Sometimes nature is so breathtakingly brilliant that all you can do is gawp in wonder and grin like a fool.
That’s what I did on Saturday afternoon, anyway, thanks to a very special and unexpected discovery.
I was at Skipwith Common, a lowland heath near York, having dropped off my nine-year-old son at a party nearby. The common is one of my favourite places to escape, explore and appreciate nature, whatever the time of year, but on this particular April afternoon, the sun was out after another cold, wet week, and under the bright blue sky and warm sunshine, spring’s trademarks were all around.
The promise of some quality time with nature began with the chortling call of a green woodpecker as soon as I opened the car door, followed soon after by the first of many chiffchaffs.
I’d hoped I might hear a cuckoo, or perhaps see a tree pipit, but perhaps it was a bit too early in the spring. It was, though, just the right time for my first brimstone of the year. Along with orange tips, they’re my favourite butterflies, and the glorious yellow of the one that came tumbling past me was a perfect match for the patch of daffodils I’d just passed, and the yellow-specked gorse bushes lining the ditches and paths.
Cyclists and dog walkers were out in force, enjoying this welcome burst of sunny weather, but I was craving a bit of peace, so decided to explore one of the smaller paths. It turned out to be a shortcut to a familiar part of the common, the Bomb Bay Loop, part of the former airfield, and a place I’ve explored several times with my family to seek out some snakes, but without success.
Yay, a jay
As I set off round the loop, I heard my first drumming great spotted woodpecker of the year, then something in the distance caught my eye. I nearly dismissed it as a woodpigeon but wait, was that a white rump I could make out? It was indeed, belonging to a very handsome jay, which hung about long enough for me to enjoy its striking pinky plumage with dazzling blue on its wings.
But my wildlife highlight of the year so far was just around the corner.
“I’ve still never seen a snake in the wild,” I was thinking to myself. “When I get home, I’ll put a date on the calendar for a family trip to Allerthorpe Common (a local adder hotspot).”
No sooner had that thought ended, than I found myself looking into the reptilian eye of a coiled snake, sunning itself on the edge of a gap in a small brick wall.
“No way!” I exclaimed out loud, as I stood transfixed, my eyes close to popping out. I was close enough to crouch down quietly and take a photo on my mobile. What a stunning creature – and it had company. A second snake, less confident about openly sunbathing, skulked behind it, further back in the crevice, and then slipped away.
The bolder snake seemed to sense my presence, so turned away from me, its dark tail end draping briefly over the wall before disappearing into the dark, as if it were a long, black tongue being sucked back into an unseen mouth.
Still amazed and grinning away to myself, and realising that time was swiftly passing, I hastily returned to my car, thinking about my discovery all the way. They hadn’t seemed like large snakes – maybe they were juveniles? And I expected they’d be adders, but I wasn’t completely sure.
Lightning strikes twice
As soon as I picked up my son from the party, I couldn’t resist showing him the photo, and naturally he wanted to go and look for the snakes too – he’s been brought up on Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60 and Deadly Pole to Pole, as well as Naomi’s Nightmares of Nature, after all. His friends gathered round to look at the picture, and before long a small party of snake-hunters was heading back to Skipwith – three boys, me and one of the boys’ mums.
I warned them all repeatedly that the snakes had probably gone, and they might be very disappointed, but incredibly my two new friends were still there. We all had a great view, and went home thoroughly satisfied with our efforts.
I looked at photos of both adders and grass snakes when I got home, and identified my Skipwith beasties as grass snakes, with confirmation from more knowledgeable people on Twitter.
Seeing a snake in the wild was on my wildlife bucket list, and, when I had no expectation of finding one, up popped two, proving once again that nature can be profoundly exciting, moving, wonderful, joyful, and full of surprises.
I was on BBC Breakfast recently talking about how getting outdoors and enjoying nature helps me with my mental health. But how exactly does it help?
