The power of a patch

Late on Friday, I paid an early-evening visit to the patch. Something which, with work and family commitments, I don’t get to do very often now. As dusk falls, birds arrive and congregate to roost communally, both on water and branch; in shrub and in scrub – it’s a magical time, a feast for the senses and it would transpire to be one of the best jaunts to the patch in a long while; leaving me with potent memories and positive feelings – of comfort and relaxation.

It started as I walked down to the willow and alder tunnel on the south-east edge of the lake. As I funnelled into it, my senses sharpened and my movements became more controlled and focused, as I crept to the waterside. I flushed six nearby Gadwall into the air, who circled for a long while before surfing on the water as they landed. A slurred whistle ghosted over to me, there were Wigeon somewhere. I’d start with them. Strafing my scope from left to right and back, I counted eight. Two males and six females. Their smoothly domed heads, buff tones and the males blond highlights, making them stand out from the plentiful numbers of other ducks.

I counted the shovelers by scanning and picking out their larger bills. The males couldn’t be missed; with their chestnut sides, white and black bodies and bottle-green heads. They reminded me of an old ale bottle label in colour, which brand? I wasn’t sure. I counted the Gadwall next, 100 altogether, their presence reassured me – a constant comfort of the coming winter.

I counted the rest of the resident wildfowl: Moorhens, Coots, Little Grebes and Mallards. Then walked out of the tunnel and down to the scrubby area that the Warblers always make their summer homes in. I suddenly heard the unmistakeable wheeze of a Brambling from deep within a thicket and in the faltering light, began to make out the silhouettes of Chaffinches in the spindly branches too.

There were actually quite a lot of them in the tree – over ten – and when some more flew in from the left, I realised they were gathering to roost. Having not been at the patch at dusk for a long, long while – it became apparent that finches had begun to roost there. As I moved to a better position and observed, I could see the shapes of four birds atop the scrub as well – Reed Buntings. Either a family party or a roosting group. Together.

These roosting birds, united in comfort and safety, brought the same feelings to me. Feelings of reassurance and consistency. I knew that every evening they’d be there and even if I couldn’t visit very often, when I could, they’d greet me with their dusk-time gathering. The sun began to fully set over the lake and I pondered the power and pull of the patch. It was was still as strong as the days when I visited regularly, the connections we had made were still solid.

A chit-chit sounded, followed by another and then one more. A (presumed) family of Grey Wagtails, following the lake edge and into the small reed-bed in the far south-eastern corner. One of my favourite species of birds, not ever-present, but perhaps returning to roost in the same way that I had returned after an absence. Once again, it was as if the birds knew.

Sing a song of springtime

I’ve felt a great uplift in my mood over the last few days. Perhaps due to the rise in temperature, to the point where it isn’t cold in the car when you first get into it for the morning commute; the steering wheel no-longer numbing to the touch. It was on the way out to the car one morning, that I stopped and listened fully, for what felt like the first time this year. Two melodies floated across the airwaves and two very different ones at that. Their sonic textures signifying the contrast between rough and smooth and perhaps, dark and light. A Dunnock and a Wren.

The Wren’s song is precise. A stuttering, strafing staccato of short and spiky notes. The Dunnock is more fluid. A bubbly and positive, liquid melody. As I tuned in more, the Wren ceased to rattle, but there were now two Dunnocks, singing from different gardens and staking their territorial claims. A punch punctuates the air, disyllabic and redolent of this life-giving season – ‘teach-er’ – a Great Tit in the hedgerow, somewhere.

And more. The wheezy, descending certainty of a Chaffinch, somewhere around the Oaks – their topmost branches are house to a parliament of Rooks, harshly discussing their airs and graces from up high. Closer, the resident House Sparrows chit, chip and chatter, like the Friday-night hubbub of a packed local. The Dunnock jangles again and the glinting gadgetry of a pair of Goldfinches mechanises overhead.

