Me and my girlfriend spent the afternoon at Coatham Wood yesterday, a Forestry Commission site on the outskirts of Stockton-on-Tees.
Acquired in 1999, over 500,000 trees have been planted here in a project with the Tees Forest to create a vibrant community beauty spot on ex-agricultural land.
The place is quite unlike any other I have been to. As it is made up primarily of plantations, it is characterised by blocks of trees that are all of one age and often consisting of only one or two species within each regular block of planting. The rows of trees reminded me of soldiers lined up ready for battle. It certainly didn’t have the character and diversity of a natural woodland, though I did enjoy walking around the site.
We were lucky enough, or I should say my girlfriend was lucky enough, to spot a bird which had set-up stall here over the winter months – a Great Grey Shrike – almost immediately after we arrived!
The great grey shrike is the largest of the European shrikes and small numbers come to the UK in autumn and spend the winter here. They are often ‘mobbed’ by other birds, which recognise them as dangerous predators. Shrikes are bold, and like other shrikes, the great grey shrike is a lonely hunter and ‘butcher bird’. Its prey consists mainly of small birds, insects and small mammals though sometimes much larger birds, such as blackbirds and thrushes, are killed. Food is often stored in a ‘larder’ by impaling it on a thorn!
We spotted the bird numerous times during our walk, sitting often at the tops of tall trees surveying its surrounding landscape. It is a very smart looking bird, with its black mask and grey plumage and its white underparts made it rather conspicuous when perching.
Happy with our views of the shrike, and after taking a few snaps of a very willing Kestrel, we decided to have our lunch on a nearby bench, where we were treated to an impressive show from a Short-eared Owl.
The short-eared owl flew right up to us, gliding through the air at a low-level with its long, barred wings on show. It then hovered in the air, looking us right in the eye (probably checking us out for danger) before it dived into cover. There was some scuffling, which we assumed was the owl catching its intended prey. It stayed here for a while, its head just visible from where we were sat…
It eventually flew out from the cover…
And after doing a lap around the area it flew back to us again, perching on a tree directly opposite…
It stayed here for about 15 minutes, whilst we watched it through my spotting scope staring back at us intently. There is just something about owls that is really special, and seeing this one up close was pretty amazing. Its piercing yellow eyes still feel ingrained in my mind! Looking back, it was probably one of my favourite encounters (despite being one of those moments when I really wished I had a better camera to put the experience to justice).