The curse of Wednesday night writing

Wednesday night is writing night. That’s the idea, anyway. The reality is rather different.

For the rest of the week, my brain is buzzing with ideas for things to write about – blogs, stories, scripts, all sorts. These all seem like good ideas, and things worth writing about, until Wednesday night.

It seems there’s a non-writer in my brain on a Wednesday night. Even as I prepare to sit at my tiny desk in the lounge, I can feel my writing powers seeping out of me. Lethargy, indecision and apathy take over, or perhaps – to be fair to myself – it’s just the inevitable midweek tiredness brought on by three days of staring at a screen and lurching from one meeting, task, place or deadline to the next. It might also be the kids’ uncanny knack of pratting about with extra glee and skill at bedtime on dad’s writing night.

Whatever it is, Wednesday night writing appears doomed. I don’t feel like writing. I don’t want to write. But I’m stubborn, and this would have been the second week in a row where I’ve sat down at the tiny desk and ancient, creaking laptop, opened a new Word document, stared at it, and given up. So I decided to write something – anything – just to spite the non-writer in my head.

So what would I write about?

The blank Word document stares at me, in a way that only a blank Word document can do. I close it.

“Why do you NEED to write?” asks non-writer. “You don’t HAVE to. Watch telly. Do a jigsaw. Relax.”

These are good suggestions. I don’t get much time to do those things either. “But,” says Mr Stubborn, the new player in the mind games, you SAID you were going to write tonight. You wrote it on the CALENDAR. Imagine how annoyed you’ll be if you let it go another week.”

Agh, Mr Stubborn speaks the truth! I DID do that. And he’s right – I will kick myself if I don’t write tonight.

So again I ask myself, what will I write about?

Maybe I could just write something about one of the nice photos I took on holiday. I look through loads of photos, and nothing inspires me. The non-writer mocks me. Mr Stubborn tuts and rolls his eyes.

How about something to do with birds?

Nah, can’t be bothered.

Something to do with mental health, then? “You’re always going on about how important it is, but it’s ages since you’ve written anything about it,” reasons Mr Stubborn.

But nothing is forthcoming in that area either.

Maybe I should give up blogging, or give it a rest for a while, ponders the non-writer. “WHAT?” bellows Mr Stubborn. “GIVE UP BLOGGING? What kind of talk is this?”

It’s that talk we have regularly, Mr Stubborn. Remember this? Then Mr Stubborn accuses me of neglecting my blog, and Mr Self Doubt steps in and berates me for losing readers and being past my best, and interrogates me on why I do this to myself.

“And this post is so self-indulgent,” he adds. “Who cares that you can’t write on a Wednesday night?”

But Mr Stubborn has the last laugh, because I have written something, just to spite the Wednesday night non-writer within me. And here’s a nice holiday photo to shut them both up.

To paraphrase Richard Ayoade’s catchphrase in the new series of the Crystal Maze, thanks for reading – if indeed you still are. Maybe one Wednesday night, I will write something more interesting…

Waves on Bamburgh Beach

Waves on Bamburgh Beach

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The grasshopper in the wood meadow

One of my favourite wild places to escape to is Three Hagges Wood Meadow, between York and Selby.

A combination of young woodland and meadow, this special place is a haven for wildlife and is at its finest at this time of year – alive with chirping grasshoppers, swallows swooping low over the tall grass, bees and butterflies enjoying the wild flowers, and dragonflies and damselflies patrolling the pond.

Our friends Emma and Justin, who live nearby, introduced us to it about a year ago. We liked the place so much we decided to sponsor a square of the meadow, which we like to go and visit as a family.

Some time ago, Emma asked me if I’d like to be a storyteller for the Three Hagges Wood Meadow discovery day. It sounded like fun, so I said yes. But as the day grew nearer, my inspiration had dried up, and I had to admit I couldn’t think of an idea for my story. It needed to be something educational, related to wildlife, and with some interactive elements for children to join in with.

With less than two weeks to go, I had one free evening left when I could write something, so I sat at the computer and, without any sort of plan, decided to just start writing in the hope that something would happen. My daughter had suggested writing something from the point of view of an animal in the meadow, and that idea must have lingered somewhere in my brain, because the first thing I wrote was “One day, I turned into a grasshopper”.

Thankfully that set me on my way, and I wrote the whole story in one go. It was a liberating feeling, and the most I’ve enjoyed writing anything in years – no plan, no structure, no rules. I just wrote for the joy of writing, and it somehow worked. And I learned a lot about grasshoppers.

