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HUNT CLIFF AND WARSETT HILL by Damian Money

Damian Money describes an area on the south Cleveland coast that he has come to know so well over many years and to which he devotes much of his birding time. Saltburn Cliffs and adjacent coast have produced some outstanding birds, many of them found by Damian himself whilst bird watching and ringing here, including Cleveland’s second only Red-flanked Bluetail.

BACKGROUND

The landscape to the east of Saltburn is dominated by Hunt Cliff and Warsett Hill. The large sea cliffs at Hunt Cliff support good numbers of breeding seabirds, most notably Cormorants, Fulmars, Herring Gulls and Kittiwakes. The loud calls from the Kittiwake colony are synonymous with the summer months at Saltburn. The rocks below also hold a few pairs of Rock Pipits, an uncommon breeding bird in Cleveland. There is plenty to see throughout the year but being a coastal site it receives its fair share of migrant birds and if the conditions are right then many migrants can be seen here during the spring and autumn. The majority of the area is farmland, which hosts many associated species such as Grey and Red-legged Partridges, Skylarks, Tree Sparrows, Yellowhammers and Linnets. The ‘jangly’ song of the Corn Bunting was once a common sound in late spring; sadly, however, it is many years since one has held territory here. The Cleveland Way footpath runs the entire length of the site and as such offers access to most parts, as the map below shows, and many other public footpaths are available to search other areas but perhaps the best route is that outlined below.

ACCESS, LOCATION AND STRATEGY

Starting at the base of the cliffs by the Ship Inn pub (do not park here as it’s a private car park) you can either climb the steep steps up to the cliff top or walk up the path that runs behind the cliffs to the Coastguard Cottages. This path offers the best chance of seeing something, although the scrub is very thick in places. When approaching the cottages it is worth checking the gardens as they often hold migrant birds and Red-backed Shrike has been found here. The large and well-wooded ravine behind the cottages is called Little Dale and is a great place for finding something unusual. Although there is no access, part of it can be viewed from the footpath, though patience is the key here.

From Little Dale, follow the path to the left and down past the cottages, heading towards the sea to join up with the Cleveland Way footpath. Continue east along the cliffs towards the high point of Hunt Cliff, all the while checking the various scrubby areas on the under-cliff. Approximately half a mile east of the Coastguard Cottages you will come to a small patch of scrub and trees situated in a dip in the cliff to the left of the path: this is Crane Dale. I have planted many trees here over the years and the area has attracted a considerable number of rare species. If the tide is low then the exposed rocks at the base of Hunt Cliff can be viewed from here and good numbers of waders, terns and gulls can be present. The path climbs steadily from here and continues up to Hunt Cliff.

On reaching the highest point of the cliff there is a short stretch of mainly hawthorn hedging at the site of a former Roman signal station (long since lost to the sea). This area is, unfortunately, prone to much disturbance from walkers, being so close to the Cleveland Way but is always worth a check, which can be rewarding.

Continuing down the coast, the next area is the scrub and gorse along the railway line at the base of Warsett Hill. Take care crossing the railway by the sculptures and walk up the bank and over the fence to view. Check the upper hill slopes, if you have the energy!

After searching Warsett Hill, you can take the footpath back down towards Saltburn. Cross the railway line and head towards Brough House Farm, checking the fields either side of the path, particularly in autumn and winter. The gardens of the farm contain some mature trees and can be viewed distantly from the footpaths and should be thoroughly checked. Please respect the privacy of the owners, however, and stay on the public rights of way.Heading further down the path will take you past Ladgate Farm and on towards the Coastguard Cottages and back to the start of the walk.

BIRDS

At Little Dale Pallas’s and Yellow-browed Warblers have turned up in recent years, as has Red-breasted Flycatcher and at times it can be teeming with common migrants, such as Redwings and Goldcrests. As this is the largest wooded area on the patch it hosts a number of birds not usually seen elsewhere on the route, such as Great Spotted Woodpecker, Jay, Marsh Tit and Treecreeper. Roe deer are also a frequent sight here. A glance over the cliff edge where you join the Cleveland Way footpath will often reveal a Stonechat, as a pair is often present in this area throughout the year.

