Birdwatching can be many things: relaxing, absorbing, frustrating, educational… but exhilarating and joyful? Well, yes actually.
There are birding moments that can leave you grinning like a fool, cheering like a champion, or gawping like a fish.
I was fortunate enough to enjoy one such moment when I took a long-overdue day off to go birding. It was also the first day of the school holidays, so I had a wildlife-loving sidekick for the day: my son Daniel.
We faced a dilemma. Would we head for Flamborough on the east coast in the hope of finding our number one bogey bird, the Firecrest? There had been sightings in two different locations there in the previous few days but none reported the day before. Or would we go somewhere a little nearer – maybe to Fairburn Ings and the chance to see a Little Gull, which had been reported during the week?
I gave Daniel the choice, and he plumped for the shorter trip to Fairburn.
We had a moment on our journey that made the trip worthwhile, before we’d even started in earnest. Daniel loves birds of prey – the first time he said ‘bird’ was when a Red Kite drifted over his buggy on a visit to Harewood House – and had been talking about how he’d love to see a raptor close up.
He was pleased enough when we spotted a buzzard in a tree, but then we passed so close to one perched in a roadside hedge that he could see every detail on its face. The delight in his voice as he described it set us up for a great day ahead.
A promising start
The omens were still good as we arrived in the village to be greeted by several Sand Martins, my first of the year. We strolled down the lane to Village Bay, where the Little Gull had last been reported, encountering several songbirds as we went – a very vocal Chiffchaff, a Linnet in a classic pose on top of a hedgerow, and a Song Thrush hopping about in a grassy field.
Reaching the shore of the lake, I set up my telescope, lowering it to a Daniel-friendly height so he could get the same decent views of distant birds as I could.
One by one, we spotted Tufted Ducks, Mallards, Coots and Moorhens, and a generous smattering of Gadwall – a very smart and under-rated duck – then Great Crested Grebes, Pochards, and my first Little Egret of the year on the far side of the lake.
On wooden posts in the middle of the water stood two Cormorants – one juvenile and one adult (like Cormorant versions of me and Daniel) and a trio of Black-headed Gulls, which I studied closely in case one turned out to be our Little Gull.
A little bit of magic
I expected that if we were lucky enough to see it, the Little Gull would be a fleeting glimpse of a juvenile some distance away.
When we did clap eyes on it, though, it surpassed all my hopes.
A small white gull caught my eye as it flew over the heads of some Pochards over to our left. As it zipped about, I got a clear view through my binoculars of the gull’s unmistakable distinguishing feature, which I’d seen in photos – the wings, although pale on top, were distinctly dark underneath.
“I’ve got it!” I shouted. I was able to point it out to Daniel. “See it, there? Flying over the Little Egret now…”
“I can see it!” he said.
There were two more special moments to come for me.
The first was when Daniel managed to pick up the Little Gull with my scope and follow it around as it whizzed high and then low over the lake. As a toddler, he had an operation on one of his eyes, and we weren’t sure he’d ever have ‘binocular vision’, and now here he was, sharing my hobby and this magical moment, just as able to watch this uncommon bird as I was.
In fact it was Daniel who got the best view first, and told me he could see the gull’s black head. This wasn’t a juvenile, or an adult bird still in its less striking winter plumage. This was a smart adult in full breeding plumage.
“You little beauty!” I gasped as a took over the scope for a few minutes, following the Little Gull as Daniel had done. What a smashing little bird. What an exhilarating and joyful few minutes. Not just a ‘lifer’ (the name for a bird you’re seeing for the first time in your life) but a cracking and generous view of a bird at its best, which I could share with my boy.
Moments like these make time stand still, and banish all other thoughts. Whatever else is going on in life, or in our heads, an encounter like this can put a smile on our faces whenever we pause to recall it.
The day would bring other great moments – listening to Bitterns ‘booming’ (their call sounds like the noise you can make by blowing into a bottle); being so close to a singing Robin that Daniel could almost touch it with his nose; watching an exotic Spoonbill; and a great look at a dazzling Kingfisher – but it’s that shared moment with a Little Gull that will stay in our memories for many years to come.
I’m using some days off from work to recharge my brain by day and perform in a panto by night.
