Lockdown has not been kind to my brain. Inescapable, constant pressure and stress built up, allowing my anxiety to stealthily creep up and open the door for depression.
I was on edge all the time – stressed out and agitated by anything and everything; feeling battered and overwhelmed; absent-minded and forgetful.
I’ve had to take time off work, increase the dose of my medication, and have counselling. All of these have helped, but if you’re a regular Dippyman reader, you’ll know that walking in nature is one of the things I try to do more of when I need to recharge and recuperate.
My doctor and counsellor have encouraged me to treat my time out enjoying wildlife as if it’s on prescription. It’s an essential part of my ‘tool kit’ for managing my mental health.
Distancing and dodging
Thinking back to when the lockdown restrictions were tighter, I can remember losing heart with my daily walks, and on hindsight that was a clear signal that I was on a downward spiral.
At first, I was glad to get out of the house for a change of scenery, but I grew weary of the same routes, day after day. There were some highlights – watching migrant birds returning for the summer, for example – but I started to find the walks stressful. Having to dodge people for social distancing meant I was permanently on edge. The very thing that should be helping me was having the opposite effect.
My time off work coincided with some of the restrictions lifting, meaning I could visit different places, enjoy different vistas, and see different wildlife. Most of the time I’ve stayed fairly close to home, and I’ve been lucky that some pretty special birds have turned up within a half-hour drive – a Red-footed Falcon and Rose Coloured Starling, for example.
Summer in seabird city
It’s also been peak time for activity at RSPB Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire’s seabird city, which I’ve been to twice in the past month. The first time was before the visitor centre and toilets were open, and it was a blustery day. I was fortunate to time my visit between two downpours, and hardly saw another person. It was a different story the second time – it was sunny, the facilities had reopened, and the reserve was the busiest I’ve ever seen it.
I could easily have been disheartened or anxious about trying to avoid the crows, but – and perhaps this is a sign I’m making progress – I took a break, had something to eat, and started again. I had my camera with me, and managed to get some decent shots of Puffins.
I then set off on a clifftop walk towards Speeton, hoping to see a Hen Harrier that had been seen hunting in the fields on this stretch of the coast.
I didn’t manage to see it, but I found other things to enjoy – not least the views.
Walking further than I’d ever intended, I turned back towards Bempton. Two birds in particular put a smile on my face:
- A Sandwich Tern flew past – my first of the year, and bird number 150 for my year list.
- I came face to face with a Peregrine perched on a post.
It was easily the best view I’ve ever had of one of these stunning raptors. It kindly stayed on the post while I took some pictures, then it was gone, dashing along the cliff face in search of prey.
It was one of those moments when nature can stop you in your tracks and brighten your spirits. My walk along the coast perfectly encapsulated how nature helps my mental health:
- a sense of adventure, discovery and exploration
- exercise and fresh air
- a kind of mindfulness – the sights, sounds and smells help me get absorbed in the present moment, rather than dwelling and ruminating on less helpful things.
I’ll leave you with a few more photos of Bempton’s spectacular seabirds.
I’ve been trying to get my thoughts down in a blog for a while but this is the best I have managed so far. I suppose I am mainly writing this as a reminder to myself, but I hope it might help you too.
The coronavirus situation is pretty mind-blowing for most of us in some way, and devastating for many. The impact is huge and far-reaching. I’m not an expert on it, so I will spare you any of my own home-made analysis and get to the point of things I know a bit more about.
For those of us with a mental health problem – my own companions are depression and anxiety – it brings some bonus uncertainty, tension, disappointment, frustration, worry and stress on top of whatever things we were already struggling with.
I could be wrong, but I feel like the message for people with mental health problems right now is often ‘Your mental health is really important, but don’t go on about it’.
Here is the first thing that’s still ok: it is still ok to talk about your mental health. It’s just as important – perhaps more so than before – to be able to share what’s going on in your head. We don’t want those negative thoughts and feelings consuming us. We may see a lot less of each other face to face at the moment, but there are plenty of ways of staying in touch with people who might be able to support us, even if that’s just by having a random chat about nothing.
It’s also still ok to not be super human. Your social media timelines will probably be full of people doing amazing things, either for other people or to entertain themselves with new hobbies. It’s not a competition. It’s still ok not to be achieving, whether that’s at work, being home with the kids, being on your own – whatever your circumstances. There’s a time for everything and this is maybe not the time when you have energy and drive to do anything much. That’s fine. At least I hope it is, or I’m in trouble.
