Birdwatching can be many things: relaxing, absorbing, frustrating, educational… but exhilarating and joyful? Well, yes actually.
There are birding moments that can leave you grinning like a fool, cheering like a champion, or gawping like a fish.
I was fortunate enough to enjoy one such moment when I took a long-overdue day off to go birding. It was also the first day of the school holidays, so I had a wildlife-loving sidekick for the day: my son Daniel.
We faced a dilemma. Would we head for Flamborough on the east coast in the hope of finding our number one bogey bird, the Firecrest? There had been sightings in two different locations there in the previous few days but none reported the day before. Or would we go somewhere a little nearer – maybe to Fairburn Ings and the chance to see a Little Gull, which had been reported during the week?
I gave Daniel the choice, and he plumped for the shorter trip to Fairburn.
We had a moment on our journey that made the trip worthwhile, before we’d even started in earnest. Daniel loves birds of prey – the first time he said ‘bird’ was when a Red Kite drifted over his buggy on a visit to Harewood House – and had been talking about how he’d love to see a raptor close up.
He was pleased enough when we spotted a buzzard in a tree, but then we passed so close to one perched in a roadside hedge that he could see every detail on its face. The delight in his voice as he described it set us up for a great day ahead.
A promising start
The omens were still good as we arrived in the village to be greeted by several Sand Martins, my first of the year. We strolled down the lane to Village Bay, where the Little Gull had last been reported, encountering several songbirds as we went – a very vocal Chiffchaff, a Linnet in a classic pose on top of a hedgerow, and a Song Thrush hopping about in a grassy field.
Reaching the shore of the lake, I set up my telescope, lowering it to a Daniel-friendly height so he could get the same decent views of distant birds as I could.
One by one, we spotted Tufted Ducks, Mallards, Coots and Moorhens, and a generous smattering of Gadwall – a very smart and under-rated duck – then Great Crested Grebes, Pochards, and my first Little Egret of the year on the far side of the lake.
On wooden posts in the middle of the water stood two Cormorants – one juvenile and one adult (like Cormorant versions of me and Daniel) and a trio of Black-headed Gulls, which I studied closely in case one turned out to be our Little Gull.
A little bit of magic
I expected that if we were lucky enough to see it, the Little Gull would be a fleeting glimpse of a juvenile some distance away.
When we did clap eyes on it, though, it surpassed all my hopes.
A small white gull caught my eye as it flew over the heads of some Pochards over to our left. As it zipped about, I got a clear view through my binoculars of the gull’s unmistakable distinguishing feature, which I’d seen in photos – the wings, although pale on top, were distinctly dark underneath.
“I’ve got it!” I shouted. I was able to point it out to Daniel. “See it, there? Flying over the Little Egret now…”
“I can see it!” he said.
There were two more special moments to come for me.
The first was when Daniel managed to pick up the Little Gull with my scope and follow it around as it whizzed high and then low over the lake. As a toddler, he had an operation on one of his eyes, and we weren’t sure he’d ever have ‘binocular vision’, and now here he was, sharing my hobby and this magical moment, just as able to watch this uncommon bird as I was.
In fact it was Daniel who got the best view first, and told me he could see the gull’s black head. This wasn’t a juvenile, or an adult bird still in its less striking winter plumage. This was a smart adult in full breeding plumage.
“You little beauty!” I gasped as a took over the scope for a few minutes, following the Little Gull as Daniel had done. What a smashing little bird. What an exhilarating and joyful few minutes. Not just a ‘lifer’ (the name for a bird you’re seeing for the first time in your life) but a cracking and generous view of a bird at its best, which I could share with my boy.
Moments like these make time stand still, and banish all other thoughts. Whatever else is going on in life, or in our heads, an encounter like this can put a smile on our faces whenever we pause to recall it.
The day would bring other great moments – listening to Bitterns ‘booming’ (their call sounds like the noise you can make by blowing into a bottle); being so close to a singing Robin that Daniel could almost touch it with his nose; watching an exotic Spoonbill; and a great look at a dazzling Kingfisher – but it’s that shared moment with a Little Gull that will stay in our memories for many years to come.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like:
- Why birdwatching is good for my mental health
- Getting excited about birds is good for you
- Life lessons from birdwatching
- Depression: how nature helps me
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.
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.
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!