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.

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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.

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More Guillemots!

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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.

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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.

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My magical mobile memories

“So it’s a phone with a COMPUTER in it? And a CAMERA? And it can make FILMS? And you can send messages all over the world, just like that? What, and it fits in your POCKET?”

If you’d described a smartphone to me when I was little, it would have sounded impossibly fantastic. Phones still had dials, not keypads. They were definitely not mobile. Computers were big things, with primitive games that ran on cassettes. If you took pictures on a camera, you couldn’t see what they looked like until you’d taken 24 or 36 photos and had waited for the film to be processed. As for filming, you might occasionally encounter a video camera, if you were lucky, but it seemed very glamorous and exciting, and most people didn’t have one. And the Internet… Sorry, the what?

We forget how incredible smartphones are. Yes, they have a downside – we spend so much time gawping at them that we sometimes forget where we are – but they can be good for us too.

Having a camera on me at all times is a great way to capture memories, and it encourages me to look up and marvel at the world around me. If I get a decent photo, I can share it immediately with people all over the world. And I can look back at it in the future to recall a happy moment, however small.

Here are ten of my favourite mobile moments from the past year.

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I was getting out of the car at work and it was about to rain heavily. Just before it did, this splendid full rainbow arched across the sky.

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I enjoy walking from work into York city centre, particularly along the riverside path (not at the moment – it’s under water). I took this picture on a sunny day in autumn, when the leaves had started to fall.

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I’m lucky to work right next to a glorious park, and spend many of my lunch breaks there, walking around and watching birds. One of my favourite parts of the park is this pond.

 

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Spurn Point is an incredible place; unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. I made two birding trips there in the autumn, and on the second trip I walked all the way to the end of the point. The first of these pictures shows the rows of weathered groynes on a stretch of the beach next to where the former road was destroyed by a storm. You can only get down to the point now when the tide is out. The second picture shows where I ate my lunch after a three-mile walk in unexpectedly hot sunshine, looking out over the mouth of the Humber and North Sea, over to North Lincolnshire. The third shows the sun starting to go down over the Humber.

 

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We have a family holiday in Filey every summer. It’s a rich source of photo opportunities. Even the gulls pose for pictures.

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One evening, my wife and I were out walking and it looked like a good sunset might be starting, so we legged it to the top of Carr Naze, a cliff offering views across to Scarborough and beyond, and caught the sun dipping over the horizon.

 

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Here’s an image that brings back memories of a great night with friends on Bonfire Night. It also puts ‘Fire’ by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown into my head, which is no bad thing.

 

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My brother and I have a strange tradition of finding hideous ornaments and sending pictures of them to each other. This was my best effort of 2015 – a disturbing-looking zombie sailor baby, found in a café on the east coast.


Dippyman v depression: the first year

One year ago, I sat down to write my first Dippyman blog post – a whimsical piece about the timeless delights of a seaside holiday in Filey. The year, and the theme of my blog, came to be dominated by something far less jolly.

I’d set up the blog about a month before but wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write about. I just knew I wanted to write. I toyed with the idea of writing about what it was like to turn 35, but realised that if I didn’t care what it was like to turn 35 nobody else would either. I thought maybe I would write about birds, and indeed I did, although just the once so far.

Once I got started, I thoroughly enjoyed writing, and went on to describe things that amused or interested me, but it was something that was completely devoid of amusement that launched my blog in a new direction – depression.

When I started writing Dippyman, I had been living with depression for nearly two years. I’d been on antidepressants for more than a year and had finished my first round of counselling. As the summer went on, I felt well enough to lower the dose of my medication and that went well for a while, but in my haste to leave the tablets – and (I thought) my depression – behind, I went further than my moods would allow, and had to increase the dose again before the summer had ended. My stress levels were building up.

In September, I wrote about depression for the first time, likening stress and depression to Darth Vader and the Emperor from the Star Wars films. It was a big step to take. I’d only told a handful of people how I’d been feeling, and friends and colleagues reading about it were surprised. I’d obviously hidden it well, although that did me a fat lot of good. Being open about my illness made it easier – less like a dirty secret.

I returned to chirpier subjects for a while, but depression had a sting in its tail. Well, I say a ‘sting in its tail’ – it was more like a whopping great boxing glove smashing me in the face. Bash, bash, bash. It hit me with a knockout blow on 13th October, when I found myself dazed and confused, asking ‘Can brains explode?