Now that my story has had its grand premiere in Bodgers’ Den – a cosy shelter in the meadow where my audience sat on bales of hay – I thought I’d share it with you. Here it is.

Paul the Grasshopper

One day, I turned into a grasshopper. I know, it sounds unlikely, but sometimes these things happen and you just have to make the most of it.

I was very lucky, really. I mean yes, I was very small and easy to step on, and loads of creatures wanted to eat me, but I could do some pretty cool stuff.

For example, I could jump a really long way. If you’d seen me doing it, you might not have thought it was a long way, but for a little grasshopper, trust me, it was. If I could jump that far as I am now, compared to my height as a human, I’d be able to jump 90 feet. How far can you jump? Have a go.

(((We all do some jumping)))

Very impressive, but do you know how far 90 feet is? It’s longer than a football field, or three-and-a-half London buses.

And I could make music by rubbing one of my legs against one of my forewings – that was one of the hard wings near the front of my body. I don’t mean I could play ANY music. I couldn’t do any Little Mix or Ariana Grande songs. I didn’t sound like Bruno Mars. But I could play music like a miniature violin. Sometimes other grasshoppers would join in, and it would be like a big grasshopper concert. Other times, when I played my music, lady grasshoppers would come up to me and say things like “Ooh, what lovely music. Wanna hang out together?” Which was a bit awkward, really, because I was still me inside that strange insect body, and I didn’t really fancy having a grasshopper for a girlfriend. Besides which, I’m married

Anyway, another cool thing was that when I turned into a grasshopper, I found myself right here, in Three Hagges Wood Meadow. Quite appropriate really, as it turned out I was a meadow grasshopper. The only bad thing about being a meadow grasshopper is that they’re the only sort of grasshopper in this country that can’t fly. Imagine how awesome it would be if I could have been a flying grasshopper!

But anyhow, what a great place to be a grasshopper – all that tall grass to hide in, and climb up, and jump around in. And all those other insects to chat with. There are loads of them! Have you seen any?

(((We talked about the day’s insect sightings. My favourite was ‘a dinosaur’.)))

The butterflies are so beautiful and colourful, then there’s all the different ladybirds, and the fancypants dragonflies that fly around the pond. And speaking of the pond, I do love watching the whirligig beetles spinning round and round. Sometimes I think they’re dancing to my music.

Then there’s all the bees and other insects that live in the Bee Hotel. It’s a bit over the top, if you ask me. I find the grass is perfectly adequate for an insect. I don’t get to stay in a hotel… I mean, what sort of insect needs an en suite bathroom, Freeview TV, complimentary tea and coffee, and a cooked breakfast? It’s a bit much. That’s what I thought anyway, then I realised it’s not as posh as it sounded, but still a great place to live if you’re a bee.

Talking of food, I’m a vegetarian, so being a grasshopper kind of suited me. I wouldn’t normally go around eating the sort of plants you get in this meadow, but there wasn’t a lot of Quorn about; no nice veggie curries, or chilli, or pasta, or mixed nuts – not even a stir fry. But I had these big, scary-looking teeth and could eat pretty much anything. Normally if I bit into a tree trunk, it would hurt and probably break my teeth, but being a grasshopper I could have a good chew and it was all fine. Different types of grass were the best. Secretly quite tasty if you’re a grasshopper and into that kind of thing. And a good source of carbs – useful for energy, which you need if you’re jumping about all day.

What would you chew through if you could bite through anything?

(((We chatted about this for a minute or two.)))

Another thing about being a grasshopper is that things want to eat you. That’s not something I have to worry about usually, being a human – not unless I’m hanging out in the African savannah and trying to annoy hungry lions. But I don’t do that very often.

So yes, it can actually get pretty terrifying being a grasshopper in a place where there’s so much other wildlife. So many creatures like to eat them – spiders, birds, snakes, even rodents like mice and rats. Apparently it’s a good thing that so many creatures like to eat grasshoppers, because if they didn’t, the grasshoppers would eat up all the plants and crops and everyone would be starving. It didn’t feel like a very good thing to me at the time though.

I’m a birdwatcher, so I found it weird being a grasshopper – I mean obviously it was weird being a grasshopper, that goes without saying – but what I’m getting at is that you can’t really go around watching birds when they’d gobble you up if they spotted you. It’s a bit like the opposite of birdwatching, really. They were trying to spot me!