I’m going to start with two quick disclaimers:
- I’m not a scientist, so I won’t try to give you any scientific evidence of how nature benefits mental health. This is all about my personal experience. But that evidence does exist, as Dr Andrea Mechelli explained alongside me on the BBC sofa (see pictures below). Find out more about the study from King’s College London.
- Nature alone does not cure depression, anxiety or any other mental health problem. It’s one part of a toolkit of coping strategies that can help us to manage our well-being.
My own personal mental health battles are with depression and anxiety, and I find that nature does help me in a number of ways.
Doing something I enjoy
When we’re worn down by stress, anxiety and depression, it’s easy to forget the things we used to enjoy doing – or how to enjoy doing anything for that matter.
A few years ago, when I was frazzled and going through an episode of depression, my counsellor encouraged me to find time to do something I enjoyed. I’d always enjoyed birdwatching and walking, and tried to get out more and rediscover the pleasure of my abandoned hobbies.
A positive focus and distraction
Absorbing ourselves in nature can turn a walk – or even just a nice sit down in a park or garden – into a mindful experience that focuses us on the present and takes us away from the churning thoughts that tumble round our heads and the anxiety that chews at our tummies.
Hear the breeze rustling the leaves in the treetops; listen to the birds singing; watch butterflies and bees flitting among your garden flowers… I find that even a few moments being completely distracted by wildlife usually has a calming effect on me and lifts my mood.
As well as the wildlife, experiencing different places – or just retreating to a favourite wild place – can be very therapeutic. I find being in woodland or by water especially soothing.
Being outdoors has other health benefits too – fresh air, sunlight and exercise are good for our physical health as well as our mental well-being.
Discovery, excitement and adventure
One thing I love about nature is that there is always something new to discover – new species to see, new places to visit, new behaviour to observe. I’ll never forget the wonder of watching badgers in a woodland clearing after years of waiting for even a passing glance of one. If I’m planning a birding trip, there’s that sense of anticipation and excitement at what I might see, and the thrill of seeing a rare bird for the first time.
But a new experience doesn’t have to mean a new species – it can mean finding something unexpected in a familiar place. While off work with depression, I took a short walk from home, and found yellow wagtails – glorious, sunny yellow birds – bobbing about in a field where I’d never seen them before.
Nature is everywhere
It’s an unfortunate truth of depression that the things that are best for us are often the hardest things to do. Even for someone like me, who loves being outdoors, the draining, soul-destroying experience of depression can completely kill off all energy or enthusiasm, making the prospect of going out for a walk feel like the last thing I want to do.
At those times, if we just can’t face going out, we can still enjoy nature without venturing out. If you can see the sky or a tree, lawn or plant from where you’re sitting, you can still look out for wildlife. It’s amazing how many different species you can see in a fairly short space of time.
I feed the birds in my garden and can lose myself watching them – the goldfinches jostling for position on a feeder, the blackbirds fending off rivals, the wren that always follows exactly the same route into our garden and disappears for a moment in a bush…
Accept that it’s not going to work every time
Sometimes nature will help you feel better, even if only for a short time. Other times, it will not – but that doesn’t mean we should give up.
There are occasions where my mood has been too dark – my thoughts too destructive and intrusive – for me to be able to get lost in the sights and sounds around me. There have been other times where I’ve felt crushing disappointment because I’ve ‘failed’ to see what I went out to look for (I’m trying to learn to manage my own expectations), or I’ve felt defeated and demoralised by the weather spoiling a day out.
One such day that stands out in my mind is when I took a day off work to go to Flamborough Head, one of my favourite places on the Yorkshire coast, on a mission to see some particular birds. I can’t remember what birds they were, but I can remember that I didn’t see them, and that I couldn’t even enjoy the beautiful scenery because of thick fog. I genuinely considered giving up on birdwatching that day – not only had I not seen what I’d wanted to see, the weather was manky, there was barely a bird of any kind to be found all day, and I was sick of dragging my telescope and rucksack around.