I’ve been taking this week off for years now, and have learned how best to spend my time. The week typically involves:
- Preparing myself for panto
- Catching up on some telly that nobody else would be interested in watching (today I watched a programme about my favourite band, The Kinks – their song Dead End Street is the inspiration for this blog title)
- Doing my Christmas shopping
- Having lunch out with my wife
- Doing some drawing and maybe writing
- Getting out to enjoy nature
Yesterday was about the last two things on my list. Askham Bog, my local nature reserve, has become my favourite place to go at this time of year. In frost and morning sunlight, it is truly beautiful, and walking round it on my own, watching and listening and breathing the cold, fresh air feels restorative. It’s an undemanding place to go – no long drive, no need to lug my telescope around, no pressure to search for an elusive rarity. Just a wild place to explore and appreciate.
The benefit of my outing could be perfectly summarised by a five-minute spell shortly after my walk had begun.
With a few walkers arriving at the same time as me, I stepped off the main path to allow them to pass and to scan the trees for birds.
A little brown Wren popped up on the bank of a ditch, its perky tail pointing to the sky as it hopped from an exposed tree root into the cover of a bush.
Next my attention was caught by the black, white and pink of a Long-tailed Tit, one of several in a classic winter flock, which under further inspection included Great Tits, Blue Tits and Chaffinches.
And something a little different – an unexpected Chiffchaff, skulking about in the copse. While I was trying to get a better look at it, a burst of colour flashed before my eyes – the bright red, black and white plumage of a bold Great Spotted Woodpecker. I had some rare quiet time in the afternoon to do this drawing of it.
Another unmistakable bird joined the gang – a Treecreeper, only yards from the woodpecker, carried out its classic ritual of spiralling up one tree before zipping over to another and doing it all again.
With the frosty and ice melting rapidly, and large blobs of water plopping down from the treetops, I savoured the chance to leave the main boardwalk and explore the paths to the edges of the reserve, pausing to take photos with my phone and be mindful of everything around me.
The light shining on the water and frost meant that there were photo opportunities at every turn.
Today it’s been non-stop heavy rain, so I’ve had a sleep, watched my Kinks programme and written this, in the knowledge that I’ve managed my time pretty well this week and am finally able to spend time on self-care after a frantic couple of months.
Last summer, I took a great big leap out of my comfort zone and did some public speaking at a place in London that I’d never been to before.
I am not a keen public speaker, but on this occasion I had something to say, about something important, so my nerves just had to play second fiddle.
It seemed appropriate that the event in question was taking place in Churchill’s War Rooms, as my talk was about a battle. A very personal battle. It was about depression and self-care – that constant battle to look after yourself when you’re in depression’s cruel grip.
My talk was based on what I’d learned from my own experiences of depression, and was part of an event organised by the Blurt Foundation, an organisation close to my heart.
Blurt supports people with depression, and its brilliant founders, Jayne and Dom Hardy, are always coming up with great ideas to help other people. One such idea was Blurt’s email mentoring scheme, which was a great help to me when I needed to blurt out how I was feeling to someone who would understand, without having to worry my family and friends.
I’ve discovered in recent months that I need a ‘psychological first aid kit’ (as my counsellor put it) – a checklist of things I will do to help myself stay well – self-care, in fact. In my case, that’s things like going walking and birdwatching, watching terrible-quality disaster movies, drawing, writing in my diary and trying to keep up with some meditation to help me relax and live in the present.
The latest great idea from Blurt is partly about self-care and partly about caring for someone else. It’s called BuddyBox.
It’s a simple concept. There’s a box, with things in it that might help you relax or sleep, or could comfort, inspire or surprise you. You can either buy BuddyBoxes as a gift for a friend who’s struggling, to show you’re thinking of them and to give them a small boost, or you can buy them for yourself, to help you gently fight that battle I was talking about earlier.
Now, Blurt will be the first people to tell you that depression cannot be treated with things – but things like those found in a BuddyBox can be a chink of light in an otherwise dark day.
So, what’s in a BuddyBox? Well, the contents are different each month, but I can tell you what was in mine:
- A box of chamomile tea – perfect timing as I’m cutting down on caffeine at the moment. I’m having a cup as I write this and very nice it is too.
