A spellbinding slither into spring

Sometimes nature is so breathtakingly brilliant that all you can do is gawp in wonder and grin like a fool.

That’s what I did on Saturday afternoon, anyway, thanks to a very special and unexpected discovery.

I was at Skipwith Common, a lowland heath near York, having dropped off my nine-year-old son at a party nearby. The common is one of my favourite places to escape, explore and appreciate nature, whatever the time of year, but on this particular April afternoon, the sun was out after another cold, wet week, and under the bright blue sky and warm sunshine, spring’s trademarks were all around.

The promise of some quality time with nature began with the chortling call of a green woodpecker as soon as I opened the car door, followed soon after by the first of many chiffchaffs.

Reflections in water at Skipwith Common

Mellow yellows

I’d hoped I might hear a cuckoo, or perhaps see a tree pipit, but perhaps it was a bit too early in the spring. It was, though, just the right time for my first brimstone of the year. Along with orange tips, they’re my favourite butterflies, and the glorious yellow of the one that came tumbling past me was a perfect match for the patch of daffodils I’d just passed, and the yellow-specked gorse bushes lining the ditches and paths.

Cyclists and dog walkers were out in force, enjoying this welcome burst of sunny weather, but I was craving a bit of peace, so decided to explore one of the smaller paths. It turned out to be a shortcut to a familiar part of the common, the Bomb Bay Loop, part of the former airfield, and a place I’ve explored several times with my family to seek out some snakes, but without success.

Yay, a jay

As I set off round the loop, I heard my first drumming great spotted woodpecker of the year, then something in the distance caught my eye. I nearly dismissed it as a woodpigeon but wait, was that a white rump I could make out? It was indeed, belonging to a very handsome jay, which hung about long enough for me to enjoy its striking pinky plumage with dazzling blue on its wings.

But my wildlife highlight of the year so far was just around the corner.

Lake and trees at Skipwith Common

Sssurprise!

“I’ve still never seen a snake in the wild,” I was thinking to myself. “When I get home, I’ll put a date on the calendar for a family trip to Allerthorpe Common (a local adder hotspot).”

No sooner had that thought ended, than I found myself looking into the reptilian eye of a coiled snake, sunning itself on the edge of a gap in a small brick wall.

Skipwith Common (9)

“No way!” I exclaimed out loud, as I stood transfixed, my eyes close to popping out. I was close enough to crouch down quietly and take a photo on my mobile. What a stunning creature – and it had company. A second snake, less confident about openly sunbathing, skulked behind it, further back in the crevice, and then slipped away.

The bolder snake seemed to sense my presence, so turned away from me, its dark tail end draping briefly over the wall before disappearing into the dark, as if it were a long, black tongue being sucked back into an unseen mouth.

Still amazed and grinning away to myself, and realising that time was swiftly passing, I hastily returned to my car, thinking about my discovery all the way. They hadn’t seemed like large snakes – maybe they were juveniles? And I expected they’d be adders, but I wasn’t completely sure.

Lightning strikes twice

As soon as I picked up my son from the party, I couldn’t resist showing him the photo, and naturally he wanted to go and look for the snakes too – he’s been brought up on Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60 and Deadly Pole to Pole, as well as Naomi’s Nightmares of Nature, after all. His friends gathered round to look at the picture, and before long a small party of snake-hunters was heading back to Skipwith – three boys, me and one of the boys’ mums.

I warned them all repeatedly that the snakes had probably gone, and they might be very disappointed, but incredibly my two new friends were still there. We all had a great view, and went home thoroughly satisfied with our efforts.

I looked at photos of both adders and grass snakes when I got home, and identified my Skipwith beasties as grass snakes, with confirmation from more knowledgeable people on Twitter.

Seeing a snake in the wild was on my wildlife bucket list, and, when I had no expectation of finding one, up popped two, proving once again that nature can be profoundly exciting, moving, wonderful, joyful, and full of surprises.