The bird that saved the day was an unlikely one. At the point of my greatest frustration, the movement of a small bird in the hedge up ahead caught my eye. I followed it, hoping it would reveal its identity, and it did. It was a male chaffinch – a very common bird, but a colourful one – and for some reason that splash of colour and the chaffinch’s perky character were enough to bring me back out of my brain fog. The actual fog lifted soon after that too, and I remember sitting on a bench, and discovering that a cup of tea tastes even better by the sea.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like these:
- Dippyman: Birdwatching, depression and the BBC sofa
- Dippyman: Why birdwatching is good for my mental health
- My BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day on my encounter with a Water Rail
- Blurt Foundation blog: How nature helps me
- Bird Therapy blog by Joe Harkness
- Anxious Birding blog by Ian Young
My second York Bird Race would see our team – Never Mind The Woodcocks – reuniting for a blockbuster sequel bursting with birds, and with an unlikely ending. Here are some of my highlights.
Up with the partridge – ahaaaaaa!
Having hatched our plans in the pub the night before, we were (almost) raring to go at 6.45am on race day. Our first stop, as last year, was to catch up with Jono’s faithful grey partridges calling in fields by the cycle track, but a distant teal pipped them to the post as our first bird of the day. As we were starting to think the partridges had abandoned us there in the cold and darkness, two of them croaked out – job done, and off down the A64 to Castle Howard.
Castle Howard Lake brought me my first-ever scaup on my last bird race, and there was to be another first this time. Having found most of the birds we were expecting as dawn broke – except for the usually dependable marsh tit – we started walking back to the car, when Jono recognised a surprising call coming from the rushes on the lake shore.
It was a Cetti’s warbler, a bird that’s been spreading north, but still not one we’d ever expected to find at this location. Although speed is of the essence in a bird race, and although hearing a bird counts as well as seeing one, once Jono knew I’d never seen one, we had to go looking for the elusive warbler – and as we got nearer, a small bird flew from left to right. We saw where it landed, and managed to clap eyes on our suspect just before it disappeared. A brilliant bird – not just for our bird race list but for life list.
Until last November, I had never seen a hawfinch. In fact, these chunky orange finches were one of my top two bogey birds. My first came at this same place – the Yorkshire Arboretum at Castle Howard, which has been a hotbed of hawfinch action since last autumn’s invasion by this normally scare species.
This time, one small patch in front of the visitors’ centre was heaving with hawfinches. Jono counted about 70 of them, mingling with greenfinches, chaffinches and redwings. It seemed ludicrously easy when it had taken me almost all my birding life to see even one. We struck lucky with a great spotted woodpecker, jay, goldcrest and mistle thrush before we left the Castle Howard area and set off back to York.
Heslington East, a wetland on the newer part of the York University campus, was our next stop. Just before finding a great crested grebe – a bird we just could not find last year – I made another notable contribution, but it was a moment of unintentional comedy rather than any birding wizardry.
Catching my foot on something, I plunged face first into a bog, leaving a squelchy imprint in the ground, like a mud angel, and coating my coat, legs, binoculars and telescope in a generous helping of oozy mud. My foolishly-chosen light-coloured trousers would give away my mucky escapades to everyone we met for the rest of the day.
A quick visit to Askham Bog, my local nature reserve, brought us our overdue marsh tit, but no joy from Jono’s ‘magic woodcock bush’.
Moving on, we failed for the second year in a row to spot any white-winged gulls (the rarer Iceland and glaucous gulls) among the flocks at Rufforth, but added some very welcome green sandpipers to our list.
Next we called in to see my friend Adam, who’d had bramblings and a blackcap in his garden in the days before the race. The blackcap must have heard we were coming, and had gone into hiding, but the bramblings turned up on cue – a valuable bird for us, as it proved hard to find in the area on this year’s race. Adam was perhaps our lucky mascot for the day – we’d bump into him in several other places as we went on to tour the Lower Derwent Valley.
