Getting excited about birds is good for you

One crucial thing I learned in my counselling for depression was that it’s important to find time to do something you enjoy. One of the things I enjoy most is birdwatching.

Fitting my hobby around work and family life isn’t easy, but I’ve found ways of managing it. Sometimes I go out for a spot of lunchtime birding and take pleasure from the birds I can see in the park next to where I work, or just up the road at Rawcliffe Meadows.

Occasionally, my wife and I take our children to a family-friendly nature reserve, like Fairburn Ings, Skipwith Common or Askham Bog. I don’t get to do much real birding on those occasions – the birds can usually hear my son’s voice from a mile away and go into hiding – but it’s still nice to get out and enjoy the odd glimpse of a feathered friend.

But what really excites me – and I do get a boyish sense of restless excitement about this – is planning a BIRDING MISSION, when I take a day’s leave from work and head off somewhere to seek out birds I haven’t seen before, or at least haven’t seen for a long time.

My last birding mission was in October, when I made the epic journey (well, less than two hours but it seems to take forever) to Spurn Point, where Yorkshire’s east coast comes to a sandy end, jutting out into the gaping mouth of the River Humber.

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Spurn Lighthouse

My previous trip to Spurn, several years ago, had been a birding bonanza, and I had high hopes. In the build-up, I pretty much stalked Spurn Bird Observatory on Twitter to keep track of the latest sightings. I studied a map of the area to get familiar with place names and local landmarks. There had been a Firecrest in the churchyard; Jack Snipe in the canal zone; Little Gulls near the pub; and all kinds of rarities cropping up pretty much all over the place.

I arrived in Kilnsea, the small village nearest the point, some time around ten, and Spurn seemed to be alive with birds. A little egret rose up from the water’s edge, gulls were flying over, a garden over the road was under siege from various small birds, and I couldn’t wait to get out there and explore. Two helpful and highly excitable birders who’d been there since the crack of dawn had seen all sorts, and pointed out a great skua in the distance.

From there, though, things didn’t quite go to plan. The Firecrest had disappeared from the churchyard. The Jack Snipe had gone. A Great Grey Shrike had turned up in a hedge, but by the time I got to the scene a crow had scared it off. I found an exotic-looking bunting that turned out to be a common female Reed Bunting.

Then I heard about an obscure Pallas’s Leaf Warbler that had been seen right at the end of the point. I found out what they looked like – cute, tiny and green, with a stripy head – and decided I’d try and track it down. Then I found the road to the end, three miles away, had been washed away by a recent storm.

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Walking down Spurn Point in the sunshine – but not for long.

I marched on, but a steady stream of mournful-looking birders began coming past me in the opposite direction.

“No sign of it,” they said.

Out of a stubborn desire to reach the tip, I kept going, but as the weather got more and more blustery, I began to regret the decision. Not only had the warbler made itself scarce, it had taken all the other birds with it – or maybe the wind had done that. It had carried me to the end of the point, but it was not so helpful on the way back. It battered me so hard I could hardly walk at times, especially when I pulled a muscle in my right leg with the effort of it all.

I’d seen plenty of birds but nothing new. A bit disappointing, given the promise the day had held, but with some highlights, not least the mass arrival of migrant Redwings, Fieldfares and Goldcrests.

Rather comically, when I checked Twitter the following morning, the Great Grey Shrike had popped up again, joined by a friend.

They might wear me out sometimes, and they might seem to hide deliberately just to taunt me, but I reckon birds are good for me. And the excitement of my birding missions is good for me. That’s why I’m planning another one in May…

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Spurn Point – windswept but beautiful.

Light at the end of the tunnel

So, you’ve opened this blog post and found a rather poor photograph and half a page of solid, black nothingness. There is a point to this, and it’s about finding the light at the end of a long, black tunnel. Allow me to explain.

I was in my home city of York, stuck in traffic and feeling sorry for myself. I’d just had the latest of three disappointments in as many weeks and was wondering if I could pick myself up enough to be a cheery presence at the leaving do I was on my way to.

Pondering these rather gloomy, negative thoughts and staring straight ahead at the back of a car I’d been looking at for nearly half an hour, I suddenly realised I was beneath an arch – Micklegate Bar – and there was literally light at the end of the tunnel. The unexciting image you can see above is that light.