Gorse and birches at Skipwith Common

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Recurrent depression and anxiety: the rollercoaster ride continues

So, you take your pills, have your therapy, learn some lessons, write a few blog posts, and your mental health problems go away and leave you in peace, right?

Well, maybe they do and maybe they don’t. Perhaps they go away for a while, then pay a return visit at a later date. But it’s also entirely possible that your enemies will become like the horror movie franchise villains who stubbornly refuse to die, and come back for seemingly endless sequels.

The latest dip in my rollercoaster recovery began towards the end of last summer. These late-summer plunges have happened before in the last few years, but to avoid the pattern becoming too predictable, depression and anxiety – being two sides of the same coin, and being partners in crime – like to mix things up and take it in turns to lead. One weighs in first, usually triggered by some kind of prolonged stress or worry, then the other puts the boot in.

Doodle of a rollercoaster

Riding the mental health rollercoaster. See more doodles like this in my blog for the Blurt Foundation: https://www.blurtitout.org/2017/09/14/8-doodles-living-depression/

They seem to lie in wait for a time when I’m winding down and starting to relax, so holidays can be a prime opportunity. That’s when all the pent-up mental poison starts to ooze out and build up, like that nasty pink slime in Ghostbusters 2.

What does it feel like?

My thoughts turn dark and destructive, the despondency and lethargy set in, and other symptoms start to show:

  • irritability and anger – finding people insufferably annoying, especially those who dare exhibit any energy or enthusiasm when I have none
  • illnesses – I’ve had a different illness every month since last October, ranging from a standard cold to lingering laryngitis, suggesting a run-down immune system
  • despair and fear – seeing the worst in everything, and finding it hard to see things getting better
  • paranoia and over-sensitivity – I get wound up by any little comment aimed at me, even if meant in jest, to the point that I get embroiled in a series of long-running imaginary arguments
  • over-thinking, indecision and forgetfulness – the din in my weary brain makes any kind of thinking difficult, and impossible at times
  • mornings are hideous – I haven’t had problems sleeping with my latest episode, but getting myself up and out in the morning still feels like I’m having to physically drag my leaden body to wherever it needs to go.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

I wonder how many times a day we get asked how we are, or we ask how other people are. It’s how we greet each other; part of everyday conversation.

I’m generally a very honest person, but I have lied to people. I have lied a lot. Because many times when I don’t feel fine in the slightest, I don’t want to say so. It’s not that I mind being asked, I just want to pretend I’m fine until the reality catches up, and I don’t want sympathy, or to drag other people down.

The confusing thing about depression and anxiety is that we can also feel perfectly fine for much of the time. Once I’ve got through the first half of the morning and got suitably distracted, I might well have a perfectly decent day, unless something triggers a negative thought. Then I’m at the mercy of spiralling, toxic thoughts and feelings.

I am fine right now, and have been fine for the past few days, and that is good enough for me. If I wasn’t feeling fine, I wouldn’t be writing this and I certainly wouldn’t be sharing it.

So what am I doing about it?

As I always do with these episodes of mental ill-health, I try to face up to my problems and get help in various ways.

I went to see an excellent doctor, and – with some hesitation – decided to team up again with my old pal Citalopram, an antidepressant that I’ve just about managed without since autumn 2013. I always thought I wouldn’t want to go back on the meds, but it was a better option than struggling on without them.

I’ve been on a course, learning tips from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and am on a waiting list for some further CBT to try and crack some persistent and recurring issues.

I’m trying to get out and enjoy nature as much as possible, so am grateful for the weather improving in the past week. The continuous rain and snow was, I think, getting me down more than I realised.

And I’ve finally found another kind of exercise that I’m enthusiastic about and committed to, having drifted terminally from running. I’ve joined a martial arts class after seeing how much my son loved it. The intense workouts leave me thinking I am either going to vomit or keel over, but it’s a good way to release tension and focus on something positive.