Birds flooding in?
When it comes to birding around York, the Lower Derwent Valley is probably the jewel in our ornithological crown. Although I’d been to Bank Island, Wheldrake Ings, North Duffield and other sites in the valley many times, the bird race was the first time I’d really seen how all these places fit together in one big birding paradise. The view was somewhat different on this occasion, with flooding blurring the boundaries between the different sites.
As the afternoon drew on, the bird list seemed to be growing at such a slow pace that we suspected we’d struggle to get near our previous total of 95. Every site brought at least one new bird, but a lot of the species we’d encountered last year simply weren’t around – waxwings, bean goose, pink footed goose… And to rub it in, the rarity that had been seen frequently right up to race day – an American wigeon – had performed a classic vanishing act.
Having moved on to Aughton and Ellerton, I had a text from Adam saying he’d seen two marsh harriers just after we’d seen him at The Refuge. Had the jinx befallen us?
Spot the marsh harrier
“It looks like a good day for raptors,” Rich had said earlier in the day. Slowly, the birds of prey began to prove him right. We’d been spoilt for kestrels, glimpsed a soaring sparrowhawk at Askham Bog, and marvelled at a close encounter with red kites near Melbourne (at the site pictured below), but the marsh harriers didn’t show up until we arrived at North Duffield.
We’d planned to make North Duffield our last stop, but there wasn’t much about. At least, not at first glance, but our fortunes seemed to change with one great bird – a stunning marsh harrier that slowly drifted closer and closer to the hide, until we could admire it in all its majesty without even having to lift our binoculars.
It was nearly close enough to get a photo with my mobile. See if you can spot the marsh harrier in these pitiful photos…
Owls about that then?
Inspired by our harrier, knowing we hadn’t managed a single owl yet, and with the promise of gulls coming into roost at Bank Island and Wheldrake Ings, we felt there were more birds to come. And we were right – we found a barn owl and little owl at Thorganby, had a peregrine fly over our heads atop the tower at Bank Island, and spotted a distant flock of golden plovers.
Last year’s total got nearer and nearer. As the sun sank out of sight, we decided to try one last throw of the dice, and dashed in the dark to Wheldrake Ings.
We parked on the lane and walked as far as we could before meeting the floodwater. There was a patch of dry land by the bridge at the other side, and Rich boldly strode out into the water in the hope of reaching it.
He disturbed a woodcock – another bird for the list – and then, reaching the bridge, shouted out that he could hear a tawny owl. With none of the rest of us able to hear it from our side of the water, we had to try striding out into this giant puddle and hope for the best.
Paddling in complete darkness isn’t something I’ve ever done before, and the water level rose perilously close to the top of my wellies, but it was worth it for the unmistakable wavering hoot of the tawny at the other side. We were at 94 – only one less than last year – and then came the cry of a curlew, and we had matched our previous total!
Meeting some of the other teams in the pub at Wheldrake afterwards, we found to our surprise that we’d recorded the highest total of the day.
That should have been that, but a recount gave us only 94 – still the winning score but by the most slender of margins.
But that still isn’t the end. Emanuela, our list-keeper, realised she’d forgotten to count our little egret at Heslington East and the mandarins on Castle Howard Lake, giving us a grand final total of 96 – better than last year. Not only was it the winning score in the York race, it was the highest score in Yorkshire, on a day when teams across the region take part in their own area’s bird races.
And so another day packed with unforgettable experiences, brilliant birds and great company came to a remarkable close. I’m still scraping mud out of my binocular lenses.
See Jono’s blog for our full list of species and sites, and some photos of the team in action.
Two years ago, I set myself a challenge: to find a list of ‘bogey birds’ – the species that had most eluded and frustrated me over years of birding.
I saw some that year, and have caught up with others since. Some remain stubbornly evasive. And new bogey birds have joined their ranks. Here’s how the quest is going.
