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.
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.
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.
I was on BBC Breakfast recently talking about how getting outdoors and enjoying nature helps me with my mental health. But how exactly does it help?
I’m going to start with two quick disclaimers:
- I’m not a scientist, so I won’t try to give you any scientific evidence of how nature benefits mental health. This is all about my personal experience. But that evidence does exist, as Dr Andrea Mechelli explained alongside me on the BBC sofa (see pictures below). Find out more about the study from King’s College London.
- Nature alone does not cure depression, anxiety or any other mental health problem. It’s one part of a toolkit of coping strategies that can help us to manage our well-being.
My own personal mental health battles are with depression and anxiety, and I find that nature does help me in a number of ways.
Doing something I enjoy
When we’re worn down by stress, anxiety and depression, it’s easy to forget the things we used to enjoy doing – or how to enjoy doing anything for that matter.
A few years ago, when I was frazzled and going through an episode of depression, my counsellor encouraged me to find time to do something I enjoyed. I’d always enjoyed birdwatching and walking, and tried to get out more and rediscover the pleasure of my abandoned hobbies.
A positive focus and distraction
Absorbing ourselves in nature can turn a walk – or even just a nice sit down in a park or garden – into a mindful experience that focuses us on the present and takes us away from the churning thoughts that tumble round our heads and the anxiety that chews at our tummies.
Hear the breeze rustling the leaves in the treetops; listen to the birds singing; watch butterflies and bees flitting among your garden flowers… I find that even a few moments being completely distracted by wildlife usually has a calming effect on me and lifts my mood.
As well as the wildlife, experiencing different places – or just retreating to a favourite wild place – can be very therapeutic. I find being in woodland or by water especially soothing.
Being outdoors has other health benefits too – fresh air, sunlight and exercise are good for our physical health as well as our mental well-being.
Discovery, excitement and adventure
One thing I love about nature is that there is always something new to discover – new species to see, new places to visit, new behaviour to observe. I’ll never forget the wonder of watching badgers in a woodland clearing after years of waiting for even a passing glance of one. If I’m planning a birding trip, there’s that sense of anticipation and excitement at what I might see, and the thrill of seeing a rare bird for the first time.
But a new experience doesn’t have to mean a new species – it can mean finding something unexpected in a familiar place. While off work with depression, I took a short walk from home, and found yellow wagtails – glorious, sunny yellow birds – bobbing about in a field where I’d never seen them before.
Nature is everywhere
It’s an unfortunate truth of depression that the things that are best for us are often the hardest things to do. Even for someone like me, who loves being outdoors, the draining, soul-destroying experience of depression can completely kill off all energy or enthusiasm, making the prospect of going out for a walk feel like the last thing I want to do.
At those times, if we just can’t face going out, we can still enjoy nature without venturing out. If you can see the sky or a tree, lawn or plant from where you’re sitting, you can still look out for wildlife. It’s amazing how many different species you can see in a fairly short space of time.
I feed the birds in my garden and can lose myself watching them – the goldfinches jostling for position on a feeder, the blackbirds fending off rivals, the wren that always follows exactly the same route into our garden and disappears for a moment in a bush…
Accept that it’s not going to work every time
Sometimes nature will help you feel better, even if only for a short time. Other times, it will not – but that doesn’t mean we should give up.
There are occasions where my mood has been too dark – my thoughts too destructive and intrusive – for me to be able to get lost in the sights and sounds around me. There have been other times where I’ve felt crushing disappointment because I’ve ‘failed’ to see what I went out to look for (I’m trying to learn to manage my own expectations), or I’ve felt defeated and demoralised by the weather spoiling a day out.
One such day that stands out in my mind is when I took a day off work to go to Flamborough Head, one of my favourite places on the Yorkshire coast, on a mission to see some particular birds. I can’t remember what birds they were, but I can remember that I didn’t see them, and that I couldn’t even enjoy the beautiful scenery because of thick fog. I genuinely considered giving up on birdwatching that day – not only had I not seen what I’d wanted to see, the weather was manky, there was barely a bird of any kind to be found all day, and I was sick of dragging my telescope and rucksack around.
The bird that saved the day was an unlikely one. At the point of my greatest frustration, the movement of a small bird in the hedge up ahead caught my eye. I followed it, hoping it would reveal its identity, and it did. It was a male chaffinch – a very common bird, but a colourful one – and for some reason that splash of colour and the chaffinch’s perky character were enough to bring me back out of my brain fog. The actual fog lifted soon after that too, and I remember sitting on a bench, and discovering that a cup of tea tastes even better by the sea.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like these:
- Dippyman: Birdwatching, depression and the BBC sofa
- Dippyman: Why birdwatching is good for my mental health
- My BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day on my encounter with a Water Rail
- Blurt Foundation blog: How nature helps me
- Bird Therapy blog by Joe Harkness
- Anxious Birding blog by Ian Young
One of my favourite wild places to escape to is Three Hagges Wood Meadow, between York and Selby.