Perhaps my biggest lesson in these last few years has been that life does not have to be about doing, exceeding or producing stuff. There is great value in doing very little, or passing time in a not-obviously-productive kind of way – things like jigsaws, favourite TV programmes, games… and trying to rediscover hobbies like drawing birds.

I’ve also made a conscious decision not to set myself unnecessary challenges this year. Why add to the pressures of daily life?

To end on a positive note…

There is one consistently positive thing that recurrent depression and anxiety do for me. Each time they gang up on me, and I go through this gruelling experience, it makes me rethink and evaluate my life. What can I do differently? What’s harming me? What’s good for me? What have I tried that worked but I’ve forgotten or neglected? What haven’t I tried yet? Is there something I should give up? Something I want to find time for?

So I keep learning and arming myself against these attacks. I’m lucky in many ways – my depression and anxiety are fairly mild compared to what many people endure, and I have the support of great family and friends.

I’m sharing this not to alarm anyone, not to attract attention, or to elicit sympathy or pity, or to be considered brave, but just to be honest about my experiences in a society that still stigmatises people with mental health problems.

Ball with smiling face


How does nature benefit mental health?

I was on BBC Breakfast recently talking about how getting outdoors and enjoying nature helps me with my mental health. But how exactly does it help?

I’m going to start with two quick disclaimers:

  • I’m not a scientist, so I won’t try to give you any scientific evidence of how nature benefits mental health. This is all about my personal experience. But that evidence does exist, as Dr Andrea Mechelli explained alongside me on the BBC sofa (see pictures below). Find out more about the study from King’s College London.
  • Nature alone does not cure depression, anxiety or any other mental health problem. It’s one part of a toolkit of coping strategies that can help us to manage our well-being.

My own personal mental health battles are with depression and anxiety, and I find that nature does help me in a number of ways.

Doing something I enjoy

When we’re worn down by stress, anxiety and depression, it’s easy to forget the things we used to enjoy doing – or how to enjoy doing anything for that matter.

A few years ago, when I was frazzled and going through an episode of depression, my counsellor encouraged me to find time to do something I enjoyed. I’d always enjoyed birdwatching and walking, and tried to get out more and rediscover the pleasure of my abandoned hobbies.

Magpie in tree top.

A magpie perches proudly in a tree at St Nick’s nature reserve in York.

A positive focus and distraction

Absorbing ourselves in nature can turn a walk – or even just a nice sit down in a park or garden – into a mindful experience that focuses us on the present and takes us away from the churning thoughts that tumble round our heads and the anxiety that chews at our tummies.

Hear the breeze rustling the leaves in the treetops; listen to the birds singing; watch butterflies and bees flitting among your garden flowers… I find that even a few moments being completely distracted by wildlife usually has a calming effect on me and lifts my mood.

As well as the wildlife, experiencing different places – or just retreating to a favourite wild place – can be very therapeutic. I find being in woodland or by water especially soothing.

Being outdoors has other health benefits too – fresh air, sunlight and exercise are good for our physical health as well as our mental well-being.

Filey Brigg

Discovery, excitement and adventure

One thing I love about nature is that there is always something new to discover – new species to see, new places to visit, new behaviour to observe. I’ll never forget the wonder of watching badgers in a woodland clearing after years of waiting for even a passing glance of one. If I’m planning a birding trip, there’s that sense of anticipation and excitement at what I might see, and the thrill of seeing a rare bird for the first time.

But a new experience doesn’t have to mean a new species – it can mean finding something unexpected in a familiar place. While off work with depression, I took a short walk from home, and found yellow wagtails – glorious, sunny yellow birds – bobbing about in a field where I’d never seen them before.

Grey heron at Staveley nature reserve.

A grey heron at Staveley nature reserve.

Nature is everywhere

It’s an unfortunate truth of depression that the things that are best for us are often the hardest things to do. Even for someone like me, who loves being outdoors, the draining, soul-destroying experience of depression can completely kill off all energy or enthusiasm, making the prospect of going out for a walk feel like the last thing I want to do.

