The wacky bird race

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.

Strensall Common in the fog.

The sun attempts to break through the fog at Strensall Common.

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.

Waxwing lyrical

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…


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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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.


Why birdwatching is good for my mental health

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.

Getting excited about birds is good for you

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

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

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

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

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

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Spurn Lighthouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No sign of it,” they said.

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

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

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

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

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Spurn Point – windswept but beautiful.


Why birdwatching is like a box of chocolates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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