I scrambled for my phone in an attempt to take a photo before the traffic began to move. I must have lurched as I took the photo, and found I’d taken a blurred, wonky photo of a ‘keep left’ sign. I tried again, and the traffic lights obligingly stayed red, as you can see from the resulting image.

The view you’ve just been looking at inspired me. I know it doesn’t look very inspiring, but to me it was a revelation and it changed my mood completely.

It became symbolic of my past year. Last October, I crashed into a second major bout of depression, triggered by my reaction to what I saw at the time as a personal rejection. I could have taken these latest three disappointments in that same way, but instead I vowed to learn from them and keep going, because nothing will happen if I do nothing.

Yes, I’d been sad, disappointed – gutted even – but I was able to accept (probably thanks to the counselling I’ve had, the books that I’ve read and the wise words I’ve listened to) that it is perfectly normal, even for the most upbeat of people, to be disappointed sometimes, and not necessarily a sign of an impending re-run of my depression.

This acceptance and determination is something I simply could not do and did not have twelve months ago. It was a sign of real progress, and a reminder of how far I’ve come.

It showed me that however long and dark the tunnel may be, it’s worth keeping the faith that you will one day see the light at the end of it. A moment after I took the photo, the lights changed, I moved forward and turned a corner. More signs of progress yet to come?

Why birdwatching is like a box of chocolates

Forrest Gump’s momma told him that life was like a box of chocolates, apparently because you don’t know what you’re gonna get. I don’t know if Momma Gump ever went birdwatching, but if she did, she’d have found that the same philosophy applies.

You can go to a famous nature reserve that, according to legend, is practically dripping with rare birds, yet come away having seen little more than a couple of ducks. Equally, you can be driving down a suburban street on an unpromising winter’s day when you suddenly spot three trees full of exotic-looking waxwings opposite a row of shops, which is what happened to me a couple of years ago.

Momma Gump’s words of wisdom have come to mind a couple of times this summer as I’ve been out looking for birds.

Back in May or June, some birding friends reported they’d had a cracking view of two turtle doves (but no partridge in a pear tree, nor, alas, five gold rings) at the side of a country lane not far from where we live. The turtle dove is a beautiful bird, synonymous with summer in the British countryside but sadly in steep decline. I’d never seen one, and the news of their appearance so close to home seemed too good to be true.

Hastily gathering up our two young children one weekend, my wife and I drove out to this rural hotspot and set off down the lane. Whether it was bad timing or the foghorn-like voice of my four-year-old son that was to blame, we arrived just in time to see the back of the doves as they flew away into the distance. We spent a good hour stalking them, but apart from briefly hearing their distinctive purring call from their top-secret hideout, we never got any closer. However, there was a surprise around the corner.

I was staring into the bushes over the other side of the road, trying to identify a small bird that turned out to be a cheeky willow warbler. My daughter, who’d come out armed with her own mini pair of binoculars, started to nag me to come and look at a bird she’d seen. Expecting it to be a blackbird or some other familiar feathered friend I’d seen countless times, I told her to wait.

Eventually plodding back over the road, I asked her to point to where she’d seen the bird. I looked through my own binoculars and found myself face to face with a garden warbler. Now, as the RSPB’s bird guide will tell you, the garden warbler is not a very exciting bird – ‘a very plain warbler with no distinguishing features’ – but to me this was very exciting indeed, because I’d never seen one before and it was something of a ‘bogey species’, which had evaded me all my birdwatching life. Cue Momma Gump.

Today, I took an afternoon off to do some more birding, and decided to visit Skipwith Common, an expanse of lowland heath ten miles from York. I’d only ever been there on grey, wet or chilly days, so today was the first time I’d experienced it in its full summer glory. The heath was painted with purple heather, with the hot sun beaming down on it, and the muddy paths I’d trudged along on previous visits were sandy and inviting.

Skipwith Common (see my photo, below) is one of those places that’s lovely to explore, but hides its many birds very well. They’re mostly pretty tricky to spot, and even harder to watch for more than a second. That didn’t put me off, though, because just being in such a beautiful place on such a glorious August afternoon made me smile contentedly to myself.

My Gump-esque surprise didn’t come until I was well on my way back to my car. I hadn’t seen any birds at all for a few minutes, but all of a sudden the trees were twitching with small birds, flitting among the leaves.

I worked out there were a few different species involved in this woodland gathering, and managed to get glimpses of a young great tit, its parents, and a willow warbler, but there was another, perhaps slightly bigger, bird that had flown up onto a perch, obligingly giving me a decent view. It was slim, streaky and was flying down from its perch to catch flies, then returning to the same spot.