A combination of young woodland and meadow, this special place is a haven for wildlife and is at its finest at this time of year – alive with chirping grasshoppers, swallows swooping low over the tall grass, bees and butterflies enjoying the wild flowers, and dragonflies and damselflies patrolling the pond.
Our friends Emma and Justin, who live nearby, introduced us to it about a year ago. We liked the place so much we decided to sponsor a square of the meadow, which we like to go and visit as a family.
Some time ago, Emma asked me if I’d like to be a storyteller for the Three Hagges Wood Meadow discovery day. It sounded like fun, so I said yes. But as the day grew nearer, my inspiration had dried up, and I had to admit I couldn’t think of an idea for my story. It needed to be something educational, related to wildlife, and with some interactive elements for children to join in with.
With less than two weeks to go, I had one free evening left when I could write something, so I sat at the computer and, without any sort of plan, decided to just start writing in the hope that something would happen. My daughter had suggested writing something from the point of view of an animal in the meadow, and that idea must have lingered somewhere in my brain, because the first thing I wrote was “One day, I turned into a grasshopper”.
Thankfully that set me on my way, and I wrote the whole story in one go. It was a liberating feeling, and the most I’ve enjoyed writing anything in years – no plan, no structure, no rules. I just wrote for the joy of writing, and it somehow worked. And I learned a lot about grasshoppers.
Now that my story has had its grand premiere in Bodgers’ Den – a cosy shelter in the meadow where my audience sat on bales of hay – I thought I’d share it with you. Here it is.
Paul the Grasshopper
One day, I turned into a grasshopper. I know, it sounds unlikely, but sometimes these things happen and you just have to make the most of it.
I was very lucky, really. I mean yes, I was very small and easy to step on, and loads of creatures wanted to eat me, but I could do some pretty cool stuff.
For example, I could jump a really long way. If you’d seen me doing it, you might not have thought it was a long way, but for a little grasshopper, trust me, it was. If I could jump that far as I am now, compared to my height as a human, I’d be able to jump 90 feet. How far can you jump? Have a go.
(((We all do some jumping)))
Very impressive, but do you know how far 90 feet is? It’s longer than a football field, or three-and-a-half London buses.
And I could make music by rubbing one of my legs against one of my forewings – that was one of the hard wings near the front of my body. I don’t mean I could play ANY music. I couldn’t do any Little Mix or Ariana Grande songs. I didn’t sound like Bruno Mars. But I could play music like a miniature violin. Sometimes other grasshoppers would join in, and it would be like a big grasshopper concert. Other times, when I played my music, lady grasshoppers would come up to me and say things like “Ooh, what lovely music. Wanna hang out together?” Which was a bit awkward, really, because I was still me inside that strange insect body, and I didn’t really fancy having a grasshopper for a girlfriend. Besides which, I’m married
Anyway, another cool thing was that when I turned into a grasshopper, I found myself right here, in Three Hagges Wood Meadow. Quite appropriate really, as it turned out I was a meadow grasshopper. The only bad thing about being a meadow grasshopper is that they’re the only sort of grasshopper in this country that can’t fly. Imagine how awesome it would be if I could have been a flying grasshopper!
But anyhow, what a great place to be a grasshopper – all that tall grass to hide in, and climb up, and jump around in. And all those other insects to chat with. There are loads of them! Have you seen any?
(((We talked about the day’s insect sightings. My favourite was ‘a dinosaur’.)))
The butterflies are so beautiful and colourful, then there’s all the different ladybirds, and the fancypants dragonflies that fly around the pond. And speaking of the pond, I do love watching the whirligig beetles spinning round and round. Sometimes I think they’re dancing to my music.
Then there’s all the bees and other insects that live in the Bee Hotel. It’s a bit over the top, if you ask me. I find the grass is perfectly adequate for an insect. I don’t get to stay in a hotel… I mean, what sort of insect needs an en suite bathroom, Freeview TV, complimentary tea and coffee, and a cooked breakfast? It’s a bit much. That’s what I thought anyway, then I realised it’s not as posh as it sounded, but still a great place to live if you’re a bee.
