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.
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.
They’re actually quite beautiful after all
Look at these Kittiwakes – such immaculate little gulls, and they would never pinch your chips.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other terns breed on the Farne Islands – Common Terns and Sandwich Terns, and we saw both – but they’re greatly outnumbered by the Arctics.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My wife, Jane, did better.
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.
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.
There are three important things I need to remember, and maybe these will help you too:
- You’re not alone. Mental health problems are very common, and there are people you can talk to, and who can support you.
- It won’t always be like this. You can get better, and you can manage the symptoms.
- 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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.