At those times, if we just can’t face going out, we can still enjoy nature without venturing out. If you can see the sky or a tree, lawn or plant from where you’re sitting, you can still look out for wildlife. It’s amazing how many different species you can see in a fairly short space of time.

I feed the birds in my garden and can lose myself watching them – the goldfinches jostling for position on a feeder, the blackbirds fending off rivals, the wren that always follows exactly the same route into our garden and disappears for a moment in a bush…

A red admiral is lit by the sun as it feeds on a buddleia.

A red admiral is lit by the sun as it feeds on a buddleia.

Accept that it’s not going to work every time

Sometimes nature will help you feel better, even if only for a short time. Other times, it will not – but that doesn’t mean we should give up.

There are occasions where my mood has been too dark – my thoughts too destructive and intrusive – for me to be able to get lost in the sights and sounds around me. There have been other times where I’ve felt crushing disappointment because I’ve ‘failed’ to see what I went out to look for (I’m trying to learn to manage my own expectations), or I’ve felt defeated and demoralised by the weather spoiling a day out.

One such day that stands out in my mind is when I took a day off work to go to Flamborough Head, one of my favourite places on the Yorkshire coast, on a mission to see some particular birds. I can’t remember what birds they were, but I can remember that I didn’t see them, and that I couldn’t even enjoy the beautiful scenery because of thick fog. I genuinely considered giving up on birdwatching that day – not only had I not seen what I’d wanted to see, the weather was manky, there was barely a bird of any kind to be found all day, and I was sick of dragging my telescope and rucksack around.

The bird that saved the day was an unlikely one. At the point of my greatest frustration, the movement of a small bird in the hedge up ahead caught my eye. I followed it, hoping it would reveal its identity, and it did. It was a male chaffinch – a very common bird, but a colourful one – and for some reason that splash of colour and the chaffinch’s perky character were enough to bring me back out of my brain fog. The actual fog lifted soon after that too, and I remember sitting on a bench, and discovering that a cup of tea tastes even better by the sea.

Flamborough Head

Flamborough Head – worth seeing in the sunshine

 

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The wacky bird race 2

My second York Bird Race would see our team – Never Mind The Woodcocks – reuniting for a blockbuster sequel bursting with birds, and with an unlikely ending. Here are some of my highlights.

Up with the partridge – ahaaaaaa!

Having hatched our plans in the pub the night before, we were (almost) raring to go at 6.45am on race day. Our first stop, as last year, was to catch up with Jono’s faithful grey partridges calling in fields by the cycle track, but a distant teal pipped them to the post as our first bird of the day. As we were starting to think the partridges had abandoned us there in the cold and darkness, two of them croaked out – job done, and off down the A64 to Castle Howard.

Morning glory

Castle Howard Lake brought me my first-ever scaup on my last bird race, and there was to be another first this time. Having found most of the birds we were expecting as dawn broke – except for the usually dependable marsh tit – we started walking back to the car, when Jono recognised a surprising call coming from the rushes on the lake shore.

It was a Cetti’s warbler, a bird that’s been spreading north, but still not one we’d ever expected to find at this location. Although speed is of the essence in a bird race, and although hearing a bird counts as well as seeing one, once Jono knew I’d never seen one, we had to go looking for the elusive warbler – and as we got nearer, a small bird flew from left to right. We saw where it landed, and managed to clap eyes on our suspect just before it disappeared. A brilliant bird – not just for our bird race list but for life list.

Dawn at Castle Howard Lake

Dawn breaks at Castle Howard Lake.

Haw blimey!

Until last November, I had never seen a hawfinch. In fact, these chunky orange finches were one of my top two bogey birds. My first came at this same place – the Yorkshire Arboretum at Castle Howard, which has been a hotbed of hawfinch action since last autumn’s invasion by this normally scare species.

