The Bird Therapy teaching resource

Some time ago, I agreed to work with an external organisation to develop and produce a Bird Therapy teaching resource. I had been working on it for a while and was struggling to find the time and the level of polish I felt it deserved; both of which, the organisation was set to assist me with. Unfortunately I felt the goalposts moving and as the ideas stretched further away from what I envisaged, I started to struggle. I also struggled with a new job role that was demanding and consuming and I knew it wasn’t the right time.

So, I took back ownership of it and plodded along, making it (literally) as bright and engaging as I aimed for it to be; whilst also taking my time to ensure that I’m properly happy with it. This afternoon, I finally finished putting it together and once I’ve proofread it and checked it for consistency – I’ll start sending it out to anyone who wants to use it. If you’re interested then please contact me here and I can then email it to you.

It’s suitable for key stages 3 and 4, as well as some adult groups too. The pack features 13 activities, which is one for each chapter of Bird Therapy. It’s core is a 40 page PDF document that contains: background, instructions for each activity and all corresponding resources mentioned, in the form of printable handouts, book extracts and worksheets. There is also an accompanying PowerPoint with some audio and video embedded into it.

Obviously I can’t share this as widely as I would’ve been able to in the past as I’m no longer on social media. Therefore, if you know anyone who you think might like to use it then please steer them to this post. Equally, I’d appreciate anyone who feels they could share this on their social media too, to help spread the word.

Joanna Cannon’s top 5 reads of 2019

Joanna Cannon, author of Breaking and Mending has written a blog for Waterstones with her top 5 reads of 2019; and she’s only bloody picked Bird Therapy as one of them! I’m proper buzzing.

She says this kind and clever yellow book is filled with practical advice, as well as Joe’s own story. A perfect example of how the smallest things can make the biggest difference.

Antisocial media – the warning signs of an addiction

One of the topics I write about that isn’t directly related to birds, is my long-standing and largely one-sided battle with social media use. On November 28th I finally decided to permanently stop using twitter. This (seemingly) ominous conclusion has been festering away in my brain and eroding my mental health, for the best part of 2 years. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve proclaimed that I’m taking a break, deactivating my account or in an attention-seeking, pathetic way, have threatened it like I have a right to expect people to care.

In the many blogs I’ve written about this, a number of observations and theories have arisen, the majority of which have been resonant with my own behaviour on Twitter and the behaviour of some of the people I followed. I’ve written about some of these: vanity metrics, dopamine hits and ludic loops, for example – and I’ve reflected on how I became so obsessed with my social media profile that, ultimately, I was taking less care of the real me.

Taking a step back, I could see that social media was starting to take over my life yet again and although it has been incredibly difficult to fight the mental urges to log back in, every time I overcome that neural force, I feel like I’m a step closer to being me again. I’d been sucked into a cycle of shameless, egotistical self-promotion; and in truth, felt like I had to keep doing it. What I really needed to do though, was stop.

So I’ve done just that and I thought it would be useful to collate some of the behaviours I observed in myself, which when combined, are warning signs of an unhealthy relationship with social media. These are also some of the elements that feed its addictive nature, as per my previous posts on the subject. They are also the things that I still observe people doing on social media, as still look at what’s going on, but from afar, as being a nobody sure feels better than trying to be somebody you’re not. Here are my notes:

  • Posting something on social media and not attaining the levels of interactions through likes, retweets and comments, that you think it should; then either deleting it completely or deleting it posting it again. This would seem to mainly be for the dopamine hit and feelings of acceptance that mass interaction can bring.
  • Retweeting your own tweets because you feel they haven’t had enough of the above. I called this ‘recycling’ a tweet. Also, repackaging an old, popular post of your own, to garner attention and interaction.I was so guilty of doing this and I see many others do it too.
  • Feeling like you have an obligation to respond to everyone that tweets you. I used to set time aside to do this, which in itself is quite absurd. A lot of ‘famous’ people employ others to do this for them, or simply they just don’t respond.
  • Being out somewhere, seeing something aesthetically pleasing or interesting, and thinking oh that would make a good Instagram post or that would get a load of likes on twitter. By doing this, we are disconnecting from wonder and beauty.
  • Checking social media when you wake up in the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, when you find yourself on your own in an ad break or meal, on the toilet – basically anywhere and all the time.
  • Taking and proclaiming you’re taking a twitter ‘break’ – then returning after a few days or weeks, because you feel ‘ok about it’ again, when actually it’s an addiction you need to feed.
  • Thinking that your twitter friends really do care about you. I’m sure many, many do. However, I had over 15,000 followers and since I came off there last week, no-one has checked in to see if I’m ok. I could’ve taken my own life – the signs were there – but literally nobody has checked. I was once told that my book was only ‘popular’ because of celebrity endorsement. I can tell you now that these people are not my friends. I’ve not heard from any of them. I probably won’t.
  • Spending time editing and editing to try to compose the perfect tweet. What you have to say ALWAYS has value, no matter how you package it up.
  • Knowing that ‘insert something’ day is coming up and then planning posts for attention even though, invariably, that ‘something’ has nothing to do with you at all.
  • When you’re going on social media just to look at your own notifications, likes, retweets and interactions; and not really paying attention to other people. Taking the ‘social’ out of ‘social media’
  • When you change your profile picture a lot as you’re never quite happy with it.
  • When you think you know the ‘peak times’ to post content, forgetting that on the other end of every @ is another human with their own life to live.