I have been planning a holiday in Scotland for months, but with roughly a month before we’re meant to travel, I’m having to concede it’s not going to happen. I am massively, crushingly disappointed. I wanted to see dolphins in the Moray Firth. I wanted to see Black Throsted Divers and Slavonian Grebes in their glorious summer plumage on the lochs. I wanted to see Crested Tits – a bird on my bucket list. I wanted to walk along beaches and up mountains. I wanted to spend quality time in beautiful places with my family. Not being able to do those things that I had researched and planned so thoroughly is really disappointing, and no feigning of positivity is going to cover that up. Most of us will have had to cancel something we were looking forward to. For me, having something to look forward helps me to keep going. Now, like a lot of other people, I’m having to carry on regardless.
Not feeling grateful or positive
Comparing ourselves to other people, for better or worse, is rarely a healthy thing to do. So yes, it could be worse, and the news offers frequent reminders of everyone who is having a worse time. We should all be grateful for what we have. And yes, being grateful is healthy, but it’s not always that easy. I try to note down positive things in a diary every day, but sometimes I really struggle to think of a good thing that’s happened – but that’s still ok. Our feelings happen, regardless of how bad or good something is for someone else, and we don’t help ourselves by pretending otherwise or by beating ourselves up over how we think we ought to feel.
I’ll leave this here, with some photos from my daily walks. This lockdown has reminded me a bit of when I had to take time off work nine years ago, when my depression was at its worst. I used to make sure I got out once a day for a walk, and I am doing the same now. Sometimes those walks have been stressful because they’ve been all about dodging other people, but there have been good moments too, like seeing the first Swallows of spring, or watching a Little Owl, or pausing to admire reflections in the river. I try to remember those moments, and to remember that this isn’t all there is, however hard that is some days. It’s just temporary. It might feel like it’s going on forever, but it isn’t really. Hang on in there.
I don’t make new year’s resolutions, but this year I decided to adopt a quote from Game Of Thrones as my motto for 2020. Of course, I’d pretty much forgotten about it within a couple of weeks, so decided to get myself a t-shirt with it printed in large letters on the front. It reads, quite simply, ‘NOT TODAY’.
Here’s a picture of Norman the sloth modelling my t-shirt (he does it better than me).
In Game Of Thrones, this phrase is associated with one of my favourite characters, Arya Stark, who first hears it from her sword-fighting teacher.
The full quote is:
“There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: ‘Not today.'”
Arya is reminded of this at a crucial point in the final series.
So why would I want to adopt this as a motto? Well, I’ve changed the meaning so that it’s more personal.
Instead of saying ‘Not today’ to Death, I plan to say it to my twin enemies, depression and anxiety, whenever they dare to rear their ugly heads.
After a rocky time in 2019 and another trip on the recovery rollercoaster, my mental health has got off to a decent start in 2020. I seem to have reached the right dose of my new antidepressants after switching medication last year, and currently feel better able to copy with what life throws at me.
I know it’s not really as easy as saying ‘Not today’ to a long-term condition that lives inside my own head, but I like it as a symbolic gesture anyway. And perhaps the more I wear the new t-shirt, the more that phrase will stick in my mind for any battles that lie ahead
If you like a good t-shirt, you might also like my Dippydoodles collection on Redbubble.Read the rest of this entry »
My fourth Michael Clegg Memorial Bird Race around the birding hotspots of the York area was another epic dawn-til-dusk adventure for our team, Never Mind The Woodcocks, as we took on the challenge of seeing or hearing as many bird species as possible in one day.
It was to be another day of drama, delight and disappointment, which proved once again that when it comes to birds, you just never know what’s going to happen…
A new hope
Trying a variety of habitats is key to finding a variety – and therefore the highest possible number – of birds, and we decided to kick things off by seeing in the breaking dawn at Skipwith Common, for a mix of woodland and heathland species. Gradually notching up a reasonable tally, including a Brambling calling as it flew overhead, and a distant Jay, and accompanied by the constant calling and hooting of Tawny Owls, we left Skipwith knowing that we still had some potentially tricky woodland birds, such as Marsh Tit and Nuthatch, left to find. But, perhaps promisingly, we did get our team mascot, the Woodcock, zipping right over our heads as we watched the sun rising over the pond.
Scaup in scope
We carried on into the winter wildfowl wonderland that is the Lower Derwent Valley, and quickly found two male Scaup – a duck I’d only seen once before, on our 2017 bird race – at Aughton, but the two Bewick’s Swans I was itching to see were nowhere to be seen. To rub salt into our wounds, a birder we met there said he’d seen one of them going in the opposite direction earlier on. We carried on regardless, visiting Ellerton, East Cottingwith and Melbourne over on the east side of the valley, building a steady but unspectacular list.
