Teesmouth Bird Club
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Hartlepool Old Cemetery, now known as ‘Spion Kop’, was formed from a combination of sand dunes and ship ballast. It supports a species-rich dune grassland of such quality that it is unique in Hartlepool and rare within the Tees Valley. The site has many unusual plants, including pyramidal orchid and bloody crane's bill, and because of this has been designated a Local Nature Reserve.

The cemetery dates back to 1856 and was established to replace St. Hilda's churchyard and has nearly 4,000 burials. It was widely used until 1869. ‘Spion Kop’ was the name given by local people to the general area after the Boer War battle of the same name and is now the name of the site as a Local Nature Reserve. For the purpose of this feature, its old name has been retained.

Old Cemetery is adjoined by a much smaller cemetery at its eastern end, which is dedicated to Jewish burials and is consequently known as the Jewish Cemetery. Apart from a couple of elderberry bushes protected from the onshore winds behind the perimeter wall, it has scant vegetation. On the south side of Old Cemetery Road is a long, linear belt of developing planting, composed of young trees and shrubs, and this is well worth exploring at peak migration times, especially after a ‘fall’.

North Sands comprises an expansive area of sandy foreshore and there are good views towards the redundant Steetley pier and out over the sea. This beach is heavily used by dog walkers, joggers and walkers and an early morning visit is advisable for shorebirds.


The whole area is very easy to find and access by car and on foot.  On approaching Hartlepool Headland from the town centre along Cleveland Road or from the A19 via West View Road, continue along the latter to the old Throston Engine House on your left and take a sharp left turn here.  Then turn immediately left again and this will bring you on to Old Cemetery Road.  Drive down this for about a kilometre to the entrance of Old Cemetery, marked by gateposts, and park here.  You can then explore the whole graveyard on foot, not forgetting to check the area immediately behind the peripheral wall on the seaward side.  It is worth spending some time checking the grass areas, where small birds can lurk, and the gravestones and walls where birds such as Wheatear, pipits and buntings often perch.

North Sands is viewable from the gap in the wall on the seaward side of Old Cemetery directly opposite the main entrance.  Here, you get expansive views over the beach and sea, including the former Steetley pipeline pier – an area that can be good for sea duck, divers, grebes, waders and gulls.  A telescope is needed here for the best results.

Next, either walk or drive down to the end of Old Cemetery Road to the Jewish Cemetery and check the couple bushes in its northeast corner, which have, surprisingly, produced some good birds over the years.  

Finally, ensure you have time to walk along the planted belt on the south side of Old Cemetery Road, as   this provides vital cover and food for newly arrived migrants and has turned up some excellent birds in recent years, including Greenish, Yellow-browed and Dusky Warblers and Redbacked Shrike.  At peak times, it shouldn’t be omitted from a visit to this site.


The best times to visit Old Cemetery are during the spring and autumn migrations, especially after ‘fall’ conditions, whereas North Sands can be good at all times of the year, especially in winter when divers, grebes and sea duck are often present.

Old Cemetery, Jewish Cemetery and Planted Belt on Old Cemetery Road

An early morning visit on a spring or autumn morning is well worth the effort, particularly following poor overnight visibility, rain and winds with an easterly component.   Start at Old Cemetery and thoroughly check the whole graveyard for migrants (including the Jewish Cemetery) and the linear planted area on the south side of Old Cemetery Road for migrants.  Don’t forget the residual dunes and short grassland on the seaward side of the cemetery wall.  The planted area is quite difficult to work due to the density of planting and rank grass cover but walking along the edge and concentrating on the ‘clearings’, particularly at footpath junctions, should produce results.  The birds you see will depend on the time of year, with spring being noted for passage wagtails (including White), pipits (including Tree and sizeable flocks of Meadow Pipits), Stonechat, Whinchat, Redstart, Black Redstart, Wheatear, Ring Ouzel, Sylvia warblers (Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat. Blackcap and Garden Warbler), Phylloscopus warblers (Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff), flycatchers (Pied and Spotted) and Reed Bunting.   Among these more common species, there is always the chance of something more interesting and in recent years, spring rarities have included fly-over Purple Heron, Gullbilled Tern and Alpine Swift, and Red-backed Shrike and Bluethroat.  On clear, fine days keep your eye on the sky for a fly-through Sparrowhawk, Merlin, Peregrine or, if you are lucky, Hobby.  Late spring, particularly June, is peak time for arriving Honey Buzzards and passage birds have become more regular in recent years.

Autumn is undoubtedly more productive, both in terms of the variety and number of birds and there is more chance of a ‘goodie’ turning up, particularly during ‘fall’ conditions.  Because the planted belt provides the most expansive cover in the area, it is worth starting here first and, again, an early morning visit is advised.  The prime time for autumn migrants is mid-August to early November, with September to mid-October probably being the most productive.  Birds that should be encountered during favourable conditions are flocks of passage Skylarks and Meadow Pipits, Wheatear, Whitethroat, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, finches, which should include Redpoll, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Brambling and Siskin.  In October, when there are big ‘falls’ of thrushes along the east coast, Old Cemetery can be impressive, and covered with tired Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings.   Mixed in with these could be smaller numbers of Ring Ouzels, hordes of exhausted Goldcrests, which lift up at your feet, and occasional Black Redstarts and Snow and Lapland Buntings.  Woodcock, Redstart, Wheatear, Pied and Spotted Flycatcher and Lesser Whitethroat are also possible.  Scarce and rare birds in the recent past here include Hobby, Long-eared Owl (two on 21st September 2009), Wryneck, Red-breasted Flycatcher (7th September 2010), Siberian Chiffchaff (23rd October 2009), Yellow-browed Warbler (several on 13th October 2011), Booted Warbler, Dusky Warbler (10th October 2010), Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler (the first Cleveland record on 26th September 2012), Icterine Warbler (6th September 2008) and Rustic Bunting.  

North Sands

From the seaward side of Old Cemetery there are elevated, panoramic views over the sea and former Steetley pier.  This length of coast is often productive for a range of divers, grebes, sea duck, shorebirds, gulls and terns and is particularly productive during autumn and winter.  It is at its quietest during the summer but it is still worth making a brief check of the beach and sea You never know!

Birds that should be regularly encountered on the beach during peak periods are Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Knot, Dunlin, Sanderling, Redshank, Ringed Plover and Curlew.  In autumn and winter, these may be supplemented with Whimbrel and Bar-tailed Godwit.  Carefully scan the sea for Great Northern and Black-throated Divers among the scattered Red-throateds.  Great Crested, Rednecked and Slavonian Grebes are also possible, though the former is the most likely.  Eider,

Common Scoter, Goldeneye and Red-breasted Merganser are usually present offshore and, if you are lucky, a Long-tailed Duck or Velvet Scoter or two.  In August and September, check the many passing gulls and terns, as these could include Little and Roseate Terns, Sabine’s and Little Gulls, and skuas, including Arctic, Pomarine and Great, all of which are regular in autumn during the right weather conditions (a good northerly blow over several days usually pays dividends).  In winter, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls should be checked for among the roosting Herring and Black-headed Gulls on the beach and a late skua is sometimes possible (a sub-adult Pomarine was present on 1st December 2010).

Whilst this all sounds very exciting, don’t expect the site to deliver on every visit and there are occasions, even during ideal ‘fall’ conditions, when few birds are encountered.  As with all sites, however, persistence and regular watching should build up an impressive site list over time.  I am still waiting for my first Cleveland Surf Scoter (preferably a drake!) or fly-past Caspian Tern!


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