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.
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.
My memories of my second year at junior school are, on the whole, pretty vague. I know I had terrible handwriting, liked making junk models and got told off for a couple of innocuous classroom offences.
But there is one memory that is crystal clear, and that’s the bird that Mrs Douglas, my teacher, pointed out on the school field one day. It was a Redwing.
There was something about that bird that captured my eight-year-old imagination. Maybe it was that distinctive blob of red on its side, or perhaps it was the fact that it had arrived at our school at the end of a journey from another country. Whatever it was, I was hooked.
It was one of those quirks of fate that this particular Redwing popped up when I was in Mrs Douglas’s class, because she was something of an oracle on birds. She was able to tell me what it was and where it had come from (Scandinavia).
One thing I was keen on was drawing – and I began to draw birds. I was prolific. I filled scrapbooks with pictures of birds, which I copied from my new bird book, or from my Granny’s fascinating ‘Birds of the World’ book, which included Birds of Paradise and other strange, exotic species like the Hoatzin. Mrs Douglas seemed to like my bird pictures. She told me my drawing of a House Sparrow was the best work I’d ever done, and it distracted her fleetingly from the inadequacy of my handwriting.
She also introduced me to the Young Ornithologists’ Club (YOC) and before long I had a black and gold badge with a Kestrel on it and was going on YOC trips. There were two of these trips that stand out.
The first was to RSPB Blacktoft Sands. I saw two birds on that trip that I’ve never seen again since – the Bearded Tit and the Bittern. I can’t clearly picture either, but I can remember our guide shrieking with hysterical excitement when the Bittern came into view.
The other trip I remember was to Filey Brigg, where birds like Purple Sandpiper, Great Skua, Turnstone and Sanderling made me see one of my family’s favourite holiday destinations in a different light. It’s still one of my most reliable birding hotspots, and I’ve enjoyed many ‘firsts’ there – Little Auk, Long-tailed Duck, Velvet Scoter and Woodcock, for example.
I would pore over my bird book, memorising the size of different birds and studying the maps that showed where to find them, and whether they were resident, winter or summer visitors, or passage migrants.
When I got into my teens, birding took a back seat to football and other diversions, but my passion for birds, which was triggered by that Redwing at school, would be rekindled in my adult life, creating new memories. I still like to draw birds if I get chance, and my handwriting is still shocking.
“So it’s a phone with a COMPUTER in it? And a CAMERA? And it can make FILMS? And you can send messages all over the world, just like that? What, and it fits in your POCKET?”
If you’d described a smartphone to me when I was little, it would have sounded impossibly fantastic. Phones still had dials, not keypads. They were definitely not mobile. Computers were big things, with primitive games that ran on cassettes. If you took pictures on a camera, you couldn’t see what they looked like until you’d taken 24 or 36 photos and had waited for the film to be processed. As for filming, you might occasionally encounter a video camera, if you were lucky, but it seemed very glamorous and exciting, and most people didn’t have one. And the Internet… Sorry, the what?
We forget how incredible smartphones are. Yes, they have a downside – we spend so much time gawping at them that we sometimes forget where we are – but they can be good for us too.
Having a camera on me at all times is a great way to capture memories, and it encourages me to look up and marvel at the world around me. If I get a decent photo, I can share it immediately with people all over the world. And I can look back at it in the future to recall a happy moment, however small.
Here are ten of my favourite mobile moments from the past year.
I was getting out of the car at work and it was about to rain heavily. Just before it did, this splendid full rainbow arched across the sky.
I enjoy walking from work into York city centre, particularly along the riverside path (not at the moment – it’s under water). I took this picture on a sunny day in autumn, when the leaves had started to fall.
I’m lucky to work right next to a glorious park, and spend many of my lunch breaks there, walking around and watching birds. One of my favourite parts of the park is this pond.
Spurn Point is an incredible place; unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. I made two birding trips there in the autumn, and on the second trip I walked all the way to the end of the point. The first of these pictures shows the rows of weathered groynes on a stretch of the beach next to where the former road was destroyed by a storm. You can only get down to the point now when the tide is out. The second picture shows where I ate my lunch after a three-mile walk in unexpectedly hot sunshine, looking out over the mouth of the Humber and North Sea, over to North Lincolnshire. The third shows the sun starting to go down over the Humber.
We have a family holiday in Filey every summer. It’s a rich source of photo opportunities. Even the gulls pose for pictures.
One evening, my wife and I were out walking and it looked like a good sunset might be starting, so we legged it to the top of Carr Naze, a cliff offering views across to Scarborough and beyond, and caught the sun dipping over the horizon.
Here’s an image that brings back memories of a great night with friends on Bonfire Night. It also puts ‘Fire’ by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown into my head, which is no bad thing.
My brother and I have a strange tradition of finding hideous ornaments and sending pictures of them to each other. This was my best effort of 2015 – a disturbing-looking zombie sailor baby, found in a café on the east coast.
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.
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.
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…
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?
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.