My third York bird race would feature a lifetime first, glorious close-up viewings, a dramatic natural spectacle, and, of course, the one that got away.
The time: 6.30am. The day: Sunday. The location: my street.
Four intrepid birders – me, Rich, Emanuela and new recruit Paul, standing in for the injured Captain Jono – have gathered to see or hear as many different species as possible in one day in the York area, competing with other local teams.
It’s well before dawn, but calling Blackbirds and Robins give us a count of two before we’ve even got in Rich’s Birdmobile.
Hits and miss
A successful start to the day brought us an almost ridiculous number of calling Tawny Owls, joined by a welcome bonus of a Little Owl, and the potentially tricky duo of Grey and Red Legged Partridges. Cheered on by a nearby Snipe, and still roaming in the dark, we headed to Allerthorpe Common, a much-visited site in the past week because of the presence of a rare Coues’ Arctic Redpoll.
With a Barn Owl giving us generous views as it hunted on the common, and a Buzzard calling from above us, the omens seemed good. The list began to grow, with a double bill of Marsh and Willow Tit, followed by four Crossbills calling as they flew over. And then there were the Redpolls – a chance to scour the flock of both Lesser and Mealy for our Arctic visitor. But lovely though those many Redpolls were, their star turn wasn’t going to come out to dazzle us. With time ticking on, we had to accept that, even so early in the day, this would be one that got away.
The next part of our strategy involved looping round the Lower Derwent Valley, taking in East Cottingwith, Bubwith, North Duffield and Bank Island. There were two contrasting highlights for me.
Emanuela and Rich had seen a fly-by Kingfisher earlier on, but Paul and I had missed it while fruitlessly trying to unearth a Jack Snipe. The rules state that at least three of the team must see or hear the bird for it to count. While we were at Bubwith, scanning for an almost-mythical American Wigeon that had been seen there recently, Rich called out “Kingfisher”, and there it was, on a distant perch, beautifully framed in the lens of his telescope. It obligingly sat completely still for us all to admire – a beautiful bird, and a rare opportunity to pause and appreciate it in all its glory.
The chances of seeing a Marsh Harrier near home when I started birding were laughably small; non-existent, probably. But for my second bird race running, I was able to watch one in action at North Duffield. This cracking bird, a juvenile, I think, soared majestically into view from the hide and sent hundreds of Lapwings, ducks and gulls flapping all over the sky in a panicked cloud (that’s what is happening in the two photos below – not that you can tell!). And there was further peril lurking for these hapless birds, with a Peregrine loitering on a fence post not far away.
We left the valley to try and add more water birds to our list at Castle Howard Lake, and it came up trumps, sporting Goldeneye, Goosander, Mandarin, Grey Heron, Cormorant and others. But there was another attraction for us on the lake – a Red Necked Grebe. Normally your best chance of seeing one is on the coast, so the discovery of one here in the York recording area was a real coup for local birders. Would the lake come up with a lifer for me for the third year running, following in the claw prints of Scaup in 2017 and Cetti’s Warbler in 2018?
Yes, it would. Before race week, I wouldn’t have even considered seeing a Red Necked Grebe on the big day, yet there it was, drifting along then diving as grebes do.
Race against time
With the afternoon passing with alarming speed, we had difficult decisions to make about where we could fit into our remaining daylight. We opted for a cross-country route (finally spotting Yellowhammer) to Strensall Common, where we hoped to find Stonechat, Green Woodpecker, and the day’s most elusive common species for us, the Nuthatch. We found none of them.
Still needing some water birds, we headed to Heslington East, aiming for Pochard, Water Rail and maybe a Great Crested Grebe. We had mixed fortunes. The grebes weren’t forthcoming. The Water Rail stubbornly refused to call from its usual reedbed and then, to add to our frustration, I managed to get a great view of it as it literally sprinted away from me before anyone else could clap eyes on it. It never came out of its hiding place, and maintained a resolute silence. One out of four doesn’t count on a bird race, and we had to abandon it. With sunset calling, we managed our Pochard – bird number 89 – and set off into the dusk for one last throw of the dice at Wheldrake Ings.
Drama at dusk
The time: approaching 5pm. The location: Wheldrake Ings foot bridge.
There we were, the four of us, back in the darkness, listening and hoping. We bumped into the clear winners, who’d got more than 100 species, and they told us there had been 1,000 Golden Plovers there earlier in the day. Maybe we’d hear one to claim our 90th species. Then we heard that our rivals for second place had retired top the pub on 89.
“It was this dark when we got that Woodcock here last year,” I said. And barely had the words left my mouth than the most timely bird of the day bombed straight over our heads – a long straight bill, a barrel-like tummy, and a rapid wingbeat… Could our final bird of the day have been a more apt species than the one our team was named after?
