A dose of Bird Therapy pt. 1

Warped windows creaked open and a tripod scraped in metallic agony as it’s legs fell out of their tubular housings. The flasks metal base clanged against the wooden shelf that all bird hides have above their benches. We were alone in this wooden box and we were settling for a prolonged stay.

Slow breathing, in-out, a binocular scan of the lagoon. A Ruddy Shelduck, waddling ponderously along the waters edge directly ahead of us, was a first for me. Rustic red topped with a bleach-blonde head – it reminded me of a toffee apple – of autumn. Waders were present too, as I’d hoped they would be. Perhaps even dreamed. For their clockwork return to our wetlands and scrapes, brings comfort that the global calendar is still in some kind of logical state.

Three Common Sandpipers were distant and skittish in the water-grass to our left and a buff juvenile Ruff was feeding along the near side of the spit-bank the Ruddy Shelduck had been parading on. The Shelduck was nearer now, flanked by two Lapwing, hunched and horned. Waders really are a mesmerising family of birds and when their time comes, in spring and autumn passage, I regularly become captivated by their movements and mannerisms.

Just in-front and to the left, two Avocets railed in from the to join another two in a small Lapwing-surrounded pool. Suddenly, several Lapwing burst into the air in frantic, loping wingbeats, bearing upwards upon a bird-of-prey, and a big one too. It was a bloody Osprey. Talons down, it warned off the Lapwing and circled higher and higher above the lagoon. I realised that we were actually watching three Osprey, soaring and wheeling in unison above the lagoons. It was Bird Therapy in essence. It reminded me of the day I’d seen the Buzzards that started the book. It was glorious.

There’s a beautiful feeling, a resonance perhaps, when you meet someone you haven’t seen in person for a while and it clicks immediately back into place, like the final piece of a jigsaw. Chris from Team4Nature has long been my anchor and adviser when I wade through mires of self-doubt and resentment. It was a delight to meet him, to walk away from the pressure-cooker environment of the Birdfair and spend some time watching birds and talking about something other than our usual topics, instead, we found ourselves discussing life and birds. Bird Therapy.

Epic podcast chat with Jonny ‘Dovestep’ Rankin

A few days ago, I spent a couple of hours in the evening having a really good chat with Jonny Rankin of Dovestep fame (he also contributed to Bird Therapy too). We talk about a lot of non-birding stuff as well – but it was great to chat to him about mental health, birdwatching and social media.

You can listen here

Life without likes

Over the past six weeks I’ve had to dip in and out of using Twitter for reasons (many) that I’ve written about on here before. I noticed that my behaviour regarding Twitter was becoming very obsessive and cyclic and had begun to impact on my mental health in a big way. I also noticed that during the times I haven’t been using it, I’ve felt so relaxed and transparent that I’ve finally been able to make a massive and important decision, that might seem foolish to some but for me, at this time, is the right one. 

I’ve completely accepted that I’m never going to be able to regulate my actions and responses on social media. I will always compare myself to other people and feel worthless in doing so. I will always obsess over likes and retweets and treat it as the only validation that’s worthwhile. Whatever I do, is never going to be enough for me and this leads to cyclic negative thought processes that, put bluntly, are doing my head in. Those who’ve read the book will have further insight into this pattern. 

To be honest with you, I’m quite sick of feeling like this and if I HAD to continue using social media, then I’d consider accessing some talking therapy to try and rectify these issues. However, the simple fact is that I don’t HAVE to use it and so whilst weighing up the pros and cons and considering the impact on me and Bird Therapy – I’ve accepted that I’ve come to the end of a massive chapter in this journey and to disappear, leaving the book to do what I set out to do, help people, is enough. 

Too many strive for acceptance. Courting controversy for attentions sake, wallowing in their own achievements and pasting them for all to see – and I’ve been guilty of this so much. It’s taken me many years to realise – but everyone is out there for themselves. I learnt this when Bird Therapy was published and almost the entire nature writing ‘community’ didn’t even mention it. People whose work I’ve loved and shared on social media myself. Blanked. Someone even told me that I shouldn’t post reviews of my own book as it’s seen as bad etiquette. I mean, what the hell!? It’s my book – am I not allowed to be proud of a good review?