This time, one small patch in front of the visitors’ centre was heaving with hawfinches. Jono counted about 70 of them, mingling with greenfinches, chaffinches and redwings. It seemed ludicrously easy when it had taken me almost all my birding life to see even one. We struck lucky with a great spotted woodpecker, jay, goldcrest and mistle thrush before we left the Castle Howard area and set off back to York.

Mud angel

Heslington East, a wetland on the newer part of the York University campus, was our next stop. Just before finding a great crested grebe – a bird we just could not find last year – I made another notable contribution, but it was a moment of unintentional comedy rather than any birding wizardry.

Catching my foot on something, I plunged face first into a bog, leaving a squelchy imprint in the ground, like a mud angel, and coating my coat, legs, binoculars and telescope in a generous helping of oozy mud. My foolishly-chosen light-coloured trousers would give away my mucky escapades to everyone we met for the rest of the day.

Bramblings bonus

A quick visit to Askham Bog, my local nature reserve, brought us our overdue marsh tit, but no joy from Jono’s ‘magic woodcock bush’.

Askham Bog

Askham Bog, where we caught up with marsh tit, sparrowhawk and bullfinch.

Moving on, we failed for the second year in a row to spot any white-winged gulls (the rarer Iceland and glaucous gulls) among the flocks at Rufforth, but added some very welcome green sandpipers to our list.

Next we called in to see my friend Adam, who’d had bramblings and a blackcap in his garden in the days before the race. The blackcap must have heard we were coming, and had gone into hiding, but the bramblings turned up on cue – a valuable bird for us, as it proved hard to find in the area on this year’s race. Adam was perhaps our lucky mascot for the day – we’d bump into him in several other places as we went on to tour the Lower Derwent Valley.

Birds flooding in?

When it comes to birding around York, the Lower Derwent Valley is probably the jewel in our ornithological crown. Although I’d been to Bank Island, Wheldrake Ings, North Duffield and other sites in the valley many times, the bird race was the first time I’d really seen how all these places fit together in one big birding paradise. The view was somewhat different on this occasion, with flooding blurring the boundaries between the different sites.

As the afternoon drew on, the bird list seemed to be growing at such a slow pace that we suspected we’d struggle to get near our previous total of 95. Every site brought at least one new bird, but a lot of the species we’d encountered last year simply weren’t around – waxwings, bean goose, pink footed goose… And to rub it in, the rarity that had been seen frequently right up to race day – an American wigeon – had performed a classic vanishing act.

Having moved on to Aughton and Ellerton, I had a text from Adam saying he’d seen two marsh harriers just after we’d seen him at The Refuge. Had the jinx befallen us?

Ellerton Church

Heading past Ellerton Church to look over the flooded Derwent Valley.

Team photo at Ellerton

Emanuela points out whooper swans while Rich and Jono scour the water for new species at Ellerton.

Spot the marsh harrier

“It looks like a good day for raptors,” Rich had said earlier in the day. Slowly, the birds of prey began to prove him right. We’d been spoilt for kestrels, glimpsed a soaring sparrowhawk at Askham Bog, and marvelled at a close encounter with red kites near Melbourne (at the site pictured below), but the marsh harriers didn’t show up until we arrived at North Duffield.

Snipe bog

We’d planned to make North Duffield our last stop, but there wasn’t much about. At least, not at first glance, but our fortunes seemed to change with one great bird – a stunning marsh harrier that slowly drifted closer and closer to the hide, until we could admire it in all its majesty without even having to lift our binoculars.

It was nearly close enough to get a photo with my mobile. See if you can spot the marsh harrier in these pitiful photos…

Marsh harrier 3

Marsh harrier 2

Marsh harrier 1

Owls about that then?

