Teesmouth Bird Club
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STILLINGTON FOREST PARK by Ted Parker

Ted Parker reviews this site in the far-flung western extremity of Cleveland with its rapidly developing wetland and woodland. Its location means that, apart from a few occasional birders, it is under-watched and may not have reached anywhere near its true potential.

BACKGROUND

Stillington Forest Park is a fine example of a habitat that has been artificially created out of a former brownfield site and is now an important nature conservation area, being declared a Local Nature Reserve in February 2004 (in new terminology now a ‘Local Wildlife Site’ and listed in Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council’s ‘Local Development Framework’).

The park occupies the site of a former slagheap from a neighbouring ironworks. Most of the iron slag was removed prior to the 1970s when it was realised that ‘stillite’, a form of insulation, could be obtained from the slag waste. After the slag had been recycled, the site was left to revegetate naturally but its real potential as a wildlife and recreational resource was not recognised until the 1980s. In 1989, an ecological survey was undertaken prior to implementing a landscaping scheme.

In 1995-1996 the restoration scheme was designed and implemented, which involved major re-profiling of the site and capping it with a layer of clay to cover any remaining slag. In April 1995 the management of the site was transferred to Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council which created a network of informal footpaths, planted thousands of native trees and shrubs, created a nice wetland and incorporated a wildflower seed mix over the whole area. With the exception of an area of scrub in the north of the site, all of the habitats have been created artificially and are now maturing to form an excellent habitat not only for birds but also butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, mammals and other forms of wildlife.

ACCESS, LOCATION AND STRATEGY

Stillington Forest Park is accessed via the village of Stillington, west of the A177 between Stockton and Sedgefield. If arriving by car, park in the public car park in front of the impressive St John’s Church and the entrance is via a sculptured metal gateway in front of the church. The nearest bus stop is in the village outside of William Cassidi Primary School and details of bus times and numbers can be obtained from the public transport hotline (01642 444777). Once in the park, there is a very good network of informal pathways that will allow you to explore every part of the area and take in its different habitats. The latter include wetland (with open water and marginal vegetation), developing woodland, hedgerow, wildflower meadow and scrub. Most of the paths are suitable for wheelchairs, though there are one or two steeper sections. There is no visitor centre or toilets on site.

If you can, the best strategy is to visit the park during quiet times, preferably during the week and reasonably early in the morning, if possible. The site is a favourite with local dog-walkers and children (who fish here) particularly at weekends, so try to avoid these periods, although you will encounter birds at any time.

BIRDS

Since its reclamation, Stillington Forest Park has developed into a good area for birds, partly due to the diversity of habitats and partly to its rural setting, with adjacent farmland, hedgerows and watercourses. The area is almost certainly under-watched, so any visit will add further to our knowledge of the bird life it supports whatever the time of the year.

During the winter, the wetlands hold Moorhen, Coot, small numbers of Mallard and the occasional Grey Heron, Water Rail and Kingfisher, though these are easily disturbed due to the close proximity of the path and boardwalk and the use of the ponds for fishing. Look out for Grey Wagtail and both Common and Jack Snipes have been recorded in the surrounding marginal vegetation. Reed Buntings are regular and flocks of finches roam the alders and willows and these often include Siskin and Lesser Redpoll, as well as the more usual Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and Chaffinch. Roving tit flocks should be looked for in the developing woodland and scrub, with Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits all having been recorded. The site is now becoming a reliable location for Willow Tit in winter. The latter can be a difficult species to see away from its few regular sites, such as Errington Woods and Scaling Dam, so a trip here may pay dividends. In recent years, the park has produced frequent sightings of Green Woodpecker, which tends to favour the wooded areas on the northern and eastern sides. Surprisingly, this big woodpecker is more often heard than seen, so listen out for its loud, distinctive ‘yaffling’ call. With a little patience, you should get good views. Check the mature scrub for a chance of a wintering Long-eared Owl, which remain remarkably faithful to the same area of bushes if left undisturbed. Other species to look out for are Great Spotted Woodpecker, Meadow Pipit, Redwing, Fieldfare, Mistle Thrush, Jay, Tree Sparrow, Bullfinch, Yellowhammer and the occasional wintering Chiffchaff.

During spring and summer, the bird population is swollen by newly arrived migrants, some of which remain to breed. Chiffchaffs are normally the first to appear, announcing their presence by singing from the woodland and scrub, and these are followed by Willow Warblers, Blackcaps and Whitethroats, all of which are regular at Stillington Forest Park. Swifts, Swallows, and House and Sand Martins hawk insects over the park, while scarcer birds include Yellow Wagtail and Lesser Whitehthroat. Woodcock and Green Sandpiper have been recorded in the woodland and wetland respectively and a migrant Redstart is a distinct possibility (one has already been recorded here). Stock Dove and Little Owl breed locally on the adjacent farmland but the Corn Buntings recorded here during the Cleveland Breeding Birds Survey (1999-2006) are probably now gone as this species continues its terminal decline in Cleveland. Don’t forget the skies, as passing raptors are a distinct possibility, such as Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier and Sparrowhawk, with the alarm calls of the local bird population usually announcing their presence.

During the autumn anything can turn up and it is possible that, with increased watching, Stillington Forest Park will eventually provide birders with a real ‘goodie’, perhaps in the form of a lingering Red-rumped Swallow, or a Little or Baillon’s Crake in the wetland, or a nice spring/summer Lesser Grey Shrike. Only time will tell, so get yourselves out there and make a visit to this excellent Local Nature Reserve.

 


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