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…


My running battle with depression

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.

Light at the end of the tunnel

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?