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.

Slate and flame – patch magic

As I hopped over the single wire fence, I already had in mind that I would head straight for the recently cleared area of the reversion field. This desecrated area was now seared and sun-dried, broken by the emerging bones of cut Gorse, like some kind of grassland graveyard. It was the 25th of April – Ouzel day. For the last three years this date or thereabouts, has marked the clockwork return of mountain blackbirds to our tract of mid-Norfolk heathland.

As I neared the scarified square, I spied a chunky thrush at mid-distance. Skittishly strutting, I could see by its pallidness that it was a Mistle Thrush. A pair reside here, although I’d not seen them for a little while. There was more movement behind it, in the same channel of docked scrub. I only had my binoculars, no scope, so moved myself to a me-sized hunk of gorse on the edge of the ‘desert’, so I could stealthily observe what was scurrying and feeding.

An Ouzel emerged, slate and scale, a white celestial crescent across its chest, lunar like the landscape which held it. Hold on. There was another, slightly to the left and darker, it’s white bib contrasting boldly against its pitch-dark body. Wait. There was a third now, to the right of the other two and back where the Mistle thrush was. This was a prime example of the cyclic calendars of nature and how we can nap ourselves against them. 25th April. Ouzel day.

I went back with two friends, the following day. All three were still present and we spent some time cautiously viewing them and enjoying their presence and presentations. A Woodlark was singing on the adjacent area of heath and we decided to go and bathe ourselves in one of the finest birdsongs. No sooner had we imbibed in some, than one of my associates remarked that they’d just heard a Firecrest sing from a stand of straggly conifers at the heath-edge.

I swore at him, as I was reluctant to believe it (I also had quite a bad inner-ear infection, so couldn’t hear it anyway) but then he had found it in the upper branches of a fir. Then I could hear it, the angry and agitated call of an angry and agitated-looking bird. This was no ordinary Firecrest though, it seemed brighter and bolder than any we’d seen before. Orange shades burning bright, like the fire which bore its name. Only the third patch record of this diminutive beauty, it was a little bit of patch magic.

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.

Bird Therapy teaching pack – please help

A while ago, I wrote a blog called Feeling resourceful? which was about my aim to produce a teaching resource to work alongside the book. I’ve been working with young people who’ve had negative school experiences (permanent exclusion, unmet needs, bullying etc) for many years, and with that kind of target group in mind, I had grand visions of producing an all-singing, all-dancing interactive resource.

But that was definitely no more than just a vision. I researched the possibility of getting it accredited, but the cost was astronomical for me to cover and would mean I’d certainly have to charge for any resource. I want it to be free and inclusive, so that idea was ruined. It’s a shame, as all the preparatory work and research implied that a short course would be the most rewarding option for all.

Anyway. Life is always determined to put obstacles in your path and spanners in the works – and the notion of making a teaching resource was pushed behind by the demands of work and fatherhood. The last few evenings though, after catching up on my mountain of outstanding work, I started to weave together some ideas into, not quite a teaching resource, but a guidance pack that uses the book as it’s reference point.

The book’s illustrator Jo Brown is being wonderfully helpful, in making her book illustrations transparent so that I can use them with the chapter quotes as pausing points in a slideshow. Her art completes the book and simply has to be a part of anything connected to it.

I’m also lucky that I’ve taught a considerable amount of lessons and units on mental health and wellbeing and in my true obsessional style, I’ve made a lot of resources to accompany these. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I’m going to include some of these with the guidance pack and make a few more for some of the other tasks. It’s looking like it will feature a solid mix of wellbeing and nature-related tasks, much like the structure of the book. Some examples here:

Back when I posted about this before, I asked people to help, by making some little videos to be a part of the slideshow – and I’d still love for that to happen please. I’m using one of the chapters to talk about special places and this would be the theme of any video. Basically, this is what I’m looking for:

  • Mobile phone selfie videos are perfect! Much more personal.
  • Introduce yourself, what you do for work maybe and if you suffer with your mental health.
  • Film in your special place and introduce where that is and why it’s special to you.

I only ask that your special place is an outdoor one and that’s literally it. 30 seconds I reckon? They can just be emailed over to me at birdtherapy@hotmail.co.uk as the file size should be pretty small.

Here’s my special place.

  • Winterwatch video

    If you couldn’t or didn’t watch it, or perhaps didn’t know we’d done it, I recorded a feature on Bird Therapy with Chris Packham which was aired in January on Winterwatch.

    The feature focuses on mine and Chris’s experience of suicidal thoughts, how I discovered birdwatching, how it can help promote wellbeing and engaging with it. I’m really proud of the overall feature and the messages it conveys. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

    I uploaded the video to YouTube a while back and you can watch it here

    The proof is in the final proof

    Yesterday morning was shepherded in by streams of gulls. Regular pulses of birds in linear formations, making their dawn flights to daytime feeding grounds. On the drive to work, two Skylarks bounced up from a field boundary and over the car. I couldn’t hear their streams of bubbly notes, but I recognised their pot-bellies and triangular wings. On other morning commutes, I’ve observed many birds – Fieldfares roving, Linnets arcing, Cormorants darting and Pink-feet returning – all above the same familiar road. Not yesterday though, yesterday was a normal day.

    Until early afternoon, when I received an email from the editor of Bird Therapy with the FINAL proof attached for my perusal and approval. A flood of emotions poured over me, from petrified excitement to gnawing doubt. I knew that all the final edits were done, so I had a flick (well – a scroll) through it and checked the illustrations were all ok; and yes, it really was finished!

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    Four years of writing; of ink and emotions bleeding into notepad after notepad. The research and reading, so enlightening but time-devouring. The conversations and discussions, the friends, both lost and found. The frustration, the lows, the lack of confidence that I could get the message across in the right way. Not to mention the crowdfund, that was a different beast altogether!

    I’d laid my heart on the page in the book, but I laid it on the line with the crowdfund. I’d been reluctant to even consider it to begin with, and throughout the funding phase, the pressure was immense. Mostly self-imposed, this pressure are away at me constantly and became an obsession. Checking, posting, deleting, rewording, pleading – it was horrible. I was very lucky, that lots of people (hundreds in-fact) believed in the book and in me. The process continued, behind the scenes as edit upon edit ensued, but the ballooning pressure deflated as the target was met.

    Yesterday, seeing that final proof, was the culmination of all of that work, emotion and pressure – the release was incredible.