A golden mindful moment’s bedroom-window birding

Stopping for even a minute or two and looking out of the window can be surprisingly rewarding.

This morning, shortly after waking up, I was hit by stomach pain, most likely a minor side effect from Sertraline, my new antidepressant, which I started a week ago.

I tried having some breakfast and the stomach ache hadn’t subsided, so I went back to bed and read two chapters of Scarlett Moffatt’s autobiography, which my daughter, Rosie, has been insisting I read for ages. It was a good read and helped me relax. Continuing this self-care theme, I heeded another frequent instruction from my wise girl and had a hot bath, with some salt crystals she got me for Christmas.

I can never get the temperature of a bath quite right, and eventually emerged having almost boiled myself. I sat on the bed and looked out of the open window. The sky was bright blue – not a cloud in sight.

My attention was caught by four or five crows cawing as they flew past, then further off I saw two larger birds, circling high – Buzzards.

And immediately something else; a sight I haven’t seen from home before. A small cloud of gold glittered, sparkled and shimmered in the sun as it crossed the sky. Golden Plovers. I couldn’t count them – didn’t try. As the birds twisted and turned, the gold sometimes turned to gleaming white. I watched them until they disappeared from view, and marvelled at my good fortune, being able to witness this from my bedroom window.

As I sit writing this on my phone with the back door open, a frantic splashing sound has distracted me… A male Blackbird is loudly enjoying a bath in our tiny pond, dug last summer. Clearly it’s a good day for baths and bird-based mindful moments.

Can you spot the Blackbird?

The wacky bird race 5: Birdman and Robin vs Mr Freeze

For a dynamic duo out chasing birds, there was a certain irony that we spent most of our day slipping and sliding like penguins.

On a January morning (before lockdown) when ice had coated every road, path and stile with a treacherous gloss, my 12-year-old son, Daniel, and I were setting out before dawn on a very different bird race.

Some things were the same as my previous four bird races in the 2021 Michael Clegg Memorial Bird Race: teams in the York area, and across Yorkshire, spend the day trying to see or hear as many different species of bird as they can. The day is also an opportunity to raise money for a bird-related cause, and this year it was to support crucial work in Nidderdale, North Yorkshire, to protect Hen Harriers. You can donate here: https://t.co/gGoOXV1HfZ?amp=1

But with York in tier 3 of COVID-19 restrictions, some things had to change. Bird racers had to do their birding on foot or by bicycle, and cars were only allowed to get to a starting point, and within existing bubbles. My previous bird races had been in a team of four, galavanting between the cream of our area’s birding hotspots.

This time it was just the two of us, with Daniel making his bird race debut, and we decided we’d do all our birding on foot from home in Bishopthorpe. Our team name? Birdman and Robin

Daniel and Paul at Askham Bog

Birding on ice

It quickly became clear that we would not be doing any actual racing on this bird race. The ice meant that every step had to be slow and cautious, and we spent more time navigating the least slippery route we could find by torchlight than listening for early birdsong. Just getting to our first destination, Askham Bog – a mile and a half away – was an achievement. Still, we made it there before 8am, and were greeted at the reserve entrance by a hedge full of Fieldfares and Redwings.

The birds seemed reluctant to wake up and show themselves, and who could blame them on such a chilly and gloomy morning? Gradually, though, we began to build up our list, adding potentially tricky birds like Goldcrest and Treecreeper, but coming away without some of the birds we’d hoped for. With more favourable fortunes, we might have found Great Spotted Woodpecker, Marsh Tit, Jay, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll, Woodcock… and we were baffled by the absence of Long-tailed Tit and the usually dependable Buzzard. But we could at least get excited about a Mistle Thrush flying over to complete a full set of  thrushes early on

Askham Bog – icy but beautiful early on Sunday morning

Leaving Askham Bog with another look at the Redwings and Fieldfares, we set off for our next location, spotting a Sparrowhawk over the Tesco roundabout on our way.

A tale of two ponds

I knew that we would miss out on a variety of wildfowl on our local patch compared to the usual bird race glories of the Lower Derwent Valley or Castle Howard Lake, so decided we’d take a chance on two ponds in nearby Dringhouses. The first, Hogg’s Pond, is a private site, but we could see across the water from the railway bridge. It was partly frozen, but there was enough water for a good number of birds to boost our total – Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Coots, Mallards, a Tufted Duck and a couple of more surprising and very welcome additions – a Shoveler mingling with Mallards, and three Common Gulls hanging out with Black-headed and Herring Gulls.

In contrast, Chapman’s Pond had little to offer because it was completely frozen. We saw precisely no water birds there; not even a Moorhen. But we did see our first Collared Dove and House Sparrows in a garden, taking us to 35.

Frozen and bird-free: Chapman’s Pond had iced over.

Wood you believe it?


With energy and enthusiasm waning, we made our way to a muddy Knavesmire Wood, hoping to add some more woodland birds that we hadn’t found at Askham Bog.

We did at least manage one new bird before heading home for a quick lunch and a cuppa. Seeing some birds moving around on the treetops, we went to have a closer look, then came a loud and familiar peep-peep-peep call – a Nuthatch, the bird that eluded our team two years ago.