Anyway. I’ve done all the above, behaved in these toxic ways and repeated the cycle over and over – but not any more. It takes up too much of my brain energy. Brain energy better spent in areas of my life that actually care and reciprocate – family, friends, work and birds. At the end of the Winterwatch film I did in January, I said that if Bird Therapy helped just one person in their own battles with mental health, then it would be job done. Well enough people have shared with me, how much it’s helped them, so perhaps it’s time for me to let it properly unfurl it’s wings and fly out into the world. 

I can’t decide whether to leave the account open or not, as I feel I’m letting down the dedicated followers who made the book real, but what’s the point? I’ll only obsess about the follower count going down over time as others grow and grow, it’ll eat away at me and I don’t want or need that. So here we are. I don’t know when or if I’ll bring myself to deactivate it, but think I might need to as an act of closure, I think.

I’m still here though, you can email me anytime at birdtherapy@hotmail.co.uk and I’ll never stop writing my blog as it’s the journal accompanying my ongoing road to wellness. 

I have a few cool things happening at the moment. I’ve just written features for the Guardian and BBC Wildlife Magazine, I had some photos taken for the Guardian article yesterday, which was particularly cringeworthy! There’s a feature I wrote about writing the book, in the next issue of Birdwatching magazine, which I believe is already out to subscribers – I’ve not seen it yet though. I also went into three Norwich bookshops yesterday (Jarrolds, Book Hive and Waterstones) and signed all the copies of Bird Therapy on the shelf. Below are some of events I’ve got coming up:

  • 8th and 9th August I’m recording the audiobook for Bird Therapy. 
  • Friday 16th August at 3pm I’m signing copies of Bird Therapy with Chris Packham at the Birdfair – Wildsounds stand 
  • Saturday 17th August – 1130 I’m signing copies of Bird Therapy at the Birdfair – Wildsounds stand 
  • Saturday 17th August 13:45-14:30 I’m speaking in the authors forum at Birdfair and then signing some books after. 
  • Thursday 29th August – evening in conversation with Nick Acheson at NWT Cley. 
  • Tuesday 22nd October – speaking at Norwich Science Festival.

No doubt there’ll be some other stuff too, but if you see it then great and if you don’t, for once I won’t be ramming it into your eye sockets via twitter. Twitter followers – you’ve carried me through all of this and I’ve enjoyed engaging with you all. I’ve tried so hard to respond and interact with you all and I’m so sorry I can’t carry on with it. Much love. Joe.

The art of noticing

One of the core ethos’s of Bird Therapy is to take notice and chapter three of the book is focused around this idea and that if we slow down and take notice of the everyday beauty around us, then many benefits may be unlocked. From feeling more connected to our world, to feeling more connected with ourselves; this blog post follows these two arcs and I’ve found myself hyper-focused on taking notice recently, as you will see.

In June and July, there’s a little bit of a lull in the usual hubbub of our local avifauna. Sandwiched between spring and autumn passage, the summer months are a time of tending and tenderness, as local breeders fledge their young and some move onto second broods. We have 3 S’s nesting in our eaves – Sparrows, Starlings and Swifts. In times of confusion and despondency, I know I can always look up and observe their nesting and feeding behaviours – the Swifts are especially fascinating. There’s so much to notice about them when you can see them up-close; their tiny feet, folded scythe wings and vigilant head movements as they deposit food to the nest.

In the summer months – when it’s hot and humid – I suffer. I find myself afflicted with what I can only describe as summer ‘blues.’ It can be beautifully sunny outside, but inside my mind it remains overcast. As the end of the summer term, time speeds up at lighting pace and I become heavily engrained in my work. Outdoor time is often confined to the back garden with my daughter; delighting in the Blackbird that’s brazen enough to visit the lawn next to us and laughing at the silliness of ‘Mr. Pigeon’.

