The wacky bird race

Ever been out walking in total darkness on a freezing January morning to listen for grey partridges? No, neither had I, until I took part in my first bird race.

The idea of a bird race is that you get up horribly early in the morning and dash around all day trying to see or hear as many different species of bird as you can.

If it sounds a bit extreme, that’s because it is, but it’s also great fun and rather exciting once you get past the dazed ‘Is this all a dream?’ feeling.

Our intrepid team, Never Mind The Woodcocks – me, Jono, Rich and Emanuela – spent ten hours lurching from one York birding hotspot to another, totting up 95 species between a hooting tawny owl before dawn and a just-in-the-nick-of-time call from a little owl after dusk. I can take little credit for this impressive total. My main role was to bumble about, ask lots of questions, and chip in with silly jokes.

The Michael Clegg Memorial Birdrace turned out to be an epic adventure, featuring two firsts for me, close encounters with some great birds, and some fairly common species leading us a merry dance…

Egret by gum

After getting off to a mixed start in the dark – grey partridges and golden plover among the early ticks, but little owl refusing to play ball – our first location as dawn broke was the village of Stillingfleet, where a great white egret had been reported recently. A muddy trudge up and down the beck failed to reveal the egret, but listening to all the other birds waking up around us was a treat.

 Brambling on my mind

Passing an elegant barn owl perched on a gate, we approached our next location – seemingly a non-descript field in the middle of nowhere. But Jono had done his homework, and we soon found what we were looking for: a flock of bramblings, appearing in generous numbers at the top of a nearby oak tree. These attractive finches, boasting bright orange chests, are winter visitors to the UK, and aren’t always easy to find, but they spoilt us by hanging around for decent views and allowing me to learn their call, which sounded a little like an unimpressed sneer.

Gawping at scaups

A key spot on our tour of the York area was Castle Howard Lake, so it was a blow to arrive there in dense fog, with terrible visibility. Most ducks on the lake, which is normally thronging with a variety of wildfowl, were reduced to grey blobs – disappointing, as I’d hoped we’d find a scaup there. While not a particularly exciting bird to look at, it was one I’d never seen before, and a male and female had both been reported in the days before our visit.

Working our way along the lakeside path, we gradually started to find the birds we were looking for, such as the sleek goosanders and charismatic little goldeneyes among the many wigeons, teals, coots and tufted ducks. As we resigned ourselves to a scaup-less trip, the female suddenly glided into view. My first ‘lifer’ of the year! I’d always thought I’d struggle to identify one alongside the very similar tufted duck, but it was clearly a different shape – it looked longer, lower in the water, with a different-shaped head and a generous blob of white on its face.

The fog continued as we headed to Strensall Common, which was eerily beautiful in the gloom, but not exactly awash with bird life.

Strensall Common in the fog.

The sun attempts to break through the fog at Strensall Common.

Here come the gulls

There was certainly no shortage of gulls on bird race day – big flocks of them in the fields to the west of York. Identifying some of them was easy. Adult great black-backed gulls are unmistakable beasts – they’re big, and have black backs. I know what adult herring gulls and black-headed gulls look like. But throw winter plumages and juveniles of various ages into the mix, then set the challenge of trying to identify the rarer species – Iceland gull and glaucous gull – and I’m all of a tizz. We stared at flocks of gulls until my eyes ached and I felt dizzy, but still couldn’t find what we were looking for; and what we knew some of the other teams had seen. It was like a gull version of ‘Where’s Wally?’ with a cast of thousands.

Waxwing lyrical

Waxwings – exotic-looking pink birds with striking features and a rather punky hair-do – visit the UK in varying numbers each winter from Scandinavia. In some winters, like this one, they come over in large numbers to scoff as many berries as they can. They’d been spotted all around York in the run-up to the bird race, but our first attempt was fruitless. Our next stop was right next to the city walls, where waxwings had gathered during the last few days to feast on berries. From our perch on the top of the walls, we found blackbirds, song thrushes and mistle thrushes gorging themselves on the red fruit, but no waxwings. We were about to give up, when I made one of my few notable contributions to the team effort and spotted a solitary waxwing peeking out from the middle of the tree. We celebrated with a botched fist-bump/handshake/high-five mash-up and dashed off to our next site.

Wagtails and herons and grebes, oh my!