But I couldn’t resist trying to watch some birds. I knew that sometimes Red Kites and Buzzards liked to fly over the meadow, particularly over the woods. They’re big, impressive birds, and I couldn’t help but think “Imagine how amazingly massive they’ll look through the eyes of a grasshopper!”

Now, if I’d been one of the other sorts of grasshopper, I could have flown up and had a slightly closer look, but I wasn’t and I couldn’t, so I decided my best bet was to climb up the tallest grass I could find and have a nosy from the top. I wasn’t going to get a very good view from down there in the undergrowth.

What’s the highest thing you’ve ever climbed up?

(((Justin won with Mont Blanc.)))

I hopped around the meadow until I was amongst the tallest grass, then began my climb. Suddenly there was a hiss behind me, and a grass snake slithered towards me. Aaaaaagh! I took a mighty jump as it opened its mouth and prepared to chomp down on me.

I’d escaped – just. But I needed to get back to my tall bit of grass, so I waited until the snake had stopped watching me and gone looking for another snack somewhere else, then jumped back, but there was more danger waiting for me. Just ahead of me, there was another grasshopper, but something was wrong – it was just hanging there, unable to move.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Oh you know, just hanging about,” it said.

“Really?” I said. “You don’t look very comfortable.”

“I was being sarcastic,” it said. “I’m stuck in a spider’s web and it’s going to come back and eat me in a minute.”

With not a moment to lose, I used those big, tough teeth of mine to chew through the web and release the grasshopper.

“Oi!” said a voice from above. “That’s my lunch. Come back here!”

It was a huge spider, and it wasn’t happy.

The two of us leapt out of harm’s way and hid behind a leaf until we were sure the spider had lost us.

I said farewell to my fellow grasshopper, and decided to have one last try at getting to the top of the grass. I could hear the cry of a Red Kite somewhere overhead, and sped up, hoping I’d be able to get a proper look at it. Leaving the ground far behind me – well, it was far behind if you’re a grasshopper – my little insecty head popped up above the top of the grass, and I could see all around. The woods, the pond, the bee hotel, Bodgers’ Den… But where was that Red Kite? Typical birds, always disappearing when you go looking for them.

I was about to have a good sulk, and possibly a grumpy chew on a blade of grass, when a huge bird drifted over the top of the trees, twisting in the air as it flew, like a… well, like a kite. And that’s what it was – a Red Kite, a bird that could only be found in a few remote parts of Wales when I started birdwatching as a boy, but that we can now enjoy watching here in the meadow and other places around here.

I didn’t have to worry about it eating me. Kites need bigger food – they’re not interested in grasshoppers. But I hadn’t been concentrating on what was going on around me. There was a swooshing of wings and the horrifying sight of a blackbird swooping down on me!

I waited for the end to come, but then all was quiet and still. My adventure was over. I was a human again, sitting in the meadow. The Red Kite was still there, soaring above me, and I watched a grasshopper hopping away, as I stood up, walked over here to the Den, and started writing about all the things I’d discovered about being a grasshopper. And that’s what I’ve just been reading to you.


Beating the bogey bird jinx

My birdwatching year began with such promise, but my hapless pursuit of two evasive species came to dominate February and March.

After a flying start, thanks to a bird race around York in January, followed by my first Great Northern Diver in Scarborough, it seemed 2017 might be a vintage year for birding.

Great Northern Diver in Scarborough

Great Northern Diver, Scarborough Harbour

As winter continued, two rare birds popped up in the York area. And that’s where things started going wrong.

Pining for a bunting

The Pine Bunting in Dunnington became a birding celebrity. Hoardes of birders descended on a field on the edge of York to see a bird that is very rarely seen in this country – a handsome but elusive little chap, who was hanging out with the local Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings.

I took a day off work in early February with ambitions of seeing the Pine Bunting in the morning and maybe locating a Glaucous Gull in the afternoon.

It was a bitterly cold day, and the hours I spent that morning failing to see the exotic visitor are probably the coldest I’ve ever been while birding. Annoyingly, it was found about an hour and a half after I’d left, making this a bird with classic bogey bird potential.

I spent my afternoon getting chilled through, looking for a Glaucous Gull among the huge flocks of gulls at Rufforth and Poppleton, also near York. Glaucous Gulls visit the UK in the winter, and we’d failed to see these big brutes on the bird race. True to form, one had been seen ten minutes before I arrived, and my friend Adam, joining me for a freezing hour or two by the roadside, spotted one overhead, but my own efforts were in vain.