It was a spotted flycatcher, kindly demonstrating textbook behaviour to help me identify it. It was the first time I’d seen this bird for years and it was a welcome sight, reminding me of tree-climbing days of old in my granny’s garden in Worcester, where I recall seeing another unexpected spotted flycatcher on the wall.

So, birdwatching is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get – or where you’re gonna get it.


Mental illness: hilarious, eh?

I searched Twitter yesterday for ‘mental health week’ and learned to my dismay that ‘taking a mental health day/week’ is a phrase some people now use when they fancy ‘throwing a sickie’ or – in other words – skiving off work.

More about that in a moment…

I’m in my third week off work with depression and have been fighting it for two years. It would seem the old adage of ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’ is, in fact, stupid and pointless. You can’t sort your brain out if you keep bombarding it with more and more stress, while pretending that you’re fine.

Sometimes your only sensible option is to accept that you need time off so you can get better. I’ve had some excellent counselling, which I am now revisiting to help me tackle the dark forces at work in my mind, and I’ve been taking Citalopram, an antidepressant, since April 2010. I almost managed to break free from it this summer, but now I’m back up to my earlier dose. I no longer see this as failure, though – if you’re ill, you take medicine, and it’s no different with depression. If the pills help, I will take them until I’m better.

So when I say I’ve got depression, what am I talking about? Well, let’s go back to our friends on Twitter and their ‘mental health days’, because they won’t want to miss this. They’re only joking, of course. They don’t mean it, do they? So let’s see what they’re joking about, because all of these things are pretty funny:

  • Crippling lack of self-esteem and confidence – you’ve taught yourself (or been taught) that you’re no good and you believe it. You say ‘sorry’ for things that aren’t your fault and can only see weaknesses and failings in yourself.
  • No energy or enthusiasm for anything – you don’t look forward to anything. You feel empty and weary. You want the world to stop turning so you can get off.
  • Anger – you’ve pent up all your stress and anger, then you turn it in on yourself or bring it out on people who don’t deserve it.
  • Sleep deprivation – you’re lethargic by day, but at night the demons come out to play and you’re wide awake, reliving bad memories, having imaginary arguments or worrying about the future.
  • Negative thinking – the destructive thoughts that constantly whirl around in your head, beating you senseless from the inside.

OK, I’ll stop there. Your sides will no doubt be on the verge of splitting and your ribs are most probably tired of the tickling. And that’s just depression – imagine the mirth that would ensue if I were to talk about other mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, bi-polar, anxiety, stress… oh, the hilarity.

One of the great problems in raising awareness of mental illness is that people don’t want to talk about it. I was one of those people until recently, and completely respect that each person must handle their illness in the ways that suit them best. But if one good thing has come out of my own experience, it’s that I DO want to talk about it. I’ve kept it, unhelpfully, to myself all this time for fear that people wouldn’t understand, and that I would be stigmatised. I have come to realise, though, that the only ways to lift the stigma, to enlighten the ignorant, to improve understanding and to raise awareness, is to bring mental illness out into the open, where it can’t prey on people so easily.

I’m lucky to have a loving family, great friends and a supportive employer, but not everyone has these blessings. Many employers see mental illness as a weakness and place enormous pressure on their staff, not recognising that their own practices and demands are the cause of the illness in the first place. There is still support out there, though – GPs see a lot of people with mental health concerns and can help you in a number of ways. And there are excellent charities offering extra support and information, such as Mind and Rethink Mental Illness: and

Autumn sun shines a light into the gloom

On a lighter note, Mind is encouraging people to get out and about in the fresh air to improve their mental wellbeing, and that’s what I did for an hour yesterday afternoon, armed with my camera. The sun shone through the autumn leaves, and the golden light lifted my spirits. Here are some of my pictures, taken down Chantry Lane and Ferry Lane by the River Ouse in Bishopthorpe, York :

The day I nearly blew up the world

Two years ago, I was a power-crazed super-villain, a criminal mastermind hellbent on world domination. In my secret hideout, I ordered my henchman to detonate my super-destructive satellite weapon.

At least, that’s what I was pretending to do. What was actually happening was this: in a chilly farm shed in a rural East Yorkshire hamlet, I was dressed in my work suit, playing the part of the evil billionaire Dean Lomax in a short film. With me were two of the nicest henchmen you could ever meet – Tomasz and Krzysztof – and a film crew led by amateur film-maker Stuart Graham, the mastermind behind crime thriller The Doomsday Satellite.