For our 2017 and 2018 races, we started our day on the cycle track at Bishopthorpe to successfully listen out for the increasingly scarce Grey Partridge. Last year, we heard them, along with Red-legged Partridges, in Thornton early in the morning.
This year, we had a new site, Menthorpe Lane, near North Duffield, where Jono and Rich had both encountered partridges and other farmland birds only a couple of days earlier. Try as we might, after a flurry of Corn Buntings and Yellowhammers, we just couldn’t find any partridges there on the big day.
Later in the day, another team who’d seen them just moments before we met them, told us where to find some, but there were no Greys to be seen, and only Jono and Rich managed to clap eyes on two Red-legs fleeing the scene. Rules state that at least three of the four team members have to see or hear every bird, so we couldn’t count them unless Emanuela or I could get one. Fortunately, we drove past some Red-legs on our way to another site, so we managed to add them to our list – but we never did catch up with the Greys. Not until Jono heard them in the usual Bishopthorpe spot on his dog walk the following morning, by which time it was too late and the partridges were having a good old chuckle at our expense.
I was the team’s driver this year, and managed to make my mark by getting the car stuck in a muddy lane while we tried fruitlessly to find a Jack Snipe in marshes near Melbourne. Even with the combined might of Jono, Rich and kind members of the Young Upstarts team, who also found a Kingfisher for us while we were there, the car wouldn’t move an inch, backwards or forwards. Not until I realised after a few minutes that the handbrake was still on, that is. This, my friends, is a classic way of making yourself look a blithering idiot in no time at all.
New site comes up trumps
Marsh Tit and Nuthatch were still proving elusive as we moved into the afternoon, but Captain Jono had a new trick up his sleeve – a small wood on the edge of Escrick. We can’t have been there more than five minutes in total, but in that time a calling Marsh Tit popped up right by the path, and Jono’s beady birding eye spotted a Nuthatch high in an old oak tree. Job done!
One catchphrase came to be our team motto for the day – spank it! This was Jono’s rallying cry for me to get us swiftly on to the next site and the next bird with all speed, and I did spend a lot of the afternoon spanking it, so to speak, as we entered the final push.
My annual lifer
We’d missed the Bewick’s Swans earlier in the day, and scoured a flock of swans from North Duffield without any joy. They were one of three species Jono had seen on a reccy just the day before that would have been lifetime firsts for me, the other two being Iceland and Caspian Gulls. Would this be my first bird race without seeing a lifer?
As it turns out, no. Having left North Duffield and gone a few miles towards our next destination, Jono saw a message that the swans had been found, back at Bubwith Ings, the next stop along the valley from North Duffield. Torn between adding more birds to our list and going back for the swans, the team generously decided that, as they’d be a lifer for me, we would spank it back to Bubwith.
We pulled up in the car, got out, and the first two swans there in front of us were the Bewick’s – another bird race lifer! Similar in appearance to the larger and more plentiful Whooper Swans, the Bewick’s seemed daintier and more graceful as they glided past. Lovely birds, and a rare treat for the area’s birders. Picking up some Dunlins, we proceeded to spank it once more.
The trouble with gulls (and how to get into it)*
Gulls have proved to be our nemesis on previous bird races. It’s not that there aren’t many of them – there are loads – but finding the rarer species in amongst the huge numbers of mainly Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls is a challenge to say the least. The previous day, there had been both an Iceland Gull and a Caspian Gull joining those birds in a large flock near Riccall. Twice we tried to find them and twice we failed, although we did get a bonus Peregrine pursuing the gulls, and a lavish helping of Pied Wagtails, which, along with Meadow Pipits, we didn’t see anywhere else.
There was to be a third instalment.
Not long after we’d returned for the Bewick’s Swans, we had a message that the Young Upstarts had re-found the Iceland Gull in the same gull flock we’d been looking at earlier. As it would be a lifer for both me and Emanuela, we spanked it back to Riccall and joined the Upstarts. The birds had scattered just five minutes before we got there, and were gradually returning, but the Iceland was either hiding or had changed its mind about coming back. It was another year of gull-based frustration.