Talking of food, I’m a vegetarian, so being a grasshopper kind of suited me. I wouldn’t normally go around eating the sort of plants you get in this meadow, but there wasn’t a lot of Quorn about; no nice veggie curries, or chilli, or pasta, or mixed nuts – not even a stir fry. But I had these big, scary-looking teeth and could eat pretty much anything. Normally if I bit into a tree trunk, it would hurt and probably break my teeth, but being a grasshopper I could have a good chew and it was all fine. Different types of grass were the best. Secretly quite tasty if you’re a grasshopper and into that kind of thing. And a good source of carbs – useful for energy, which you need if you’re jumping about all day.
What would you chew through if you could bite through anything?
(((We chatted about this for a minute or two.)))
Another thing about being a grasshopper is that things want to eat you. That’s not something I have to worry about usually, being a human – not unless I’m hanging out in the African savannah and trying to annoy hungry lions. But I don’t do that very often.
So yes, it can actually get pretty terrifying being a grasshopper in a place where there’s so much other wildlife. So many creatures like to eat them – spiders, birds, snakes, even rodents like mice and rats. Apparently it’s a good thing that so many creatures like to eat grasshoppers, because if they didn’t, the grasshoppers would eat up all the plants and crops and everyone would be starving. It didn’t feel like a very good thing to me at the time though.
I’m a birdwatcher, so I found it weird being a grasshopper – I mean obviously it was weird being a grasshopper, that goes without saying – but what I’m getting at is that you can’t really go around watching birds when they’d gobble you up if they spotted you. It’s a bit like the opposite of birdwatching, really. They were trying to spot me!
But I couldn’t resist trying to watch some birds. I knew that sometimes Red Kites and Buzzards liked to fly over the meadow, particularly over the woods. They’re big, impressive birds, and I couldn’t help but think “Imagine how amazingly massive they’ll look through the eyes of a grasshopper!”
Now, if I’d been one of the other sorts of grasshopper, I could have flown up and had a slightly closer look, but I wasn’t and I couldn’t, so I decided my best bet was to climb up the tallest grass I could find and have a nosy from the top. I wasn’t going to get a very good view from down there in the undergrowth.
What’s the highest thing you’ve ever climbed up?
(((Justin won with Mont Blanc.)))
I hopped around the meadow until I was amongst the tallest grass, then began my climb. Suddenly there was a hiss behind me, and a grass snake slithered towards me. Aaaaaagh! I took a mighty jump as it opened its mouth and prepared to chomp down on me.
I’d escaped – just. But I needed to get back to my tall bit of grass, so I waited until the snake had stopped watching me and gone looking for another snack somewhere else, then jumped back, but there was more danger waiting for me. Just ahead of me, there was another grasshopper, but something was wrong – it was just hanging there, unable to move.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Oh you know, just hanging about,” it said.
“Really?” I said. “You don’t look very comfortable.”
“I was being sarcastic,” it said. “I’m stuck in a spider’s web and it’s going to come back and eat me in a minute.”
With not a moment to lose, I used those big, tough teeth of mine to chew through the web and release the grasshopper.
“Oi!” said a voice from above. “That’s my lunch. Come back here!”
It was a huge spider, and it wasn’t happy.
The two of us leapt out of harm’s way and hid behind a leaf until we were sure the spider had lost us.
I said farewell to my fellow grasshopper, and decided to have one last try at getting to the top of the grass. I could hear the cry of a Red Kite somewhere overhead, and sped up, hoping I’d be able to get a proper look at it. Leaving the ground far behind me – well, it was far behind if you’re a grasshopper – my little insecty head popped up above the top of the grass, and I could see all around. The woods, the pond, the bee hotel, Bodgers’ Den… But where was that Red Kite? Typical birds, always disappearing when you go looking for them.
I was about to have a good sulk, and possibly a grumpy chew on a blade of grass, when a huge bird drifted over the top of the trees, twisting in the air as it flew, like a… well, like a kite. And that’s what it was – a Red Kite, a bird that could only be found in a few remote parts of Wales when I started birdwatching as a boy, but that we can now enjoy watching here in the meadow and other places around here.
I didn’t have to worry about it eating me. Kites need bigger food – they’re not interested in grasshoppers. But I hadn’t been concentrating on what was going on around me. There was a swooshing of wings and the horrifying sight of a blackbird swooping down on me!
I waited for the end to come, but then all was quiet and still. My adventure was over. I was a human again, sitting in the meadow. The Red Kite was still there, soaring above me, and I watched a grasshopper hopping away, as I stood up, walked over here to the Den, and started writing about all the things I’d discovered about being a grasshopper. And that’s what I’ve just been reading to you.
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.