My birdwatching year began with such promise, but my hapless pursuit of two evasive species came to dominate February and March.
After a flying start, thanks to a bird race around York in January, followed by my first Great Northern Diver in Scarborough, it seemed 2017 might be a vintage year for birding.
As winter continued, two rare birds popped up in the York area. And that’s where things started going wrong.
Pining for a bunting
The Pine Bunting in Dunnington became a birding celebrity. Hoardes of birders descended on a field on the edge of York to see a bird that is very rarely seen in this country – a handsome but elusive little chap, who was hanging out with the local Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings.
I took a day off work in early February with ambitions of seeing the Pine Bunting in the morning and maybe locating a Glaucous Gull in the afternoon.
It was a bitterly cold day, and the hours I spent that morning failing to see the exotic visitor are probably the coldest I’ve ever been while birding. Annoyingly, it was found about an hour and a half after I’d left, making this a bird with classic bogey bird potential.
I spent my afternoon getting chilled through, looking for a Glaucous Gull among the huge flocks of gulls at Rufforth and Poppleton, also near York. Glaucous Gulls visit the UK in the winter, and we’d failed to see these big brutes on the bird race. True to form, one had been seen ten minutes before I arrived, and my friend Adam, joining me for a freezing hour or two by the roadside, spotted one overhead, but my own efforts were in vain.
The Pine Bunting unexpectedly stuck around, and pictures and sightings kept appearing on Twitter, so I left work early one Friday afternoon in early March to have another go. The mission began with a frustrating traffic jam, then once I arrived, poor light made it hard to pick out any individual birds in the distant flock. It was clearly not meant to be for the Pine Bunting and me, and a new bogey bird was born.
Revenge of the bogey bird
The Great Grey Shrike was one of my original bogey birds – the list I put together in 2015 of birds I’d always wanted to see but had always somehow missed. I did manage to shrike it lucky at my second attempt that year, when I got a fleeting, distant view, but when one turned up at Acaster Airfield, three miles from home, I really fancied getting a better look. The striking grey, black and white bird – a winter visitor to the UK –was offering generous photo opportunities to half of York, so along I went before work one morning, fancying my chances. No joy. I tried again two days later, this time after work. Again, no joy, but I did see my first Grey Partridges of the year, so all was not lost.
Another two attempts followed without success, including an early-morning trip with my bird race team mate, Jono, who had already seen the shrike. He was incredulous that we couldn’t find it, but to me it was further proof that this was a bogey bird reborn. It was clearly taunting me, and it was getting personal.
On the second of those outings, I did find myself staring straight at a Little Owl skulking in a bush – a small consolation – but I’d pretty much given up on the shrike, until I heard it was still hanging around in April.
I tried again on 3rd April, when things took a farcical turn. I’d been there five minutes or less when I met a lady with seven tiny ducklings by her feet – she’d found them alone in the middle of the road, had ushered them to one side, and they’d adopter her as their mother. We couldn’t find their real mum, the ditch over the road didn’t have any water in it, and there didn’t seem a safe place to leave them. In the end, I was able to get a cardboard box from a local business. We rounded up the ducklings, put them in the box, and off they went in the lady’s car to the RSPCA – I hope she encountered their real mum just round the corner for a happy reunion. I had about ten minutes left before I needed to get back home, so legged it up the road, only to find two birders had been watching the pesky shrike and it had just disappeared…
A change of scenery, and fortune
A walk in the Yorkshire Dales with my dad brought the promise of some different birds for my year list, which had stalled somewhat while I’d been chasing the bogey birds.
We parked at Grassington, took the bus to Bolton Abbey, and walked back along the Wharfe – a beautiful walk on a gloriously sunny spring day.
We were slightly too early for the Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers and Common Sandpipers to return after spending the winter in warmer climes, but I saw my first Sand Martins and Swallow of the year, and added Grey Wagtail, Nuthatch, Dipper and Green Woodpecker to my year list – and even managed to get some half-decent photos. Perhaps my birding fortunes were improving…
Shrike it lucky?
The next Wednesday morning, I got up early for another bit of pre-work birding at Acaster Airfield. The Great Grey Shrike was STILL there, a good two months after it had first been seen, and local birder Chris Gomersall described to me where he’d seen it regularly in the last few days. However, the shrike was having none of it. Chris posted another photo at the weekend of the bird on its usual perch. It was definitely smirking to itself.
But I had one last trick up my sleeve – my lucky mascots. My son had been with me when I’d had my first-ever glimpse of a Great Grey Shrike two years ago. And my daughter, on a family walk around Acaster several years ago, had accidentally found me my first-ever Garden Warbler. If anything could lure the shrike from its hiding place, it was this dynamic duo.
