The wacky bird race 3: revenge of the Nuthatch

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.

Happy valley

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.

Kingfisher

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.

Marsh Harrier

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.

Bird bonanza

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.

 

 

 

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On a cold and frosty morning

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.


Six reasons to love gulls

Gulls are not exactly everyone’s favourite birds. They’re often fairly plain and overlooked, and some of the more piratical ones have taken to violently stealing people’s chips and ice cream.

I must admit there have been days when I’ve cursed them myself, when I’ve spent fruitless hours standing in the freezing cold, scanning thousands of very similar-looking gulls, hopelessly trying to find one of the rarer species.

But there are plenty of reasons to love gulls, and here are six of them.

They readily pose for photos

This cannot be said of most birds I try to take photos of, which often end up being nothing more than an indistinct blur or a distant blob. Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls are particularly amenable to posing for pictures. Look at these poseurs.

Herring Gull perched on amusements sign.

This Herring Gull fancies a flutter in the arcade at Filey.

Black-headed Gull, Windermere

This handsome Black-headed Gull in its breeding plumage was happy to pose on a post on the shore of Windermere.

They’re actually quite beautiful after all

Look at these Kittiwakes – such immaculate little gulls, and they would never pinch your chips.

Kittiwakes on Inner Farne

A pair of Kittiwakes on Inner Farne.

The cry of a gull reminds me of the sea

I love being by the sea, and the call of gulls – usually Herring Gulls (yes, they’re the robbing ones, but there are some nice ones, honest) – is immediately evocative of trips to the seaside, digging on the beach and paddling in the sea. And the distinctive, repetitive call of Kittiwakes immediately takes me back to the precariously balanced colonies I’ve seen at Bempton, Filey and Seahouses.

Herring Gull in flight.

A Herring Gull flies overhead, possibly on the look-out for an opportunist snack.

They’re more varied than you might think

Yes, most gulls are some variation of white, grey and black, but the imposing Great Black-backed Gull is a very different beast to the dainty Little Gull, which remains a bogey bird for me. Then there’s the endless variety of plumages, depending on the time of year and age of the bird. Telling the difference is potentially a rewarding challenge – not one I’ve managed to succeed at myself yet.

Great Black-backed Gull, Seahouses.

Great Black-backed Gulls are huge beasts.

They have different characters

Common Gulls seem pretty shy birds that are happy to blend in and not make a fuss, whereas Herring Gulls strut around like they own everywhere and everything.

Herring Gull perched on a sign.

“None shall pass,” says Sentinel Herring Gull.

You can find them everywhere

You don’t have to be by the sea to see gulls. There are large colonies of Black-headed Gulls at inland wetlands, sometimes along with Mediterranean Gulls, and in the winter you can find massive numbers of gulls on rubbish tips or hanging about in fields.

Black-headed Gull, winter plumage.

A Black-headed Gull in its winter plumage takes a bracing dip at Fairburn Ings, Yorkshire.


Close encounters of the bird kind

Puffins so close you can see every feather. Arctic Terns so close you can feel their beaks tapping your scalp and see their runny white poo dripping off the end of your cap. Witnessing a Herring Gull versus Guillemot egg battle. And as for how near you can get to a Shag… These are all birding delights I experienced on holiday in Northumberland.

It wasn’t just the birds, though. We saw armies of Atlantic Grey Seals patrolling the Farne Islands, and even some almost within touching distance when we walked on the rocks around Seahouses. And we were treated to stunning views of Bottlenose Dolphins alongside the boat. We were even able to watch them from the beach, when I saw one rise clear out of the North Sea and perform a flip – an amazing sight.

Here are some of my photos of this wonderful wildlife: birds and beasts so incredibly easy to see that no fancy camera kit is necessary.

Puffins

There are Puffins almost everywhere on the island of Inner Farne at this time of year – on the beach, on rooftops, just pottering about… They’re charming little birds, with faces full of character, and although I’ve seen plenty of them before, these were the best views I’ll ever get.