It’s never just one individual bird sound, it’s all about the layers. Songs and calls, both bold and subtle and all around us. Now is the time of the year when this sonic stratification becomes more evident. Male birds are posturing and presenting to confirm territories and attract breeding partners and in their wonderfully simple world, it’s all that matters. I stop, breathe and listen – and it truly is all that matters, just for a moment.

A break from a skewed world

As I said at the end of my feature on Winterwatch last week “job done” – well at least for a little while anyway. The video reached out to a wider audience than I ever anticipated it would, and the response has been phenomenal. To know that your words and story can resonate with so many people is an incredibly powerful thing and I’m forever indebted to the ‘watches’ team for offering me the opportunity. It also seems like the video helped other people who’ve had similar experiences, past and present, to feel less isolated and reinforced to them, that it’s actually ok to talk openly about our thoughts and feelings.

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What also followed was a surge of interactions on social media – of which I’ve tried to acknowledge and engage with as many as possible. It also brought with it a deluge of ‘followers’ and ‘notifications’ and so my ongoing issues with social media began to surface yet again. I keep telling myself that this is all genuine interest and I’m sure that some of it is, but I know deep inside of me, that success is just temporary and a new ‘flavour of the moment’ will rise in place. Many of these interactions are just a number – a click of a symbol – that ultimately means nothing. I reached 10,000 followers on Twitter, but less than 1000 of them have purchased the book. It’s such a skewed world.

But now I’m craving that constant ‘buzzing’ on my feed. I’m comparing myself to others on Twitter again, fuelling feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing; and I’m getting hung up on the concept of false popularity once more. I’m conjuring tweets in my mind just for the sake of posting them, not to actually do good and help people It’s self-gratification and it’s bullshit!

My ‘work’ – if you can call it that – isn’t about that and I can feel myself obsessing and mentally wobbling. I just can’t seem to find a happy medium. I’m ecstatic when someone feels they can message me to share dark and personal things with me, but then the ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ slow up and suddenly – I’m thinking that nobody cares again. I’m checking my feed all the time again: toilet, after a shower, even in bed – it just ISN’T HEALTHY!

I just know that it is and will always be a constant and unwavering battle for me to have a healthy relationship with social media; so I’m going to drop out again for a bit and like before, I’ll return, stronger. The same person will change my password for me so that I can’t login and whilst this may seem extreme to ‘new’ followers, those who’ve been with me on this undulating journey, will know that it’s right for me.

There’s nothing consistent about social media. It ebbs and flows in fits and starts; and if you have issues managing your wellbeing around self-regulation and worth – it can become a pit of despair at times. What’s more is that the areas I ‘operate’ in, can often present as a bit of a closed circle, which feels ridiculously hard to break into. I just don’t have the energy to keep trying. This life of likes and figures just heightens my anxiety – it’s rubbish.

Before you ‘unfollow’ me – here’s some context. Bird Therapy isn’t my job. I’m a full-time SENCO in a behavioural school and currently studying for my masters-level practise qualification (with an action research project about to begin) and when I get home, I have a 7.5 month old daughter who needs lots of Daddy cuddles and playtime! I ‘do’ Bird Therapy because I love and live it. I write and share to try and help others, by trying to make it ok to talk openly about mental health. That will never change.

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I aim to come back on here at the end of April, as I’m speaking at a fairly large local event in May and feel strongly about promoting it, as it’s a cause very close to my heart. In the meantime:

  • I have a run of t-shirts going on MerchT here which needs 7 more to sell and go to print. 50% of profits will go to local men’s mental health drop-in Norwich Mens Shed for materials to build more bird-boxes and tables
  • I’ve also uploaded the full video from Winterwatch on YouTube here so please do watch and share.
  • If you want to contact me about ANYTHING – then please don’t hesitate to do so. The best way is to use the contact page on here as it goes straight to my email, which is birdtherapy@hotmail.co.uk
  • I’ll probably still post blogs, if and when I get an opportunity to do some spring birdwatching.

