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.

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 scrub – it’s a magical time, a feast for the senses and it would transpire to be one of the best 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.

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.

Those classic easterly issues… again…

The wind gusted in from behind us, blowing over the grassy path we were walking down and into the furrowed beet-field. As we walked along this completely exposed cliff-edge, my friend suddenly gestured out to sea and shouted ‘Short-eared Owl’ at me. It was quite a way off, loping into a tall cloud away to the north. This languid owl looked out of place over the water, usually seen hunting low over a grazing marsh, with a backdrop of winter sky behind them. It was what you call an ‘in-off’ bird, as in one that literally comes in off the sea. We spent some time watching it turn and soar into the cloud, lazily, yet with great power and purpose. As it faded into the grey, we turned and started to walk on, but he jumped again ‘what was that?’ His senses were heightened. He’d seen a small bird dart over the cliff edge and strafe low into the adjacent field. A female Wheatear. Yet another bird, ending their migration on our clifftop outpost. A journey concluding over weathered sea-defences and crumbling sand and clay.

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We were out looking for migrant birds, at a favoured east Norfolk coastal site of mine, Happisburgh. Just for the morning, as time is precious when you have a young baby and birdwatching opportunities have to be savoured. There were two of us, me and a friend, and we’d both not been out to indulge in our hobby for a while. It was great to be out except, as the morning and then the rest of the day unfolded – a tide of negativity started to wash over me. It was those classic ‘easterly issues’ again, except usually, the issues came because I couldn’t get out. This time I was out but still, I just couldn’t stop myself from looking at what other people were finding around the coast. The fabled easterly winds had hit the county again and it seemed like everyone, except us, was finding scarce birds.

Now this is jars with my back to basics and mindfulness approaches to birdwatching that I extol and write about. I’ve covered this at length in the book and sometimes, stripping these layers away to expose the raw beauty of the hobby is a tough ask. Ultimately I think that part of me wishes I’d never tasted the marvels of bird-migration and finding scarce birds, in my early days of taking an interest. It adds an expectation, unnecessarily so, to these autumn forays, the likes of which I never experience back on the patch. Maybe that’s  it? At the patch, anything remotely unusual is a mega-reward for all the dedication and time, spent nurturing that relationship and intrinsic understanding of the land, that grows with having a local patch. Up on the coast, with favourable weather conditions, there becomes an expectation that there will be something ‘good’ (whatever that is) and so when those expectations fall – so can your mood.

I spoke to my friend and then another one, pondering why I felt so disappointed. The one I spent the morning with rightfully said ‘we saw some great birds, I had a good morning!’ and the other said that’s just the nature of our hobby, at this time of the year. I then go through a cycle, where I get really negative and despondent about it and soon come to realise that birdwatching is microcosmic. Those that are able to be out all the time, often have different motivations or reasons for being able to. It’s not representative of what most peoples lives are actually like. That’s comforting and reassuring, and I can bat those easterly issues way out west again.

Here are the two old blogs I wrote about this topic:

The work/birding paradox (2015)

Easterly issues (2016)

Prescribing birdwatching… except it’s not quite as simple as that.

Yesterday, the Guardian newspaper ran an article titled ‘Scottish GPs to begin prescribing rembling and birdwatching.’ I had been shared the press release the day before, so knew it was coming, but was still interested to see what the reaction would be.

I was glad that NHS Shetland were keen to point out that it would be used to supplement other treatments and not replace. This is important. Nature is simply not a ‘cure-all’ and whilst it really can help, it is often alongside other ‘conventional’ methods. This is something I’ve explored and reiterated in my book as for me, birdwatching isn’t some kind of miracle cure, it has worked alongside other things – medication, counselling and mindfulness practice.

The article states that patients will be given information sheets, with walk maps, guides and wildlife calendars. Which is great in essence, but only if someone is able to self-direct their own therapy. I’ve done a lot of research into this, as one of the things I’ll be doing in the future, is offering structured birdwatching activities, to help people. Therein lies some of the issues.

For birdwatching to be therapeutic, I strongly believe in a back-to-basics approach – stripping away additional layers that come with it being a targeted hobby (twitching, listing, competing) and falling in love with the raw beauty of place and nature. To do this, there does need to be some element of guidance and not in the form of a piece of paper. Then there’s the accessibility (or lack of) in a lot of nature reserves and truly ‘wild’ places. What about socio-economics too? ‘Decent’ binoculars are not cheap!

Buddy systems, walks, silent spaces, basic bird ID sessions, community bird-feeding initiatives, linking to art and culture – there’s so much that can and could be done to help making nature (in this case, birdwatching) a feasible ‘treatment’, but there needs to be more collaboration. There are lots of effective projects out there, but we need to work together.

This is the approach I took to Downing Street when invited, although I don’t remain that hopeful of any progress. It’s also something that my local area is really far behind on. I recently spoke to an organisation involved in social prescribing in Norfolk, who said there wasn’t even a list of nature-based intervention-lead organisations anywhere. Just look at the excellent work of Natural Choices and Dr. Andy Mayers in Dorset.

My book will feature some tips at the end of each chapter, on how to apply the chapter theme, to nature and birdwatching experiences. Perhaps this will help put things into context, perhaps the book will too, but it’s tough to say what will happen. I remain hopeful that positive change will come though.

On learning styles – another one chopped from the final book

So, we’ve considered the value of field guides as a supplement to the ‘art’ of birdwatching and right now, you’re reading a book on the benefits of birdwatching for mental health and wellbeing. The wealth of available material means that there are always opportunities to expand your knowledge through reading. Of course, reading reams of research and guidance can help to inform you as a birdwatcher but the best resource that’s available is there all the time and costs nothing. Getting outside and actually  doing some birdwatching.

