Painted Ladies are pretty snazzy butterflies – and this summer I’ve been seeing them everywhere.
I’m not the only one. Summer 2019 has been hailed a Painted Lady Summer – a once-in-a-decade influx of these orange-and-black stunners – meaning most of us will have seen one at some point.
It seems incredible that these dainty-looking beauties should migrate here from southern Europe or even Africa, but that’s exactly what millions of them have done. That’s an awful lot of wing-wafting. This mass influx even made the news headlines.
I was lucky enough to be on holiday close to the sea front in lovely Filey at the end of July, and the flowers in the garden were a magnet for Painted Ladies. The odd one looked travel weary, but most were in pristine condition.
We saw them in ridiculous numbers along the coast all week, making them a holiday wildlife highlight.
Butterflies can be frustrating and reluctant subjects for photos, but I did manage to get a few pics on my mobile – and here they are.
I haven’t written about mental health for a while. I haven’t wanted to. But it’s no good me urging other people to talk about it if I can’t do it myself – especially when we’re up against too many people who haven’t a clue what they’re talking about but are happy to spout damaging rubbish about mental health in loud voices.
In the last week, I’ve seen a certain hate-for-hire far-right foghorn belittling somebody’s mental illness on Twitter, with their pack of bully-worshipping followers joining in.
I’ve seen a prominent and powerful politician writing that the cure for depression is to do some hard work.
I’ve seen a particular TV presenter opining that we all just need more resilience.
For all the great strides forward we have made on mental health awareness in the last few years, this kind of ignorance – often wilful, sometimes maybe not – persists.
Those of us who know what it’s really like to live with mental health problems can easily become drowned out by the loud but convincing bellowing of shouty oafs who have neither the experience nor the empathy to credibly represent the reality of what we face or what we need.
Alongside that, when we take the step of seeking help for our conditions, where is the practical support? If we need therapy now, what do we suppose the impact might be of having to wait nine to twelve months for it? Even for children?
Would we wait a year to get our cars fixed?
Would we wait a year to get a broken window fixed?
Would we wait a year to get a broken leg fixed?
No, of course not. But when our brains go wrong, is it OK to expect us to hold tight and wait a year?
No, it isn’t. It’s unacceptable. It’s wrong. And it’s not our choice to wait, unless we have the means to pay for private treatment.
My brain right now
My brain is quite a good one on the whole, I like to think. But it often goes rogue and malfunctions. I need to do various things to calm it down and rein it in.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been back on Citalopram for a bit of balance, but my old sidekick isn’t proving as successful as it used to be. It was never enough on its own, but it used to work as part of my set of coping strategies. Recently it doesn’t seem to have provided an adequate stabiliser for my runaway mind.
And it makes me put on weight. I gain at least a stone when I’m on Citalopram, and no matter how much exercise I cram into my week, I still weigh the same and my tummy still sticks out more than I want it to. It gets me down, I feel worse, it affects my confidence and that contributes to my depression. While weight gain isn’t recognised as a direct effect of Citalopram, the drug is known to increase our appetite.
So I am switching from Citalopram to a different antidepressant – Amitriptyline. A new sidekick.
Now you can’t go swapping pills just like that. No, these medicines are powerful, and I know from experience that you have to come off them gradually and carefully. If you don’t, it’s like being injected with a concentrated dose of depression and you want to smash everything. At least, that’s how it was for me last time.
I am currently near the end of week three of a plan worked out with my GP, during which I am slowly moving from 30mg of Citalopram over onto Amitriptyline. Week one involved alternating between 20mg and 30mg. Week two was 20mg a day. This week is 20mg one day and 10mg the next.
Today is a 10mg day. I can feel the difference. I am sharper and more alert, which is good, but I also feel anger and irritation more intensely.
Perhaps that’s why I am writing this – because I’m more keenly aware that people who need some support with their mental health are being hung out to dry.
Statistically, we all know someone who is having a hard time with a mental health problem. It’s an everyday thing.
Let’s just be decent and respectful about mental health.
Let’s all look after each other and show each other – and ourselves – some compassion instead of judgement.