And so Never Mind The Woodcocks finished on 90, taking second spot and having had a thoroughly enjoyable day chasing round the brilliant birding spots surrounding York – a combination of frenzied pursuit and sublime moments of birding perfection.
Gulls are not exactly everyone’s favourite birds. They’re often fairly plain and overlooked, and some of the more piratical ones have taken to violently stealing people’s chips and ice cream.
I must admit there have been days when I’ve cursed them myself, when I’ve spent fruitless hours standing in the freezing cold, scanning thousands of very similar-looking gulls, hopelessly trying to find one of the rarer species.
But there are plenty of reasons to love gulls, and here are six of them.
They readily pose for photos
This cannot be said of most birds I try to take photos of, which often end up being nothing more than an indistinct blur or a distant blob. Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls are particularly amenable to posing for pictures. Look at these poseurs.
They’re actually quite beautiful after all
Look at these Kittiwakes – such immaculate little gulls, and they would never pinch your chips.
The cry of a gull reminds me of the sea
I love being by the sea, and the call of gulls – usually Herring Gulls (yes, they’re the robbing ones, but there are some nice ones, honest) – is immediately evocative of trips to the seaside, digging on the beach and paddling in the sea. And the distinctive, repetitive call of Kittiwakes immediately takes me back to the precariously balanced colonies I’ve seen at Bempton, Filey and Seahouses.
They’re more varied than you might think
Yes, most gulls are some variation of white, grey and black, but the imposing Great Black-backed Gull is a very different beast to the dainty Little Gull, which remains a bogey bird for me. Then there’s the endless variety of plumages, depending on the time of year and age of the bird. Telling the difference is potentially a rewarding challenge – not one I’ve managed to succeed at myself yet.
They have different characters
Common Gulls seem pretty shy birds that are happy to blend in and not make a fuss, whereas Herring Gulls strut around like they own everywhere and everything.
You can find them everywhere
You don’t have to be by the sea to see gulls. There are large colonies of Black-headed Gulls at inland wetlands, sometimes along with Mediterranean Gulls, and in the winter you can find massive numbers of gulls on rubbish tips or hanging about in fields.
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.
One of the good things to come out of my second bout of depression four years ago was the revelation that going birdwatching could help me in my recovery.
It was October 2011 and I had been signed off work. My mood would inevitably worsen if I was alone at home with my thoughts for too long, so I made sure I got out of the house once a day, even if only to walk to the shop and back.
The combination of fresh air, daylight and exercise seemed to do me good. Taking my binoculars – and sometimes my camera – with me gave me an added purpose.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given during my counselling and GP appointments was to make sure I found time to do something I enjoyed, and birding certainly fell into that category.
Now, if I feel stressed or anxious, or if I can feel my mood darkening – even if I just feel stuck in a rut – I make time to get out birding, and it helps to distract me and give me something positive to do. I find it relaxing but also exciting, because the wonder of birding is that you never know what you will see next. That sense of anticipation – something to look forward to and get excited about – is a feeling that can get lost in the spirit-crushing mire of depression.
Later that autumn, the possibility of seeing something new took me to Filey, on the Yorkshire coast, about an hour’s drive from home. I’d wanted to make the trip earlier, as it’s a great spot for autumn migrants, but I hadn’t felt up to it. When I felt I had enough energy, I set off with the intention of walking along Filey Brigg, a rocky outcrop that juts out into the North Sea. That walk alone was worth the trip, as a fellow birder –one armed with a telescope – pointed out a velvet scoter bobbing on the waves with a group of common scoters. It was a first for me.
Better was to come. I called in for some food at the café in the country park on the clifftop, where the local ornithological group kept a record of its sightings. Fresh up on the blackboard was something that quickened my pulse – a glossy ibis had been seen at Filey Dams nature reserve.
Pleasingly, I arrived there just in time for a cracking view of this elegant and rather exotic bird, and enjoyed watching it for five minutes before it flew off. A frustrated group of birders arrived just after it had gone. I felt a small glow of satisfaction that I had been there and seen it for myself.
I should have stopped there but I was on a roll. I carried on to Flamborough, a renowned rarity hotspot further down the coast. There, I saw nothing, my legs started to feel heavy and I was overcome with tiredness. I’d overdone it (see top tips below).
Here are my top tips for how to approach birding if you’re experiencing depression:
- A good birding trip is a great way to lift your mood, but it can also be too demanding if you’re not feeling well, so don’t try to do too much. I had a heavy cold while off with depression, but one day heard that common gulls (a bogey species at the time) could easily be seen at a site across town. I dragged myself out, got blown about by a strong, cold wind, joylessly saw the common gulls and wheezed all the way home, feeling thoroughly miserable. It really wasn’t worth it.
