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.

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.