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This is the kinaesthetic aspect, the actual act of watching birds. Almost every experience I’ve shared has involved me going outside and immersing within nature – not just an act of doing but also an act of being. Being attuned to nature is an act in itself and comes naturally to those of us who spend a lot of time outdoors. I can recall many occasions when I’ve been out at my patch on my own. My purpose usually starts with looking for and observing birds but I often just stop and fill up with joy at the wonder of being outdoors. A few days before writing this I had one such experience at a local site.

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I was in what I call the ‘mindfulness butterfly glade’. It was incredibly sunny and, in its warmth, I stood watching Small Copper butterflies flutter from flower to flower in front of me. To my immediate right, in a pocket of gorse, a Whitethroat and a Garden Warbler scratched and bubbled their familiar melodies. I started to become aware of the fact that I felt very positive, elated by the warmth of the sun, the greenness of the flora, the colours of the butterflies and the sweetness of birdsong. I felt amazing and it was all because of the healing powers of the natural environment. Just being.

Feeling resourceful?

I know it’s unlikely that many people will see this, although it would be useful if regular readers would consider sharing on Twitter, as it’s essentially a plea for help.

Basically, I’ve started to put together the basic framework for a Bird Therapy teaching resource, to work alongside the book. I’m aiming it at KS3-4 and it will be a PSHE resource, with some outdoor/science activities mixed into it.

It will have lots of embedded videos, covering book readings and activity introductions. I’ve already got a number of people who have said they are willing to contribute video shorts on why they love being outdoors and how it helps their mental health and wellbeing. It would be good to expand this too. I also intend to make a series of worksheets to go with each one, including book extracts and extension activities.

I’m looking for suggestions and collaboration from anyone who teaches PSHE, or is involved with school enrichment or SEN; preferably with an interest in nature. I have a vision of what I think it should look like and I love planning and making resources, but nothing beats the input of others.

I managed to keep some contact details when I took Twitter hiatus, but I’m sure there are more people who would be interesting in helping. Please do share this if you can and if you would like to help, please email me at birdtherapy@hotmail.co.uk

Joe

Place, patch and purpose

It’s been a torrid time of late – well, only inside my mind. Previous blogs have documented my social media struggles, but hopefully that’s all been knocked on the head now, as I’ve allowed someone I trust, to login and change my Twitter password so I simply can’t access it. I can now sink back into a routine of work and family life, without trying to be something that I’m not. I can also focus on what I really enjoy – writing.

After work yesterday, I decided to offset some of the muddling thoughts I’ve been having, by making a long-awaited return to the water-bearing part of my patch. I parked up, readied my optics and walked out onto the luscious ‘fairway’ leading down to the main lake. Past drooping Willows and spindly Hawthorns, the walk was green and pure – cleansing my mind and cushioning my being. It felt amazing to be back.

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I strolled into the shaded passage that leads to the lake edge. A natural underpass that opens out onto the lime-green waters, that in late-summer, resemble some kind of kale and kiwi smoothie that’s been poured over its surface. I was daydreaming – remembering why I love this place so much – when a ‘Tuuuuuuui, tu, tu, tui, tui’ punctuated the stillness. A Sandpiper. Green. There was more than one – where were they? My binoculars raised and I strafed the lake until one swept into my view with a flurry awkward and pulsating wing-beats. It desperately fluttered on the algal-blooms, looking for a footing, then realised that it’s favoured muddy edges don’t exist here. Two met up and hurriedly searched for a landing spot, then another joined them, before all three seemed to coalesce and form an upwardly-spiralling pirouette – up and over the far treeline and away. Their calls diminishing as they disappeared from view.

I scanned the lake some more. The ducks had started to amass there again; Gadwall, Mallard and Teal dominated. There were four Little Grebes by the reeds on the far edge, the most I’d seen there in a year or so. The Cygnets were almost adult-size now. Specks of snow-white starting to glimmer through their grey-lintel down. Then a chitter-chatter descended, as a small group of Martins and Swallows dropped in, to scoop up a drink from the lake in front of me. I lowered my optics, left my scope and just stood, watching them with the ‘naked’ eye. It reminded me of the innate wonder of birds – sometimes you don’t need the optics and you don’t need to get closer to be with birds. Their beauty is often best beheld in these moments.

I walked on, under the Alders and down to the dense scrubby area in the southeast corner. A veritable warbler warren, this scrub was often densely packed with birds and I noted the abundance of Elderberries this year. Had I noticed these before, or were my senses at that heightened stage where you become attuned to place and purpose? Autumn was shifting into play and this would be a good place to keep an eye on. To the here and now though, there was a fair amount of skulking movement within the intertwined branches – time to focus. Such an abundance of Chiffchaffs, communicating  with each other using gentle ‘hu-weet’ calls – a family party, I was sure. They kept flicking up and over into the same place in the scrub. Their home, I warmly thought.

A yellower bird, sleeker and more assured, came into view. A Willow Warbler, wearing that fresh lemon curd coat, then another. A bulkier bird bumbled along the branches, chestnut tones with a soft-grey face – a Common Whitethroat. Then I was distracted as a bird shot out of the Alder above me, only to return on the exact trajectory it left on and to the same spot. It did it again. A small bird, light in colour, but assertive in its flight course. I knew that motion. It was a Flycatcher. I watched until it flew again and I could track it back to the branch which it left from. Yes. A Spotted Flycatcher. Such demure and gentle looking birds. Beautiful and such posers, as this photo shows.

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I had returned. Walked those familiar pathways and thought those rejuvenating thoughts. The thoughts that formed the underpinning of my book. I had fallen back into, and back in love with, the local landscape. My place. My patch. We were reacquainted,

Joe