Owls of derision
And it wasn’t just the gulls and partridges that would lead us a merry dance. We’d always found Barn Owl and Little Owl on previous races, the Upstarts had found a Long-eared Owl at Wheldrake Ings early that morning, and Rich had seen Short-eared Owls down Menthorpe Lane earlier in the week, but this year would see a new phenomenon – the foliage owl. Three times in the late afternoon, we were bamboozled by various things that looked just like owls but turned out to be nothing of the sort. Two far-off reed heads combined to perfectly resemble the face of a Long-eared Owl when we were at Wheldrake. A tree stump did a cunning impersonation of a perching Little Owl. Some pale foliage masqueraded as a Barn Owl. But despite a final throw of the dice down a dark country lane, where another team had seen both Barn Owl and Little Owl within the last half hour, we were left stumped.
The ones that got away
There were the gulls, the owls, the Grey Partridges, but other birds seemed to have it in for us on bird race day – birds we’d always been able to rely on in the past. No Sparrowhawk, no Stonechat, no grebes, no Goosander… We were left wondering what might have been if we’d tried other sites, as we ended the day on a very respectable 88, well behind the record-breaking Young Upstarts with an astonishing 108, and unable to maintain our top-two spot of previous years.
The teams gathered in the pub in good spirits to trade stories of triumphs and frustrations after another day of friendly competitiveness, savouring the wildlife spectacles we’d enjoyed amidst the dashing and spanking of the race in this wonderful part of the world.
This year’s race has been raising money for Jean Thorpe’s amazing work in rehabilitating and releasing raptors that have been persecuted and injured. As I write this, the fundraising is well over double its original target. Want to help triple it? There’s still time to donate here.
*I’m writing this on Elvis Presley’s birthday, so this heading’s one for Elvis fans – it’s a pun on one of his final movies, The Trouble With Girls (And How To Get Into It).
Twenty years ago, a 23-year-old lad, sporting a flat cap and a fake beard, stepped out on stage to play a fairly unconvincing giant in Jack and the Beanstalk.
That young giant was me, and this week I am treading those same boards with my local amateur dramatics group, the Ebor Players – my 18th pantomime and my 20th show, Mother Goose, in which I am playing the scheming villain, Squire Blackheart.
In that time, so much has changed, in the world and in my life. I’ve met, fallen in love with, and married my wife, Jane (we met a month after my first panto), and we’ve had two children. My eldest, now 14, is already a panto veteran, having done panto for half her life. My youngest has been coming to see the panto for as long as he can remember.
Back in 1999, I was still in my first job as a writer and sub-editor for a local newspaper. Now I’m 13 years into working for my fourth employer.
And I had hair back then.
I could start going on about what has changed in the world since 1999, but none of us have time for that.
I was walking past this sign today, and I stopped to take a photo of it, because I felt real pride to be part of this production.
This is more than just a village panto; more than just an am-dram group. This is my panto family. Show week is a shared experience – people on and off stage doing everything they can to make this a cracking show for our audiences.
But the work isn’t confined to a single week. It takes months to create this production, and somehow, we keep making it better and better.
The show must go on
Whatever is going on in real life has to take a back seat for a couple of hours. There have been times over the last ten years when my depression, anxiety and self-doubt have threatened to overcome me, but in the best of showbiz traditions, the show must go on (probably why Queen’s The Show Must Go On is one of my favourite songs). The compliments I’ve received for my performances, the fun we all have together, and the very fact that I get up there and do this crazy stuff at all – it still scares the living daylights out of me at times, probably more in rehearsals than the show itself – gives my confidence a vital boost at a time of year when it can be sorely lacking.
I’ve played daft characters, baddies, Elvis, Darth Vader, a cowboy, Crabtree in Allo Allo, Nausius in Up Pompeii, a fairy, an ugly sister, and even Darius from Pop Idol (look up his Britney Spears performance).
Proving a point to myself
There are things I can do now that I couldn’t or wouldn’t do when I started in panto. Even now, I find myself doing things I didn’t think I could do.
I claimed not to be able to sing when I began doing the panto, but caught myself out fairly quickly by singing Elvis songs in the pub at the aftershow party. While I still don’t like the sound of my own voice, I have now sung enough songs on stage to know I can at least hold a tune most of the time. And I have found my groove as a lyricist, rewriting popular songs with a panto twist, from show tunes to Dizzee Rascal and Eminem.
When my nerves get the better of me, if a rehearsal hasn’t gone well, or when it feels like we never have any free time, I question why I do this to myself. Jane is good at reminding me that I say the same things every year. And, as ever, show week proves exactly why I do it, and why it’s worth it.