And if we won’t show kindness to other people simply because that’s the right thing to do, let’s remember this could happen to any of us. Me. You. Anybody.
Because if you were struggling and felt you couldn’t cope, I’m sure you’d welcome a little help and hope.
It’s 10.25pm. It’s dusk and the light is fading. Four hopeful faces gaze out of the cottage window for the seventh night in a row – the last night of their holiday, with the rain pouring down as it has with barely a pause for two days. And suddenly, wonderfully, there it is. An elusive pine marten emerges from the forest, trots along the wall, turns briefly in our direction, then ambles along the rest of the wall and disappears from view. One of countless ‘wow’ moments of a week of wild marvels in the West Highlands, but probably the biggest wow of them all.
I’ve often written on this blog about how enjoying wildlife can benefit our well-being, but after a week in the Highlands I think I would add that marvelling at wild and spectacular places is good for us too.
In this post, here are some photographic highlights of our week among the mountains and lochs of this breathtakingly beautiful part of the world.
While stopping off to admire the view at Loch Sunart, near Strontian, this butterfly seemed quite willing to pose for photos. I recognised it as a kind of fritillary, purely from seeing them in books. This one turned out to be – we think – a Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary.
On the Black Rock on Loch Linnhe, near Fort William, Atlantic Grey Seals mingle with Common Seals. Here’s a photo of a grey (left) and common together. Their facial expressions suggest they’re doing a classic ‘staring into the middle-distance’ modelling pose.
As we finished a short stroll by Loch Leven in Ballachulish one damp evening, Swallows, Sand Martins and House Martins whooshed around us, feasting on the many midges that had come out, quite probably hoping to feast on us! In this photo, my son Daniel is trying to snap a photo of the birds as they whiz past.
“There’s a Red Deer!” came the call from the top of a high sand dune at the back of Camusdarach Beach. I quickly realised that sprinting up a tower of soft sand is beyond my physical capabilities at the moment, but I made it up eventually, with much puffing and panting, and joined a small group of fellow beach-visitors to watch the deer feeding alongside a footpath on the other side of the dune.
At Inchree, Red Squirrels are not hard to see, but taking a photo of one in a shady patch of forest in a torrential downpour is something else altogether. This is the best I could manage.
The birdlife is brilliant in the West Highlands. I didn’t manage to find a White-tailed Eagle while we were there, but we did well for Golden Eagles, which were a joy to see. Other birding highlights including a pair of Black Guillemots flying by as we waiting to board a cruise on Loch Linnhe, a Raven in Glen Nevis, a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers on our travels, Common Gulls in their summer plumage (a rare sight back home – the one pictured above had some strange facial markings) and Hooded Crows, the Highland equivalent of Carrion Crows. We also enjoyed watching a Rock Pipit feeding by the pier in Fort William – see below.
Lochs, mountains, waterfalls and beaches
Wherever you look in the West Highlands, the scenery is jaw-dropping. We stayed in Ballachulish, near Glencoe, just to the south of Fort William. The whole area is stunning. Here are just some of the scenic highlights.
Aonach Mor and Ben Nevis
These were our views from halfway up Aonach Mor, Scotland’s eighth-highest mountain, where we took the cable car. In the first photo, you can see the snowy north face of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, peeking out on the right. You can also see how changeable the weather was…
I took this assortment of pictures in and around Ballachulish, mainly on the shores of Loch Leven, a sea loch that joins Loch Linnhe on the other side of the bridge. You can also see some of the mountains of Glencoe, along with the forest on the Brecklet path, and the River Laroch, which flows through the village and down to Loch Leven.
Castle Tioram is a ruined castle on a tidal island in Loch Moidart, and at the mouth of the River Shiel. It’s one of those absurdly beautiful places that demands photos from every angle.
The Silver Sands of Morar and Camusdarach Beach
See these beaches? Yep, they’re in Scotland. Gorgeous, eh? It does help when the sun comes out.