Love to you all

Joe

Farewell to my fallback plan – the passing of a place

Last weekend, I discovered that a local birdwatcher is moving into the lodge park at my patch. I should be happy, but it’s actually ripped me apart and I’ll explain why. For four years now (this would have been the fifth), I’ve been visiting pretty much the same site for birdwatching and it’s been my haven. When my mind is racing and my head is pounding, the sweeping view across the enclosed lake, swallows up my troubles and absorbs my anxieties. It’s my natural safety net. My escape.

I gained access to the park in the very early days of my mental health recovery. It’s a part of that time of my life. An important time, of self-discovery and positive change. My journey. Those bygone days were filled with excitement as I developed an understanding of the place I was visiting. Its natural nuances and its resident birds.

I began to mentally map the locations of breeding birds and where I’d observed more interesting or scarcer species. This made an imprint, like a heat map, in my subconscious.

I knew and together we grew.

As the seasons changed, I lived the seasonal movements as if I were part of the land. It was an undercurrent to the progressive improvements in my mood and mindset – a place I could rely on if I needed to escape. A welcoming hug when I was struggling or having a bad day.

I took people there and showed them round. We walked past the area of tussock sedge where the Reed Bunting family lived. We passed through the scrub tunnel to my duck-counting bank. We ambled Across to the giant buddleia that brimmed with butterflies in the summer months and we marched, down to the south side, where Little Grebe would laugh and hide amongst the reed fringes. Once a month I counted the ducks for a WeBS count, a BTO citizen science initiative. I was connected, deeply and truly, to the land there.

I write in the past tense. For my connection is so intrinsic to me, that I know I can’t share it with another person. I know it’s selfish. I know that from many a birdwatchers perspective, more eyes means more birds; but it’s never just been about the birds there for me.

As I grew – my understanding of myself, my responses and my thought processes – so grew my understanding of this patch and of the rhythms and cycles of the most fundamental elements of being. I’m not even sure that I can go back there at all now, as those deep roots feel as though they’ve been savagely torn out of the ground.

Yes, my writing and ethos is bedded in inclusion and sharing, but I’m not ashamed or uncomfortable in admitting that this, I just don’t want to share.

I have four wonderful years of memories. I have a plethora of bird sightings, mapping breeding and migrating birds at a focused local site. I’ve written page upon page in the book about how we are (were) connected and I have a vast collection of sumptuous photos, celebrating the natural beauty of a stunning site. More importantly though; I have my family, my career and my garden bird community to focus on. My daughter had visited. If hoped she would perhaps love this place too one day. Plus, this summer will be hectic with the book, so I’d probably only struggle with feelings of missing out anyway. At least that’s what I’ll keep telling myself.

The patch and I had a fitting send-off though. Last week I filmed a short video with Chris Packham for WinterWatch (airing next week) and I’ll treasure this as my final farewell to my fallback plan. For me, it is, the passing of a place.

Connecting through competition

Every year at the start of January, my local area birdwatching group orchestrates an annual bird count – often referred to as their bird ‘race’. The boundaries are set to the confines of the recording area the group operates in; and the count itself begins at 8am – ending at 4:30pm I noted to utilise all of the available hours of daylight. Shorter in these early days of the year.

In principle, the idea of a bird race jars with my overall approach to birdwatching. I champion a back-to-basics approach and often find that adding these unnecessary layers to any interest, starts to make it complicated and more difficult to emotionally regulate. That said, I also champion the connective power of birdwatching and an inclusive activity, like the bird race, radiates with it.

Mainly though, in these shorter and darker days, when our moods and tempers fray with the loose ends of rising and falling in blackness – the bird race is a respite and a reason, to spend a day outdoors and invigorated, with a sense of purpose. An aim.

In the lead up to the day of the race, my teammate and I were in regular contact as we tried to narrow down the places we were going to visit. I have a decent grasp of the local area and have spent lots of time, alone at various sites, looking for and enjoying the resident and visiting birds. In-fact, my connection with the local area is a tangible force.