Following Chris’s directions, we headed up the road, slightly further on than my previous well-trodden route, and I scanned a row of small trees with my binoculars. There was no shrike, but I wanted a closer look.
As we got nearer, we stood at the side of the road, and up popped a pale, blackbird-sized bird with a long tail – the unmistakeable shape of a Great Grey Shrike. “That’s it! I’ve seen it!” I shrieked. I got a decent look at it before it dipped down to the ground, presumably looking for prey, then it rose up again for a second viewing, before disappearing into the undergrowth.
We had broken the bogey bird jinx at last. I’m not sure I’ll be able to convince the kids to join me on my quest for other bogey birds like the Firecrest or Hawfinch, but this’ll do nicely for now.
Sometimes, what the world really needs is to see pictures of cute animals. So, for no other reason than to say “Here are my gerbils – they’re cute”, here are some pictures of my three gerbils (aka the Boys) being cute.
In these photos, you can see them performing my favourite gerbil routine, which I call ‘Synchronised Chewers’. This is where I give each of them a chocolate drop, and sit back for a content moment to watch them silently nibbling together in perfect unity.
First, meet Stripe. Stripe is the smallest, busiest and most energetic of the Boys. He is undisputed king of the wheel. He’s also the first to respond when I call out “You Boys!”, leading the charge to the hatch at the front of the cage. I’d love to say it’s because he’s excited to see me – and in a way that’s true. It’s just that he’s excited to see me because I usually come bearing treats.
Stripe is something of an enigma among the gerbils. His fur often subtly changes shade – sometimes he’s darker grey, sometimes lighter, and sometimes a mix, but the stripe on his face, from which he got his name, disappeared a while ago, then occasionally reappears in a different position.
This is Snowy, so called because he’s the lightest-coloured gerbil of the three. When we first got him, he was white, but now he’s a little greyer (aren’t we all?).
Snowy’s role in the gerbil cage is Head of Eating. He does love his food, and will often climb into the bowl to sit there scoffing.
This is Elvis, our darkest-grey gerbil. He’s in charge of chewing, and has unrivalled abilities in shredding cardboard tubes. He’s the most wary of the Boys, and will often hide away in a tunnel to furtively chew his food away from the watchful eyes of his brothers.
So that’s it. Three gerbils, being cute. I’m off to give them a treat…
If you liked this post, you might also like Stop. Hamster time!
Dippyman has been rather neglected this year, and continues to stand at a crossroads as it creaks into its sixth year.
It’s partly been quiet on this blog because I’ve been working really hard this year and there hasn’t been much space left in my brain.
The force awakens
It’s also been quiet because – and I’ve kept this quiet up until now – I’ve been under attack from depression again for the last few months. It’s come in waves, with star turns from anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, forgetfulness, fear and random anger. I’ve been fine some days, and far from fine on others. It’s a reminder that, when recovering from depression, the force does awaken from time to time, and I have to be on my guard and look after myself.
I’ve taken my own advice at times. I’ve stuck with my diary of positive things, and made sure I plan things to look forward to – like my trip out to sea (pictures below), looking for seabirds, at the start of this month. I find the sea calming, and to be out there for nearly three hours was a great escape. Not only that, I saw two firsts – a fleeting view of a Black Tern (one of the bogey birds that’s eluded me for years) and a Sooty Shearwater, which obligingly whizzed round the boat in a circle so everyone could see it.
I’ve been a poster boy for functioning depressives.
At other times, I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever learned about coping with depression, and have done the whole ‘soldiering on’ thing, not really telling anyone, trying to prove myself, and generally being stubborn. And – just to take my own advice for a moment and to be kind to myself – I’ve done a pretty good job of it. I’ve taken on a lot and achieved a lot. I’ve been a poster boy for functioning depressives.
Another thing I’ve been doing is writing some blog posts for the Blurt Foundation, an organisation I admire enormously. My latest one was a chance for me to do something different, using my own doodles to show what you don’t see about depression.
I also keep chipping away at my children’s story, Splot, which must be on its sixth draft by now, in the hope that one day I’ll be happy enough with it to try sending it to an agent or publisher.
And, to be honest, I’ve struggled a bit with writer’s block. I’ve started and abandoned three or four posts, which I simply couldn’t get inspired by and couldn’t be bothered to finish. Each seemed OK when the idea had come to me, but had become deeply tedious by the time I sat down to write it. Heck, if I can’t be bothered to read my own writing, I don’t see why anyone else would want to.