Northumberland Paul 2018 (789)

Two puffins on a rooftop

Arctic Terns

Arctic Terns are incredible. They may look fairly dainty and rather graceful, but they have remarkable spirit and stamina, flying ludicrous pole-to-pole distances on migration. Inner Farne is their island, and they let you know that when you walk past them. It’s hard not to get close to them – they nest right next to the path – and you can see them checking you out as you pass. Are you a potential threat? Do you want to steal their eggs?

The first warning you get is an open beak and a clicking sound, then they rise up from their nests and hover above you. If they don’t like the look of you, they divebomb you and give you a peck on top of your head. That’s one good reason to wear a hat. The other is the poo bomb they might splat on you. I was one of their favourite targets when we visited.

Me with Arctic Tern poo on my cap

Other terns breed on the Farne Islands – Common Terns and Sandwich Terns, and we saw both – but they’re greatly outnumbered by the Arctics.

Shags

The smaller ‘Carry On’ cousins of Cormorants, Shags are striking, cliff-nesting birds, whose dark plumages shimmer with bottle green. On Inner Farne, there’s just a rope fence between you and their piercing green eyes.

Shag with mouth wide open

This Shag loves every shag joke it hears.

Guillemots and Razorbills

Puffins get the glory, but Guillemots and Razorbills, their relatives in the auk family, are great birds too. Guillemots nest in huge numbers on the Farnes, balancing precariously on ledges. You can smell their colonies before you reach them – the sights, sounds and smells of the islands are a proper sensory experience. While Guillemots are dark brown, Razorbills are pure black and white, with chunky bills.

Bridled Guillemot

This is a Bridled Guillemot – the name given to those Guillemots that sport a white monocle.

Northumberland Paul 2018 (794)

More Guillemots!

Northumberland Paul 2018 (808).JPG

A cosy pair of Razorbills.

Herring Gull versus Guillemot

This is the moment a plucky Guillemot rescued its blue egg from the clutches of a scavenging Herring Gull. The gull had seized the egg and started pecking at it, but the Guillemot was having none of it, and snatched it back, before safely tucking it under its white belly.

Northumberland Paul 2018 (791)

Kittiwakes and Fulmars

Kittiwakes are smart little gulls that, like Guillemots, nest in hair-raising spots in colonies on cliff faces. We were surprised to find such a colony just five minutes’ walk from our cottage on the edge of Seahouses. When we visited last August, the Kittiwakes weren’t there – but this is breeding season and they were in full voice, repeatedly, noisily calling their names in a broad gull accent. We also saw them in generous numbers on the Farne Islands.

They’re joined on the cliff at Seahouses by a handful of Fulmars – much quieter companions. From a distance, they look superficially like gulls, but they’re ‘tubenoses’, related to Albatrosses. They glide with stiff, straight, grey wings. From a vantage point above the cliff on Seahouses golf course, you can see Fulmars and Kittiwakes (below) fly right past your face.

Fulmars taking a rest.

Fulmars taking a rest.

Fulmar in flight

A Fulmar glides past the golf course.

Eiders

If you’re in Seahouses harbour, you can’t fail to see Eiders. The males are boldly patterned – black white and green – while the females are rather plain brown. Every time we walked into the village, we passed a small group of Eiders with their babies – very cute ducklings that didn’t seem to have learned how to be wary of humans just yet.

Seals and dolphins

As soon as we arrived on our holiday, we walked down to explore the rocks, and came face to face with this great big seal – a very placid fellow, and one of two lolling about, with a couple of its friends bobbing about in the water nearby.

Atlantic Grey Seal

We saw a lot more seals on our trip to the Farnes, and they got nearer and nearer to the boat as we pulled in to land.

Atlantic Grey Seals

One of the most memorable moments of our trip to the Farnes was being accompanied by Bottlenose Dolphins swimming around the boat. Magical. My photos don’t do them justice. Here’s my best effort.

Bottlenose Dolphins

My wife, Jane, did better.

Bottlenose Dolphins

This blog post gives just a taste of the wonderful wildlife we encountered on this beautiful stretch of the Northumberland coast. To be amongst the seabirds on Inner Farne is an enthralling, engrossing and unforgettable experience. It wasn’t my first visit, and I’m sure it won’t be my last.


