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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Cute gerbils – have we got chews for you!

Sometimes, what the world really needs is to see pictures of cute animals. So, for no other reason than to say “Here are my gerbils – they’re cute”, here are some pictures of my three gerbils (aka the Boys) being cute.

In these photos, you can see them performing my favourite gerbil routine, which I call ‘Synchronised Chewers’. This is where I give each of them a chocolate drop, and sit back for a content moment to watch them silently nibbling together in perfect unity.

Stripe

Stripe

First, meet Stripe. Stripe is the smallest, busiest and most energetic of the Boys. He is undisputed king of the wheel. He’s also the first to respond when I call out “You Boys!”, leading the charge to the hatch at the front of the cage. I’d love to say it’s because he’s excited to see me – and in a way that’s true. It’s just that he’s excited to see me because I usually come bearing treats.

Stripe is something of an enigma among the gerbils. His fur often subtly changes shade – sometimes he’s darker grey, sometimes lighter, and sometimes a mix, but the stripe on his face, from which he got his name, disappeared a while ago, then occasionally reappears in a different position.

Snowy

Snowy

This is Snowy, so called because he’s the lightest-coloured gerbil of the three. When we first got him, he was white, but now he’s a little greyer (aren’t we all?).

Snowy’s role in the gerbil cage is Head of Eating. He does love his food, and will often climb into the bowl to sit there scoffing.

Elvis

Elvis

This is Elvis, our darkest-grey gerbil. He’s in charge of chewing, and has unrivalled abilities in shredding cardboard tubes. He’s the most wary of the Boys, and will often hide away in a tunnel to furtively chew his food away from the watchful eyes of his brothers.

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The Boys demonstrate Synchronised Chewers.

So that’s it. Three gerbils, being cute. I’m off to give them a treat…

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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.

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

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Here come the gulls.

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A distant view of the white cliffs of Flamborough.

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Back in Bridlington.


Turning 40 – what’s that all about?

I’m in the last week of my thirties. My face still looks like it belongs in its thirties. My hair thinks I’m 60 already. The rest of me can’t make up its mind.

Turning 40 is something that’s been on my mind for a while. It has seemed to mark a stage in life where I should be all grown up; where I should know who I am, what I’m doing and where I’m going.

I’m not doing too badly on the ‘who I am’ bit. I’m blessed with a lovely family and lots of great friends, which tells me I can’t be too awful. I know what I believe in and what I don’t believe in. I know what I like doing and what I don’t like doing. I don’t feel any need to get into arguments or prove points, although I do have plenty of imaginary arguments and inner rants. I annoy myself all the time. I grapple with my demons more often than I ever let on, but I know those demons and their games, and I give them a good fight.

As for what I’m doing, ha – well, sometimes I know what I’m doing, but a lot of the time I lurch from one thing to the next in a daze. That’s parenthood for you.

Where am I going?

And where I’m going is anyone’s guess. Do any of us really know? We can make plans, but things happen that take us in other directions. And we might change our minds. My first career idea was clown/acrobat, or spaceman. I sort of play the clown now in pantomimes, so maybe that’s a dream fulfilled. Acrobat – no chance. I have all the physical dexterity of a sloth on roller skates. And I have no head for heights, which also rules out the spaceman option. I moved on to a more sensible aspiration of being a journalist, and I did that for three years, taking me into the communications career I have today.

Of course, I sometimes look back and wonder what else I might have done with my career. At school, I loved art far more than any other subject – could I have done something with it? If we’d done drama more at school, might I have discovered performing sooner? I used to harbour a secret wish to play James Bond. Maybe I could be James Bond’s dad when I get into my 80s.

And what of my writing? That’s why I wanted to be a journalist, after all. I sort of write in my job, but not a lot. But I do have a blog that’s five years old and has 100,000 views, which I never saw happening (blogs didn’t exist when I was at the ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ age).

I may not be a best-selling author or successful script-writer – wasn’t that meant to have happened by now? – but I am slowly getting somewhere, and I still have the urge to write (usually in the middle of the night, which is rather inconvenient). Nobody ever became a writer without writing something, so that’s what I keep doing.

So what is it all about?

What I’ve come to realise is that turning 40 will not change any of this. It won’t mean I’ve failed at anything, or missed my chance. Turning 40 isn’t about what I haven’t done – it’s about what’s yet to be. It won’t give me immediate wisdom, inner peace or abundant confidence. I still won’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going. But rather than seeing it as a mid-life calamity, I’m now trying to look at it as a new chapter, with adventures ahead and blank pages to fill.