I’ve learned how to manage this unique week of the year. I take the week off work. I get out for walks and do some birdwatching. Jane and I usually get at least one day together and go out somewhere. I have at least one lie-in. I stay off the computer. I try to relax. And I live my panto life by night.
I haven’t always managed it quite so well. For a few years, I struggled with my nerves and put too much pressure on myself. It stopped me enjoying the week for a lot of the time, but thankfully my inner voice is less critical now, and I am better at dismissing the more destructive thoughts. I can channel my nervous energy into my performance and recognise that feeling nervous is normal. But even now, that isn’t always easy.
My mental health goes up and down, and I still take antidepressants. Just this year, I have switched to different medication, and it’s only in the last month that the dark moods have begun to lift and I have started to feel like a better version of my recent self.
Anyway, enough of this reflecting. I have a show to prepare for. Oh yes I have.
Painted Ladies are pretty snazzy butterflies – and this summer I’ve been seeing them everywhere.
I’m not the only one. Summer 2019 has been hailed a Painted Lady Summer – a once-in-a-decade influx of these orange-and-black stunners – meaning most of us will have seen one at some point.
It seems incredible that these dainty-looking beauties should migrate here from southern Europe or even Africa, but that’s exactly what millions of them have done. That’s an awful lot of wing-wafting. This mass influx even made the news headlines.
I was lucky enough to be on holiday close to the sea front in lovely Filey at the end of July, and the flowers in the garden were a magnet for Painted Ladies. The odd one looked travel weary, but most were in pristine condition.
We saw them in ridiculous numbers along the coast all week, making them a holiday wildlife highlight.
Butterflies can be frustrating and reluctant subjects for photos, but I did manage to get a few pics on my mobile – and here they are.
I haven’t written about mental health for a while. I haven’t wanted to. But it’s no good me urging other people to talk about it if I can’t do it myself – especially when we’re up against too many people who haven’t a clue what they’re talking about but are happy to spout damaging rubbish about mental health in loud voices.
In the last week, I’ve seen a certain hate-for-hire far-right foghorn belittling somebody’s mental illness on Twitter, with their pack of bully-worshipping followers joining in.
I’ve seen a prominent and powerful politician writing that the cure for depression is to do some hard work.
I’ve seen a particular TV presenter opining that we all just need more resilience.
For all the great strides forward we have made on mental health awareness in the last few years, this kind of ignorance – often wilful, sometimes maybe not – persists.
Those of us who know what it’s really like to live with mental health problems can easily become drowned out by the loud but convincing bellowing of shouty oafs who have neither the experience nor the empathy to credibly represent the reality of what we face or what we need.
Alongside that, when we take the step of seeking help for our conditions, where is the practical support? If we need therapy now, what do we suppose the impact might be of having to wait nine to twelve months for it? Even for children?
Would we wait a year to get our cars fixed?
Would we wait a year to get a broken window fixed?
Would we wait a year to get a broken leg fixed?
No, of course not. But when our brains go wrong, is it OK to expect us to hold tight and wait a year?
No, it isn’t. It’s unacceptable. It’s wrong. And it’s not our choice to wait, unless we have the means to pay for private treatment.
My brain right now
My brain is quite a good one on the whole, I like to think. But it often goes rogue and malfunctions. I need to do various things to calm it down and rein it in.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been back on Citalopram for a bit of balance, but my old sidekick isn’t proving as successful as it used to be. It was never enough on its own, but it used to work as part of my set of coping strategies. Recently it doesn’t seem to have provided an adequate stabiliser for my runaway mind.
And it makes me put on weight. I gain at least a stone when I’m on Citalopram, and no matter how much exercise I cram into my week, I still weigh the same and my tummy still sticks out more than I want it to. It gets me down, I feel worse, it affects my confidence and that contributes to my depression. While weight gain isn’t recognised as a direct effect of Citalopram, the drug is known to increase our appetite.
So I am switching from Citalopram to a different antidepressant – Amitriptyline. A new sidekick.
Now you can’t go swapping pills just like that. No, these medicines are powerful, and I know from experience that you have to come off them gradually and carefully. If you don’t, it’s like being injected with a concentrated dose of depression and you want to smash everything. At least, that’s how it was for me last time.
I am currently near the end of week three of a plan worked out with my GP, during which I am slowly moving from 30mg of Citalopram over onto Amitriptyline. Week one involved alternating between 20mg and 30mg. Week two was 20mg a day. This week is 20mg one day and 10mg the next.
Today is a 10mg day. I can feel the difference. I am sharper and more alert, which is good, but I also feel anger and irritation more intensely.
