Why birdwatching is like a box of chocolates

Forrest Gump’s momma told him that life was like a box of chocolates, apparently because you don’t know what you’re gonna get. I don’t know if Momma Gump ever went birdwatching, but if she did, she’d have found that the same philosophy applies.

You can go to a famous nature reserve that, according to legend, is practically dripping with rare birds, yet come away having seen little more than a couple of ducks. Equally, you can be driving down a suburban street on an unpromising winter’s day when you suddenly spot three trees full of exotic-looking waxwings opposite a row of shops, which is what happened to me a couple of years ago.

Momma Gump’s words of wisdom have come to mind a couple of times this summer as I’ve been out looking for birds.

Back in May or June, some birding friends reported they’d had a cracking view of two turtle doves (but no partridge in a pear tree, nor, alas, five gold rings) at the side of a country lane not far from where we live. The turtle dove is a beautiful bird, synonymous with summer in the British countryside but sadly in steep decline. I’d never seen one, and the news of their appearance so close to home seemed too good to be true.

Hastily gathering up our two young children one weekend, my wife and I drove out to this rural hotspot and set off down the lane. Whether it was bad timing or the foghorn-like voice of my four-year-old son that was to blame, we arrived just in time to see the back of the doves as they flew away into the distance. We spent a good hour stalking them, but apart from briefly hearing their distinctive purring call from their top-secret hideout, we never got any closer. However, there was a surprise around the corner.

I was staring into the bushes over the other side of the road, trying to identify a small bird that turned out to be a cheeky willow warbler. My daughter, who’d come out armed with her own mini pair of binoculars, started to nag me to come and look at a bird she’d seen. Expecting it to be a blackbird or some other familiar feathered friend I’d seen countless times, I told her to wait.

Eventually plodding back over the road, I asked her to point to where she’d seen the bird. I looked through my own binoculars and found myself face to face with a garden warbler. Now, as the RSPB’s bird guide will tell you, the garden warbler is not a very exciting bird – ‘a very plain warbler with no distinguishing features’ – but to me this was very exciting indeed, because I’d never seen one before and it was something of a ‘bogey species’, which had evaded me all my birdwatching life. Cue Momma Gump.

Today, I took an afternoon off to do some more birding, and decided to visit Skipwith Common, an expanse of lowland heath ten miles from York. I’d only ever been there on grey, wet or chilly days, so today was the first time I’d experienced it in its full summer glory. The heath was painted with purple heather, with the hot sun beaming down on it, and the muddy paths I’d trudged along on previous visits were sandy and inviting.

Skipwith Common (see my photo, below) is one of those places that’s lovely to explore, but hides its many birds very well. They’re mostly pretty tricky to spot, and even harder to watch for more than a second. That didn’t put me off, though, because just being in such a beautiful place on such a glorious August afternoon made me smile contentedly to myself.

My Gump-esque surprise didn’t come until I was well on my way back to my car. I hadn’t seen any birds at all for a few minutes, but all of a sudden the trees were twitching with small birds, flitting among the leaves.

I worked out there were a few different species involved in this woodland gathering, and managed to get glimpses of a young great tit, its parents, and a willow warbler, but there was another, perhaps slightly bigger, bird that had flown up onto a perch, obligingly giving me a decent view. It was slim, streaky and was flying down from its perch to catch flies, then returning to the same spot.

It was a spotted flycatcher, kindly demonstrating textbook behaviour to help me identify it. It was the first time I’d seen this bird for years and it was a welcome sight, reminding me of tree-climbing days of old in my granny’s garden in Worcester, where I recall seeing another unexpected spotted flycatcher on the wall.

So, birdwatching is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get – or where you’re gonna get it.



8 Comments on “Why birdwatching is like a box of chocolates”

  1. I’m gonna have to share this blog to my hubbie, a keen bird watcher and a fellow Yorkshireman, this will make his day! I will never forget on a distant pre-children holiday whilst walking, we ‘stumbled’ into a huge bunch of twitters with very expensive cameras who had travelled for all ends of the country and were busy taking photos of a rather dowdy looking bird sitting on a fence. Apparently it was a Lark Sparrow, who had somehow got lost and ended up in the UK. I looked him up when reading your blog and the sighting was recorded on Wikipedia as one of only two times! My hubbie was enthralled. So, being the main member of the support commitee for my hubbie’s passion in our feathered friends, I can so identify with this blog. Many a time we go walking and have to stop and be completely silent (not easy with children and a mad dog), whilst he gets his binocs out and listens intently. All I ever see are black blobs (if I’m lucky!)

    Here’s hoping you have many more happy encounters with unusual and beautiful birds and sample the best chocolates in life, but guess it’s the chance of encountering those soft orange centres (Yeugh!), which we all know are also there, which make finding your favourites much more special.

    • paulbrook76 says:

      Hi Chrissie!
      I encountered my other favourite bird for the first time in ages last weekend – a lovely redstart (several of them actually!) at Malham Cove. There’s something very uplifting about seeing them.
      Love the chocolate analogy 🙂
      Take care
      P.S. Thanks as always for reading my blog – it’s fitting that your comment was the 500th one in Dippyman’s year-long life (although I guess nearly half of those are actually replies to other people’s comments!)

      • Ah, it’s always a pleasure to read your blog, very uplifting. I showed this one to my hubbie as he’s a Yorkshireman too who loves our feathered friends. He’s well jealous that you saw the backside of Turtle Doves and trees full of Waxwings! Think we might be visting skipworth when we go to see his folks!

        Love that you get so many comments (500! Wow, but well deserved!) It’s fantastic that nearly half of them are replies to other people’s comments. It just shows that so many people can identify with what you’re writing and they are able to be honest themselves and build up support networks as a result with each other. The remnants of Brookes must be shivering and wimpering in the corner!

        As anyone whose experienced (or works with people who experience depression) knows, the real power of it is in the terribly cruel lie it spins that it’s something to be ashamed of and keep secret.. once someone is honest about their feelings and can demonstrate as you do that they are actually still a human being and not defined by the label, it allows the light of truth to shine in and it makes dealing with it so much easier. It may leave it’s residue, it may always be somewhere lurking in the shadows, but it’s power is much reduced. I think it’s also something which affects creative people… there’s something about it being a mixed blessing (blurse??)

        Keep up your fight my good man, keep writing and testing those chocies!


      • paulbrook76 says:

        Thanks Chrissie. The virtual chocs are tasting good right now 🙂

  2. Hi Paul, we’ve added the Spotted flycatcher to the list of species seen at Skipwith Common NNR – if you can add anything else, just email sitings with date to info@friendsofskipwithcommon.org.uk

  3. […] positive to do. I find it relaxing but also exciting, because the wonder of birding is that you never know what you will see next. That sense of anticipation – something to look forward to and get excited about – is a feeling […]

  4. […] 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. […]

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