The Pine Bunting unexpectedly stuck around, and pictures and sightings kept appearing on Twitter, so I left work early one Friday afternoon in early March to have another go. The mission began with a frustrating traffic jam, then once I arrived, poor light made it hard to pick out any individual birds in the distant flock. It was clearly not meant to be for the Pine Bunting and me, and a new bogey bird was born.

Revenge of the bogey bird

The Great Grey Shrike was one of my original bogey birds – the list I put together in 2015 of birds I’d always wanted to see but had always somehow missed. I did manage to shrike it lucky at my second attempt that year, when I got a fleeting, distant view, but when one turned up at Acaster Airfield, three miles from home, I really fancied getting a better look. The striking grey, black and white bird – a winter visitor to the UK –was offering generous photo opportunities to half of York, so along I went before work one morning, fancying my chances. No joy. I tried again two days later, this time after work. Again, no joy, but I did see my first Grey Partridges of the year, so all was not lost.

Another two attempts followed without success, including an early-morning trip with my bird race team mate, Jono, who had already seen the shrike. He was incredulous that we couldn’t find it, but to me it was further proof that this was a bogey bird reborn. It was clearly taunting me, and it was getting personal.

On the second of those outings, I did find myself staring straight at a Little Owl skulking in a bush – a small consolation – but I’d pretty much given up on the shrike, until I heard it was still hanging around in April.

Duck distraction

I tried again on 3rd April, when things took a farcical turn. I’d been there five minutes or less when I met a lady with seven tiny ducklings by her feet – she’d found them alone in the middle of the road, had ushered them to one side, and they’d adopter her as their mother. We couldn’t find their real mum, the ditch over the road didn’t have any water in it, and there didn’t seem a safe place to leave them. In the end, I was able to get a cardboard box from a local business. We rounded up the ducklings, put them in the box, and off they went in the lady’s car to the RSPCA – I hope she encountered their real mum just round the corner for a happy reunion. I had about ten minutes left before I needed to get back home, so legged it up the road, only to find two birders had been watching the pesky shrike and it had just disappeared…

A change of scenery, and fortune

A walk in the Yorkshire Dales with my dad brought the promise of some different birds for my year list, which had stalled somewhat while I’d been chasing the bogey birds.

We parked at Grassington, took the bus to Bolton Abbey, and walked back along the Wharfe – a beautiful walk on a gloriously sunny spring day.

We were slightly too early for the Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers and Common Sandpipers to return after spending the winter in warmer climes, but I saw my first Sand Martins and Swallow of the year, and added Grey Wagtail, Nuthatch, Dipper and Green Woodpecker to my year list – and even managed to get some half-decent photos. Perhaps my birding fortunes were improving…

Grey Wagtail, Grassington

Grey Wagtail

Green Woodpecker on stone wall

Green Woodpecker

Shrike it lucky?

The next Wednesday morning, I got up early for another bit of pre-work birding at Acaster Airfield. The Great Grey Shrike was STILL there, a good two months after it had first been seen, and local birder Chris Gomersall described to me where he’d seen it regularly in the last few days. However, the shrike was having none of it. Chris posted another photo at the weekend of the bird on its usual perch. It was definitely smirking to itself.

But I had one last trick up my sleeve – my lucky mascots. My son had been with me when I’d had my first-ever glimpse of a Great Grey Shrike two years ago. And my daughter, on a family walk around Acaster several years ago, had accidentally found me my first-ever Garden Warbler. If anything could lure the shrike from its hiding place, it was this dynamic duo.

Following Chris’s directions, we headed up the road, slightly further on than my previous well-trodden route, and I scanned a row of small trees with my binoculars. There was no shrike, but I wanted a closer look.

As we got nearer, we stood at the side of the road, and up popped a pale, blackbird-sized bird with a long tail – the unmistakeable shape of a Great Grey Shrike. “That’s it! I’ve seen it!” I shrieked. I got a decent look at it before it dipped down to the ground, presumably looking for prey, then it rose up again for a second viewing, before disappearing into the undergrowth.

We had broken the bogey bird jinx at last. I’m not sure I’ll be able to convince the kids to join me on my quest for other bogey birds like the Firecrest or Hawfinch, but this’ll do nicely for now.

Acaster Airfield (1)

Dandelions at Acaster Airfield.