Knavesmire Wood

We trudged home for a short break, confident we could add to our total – but definitely ready to take a breather from slipping about on the ice.

Garden bonanza

Our own garden failed to provide us with any new birds during our interval, but I checked with my mum and dad to see if their regular Tree Sparrows were around, and maybe a bonus Chaffinch. Mum confirmed that both had been there in the morning, so we made their garden our next stop, pulling up a couple of garden chairs and waiting quietly for the birds to arrive. We’d managed to find a Chaffinch on our way over, but the Tree Sparrows were not coming out to play – just a couple of Dunnocks loitered in the hedge, raising our hopes each time they ventured out.

After 15 minutes, a couple of sightings have us a boost. First, our only Long-tailed Tit of the day paused briefly in a bush before crossing the garden and disappearing again. And then the Boy Wonder used his superpower – raptor vision! Daniel really has an eye for birds of prey, and he somehow spotted a distant Buzzard in the field behind the garden. Like the Long-tailed Tit, it was the only one we saw all day, despite normally seeing  them on every other walk around the village.

As we headed towards mid-afternoon, we had to accept defeat with the Tree Sparrows. Then, as we put our chairs away, Daniel heard a sparrow-like call, and one flew straight over our heads!

Buoyed by this bit of last-gasp good fortune, we headed down to the river Ouse  – and, of course, saw several Tree Sparrows…

Even the keen eye of our dog, Gizmo, couldn’t find us any new species in our garden.

A final flurry

The old church down Chantry Lane (top) and a view of Bishopthorpe Palace from the riverbank.

Heading down Chantry Lane to the river, we paused to check for Greenfinches, as it was one of my prime spots for them, but no joy. We had more luck when we reached the river itself, though – first a Cormorant, and then something a little more glamorous. A female Goosander was coming up the river towards us. It turned out to be one of three females, with a single male further down.

Goosanders. The male is the whiter bird that’s partly concealed by twigs.

Next came another moment of raptor vision, with Daniel picking out a Kestrel over the fields, where frozen floodwater had newly given way to slabs of ice on top of damp grass.

The Boy Wonder practices his raptor vision.

Then it was my turn to add to the list, with a Grey Heron roaming around at the other side of the ice fields.

With daylight dimming, we carried on a little further towards Acaster Malbis, with mud from the recent floods giving us fresh opportunities to slip and slide. A single call from a Curlew gave us our only ‘heard but not seen’ bird of the day.

We were still missing some common birds  that we might reasonably expect to see on or near the river or on the ings – Greylag Goose, Moorhen, Pied Wagtail… But the one that vexed me most was the Rook! A whole day birding and no Rooks? Madness. But Daniel’s keen eye saved the day – there was a rookery on the horizon, near the church in Acaster!

Knowing we were nearing the end of our expedition, we abandoned a vague notion of carrying on along the river, and instead thought we’d try to find a Greenfinch, where I had seen some recently alongside the York-Selby cycle path. With dusk approaching, we thought we might also have a chance of seeing or hearing Grey Partridges.

Views up and down the River Ouse from the Iron Bridge.

Neither of those things happened. We did get distracted by an interesting bird call that was coming either from inside a hedge or the field just the other side of it. We never did find out what it was, and decided to call it a day, after walking 12 miles, on a respectable 45. Or so I thought…

After submitting our total, I realised I had forgotten to count feral pigeons! To be fair, of all the birds we’d seen, they were the most forgettable.

We finished in midtable amongst other walking teams in the York area and were pleased with our efforts, yet left wondering how some of those common species got away.

Epilogue

The day after the bird race, we found ourselves on the eve of another lockdown.

And the day after that, as Daniel looked out into our garden during a break from his school lessons, up popped a female Greenfinch.


New year, same mud?

When I woke up this morning, I was overwhelmed by the idea of a new year.

I hadn’t recovered from the last year yet. I wasn’t ready for another one. Another year – a 12th year – of grappling with depression and anxiety, which I could feel still clawing at my stomach when I awoke. It felt like a case of new year, new month, new day, same mud, like in this photo, which I took on our walk this afternoon.

But a more helpful metaphor gradually formed in my mind.

This is one of our regular walk routes. We follow a path across three fields to our neighbouring village. In recent weeks, the mud on the path has been squelchy and slippery. It’s a slog across the first two fields, but in the third, the path widens out. It’s greener and less mucky. It might sound a bit daft, but this is our favourite field on the walk. It’s our dog’s favourite too. It’s worth trudging across the first two fields to get to this one.

At the end of our walk, there’s a fenced-off field that I call the Paddock of Dreams. Back in the spring, in those endless days of lockdown and the dreaded daily exercise, that paddock brought some variety to my bird sightings – Linnets, a Corn Bunting, the arrival of Yellow Wagtails, and my first House Martin of the year.

As we walked back, I drew a parallel between the walk and my mental health battles.

We have to keep going, keep on plodding one step at a time, keep on through the energy-sapping mud, knowing that somewhere ahead of us the path will widen, the grass will be greener, and we can pause awhile at the Paddock of Dreams.