I’ll take my steer from Dr Seuss…

Congratulations!

Today is your day.

You’re off to Great Places!

You’re off and away!

 


Life lessons from birdwatching

Last year, I set myself a birding challenge. I would try to see ten ‘bogey birds’ – species I’d always wanted to see since I got my first bird book at the age of eight, but which had somehow remained elusive.

During the course of my challenge, I would see some of the birds on my list and enjoy some magical birding moments. On the other hand, others would enhance their bogey species credentials, taking their evasiveness to a whole new level.

Along the way, I learned a few things.

The best-laid plans often go awry – but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Two birds led me a particularly merry dance last year.

The hitlist challenge began in February with a determined effort to find a Hawfinch. I made a special trip down to Sherwood Forest, having researched where to see them, and I was in the right place – Lime Tree Avenue at Rufford Country Park – but not at the right time. Hawfinches had been seen in a particular tree at 8 that morning, but it was more like 10am when I got there. Two other birders were there to share in my disappointment. I bumped into them again at Clumber Park, my next stop, where we all failed to see them again. A family trip to Clumber the following month was equally Hawfinch-free.

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Right place, wrong time – Lime Tree Avenue, Rufford Country Park.

My priority bird for October was the tiny Firecrest, which I hoped to see on migration at Spurn, East Yorkshire. I was trying to lay ghosts to rest, as I’d made the same trip with the same hope two years previously, without success. Firecrests had been seen there on an almost daily basis in the two weeks before my trip. I tried all the places where they’d been seen. I even walked the six-mile round trip to the point to see if the bird that had been seen twice in a sycamore was still there. You know the rest – there was not a Firecrest to be seen. And the day after, three of the little scamps were found.

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No Firecrests, but always worth a visit – Spurn Point.

I could have been bitterly disappointed by both these failings, but I’d enjoyed two days out in beautiful surroundings. My day at Spurn, although Firecrest-free, gave me some quality ‘me time’ by the sea, in the sunshine – so although it wasn’t ‘mission accomplished’, it was certainly worth the effort.

Just keep trying

My daughter used to have a Disney Princesses book with sound effects, including a princess simpering ‘Just keep trying’. The princess had a point, though.

Take, for example, my efforts to see a Great Grey Shrike. One had unexpectedly been seen in early March at Heslington Tilmire – a new site to me, but quite near home. It seemed to be hanging around and was showing well (I saw so many photos of it, I felt I knew it personally) so I left work early one afternoon to try and find it. I patrolled the site for a good hour, by strange coincidence joining forces with one of my fellow Hawfinch-seekers from my Sherwood Forest trip (perhaps we were unlucky omens for each other). I liked the place and enjoyed close-up views of two Barn Owls, but the shrike had either gone or was mocking me from some hidden perch. Annoyingly, more sightings were reported the next day, and the day after. The weekend came, and I decided to give it another try, taking my son with me. We met another birder and his sons, and the three lads played together while their dads scoured various trees and bushes. We were in luck. A man up ahead of us started waving and pointing. We caught up with him and he said the shrike had just flown across the field, but then he spotted where it had landed and bingo – there it was! Not as good a view as I would have liked but it was clear enough, and I saw it another couple of times before I left.

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Shrike it lucky – Heslington Tilmire.

Sometimes it’s good to change plans…

Giving yourself the freedom and flexibility to change your plans can be quite liberating. Last May, I saw one of the most spectacular birds I’ve ever seen, but it wasn’t on my hitlist – it was a very special bonus.

While planning one of my birding days out, I heard the incredible news that there was a pair of Montagu’s Harriers at Blacktoft Sands, about an hour away from home – incredible because this is one of Britain’s rarest birds, usually only found by a lucky few in East Anglia. I was happy to betray my list for a chance to see a Monty, and my spontaneity was rewarded with a stunning view of a handsome male soaring over my head. I never thought I’d see one, let alone in Yorkshire.

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My first bird book.

… or not to have a plan at all

I’d gone to Strensall Common, near York, to suss out a birding walk for Bird Watching Magazine and see what was there.

I’d seen a Green Woodpecker and several Great Spotteds. I watched one of the latter fly straight past, then something – a smaller bird – caught my eye on a half-dead silver birch. I fixed my binoculars on it and loudly exclaimed ‘No way!’ as I clapped eyes on a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. I gaped for a couple of seconds, then it had gone. Without trying, I’d found one of the top birds on my list.