- Try to keep your birding trips short until you feel stronger and more able to try travelling further. I enjoyed some very satisfying and rewarding local birding, and my slower pace actually helped me to see more on familiar patches, such as the discovery of yellow wagtails in a field close to home and some lovely views of yellowhammers and golden plovers.
- While you’re restricted in what you can manage, enjoy what you can see and hear, rather than worrying about what you might be missing or can’t identify – there’s no point adding to your stress levels. You can learn songs, behaviour and subtleties of plumage that you might never have noticed before if you hadn’t stopped and savoured the moment. Taking time to appreciate the colours of a male chaffinch or the song of a dunnock while you’re walking down the road can be as rewarding as something harder earned.
- Do some of your birding alone and some with other people whose company you enjoy. Complete solitude isn’t always good for you if you’re suffering from depression. A friend took me out birding to one of our favourite local wetland reserves one weekend and an obliging water rail strolled out close to the hide where we were sitting – literally seconds after I’d mentioned that I’d never seen one – before sloping off into the reeds again. If I’d stayed at home and not made the effort to go out, I wouldn’t have this happy memory to recall.
- Depression doesn’t have to stop you getting out and about. The combination of exercise, fresh air, a change of scenery and doing something you enjoy means birding can be very beneficial. Keep it simple, do what you feel able to do, and quit while you’re ahead.
My favourite bird is the yellowhammer. ‘That’s fascinating, Paul,’ I hear you say.
OK, so birding – or bird watching if you like – is not for everyone, but I reckon even the most hardened non-birder must have a favourite bird. Maybe it’s a cheeky robin singing cheerily from a tree in your garden. Perhaps it’s a penguin that you’ve enjoyed watching while it waddles.
In fact, it’s easier to have a favourite bird when you’re not actually that bothered for them. There are fewer to choose from.
For me, though, there are lots to choose from, because I’ve been interested in birds since I was eight. It all started with a redwing – a kind of thrush that comes to the UK in the winter from Scandinavia. This particular redwing came to land outside my classroom window. I might never have noticed it had my teacher, Mrs Douglas, not been very keen on birds. But she was very, very keen, and she showed us this special visitor and explained where it had come from. And I was hooked.
At first, my new-found interest in birds was the perfect foil for my other big interest at the time – drawing. And so I began to draw birds. My drawing was mercifully better than my handwriting so Mrs Douglas at least had one thing to praise me for. The more I looked up new birds to draw, the more I found out and the more I wanted to see and learn about.
I joined the Young Ornithologists Club (YOC) and went on a couple of trips with them, where new and exciting birds came thick and fast. I can still hear our guide at RSPB Blacktoft Sands shrieking hysterically at the sight of a bittern in the reeds – still the only one I’ve ever seen. Family holidays and days out began to include birding opportunities, such as a trip to Loch Garten to see the ospreys, spotting wood warblers and pied flycatchers at Bolton Abbey, being bombarded by terns on the Farne Islands and many other unforgettable experiences.
So what’s all this about yellowhammers, then?
What’s so good about them? What makes them better than, say, redstarts (my second favourite bird)?
There are three main reasons I love yellowhammers:
1) Their colours – you can’t confuse a male yellowhammer with any other yellow bird because its bright yellow head contrasts so beautifully with its chestnut brown back. They’re such a happy-looking bird and raise the spirits just by looking lovely.
2) Their song – I’m not brilliant at recognising birdsong, but I would know a yellowhammer’s song anywhere. It reputedly sounds like ‘A little bit of bread and no cheeeeeeeeeeeese,’ which is a very sensible sentiment to a cheese-hater like me. See, I have something in common with this little bird. Neither of us want any cheese, thanks very much.
3) Nostalgia – I associate yellowhammers with summer walks down a street we call ‘the Country Lane’, where we used to walk Smartie, my Yorkshire terrier. Smartie was a strong-minded sort of chap and he’d be off sniffing deeply unpleasant things in the undergrowth while I’d stop and listen to yellowhammers and cuckoos. Like the cuckoos, I feared yellowhammers had disappeared from the Country Lane until I ventured that way on a day off a few weeks ago. Reaching the end of the lane, I heard that familiar call from a hedge in the field ahead, then spotted that bright yellow head, and everything was right with the world.
It’s a special memory or association that can elevate a particular bird to number one in your list of favourites. So while the redstart, with its fiery orange tail, is undeniably glorious to behold and always a real treat to see, it doesn’t have the same kind of emotional attachment as the yellowhammer. And for all I know, it might like cheese.