My friend has been brilliant and has allowed me to share his passion for moth trapping wherever possible. Sometimes before work or at the weekends, I pop to his and we have a coffee as we look at the moths he’s caught overnight. It’s such a different experience to the whole-body immersion of birdwatching. It’s like opening a present and the surprise and variety inside can be magical. I notice how calm I feel in his company and whilst looking at the winged-wonders as they sit stoically inside of the wooden cube. It’s another world in that box – with the free-flying outside world becoming microcosmic and focused. It allows my own hyper-focus and the noticing of minute details and nuances to sharpen even more.

When I do get out, perhaps to the local common for an hour, it’s now more powerful than ever. I find myself noticing every element of the flora and fauna laid out around me. Day-flying Burnet moths zoom over the meadow-tops. Ringlet butterflies are everywhere – lurking and emerging from beneath the grasses. Large Skippers flash a juicy orange as they move from clover to thistle. Lower down, the Common Spotted orchids bloom in pastel pinks and candied colours and over the western side, a cluster of Marsh Fragrant orchids stand tall amongst the swathes of Tufted Vetch. A deeper purple, their heady saccharine scent pervades the senses and sweetens the mind. The aroma of summer.

As I notice more and more detail on these micro-forays into nature, again, I notice more about myself. Social media has become a huge issue for me once more. I’m so close to stopping it and disappearing, which I know will happen eventually, but so soon after the book being published – I don’t want to abandon the people that my words and story seem to be helping. You see, I’ve finally accepted my place in the world as a normal guy who has shared their story and through this, can help other people. I’ll never be ‘known’ and will always be an imposter, but I think I’m finally at peace with where I’m at in this ongoing struggle.

Back to the common.

Bird Therapy T-shirts are available for 3 more days. £15 plus postage. 50% of profit to Norwich Men’s Shed. Help spread the word about the benefits of birdwatching. T-Shirts are here!

Unhappy publication day – a bite of reality

A swallow swooped so low that it almost flew into my head. Now, any other day, any other time, I’d be buoyed by a moment like that. I was wobbling though, standing next to my car, contemplating what the hell I’d done and what it would mean from this day forth. I needed to walk. I could feel my chest tightening and my shoulders tensing and the first sob fell in weighted relief. Oblivious to the rain, I walked out onto the heath, where the yellow gorse had been taken over by lush green growth, I only know this from a photo though, as everything seemed so dark and solemn under a heavy sky.

I walked out to where the bushes rise in a line, marching across the heath. The rain increased in ferocity and for no apparent reason, so did my tears. It flooded out of me, this deluge of emotions, both complex and confused. I felt broken for a brief while, unable to work out what was going on inside my mind. Some of it felt like grief – the grief of letting the book fly into the world, the grief of how much of myself I’ve given to the book and the whole process of making it. Grief.

Perhaps it wasn’t grief though, as there were lots of other feelings mixed in. Self-loathing at myself for pouring so much into the book, for what? Loss – the loss of such a huge element of my life. The loss of reasoning as to why I wrote it, for good. A brooding disbelief that my words would never go any good and help others. Haunting me. Resentment, at those I had expected or maybe just assumed, would support the book on publication. That then began to bring up the looming presence of imposter syndrome yet again and the biting reality that I’ll always be peripheral to a club I clearly can’t be a member of.

The feelings were worsening and kept rolling between relief or release and to my lowest ebb. I was beginning to feel desperate and despondent. Alone. The darkest thoughts began to gather ‘but you’re a father now, you can’t think like this.’ More confusion and hatred. More tears. I had to speak to someone, luckily someone was there for me to message and then another person who I wholly trust, was around if I needed to physically speak to someone – which I did.

Everyone kept wishing me a happy publication day and hoped that I would enjoy it. As I regularly write on here, I’m not a writer, I can’t commit to the lifestyle that many writers seem to have. I can’t handle social media. I absorb criticism like an acid-filed sponge. I wobble and I’m really bloody honest about it, because I want people who are also struggling to realise they are not alone and that these supposedly sugarcoated and wondrous occasions, can be hellish for some of us.