Birdwatching, depression and the BBC sofa

I found myself on the BBC’s famous red sofa last Sunday morning – not for a tour of the studio or for a nice sit down, but for a live TV interview.

“Being on the telly” is one of those mysterious, magical things that many of us, including me, have daydreams about. People on the telly are a different breed of person, who are beamed onto our screens at home from some kind of strange, alternative universe. As I discovered, the world of BBC Breakfast is certainly very different to my own.

Paul Brook on BBC Breakfast

Birdwatching and depression

Last weekend, a new study was published, showing that birdwatching can have a positive effect on depression and anxiety, and I was plucked from obscurity to talk about this on BBC Breakfast and BBC Radio 5 Live. It wasn’t my study, of course, but I do write about birdwatching and mental health. A BBC producer had been looking for someone who could talk on the subject from personal experience, and stumbled across my blog.

Up until late Saturday afternoon, I wasn’t expecting any of this. I went swiftly from shopping at Tesco with my eight-year-old son to chatting on the phone with a member of the BBC Breakfast team just after 4.30pm. She asked if I’d like to be live on the show the next morning. I’d been planning a family trip out, so this unexpected development made my head spin a bit, but these opportunities don’t come up very often, so I said yes.

Crazy logistics

There then followed a whirlwind of crazy logistics. The studio is at Media City in Salford, and they wanted me on the show at 8.40am. The train times didn’t work out (I’d have had to get up at about 3am to get the only train available) so I agreed to drive over from my home near York. Another option was to travel over that evening and stay in Manchester, but I was going out with my wife and friends to see Sunny Afternoon, a musical about my favourite band, the Kinks, and I wasn’t going to miss out on that.

In the brief time between getting the call and going out, I had to send over some photos from my birdwatching trips (my photo of a great spotted woodpecker appeared as the backdrop to my interview) and try to get my head round what was going on.

There was more to come.

During Sunny Afternoon (which was brilliant), I could feel my phone buzzing in my pocket, and afterwards I discovered I’d had a call from the BBC 5 Live team – they wanted to speak to me live the next morning too. So I found myself on the phone two or three times between 11 and 11.20pm as we tried to fit this in. At one point, they wanted to talk to me at 7am and I was going to try and find somewhere to stop and do a phone interview on my drive over to Salford. Luckily, the 5 Live studio is one floor up from BBC Breakfast, the two teams exchanged notes, and I was booked in to talk on the radio at 8.20am, which meant an even earlier start.

So what was it all like?

Media City was spectacular for a start. It’s by the quayside in Salford, where an old industrial area is being gradually regenerated. I walked past the CBeebies office, and saw the studio where Shine, the BBC’s new talent show, is being filmed. Across the water I could see ITV and the Coronation Street studio.

The staff couldn’t have been nicer or more welcoming. I was greeted at reception and taken up to the green room, where guests wait before they go on air, but wasn’t there long before being whisked off with a cup of tea in hand to see the make-up man (he put on a bit of foundation and powder ‘for the lights’ in the studio – good job too, as the glare from my bald head would have dazzled the viewers).

From there, I went up to 5 Live, and within ten minutes was live on air. I sat down with a black microphone in front of me, opposite the two presenters, put on some headphones, and off we went. I spoke for about two minutes (it went well – here’s a recording), then was collected by my friendly host and taken to a comfy corner outside the BBC Breakfast studio.

From there, I was met by the floor manager and given my clip-on microphone, then when the time came, we crept into the studio and I waited for my turn to join presenters Ben Thompson and Rachel Burden on the big red sofa.

cv-pic-of-paul-1

Both were lovely, and put me at ease. They were remarkably perky, given the horrible hours they must work. I wasn’t really conscious of the cameras – I just answered their questions as best I could and tried to remember key points from my blogs that I’d glanced at on my mobile.

It was quickly over, and I doubted whether it had actually happened, but when I got home, I was greeted by my two children bouncing up and down with giddy excitement at having seen their dad on the telly, then had the weird experience of watching myself on my own TV set (unfortunately it seems the programme isn’t available on iPlayer). I was happy I’d managed not to say anything stupid or pull any weird faces.

It just goes to show that sometimes extraordinary things happen to ordinary people, and – more importantly – that depression is not the end. We can live with it, and occasionally something good can come of it.

Oh, and seeing as I was home by 11am, we still managed a family trip out – just a less ambitious one.

Thanks to Jane Brook, Claire Vinent Yager and Michelle Atkins for the photos.