Obviously this list is far from exhaustive, but if you come across this blog and few you can relate to a few of the things I observed in myself, please consider whether your engagement with social media is good for you or not. The irony is that I can’t share this on social media, so it will only reach a few people 🤣

A yew full of thrushes

People say “keep walking” and “walk it off,” which in principle, is a lovely idea. Except, when the pain is an all-day occurrence and feels like a tooth root being tweaked by a dentist, in your leg, permanently; it can be hard to listen to any sound advice. She doesn’t know about the pain. Daddy wincing when he moves is funny – he is playing a game. That recognisable feeling of cabin fever startdvcreeping up again and the earlier suggestion to go for a walk, seems like a wise one. Back clicking, face grimacing and leg semi-buckling; it is time to get ready. Mummy calls through, requesting two carrots and a parsnip from the farm shop if we are going that way. We have a mission.

Toddler mittens. Why is it such a fiddle to put them on. Puddle suit? No, she can wrap up in the cosy-toes pram cover, like a fleecy sleeping bag for a pushchair. The pink wooly hat with the white bobble on is non-negotiable though. She usually pulls it off, but seems to welcome its warmth in the cold porch, as if she is preempting the first days of meteorological winter unfurling outside the door. We are both wrapped up for our morning stroll and both happily anticipating some fresh, chill air.

The ancient trader’s lane bisects the southern end of the town boundary and runs along the edge of a small holding. “Neigh neighs?” She asks. Later, we will walk back past the horses. She points to the ageing brickwork of the walled alleyway, reaching out to run her hands along its crumbling red and black bricks; tracing their history. We push past a wooden door, set in the wall and as tradition of this path walk tells, she has to “knock knock” on it, even though no one ever answers. Through the black bike bars at the end, under the brick arch, we head towards the churchyard.

The yews lining the path are foreboding. We watched a BBC news short on the folklore of yews a few weeks before. Their poison, fatal, their connotations with death, poignant. They are beautiful trees though, with deep hewn scaling on their trunks and bright, blood-red berries, warning of danger but equally as alluring. In the churchyard they are also a haven for our local avifauna, acting as a central focus in the brick-filled market square. As we pass under, several birds dart between the trees and she proclaims “bur-ee” at their sudden appearance.

We stop for a moment. Two mistle thrushes are atop the church tower and we crane our heads, giddily, to see them. One flies down into the right hand yew, where it joins up with two song thrushes who are sitting out, framed within small cavernous openings between the higher branches. They softly tick to each other as the mistle thrushes rattle back and forth. Blackbirds chup away tenderly. It’s a soothing sonic chorus of gentle bird calls – fitting for the place of reflection we are walking through. As we walk away, the subtle tseep of two departing redwing, passes over us in farewell. We leave behind the yew full of thrushes.

Twenty books: sharing a story

I approached the publisher of Bird Therapy, Unbound, a few weeks ago to ask if I could have some copies of my book to send out to organisations working and supporting with mental health. Chris from Team4Nature tweeted out for me to ask for nominations and we got over 60 in the end. I sat down and chose 20 last week, which is how many books Unbound gifted me (bloody awesome!) Below are the names of the 20 organisations, their website links, where they’re based and who nominated them.