- Some sleep balm, and a lavender-scented bag, both to aid sleep. I’m not having difficulty sleeping at the moment, but when I was having regular bouts of insomnia I’d have welcomed any new tricks to help me get back to sleep.
- My favourite thing – a mindfulness colouring book and some colouring pencils. I’ve always loved drawing and colouring things in, and earlier this year I bought myself a colouring book (a grown-up one, of course). The idea is that colouring distracts you and gets you doing something you enjoy – which helps you stay in the moment, rather than worrying about the past or future. Unfortunately, the book I bought brought out the perfectionist in me, as the patterns were intricate, detailed and required great concentration – but the one in my BuddyBox is perfect. There’s a range of different patterns, some that need very little focus and some that I can get more absorbed in.
BuddyBox is available from the Blurt Foundation by subscription. You can choose to subscribe monthly, quarterly, six-monthly or annually. Read what other people thought of their first BuddyBox.
There is a commentator who sits in my head and witters.
He commentates on everything I do and everything that’s happening to me and around me. He’s particularly keen on wittering about things that haven’t happened yet – things in the future that he thinks I could and should be worrying about; things that could cause me stress.
There is a thin line between good planning and excessive fretting. My commentator shows no regard for this. Does something need planning? Well, why not worry about it at times when you can’t actually do anything about it? How about in the middle of the night?
He has his advantages. Sometimes he’ll pipe up with great ideas or witty remarks. But a lot of the time, I wish he would just shut up, because his accelerating rambling feeds my anxiety and prevents me living in the moment and taking one day at a time – something I know I need to do but often find impossible.
Sometimes he prattles on at such speed and volume it’s just a noise – a wall of sound. I can’t bear any other noise and can’t take in what people are saying. The din can prevent me enjoying what I’m doing. His chuntering fills my head, which means anything new trying to get into my headspace feels like an intruder. Sometimes my brain is so full, it overflows and I get forgetful.
If he gets bored of commentating on the present and future, he likes to play action replays. His collection of clips seems to concentrate on moments of stress or injustice, or things I’ve done wrong. Depending on how recent the incidents are, they can lead to futile yet destructive imaginary arguments. If he’s feeling particularly destructive, he conjures up imaginary scenarios to have imaginary arguments about.
These unwelcome tricks are things I’ve been learning to deal with over the past five years, when I first started trying to get to grips with depression. We all worry about stuff sometimes and get nervous about things we have to do. It’s normal. But when it’s the kind of ever-present worrying that leads to anxiety and heightens my risk of a return to depression, as it threatened to do last summer, I know I have to do something about it. I’m getting better at recognising the danger signs, taking action and looking after myself.
I am always keen to try new ways of silencing the gibbering fool in my brain. I’ve been trying to retrain him so he says positive things and replays positive clips. One way I’ve been doing this is to keep a diary of positive things each day, and reading back through what I’ve written to remind myself of things I could easily have forgotten forever. It’s a bit like sending a calming co-commentator into the commentary box, like the classic Formula One commentary team of Murray Walker – breathless, excited, verging on hysterical – and James Hunt, complementing Walker with a more thoughtful, observant style.
And, as I said before, I’m trying to live more in the present, so I’ve started going to something called Mind Calm, which is teaching me some basics about meditation. The principles make great sense – it’s about not being ruled by your thoughts, and being aware of what is happening in the moment – but my biggest challenge is to find time to practise regularly enough to make a difference. I’ve tried a couple of apps and books on mindfulness, but haven’t made those work for me so far.
My commentator has worked hard over the years. I think he would welcome the chance to put his feet up and take it easy. This stage of my recovery is about helping him to do just that.
About five years ago my doctor told me I had depression.
On hindsight, the symptoms painted a pretty obvious picture. My head hurt every day. I’d been stressed out for months and was permanently tense and irritable. I was susceptible to every minor illness that was doing the rounds. I had no energy or enthusiasm, and had trouble sleeping. I couldn’t look forward to anything – instead, everything made me anxious and worried. My confidence and self-esteem seeped away, as did my memory.
From there came the antidepressants, the counselling and the realisation that many, many other people go through this same thing. I’ve learned a lot from depression, and have become wise to its tricks and traps. Recovery isn’t about being miraculously cured and leaping with joy every moment of every day. It’s about feeling better, staying well and finding ways to cope if I feel depression’s malevolent presence – and, ideally, heading it off before it manages to get a hold.