Steall Falls and the Nevis Gorge
This was the first of two walks that felt like an adventure. Beginning at the end of a long road, with a warning of possible death due to steep drops, a footpath takes you through woodland, alongside a dramatic gorge, along the river side and into a meadow, with Steall Falls ahead of you. It was here that we enjoyed our best views of Golden Eagles, as two circled the peaks, and where we encountered a lone Raven.
The Lost Valley, Glencoe
Between the Three Sisters of Glencoe, you can climb up a steep valley, to discover what’s known as the Lost Valley – hidden from the rest of Glencoe by a fall of huge rocks. The history and geography of this glen are fascinating. You can find out more about them from people with a lot more expertise than me. What I can tell you is that it’s a pretty dramatic walk, which involves clambering over boulders, encountering waterfall after waterfall – especially in the sort of inclement weather we went out in. Slippery rocks and steep drops introduce an element of peril that tested my nerves but gave us probably our most memorable family outing of the week.
From Fort William, we enjoyed a cruise on Loch Linnhe, one of the largest sea lochs on Scotland’s west coast. The weather was good for our trip, and we had great views of Ben Nevis from out on the water.
I’ve really enjoyed putting together this blog post, because it’s helped me to re-live a week of epic wowing. Once you’ve seen a place this mesmerising, you can’t help but dream of going back.
I was lucky enough to enjoy a rare day off with my wife, Jane, this week, and to get us away from the hectic pace of daily life, we took ourselves off to a lush corner of the Yorkshire Dales, at Bolton Abbey.
It was one of those wonderful days when spring is in full throttle – the smell of wild garlic, bluebells decorating the woodland floor, and birds busily feeding and singing.
We spent most of our time in the woods around the Strid (pictured below) – a narrow passage of the River Wharfe that looks like a gushing stream, but hides depths that could swallow two double-decker buses with room to spare.
Some of the birds that live here are ridiculously easy to see, as you’ll see from the photos I managed to get. But one is not so easy. I have only seen a Wood Warbler once before, in this very place, but that was when I was ten or even younger, and I can barely remember it.
Before heading out on our trip, Jane and I both learned the Wood Warbler’s call so we could listen out for it. These smart birds – green on the back, lemon yellow on the breast and pure white below – arrive here in the spring to breed.
Jane heard the call first. We were standing by the river, enjoying close-up views of Nuthatches and Coal Tits that were coming down to feed on a log, and the warbler’s trilling song came drifting over the river. We spent about 40 minutes trying in vain to spot it, but gave up, knowing we would be walking along the opposite bank later in the day.
As luck would have it, when we did reach that spot, it was waymarked by a photographer and a local birder, who’d both seen our bird, and even got some photos of it. The four of us stood listening and staring into the greenery, hoping to see something moving in the trees as the call moved around.
Some time later, some leaves shook in the same direction as the call, and there it was – a stunning Wood Warbler, briefly out in the open. I followed it in my binoculars for as long as I could before it flitted off again. It was a lovely moment, and the second time this year I’ve finally caught up with a bird I hadn’t seen since childhood – the other being a Bearded Tit that was pretty much showing off by the main lake at St Aidan’s RSPB reserve earlier in the year.
Pied Flycatchers are one of my favourite birds, and seeing them in their breeding plumage is a real treat. We were spoiled by them at Bolton Abbey. The first one appeared, in the same pose as the one I drew a few weeks ago, by the side of the path as we headed downhill from the car park. Easy!
But we enjoyed even better views further along from our Wood Warbler spot, especially thanks to one pair that were out in the open, going to and from their nestbox.
Mandarins are exotic little ducks. They can be hard to see in many places, but not here. Three drakes were very active on the river, but one male and female couldn’t be bothered with all that. They sat underneath the bird feeders by the Strid Café and had a nap instead.
It was the first time this year that I’d seen Grey Wagtails, but I lost count of how many we saw feeding on the Wharfe. One behaviour I hadn’t seen before was these birds leaving the ground to sit briefly on a branch. I’m much more used to seeing them bobbing around on a river bank and then flying a few yards to do more of the same – perhaps dashing out over the water to nab a fly before coming back again.