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Expect the unexpected – Strensall Common, where I stumbled across a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

Targets and ambitions aren’t always helpful

There were times my birding challenge stressed me out. I felt pressure to find the birds on my list. I felt like I HAD to find time in my hectic life to get out there and make an effort.

Yes, there were benefits to making myself go birding, and I wouldn’t have seen some of those great birds if I hadn’t, but since I finished the challenge I’ve felt strangely relieved – like I’ve reclaimed my hobby.

I like the freedom of seeing what turns up, and the adventure of exploring places. I’ll keep trying to see birds I’ve never seen before – that sense of discovery is part of what I love about birdwatching – but without undue pressure and expectations. We all have enough of those in our lives without enforcing them on the things we do for fun.

 


The bird that started it all

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.

Photo of Redwings at Rufford Park, Nottinghamshire.

Redwings – the bird that triggered my interest in birds when I was eight.

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.

Coloured pencil drawing of a Spotted Flycatcher.

One of my more recent bird drawings – a Spotted Flycatcher.


Blogging at the crossroads

Legend has it that blues singer/guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads and agreed to sell his soul in exchange for his musical talent.

I’m at a crossroads myself. I won’t be making any deals with the devil, but I could do with some inspiration on the writing front.

The crossroads in question is a blogging crossroads. The road I have been travelling seems to have reached a confusing junction. It has been a good journey, but what has brought me this far might not take me much further.

If this blog was a TV series, its declining viewing figures would point to inevitable cancellation. That’s the danger of studying blog stats – when it’s going well, the incoming comments and viewing figures are addictively enthralling. When you post something and the figures are low, it’s demoralising. The unhelpful voice in my head tells me to give up; that I’m a has-been. It compares me to other bloggers and says “They’re doing better than you. Why do you bother?”

I find myself wondering what to write about, and indeed whether to keep blogging at all, as I have plenty of other things to keep me occupied. On the occasions I have time to blog, sometimes I just can’t be bothered. Other times, I’ve got an idea for a blog and talk myself out of writing it because I don’t think anyone will be interested – and I’m not even sure that I’m interested myself. I’ve talked myself out of writing this post several times and am only really posting it to spite myself.

My writing was most compelling when I was ill with depression. I wrote because I needed to get it all out of my head, and people seemed to relate to it.

But I’m happy to say I’m not ill any more. As I’ve got better, the story has become less gripping, and fewer people read it and feel moved to share it. And I don’t have that same drive and impetus to blog at the moment. I used to post almost every week. Now it’s once a month, if that. The momentum has gone.

I’ve written a lot about depression and sometimes wonder if there’s anything useful I can do with that back catalogue. I’m proud of what I’ve done, and hugely grateful for all the amazing support you’ve given me. I know from the comments I’ve received that my blog has helped a lot of people, which I love to hear. In return, every comment, retweet or like has helped me.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure I have much left to say about depression. I’ve been writing about it since 2011 and don’t want to keep dredging up memories that I’d rather forget. And I don’t want to bore people, or myself, by going over the same things over and over again. On the other hand, supporting people with mental health problems is something I really care about, and writing is one way I can do that. I’ve got to know many brilliant people through sharing my story – people whose friendship has enriched my life – and we all need to stick together to fight the stigma of mental illness.

I do love writing about wildlife, especially birds. Birding is something that helps me stay well, and I mainly write about what helps me to keep depression away these days, rather than depression itself. But I don’t think I want to restrict myself to a theme. I like writing about random stuff like pantomimes and music too.

I’ve written light-hearted stuff about parenting, but my kids are getting older and I don’t want to embarrass them – not in a blog anyway.

I also fancy writing more fiction and comedy. But is this blog the right place for that?

And so I stand at the crossroads. I know I want to write (sometimes anyway), but I’m not sure what. In some ways, it’s like starting again.

But there is only one of me. I have a finite amount of time, energy and inspiration. So another factor to fit into the equation – along with all the many other things I want to do all at once – is finding time to relax, and simply to be.

The main thing is that I stay well. I’ve burned myself out before and am always on guard against doing it again. I’m grateful to be well enough to have reached the crossroads, however frustrating it may be.

So, I don’t know what you can expect from Dippyman in the coming months. What do you think I should do?