However, bits of each of those abandoned posts have somehow ended up in this one – further proof that, if you want to be a writer, you just need to start writing. My plan tonight was, having abandoned yet another post, just to share some photos of the Yorkshire coast, but somehow the words trickled out in the end.
Recovery and persistence
That’s how it goes with recovery too, sometimes. It’s not all about big eureka moments, where you leap up and say ‘Ta-daaaaa, I feel amazing!’ Often, recovery is about sticking with it and chipping away, even when it seems hopeless and never-ending. It’s about persisting in a rather unexciting, unremarkable way, until eventually the light grows brighter and you realise you’re in a better place.
Last year, I set myself a birding challenge. I would try to see ten ‘bogey birds’ – species I’d always wanted to see since I got my first bird book at the age of eight, but which had somehow remained elusive.
During the course of my challenge, I would see some of the birds on my list and enjoy some magical birding moments. On the other hand, others would enhance their bogey species credentials, taking their evasiveness to a whole new level.
Along the way, I learned a few things.
The best-laid plans often go awry – but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Two birds led me a particularly merry dance last year.
The hitlist challenge began in February with a determined effort to find a Hawfinch. I made a special trip down to Sherwood Forest, having researched where to see them, and I was in the right place – Lime Tree Avenue at Rufford Country Park – but not at the right time. Hawfinches had been seen in a particular tree at 8 that morning, but it was more like 10am when I got there. Two other birders were there to share in my disappointment. I bumped into them again at Clumber Park, my next stop, where we all failed to see them again. A family trip to Clumber the following month was equally Hawfinch-free.My priority bird for October was the tiny Firecrest, which I hoped to see on migration at Spurn, East Yorkshire. I was trying to lay ghosts to rest, as I’d made the same trip with the same hope two years previously, without success. Firecrests had been seen there on an almost daily basis in the two weeks before my trip. I tried all the places where they’d been seen. I even walked the six-mile round trip to the point to see if the bird that had been seen twice in a sycamore was still there. You know the rest – there was not a Firecrest to be seen. And the day after, three of the little scamps were found. I could have been bitterly disappointed by both these failings, but I’d enjoyed two days out in beautiful surroundings. My day at Spurn, although Firecrest-free, gave me some quality ‘me time’ by the sea, in the sunshine – so although it wasn’t ‘mission accomplished’, it was certainly worth the effort.
Just keep trying
My daughter used to have a Disney Princesses book with sound effects, including a princess simpering ‘Just keep trying’. The princess had a point, though.
Take, for example, my efforts to see a Great Grey Shrike. One had unexpectedly been seen in early March at Heslington Tilmire – a new site to me, but quite near home. It seemed to be hanging around and was showing well (I saw so many photos of it, I felt I knew it personally) so I left work early one afternoon to try and find it. I patrolled the site for a good hour, by strange coincidence joining forces with one of my fellow Hawfinch-seekers from my Sherwood Forest trip (perhaps we were unlucky omens for each other). I liked the place and enjoyed close-up views of two Barn Owls, but the shrike had either gone or was mocking me from some hidden perch. Annoyingly, more sightings were reported the next day, and the day after. The weekend came, and I decided to give it another try, taking my son with me. We met another birder and his sons, and the three lads played together while their dads scoured various trees and bushes. We were in luck. A man up ahead of us started waving and pointing. We caught up with him and he said the shrike had just flown across the field, but then he spotted where it had landed and bingo – there it was! Not as good a view as I would have liked but it was clear enough, and I saw it another couple of times before I left.Sometimes it’s good to change plans…
Giving yourself the freedom and flexibility to change your plans can be quite liberating. Last May, I saw one of the most spectacular birds I’ve ever seen, but it wasn’t on my hitlist – it was a very special bonus.
While planning one of my birding days out, I heard the incredible news that there was a pair of Montagu’s Harriers at Blacktoft Sands, about an hour away from home – incredible because this is one of Britain’s rarest birds, usually only found by a lucky few in East Anglia. I was happy to betray my list for a chance to see a Monty, and my spontaneity was rewarded with a stunning view of a handsome male soaring over my head. I never thought I’d see one, let alone in Yorkshire.… or not to have a plan at all
I’d gone to Strensall Common, near York, to suss out a birding walk for Bird Watching Magazine and see what was there.
