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MARGROVE PONDS, GUISBOROUGH by Ted Parker

Ted Parker reviews this hidden gem tucked away on the edge of the North York Moors National Park a few kilometres to the east of Guisborough. Not only does it have a range of scarce breeding birds but it can produce some surprises during the autumn and spring migrations. As this feature shows, however, Margrove Ponds are worth visiting at any time of year.

Background

Margrove Ponds cover an area of just over 7 hectares and lie several kilometres to the east of Guisborough at the base of an old shale tip at grid reference NZ 654162. The tip and surrounding surface features are all that remain of the former Maggra Ironstone Mine (or Stanghow Mine, as it was often referred to), which opened in 1871 and closed in 1928. The route of the old Middlesbrough to Boosbeck railway, which used to serve the Maggra Mine, is still visible at the northwestern end of the main pond. The nearby triangular-shaped village of Margrove (Maggra) Park was built to accommodate the mineworkers and descendants of some of the original workers still live in the village today.

The site is now a Tees Valley Wildlife Trust (TVWT) reserve, although some illegal shooting still occurs here. It has a variety of habitats, reflected in its impressive total of over 150 bird species that have been recorded here, including a number of scarce and rare birds. The site basically comprises of a large, reed-fringed pond and two smaller ponds, with adjacent willow, blackthorn, hawthorn and elder scrub; deciduous and coniferous woodland; abandoned allotment gardens; pasture; parkland; and rough, tall, rank grassland. The reedswamp is composed of Phragmites, Typha and Juncus and attracts a number of species that otherwise wouldn’t occur in this rural environment.



Access, Location and Strategy

Margrove Ponds lie 4 kilometres east of Guisborough and are accessed by turning left off the A171 Guisborough-Whitby Road at Charltons on to the minor road signposted to Margrove Park, Boosbeck and Lingdale (when travelling from Guisborough). Drive past the Margrove Heritage Centre, now the ‘home’ of TVWT and, after about 500 metres, turn sharp left on to a track, just after Margrove village, which, after 50 metres, leads to a small, two-car parking area. Park here, taking care to leave space for another car if no other vehicles are present, and walk down the main track to view the first and largest of the three ponds on its left (west) side. Slowly walk down the rack, scanning the water and reedswamp and the open damp, rough grassland and hedgerows to your left. After about 500 metres, the old Middlesbrough to Boosbeck railway crosses the main track and this is lined with mature scrub of willow, blackthorn, hawthorn and elder and is a very good area for passerines, well worth exploring.



Continue along the track after the old railway to the two smaller ponds: the one to the right (east) is open and easily viewed, whereas the left-hand-side one is now shrouded with common reed, reedmace and soft rush. The former can be good for waders, whilst the other should be scanned for reedswamp species. Don’t forget to keep scanning the surrounding hills for raptors which can occasionally be seen during suitable weather conditions (sunny, with a stiff breeze, giving both thermals and updraughts off the hillsides). In addition, scan down the valley to the east towards the coast, as incoming migrants often use this to move inland.

Weekday or early morning visits during school time should be fairly quiet and raptors should be looked for from 10.00 am onwards as the thermals begin to gather strength

Birds

Margrove Ponds are well worth a visit at any time of the year, though the spring and autumn migration periods tend to offer the widest variety of species and best opportunities for a ‘goodie’.

During the winter months, scan the main pond for waterfowl, which should include Greylag and Canada Goose, Mallard, Teal, Tufted Duck and Coot. Shoveler, Wigeon and, more rarely, Goosander are also possible. Common Snipe feed in the damp grassland to the left of the rack and a scan of the reedswamp and surrounding bushes should produce Reed Bunting. Water Rails occasionally call from the reedy cover and the odd Grey Heron is occasionally disturbed from the water margins. The trees and scrub surrounding the ponds hold a good range of passerines, including Long-tailed, Blue, Great, Coal and Willow Tits and the old railway is a reliable spot for Bullfinch. A scan of the surrounding trees may be rewarded with a perched Great Spotted Woodpecker, which can be traced by its loud “chip-chipp” call, and Green Woodpecker is always possible, particularly in the more open parkland beyond the old railway. Less common is Lesser Redpoll and this should be looked for in the willow and alder scrub around the ponds or along the railway. Winter thrushes are often present in good numbers in the pastures and hedgerows north of the ponds, so check this area for Fieldfares and Redwings. The eastern smaller pool often holds the highest single site count of Moorhen in Cleveland, with occasionally 35-40 birds present, along with Mute Swan. Keep checking the sky for raptors: Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine and Kestrel are all regular and there is always a chance of Goshawk and Merlin. Goshawks should be looked for over the surrounding forests, though the late winter and early spring periods are best for this species, particularly late March and early April.



Spring and early summer birding can be very rewarding, with the woodlands and scrub alive with singing thrushes, warblers and titmice. Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Whitethroat, Blackcap and Garden Warbler are almost guaranteed, with Lesser Whitethroat also a possibility (listen for its warbling, Whitethroat-like song with a distinctive rattle at the end). Great Spotted Woodpeckers ‘drum’ at this time and Green Woodpeckers can occasionally be heard ‘yaffling’ from the parkland and wooded areas to the north of the ponds. Newly arrived hirundines and Swifts often feed over the main pond in considerable numbers during late April and the first few weeks of May and always check through these flitting flocks for something more unusual. In my opinion, Margrove Ponds is a perfect location for an over-shooting Red-rumped Swallow. Approach the main pond quietly, as there is always a chance of a spring Garganey and check the smaller ponds for passage waders, such as Wood, Green and Common Sandpipers. Spring is also a time when scarce or rare birds can turn up, such as Spotted Crake (depending upon water levels) and, if there is some exposed mud, there is always a chance of a Water Rail. Migrant raptors in spring can include Marsh Harrier, Osprey and Hobby. During the summer, the reedswamp holds an outlying population of Reed Warblers away from the Tees Estuary and several pairs of Black-headed Gulls have started to breed in recent years in the Juncus on the east side of the main pond. This is one of only a handful of breeding sites in the whole of Cleveland, which has a total of less than 100 pairs of this handsome gull. Other breeding species include Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Little Grebe, Moorhen, Coot, Cuckoo, Grasshopper and Sedge Warblers, Whitethroat, Jay, Yellowhammer, Bullfinch and Reed Bunting. Sadly, the healthy breeding population of Ruddy Ducks no longer exists due to the unpleasant National cull over the past three years.



As autumn gets into full swing, flocks of migrating hirundines again hawk insects over the ponds and waders and raptors pass through. It is possible that anything can turn up at this time of year, so be alert and check everything! There is a chance of a Black Tern or something even rarer: past rare and uncommon species recorded at Margrove Ponds have included Quail, Pectoral Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Spotted Crake, Mediterranean Gull, Wryneck, Bee-eater, Black Redstart and Great Grey and Red-backed Shrikes. The combination of willow scrub and reedswamp looks excellent for Cetti’s Warbler (there were 5 records of this northward-expanding species in Cleveland during 2009) and the hedgerows bordering the damp grassland to west appear ideal for a migrant shrike.

Margrove Ponds have much to offer and have not yet fulfilled their potential, so start birding here and see if you can add to the site’s growing list of birds.

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