Inspired by our harrier, knowing we hadn’t managed a single owl yet, and with the promise of gulls coming into roost at Bank Island and Wheldrake Ings, we felt there were more birds to come. And we were right – we found a barn owl and little owl at Thorganby, had a peregrine fly over our heads atop the tower at Bank Island, and spotted a distant flock of golden plovers.

Sun setting at Thorganby

As the sun starts to go down, we add little owl and barn owl to our list at Thorganby.

Last year’s total got nearer and nearer. As the sun sank out of sight, we decided to try one last throw of the dice, and dashed in the dark to Wheldrake Ings.

We parked on the lane and walked as far as we could before meeting the floodwater. There was a patch of dry land by the bridge at the other side, and Rich boldly strode out into the water in the hope of reaching it.

He disturbed a woodcock – another bird for the list – and then, reaching the bridge, shouted out that he could hear a tawny owl. With none of the rest of us able to hear it from our side of the water, we had to try striding out into this giant puddle and hope for the best.

Paddling in complete darkness isn’t something I’ve ever done before, and the water level rose perilously close to the top of my wellies, but it was worth it for the unmistakable wavering hoot of the tawny at the other side. We were at 94 – only one less than last year – and then came the cry of a curlew, and we had matched our previous total!

Last-minute drama

Meeting some of the other teams in the pub at Wheldrake afterwards, we found to our surprise that we’d recorded the highest total of the day.

That should have been that, but a recount gave us only 94 – still the winning score but by the most slender of margins.

But that still isn’t the end. Emanuela, our list-keeper, realised she’d forgotten to count our little egret at Heslington East and the mandarins on Castle Howard Lake, giving us a grand final total of 96 – better than last year. Not only was it the winning score in the York race, it was the highest score in Yorkshire, on a day when teams across the region take part in their own area’s bird races.

And so another day packed with unforgettable experiences, brilliant birds and great company came to a remarkable close. I’m still scraping mud out of my binocular lenses.

See Jono’s blog for our full list of species and sites, and some photos of the team in action.

Sunset at Bank Island

Our last glimpse of the sun at Bank Island.

 

 


Quest for a Firecrest – and ten other bogey bird

Two years ago, I set myself a challenge: to find a list of ‘bogey birds’ – the species that had most eluded and frustrated me over years of birding.

I saw some that year, and have caught up with others since. Some remain stubbornly evasive. And new bogey birds have joined their ranks. Here’s how the quest is going.

Firecrest – a never-ending quest

Firecrests are tiny, but a big problem for me. Why? Because they are a dazzling little bird that I’ve always wanted to see, but they aren’t having any of it. I’ve put more effort into finding these little scamps than any other bird without so much as a fleeting hint of a sighting. But October is probably the best month to find one in my part of the world… This year, maybe?

Bogey status: number one bogey species

Firecrest illustration

A Firecrest, illustrated in my first bird book by Hilary Burn (The RSPB Book of British Birds, 1982).

Hawfinch – a merry dance

Two days in Robin Hood country have seen me fail to hit my target – Hawfinches are famously elusive, and the birds that lurk in Sherwood Forest like Hood’s Merry Men led me a merry dance.

Bogey status: enhanced

Great Grey Shrike – shriking it lucky, twice

In the time since I started my quest, I’ve seen two Great Grey Shrikes – one was a distant glimpse at Heslington Tilmire and the second was at the seventh attempt early this spring. A long-staying bird at Acaster Airfield appeared to be mocking me from the undergrowth until I took my lucky mascots (my two children) with me, and it obligingly popped up for a quick but clear view. I’m also on a lucky streak with Red-backed Shrikes – one at Spurn in 2015, one at Filey this August, and another at Bempton in September.

Bogey status: tick!

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – wood you believe it?

The most surprising and exhilarating encounter with one of my bogey birds was the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker that appeared unexpectedly in front of me at Strensall Common two years ago – the sort of magical birding moment that makes it all worthwhile.

Bogey status: tick!