Surrounded by a remarkable collection of old computers, we’d holed ourselves up in a small room, which served as Lomax’s lair. The set was simple – satellite controller Krzysztof sat at a computer while I prowled ‘menacingly’ behind him. Tomasz then came charging in with some news that upset Lomax, prompting him to unleash the power of the deadly weapon on an unwitting target.

It was all rather surreal, looking back on it. I’d seen Stuart’s advert for volunteer actors to appear in a short film, gone for an audition at The University of York’s biology department, and landed the part. A couple of rehearsals (in a classroom) later, we were ready to film on set. My scenes were about halfway through the filming schedule – somewhere between the assassination scenes shot earlier in the lab and the surprising Hawaiian footage that was to follow. Our location was an unlikely bolthole for an arch-villain, nestling as it did in the lovely Yorkshire Wolds, close to a church and down a bumpy farm track. The air of menace was diluted slightly when Tomasz returned from a stroll outside with dog poo on his shoe, which stank out the whole room.

So why am I writing about this film now? Because I have just watched it for the first time. Stuart has been a busy chap behind the scenes, creating and destroying satellite weapons and putting the film together, and now it’s ready.

Like any actor – professional or extremely amateur – I was, of course, most keen to see how I appeared and what my own performance was like. Well, now I know why proper actors can command such big fees. It is not easy to be genuinely nasty unless you have some kind of natural, in-built evil side. My attempt at villainy wasn’t helped by me using my own voice. On hindsight, something more intimidating would have been handy. Rather than losing my rag with my inept henchmen, it was like watching myself telling off my kids with a hint of a Yorkshire accent. I should have taken tips from Tomasz, whose chilling delivery of the line ‘You should not have interfered’ was vintage Bond villain.

But at around 18 minutes, the film is fast-paced and enjoyable (if not exactly suitable for family viewing due to swearing and violence), and I’m glad I was part of Stuart’s growing collection of mini movies. It was fun and a memorable experience. And, should I ever attempt to play the bad guy again, I can learn from my own masterclass in how not to do it.

And now I suppose you want to watch it, don’t you? Oh go on then:

Elvis has entered the building

I have a new-found admiration for Elvis impersonators. Fat ones, thin ones, old ones, young ones, good ones, rubbish ones – well done all of you.

So why this sudden outpouring of appreciation? After all, there are some important facts we have to face:

  • Elvis cannot be rivalled – nobody else is going to match his voice, moves and charisma.
  • Elvis wigs are terrible.
  • Elvis impersonation is weird – imagine Elvis looking down and seeing people all over the world dressing up in curious parodies of his stage outfits and butchering his classic songs.
  • Elvis is dead – his music lives on, but he has moved on, and anything else is a pale imitation. He’s not working in a chippy in Halifax. He isn’t hanging out on Mars. He died on the loo in 1977.

So my respect for Elvis impersonators is not based on their unique singing voices, enviable hairpieces or ornate costumes. It’s because these people (mostly men, but not exclusively) have amazing memories, astonishing stamina and nerves of steel.

I do not think of myself as an Elvis impersonator, but I DO sing Elvis songs at karaoke, I DO sing Elvis songs in my village panto (stop booing please) and I DO have a gold suit and an Elvis wig (which looks like roadkill – like a dead badger but without the stripes). OK, so maybe I am an Elvis impersonator of sorts.

And that’s how I ended up performing as Elvis this evening at an event ingeniously dreamt up by the young people of Bishopthorpe, a village near York. The Something Awesome weekend, linked to the churches in the village, brought together local talent for a cabaret evening. Local talent and me.

I was third in the running order. To say I was nervous would be similar to suggesting that my little boy quite likes diggers – a MASSIVE understatement.

I thought I was well prepared. I’d been playing Elvis songs in the car all week, and practising my two chosen songs – Teddy Bear and Are You Lonesome Tonight? – to a rather old karaoke CD that was to be my backing band for the night. Teddy Bear had caused me a few problems, as I kept getting verses in the wrong order, but ‘Lonesome’ was fine. I’d nailed that one earlier in the week, talking verse and everything. No problems there.

