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.
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…
When I returned to running recently, it wasn’t just about exercising my body – it was about exorcising my demons.
It was the first time I’d been running since depression dampened my desire to put one foot before the other.
It had all started so well. Back in 2009, I’d put my name down for the Jane Tomlinson 10km ‘Run For All’ in York. I trained throughout the spring and summer, and thoroughly enjoyed the event. It was a memorable occasion with great support and a wonderful atmosphere, and I surprised myself by finishing the run in less than an hour. I signed up for the next year’s run almost immediately.
I was on top form in the summer and early autumn of 2009. At work, I was managing and completing a number of challenging projects with clashing deadlines. I’d returned to acting in my village pantomime. I’d been getting by on diminished sleep for the past year after the birth of my little boy. It seemed I was invincible.
As I was to find out, the human body can only cope with constant stress for so long. One day, I stood up from my desk after being hunched over it in my own little bubble for two days, and almost passed out.
I struggled through various ailments and illnesses until December, when the headaches started and my already low mood plunged into something more sinister. The doctor diagnosed depression early in the new year. I was frazzled.
Running on empty
Despite the depression – which was still a secret to most people – I managed to keep going to work and doing my job. I even managed to go out for the odd lunchtime run, but these were few and far between, and a real effort. I did them because I felt I should and because I loathed myself if I didn’t.
One of the cruel ironies of depression is that, at a time when you have no energy, motivation or enthusiasm, exercise is apparently one of the best things for you.
I still did the Run For All that year. I felt empty – alone in the crowds, feeling numb. As I crossed the line, I felt nothing. I just wanted to know my time. Perhaps if it was better than last year’s time, I would feel some sense of achievement. I waited restlessly for the time to come through, and when it did I found it was just a few seconds slower than the previous year’s. So I had failed.
Despite the fact I had run 10km while suffering from depression, despite the fact I had raised loads of money for charity, it had been a waste of time. I wasn’t good enough.
I only ran three times the next year. I was starting to make progress and decided I would enter a 5km run to raise money for men’s cancer charities. My training was blighted by injuries, more minor illnesses and overwhelming apathy, but I still did the run, and quite enjoyed it.
That wasn’t enough to keep me running though, because the stress started building up again and then BAM! That October, depression came back with a vengeance.
Keep on running
After two rounds of counselling, I’m a little wiser.
I know that “I’m not good enough” is a damaging thought that has shaped the way I feel about myself, and I am slowly undoing the carnage it has caused.
I know that anyone who can go out for even the shortest run – or even a walk – when in the depths of depression deserves a medal.
And I know that there’s no point pushing yourself to do something when you’re not well enough to do it.
You can see why returning to running after all this was a significant psychological barrier for me. I’d pretty much decided never to bother with running again, but something made me go back to it – partly the need to get fit, but more persuasively the thought that running might help to release tension, stress and pent-up anger.
I packed up my kit, took it to work, and told myself I would go running that lunchtime. No excuses.
As soon as I got my running gear on, I realised I’d won my first battle, and from there I felt more and more positive. “I’m actually doing this,” I thought.
Powered by a rousing hip hop soundtrack, away I went. It felt fantastic – liberating and cleansing, like I was sweating out the evils of depression and stress with every step.
I ran for 20 minutes, thinking over and over “Stick this up your miserable backside, depression” – or words to that effect – and then had to stop. I felt great, apart from being barely able to breathe for nearly an hour.
I’ve been out since, will do so again tomorrow, and I’ve signed up for the York 10K next year. Just to rub depression’s ugly face in it some more, I’m going to use the run to raise money for a depression charity – my supportive friends at the Blurt Foundation.
Recovering from depression is a lot like long-distance running. It can be lonely, painful and can seem never-ending, but it’s a glorious feeling when you know the finish line is in reach.
So, you’ve opened this blog post and found a rather poor photograph and half a page of solid, black nothingness. There is a point to this, and it’s about finding the light at the end of a long, black tunnel. Allow me to explain.
I was in my home city of York, stuck in traffic and feeling sorry for myself. I’d just had the latest of three disappointments in as many weeks and was wondering if I could pick myself up enough to be a cheery presence at the leaving do I was on my way to.
Pondering these rather gloomy, negative thoughts and staring straight ahead at the back of a car I’d been looking at for nearly half an hour, I suddenly realised I was beneath an arch – Micklegate Bar – and there was literally light at the end of the tunnel. The unexciting image you can see above is that light.
I scrambled for my phone in an attempt to take a photo before the traffic began to move. I must have lurched as I took the photo, and found I’d taken a blurred, wonky photo of a ‘keep left’ sign. I tried again, and the traffic lights obligingly stayed red, as you can see from the resulting image.
The view you’ve just been looking at inspired me. I know it doesn’t look very inspiring, but to me it was a revelation and it changed my mood completely.
It became symbolic of my past year. Last October, I crashed into a second major bout of depression, triggered by my reaction to what I saw at the time as a personal rejection. I could have taken these latest three disappointments in that same way, but instead I vowed to learn from them and keep going, because nothing will happen if I do nothing.
Yes, I’d been sad, disappointed – gutted even – but I was able to accept (probably thanks to the counselling I’ve had, the books that I’ve read and the wise words I’ve listened to) that it is perfectly normal, even for the most upbeat of people, to be disappointed sometimes, and not necessarily a sign of an impending re-run of my depression.
This acceptance and determination is something I simply could not do and did not have twelve months ago. It was a sign of real progress, and a reminder of how far I’ve come.
It showed me that however long and dark the tunnel may be, it’s worth keeping the faith that you will one day see the light at the end of it. A moment after I took the photo, the lights changed, I moved forward and turned a corner. More signs of progress yet to come?