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 I drank slime

It is often said that things that taste nice must be bad for you, and that things that taste disgusting must be good for you. Sometimes though, a disgusting thing that’s meant to be good for you is so disgusting that you don’t care how good for you it is.

This is true of my adventures with a dietary supplement called spirulina. Spirulina is widely hailed a ‘superfood’. Although it can’t make you taller, make your hair grow back, give you x-ray vision, turn you into a love god or enable you to fly, it seems it can do pretty much everything else.

There were two particular benefits of spirulina that interested me:

  1. it reduces fatigue, giving you more energy;
  2. it boosts your immune system.

I was in great need of both these things when I went to talk to the occupational health nurse at work last spring.

Two of the effects or symptoms of my lingering depression had been physical and mental lethargy, and a constant stream of tedious minor ailments and illnesses. The nurse suggested a number of things – particularly some supplements to my diet – that might help to get me fit again. Spirulina was one of them.

Eager to eradicate my troublesome symptoms and get on with the business of shaking off my depression, I went out one lunchtime to a health food shop in town and left with various tablets and potions, some of which I’ve stuck with and others that had no discernible effect. And then there was the spirulina. Popping in to a nearby smoothie shop for a fruit fix, I spotted a brown bag, labelled ‘spirulina powder’. The chap in the shop raved about its greatness and offered it to me at a reduced price.

“Mix it in with a smoothie or juice,” he advised. Off I went, clutching my bargain bag of superfood, eager to try it out and reawaken my dormant inner superhero.

Spirulina is a naturally occurring algae, and what I hadn’t expected was that it would revert to its natural slimy state at the merest hint of moisture. Even before it morphed into thick, dark-green slime, the smell emanating from the open bag was a clear warning that this was not going to taste good. But it would be good for me, so I would be brave and do what was necessary to reap the rewards of this miraculous gloop.

I put a spoonful of spirulina powder into my morning smoothie, and watched it turn green. Not a nice, appetising green. Slime green. Pondweed green. Algae green. I stirred it furiously to try and blend in the claggy blobs of goo, but lumps of it stuck to the spoon. Then I took a deep breath, and downed some. So much for my new va-va-voom – this was more like va-va-vomit. It was utterly, utterly rank. Not only did it taste vile, it encased my teeth, and the taste lingered. One perfectly good smoothie ruined.

Day after day, I tried to complete a glass of this rancid concoction, and each time coughed, spluttered and gagged my way through it. Thinking I must be getting the mixture wrong, I tried different juices. Still it stank. Still it tasted putrid. I tried mixing it with water. Even worse. Nothing makes algae feel more at home than water, and the spirulina thrived in my glass, but much less so on my taste buds, which rejected it out of hand.

I persisted for far longer than any right-minded person would do, but my enthusiasm for experimenting with spirulina was in terminal decline. Having tried just about everything else, I gave it one last go – on its own. No mixture. No blending. Just the spirulina powder, on a teaspoon. Well, as bad ideas go, this one was a medal-winner.

On contact with my mouth, the powder seemed to expand and fill my mouth, so I could hardly breathe. The saliva in my mouth transformed it into one part super-claggy slime and one part dynamite. The putrescent slime clung to my teeth, tongue and gums, and the dynamite part built up in my mouth, choking me, until it exploded, leaving me staggering around the kitchen, erupting like some green-cloud-spewing volcano.

It was the final straw.

I did try spirulina tablets, the less offensive cousin of the powder, but the jar demanded that I take six tablets every day. “Not at that price,” I objected, so I took one a day, with no benefits whatsoever, until the jar was empty.

Some time later, I saw the man from the smoothie shop and he asked me how I’d got on with my purchase. I told him it had been unbelievably revolting. He asked if I’d mixed it with juice. I said yes, I’d mixed in one teaspoon of the powder, as he’d suggested…

“A whole teaspoon?” he said. “No mate, you only need half a teaspoon.”

Ah yes, that was what he had said. My memory, along with my energy, had disappeared into the fog of depression, and I’d somehow remembered the wrong quantity. But it was too late by then. I had fallen out with the spirulina and thrown it all in the bin. And there was no way I was going to put that stuff anywhere near my mouth again.