Back in the village hall, the hosts were introducing me, and out I went, bolstered by two Fruit Shoots (one apple, one blackcurrant), to generous applause and a sea of expectant faces. I mumbled an introduction, then the Teddy Bear backing track kicked in – or I should say it started up fairly faintly in the distance.

I have to say it went very well and I was feeling rather happy at the end of the song. No wrong words, and I even kept time despite the backing track disappearing under some loud but rather off-beat clapping.

This was like the Elvis 1968 comeback TV special – the returning rock legend, surrounded on all sides by fans cheering him on. Uh huh huh. Thankyouverymuch.

Straight into ‘Lonesome’. First couple of lines – fine. But then my mind went totally blank. No words were coming into my head or out of my mouth. Disaster! I’d forgotten the words completely. The words I’ve known off by heart since I was 19. The words I hadn’t got wrong once in the last fortnight.

Somehow I recovered, partly helped by the sight of my mum nobly mouthing the words at me from across the room, and it was all rather good fun.

It was that blank moment that made me realise that I do owe Elvis impersonators some credit. I’ve seen some awful ones, some excellent ones – none ever coming close to the real deal, of course – and some bizarre ones (the Swedish Elvis who sang Jailhouse Rock but pronounced J as Y, for example), but none of them have ever forgotten their words. None of them have ever dried up.

So fair play to you, Elvises of the world. You really know your stuff. And you do the world a great service – you remind people how much they love the real Elvis. Thank YOU very much.

Just to prove I haven’t made this up, here I am, complete with gold suit and roadkill wig…

Toys: not just child’s play

A good toy shop – like a good sweet shop – is more than just a shop. It should have a kind of magic; something special that excites children and grown-ups alike, and inspires a sense of wonder and delight. Indeed, a good toy shop is a destination, an attraction, an experience in its own right.

Sadly, toy shops like this are increasingly rare. They’ve more or less vanished from the centre of York, my home city, and no doubt from many other city centres too. This scarcity makes the discovery of such a toy shop all the more rewarding and thrilling.

Around 13 years ago, I stumbled across a particularly special toy shop while I was up in Helmsley, exploring my ‘patch’ as a journalist working for Ryedale’s Gazette & Herald newspaper. Tucked away down an alleyway through an arch off Bridge Street was The Toy Shop, run by Andrew Foster and Norma Hawkes. A toy train zoomed past the window as I walked in and gaped at the hundreds of toys covering every surface of this narrow little shop. At one end was a wall of teddies of every size, shape, price and colour. At the other end, down a step, was a treasure trove of toy cars, buses, lorries, trains and other vehicles. And in between were traditional toys of every description, from stocking fillers and pocket money treats to extravagant mobiles and never-seen-anywhere-else games.

It was magical and instantly turned me back into a little boy, set loose in a playful paradise. I wasn’t the only one. Every person who came into the shop, whatever their age, was transfixed, mesmerised by the sea of toys washing over them. And then there was Andrew and Norma, as enthusiastic as their customers.

Over the years since then, I’ve been back countless times, either buying presents for nieces or nephews, later doing the same for my own children, or just popping in because it’s a fantastic place to be. Andrew and Norma have won awards for their customer service, and rightly so – they welcome every person who goes through their door and never tire in their quest to find the perfect toy, whatever your budget. Although the shop has always been practically buried under an almost-collapsing multitude of toys, they know each one inside out and will seek it out for you. Even if you think you’ve unearthed every last toy in the place after your fourth circuit, they can always find more.

My most recent visit was last Saturday. We hadn’t been for two years and my wife said ‘I bet they won’t remember us’.

‘I bet they will,’ I said. And I was right. They greeted us like old friends. But there was a tinge of sadness to this particular visit, because we found out that Andrew and Norma are retiring. They’re not replacing their stock now, so you can actually see the walls (they’re green, I discovered). They’ve been running the shop and making people smile for 20 years, and now it’s time to sell what’s left and step down. But what will happen to the shop?

Well, the good news is that they have found a potential heir to the toy shop throne. A Charlie Bucket to their Willy Wonka, who wants to keep the shop much as it is. And, all being well, that will mean many more years of wonder in this little corner of North Yorkshire – and thousands more journeys for the train in the window. 

Andrew and Norma are an unrivalled double act and will be greatly missed in the town and by visitors from all over the world. But they won’t leave their marvellous shop to just anyone, so if, like me, you love the shop and what it stands for, keep supporting it and enjoying it. It’ll be Christmas before we know it…


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