And the mud is only temporary.

Wherever you are on the walk, whichever field you’re in, keep going. We’ll get there somehow.


Hoopoe: a star turn by a bucket-list bird

Birding can be a maddening hobby, but it can also bring sublime moments that become permanently etched in your memory. I unexpectedly had one of those moments this evening.

It had been a pretty standard day of working from home. Before switching off my laptop, I had a quick look at Twitter, and found that there were some photos of a Hoopoe. On closer inspection, I learned that it was within a 25-minute drive of home, in Collingham, near Wetherby.

This wasn’t the first report of a local Hoopoe I’d seen this week. On Saturday, my friend Adam had to brake to avoid running one over, when it landed in the road in front of him. On the same day, someone else saw one on a grass verge near a carpet store on a business park near York, and I goggled at her photo in envious disbelief.

More about Hoopoes

A Hoopoe is a bird worth seeing. To me, all birds are worth seeing, but Hoopoes are so striking, so distinctive, so exotic-looking that even a non-birder would stop and stare. They’re what I would call a bucket-list bird – an outrageously flamboyant species I have always hoped I would see at least once in my life.

There is so much to appreciate in one bird. It has a groovy curved bill and a punky orange, white and black crest, which it sometimes shows off in full with a dashing flick. Its pinky-orange head, chest, belly and shoulders are offset by a snazzy pattern of black and white stripes on its rounded wings.

Hoopoes are not resident British birds. They’re widespread in Europe, Africa and Asia, but some turn up here in spring or autumn on migration, often in places where you wouldn’t expect to find a rare bird – like the middle of the road, for example, or near a carpet shop.

Not bad for a garden bird

So there I was, staring at Twitter, and beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, I could get to Collingham in time to see it. It was 5pm. We hadn’t had our tea. My son Daniel – my birding sidekick – had Scouts (via Zoom, of course) at 7.30pm. We could just about manage it.

In the space of five minutes, Daniel had changed out of his school uniform, we’d grabbed our binoculars, and my quick-thinking wife, Jane, had masterminded the logistics of tea and Scouts, so off we went. With tips from a fellow birder, we had a rough idea of where we were going, and pulled up in an ordinary residential street. Within moments, a man just ahead of us pointed to a driveway over the road and aimed his camera at it. We half-ran, half-tiptoed, and were rewarded with a ten-second view of this glorious bird. My photo below, hastily snapped on maximum zoom on my mobile, really doesn’t do it justice.

Startled by a passing car, the Hoopoe flew off over the roof of the house and was lost from view. That one view would have been enough, but other people who’d already seen it said it would return somewhere along the street before long.

And they were right. It dropped onto a garage roof for a few seconds – just long enough to admire its unmistakable shape – then it was off again. But the best was yet to come.

With the light starting to fade, the Hoopoe was back, flying across the road, followed carefully by a gaggle of stealthy birders, who in turn were watched by intrigued residents.

And, befitting of such an absurdly attractive creature, it put on a dazzling star turn for the next 15 minutes or so, stepping out onto the pavement for all to see, and sifting through roadside moss for its supper. It even demonstrated its crest flick as it pottered back and forth just a few yards from where I had parked. What a bird.

It was almost dark when our Hoopoe eventually took off down the street at around 6.40pm, giving us just enough time to get back home, guzzle our tea, and get Daniel onto Zoom for Scouts.

It had been a whirlwind couple of hours, from seeing the photos on Twitter to being back home again, and really captured birding at its best. When I’ve written about the benefits of birding for mental health, I’ve described it as my kind of mindfulness – a chance to become completely absorbed in the moment. I found myself with a big grin on my face as I savoured the view across the road through my binoculars at this other-worldly bird. That is the joy and the thrill that keeps me coming back for more, and an experience that will stay in my memory for years to come. You might need to remind me of that next time I’m complaining about spending hours failing to find an elusive, drab warbler in a bush somewhere.


Puffins and Peregrines on prescription

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:

  1. A Sandwich Tern flew past – my first of the year, and bird number 150 for my year list.
  2. 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.

Above – a Razorbill showing off its yellow gape. Below: Gannets galore.

Mental health and coronavirus: four things that are still ok

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.

Talking

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.

Not achieving


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.

Being disappointed


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.


What do we say to depression and anxiety? NOT TODAY

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 »

The wacky bird race 4: rally in the valley

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.

A view down Pocklington Canal to Church Bridge, Melbourne

A view down Pocklington Canal to Church Bridge, Melbourne

Partridge panic

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.

Car farce

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.

Car push by Emanuela

A few helping hands when my car got ‘stuck’ – picture by Emanuela

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!

Spank it!

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.

Bewick's Swan at Bubwith

One of the Bewick’s Swans at Bubwith – pic by Jono

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.

Approaching dusk at Wheldrake Ings

Approaching dusk at Wheldrake Ings, where a Water Rail was calling

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).


My 20th pantoversary

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.

Overcoming nerves

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.


The summer of Painted Ladies

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.

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