Grasshopper Warbler – a prolonged skulk

Another notoriously tricksy bird. I still haven’t found a Grasshopper Warbler, although for a moment this spring I thought I had. On a walk at Staveley Nature Reserve, a Sedge Warbler did a cunning impression of a ‘Gropper’ and got me all excited, only to fly off chuckling to itself, revealing its true colours.

Bogey status: enhanced

Black-necked Grebe – you beauty!

I was spoilt by the easy and close-up views of several summer-plumaged Black-necked Grebes at RSPB St Aidan’s in 2015, and these gorgeous birds became an instant favourite. This January, I saw the winter-plumaged version in Scarborough Harbour, alongside my first-ever Great Northern Diver.

Bogey status: tick!

Stints – increasingly annoying

Temminck’s Stint and Little Stint are two tiny wading birds that visit the UK in spring and autumn. I would be happy to see either, but the Little Stint has overtaken its relative on my bogey list and is really starting to get on my nerves after repeated failed attempts to find one. The latest came in September, when one had been frequently reported at Thornwick Pool, Flamborough. I visited the site twice in one day and scoured every inch of it for the Little Stint, but to no avail.

Bogey status: enhanced

Goshawk and Honey Buzzard – one down!

I hedged my bets here and would have settled for either of these splendid raptors. Mixed fortunes – on a summer trip to Wykeham Forest, North Yorkshire, where both species can be found, I got a quick view of an imposing Goshawk disappearing over the tree tops moments before discovering I’d just missed a Honey Buzzard.

Bogey status: one ticked, one enhanced

Black Tern – double whammy!

The best bogey bird result since my mission has been the Black Tern. Last year, I finally saw one while out on an RSPB seabird cruise, albeit a glance of a winter-plumaged bird. This ghost was well and truly laid to rest at St Aidan’s this year, when a glorious summer-plumaged bird kindly flew around just above my head for the kind of view I’d always hoped for.

Bogey status: tick!

Twite – understated and under-spotted

Not the most spectacular of birds, but my inability to find one has made them a desirable target on my bogey bird list. Maybe this winter…

Bogey status: no change

Jack Snipe – snipe dreams

The Jack Snipe was a late addition to my bogey bird list, but two sightings in quick succession have broken the curse. The first was a decent appearance at Filey Dams last autumn; the second bursting from the undergrowth during my first bird race this January.

Bogey status: tick!

The new breed of bogey birds

The more I go birding, the more near misses and tales of avian woe I manage to rack up. These next few species are the ones that got away in the most frustrating fashion:

Pine Bunting

This long-staying rarity delighted and infuriated birders in equal measure last winter, hanging about with Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings on the edge of Dunnington, York. I was one of the infuriated ones…

Glaucous Gull

Gull watching is not my area of expertise, and when confronted with a large flock on a cold winter’s day, it’s like an extreme version of ‘Where’s Wally?’ trying to pick out one of the rarer species. The Glaucous Gull, a large, pale-winged winter visitor, is the one vexing me the most.

Surf Scoter

My failure to see Filey’s long-staying Surf Scoter – a rare sea duck – last year was clear evidence of my birding jinx. The bird hung about for ages, sometimes giving very generous views, but disappeared when I turned up to see it, only to reappear the moment I got home that evening.

Barred Warbler

Like Twites, I wouldn’t be that fussed about seeing a Barred Warbler if it hadn’t proved so hard to see. Barred Warblers are unexciting to look at, but uncommon enough to cause excitement when you find one. I’ve had two near misses – turning up at Spurn Migration Festival two years ago five minutes after a Barred Warbler had been seen close to the road, and being an hour late for a sighting at Flamborough last month.

The quest continues

I have an autumn birding mission to the coast coming up soon. Will any of my bogey birds lose their status? Will new bogey birds be born? Will something totally unexpected show up? That’s the joy and the misery of birding; the hope and the glory; the woe and the anguish. One thing’s for sure – October is a great month to go birding. You just need to be in the right place at the right time.


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


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.