I’d seen a Green Woodpecker and several Great Spotteds. I watched one of the latter fly straight past, then something – a smaller bird – caught my eye on a half-dead silver birch. I fixed my binoculars on it and loudly exclaimed ‘No way!’ as I clapped eyes on a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. I gaped for a couple of seconds, then it had gone. Without trying, I’d found one of the top birds on my list.Targets and ambitions aren’t always helpful
There were times my birding challenge stressed me out. I felt pressure to find the birds on my list. I felt like I HAD to find time in my hectic life to get out there and make an effort.
Yes, there were benefits to making myself go birding, and I wouldn’t have seen some of those great birds if I hadn’t, but since I finished the challenge I’ve felt strangely relieved – like I’ve reclaimed my hobby.
I like the freedom of seeing what turns up, and the adventure of exploring places. I’ll keep trying to see birds I’ve never seen before – that sense of discovery is part of what I love about birdwatching – but without undue pressure and expectations. We all have enough of those in our lives without enforcing them on the things we do for fun.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We have a family holiday in Filey every summer. It’s a rich source of photo opportunities. Even the gulls pose for pictures.
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.
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.
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.
This is the story of how a hamster taught me a valuable lesson about life.
Here is the hamster in question.
His name is Nibbles, and he’s our family pet. He is better known as Nibs, but will also answer to Nib Nib, Nibby or even Nibby Nibby Nib Nib.
You know when Nibs is awake because you can usually hear one of us calling “Niiiiiiiiiibs” in a silly pet voice. One of the grown-ups usually. The children are much more sensible
I’ll have to cover Nibs’s ears for a moment because I have a shocking confession to make. I didn’t want a hamster, or any kind of pet for that matter. Not right now.
I love animals. I just didn’t want another responsibility; another thing to worry about or care for; another thing to become emotionally attached to.
My daughter had been quietly but steadily campaigning for a pet for a while, and my wife and I had always said “Not yet,” but there came a turning point.
One night at Brownies, another Brownie brought in her hamster to show the girls. He was easy to look after, she said, and a lovely pet. Somehow or other, my wife had a kind of enlightening Road to Damascus moment and became converted to the hamster cause on the walk home from Brownies, and joined the hamster recruitment campaign.
She was far more persistent and persuasive than my daughter and did her research thoroughly. A hamster would be easy to care for, inexpensive, a good starter pet… I started to receive texts and emails throughout the next day, saying, quite simply, “Hamster”.
In the end, I conceded defeat, and we went on a family outing to the pet shop. We saw two hamsters, but Nibs was immediately the one for us. My little boy named him Nibbles, we loaded up the car with a hamster house, bedding, food and various forms of hamstery entertainment, then took him home.
Needless to say, I am the one who’s become soppiest about Nibbles. He’s such a cute little chap – surprisingly good fun and full of character. He and I have some kind of father-hamster bond. He looks for me to let him out of his cage for a stroke, a whiz around in his ball, a treat or just the chance to try and escape. I love him and won’t try to deny it.
What he’s taught me is this – there is always a teensy bit more room in your life for pleasure; for new things to enjoy and look forward to.
He’s also reminded me of an important lesson from my counselling for depression. There’s no point fearing the worst and worrying about things that might never happen. Yes, Nibs is another thing to care about, but the added pleasure he’s brought to us all far outweighs that.
When I was going through the worst of my depression, I seemed to spend a lot of time looking down.
I’d be walking along hunched over, staring at the floor, feeling smaller than my real height. My head seemed to be bowed a lot of the time. It was heavy, dragged down by the weight of my intensely negative thoughts. Staring at the floor is useful for avoiding dog poo and falling down holes, but beyond that it doesn’t have much going for it.
Looking up, on the other hand, can be a rewarding and glorious experience. Sun, moon, clouds, stars, sunsets, rainbows, birds, bats, treetops – you don’t see any of those things by staring at the ground. It can feel like a big effort to lift your head in the darkest times, but there’s a world up there to lift your spirits, however fleetingly.
On my favourite album – The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society – there’s a song by my favourite songwriter, Ray Davies, called Big Sky, and it sums up rather nicely what I’m saying:
And when I feel
That the world’s too much for me
I think of the big sky
And nothing matters much to me
Another wise man, David Lindo (also known as the Urban Birder), lists ‘look up’ as his number one birding tip. You never know what might be flying over. This week I’ve watched a heron and two buzzards flying over while I’ve been stuck in traffic on the way to work.
I try to get out for a walk as often as possible now, and looking up is a big part of the pleasure I get from doing so. I also find inspiration in the sky for photos and often stop to point my mobile up in the air (it does have a camera – I’m not just thrusting a phone skywards).
Here are some of the pictures I’ve taken this year by doing just that. Why not lift up your eyes to the uplifting skies and let the light in?