So yeah – happy publication day to me.

(This was written the day after publication day, but I held off sharing. I really wanted to share my experience with you, so here it is)

Searching for something that cannot be found

I’ve dropped off Twitter again, as the same old demons have surfaced to writhe and claw in my mind, trying to get me to crack. Woeful inadequacy. Delusions of grandeur. Validation. They’re demons of my own making, shaped by the societal and cultural normalisation of what is very much a part of our lives, here-to-stay; Social media anxiety. I’m so hyper-aware of it brewing, that I’m able to step away and reevaluate things before it fully manifests itself, which is great. However, as Melissa Harrison so rightfully tweeted to me, it’s ridiculous to pin your self-esteem on your social media presence.

It all started with a ‘bad’ review of Bird Therapy (not shared here and it doesn’t matter who from). I say ‘bad’ as it wasn’t negative overall, but one particular passage in it was worded in a vindictive and spiteful way, which I felt was unnecessary. Twitter was the only place I could vent about it, but as my partner said to me, I was only doing that for attention. She was right. I posted about it because I was seeking validation that what I’d written wasn’t negative, but the real piece of work needed was to get my own mind into a resilient place, where I could absorb all feedback, good or bad.

As the journey to get Bird Therapy to publication, and, the journey of recovery that led to its formation, were both so arduous. I think that sometimes I forget and neglect just how much of me I’ve put into it all. That’s why it hurts so much when someone slates it. Of course it’s just their opinion, subjectively, and people are kind and tell you to ignore other people’s opinions, but the mind of someone like me, with myriad issues and tangents, doesn’t process it like that.

So it’s time to stand up and say bollocks to bad reviews and negative opinions. As I said on Twitter the other day:

“This is me. Working class with a chequered past and no university education. I worked my arse off to raise a five-figure sum and get Bird Therapy published, as no one would take it seriously. I don’t care if you think it’s badly written or edited, it’s my masterpiece.”

To celebrate this, peppered through this post are the kind of things that people say to me privately about the book. This is the real impact of Bird Therapy and my writing – the actual helping of people. That’s what really matters.

Sharing, caring and realising how things change.

I spent the weekend at the inaugural Pensthorpe Bird and Wildlife Fair, a new and local, nature event that took place in a wonderful setting. Pensthorpe is a lovely place and most birders tend to overlook it as it’s assumed it’s just a wildfowl collection and a visitor attraction. Yes, Pensthorpe has an extensive range of captive ducks and geese, a highly-acclaimed children’s play area and attractive gardens. However, at either end of the site are two scrapes, old and new, and both are brilliant for wild birds.

I’d been asked to speak on both days of the event and Deb, who owns Pensthorpe, is a patron of my book, so of course I was eager to be involved. On the Saturday I was in the main marquee, sandwiched between Bill Oddie and Mike Dilger and on the Sunday, I was in the Garden Room. Both days seemed well attended and whilst the Birdfair at Rutland has its grandeur and reputation, Pensthorpe had a much more chilled and family-oriented vibe going on.

That vibe suits me better and actually, the Rutland Bird Fair was just too much for me. It hit me like a sensory maelstrom of posing and posturing, where every face and name of nature, birdwatching and social media seemed intent on being the centre of attention. I’m working so hard on reducing that from my own presentation and it felt itchy and hot, to be submerged in it for the short time I stayed there. Anyway.

Saturday beheld some brilliant birds but also a learning curve. I met a friend at the fair, who also came and supported me during the talk. The first thing he and I did was go and have a look at two summer-plumaged Red Knot (viewed from behind the pie van – a first) that were present on a tiny rocky island on ‘Old Squaw’ lake. Brick-breasted and delightfully tiny, these two birds were glorious to behold and a new one for our recording area for me. As was the beautiful Sanderling that we went and saw on the old scrape after my talk finished – especially as with my scope, we could share it with other people who were visiting the hide.