I staggered zombie-like through a day at work on the 14th, but it was a case of the lights being on (perhaps with a dimmer switch) and nobody being home. My self-esteem plummeted. My moods turned black. The insomnia started. A star was born – my twisted, shadowy alter-ego, Paul Brookes, who made frequent appearances in my blog posts during the bleakest months of my life.

When I was feeling most dreadful, when I was off work and had increased the dose of my antidepressants, something unexpected happened. My blog took off. I’d read on Twitter that some people were using the phrase ‘mental health day’ as a euphemism for throwing a sickie, or skiving off work. I was enraged – perhaps not surprisingly, given my circumstances at the time – so I wrote about it. A friend at work tweeted the link to Alastair Campbell, who read it, described it as ‘excellent’, and shared it with his thousands of followers. It didn’t stop there. Next I spotted a tweet from Jeremy Vine, who also shared the link, saying:

“Man writes brilliant blog about his depression”

The response was way beyond anything I could have expected. Nearly 1,500 people read what I’d written in one day alone. I was overwhelmed and humbled, and in my depressed state didn’t really know what to make of it all, so I just kept writing about how I was feeling. It was quite therapeutic, and the supportive and encouraging comments I was getting – and have carried on getting since (thanks everyone!) – helped me to keep going, at a time when I would be sitting in my car praying for enough strength to cope with the day ahead, lying wide-awake at night silently pleading for sleep, or staring into the distance with an unseen enemy feasting on the destructive thoughts in my head.

Since then, I’ve been privileged to write about depression for a number of great organisations, websites and magazines, have written 40 blog posts (41 now), and my site stats tell me that the pages of Dippyman have received more than 33,600 visits at the time of writing. On one crazy day in January, more than 2,500 people visited in one day, after more kind tweets from those top gents Vine and Campbell and a one-off retweet from Twitter colossus Stephen Fry.

Reading this objectively, it could sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet. Apologies if it comes across that way. Really, it’s just my way of proving to myself – reminding myself – that from the abject misery of depression, something to be proud of has risen. I felt like nobody and this blog, and more importantly the support, encouragement and goodwill that so many people – friends, relatives and strangers alike – have given me, has helped me to feel like somebody.

The blogging year ends with Brookes as the nobody – a fate he deserved all along.

I’ll end this anniversary post the way I started Dippyman last July, with a happy memory of the seaside. I was in Filey again last week, and took this photo of a lifeboat, which – with its bright colours and the promise of help for people lost at sea – seems a fitting way to sign off.


Have I become a British holiday cliché?

I’ve just been to the seaside for a classic British holiday. Just like in the song, I did like to be beside the seaside, and I did like to be beside the sea. Strolling along the prom, prom, prom was pretty good too, although I didn’t encounter any brass bands going tiddly-om-pom-pom. I would have been quite surprised if they had made that sound, really. But anyway…

Just meeting three of the four criteria from the vintage seaside song isn’t enough to make me a British holiday cliché. I did, however, insist on wearing shorts on the beach, even when it was so cold that I had to sport a jumper and fleece jacket on my top half. I paddled in the sea and ate ice cream more or less every day, despite icy winds blowing in from the North Sea. And – wait for it – I played crazy golf.

While these traditional holiday exploits do sound a little on the silly side, I am not alone in being drawn to them, year after year, like a wasp to a sticky stick of rock. On our annual family trip to the lovely town of Filey, on the glorious yet windblown east coast, we bumped into three other families from our village, an hour’s drive away, doing exactly what we were doing. So what keeps us coming back?

Well, although the weather is predictably unpredictable whether it’s the height of summer or the middle of winter, it doesn’t detract from the spectacular scenery – in one direction, a long, clean, sandy beach stretches into the far distance towards the majestic white cliffs at Bempton and Flamborough; in the other direction lies Filey Brigg, a rocky outcrop that juts out into the sea, sporting a magical array of rock pools and birdlife. In sunny weather, the crumbling clay cliffs approaching the Brigg glow bright orange, contrasting beautifully with the vivid blue sky. When the winds blow, the waves come crashing into the bay, battering the sea wall.

Beyond its natural splendour, Filey has an old-fashioned charm that doesn’t change much and doesn’t need to. It has donkey rides, amusement arcades, sticks of rock, a little funfair on the sea front, buckets and spades and all those other things that are as much fun for my kids as they were for me, my dad and his dad.

So yes, maybe my Filey fascination does make me a British holiday cliché. But there are lots of other holidaymakers in my shorts-wearing, weather-defying, toe-freezing club, happy to keep that traditional British seaside holiday alive as long as there are gulls on the chimney pots, tiny crabs in the rock pools and Flakes in the 99s.