Perhaps that’s why I am writing this – because I’m more keenly aware that people who need some support with their mental health are being hung out to dry.
Statistically, we all know someone who is having a hard time with a mental health problem. It’s an everyday thing.
Let’s just be decent and respectful about mental health.
Let’s all look after each other and show each other – and ourselves – some compassion instead of judgement.
And if we won’t show kindness to other people simply because that’s the right thing to do, let’s remember this could happen to any of us. Me. You. Anybody.
Because if you were struggling and felt you couldn’t cope, I’m sure you’d welcome a little help and hope.
It’s 10.25pm. It’s dusk and the light is fading. Four hopeful faces gaze out of the cottage window for the seventh night in a row – the last night of their holiday, with the rain pouring down as it has with barely a pause for two days. And suddenly, wonderfully, there it is. An elusive pine marten emerges from the forest, trots along the wall, turns briefly in our direction, then ambles along the rest of the wall and disappears from view. One of countless ‘wow’ moments of a week of wild marvels in the West Highlands, but probably the biggest wow of them all.
I’ve often written on this blog about how enjoying wildlife can benefit our well-being, but after a week in the Highlands I think I would add that marvelling at wild and spectacular places is good for us too.
In this post, here are some photographic highlights of our week among the mountains and lochs of this breathtakingly beautiful part of the world.
While stopping off to admire the view at Loch Sunart, near Strontian, this butterfly seemed quite willing to pose for photos. I recognised it as a kind of fritillary, purely from seeing them in books. This one turned out to be – we think – a Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary.
On the Black Rock on Loch Linnhe, near Fort William, Atlantic Grey Seals mingle with Common Seals. Here’s a photo of a grey (left) and common together. Their facial expressions suggest they’re doing a classic ‘staring into the middle-distance’ modelling pose.
As we finished a short stroll by Loch Leven in Ballachulish one damp evening, Swallows, Sand Martins and House Martins whooshed around us, feasting on the many midges that had come out, quite probably hoping to feast on us! In this photo, my son Daniel is trying to snap a photo of the birds as they whiz past.
“There’s a Red Deer!” came the call from the top of a high sand dune at the back of Camusdarach Beach. I quickly realised that sprinting up a tower of soft sand is beyond my physical capabilities at the moment, but I made it up eventually, with much puffing and panting, and joined a small group of fellow beach-visitors to watch the deer feeding alongside a footpath on the other side of the dune.
At Inchree, Red Squirrels are not hard to see, but taking a photo of one in a shady patch of forest in a torrential downpour is something else altogether. This is the best I could manage.
The birdlife is brilliant in the West Highlands. I didn’t manage to find a White-tailed Eagle while we were there, but we did well for Golden Eagles, which were a joy to see. Other birding highlights including a pair of Black Guillemots flying by as we waiting to board a cruise on Loch Linnhe, a Raven in Glen Nevis, a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers on our travels, Common Gulls in their summer plumage (a rare sight back home – the one pictured above had some strange facial markings) and Hooded Crows, the Highland equivalent of Carrion Crows. We also enjoyed watching a Rock Pipit feeding by the pier in Fort William – see below.
Lochs, mountains, waterfalls and beaches
Wherever you look in the West Highlands, the scenery is jaw-dropping. We stayed in Ballachulish, near Glencoe, just to the south of Fort William. The whole area is stunning. Here are just some of the scenic highlights.
Aonach Mor and Ben Nevis
These were our views from halfway up Aonach Mor, Scotland’s eighth-highest mountain, where we took the cable car. In the first photo, you can see the snowy north face of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, peeking out on the right. You can also see how changeable the weather was…
I took this assortment of pictures in and around Ballachulish, mainly on the shores of Loch Leven, a sea loch that joins Loch Linnhe on the other side of the bridge. You can also see some of the mountains of Glencoe, along with the forest on the Brecklet path, and the River Laroch, which flows through the village and down to Loch Leven.
Castle Tioram is a ruined castle on a tidal island in Loch Moidart, and at the mouth of the River Shiel. It’s one of those absurdly beautiful places that demands photos from every angle.
The Silver Sands of Morar and Camusdarach Beach
See these beaches? Yep, they’re in Scotland. Gorgeous, eh? It does help when the sun comes out.
Steall Falls and the Nevis Gorge
This was the first of two walks that felt like an adventure. Beginning at the end of a long road, with a warning of possible death due to steep drops, a footpath takes you through woodland, alongside a dramatic gorge, along the river side and into a meadow, with Steall Falls ahead of you. It was here that we enjoyed our best views of Golden Eagles, as two circled the peaks, and where we encountered a lone Raven.