Firecrest – a never-ending quest
Firecrests are tiny, but a big problem for me. Why? Because they are a dazzling little bird that I’ve always wanted to see, but they aren’t having any of it. I’ve put more effort into finding these little scamps than any other bird without so much as a fleeting hint of a sighting. But October is probably the best month to find one in my part of the world… This year, maybe?
Bogey status: number one bogey species
Hawfinch – a merry dance
Two days in Robin Hood country have seen me fail to hit my target – Hawfinches are famously elusive, and the birds that lurk in Sherwood Forest like Hood’s Merry Men led me a merry dance.
Bogey status: enhanced
Great Grey Shrike – shriking it lucky, twice
In the time since I started my quest, I’ve seen two Great Grey Shrikes – one was a distant glimpse at Heslington Tilmire and the second was at the seventh attempt early this spring. A long-staying bird at Acaster Airfield appeared to be mocking me from the undergrowth until I took my lucky mascots (my two children) with me, and it obligingly popped up for a quick but clear view. I’m also on a lucky streak with Red-backed Shrikes – one at Spurn in 2015, one at Filey this August, and another at Bempton in September.
Bogey status: tick!
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – wood you believe it?
The most surprising and exhilarating encounter with one of my bogey birds was the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker that appeared unexpectedly in front of me at Strensall Common two years ago – the sort of magical birding moment that makes it all worthwhile.
Bogey status: tick!
Grasshopper Warbler – a prolonged skulk
Another notoriously tricksy bird. I still haven’t found a Grasshopper Warbler, although for a moment this spring I thought I had. On a walk at Staveley Nature Reserve, a Sedge Warbler did a cunning impression of a ‘Gropper’ and got me all excited, only to fly off chuckling to itself, revealing its true colours.
Bogey status: enhanced
Black-necked Grebe – you beauty!
I was spoilt by the easy and close-up views of several summer-plumaged Black-necked Grebes at RSPB St Aidan’s in 2015, and these gorgeous birds became an instant favourite. This January, I saw the winter-plumaged version in Scarborough Harbour, alongside my first-ever Great Northern Diver.
Bogey status: tick!
Stints – increasingly annoying
Temminck’s Stint and Little Stint are two tiny wading birds that visit the UK in spring and autumn. I would be happy to see either, but the Little Stint has overtaken its relative on my bogey list and is really starting to get on my nerves after repeated failed attempts to find one. The latest came in September, when one had been frequently reported at Thornwick Pool, Flamborough. I visited the site twice in one day and scoured every inch of it for the Little Stint, but to no avail.
Bogey status: enhanced
Goshawk and Honey Buzzard – one down!
I hedged my bets here and would have settled for either of these splendid raptors. Mixed fortunes – on a summer trip to Wykeham Forest, North Yorkshire, where both species can be found, I got a quick view of an imposing Goshawk disappearing over the tree tops moments before discovering I’d just missed a Honey Buzzard.
Bogey status: one ticked, one enhanced
Black Tern – double whammy!
The best bogey bird result since my mission has been the Black Tern. Last year, I finally saw one while out on an RSPB seabird cruise, albeit a glance of a winter-plumaged bird. This ghost was well and truly laid to rest at St Aidan’s this year, when a glorious summer-plumaged bird kindly flew around just above my head for the kind of view I’d always hoped for.
Bogey status: tick!
Twite – understated and under-spotted
Not the most spectacular of birds, but my inability to find one has made them a desirable target on my bogey bird list. Maybe this winter…
Bogey status: no change
Jack Snipe – snipe dreams
The Jack Snipe was a late addition to my bogey bird list, but two sightings in quick succession have broken the curse. The first was a decent appearance at Filey Dams last autumn; the second bursting from the undergrowth during my first bird race this January.
Bogey status: tick!