Bird watching is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. That can mean both unexpected delights and great frustrations. Three common species proved evasive on the day, and we got increasingly concerned that we were somehow going to fail to see a pied wagtail, grey heron, or great crested grebe. I’d seen a heron on the way to Castle Howard, but the rule was that birds only counted if at least three members of the team saw or heard it. Eventually, we did find one – a distant view from the hide at our final destination, Wheldrake Ings. The quest for a pied wagtail got more and more ridiculous, and the biggest cheer of the day came as we spotted one out of the car window, strutting nonchalantly along a pavement. But the grebe was nowhere to be found. Knowing the other teams were also struggling to find one, we wasted valuable time scooting off to two locations, hoping to track one down, but to no avail. It was the bogey bird of the day.

Wild goose chase

There was to be another first for me on this day of twists and turns. As the light began to fade, we literally went on a wild goose chase to try and track down a tundra bean goose. Luckily another birder was watching geese from the roadside, and was able to point out where the bean geese were hiding among larger numbers of pink-footed geese and the much commoner greylag geese. It was a puzzling game of ‘spot the difference’, and I’d probably have overlooked them without expert assistance – they did a cracking job of looking just like the pink feet, until one kindly gave us a flash of its bright orange legs.

A sniper in the bog

There were two final stops on our way to Wheldrake, where we knew we’d be able to enjoy a dusk bonanza of waders and other wetland birds – and endure another hapless sift through countless gulls.

One was the easiest find of the day – a little grebe appearing exactly where Jono had expected it on the Pocklington Canal.

The second was really something to behold – Rich’s snipe dance. Spotting a boggy field that was rich with potential for skulking snipe, off he went, bounding through the bog like a welly-wearing gazelle. It worked – from nowhere, up shot two common snipe in one direction, and a rarer, smaller jack snipe in the other. It was only the second jack snipe I’d ever seen, and a first for Emanuela.

Topping up our list with a late flurry of species at Wheldrake, we retired shattered but satisfied with our efforts – and talk turned to the possibility of a 24-hour Yorkshire bird race in May. Now that really would be extreme…


A spontaneous trip to the bog – with deer’s bottoms and a flushed woodcock

This morning I found time to experience the restorative and uplifting powers of nature (rather than dashing to the toilet, as the title may suggest) – but I very nearly didn’t bother.

After hitting ‘snooze’ about four times, I dragged myself wearily out of bed with a throbbing headache and in a grouchy mood, and attempted to wake the kids for school. Once I’d done the school run, I would, I vowed, go back to bed. My previous plan had been to go out somewhere for a morning’s birdwatching, but bed seemed far more appealing.

When nature calls

But on the walk back from school, I heard nature calling. The weather was pretty mild for a December morning, and there’s a nature reserve – Askham Bog – just up the road. OK, I probably wouldn’t see anything new there, but it felt the right place to be, so I strode home with purpose, changed into some old trousers, grabbed my binoculars and walking boots, and off I went.

Depression and stress have been stalking me again this year and I’ve had a lot on my mind, so this week – a week off work to be in my local panto at night and find some ‘me time’ by day – is proving a valuable breather. And where better to have a breather than in the fresh air, surrounded by trees and wildlife in a familiar spot?

Askham Bog, on the edge of York, at first seems small, with a boardwalk offering a short circular walk around the woods and bogs. But it’s much larger than it first appears, and part of the joy of going there is to explore the smaller paths off the boardwalk.

It didn’t take me long to get lost in nature. All was quiet when I first ventured over a stile and into a copse, but then there came a familiar cheeping overhead, and a group of long-tailed tits came into view, acrobatically working their way through the branches. A loud alarm call came from somewhere up ahead – a wren, with a voice far bigger than its body.

Ain’t no party like a woodland party

I returned to the boardwalk, the early-morning sky still waking up, and almost immediately encountered one of those wonderful winter flocks of mixed small birds, seemingly having a party in a tall tree. It was like half the wood had been invited to hang out – Redwings flew on ahead, while blue tits, coal tits and great tits joined their long-tailed friends; a treecreeper worked its way up the trunk, and tiny goldcrests flitted from twig to twig, some coming incredibly close. I spotted the silhouette of a larger, lean-looking bird at the top of a nearby tree – it turned out to be a smart male sparrowhawk; a potential party pooper if ever there was one. It took off, perhaps having detected my presence. Maybe I’d saved the day for the revellers. I stood mesmerised, taking it all in. If I saw nothing else, I told myself, it had been worth getting up for this.

Oh deer!

On my next jaunt away from the main path, I found chaffinches and bullfinches, the latter given away by their signature call – something like a squeaking hinge that needs oiling. I was distracted by a bright white shape bouncing up and down in the distance across the bog. I knew instinctively what it was – yes, I was staring at a deer’s bottom. The roe deer in question wasn’t hanging about (I don’t think I would either if someone was staring at my bum through binoculars) and it bounded off.