1. The Welcome Project – Surrey. Nominated by Steve Pont.

2. Life at Number 27 – Oxfordshire. Nominated by NickRPhotography

3. South West Samaritans – Cornwall. Nominated by Norma Hines.

4. Harmeny Education Trust – Midlothian. Nominated by Lesley Totten.

5. Lancashire NHS Trust – Lancashire. Nominated by Kat Taylor.

6. NNUH Library – Norfolk. Nominated by ‘Charlotte’

7. Combat Stress – national. Nominated by multiple people.

8. Teens+ Scotland – Scotland. Nominated by Fi Brown.

9. Johnny’s Happy Place – Northamptonshire. Nominated by Marie Morrison

10. Ullapool Men’s Shed – Ross, Scotland. Nominated by Finlay Pringle.

11. CPFT NHS Trust – Northamptonshire. Nominated by Maggie Barker.

12. Nene Park – Northamptonshire. Nominated by Charron Pugsley-Hill

13. eQeltd – Greater Manchester. Nominated by Dave Barker.

14. West Norfolk Mind – Norfolk. Nominated by ‘Turtledove Norfolk’

15. Brackenhurst Campus Library – Nottinghamshire. Nominated by ‘BrackLibraryCat’

16. Jeremy Squire at RSPB Loch Leven – Perthshire. Anonymous nomination.

17. Bridewell Gardens – Oxfordshire. Nominated by Daisy Tyson Taylor.

18. Arts in Care Homes – National. Self-nomination.

19. Herts Mind – Hertfordshire. Nominated by ‘HeathDweller’

20. Hellesdon Hospital MBU – Norfolk. Nominated by Sarah Parton.

The vicious cycle of the vanity metric

I’ve been reading more and more about social media and it’s impact on wellbeing. The more I read, the more I recognise traits and behaviours in myself and in others that are unhealthy (to say the least) and the more my desire grows to investigate and share my reading with you. This week, the topic I’ve been researching is ‘self-esteem and social media’ and those of you that have been following my posts about my issues with Twitter will know that this is an area I’ve been struggling with.

Self esteem is our perception of who we are and we can only have high self esteem when we consolidate this in our own minds. A lot of this stems from the feedback we receive from others – simply – the more we feel accepted by others, the more positive our self-perception is likely to be and thus, the better we feel about ourselves. Positive feedback and interactions from others, (or ‘social rewards’) trigger dopamine production – a neurotransmitter that stimulates and motivates reward-based actions and also makes us feel good. So it’s easy to see how we can get stuck striving for impossible attainments, socially.

The other problem is that social media is skewed, by us and by its makers, to only present a sugar-coated, rose-tinted representation of life. We share ‘peak’ experiences, making social media a highlights showreel of amazing and often unattainable things. Basically, in constructing this perfect vision of the world we want people to see us living in, we often choreograph our posts (in some cases, obsessively) to ensure we get the most social reward from them. Therefore, we alter the way we are behaving in reality to create an unreality of ourselves – another version for social media, if you like.

Social rewards on social media take the form of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. People like what we post and want to share it with others, this validates our self-esteem, dopamine is released, we feel good and the cycle starts again. These are called ‘vanity metrics’ and yes, they may make us feel good, but researchers and analysts know they don’t actually mean or measure anything. We place value on what is essentially a false economy – it’s fascinating behaviour.

Naturally, we begin to compare ourselves with others and this can make us feel like we are inadequate. Social comparison theory was founded in the 50’s by Leon Festinger and is so relevant to social media use now. It states that we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we stack up against other people. Through social media – with its filters and hyper-connectivity – we can end up comparing all aspects of our lives – achievements, holidays, experiences etc, but we also compare how people ‘rate’ what we share; through their interactions with it and so begins a vicious cycle.

Subsequently, we then try harder to fashion more interesting ‘content’ and in a quest for social rewards we can sometimes create what is almost a doubly false reality and narrative for ourselves. How to break this? Well, I’m currently reevaluating my sense of self. I’d been looking at the Bird Therapy twitter through an account I made especially to check it. On Monday 16th at 6am, I looked for the last time. I stopped looking at the accounts that I constantly compare myself too and I’ve stuck to it. I already feel a million times better about pretty much everything. It’s crazy how much of an effect the striving for social rewards and acceptance can have on your wellbeing. As I reframe these expectations and desires, I can appreciate my own achievements for what they mean to me and not what other people think about them. That feels seriously good. From ludic loops to vanity metrics – I’m getting there!

Breaking the ludic loop – the reframing of a relationship

I’m finally starting to make positive breakthroughs in my perceptions and behaviours related to my social media use. Longtime followers will know that I’ve been struggling with this for years now and I’ve been working on reframing my relationship with it a lot more intensively in recent months. If you haven’t read any of my previous reflections then I’ll summarise here. I battle with a heady mix of ‘delusions of grandeur’ and ‘imposter syndrome’, which essentially means that I often think I’m more important than I am but then flip into the complete opposite mindset – that I’m worthless.