It’s a bit like licking your finger and sticking it in the air to determine the wind direction; just being out there, in the measured wilderness, I know. A lot of it comes down to the innate calendar of winter – a rhythm – that beats through me in these colder and more static times. A constancy in their presence. The Pochard on the lake. The Jack Snipe in the mire. I know what’s going to be there because I can feel it in the air.

He trusted my intuition and we were rewarded, my friend and I. The day was frenetic. It rushed and darted, paced and paused. From site-to-site, lake to field and hedgerow to mill-pool – we checked and noted every new species until we reached 77. Ducks and finches, tits and grebes, to thrushes and geese. A plethora of birds, variety bringing wonder and consistency as it does to every nature experience and nuance of exploring a local area. A place.

The warmth of a village hall offsetting the cool evening air outside. A communal hub, where we competitors, met for hot drinks, homemade cake and glowing conversation. Lemon drizzle crumbs and talk of that elusive Whooper Swan. Mirth and laughter in the air as the ever-creeping anxiety grew with a tangible desire to be crowned winners. Scores were gathered and two teams were left – ours and one other. We were to reveal our scores at the same time. A tie – 77 each.

In that room sat 13 teams, making up at least 40 people and perhaps close to 50 years between the youngest and oldest people there. Yet for all of the differences in our lives; status, family, career, heritage and so-on – we were connected. Connected by a passion for birds and nature. Connected with love for our local area.

Connected through competition.

Constancy, my bird community and a flyover Heron

As I start writing this, two Sparrows on our bird feeders swiftly became four, before something spooked them and they powered across the garden and over the fence next-door. Eight Starlings wheeled over the garden too, tumbling into the tops of the bare birches that stand over the distant paddocks. It’s one of those moments, where I’m reminded of the consistent presence of my bird community. I can hear the chirp and chatter of the Sparrows, they must be communing nearby. Two Wood Pigeons just veered above the telephone exchange, as a laboured gull, Black-headed, cut across their wobbling flight paths.

A Robin just flew up from the Hydrangea bed and onto the fence. Annual companions, epitomising winter and bringing reassurance with them, their burning breasts like beacons in cold times. This is what my hobby is like for me now, since our daughter was born and my birdwatching is spread sparsely – yet I still love it and live it. Before, when I was more self-absorbed, I would’ve struggled with this change. Now, I’m content.

Appreciation glows, no, it burns – like embers of satisfaction, for the regularity of the pair of Jays that strafe the roads around my work. Two Collared Doves just dropped in here, cooing as they landed, one on the old and one on the new, BT masts. The birds, they are always here, ever-present and constant. Never forget their place in your world, in the humdrum of daily life.

Once a month, I still get to the patch to do my WeBS count. It’s a more focused affair now and not a lengthy ramble by water and woodland; as I contemplate my troubles and leave them behind me on the muddy, leaf-strewn paths. We took our daughter there a few weeks ago, I pointed out Gadwall and Shoveler and told her how much I love it there. One day, she may love it too. Even if she doesn’t, we have a wonderful natural place almost on our doorstep and in some way, we will enjoy it together.

The weirdest thing just happened. I’ve finished writing about the constancy of my bird community when suddenly to an awkward frame lumbers into view. Long, serpentine and prehistoric; it’s a Grey Heron. Only the third specimen in two and a half years of residing here, it bounded up into level flight and then over and away from the house; and this is the magic of birds. For all that consistency, occasionally something is seen and experienced that just blows you away and as that Heron blows away on the December breeze, I walk away from the window, smiling.

Natural connections

Life goes on without social media. It’s true. Yes, you might think that you’re interacting with people less, on face value, but the interactions you do have, suddenly become real again. They become human and genuine. They become more natural.

None more so than this Sunday. Nature brought four of us together. It had always been the root of our connection, but feeding that connection with the nutrients it needed, would help it to grow and flourish.