The new breed of bogey birds
The more I go birding, the more near misses and tales of avian woe I manage to rack up. These next few species are the ones that got away in the most frustrating fashion:
This long-staying rarity delighted and infuriated birders in equal measure last winter, hanging about with Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings on the edge of Dunnington, York. I was one of the infuriated ones…
Gull watching is not my area of expertise, and when confronted with a large flock on a cold winter’s day, it’s like an extreme version of ‘Where’s Wally?’ trying to pick out one of the rarer species. The Glaucous Gull, a large, pale-winged winter visitor, is the one vexing me the most.
My failure to see Filey’s long-staying Surf Scoter – a rare sea duck – last year was clear evidence of my birding jinx. The bird hung about for ages, sometimes giving very generous views, but disappeared when I turned up to see it, only to reappear the moment I got home that evening.
Like Twites, I wouldn’t be that fussed about seeing a Barred Warbler if it hadn’t proved so hard to see. Barred Warblers are unexciting to look at, but uncommon enough to cause excitement when you find one. I’ve had two near misses – turning up at Spurn Migration Festival two years ago five minutes after a Barred Warbler had been seen close to the road, and being an hour late for a sighting at Flamborough last month.
The quest continues
I have an autumn birding mission to the coast coming up soon. Will any of my bogey birds lose their status? Will new bogey birds be born? Will something totally unexpected show up? That’s the joy and the misery of birding; the hope and the glory; the woe and the anguish. One thing’s for sure – October is a great month to go birding. You just need to be in the right place at the right time.
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.
Ever been out walking in total darkness on a freezing January morning to listen for grey partridges? No, neither had I, until I took part in my first bird race.
The idea of a bird race is that you get up horribly early in the morning and dash around all day trying to see or hear as many different species of bird as you can.
If it sounds a bit extreme, that’s because it is, but it’s also great fun and rather exciting once you get past the dazed ‘Is this all a dream?’ feeling.
Our intrepid team, Never Mind The Woodcocks – me, Jono, Rich and Emanuela – spent ten hours lurching from one York birding hotspot to another, totting up 95 species between a hooting tawny owl before dawn and a just-in-the-nick-of-time call from a little owl after dusk. I can take little credit for this impressive total. My main role was to bumble about, ask lots of questions, and chip in with silly jokes.
The Michael Clegg Memorial Birdrace turned out to be an epic adventure, featuring two firsts for me, close encounters with some great birds, and some fairly common species leading us a merry dance…
Egret by gum
After getting off to a mixed start in the dark – grey partridges and golden plover among the early ticks, but little owl refusing to play ball – our first location as dawn broke was the village of Stillingfleet, where a great white egret had been reported recently. A muddy trudge up and down the beck failed to reveal the egret, but listening to all the other birds waking up around us was a treat.
Brambling on my mind
Passing an elegant barn owl perched on a gate, we approached our next location – seemingly a non-descript field in the middle of nowhere. But Jono had done his homework, and we soon found what we were looking for: a flock of bramblings, appearing in generous numbers at the top of a nearby oak tree. These attractive finches, boasting bright orange chests, are winter visitors to the UK, and aren’t always easy to find, but they spoilt us by hanging around for decent views and allowing me to learn their call, which sounded a little like an unimpressed sneer.
Gawping at scaups
A key spot on our tour of the York area was Castle Howard Lake, so it was a blow to arrive there in dense fog, with terrible visibility. Most ducks on the lake, which is normally thronging with a variety of wildfowl, were reduced to grey blobs – disappointing, as I’d hoped we’d find a scaup there. While not a particularly exciting bird to look at, it was one I’d never seen before, and a male and female had both been reported in the days before our visit.
Working our way along the lakeside path, we gradually started to find the birds we were looking for, such as the sleek goosanders and charismatic little goldeneyes among the many wigeons, teals, coots and tufted ducks. As we resigned ourselves to a scaup-less trip, the female suddenly glided into view. My first ‘lifer’ of the year! I’d always thought I’d struggle to identify one alongside the very similar tufted duck, but it was clearly a different shape – it looked longer, lower in the water, with a different-shaped head and a generous blob of white on its face.