Another specialist of upland streams and rivers, we fleetingly saw two Dippers zipping low over the river, before eventually catching up with a pair feeding under a stone bridge. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching Dippers, and I like to think they get on really well with Grey Wagtails, as they have so much in common.
Another of my favourite birds; partly for its striking looks and partly because of its cool party trick – it can climb down trees upside down. The Nuthatches at Bolton Abbey are quite showy and obliging. We spent a while trying to get photos of them, and these were my best efforts.
I’m not an expert on flowers, but like most people, I do appreciate Bluebells, and the Strid Wood was the epitome of a ‘bluebell wood’. My photos really don’t do it justice to this purple haze.
A Yorkshire spring at its best
It was one of those days where the best of the Yorkshire Dales and the best of spring combined to create an unforgettable experience and a treat for the senses. We finished the day with an ice cream, and, just to top things off, saw a Red Grouse and five Red Kites along the same stretch of the road on the way home.
Birdwatching can be many things: relaxing, absorbing, frustrating, educational… but exhilarating and joyful? Well, yes actually.
There are birding moments that can leave you grinning like a fool, cheering like a champion, or gawping like a fish.
I was fortunate enough to enjoy one such moment when I took a long-overdue day off to go birding. It was also the first day of the school holidays, so I had a wildlife-loving sidekick for the day: my son Daniel.
We faced a dilemma. Would we head for Flamborough on the east coast in the hope of finding our number one bogey bird, the Firecrest? There had been sightings in two different locations there in the previous few days but none reported the day before. Or would we go somewhere a little nearer – maybe to Fairburn Ings and the chance to see a Little Gull, which had been reported during the week?
I gave Daniel the choice, and he plumped for the shorter trip to Fairburn.
We had a moment on our journey that made the trip worthwhile, before we’d even started in earnest. Daniel loves birds of prey – the first time he said ‘bird’ was when a Red Kite drifted over his buggy on a visit to Harewood House – and had been talking about how he’d love to see a raptor close up.
He was pleased enough when we spotted a buzzard in a tree, but then we passed so close to one perched in a roadside hedge that he could see every detail on its face. The delight in his voice as he described it set us up for a great day ahead.
A promising start
The omens were still good as we arrived in the village to be greeted by several Sand Martins, my first of the year. We strolled down the lane to Village Bay, where the Little Gull had last been reported, encountering several songbirds as we went – a very vocal Chiffchaff, a Linnet in a classic pose on top of a hedgerow, and a Song Thrush hopping about in a grassy field.
Reaching the shore of the lake, I set up my telescope, lowering it to a Daniel-friendly height so he could get the same decent views of distant birds as I could.
One by one, we spotted Tufted Ducks, Mallards, Coots and Moorhens, and a generous smattering of Gadwall – a very smart and under-rated duck – then Great Crested Grebes, Pochards, and my first Little Egret of the year on the far side of the lake.
On wooden posts in the middle of the water stood two Cormorants – one juvenile and one adult (like Cormorant versions of me and Daniel) and a trio of Black-headed Gulls, which I studied closely in case one turned out to be our Little Gull.
A little bit of magic
I expected that if we were lucky enough to see it, the Little Gull would be a fleeting glimpse of a juvenile some distance away.
When we did clap eyes on it, though, it surpassed all my hopes.
A small white gull caught my eye as it flew over the heads of some Pochards over to our left. As it zipped about, I got a clear view through my binoculars of the gull’s unmistakable distinguishing feature, which I’d seen in photos – the wings, although pale on top, were distinctly dark underneath.
“I’ve got it!” I shouted. I was able to point it out to Daniel. “See it, there? Flying over the Little Egret now…”
“I can see it!” he said.
There were two more special moments to come for me.
The first was when Daniel managed to pick up the Little Gull with my scope and follow it around as it whizzed high and then low over the lake. As a toddler, he had an operation on one of his eyes, and we weren’t sure he’d ever have ‘binocular vision’, and now here he was, sharing my hobby and this magical moment, just as able to watch this uncommon bird as I was.
In fact it was Daniel who got the best view first, and told me he could see the gull’s black head. This wasn’t a juvenile, or an adult bird still in its less striking winter plumage. This was a smart adult in full breeding plumage.