Introducing Dippydoodles

Today, depression has made a dream come true. Sounds unlikely, I know – but at least something good has come of it.

If I hadn’t had depression, I wouldn’t have drawn a series of doodles about it last September for the Blurt Foundation. And if I hadn’t drawn those doodles, my friend Gary wouldn’t have seen them and suggested putting them on T-shirts.

I’ve just been onto Gary’s website, Trustovi, and ordered a T-shirt with my own design on it. Ever since I reached an age when I wanted to choose what to wear, I’ve loved T-shirts. I used to draw T-shirt designs on computer paper or in exercise books at home. I’ve doodled for as long as I can remember. So having T-shirts to buy with my own doodles on is pretty much a dream come true.

I’m calling these designs Dippydoodles, and the T-shirts are available to buy right now. There are four designs, all intended to help raise awareness and understanding of depression in a positive way. All the profits from sales of the T-shirts will be donated to Blurt to continue their great work supporting people with depression and fighting the stigma that goes with it.

The doodles all feature a bald chap in an orange T-shirt. I don’t have any orange T-shirts, but the hairstyle is definitely mine.

Two of the designs are from the set I drew for Blurt.

‘Look after yourself. You’re important.’ is a reminder to people like me that we need to be kind to ourselves and not to be so self-critical. We’re happy to praise other people and show them kindness but it’s such a struggle sometimes to do the same for ourselves.

Smiling man saying 'Look after yourself. You're important.'

‘Anyone seen my confidence?’ shows those times when our confidence hits rock bottom. I’ve definitely experienced this during episodes of depression. It completely crushed my self-esteem and building it back up is a long work in progress.

Doodle of man in boat, with confidence at bottom of the sea beneath him

The other two designs are new ones, based on other themes I’ve explored in my blog.

In ‘Former perfectionist’, you’ll notice that ‘perfectionist’ is spelt incorrectly and that the bald chap looks pretty vexed about it. I’m a former perfectionist myself, and it’s a hard habit to break, but it can be pretty punishing to live with. I would still recoil in horror at the thought of spelling a word incorrectly.

Man looks vexed at misspelling of 'perfectionist

‘Man up? Er, no.” is a polite version of what I feel like saying in response to anyone using the phrase ‘man up’ in connection to depression. It’s a stupid and destructive phrase, as I wrote in this Blurt blog.

Man saying 'Man up? Er, no.'

I’ll leave you with a couple of requests:

  • Please buy a T-shirt. You’ll look splendid and you’ll be supporting an important cause. The website’s great and really quick and easy to use. Oh, and delivery is free in the UK, so you won’t suddenly find yourself paying more at the checkout.
  • Share a photo of yourself wearing your beautiful new T-shirt, using #dippydoodles

I’ll post a photo of me wearing mine very soon…


The wacky bird race

Ever been out walking in total darkness on a freezing January morning to listen for grey partridges? No, neither had I, until I took part in my first bird race.

The idea of a bird race is that you get up horribly early in the morning and dash around all day trying to see or hear as many different species of bird as you can.

If it sounds a bit extreme, that’s because it is, but it’s also great fun and rather exciting once you get past the dazed ‘Is this all a dream?’ feeling.

Our intrepid team, Never Mind The Woodcocks – me, Jono, Rich and Emanuela – spent ten hours lurching from one York birding hotspot to another, totting up 95 species between a hooting tawny owl before dawn and a just-in-the-nick-of-time call from a little owl after dusk. I can take little credit for this impressive total. My main role was to bumble about, ask lots of questions, and chip in with silly jokes.

The Michael Clegg Memorial Birdrace turned out to be an epic adventure, featuring two firsts for me, close encounters with some great birds, and some fairly common species leading us a merry dance…

Egret by gum

After getting off to a mixed start in the dark – grey partridges and golden plover among the early ticks, but little owl refusing to play ball – our first location as dawn broke was the village of Stillingfleet, where a great white egret had been reported recently. A muddy trudge up and down the beck failed to reveal the egret, but listening to all the other birds waking up around us was a treat.

 Brambling on my mind

Passing an elegant barn owl perched on a gate, we approached our next location – seemingly a non-descript field in the middle of nowhere. But Jono had done his homework, and we soon found what we were looking for: a flock of bramblings, appearing in generous numbers at the top of a nearby oak tree. These attractive finches, boasting bright orange chests, are winter visitors to the UK, and aren’t always easy to find, but they spoilt us by hanging around for decent views and allowing me to learn their call, which sounded a little like an unimpressed sneer.