So the learning curve. Well. On the Saturday, my talk was between two ‘celebrities’ in Bill Oddie and Mike Dilger and the marquee was full to overflowing for each of them – when for mine, it really wasn’t. This hit me, even though it shouldn’t, but a couple of people made some exceptionally valid points. First, my partner told me that the reality is that I’m still a ‘nobody’ in these circles, to a lot of people. Whilst that may sound harsh, she’s absolutely spot-on, I’m not a celebrity, and once again I was succumbing to my own delusions of grandeur.

The other person was one of the organisers of the event, who I’m close to. He said that I needed to stop beating myself up about it and that the people that were there were really engaged. Suddenly a lightbulb clicked in my brain, the 5-6 people that came up to me afterwards and shared their own personal stories, well they were willing to share those stories because I had shared mine. That’s such an incredibly powerful thing to be part of – it really is. Furthermore, my great Aunty and Uncle and a distant cousin were there too. Family. I had family and also my two friends there, supporting me, as well as a crowd of people who really cared. That’s special.

The Sunday was even more of an epiphany. My partner and daughter came too and suddenly all the associated shit and feelings didn’t matter anymore, only they did. The garden room was smaller, more intimate – more me. Friends and familiar faces were there again and to top it off, my Mum, Stepdad and beloved Grandad came to support me too. My Grandad is a huge part of the Bird Therapy story. He’s in the talks, the book, my mind – everything. For him to be there watching me was simply the best thing. At time I get that I was just talking to him, celebrating him, it was magic.

I’ve pondered and reflected so much on the weekend since and all the head-crushing bullshit that comes with thinking you’re something special and realising you’re not, has floated away on a cloud of ‘who cares?’ It’s so liberating to realise what really matters to you and actually, I’m incredibly lucky that this isn’t my life and my career, it’s something I can share and a way of helping people, but that’s what it is. It isn’t everything.

Birdwatching with a baby – a fresh approach

A derisory laugh, pumping – almost rattling – sounds out behind us. They call it a ‘yaffle’ and it’s difficult to find a different word to capture the sound. ‘Did you hear that?’ I ask her, knowing that she isn’t going to reply. ‘That’s a green woodpecker.’ Suddenly, as if it heard me, an almost luminous-green bird comes bounding over our heads and along the tree-lined path. It’s bright red cap gives it an almost clown-like appearance, quite apt then for its chuckling call. I turn so that she can see from within the sling and point it out as it undulates away from us in flight.

It seems that with every step we take, a ‘new’ skylark gives flight. A bubbling and almost-constant backing track of nostalgic melody surrounds us. ‘Can you hear the skylarks?’ I ask her, already knowing the answer. A pair of dunnocks flick across from the fence line and onto the gorse, quickly disappearing into prickly growth. I know she can smell the gorse and so I tell her about it, ‘that smell is gorse, it smells like coconut, you’ve tried coconut!’

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You see, it’s not about me and my own experience of being outside anymore. She’s the number one priority and I want to share it all with her, not force it upon her. I just want to talk to her about what she can see, hear and smell (she’s not tasting much as she keeps chewing on the shoulder strap of the sling) Occasionally, she acknowledges me or our surroundings, screeching at a dog-walker or turning to look towards wherever I’m pointing. It’s a constant and calming conversation, albeit particularly one-sided. We turn to walk along the southerly path, back to where we began our walk.

On this side, the wind is too strong for her and I have to put her hood up and eventually, the wind-protector on the sling. There’s no focus on being immersed outside anymore, just on getting her back to the car. Bird moments become briefer. The onomatopoeic chunt of a chiffchaff beats over from the car-park, I tell her all about it, it’s journey and how it signals spring. How Daddy has written about them in his book and that this season is a time of wonder and new-emergence.

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We’re almost back to our starting point and the buffeting has stopped, for there’s more shelter in the south-eastern corner of the reversion field. The cover and hood come down and we stop to look at the horses in the paddock. A scratchy sub-song emerges from the hedge that borders the horse-fields; and it blossoms into a fruitful fluted melody – a blackcap. She laughs at the horses, they always make her laugh. I smile at the blackcap song and the reassurance it brings.

