now flow into the Tees at the same point, but the saltmarsh persisted for a little longer, first with the name Great Marsh, and later (by the 1890s and maybe earlier) with the name Middle Marsh. 

The Ordnance Survey Map from 1853, overlaid onto a recent aerial photo, and showing the boundary of Middle Marsh Nature Reserve. The course of Ormesby Beck was slightly different than it is today and Middle Beck was still above ground (ⓒ Google Earth 2022 (aerial photo) and the Ordnance Survey 2022 (map))

The Ordnance Survey Map from 1893, showing the name change for the marsh and the onset of industrial development. At some time after this map was made Middle Beck was culverted from the Trunk Road (A1085) to where it runs into Ormesby Beck. (ⓒ Google Earth 2022 (aerial photo) and the Ordnance Survey 2022 (map))

At some point (or more likely several different points) after the 1890s, the level of the land on both sides of Ormesby Beck was raised by the importation of large amounts of soil and other 'fill' and the area that is now Middle Marsh Nature Reserve (apart from the beck itself) was gradually covered by industry and housing. In the late 20th century, when all the industry on the south side of the beck had ceased, and the A66 road had been built, the area was landscaped and returned to nature, with a pond and thousands of new trees along the beck. At this point the area of grassland and scrub would have been much bigger than it is now, before the Middlehaven Gateway Retail Park and its massive car park were built. What is left now has mostly been left unmanaged from the turn of the millennium until the Local Wildlife Site was declared in late 2020, and it has developed its own character, with a mosaic of woodland, wetland, scrub and grassland.

Since the designation of the LWS several new ponds have been dug (the old one had gradually got filled in over the years), the path along the beck has been reinstated and a hedge planted along two of the roads forming the boundary of part of the site. Also, the tidal barrage on the beck, just downstream of the Navigation Inn, is in the process of being removed by the Environment Agency (who own it) and the beck is now tidal up until at least as far as Shepherdson Way.

Although Middle Marsh is actually quite small, as birding sites go, and the number of species encountered on a visit can be quite low (often less than 20), it often includes some really nice birds - for example, Kingfishers, Little Egrets, Sparrowhawks and Kestrels (and, although I haven't seen them myself there, Barn Owl and Peregrine).

Some of the best spots for birds are shown in the map below ( ⓒ Google Maps 2022), and described below that.

The Yellow Bridge - A little footbridge, leading over to the (permanently locked) back of the Chemoxy factory, hidden underneath the A66 flyover and my favourite place to start a walk around the reserve. Despite the noise from the dual carriageway overhead, there are often birds to be seen, and even heard, here, so keep your eyes and ears open (and be quiet as you approach the bridge or everything might fly away before you get there)

Reedbed and pondsThe reedbed and new ponds, and the scrubby woodland around them provide habitat for birds such as Reed Warbler, Reed Bunting and, occasionally in the winter, Snipe.  Goldfinches love feeding in the Alder trees at the northern end of this section. As the ponds develop I am expecting them to become rich in insect life which will provide food for more birds.

Main grassland area - The only records of Barn Owl (seen from a moving car)  and Wheatear so far, have been from this area, and a Kestrel sometimes hunts here. It's also a fantastic spot to look for butterflies and wildflowers in the summer. The new hedge borders it on two sides and will, hopefully, become a good habitat for nesting birds in years to come.

Woodland walk - a stroll along this recently reinstated path, starting by the yellow bridge, can yield several species of small birds including Bullfinch, various tits and Goldcrests in winter - these birds are often in small, mixed-species flocks. It's also worth listening out for the piercing, high-pitched call of a Kingfisher as it flies along the beck, and if you're lucky, in the winter you may see a Woodcock here.

Shepherdson Way Viewpoint - looking west from here over Ormesby Beck is a really good place for seeing lots of small birds, plus waterbirds including Kingfisher and Little Egret. Also it’s a good vantage point for seeing over-flying flocks of geese and other migrants . You might need to bring something to stand on though if you’re less than about 6 feet tall as the wall is quite high.            

Heath Road Bridge - this is the only place I’ve seen Water Rail at Middle Marsh but is also good for Kingfisher, and for hearing Chiff-chaffs and Blackcaps singing (although they can be heard anywhere on the reserve in summer).