The best was still to come.

On my next excursion, I lost myself completely (mentally, not literally) in my peaceful surroundings, even pausing for a moment with my eyes closed to take in all the sounds – robins and blackbirds calling, wrens shouting from the undergrowth… Then I found myself composing this blog post in my head, and told myself to shut up and just enjoy being there.

Crossing a boggy field to the boundary fence, I spotted another bouncing white bottom in the distance, and another, as two roe deer retreated into the wood; then another came fully into view. They soon legged it, probably afraid I’d start ogling their backsides.

Flushed with success

I walked up to the boundary fence to peer into the wood, and a medium-sized, brown bird suddenly whooshed up from the brown leaves covering the ground, and it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. I was perplexed for a moment. What could it be? It was too big to be a mistle thrush, too small for a female sparrowhawk, and the wrong shape for an owl. Then it dawned on me – I must have disturbed (or ‘flushed’, to use birding lingo) a woodcock! These elusive birds are known to spend the winter at Askham Bog, but because they’re so hard to see – both because of their skulking behaviour and their effective camouflage – I had never seen one there before.

I made my way home, once again feeling tired, but now feeling happy and content, knowing I had used my time well and listened to my body. For an hour and 20 minutes, I’d transported myself away from the real world. Next stop, bed. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this self-care lark at last.

Here are some photos from my walk.

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Chipping away – at writing and depression

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.

Writer’s block

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.


Blue sky and calm water as the boat leaves Bridlington for a seabird cruise.


Here come the gulls.


A distant view of the white cliffs of Flamborough.


Back in Bridlington.

Throwing the book at depression

About five years ago my doctor told me I had depression.

On hindsight, the symptoms painted a pretty obvious picture. My head hurt every day. I’d been stressed out for months and was permanently tense and irritable. I was susceptible to every minor illness that was doing the rounds. I had no energy or enthusiasm, and had trouble sleeping. I couldn’t look forward to anything – instead, everything made me anxious and worried. My confidence and self-esteem seeped away, as did my memory.

From there came the antidepressants, the counselling and the realisation that many, many other people go through this same thing. I’ve learned a lot from depression, and have become wise to its tricks and traps. Recovery isn’t about being miraculously cured and leaping with joy every moment of every day. It’s about feeling better, staying well and finding ways to cope if I feel depression’s malevolent presence  – and, ideally, heading it off before it manages to get a hold.

All kinds of things can help in some small way, but one thing I’ve stuck with ever since my first round of counselling is my book. You could call it a ‘positivity diary’ if you like. To me it’s just ‘my book’. It’s a notebook that I write positive things in every day (or most days – the odd one gets missed out and I don’t berate myself for that, otherwise my perfectionist gremlins might come out and bash me over the head).

I use the book to keep a record of good things that happen to me – things I’ve enjoyed, kind words people have said to me or about me, small successes… When I started it, I believed I wasn’t good enough and was finding little pleasure in anything. The idea of the book was to tackle those two perspectives one day at a time.

If you can find something positive in each day, however small, it starts a positive cycle. It gradually builds up so that you’re encouraged and reminded to keep looking – and when times are particularly hard, the stuff you’ve written down is your evidence against the accusing voice telling you you’re not good enough and that nothing good ever happens. It also helps you to appreciate and savour good things as they’re happening to you. It can be incredibly easy to forget them all. Even if writing in the book doesn’t seem to make any difference at the time, it might be just what you need some time in the future.

Remembering to read the diary from time to time is an important part of making it work for you. I was feeling a bit battered and low on confidence recently so decided to read through my diaries, right from the very start (not all in one go – there are five full books to get through).

I’m finding it a genuinely uplifting and humbling experience, reliving forgotten moments and recalling achievements and happy times, whether I was on great form at the time or just trying to find a gap in the clouds.

I used to also keep a record of things I’d found difficult or stressful, to try and learn from them, and I wrote those down in the back of my books. It’s been interesting to look back on those too, but they can also take me back to things I don’t want to remember. Writing them down served a purpose at the time, but I’m glad I stopped doing so. I’ve learned just as much by refreshing my memory about good things I’ve done.

My first diary pre-dated my first foray into blogging, so I’ve also been following the history of Dippyman from its origins to the present day. If you’ve ever read, liked, shared or commented on one of my blog posts, thank you – you’ve played a part in my book and, in turn, in my recovery.

