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.
I must confess, I have not actually run with an otter (sounds like fun, though, and I might win if we had a race). I haven’t exactly talked to one either (again, sounds like fun). But I did see one for the first time this week, I have done a run, I am about to give my first talk on depression, and I only have time to write one blog post, so I’ve mixed them all together.
At the start of August, I ran the York 10K with my friends Kate and Keith in memory of Dan Rhodes, my friend who took his own life this January after a long battle with mental illness. Big thanks to everyone who sponsored us – we raised £382.50 for Dan’s memorial fund at Jubilee Church Hull, which will be used to provide facilities and education for homeless and vulnerable people in Hull. Donations still very welcome!
Here’s photographic proof that I did it, finishing with a face as red as my T-shirt.
The run ended up being rather more challenging than expected, as I came down with a cold and spent the two nights before the big day coughing horribly (not that anyone ever coughs nicely). There was no way I was going to miss it, though, even if I had to walk all the way.
As it turned out, the hindrance of my lurgy made me do some unusually positive thinking. With each kilometre I ran, I congratulated myself on another km that I didn’t think I’d be able to do, until I found myself panting my way to the finish line, having run all the way.
From one challenge to another…
I’ve written a lot about my experiences of depression, and chatted to a lot of people about it. I’ve even done a couple of radio interviews, like this one on BBC Radio York last week (listen from 08:45 for about six minutes). However, public speaking is an exciting yet terrifying new venture, and that’s what I’ll be doing this Saturday. I’m joining the brilliant Jayne Hardy and Lotte Lane in London to talk about depression and self-care at the first BLURT Talks event, run by the Blurt Foundation. There are still some tickets left – come along and see me face my fears!
Every year, my dad and I go for a day’s walking somewhere. This year, we decided to spend the best part of a day at the RPSB’s Leighton Moss reserve in Lancashire, and a very wise decision that turned out to be.
It was one of those rare, magical days when we happened to be in the right places at the right times.
I’d heard that great white egrets had been seen at Leighton Moss and – being a keen birder and never having seen one before – was keen to clap my eyes on one.
The staff told us where the egrets had most recently been seen. We walked into the hide and found a small, excited group of visitors who’d just spotted an otter!
After straining my eyes for a couple of minutes, I saw it too – first an arched back, breaking the surface of the water like a miniature whale, then a head popped up, then there was a flick of a pointed tail. For a good ten minutes, the cheeky beast played hide and seek with us, swimming rapidly back and forth, disappearing then reappearing. Having already seen my first living badger earlier this year, it seemed too good to be true that I’d just seen my first otter as well.
Our luck was also in with the egret. While we were sitting eating our sandwiches, my dad spotted a large white bird drifting over a distant reedbed in the distance, and within a few minutes we were watching this magnificent, pure white bird stretching its almost impossibly long neck out over a lagoon, looking for something to snap up in its big yellow bill.
And I did talk to the otter, if calling out “Ah, there you are!” in an excited voice counts…
Clear, bright, calm – that’s the river and the weather in this photo, and the opposite of how I’d been feeling in the days before I took it.
It was October 2011 and I was off work with depression. A stressful couple of months had slowly, sneakily reversed the progress I’d made since having counselling for my first bout of the illness. One night it came back with a vengeance.
My brain felt so full that it might explode. I was angry, confused, miserable and shattered. This mental turbulence kept me awake at night and my tired brain couldn’t cope during the day – a cruel and exhausting cycle that trapped me in darkness.
I vowed to myself that I would get out of the house every day and go for a walk, partly to get some exercise and fresh air and partly for a change of scenery that might distract me from the cyclone in my brain. My dad must have recognised this was what I needed too, because he arranged to take me out for a hearty walk by a canal out in the countryside.
Looking back on that outing, there were a number of small things that helped me.
It was in a place I didn’t know, so there was a sense of exploration and discovery – a new experience and the best kind of distraction.