The fog continued as we headed to Strensall Common, which was eerily beautiful in the gloom, but not exactly awash with bird life.
Here come the gulls
There was certainly no shortage of gulls on bird race day – big flocks of them in the fields to the west of York. Identifying some of them was easy. Adult great black-backed gulls are unmistakable beasts – they’re big, and have black backs. I know what adult herring gulls and black-headed gulls look like. But throw winter plumages and juveniles of various ages into the mix, then set the challenge of trying to identify the rarer species – Iceland gull and glaucous gull – and I’m all of a tizz. We stared at flocks of gulls until my eyes ached and I felt dizzy, but still couldn’t find what we were looking for; and what we knew some of the other teams had seen. It was like a gull version of ‘Where’s Wally?’ with a cast of thousands.
Waxwings – exotic-looking pink birds with striking features and a rather punky hair-do – visit the UK in varying numbers each winter from Scandinavia. In some winters, like this one, they come over in large numbers to scoff as many berries as they can. They’d been spotted all around York in the run-up to the bird race, but our first attempt was fruitless. Our next stop was right next to the city walls, where waxwings had gathered during the last few days to feast on berries. From our perch on the top of the walls, we found blackbirds, song thrushes and mistle thrushes gorging themselves on the red fruit, but no waxwings. We were about to give up, when I made one of my few notable contributions to the team effort and spotted a solitary waxwing peeking out from the middle of the tree. We celebrated with a botched fist-bump/handshake/high-five mash-up and dashed off to our next site.
Wagtails and herons and grebes, oh my!
Bird watching is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. That can mean both unexpected delights and great frustrations. Three common species proved evasive on the day, and we got increasingly concerned that we were somehow going to fail to see a pied wagtail, grey heron, or great crested grebe. I’d seen a heron on the way to Castle Howard, but the rule was that birds only counted if at least three members of the team saw or heard it. Eventually, we did find one – a distant view from the hide at our final destination, Wheldrake Ings. The quest for a pied wagtail got more and more ridiculous, and the biggest cheer of the day came as we spotted one out of the car window, strutting nonchalantly along a pavement. But the grebe was nowhere to be found. Knowing the other teams were also struggling to find one, we wasted valuable time scooting off to two locations, hoping to track one down, but to no avail. It was the bogey bird of the day.
Wild goose chase
There was to be another first for me on this day of twists and turns. As the light began to fade, we literally went on a wild goose chase to try and track down a tundra bean goose. Luckily another birder was watching geese from the roadside, and was able to point out where the bean geese were hiding among larger numbers of pink-footed geese and the much commoner greylag geese. It was a puzzling game of ‘spot the difference’, and I’d probably have overlooked them without expert assistance – they did a cracking job of looking just like the pink feet, until one kindly gave us a flash of its bright orange legs.
A sniper in the bog
There were two final stops on our way to Wheldrake, where we knew we’d be able to enjoy a dusk bonanza of waders and other wetland birds – and endure another hapless sift through countless gulls.
One was the easiest find of the day – a little grebe appearing exactly where Jono had expected it on the Pocklington Canal.
The second was really something to behold – Rich’s snipe dance. Spotting a boggy field that was rich with potential for skulking snipe, off he went, bounding through the bog like a welly-wearing gazelle. It worked – from nowhere, up shot two common snipe in one direction, and a rarer, smaller jack snipe in the other. It was only the second jack snipe I’d ever seen, and a first for Emanuela.
Topping up our list with a late flurry of species at Wheldrake, we retired shattered but satisfied with our efforts – and talk turned to the possibility of a 24-hour Yorkshire bird race in May. Now that really would be extreme…
This morning I found time to experience the restorative and uplifting powers of nature (rather than dashing to the toilet, as the title may suggest) – but I very nearly didn’t bother.