Railway Strip - this strip of land on the north side of Cargo Fleet Road, is owned by Middlesbrough Council (despite what the old signs say) and is part of the Nature Reserve. Access is currently at your own risk but it holds some nice dry grassland and scrub and is a good place to see Whitethroat (a summer visiting warbler), and the scarce Dingy Skipper butterfly.

Teesdale Way Section - the beck downstream of The Navi holds the only intertidal mud in the reserve and is the best place to see Grey Wagtail, Kingfisher and waders such as  Redshank and Common Sandpiper. I’ve also seen Little Grebe, Teal and Gadwall here. The path here is part of 2 long distance footpaths - The Teesdale Way and the English Coastal Path

Six Medals Grassland & Navigation-A66 scrub - these two areas, outlined in purple on the map above, are currently not part of the Local Wildlife site but I still include them in the 'recording area' for Middle Marsh Nature Reserve and they hold two of the most reliable spots for hearing Lesser Whitethroats singing in the summer. The Six Medals Grassland (named (by me) after the pub across the road from it) includes some nice damp bits and is one of the places where I have seen Common Snipe in the winter.

If you would like to put your bird records from Middle Marsh on e-Bird (go to , you will first need to set up an account (it's free) and then make sure that you choose "Middle Marsh NR" as your location. 

Saturday 7 May 2022

Upper Teesdale botany expedition

After a long gap (during which I started a new job and have been super busy) I decided to show you some photos of some rare and not so rare plants that I saw today on a  trip to the upper reaches of the River Tees.

Upper Teesdale, and specifically Cronkley Fell, Widdybank Fell and the banks of the Tees in that area are home to a whole suite of species (many of them Artic/Alpine specialists) that are really rare in the rest of the country and lots more that are uncommon even if more widespread. I'm not going to go into why this is in this blog (mainly because I can't remember). Suffice it to say that it is one of the most special regions of the British Isles for a botanist.

Today I met up with my friend and colleague Chris at a little car park between Middleton-in-Teesdale and Langdon Beck and we started with a walk along the river. Chris had to leave after a couple of hours, after which I walked up to the top of Cronkley fell. Rather than describe every step of the journey and every plant we/I saw, I'll share some of the photos with relevant information in the captions. 

The River Tees at Forest-in-Teesdale

Spring Gentian - one of the most beautiful of Teesdale's special plants,
and often one of the hardest to see as they flower quite early and for a relatively
short period. This picture doesn't really give a good impression of just how tiny
they are - those pale green leaves below the flower belong to the same plant and 
are each smaller than my thumbnail. This is a Schedule 8 species (Wildlife 
& Countryside Act 1981) so even picking a leaf is illegal.

Birds-eye Primrose - another surprisingly small plant.
The leaves are pure white underneath

Marsh Valerian - not so rare as the other two but always nice to see. 
This species is dioecious - meaning that it has male and female plants.
Another, more common, species which does this is Holly.

Early Purple Orchid - as the name implies this is one of
the earliest flowering of our  wild orchids. Most of the others
won't be out for at least a month yet.

Marsh Marigolds (aka Kingcups) were very prominent in
all the dampish grassy habitats near the river.

As you climb up towards Cronkley Fell you start to see lots of low shrubby
plants which look a bit like gorse (before it flowers) but which is actually Juniper

Marsh Thistle was the commonest of the four species of thistle
I saw today - the others being the common Spear and Creeping Thistles
and the more localised Melancholy Thistle. None of them are in flower yet

I was quite pleased with this picture of Field Wood-rush,
taken on my phone (all my pics today were). This is quite a common
species and you may even have it in your lawn. Although it looks
grass-like, it has long hairs projecting from the edges of the leaves and
(as the name suggests), is in the Rush Family

A rubbish picture I know but I couldn't resist including the only carnivorous
plant we saw today - Common Butterwort.The leaves are sticky to catch small
insects that land on them. They are subsequently digested by the plant.

This species, which grows along stream sides (usually in woodland -
 but not in this case) has, I believe the biggest 'name length to plant size' ratio
of any British plant. It's called Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage
(Chrysosplenium oppositifolium)  and it is tiny and fairly insignificant looking😃

Saturday 26 March 2022

Miscellaneous Nature News - March 2022

I'll use the 'Nature Diary' format again in this post but I've got a lot of photos so hopefully it'll be a case of pictures being better than a thousand words.