Stress – when is it a problem and what can we do about it?

We all get stressed out sometimes, or even a lot of the time. Stress, by itself, is not a problem – it’s the same inbuilt human reaction that made our ancient ancestors run away from things that wanted to eat them, or to fight when they had to.

Life is full of stuff that stresses us out: work, family life, money… But how do we know when stress is reaching a point that could make us ill? Here are some tell-tale signs that stress could be leading to depression or anxiety:

  • You’re not sleeping, and/or you always feel tired.
  • You’re constantly lurching from one thing to the next.
  • You’re always tense, worried or anxious.
  • You’re getting headaches every day.
  • You’ve stopped looking after yourself, and you’re not allowing any time to relax or recover.
  • You’re run down and getting a string of illnesses.
  • You feel overwhelmed.
  • You can’t switch off or wind down.
  • You’re not looking forward to anything any more.
  • You feel irritable.
  • You snap at people or get more emotional than usual.
  • You feel vague, forgetful or indecisive.

If you’ve been experiencing stress for a prolonged period, there’s more danger of it leading to a mental health problem. That’s what happened to me towards the end of 2009 – I’d never experienced depression until then, but it has since proved a persistent thorn in my side. I’ve experienced all of the above symptoms. I still experience some of them, but now I recognise them and have some ways of managing them. I’m better at some things than others, and keep learning new ways of coping and looking after myself.

We need to stop stress before it stops us.

What helps?

There are three important things I need to remember, and maybe these will help you too:

  1. You’re not alone. Mental health problems are very common, and there are people you can talk to, and who can support you.
  2. It won’t always be like this. You can get better, and you can manage the symptoms.
  3. There’s no shame in getting help. It’s not weak – it’s stronger to do something about a problem than to let it keep beating you. See your GP, see a counsellor, take the medication – different things work for different people. The important thing is to do something. Ignoring it is not dealing with it.

Stress, depression and anxiety are very convincing liars, and will tell you that you’re fine and should keep soldiering on. But be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. If you don’t make changes, and if you carry on doing the same things that have got you to this point, how can you expect to get any better? It’s like breaking your arm and then repeatedly smacking it against hard objects, expecting it to magically cure itself.

Here are some other small tips:

  • Plan some time for yourself. Think about things you enjoy doing, and allow yourself a chance to do them. It’s not selfish to put yourself first sometimes – sacrificing your health to please other people isn’t really helping anyone.
  • Tell someone. It’s the first step towards getting better. Don’t let your problems silently stalk you from the shadows like a bully – expose them.
  • Take care over how you speak to yourself. Don’t put yourself down or apologise for things that aren’t your fault. If you’re beating yourself up or always criticising yourself, that adds to a feeling that you’re not good enough and that you have to keep striving and ‘going the extra mile’. Learn to accept that ‘good enough’ is perfectly fine the vast majority of the time.
  • Getting out into nature helps me – it gives me a positive distraction, some exercise and fresh air, and some perspective.

There are more things I’ve learned in this blog post.

What doesn’t help?

Here are some things that people might say to someone who’s experiencing a mental health problem:

  • Be strong.
  • Keep a stiff upper lip.
  • Grit your teeth and get on with it.
  • We never used to complain.
  • Don’t make such a fuss.
  • Just have a drink or two.
  • Cheer up.
  • Just relax.
  • Man up.

People might mean well when they say things like this, but guess what? None of these things will reduce anyone’s stress. None of these things makes a mental health problem go away.

In fact, these sayings, attitudes and beliefs cause harm – people bury how they feel and avoid talking or getting the help they need because they don’t want to seem weak. They don’t want to be judged or pitied. By not getting help, we might suffer worse and longer – and that can have tragic consequences.

It shouldn’t be considered brave to talk openly about mental health problems, but it still is. The fear is real. The stigma persists. That’s why we still need to raise awareness through things like Mental Health Awareness Week.

A small wave gently laps the beach


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


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