It was a bright, sunny autumn day – one of those crisp, cool days that makes you want to take deep breaths, which helps you relax and appreciate what’s around you.
Being a keen birdwatcher I had taken my binoculars, and remember some of the birds I saw that day, and where I saw them. As we got out of the car, there was a great-spotted woodpecker that flew from a tree and landed on a telegraph pole a few yards away. Further along the walk, near the river, we saw a sparrowhawk zipping low along a line of bushes. And we saw fieldfares, which had arrived from Scandinavia for the winter.
My memories of that autumn are otherwise pretty murky, but these images are crystal clear in my mind even now. I think that shows the value of trying to do something you enjoy, however small, if you can muster the energy.
The fact my dad had organised the day helped too. I didn’t have to think – just take it in. And the company certainly helped. Being able to talk to someone you trust and who understands you is so important, and the different setting took me away from my problems somehow, and gave me a boost that defied my weariness.
There’s a reason holidays are marketed as a chance to ‘get away from it all’. It’s because that chance is something we all need and crave. This walk wasn’t a holiday, of course, but the change and escape was what I really needed.
* I wrote this post for Time to Change. Read more about them here
When my wife and I took our two children for a winter walk recently, I fully expected them to moan that it was boring; that they were cold; that they were hungry.
Surprisingly, none of that happened. In fact, they had a great time, exploring paths and enjoying the sights and sounds of our local countryside. It reminded me that, for small children, every outing, every place or activity brings new and potentially exciting and fascinating experiences.
The most memorable moment was then they were standing on a bridge over a road, waiting for cars to come under it. One driver looked up, saw their excited faces and honked his horn. It was quite possibly the most thrilling thing that had ever happened to them.
In contrast, for someone with depression, every day, every outing, every place or activity is a source of overwhelming worry, fear, stress, dread, anxiety and tiredness.
Thankfully, I am now experiencing the world in a more childlike way. It is like my senses are reawakening after being numbed and lost in freezing fog for three years.
Depression had drained the colour from my life, deadening my memory, blackening my moods and draining my energy and enthusiasm. I go out now and look up at the trees and sky, rather than staring blankly ahead or at the floor. Like my children, I’m enjoying exploring the world around me and taking in new experiences.
I’m also rediscovering pleasures that had become lost and forgotten – music, for example. It’s not that I never listened to music during my depression, but some of the music I enjoyed most a few years ago somehow lost its appeal in those dark times.
I’d skip half the tracks on CDs or on my iPod because I just couldn’t be bothered to listen to them. I’m now getting a lot of pleasure from digging out music that I haven’t listened to for ages, like my collection of 50s American rock ’n’ roll, which has been sadly neglected for a long time but which is now a fresh delight.
One musical moment in particular filled me with a feeling I haven’t had for a long time.
Before I got my first CD player in the mid-90s – one of those personal CD players that nobody has any more – I’d built up a sizeable collection of cassettes, including a small number of Elvis Presley tapes. There was a poor-quality live recording, a greatest hits compilation and a couple of movie soundtracks.
The ability to play CDs opened up a whole new world of possibilities. I bought a CD called Elvis 56 with my birthday money. This collection of songs recorded in 1956 came with a nice booklet of photographs of Elvis looking cool and moody, and held great promise. I put the disk in my CD player and took it to bed with me that night.
What I heard made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It made me shiver. It was magic. I was hooked. The impact of those songs – Anyway You Want Me; I Was The One; I Want You, I Need You, I Love You; Anyplace is Paradise – stayed with me. I needed more Elvis CDs, and it didn’t stop there. I watched the movies, bought the box sets, read the books, even began impersonating Elvis at karaoke.
I put a CD of Elvis’s 1956 recordings in my car last week and there was that feeling again – a feeling that makes you just sit back, take a deep breath and go ‘wow’.
So, in life beyond depression, feelings like joy, excitement and anticipation can return, however long and however deep they’ve been buried. Perhaps my prolonged hibernation is over at last.