Thursday 3rd March 2022
I had a nice walk at Middle Marsh in the morning. A Kingfisher flying down the beck might well be the last one until autumn now. In the afternoon I was working at Berwick Hills Nature Reserve (just upstream on Ormesby Beck) and heard a Water Rail calling (and sounding like a pig being killed) from a small patch of reeds surrounded by brambles

This escaped Budgie at Middle Marsh (3rd March 2022) was a bit of a surprise.
Sadly he (or she) might not survive very long in our climate

Lords-and-Ladies (aka Cuckoo-pint and at least 15 other
'folk' names, many of them obscene in origin) is popping up
in several spots along the beck at Middle Marsh 

Sunday 6th March 
The 'Able Crane' was demolished today. This huge structure next to Middlesbrough Dock has been host to a nesting pair of Peregrines for the last few years. Despite protests by birders and other local people, the destruction of this landmark went ahead as planned. The first explosion, at lunchtime, was not successful but the second attempt, just after 9pm brought it down. 
Although the birds wouldn't have laid any eggs yet, they were already showing an interest in the crane again, and were agitatedly flying around it as the explosives were being prepared. [There was some concern that the birds might desert the area altogether, or might even have been killed or injured by the explosions (if for example, they were roosting on it when it came down), so it was with a sense of relief that, nearly a fortnight later, on the 18th of March, I watched two Peregrines flying around together slowly, by the dock, in a manner which made me think that they might have found an alternative nest site.]

One good thing that did happen today, although I didn't witness it and I only heard about it afterwards, was that a Barn Owl was seen hunting in the main meadow area at Middle Marsh at 8.30 in the evening. This was the first record of this species for the site (that I know of).

The 'Able Crane', post-demolition, on the 7th of March 2022

One of the two Peregrines that I saw at Middlesbrough Dock on the 18th of March

Thursday 10th March
The first Chiff-chaff of the year was singing at Middle Marsh today. Although some do over-winter in the UK, I haven't seen or heard any around here this winter and so it seems likely that this was a newly arrived migrant.

Friday 11th March
At least 3 clumps of Hemlock Water-dropwort, one of our most poisonous plants, are coming up at Middle Marsh - thankfully they are in an inaccessible place on the other side of the beck so there is very little chance of anyone accidentally eating it.
While walking along the beck I heard a distinctive 'plop' sound as something disappeared into the water. I never saw what it was but I did see a line of bubbles going upstream and I think there is a good chance that it was a Water Vole as rats are usually quite easy to see when they are swimming.
I also saw two Moorhens having a fairly vicious fight, watched by two others. I am guessing that the two fighting were males being watched by their mates but as both sexes look identical I can't say that for certain.

Saturday 19th March
Today was a red-letter day for the new ponds at Middle Marsh - we saw our first aquatic animals - some water-boatmen (or possibly back-swimmers - they are very similar), a pond-skater and two Smooth Newts. I hadn't really been expecting anything to colonise quite so soon so I was really excited. Since then we have seen newts in three of the ponds (at least five in one of them) and on Thursday the 24th, during the celebration which marked the end of the first phase of Green Shoots, a large frog was also seen.

Some miscellaneous nature pics

A pair of Bullfinches (female on left) at the feeding-station,
Middle Marsh, 17th of March 2022 

The pond at Commercial Street in Middlehaven, Middlesbrough. Last
year this was well used by waterfowl and gulls, but most exciting was a
pair of Little Ringed Plovers which successfully raised chicks here.
Unfortunately this site is threatened with development as is much of the
land in this part of Middlesbrough

On the 18th of March I put the moth trap out for the first time this year.
I caught one single moth - this Dotted Border. This photo was taken
the next day, after I released it and it was resting high up on the
wall of my house

Above and below - An immature Iceland Gull on Albert Park lake, Middlesbrough, Monday 21st March.
Similar in size to a Herring Gull and bigger than the Black-headed Gulls that were round it, but unlike
either of those species it has no black in its plumage at all, at any age. It's an uncommon but regular bird in
winter on the British coast, and this is only the fourth one recorded in Middlesbrough, so it has caused 
a bit of a local twitch.