The Lost Valley, Glencoe
Between the Three Sisters of Glencoe, you can climb up a steep valley, to discover what’s known as the Lost Valley – hidden from the rest of Glencoe by a fall of huge rocks. The history and geography of this glen are fascinating. You can find out more about them from people with a lot more expertise than me. What I can tell you is that it’s a pretty dramatic walk, which involves clambering over boulders, encountering waterfall after waterfall – especially in the sort of inclement weather we went out in. Slippery rocks and steep drops introduce an element of peril that tested my nerves but gave us probably our most memorable family outing of the week.
From Fort William, we enjoyed a cruise on Loch Linnhe, one of the largest sea lochs on Scotland’s west coast. The weather was good for our trip, and we had great views of Ben Nevis from out on the water.
I’ve really enjoyed putting together this blog post, because it’s helped me to re-live a week of epic wowing. Once you’ve seen a place this mesmerising, you can’t help but dream of going back.
I was lucky enough to enjoy a rare day off with my wife, Jane, this week, and to get us away from the hectic pace of daily life, we took ourselves off to a lush corner of the Yorkshire Dales, at Bolton Abbey.
It was one of those wonderful days when spring is in full throttle – the smell of wild garlic, bluebells decorating the woodland floor, and birds busily feeding and singing.
We spent most of our time in the woods around the Strid (pictured below) – a narrow passage of the River Wharfe that looks like a gushing stream, but hides depths that could swallow two double-decker buses with room to spare.
Some of the birds that live here are ridiculously easy to see, as you’ll see from the photos I managed to get. But one is not so easy. I have only seen a Wood Warbler once before, in this very place, but that was when I was ten or even younger, and I can barely remember it.
Before heading out on our trip, Jane and I both learned the Wood Warbler’s call so we could listen out for it. These smart birds – green on the back, lemon yellow on the breast and pure white below – arrive here in the spring to breed.
Jane heard the call first. We were standing by the river, enjoying close-up views of Nuthatches and Coal Tits that were coming down to feed on a log, and the warbler’s trilling song came drifting over the river. We spent about 40 minutes trying in vain to spot it, but gave up, knowing we would be walking along the opposite bank later in the day.
As luck would have it, when we did reach that spot, it was waymarked by a photographer and a local birder, who’d both seen our bird, and even got some photos of it. The four of us stood listening and staring into the greenery, hoping to see something moving in the trees as the call moved around.
Some time later, some leaves shook in the same direction as the call, and there it was – a stunning Wood Warbler, briefly out in the open. I followed it in my binoculars for as long as I could before it flitted off again. It was a lovely moment, and the second time this year I’ve finally caught up with a bird I hadn’t seen since childhood – the other being a Bearded Tit that was pretty much showing off by the main lake at St Aidan’s RSPB reserve earlier in the year.
Pied Flycatchers are one of my favourite birds, and seeing them in their breeding plumage is a real treat. We were spoiled by them at Bolton Abbey. The first one appeared, in the same pose as the one I drew a few weeks ago, by the side of the path as we headed downhill from the car park. Easy!
But we enjoyed even better views further along from our Wood Warbler spot, especially thanks to one pair that were out in the open, going to and from their nestbox.
Mandarins are exotic little ducks. They can be hard to see in many places, but not here. Three drakes were very active on the river, but one male and female couldn’t be bothered with all that. They sat underneath the bird feeders by the Strid Café and had a nap instead.
It was the first time this year that I’d seen Grey Wagtails, but I lost count of how many we saw feeding on the Wharfe. One behaviour I hadn’t seen before was these birds leaving the ground to sit briefly on a branch. I’m much more used to seeing them bobbing around on a river bank and then flying a few yards to do more of the same – perhaps dashing out over the water to nab a fly before coming back again.
Another specialist of upland streams and rivers, we fleetingly saw two Dippers zipping low over the river, before eventually catching up with a pair feeding under a stone bridge. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching Dippers, and I like to think they get on really well with Grey Wagtails, as they have so much in common.
Another of my favourite birds; partly for its striking looks and partly because of its cool party trick – it can climb down trees upside down. The Nuthatches at Bolton Abbey are quite showy and obliging. We spent a while trying to get photos of them, and these were my best efforts.