All kinds of things can help in some small way, but one thing I’ve stuck with ever since my first round of counselling is my book. You could call it a ‘positivity diary’ if you like. To me it’s just ‘my book’. It’s a notebook that I write positive things in every day (or most days – the odd one gets missed out and I don’t berate myself for that, otherwise my perfectionist gremlins might come out and bash me over the head).
I use the book to keep a record of good things that happen to me – things I’ve enjoyed, kind words people have said to me or about me, small successes… When I started it, I believed I wasn’t good enough and was finding little pleasure in anything. The idea of the book was to tackle those two perspectives one day at a time.
If you can find something positive in each day, however small, it starts a positive cycle. It gradually builds up so that you’re encouraged and reminded to keep looking – and when times are particularly hard, the stuff you’ve written down is your evidence against the accusing voice telling you you’re not good enough and that nothing good ever happens. It also helps you to appreciate and savour good things as they’re happening to you. It can be incredibly easy to forget them all. Even if writing in the book doesn’t seem to make any difference at the time, it might be just what you need some time in the future.
Remembering to read the diary from time to time is an important part of making it work for you. I was feeling a bit battered and low on confidence recently so decided to read through my diaries, right from the very start (not all in one go – there are five full books to get through).
I’m finding it a genuinely uplifting and humbling experience, reliving forgotten moments and recalling achievements and happy times, whether I was on great form at the time or just trying to find a gap in the clouds.
I used to also keep a record of things I’d found difficult or stressful, to try and learn from them, and I wrote those down in the back of my books. It’s been interesting to look back on those too, but they can also take me back to things I don’t want to remember. Writing them down served a purpose at the time, but I’m glad I stopped doing so. I’ve learned just as much by refreshing my memory about good things I’ve done.
My first diary pre-dated my first foray into blogging, so I’ve also been following the history of Dippyman from its origins to the present day. If you’ve ever read, liked, shared or commented on one of my blog posts, thank you – you’ve played a part in my book and, in turn, in my recovery.
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.
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.
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…
This is the story of how a hamster taught me a valuable lesson about life.
Here is the hamster in question.
His name is Nibbles, and he’s our family pet. He is better known as Nibs, but will also answer to Nib Nib, Nibby or even Nibby Nibby Nib Nib.
You know when Nibs is awake because you can usually hear one of us calling “Niiiiiiiiiibs” in a silly pet voice. One of the grown-ups usually. The children are much more sensible
I’ll have to cover Nibs’s ears for a moment because I have a shocking confession to make. I didn’t want a hamster, or any kind of pet for that matter. Not right now.
I love animals. I just didn’t want another responsibility; another thing to worry about or care for; another thing to become emotionally attached to.
My daughter had been quietly but steadily campaigning for a pet for a while, and my wife and I had always said “Not yet,” but there came a turning point.
One night at Brownies, another Brownie brought in her hamster to show the girls. He was easy to look after, she said, and a lovely pet. Somehow or other, my wife had a kind of enlightening Road to Damascus moment and became converted to the hamster cause on the walk home from Brownies, and joined the hamster recruitment campaign.
She was far more persistent and persuasive than my daughter and did her research thoroughly. A hamster would be easy to care for, inexpensive, a good starter pet… I started to receive texts and emails throughout the next day, saying, quite simply, “Hamster”.
In the end, I conceded defeat, and we went on a family outing to the pet shop. We saw two hamsters, but Nibs was immediately the one for us. My little boy named him Nibbles, we loaded up the car with a hamster house, bedding, food and various forms of hamstery entertainment, then took him home.
Needless to say, I am the one who’s become soppiest about Nibbles. He’s such a cute little chap – surprisingly good fun and full of character. He and I have some kind of father-hamster bond. He looks for me to let him out of his cage for a stroke, a whiz around in his ball, a treat or just the chance to try and escape. I love him and won’t try to deny it.
What he’s taught me is this – there is always a teensy bit more room in your life for pleasure; for new things to enjoy and look forward to.
He’s also reminded me of an important lesson from my counselling for depression. There’s no point fearing the worst and worrying about things that might never happen. Yes, Nibs is another thing to care about, but the added pleasure he’s brought to us all far outweighs that.