Gawping at scaups

A key spot on our tour of the York area was Castle Howard Lake, so it was a blow to arrive there in dense fog, with terrible visibility. Most ducks on the lake, which is normally thronging with a variety of wildfowl, were reduced to grey blobs – disappointing, as I’d hoped we’d find a scaup there. While not a particularly exciting bird to look at, it was one I’d never seen before, and a male and female had both been reported in the days before our visit.

Working our way along the lakeside path, we gradually started to find the birds we were looking for, such as the sleek goosanders and charismatic little goldeneyes among the many wigeons, teals, coots and tufted ducks. As we resigned ourselves to a scaup-less trip, the female suddenly glided into view. My first ‘lifer’ of the year! I’d always thought I’d struggle to identify one alongside the very similar tufted duck, but it was clearly a different shape – it looked longer, lower in the water, with a different-shaped head and a generous blob of white on its face.

The fog continued as we headed to Strensall Common, which was eerily beautiful in the gloom, but not exactly awash with bird life.

Strensall Common in the fog.

The sun attempts to break through the fog at Strensall Common.

Here come the gulls

There was certainly no shortage of gulls on bird race day – big flocks of them in the fields to the west of York. Identifying some of them was easy. Adult great black-backed gulls are unmistakable beasts – they’re big, and have black backs. I know what adult herring gulls and black-headed gulls look like. But throw winter plumages and juveniles of various ages into the mix, then set the challenge of trying to identify the rarer species – Iceland gull and glaucous gull – and I’m all of a tizz. We stared at flocks of gulls until my eyes ached and I felt dizzy, but still couldn’t find what we were looking for; and what we knew some of the other teams had seen. It was like a gull version of ‘Where’s Wally?’ with a cast of thousands.

Waxwing lyrical

Waxwings – exotic-looking pink birds with striking features and a rather punky hair-do – visit the UK in varying numbers each winter from Scandinavia. In some winters, like this one, they come over in large numbers to scoff as many berries as they can. They’d been spotted all around York in the run-up to the bird race, but our first attempt was fruitless. Our next stop was right next to the city walls, where waxwings had gathered during the last few days to feast on berries. From our perch on the top of the walls, we found blackbirds, song thrushes and mistle thrushes gorging themselves on the red fruit, but no waxwings. We were about to give up, when I made one of my few notable contributions to the team effort and spotted a solitary waxwing peeking out from the middle of the tree. We celebrated with a botched fist-bump/handshake/high-five mash-up and dashed off to our next site.

Wagtails and herons and grebes, oh my!

Bird watching is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. That can mean both unexpected delights and great frustrations. Three common species proved evasive on the day, and we got increasingly concerned that we were somehow going to fail to see a pied wagtail, grey heron, or great crested grebe. I’d seen a heron on the way to Castle Howard, but the rule was that birds only counted if at least three members of the team saw or heard it. Eventually, we did find one – a distant view from the hide at our final destination, Wheldrake Ings. The quest for a pied wagtail got more and more ridiculous, and the biggest cheer of the day came as we spotted one out of the car window, strutting nonchalantly along a pavement. But the grebe was nowhere to be found. Knowing the other teams were also struggling to find one, we wasted valuable time scooting off to two locations, hoping to track one down, but to no avail. It was the bogey bird of the day.

Wild goose chase

There was to be another first for me on this day of twists and turns. As the light began to fade, we literally went on a wild goose chase to try and track down a tundra bean goose. Luckily another birder was watching geese from the roadside, and was able to point out where the bean geese were hiding among larger numbers of pink-footed geese and the much commoner greylag geese. It was a puzzling game of ‘spot the difference’, and I’d probably have overlooked them without expert assistance – they did a cracking job of looking just like the pink feet, until one kindly gave us a flash of its bright orange legs.

A sniper in the bog

There were two final stops on our way to Wheldrake, where we knew we’d be able to enjoy a dusk bonanza of waders and other wetland birds – and endure another hapless sift through countless gulls.

One was the easiest find of the day – a little grebe appearing exactly where Jono had expected it on the Pocklington Canal.

The second was really something to behold – Rich’s snipe dance. Spotting a boggy field that was rich with potential for skulking snipe, off he went, bounding through the bog like a welly-wearing gazelle. It worked – from nowhere, up shot two common snipe in one direction, and a rarer, smaller jack snipe in the other. It was only the second jack snipe I’d ever seen, and a first for Emanuela.