I know that these are both symptomatic of the other mental health issues I grapple with, and what is usually required is a detox from the online world so I can reengage with the real one. This is what I’m doing at the moment. It also leads to a deep resentment and jealousy of successful and popular people – which again, works in tandem with both of the above ‘heady mixes’ – bringing anxiety, self-loathing and worthlessness into the mix, which then becomes a desire to gain attention again. It’s a fascinating process and being able to self-reflect and deconstruct it is something I find both cathartic and petrifying.

The progress I’ve noted this week is that on two occasions, I’ve wanted to send a tweet to Chris from T4N who kindly looks after my twitter account. Instead of sending it to him, I’ve text him and discussed the urge to post for attention. The next step will be to address the behaviour that leads to the compulsion, which is obsessively checking certain peoples accounts and comparing myself to them. A lot of this comes down to ‘getting a grip’ and focusing on what matters – my daughter, family and my career but I lose sight of this and talking to Chris about what’s happening has been incredibly helpful.

Negative social media use, whilst still just a proposed psychological disorder, is in my opinion, very real. I’ve been reading about ‘ludic loops’ – a tactic employed by the gambling industry and also by social media site designers. They apply to addictive experiences and are described as this lulled state of tranquility where you just keep doing the thing over and over again. In gambling, it’s the repeated act win or no win, in social media it can be the act of scrolling, of posting, of obsessing over likes and shares or simply just checking our phone/app. In-fact, I’ve written before about it taking a few days for my finger to stop residually trying to press the Twitter app button when I remove it from my phone. Supposedly, these algorithmic designs give us just enough taste of a reward to continue with the behaviour. Over-and-over.

It’s scary. It’s a nightmare, but it’s really interesting too and I hope that as I continue reading, researching and thus, addressing these issues, I’ll reframe my relationship enough to be content. We will see.

A dose of bird therapy pt. 2

It’s a well-trodden route. One which has been part-forged by my own explorations but also from someone else sharing their wisdom and experiences. As with all routes that are wandered in the search for avian encounters, it’s a logical mosaic of suitable habitats and hiding places. From the car-park, you skirt along a hedgerow, which itself is the edge of a bowling green. As the road curves left, a track leads ahead and away, in the direction of the cliffs. The cliffs here, so famously crumbling, are sheer and exposed. It can be a desolate place in poor weather conditions – wind-battered and storm-lashed; it really feels like the end of the world.

A little way into the track and there’s the old forge. It’s garden is one of the first outposts of tree cover for any migrant birds requiring some shelter and sustenance. It’s always worth checking here, and in late Autumn their lawn can be coated in thrushes, fresh-in from migration, feeding up and restoring order to their ranks before moving inland to roam their winter territories. A bird flicked down onto the dusty path, but back into the hedge before it could be properly observed. A Robin, surely. A few steps closer and there it was, perched at the edge of the hedge, the first drift migrant of the day, a Pied Flycatcher.

Down towards the paddocks, the hedges grow taller and funnel you down towards those weathered cliffs. There are houses here, they’re old enough to have been smugglers haunts, perched on the edgelands and watching the coastal paths where Black Shuck prowls on stormy nights. There are no migrants around the houses or paddocks and the curve irons out, the view opening out onto beet-fields and three concrete structures hugging the cliff edge. These hunched edifices hark back to times of conflict: a pillbox, and two bunkers – watchpoints and gun emplacements that have stood through multiple wars at this desolate outpost on the eastern edge of the county.

There’s a lonely elder standing where the path terminates. An attractive and verdant resting spot for many an exhausted migrant over the years. Birds had been blowing in on the eastern seaboard in previous days – interesting and scarce ones, like Wood and Icterine warblers – perhaps one would be skulking in the branches, offering tantalising glimpses of various shades of yellow amongst the greenery. The elder proved fruitful in both berry and bird. A lemon-yellow Willow Warbler skulking and fly-catching around the middle of the domed bush. A Common Redstart, bushy and bright-tailed, sitting high and proud, occasionally dropping down to the ground to feed. Birds at the stopping point of their often-momentous migratory journeys.

Walking for no more than thirty minutes felt like hours, similar to the Kingfisher analogy in the book. This brought much reflection along with it and a floating, featherlight immersion in the moment. Other reflections rose – on how several strands of the book had come together during this walk to the Coastwatch and back. Our ‘bird sense’ and those movements that draw our eyes to the foliage. The consistency of nature’s calendars through the wonders of migration were evident to see in these easy days of autumn passage. So too were the feelings, as writing now, the same line resonates, that never truly just watch birds and often, we feel them too.

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