Help us raise loads of money in Dan’s memory

This January, my friend Dan Rhodes took his own life, aged 39, after battling mental illness on and off for 15 years.

He was a lovely, genuine, funny, talented man and is much missed by his family and friends. His death shocked and saddened us all.


On 3 August, I’m running the York 10K with my friends Kate Wilkinson and Keith Bremner to raise money in Dan’s memory.

We want to remember him by raising as much money as we can for his memorial fund at his church, Jubilee Church Hull. The money will go towards the church’s work supporting people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in Hull.

If you’d like to make a donation, you can do so on the church’s website here.

Your donation will help to empower vulnerable people and offer practical support. This year, the church is providing showers and laundry facilities and opening a recovery college, providing accessible educational opportunities.

Thank you very much,

Paul, Kate and Keith

P.S. Dan loved a good ‘dad joke’ – the sort of terrible pun that makes you cringe. Share your best ones with us!

“Why aren’t you drinking?”

During the months I was trying to keep my depression a secret, there was one small thing that kept giving the game away. Was it the mood swings? No. Was it the headaches? No. Was it the lethargy? No again. It was non-alcoholic drinks.

It’s not that I’m a big drinker. After drunkenly embarrassing myself at a friend’s wedding several years ago, I decided I wasn’t very good at this drinking lark, and opted for a ‘quality rather than quantity’ policy. And fatherhood has also deterred me from pushing my limits, because having a hangover after a disrupted night’s sleep and an early start just doesn’t bear thinking about – especially when accompanied by the cacophony of sound that young children effortlessly generate. 

When you’re out meeting friends at a pub or restaurant, though, or if you’re going to a party, and everyone else is sharing a bottle of wine or buying a round of beers, they somehow notice if you don’t join them.

So, why this abstinence from alcohol? Well, when I started taking Citalopram, an antidepressant, two years ago, it said quite clearly on the label that alcohol should be avoided. When it comes to medical instructions, I am an obedient chap. I do what they tell me. I am no expert on medicine and its side effects, and I never fancy experimenting with a more rebellious stance. Other people who’ve taken Citalopram have told me it’s OK to drink alcohol in moderation, but those same tales have often ended with ‘but it might make your symptoms worse’ or ‘and then I passed out’. I have very understanding friends, but I can imagine that me passing out during a night out would put a dampener on the occasion. Even that might be preferable to one of my blacker moods being unleashed in a social setting. So the potential side effects, in combination with my low tolerance of alcohol, would suggest I’m better steering clear.

My teetotal nights out have served me quite well, in a way. Sometimes, when I’ve wanted to talk to a friend about depression, but found it too awkward or weird to just blurt it out, my alcohol-free drinks have given me a way to raise the subject in an informal and light-hearted way. There was one time when I was going to a party in another town, and my friend asked how I’d be getting there. I said I’d be driving. “Don’t you want to have a drink?” she asked. “I can’t at the moment,” I replied. “I’m taking some tablets for depression.” And we got talking, and I realised that discussing such things doesn’t have to be heavy-going.

Do I miss alcohol? Yes, sometimes. A glass of wine would go down a treat, as would a cold beer or a single malt whisky. I’m saving one of these as a treat for when I’m eventually liberated from Citalopram, but I am no longer setting myself unnecessary targets, because they only lead to disappointment and frustration. I’ve already aimed for a cool summer beer (last summer) and a celebratory Christmas tipple (last Christmas). Neither happened. I’ve come to accept my relationship with Citalopram and the completely alcohol-free lifestyle that comes with it, and know that rushing to try and reduce my dose will do me more harm than good.

What I have gained from not drinking alcohol is expertise in a new area – the unappetising-sounding world of alcohol-free beer. There’s a growing number of contenders in this niche market – but which should you go for? Here’s my rundown of the ones I’ve tried. Let me know your verdicts, or if you’ve found anything better – or worse!

Brook’s non-alcoholic beer review

Beck’s Blue: This is the king of non-alcoholic beers, and the one that is making its way into more and more pub fridges. It’s the closest I’ve tasted to ‘real’ beer. Admittedly it’s not as nice as its alcoholic twin, but that would be a tall order.

Kaliber: At the other end of the scale, this is the nastiest beer in this genre. It tastes of used dishwater and is so rank that I once paid for a bottle, took one sip, and bought something else. I NEVER waste a drink…

Sam Smith’s: Although I feel a certain loyalty to this Yorkshire brewery, I don’t feel inclined to stand up for their non-alcoholic lager. I tried it once. It vies with Kaliber for the crown of ‘Most rancid’.