I’m not an expert on flowers, but like most people, I do appreciate Bluebells, and the Strid Wood was the epitome of a ‘bluebell wood’. My photos really don’t do it justice to this purple haze.
A Yorkshire spring at its best
It was one of those days where the best of the Yorkshire Dales and the best of spring combined to create an unforgettable experience and a treat for the senses. We finished the day with an ice cream, and, just to top things off, saw a Red Grouse and five Red Kites along the same stretch of the road on the way home.
Birdwatching can be many things: relaxing, absorbing, frustrating, educational… but exhilarating and joyful? Well, yes actually.
There are birding moments that can leave you grinning like a fool, cheering like a champion, or gawping like a fish.
I was fortunate enough to enjoy one such moment when I took a long-overdue day off to go birding. It was also the first day of the school holidays, so I had a wildlife-loving sidekick for the day: my son Daniel.
We faced a dilemma. Would we head for Flamborough on the east coast in the hope of finding our number one bogey bird, the Firecrest? There had been sightings in two different locations there in the previous few days but none reported the day before. Or would we go somewhere a little nearer – maybe to Fairburn Ings and the chance to see a Little Gull, which had been reported during the week?
I gave Daniel the choice, and he plumped for the shorter trip to Fairburn.
We had a moment on our journey that made the trip worthwhile, before we’d even started in earnest. Daniel loves birds of prey – the first time he said ‘bird’ was when a Red Kite drifted over his buggy on a visit to Harewood House – and had been talking about how he’d love to see a raptor close up.
He was pleased enough when we spotted a buzzard in a tree, but then we passed so close to one perched in a roadside hedge that he could see every detail on its face. The delight in his voice as he described it set us up for a great day ahead.
A promising start
The omens were still good as we arrived in the village to be greeted by several Sand Martins, my first of the year. We strolled down the lane to Village Bay, where the Little Gull had last been reported, encountering several songbirds as we went – a very vocal Chiffchaff, a Linnet in a classic pose on top of a hedgerow, and a Song Thrush hopping about in a grassy field.
Reaching the shore of the lake, I set up my telescope, lowering it to a Daniel-friendly height so he could get the same decent views of distant birds as I could.
One by one, we spotted Tufted Ducks, Mallards, Coots and Moorhens, and a generous smattering of Gadwall – a very smart and under-rated duck – then Great Crested Grebes, Pochards, and my first Little Egret of the year on the far side of the lake.
On wooden posts in the middle of the water stood two Cormorants – one juvenile and one adult (like Cormorant versions of me and Daniel) and a trio of Black-headed Gulls, which I studied closely in case one turned out to be our Little Gull.
A little bit of magic
I expected that if we were lucky enough to see it, the Little Gull would be a fleeting glimpse of a juvenile some distance away.
When we did clap eyes on it, though, it surpassed all my hopes.
A small white gull caught my eye as it flew over the heads of some Pochards over to our left. As it zipped about, I got a clear view through my binoculars of the gull’s unmistakable distinguishing feature, which I’d seen in photos – the wings, although pale on top, were distinctly dark underneath.
“I’ve got it!” I shouted. I was able to point it out to Daniel. “See it, there? Flying over the Little Egret now…”
“I can see it!” he said.
There were two more special moments to come for me.
The first was when Daniel managed to pick up the Little Gull with my scope and follow it around as it whizzed high and then low over the lake. As a toddler, he had an operation on one of his eyes, and we weren’t sure he’d ever have ‘binocular vision’, and now here he was, sharing my hobby and this magical moment, just as able to watch this uncommon bird as I was.
In fact it was Daniel who got the best view first, and told me he could see the gull’s black head. This wasn’t a juvenile, or an adult bird still in its less striking winter plumage. This was a smart adult in full breeding plumage.
“You little beauty!” I gasped as a took over the scope for a few minutes, following the Little Gull as Daniel had done. What a smashing little bird. What an exhilarating and joyful few minutes. Not just a ‘lifer’ (the name for a bird you’re seeing for the first time in your life) but a cracking and generous view of a bird at its best, which I could share with my boy.
Moments like these make time stand still, and banish all other thoughts. Whatever else is going on in life, or in our heads, an encounter like this can put a smile on our faces whenever we pause to recall it.
The day would bring other great moments – listening to Bitterns ‘booming’ (their call sounds like the noise you can make by blowing into a bottle); being so close to a singing Robin that Daniel could almost touch it with his nose; watching an exotic Spoonbill; and a great look at a dazzling Kingfisher – but it’s that shared moment with a Little Gull that will stay in our memories for many years to come.