This Sunday gone, Chris from Team4Nature, Paul from Meadow in my Garden and Paul’s son, Byron, came all the way to Norfolk, so we could meet, chat and spend some time outdoors together. Chris has been an incredible supporter of Bird Therapy right from the beginning. He’s also been a sounding board, when paranoia, contempt and self-criticism have taken over rationality. I couldn’t wait to meet him. We share an ethos. We share a love for nature.

So does Paul. He set up Meadow in my Garden out of a deep love and concern for the state of nature – to preserve nature for future generations and inspire people to take an interest in wildflowers and pollinators. Some time ago, we had spoken on the phone, albeit briefly, about the possibility of me helping Byron to engage with the immersive and reflective aspects of birdwatching, but our conversation had been cut short by meetings and timeframes.

We met.

We talked.

We laughed.

We joked.

We ate breakfast and then we visited my local patch. I gave Byron some binoculars to use, as I was aware that he hadn’t observed birds with optics before. It opens a new window. Then we walked in the well-trodden paths of my patch. The paths written about on this blog and in the book, the paths that I rarely share with others – the paths that free my mind.

Again, we laughed.

We joked.

We talked and we connected.

A deep and affirming connection, strongly unified by our mutual interest. I caught a glint of curiosity in Byron’s eyes as he asked about the grey ducks. The glossy treasures in question were Gadwall, over 70 of them. Some in flight, wheeling and reeling over the lake. Some sat static on the water, glistening like polished steel.

We stopped.

We listened.

There were Siskin on the move above us, their down-slurred tiu calls drawing our eyes up to their bounding flight, high over the conifer belt. We counted ducks and talked of habitats, we spoke of conservation and of our combined passions. More birds flew, as did an unseasonal Dragonfly on the fern-lined access track. Time flew too and we had to ourselves, migrate.

We sat and we ate again. Together.

Replenishing ourselves after an invigorating patch walk. They’d seen my world, my microcosm.

We just knew.

We had shared.

We were still sharing.

Stories and truths. Rending deeper still. Defences down and emotions worn. All because of nature and it’s innate power to inspire, engage and connect people. It showed its hand that morning, it’s true colours.

Woodland colours.

The coppered bronzing of autumn, falling around us and carpeting the woodland rides. Golden leaf-lights, leading us on. We’ll do it again. The buzz was too special. New friends like old friends, new experiences like those comforting, old ones. We hugged, with open arms and warmth, just as nature had welcomed us that morning. We departed. Until next time.

A wonderful WeBS count

I always look forward to my monthly WeBS count and it’s something that I’ve written about both on here, and in the book. It gives me a sense of purpose, as a birdwatcher, and this feeling is something I’ve explored in depth in one chapter. It’s not all about purpose though and today reminded me (again) that sometimes I need to let myself be become reacquainted with my patch, in order to rediscover the connections that I’ve been missing.

I didn’t even care about the rain and knee that I’d be able to find shelter easily, under the many trees lining the lake. The lingering wetness made everything seem like it was greener. A lushness. A late ripening, that felt out of place in mid-October, a time when things should be browning and decaying. I found a dry-spot, dark and shadowy, tucked under a verdant veranda – and is it began.

The count began. Slow and methodical. One species at a time, left to right. Occasionally I messed up, distracted by movement, and had to start again from scratch. First. The Greylag Geese. Nervously glancing at each other with  suppressed honks agitating between them. 25. Including ‘FKC’ with his fine orange neck-collar, back for another winter period. Remembrance returning.

Teal, many, tucked into the reeds around the northern and western fringes. Easy to count, they weren’t mingling with the other wildfowl, instead secreting away at the edges. Outsiders. All of them 28. Gadwall next. Lots. I had to recount them thrice as they eddied around each other, feeding and socialising. Up. Up. 86. A portent of a wildfowl-filled winter perhaps?