The scrubby under-cliff can be viewed from the Cleveland Way footpath up to the high point of Hunt Cliff. Unusual species seen here have included Ring Ouzel, Richard’s Pipit and Yellow-browed Warbler. Whitethroat is a common breeder in this location and in most scrubby areas in the wider area. During June and July the cliff-top here is sometimes swarming with Narrow-bordered Five-spot and Six-spot Burnet Moths. Seawatching in autumn from any part of this stretch can produce Manx and Sooty Shearwaters, several of the rarer divers and grebes and plenty of the commoner seabirds, such as Gannets, terns and gulls. Grey Seal is frequent and Harbour Porpoise and Minke Whale have also been recorded. This is also, perhaps, the best part of the cliffs for observing passing migrant birds, particularly in spring, when hirundines, pipits, wagtails and finches pass by, sometimes in large numbers.

Crane Dale merits special attention as it has attracted many rarer species, such as Long-eared Owl, Wryneck, Black Redstart, Water Rail, Red-backed Shrike, Yellow-browed Warbler and best of all, a very smart, male Siberian Stonechat in October 1999. If the tide is low, check the exposed beach area: Iceland and Glaucous Gulls are sometimes seen here during the winter months but, sadly, the small wintering flock of Goldeneye that was often present here has now gone following the removal of the sewage outfall pipe. As the path rises up to Hunt Cliff from Crane Dale, scan the adjacent fields, which regularly hold good numbers of Wheatears in spring, with the occasional flock of Snow Buntings and Lapland Buntings in late autumn/winter. Skylark and Meadow Pipit are the most numerous breeding birds here, whilst passing migrants such as Shore Lark and Honey and Rough-legged Buzzards have also been seen on this part.

On reaching the highest point of the cliff, check the short length of hawthorn hedge, as this has produced dividends on a number of occasions, including Firecrest, Marsh, Yellow-browed and Barred Warblers, Hobby and more recently, Cleveland’s second Red-flanked Bluetail in October 2010. Convolvulus and Hummingbird Hawk-Moths have also been noted here, proving that it’s not just migrant birds that are attracted to this area. Further along the path, after crossing the railway by the sculptures, check the scrub below Warsett Hill. This is hard to work in places but the rewards can sometimes be worth it, as Long-eared and Short-eared Owls, Firecrest, Black Redstart, Great Grey and Red-backed Shrikes, Richard’s Pipit, Shore Lark and Barred and Yellow-browed Warblers have been located here. Warsett Hill itself should produce Stonechats, as it is the best breeding place on the site for this species, and for finding passage Ring Ouzels in spring, although it is often necessary to climb the steep upper slopes for the latter. Raptors find this area very attractive and Honey and Common Buzzards, Marsh and Hen Harriers and several Hobbies have flown over here, as did the Sandhill Crane in September 2011. Clouded Yellow butterflies have been recorded on a couple of occasions, whilst other migrant Lepidoptera, such as Silver Y moths can be particularly numerous during good migration years. A small colony of Common Blues is spread along the railway line and Stoats and Weasels are often here too, no doubt attracted by the numerous rabbits.

After leaving Warsett Hill, follow the footpath down towards Saltburn, cross the railway and head towards Brough House Farm. Check the fields on either side of the path for thrushes and finches in autumn and winter. Brown Hare is frequent here throughout the year. The farm gardens can be viewed distantly from the footpaths and should be checked thoroughly as they have produced Great Grey Shrike and Yellow-browed Warbler, along with many common migrants. The immediate area is also home to Little Owl, Grey and Red-legged Partridges and Tree Sparrow.

My personal bird list for the area is 198 species, all recorded during my 21 years of visiting this site. If visiting please stick to the public rights of way and do not use any of the private roads to access parts of the site. This is not an easy patch to cover but the scenery and occasional good bird can sometimes make it worthwhile!

 

 


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