Topping up our list with a late flurry of species at Wheldrake, we retired shattered but satisfied with our efforts – and talk turned to the possibility of a 24-hour Yorkshire bird race in May. Now that really would be extreme…


A spontaneous trip to the bog – with deer’s bottoms and a flushed woodcock

This morning I found time to experience the restorative and uplifting powers of nature (rather than dashing to the toilet, as the title may suggest) – but I very nearly didn’t bother.

After hitting ‘snooze’ about four times, I dragged myself wearily out of bed with a throbbing headache and in a grouchy mood, and attempted to wake the kids for school. Once I’d done the school run, I would, I vowed, go back to bed. My previous plan had been to go out somewhere for a morning’s birdwatching, but bed seemed far more appealing.

When nature calls

But on the walk back from school, I heard nature calling. The weather was pretty mild for a December morning, and there’s a nature reserve – Askham Bog – just up the road. OK, I probably wouldn’t see anything new there, but it felt the right place to be, so I strode home with purpose, changed into some old trousers, grabbed my binoculars and walking boots, and off I went.

Depression and stress have been stalking me again this year and I’ve had a lot on my mind, so this week – a week off work to be in my local panto at night and find some ‘me time’ by day – is proving a valuable breather. And where better to have a breather than in the fresh air, surrounded by trees and wildlife in a familiar spot?

Askham Bog, on the edge of York, at first seems small, with a boardwalk offering a short circular walk around the woods and bogs. But it’s much larger than it first appears, and part of the joy of going there is to explore the smaller paths off the boardwalk.

It didn’t take me long to get lost in nature. All was quiet when I first ventured over a stile and into a copse, but then there came a familiar cheeping overhead, and a group of long-tailed tits came into view, acrobatically working their way through the branches. A loud alarm call came from somewhere up ahead – a wren, with a voice far bigger than its body.

Ain’t no party like a woodland party

I returned to the boardwalk, the early-morning sky still waking up, and almost immediately encountered one of those wonderful winter flocks of mixed small birds, seemingly having a party in a tall tree. It was like half the wood had been invited to hang out – Redwings flew on ahead, while blue tits, coal tits and great tits joined their long-tailed friends; a treecreeper worked its way up the trunk, and tiny goldcrests flitted from twig to twig, some coming incredibly close. I spotted the silhouette of a larger, lean-looking bird at the top of a nearby tree – it turned out to be a smart male sparrowhawk; a potential party pooper if ever there was one. It took off, perhaps having detected my presence. Maybe I’d saved the day for the revellers. I stood mesmerised, taking it all in. If I saw nothing else, I told myself, it had been worth getting up for this.

Oh deer!

On my next jaunt away from the main path, I found chaffinches and bullfinches, the latter given away by their signature call – something like a squeaking hinge that needs oiling. I was distracted by a bright white shape bouncing up and down in the distance across the bog. I knew instinctively what it was – yes, I was staring at a deer’s bottom. The roe deer in question wasn’t hanging about (I don’t think I would either if someone was staring at my bum through binoculars) and it bounded off.

The best was still to come.

On my next excursion, I lost myself completely (mentally, not literally) in my peaceful surroundings, even pausing for a moment with my eyes closed to take in all the sounds – robins and blackbirds calling, wrens shouting from the undergrowth… Then I found myself composing this blog post in my head, and told myself to shut up and just enjoy being there.

Crossing a boggy field to the boundary fence, I spotted another bouncing white bottom in the distance, and another, as two roe deer retreated into the wood; then another came fully into view. They soon legged it, probably afraid I’d start ogling their backsides.

Flushed with success

I walked up to the boundary fence to peer into the wood, and a medium-sized, brown bird suddenly whooshed up from the brown leaves covering the ground, and it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. I was perplexed for a moment. What could it be? It was too big to be a mistle thrush, too small for a female sparrowhawk, and the wrong shape for an owl. Then it dawned on me – I must have disturbed (or ‘flushed’, to use birding lingo) a woodcock! These elusive birds are known to spend the winter at Askham Bog, but because they’re so hard to see – both because of their skulking behaviour and their effective camouflage – I had never seen one there before.

I made my way home, once again feeling tired, but now feeling happy and content, knowing I had used my time well and listened to my body. For an hour and 20 minutes, I’d transported myself away from the real world. Next stop, bed. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this self-care lark at last.

Here are some photos from my walk.

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