“You little beauty!” I gasped as a took over the scope for a few minutes, following the Little Gull as Daniel had done. What a smashing little bird. What an exhilarating and joyful few minutes. Not just a ‘lifer’ (the name for a bird you’re seeing for the first time in your life) but a cracking and generous view of a bird at its best, which I could share with my boy.
Moments like these make time stand still, and banish all other thoughts. Whatever else is going on in life, or in our heads, an encounter like this can put a smile on our faces whenever we pause to recall it.
The day would bring other great moments – listening to Bitterns ‘booming’ (their call sounds like the noise you can make by blowing into a bottle); being so close to a singing Robin that Daniel could almost touch it with his nose; watching an exotic Spoonbill; and a great look at a dazzling Kingfisher – but it’s that shared moment with a Little Gull that will stay in our memories for many years to come.
My third York bird race would feature a lifetime first, glorious close-up viewings, a dramatic natural spectacle, and, of course, the one that got away.
The time: 6.30am. The day: Sunday. The location: my street.
Four intrepid birders – me, Rich, Emanuela and new recruit Paul, standing in for the injured Captain Jono – have gathered to see or hear as many different species as possible in one day in the York area, competing with other local teams.
It’s well before dawn, but calling Blackbirds and Robins give us a count of two before we’ve even got in Rich’s Birdmobile.
Hits and miss
A successful start to the day brought us an almost ridiculous number of calling Tawny Owls, joined by a welcome bonus of a Little Owl, and the potentially tricky duo of Grey and Red Legged Partridges. Cheered on by a nearby Snipe, and still roaming in the dark, we headed to Allerthorpe Common, a much-visited site in the past week because of the presence of a rare Coues’ Arctic Redpoll.
With a Barn Owl giving us generous views as it hunted on the common, and a Buzzard calling from above us, the omens seemed good. The list began to grow, with a double bill of Marsh and Willow Tit, followed by four Crossbills calling as they flew over. And then there were the Redpolls – a chance to scour the flock of both Lesser and Mealy for our Arctic visitor. But lovely though those many Redpolls were, their star turn wasn’t going to come out to dazzle us. With time ticking on, we had to accept that, even so early in the day, this would be one that got away.
The next part of our strategy involved looping round the Lower Derwent Valley, taking in East Cottingwith, Bubwith, North Duffield and Bank Island. There were two contrasting highlights for me.
Emanuela and Rich had seen a fly-by Kingfisher earlier on, but Paul and I had missed it while fruitlessly trying to unearth a Jack Snipe. The rules state that at least three of the team must see or hear the bird for it to count. While we were at Bubwith, scanning for an almost-mythical American Wigeon that had been seen there recently, Rich called out “Kingfisher”, and there it was, on a distant perch, beautifully framed in the lens of his telescope. It obligingly sat completely still for us all to admire – a beautiful bird, and a rare opportunity to pause and appreciate it in all its glory.
The chances of seeing a Marsh Harrier near home when I started birding were laughably small; non-existent, probably. But for my second bird race running, I was able to watch one in action at North Duffield. This cracking bird, a juvenile, I think, soared majestically into view from the hide and sent hundreds of Lapwings, ducks and gulls flapping all over the sky in a panicked cloud (that’s what is happening in the two photos below – not that you can tell!). And there was further peril lurking for these hapless birds, with a Peregrine loitering on a fence post not far away.
We left the valley to try and add more water birds to our list at Castle Howard Lake, and it came up trumps, sporting Goldeneye, Goosander, Mandarin, Grey Heron, Cormorant and others. But there was another attraction for us on the lake – a Red Necked Grebe. Normally your best chance of seeing one is on the coast, so the discovery of one here in the York recording area was a real coup for local birders. Would the lake come up with a lifer for me for the third year running, following in the claw prints of Scaup in 2017 and Cetti’s Warbler in 2018?
Yes, it would. Before race week, I wouldn’t have even considered seeing a Red Necked Grebe on the big day, yet there it was, drifting along then diving as grebes do.