Cobra: I love Cobra beer. Nothing goes better with a curry. But the alcohol-free equivalent is a big disappointment. It tastes of soap. I don’t know why; nor do I wish to know. I’ve given it a couple of chances, but it will not get another.

Bavaria: There are two Bavaria alcohol-free beers in my local supermarket. One, the wheat beer, is a runner up to Beck’s Blue. It’s a little on the gassy side, but tastes a bit like Hoegaarden, which is a good thing in my book, and is drinkable – although you probably wouldn’t want more than one can. The regular ‘malt’ alcohol-free lager is not so good. It’s inoffensive, and it’s cheap, but there are many nicer drinks you could spend your pennies on.

Bitburger Drive: Sounds like it should be nice, but it’s another disappointment. I’d rate it around the middle of the range – infinitely better than Kaliber but lagging behind Beck’s Blue.

Erdinger: I’ve only tried this once. I seem to think it was OK, and one of the few I would go back to.

And finally… Swedish cider-maker Kopparberg has entered the ‘alcohol-free versions of alcoholic drinks’ market with a couple of alcohol-free ciders – one pear and one mixed fruit. The pear one is deliciously crisp and light, fruity and tasty. A cynic might say ‘Alcohol-free cider? That’s apple juice isn’t it?’ And they might well have a point. But it tastes good. The mixed fruit offering is pleasant but not as good as the pear one. Stick to Vimto.

Shine a light into the darkness

Depression is like a slippery serpent, slinking about in the shadows. It slithers into your mind, where it feasts on – and feeds – your fears, doubts, worries and anger. And once it’s got hold of you, it makes you jive to its sinister tunes.

You could look at it as a vampire. Not the young, sexy kind of vampire you might be used to seeing in the movies, but the evil, vicious sort that’s too busy eating away at your confidence and self-esteem to pause for a pout.

Whether you see it as a serpent, a vampire, a bully or – as many do – a black dog or a dark cloud, depression is an invisible illness that relishes the dark.

Because you often have no outward symptoms of depression, it’s not the kind of illness where someone will come up to you in the kitchen at work and say ‘Oh dear, you don’t look well’. There are no spots or swellings to give the game away.

This is perhaps why depression can end up feeling like a dirty secret. Nobody will know about it if you don’t tell them. And the cruel thing about this illness is that it makes you feel ashamed of it. If you admit to it, terrible things might happen to you. The doctor might PUT YOU ON TABLETS. Oh the shame. You might even get SIGNED OFF WORK. How humiliating.

Both of these things have happened to me. Both have been necessary, and both have helped me. Nobody has given me any stick for it. In fact, the more people I talk to about my depression, the more I realise how common it is, and how many people – old and young, male and female – have experienced it at some point in their lives.

I didn’t talk about my depression for a long time, because I didn’t really want to admit I’d got it. I gradually told a few more of my friends, and the encouraging thing was that they were all so supportive and understanding. Nobody came out with those classic lines ‘Well you look OK to me’ or ‘Pull yourself together’.

The big change for me, though, was when I wrote my first blog about depression. I’d previously written about light-hearted stuff, like going on holiday and bird watching, but something compelled me to write about this hidden scourge of my life. I took a deep breath, posted the link on Twitter and Facebook, where I knew my friends and colleagues would see it, and then sat and wondered whether I’d done the right thing.

Well, I needn’t have worried. The response was overwhelming – humbling, even. And it has been the same whenever I’ve posted anything about depression. There are loads of people out there who are experiencing the same thing, supporting and encouraging each other.

Don’t let your depression trap you in a dark corner. Shine a bright light on it – expose it for the snivelling little viper that it really is. It really won’t like it.

My first step to confronting depression was to admit to myself that I needed some help. My second step was to get that help. And my third was to ‘come out’ about it – to write openly and honestly about what was happening to me. It’s actually quite therapeutic.

Does this mean I’m cheerfully shouting out about my illness from the rooftops? No – it’s much easier for me to write about it than to talk about it. Not long ago, when someone asked me on the phone why I’d been off work, I told him I wouldn’t bore him with the details, and swiftly moved on. But that was because I didn’t know him very well and felt it was none of his business.

Many people do know about my depression, including you. And I’m happy about that. Keeping a secret can be stressful – and let’s face it, there are enough stresses in life without creating more of them for yourself. This is one secret you should share.

I wrote this blog for the Time to Talk campaign from Time to Change, which is encouraging people to talk about mental health. Join thousands of others, like me, who have pledged to do just that.