Tufted Duck, easy, they’d dropped right down in number – 4 – all asleep, with heads and tufts tucked under their wings. Only 2 Little Grebes today, down from 7 and 5 recently; although I was certain they were tucked under an overhanging Willow frond somewhere. I had to stop for a moment as a piercing ‘tzeeeeeep’ passed over me. Redwings. A flock, moving with military precision, spaced out in equidistantly, a thrush squadron. 15.

Coot, easy to count, a scan of their black forms with white horns, 22. Moorhens. A similar approach but fewer in number. Red and yellow, 17. Another break in concentration. A larger finch over the lake, spinning in the rain, lost. It changed direction and flew towards the wood. I could see it’s peachy tones but it was too big to be a Chaffinch. Then ‘Chink’ sounded mechanically, twice, as it continued its powerful flight. A Hawfinch.

What a bird to witness moving over the patch. After this weeks first ever Marsh Harrier, I hadn’t expected another patch first for a long while. Back to counting. Oh. That was all the wildfowl species, or was it. 5 Mallard. Mustn’t forget those! Time to pack up and head home – hold on. A dart, powering over the water, a piping call and an upward flutter. A bulrush bounced. There he sat, resplendent even in the grey murk and falling drizzle. A Kingfisher. A regal end to a wonderful WeBS count. I left. Smiling. Under the watchful eye of the resident Heron.

Antisocial Media Pt. 4

This week marked the penultimate nail in my social media ‘coffin’. I’ve been entrenched in a negative mindset for the last few weeks, for a number of reasons, and feeling inflammatory, I posted a negative tweet about urban twitching on my personal twitter account. This led to a few people challenging my views, perhaps rightfully so, but one of them said I was negative and narrow-minded. I concede that I was being negative and make no bones that when I’m ‘on one’ negatively, then negative I certainly am. However, I took great offence at being called narrow-minded. I’ve built Bird Therapy on inclusion and my career has been built on inclusion.

So anyway, I decided to deactivate that account too and disconnect for a bit. I reflected on being a parent and the changes that’s brought to my perspective on life in general. I don’t need the gratification anymore – I certainly don’t want my daughter to grow up and see the kind of negativity that surrounds having an opinion, or the personal comments that transpire on the internet. I feel, that it’s a good time to return to the ‘real world’ and focus on what really matters – family and work.

The first day was weird. I kept impulsively, well compulsively, getting my phone out of my pocket and clicking on the now non-existent app icon. Then I found myself getting this weird urge, like a pulse in my head, a feeling that I should check it somehow. But that’s gone today, leaving behind an air of serenity around everything.

It’s weird but wonderful, not having all the latest bird sightings just one-click away. It peels away a layer of birdwatching that I’ve explored in the book, allowing you to feel more attuned to nature and it’s rhythms. By that, I mean it’s just me and those rhythms, not a rhythm of updates sent out from other people, that I then try to live out in my own experiences. I only have Instagram left now and in all fairness, the crap-level is almost zero, as generally, it’s just lots of pretty pictures and not opinions!

I stood in the garden today, hanging the washing out and allowed my senses to absorb my surroundings. The microcosmic world of our back garden, opened out around me, free. It was warm today and the sun felt smooth on the skin of my arms – bringing back memories of our scorched-earth summer. A Chaffinch flew over, uttering the classic ‘pink’ call of a lone bird, heading to the verdant tree cover of the cemetery.

Starlings and Sparrows sputtered and whirred from the tiles and gutters of the houses behind me. A distant Buzzard mewed, somewhere over the sewage works and sheltered stream-course. Local wonders and little pleasures. The things I’d forgotten in my ongoing battle against my addictive personality. How uncluttered and fluid I feel now though, with focus and realisation of what really matters. It’s my WeBS count tomorrow, and I know that there’ll be a smattering if wildfowl and if I’m lucky, a Kingfisher. But do I really care? Not at all. It’ll be like returning to a safe haven again. As the poet William Henry Davies asked; “what is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” I’ve just rediscovered that time.