Race against time
With the afternoon passing with alarming speed, we had difficult decisions to make about where we could fit into our remaining daylight. We opted for a cross-country route (finally spotting Yellowhammer) to Strensall Common, where we hoped to find Stonechat, Green Woodpecker, and the day’s most elusive common species for us, the Nuthatch. We found none of them.
Still needing some water birds, we headed to Heslington East, aiming for Pochard, Water Rail and maybe a Great Crested Grebe. We had mixed fortunes. The grebes weren’t forthcoming. The Water Rail stubbornly refused to call from its usual reedbed and then, to add to our frustration, I managed to get a great view of it as it literally sprinted away from me before anyone else could clap eyes on it. It never came out of its hiding place, and maintained a resolute silence. One out of four doesn’t count on a bird race, and we had to abandon it. With sunset calling, we managed our Pochard – bird number 89 – and set off into the dusk for one last throw of the dice at Wheldrake Ings.
Drama at dusk
The time: approaching 5pm. The location: Wheldrake Ings foot bridge.
There we were, the four of us, back in the darkness, listening and hoping. We bumped into the clear winners, who’d got more than 100 species, and they told us there had been 1,000 Golden Plovers there earlier in the day. Maybe we’d hear one to claim our 90th species. Then we heard that our rivals for second place had retired top the pub on 89.
“It was this dark when we got that Woodcock here last year,” I said. And barely had the words left my mouth than the most timely bird of the day bombed straight over our heads – a long straight bill, a barrel-like tummy, and a rapid wingbeat… Could our final bird of the day have been a more apt species than the one our team was named after?
And so Never Mind The Woodcocks finished on 90, taking second spot and having had a thoroughly enjoyable day chasing round the brilliant birding spots surrounding York – a combination of frenzied pursuit and sublime moments of birding perfection.
I’m using some days off from work to recharge my brain by day and perform in a panto by night.
I’ve been taking this week off for years now, and have learned how best to spend my time. The week typically involves:
- Preparing myself for panto
- Catching up on some telly that nobody else would be interested in watching (today I watched a programme about my favourite band, The Kinks – their song Dead End Street is the inspiration for this blog title)
- Doing my Christmas shopping
- Having lunch out with my wife
- Doing some drawing and maybe writing
- Getting out to enjoy nature
Yesterday was about the last two things on my list. Askham Bog, my local nature reserve, has become my favourite place to go at this time of year. In frost and morning sunlight, it is truly beautiful, and walking round it on my own, watching and listening and breathing the cold, fresh air feels restorative. It’s an undemanding place to go – no long drive, no need to lug my telescope around, no pressure to search for an elusive rarity. Just a wild place to explore and appreciate.
The benefit of my outing could be perfectly summarised by a five-minute spell shortly after my walk had begun.
With a few walkers arriving at the same time as me, I stepped off the main path to allow them to pass and to scan the trees for birds.
A little brown Wren popped up on the bank of a ditch, its perky tail pointing to the sky as it hopped from an exposed tree root into the cover of a bush.
Next my attention was caught by the black, white and pink of a Long-tailed Tit, one of several in a classic winter flock, which under further inspection included Great Tits, Blue Tits and Chaffinches.
And something a little different – an unexpected Chiffchaff, skulking about in the copse. While I was trying to get a better look at it, a burst of colour flashed before my eyes – the bright red, black and white plumage of a bold Great Spotted Woodpecker. I had some rare quiet time in the afternoon to do this drawing of it.
Another unmistakable bird joined the gang – a Treecreeper, only yards from the woodpecker, carried out its classic ritual of spiralling up one tree before zipping over to another and doing it all again.
With the frosty and ice melting rapidly, and large blobs of water plopping down from the treetops, I savoured the chance to leave the main boardwalk and explore the paths to the edges of the reserve, pausing to take photos with my phone and be mindful of everything around me.
The light shining on the water and frost meant that there were photo opportunities at every turn.
Today it’s been non-stop heavy rain, so I’ve had a sleep, watched my Kinks programme and written this, in the knowledge that I’ve managed my time pretty well this week and am finally able to spend time on self-care after a frantic couple of months.