After hitting ‘snooze’ about four times, I dragged myself wearily out of bed with a throbbing headache and in a grouchy mood, and attempted to wake the kids for school. Once I’d done the school run, I would, I vowed, go back to bed. My previous plan had been to go out somewhere for a morning’s birdwatching, but bed seemed far more appealing.
When nature calls
But on the walk back from school, I heard nature calling. The weather was pretty mild for a December morning, and there’s a nature reserve – Askham Bog – just up the road. OK, I probably wouldn’t see anything new there, but it felt the right place to be, so I strode home with purpose, changed into some old trousers, grabbed my binoculars and walking boots, and off I went.
Depression and stress have been stalking me again this year and I’ve had a lot on my mind, so this week – a week off work to be in my local panto at night and find some ‘me time’ by day – is proving a valuable breather. And where better to have a breather than in the fresh air, surrounded by trees and wildlife in a familiar spot?
Askham Bog, on the edge of York, at first seems small, with a boardwalk offering a short circular walk around the woods and bogs. But it’s much larger than it first appears, and part of the joy of going there is to explore the smaller paths off the boardwalk.
It didn’t take me long to get lost in nature. All was quiet when I first ventured over a stile and into a copse, but then there came a familiar cheeping overhead, and a group of long-tailed tits came into view, acrobatically working their way through the branches. A loud alarm call came from somewhere up ahead – a wren, with a voice far bigger than its body.
Ain’t no party like a woodland party
I returned to the boardwalk, the early-morning sky still waking up, and almost immediately encountered one of those wonderful winter flocks of mixed small birds, seemingly having a party in a tall tree. It was like half the wood had been invited to hang out – Redwings flew on ahead, while blue tits, coal tits and great tits joined their long-tailed friends; a treecreeper worked its way up the trunk, and tiny goldcrests flitted from twig to twig, some coming incredibly close. I spotted the silhouette of a larger, lean-looking bird at the top of a nearby tree – it turned out to be a smart male sparrowhawk; a potential party pooper if ever there was one. It took off, perhaps having detected my presence. Maybe I’d saved the day for the revellers. I stood mesmerised, taking it all in. If I saw nothing else, I told myself, it had been worth getting up for this.
On my next jaunt away from the main path, I found chaffinches and bullfinches, the latter given away by their signature call – something like a squeaking hinge that needs oiling. I was distracted by a bright white shape bouncing up and down in the distance across the bog. I knew instinctively what it was – yes, I was staring at a deer’s bottom. The roe deer in question wasn’t hanging about (I don’t think I would either if someone was staring at my bum through binoculars) and it bounded off.
The best was still to come.
On my next excursion, I lost myself completely (mentally, not literally) in my peaceful surroundings, even pausing for a moment with my eyes closed to take in all the sounds – robins and blackbirds calling, wrens shouting from the undergrowth… Then I found myself composing this blog post in my head, and told myself to shut up and just enjoy being there.
Crossing a boggy field to the boundary fence, I spotted another bouncing white bottom in the distance, and another, as two roe deer retreated into the wood; then another came fully into view. They soon legged it, probably afraid I’d start ogling their backsides.
Flushed with success
I walked up to the boundary fence to peer into the wood, and a medium-sized, brown bird suddenly whooshed up from the brown leaves covering the ground, and it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. I was perplexed for a moment. What could it be? It was too big to be a mistle thrush, too small for a female sparrowhawk, and the wrong shape for an owl. Then it dawned on me – I must have disturbed (or ‘flushed’, to use birding lingo) a woodcock! These elusive birds are known to spend the winter at Askham Bog, but because they’re so hard to see – both because of their skulking behaviour and their effective camouflage – I had never seen one there before.
I made my way home, once again feeling tired, but now feeling happy and content, knowing I had used my time well and listened to my body. For an hour and 20 minutes, I’d transported myself away from the real world. Next stop, bed. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this self-care lark at last.
Here are some photos from my walk.
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