As we hop the fence to the track where the car is parked, a lone Fieldfare sits atop the outpost tree down the track. It should be moving on now, as we are, and I like the comparison. It’s on the tree that has been the staging post for many a ring ouzel and the singing spot for many a mistle thrush. I inform her about the significance of the tree and she shrieks in delight, but at the horses again, not the reminiscence. Off it flies to continue onward, as we do, to the car and then home.

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NB: None of the pictures in this post were taken yesterday as nothing takes you back-to-basics more than having to accommodate the needs of a child over your own. The camera stayed in the change bag!

There’s something about Blackbirds

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There’s something about Blackbirds isn’t there, but I can’t quite fathom what it is that makes them so enigmatic. It could be their colouring – a mysterious and glossy, jet-black oil slick – with sharply contrasting orange beaks and eye-rings? Maybe it’s their assured hopping across our garden lawns, head-cocked, probing for tasty morsels? Or is it their mellifluous song, redolent of spring and ushering in change with fluted, familiar notes?

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Maybe it’s their chiming and chinking evensong, that ever-present sonic backdrop of half-lit March evenings. That ‘pink’ and ‘clink’ is a constant. A sound that we know and love but often allow to float past our ears and mind, with little thought. Blackbirds, are they too familiar? Are we too used to seeing them? They’re so characterful and uniquely individual – mainstays in our garden bird communities. Bold, black and beautiful.

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I’m drawn to a short passage in my book.

“I’d like to share a recent experience. It was yet another time of transition at work, fuelling my stresses and anxieties to a frenetic level. My job was altering and my teaching subject was to become mathematics. It was exciting to become a ‘proper’ teacher but my subjects usually being  life skills and humanities, I felt weighted by the topic. This had led me to become extremely obsessive about my lesson planning and I was working at home far too much. On my way home one day, I decided, rather spontaneously, to counteract my negative thought processes with a stroll around the patch, as the evening rolled in. 

It had been a fairly standard walk, with most of the resident species on show around the usual circuit. Near the car park, at the end of the walk, seemed the perfect place to stop. An outpost, looking down from the footpath on to a procession of poplar trees, bony and brush-like in the February chill. The sky was becoming increasingly dark, dissolving the last light of the day into an inky purple wash. A hubbub began to rise nearby. Blackbirds mainly,
chattering away as they settled for the night – a smooth and cathartic sound that was incredibly relaxing. 

It was getting darker every second and instinctively, I closed my eyes, slowed my breathing and allowed myself to be wrapped up by the duvet of sound. My worries and concerns floated away and I started to feel at one with the world. After several minutes I opened my eyes and, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, continued the walk back to my car, smiling.”

Responding to requests

I’ve been getting a fair amount of requests through the blog and I thought it would be a good time to explain what I’m able to do and what my limitations are. Sometimes people assume that this is my actual job, but it’s very much a labour of love and that makes my availability scant at best, as I’ve mentioned on earlier blogs.

I love writing. I’ve just finished an article and a book review for Resurgence magazine and I’ve almost completed an extended feature for birdwatching magazine too. I’m always happy to consider commissions for articles and once the book is out, I’d love to extend some of the chapters into some wider writing too. I can be contacted here with any enquiries.

Some of the things I’ve written can be viewed on this page of the blog site.

I am able to give talks on either the general message of Bird Therapy or about the book itself. I’m an experienced teacher and enjoy sharing my story and ideas with others. I’m keen on expanding my talks into schools next year but for now, more information can be found here

Any requests regarding publicity around the book, are forwarded to Unbound so you can always contact them directly and ask for Amy Winchester otherwise, contact through the blog still. There are also a lot of requests and messages about pre-ordering the book, so here’s a few places it’s available to order from:

I’ve got some great talks lined up this year and I’m looking forward to sharing them soon.