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.

Yellow-browed Warbler

With the right pressure systems and wind direction in October, we are often gifted with vagrant birds from Siberia, colloquially known as ‘Sibes’ to birdwatchers. The most common ‘Sibe’ in the UK is the  Yellow-browed Warbler, whose numbers have increased markedly in recent years. In keeping with this chapters theme it is thought that this can be attributed to changes in our weather.

October 2016 saw large volumes of Yellow-browed Warblers along the entire Norfolk coastline. Over the following weeks, bird news reporting implied that they were slowly making their way inland. These reports seemed like they were getting  closer and closer to the conurbation of Norwich, and as they began to scatter across the county, I felt an increased sense that I might chance upon one locally. With this sense came a determination to get out as much as possible and find one.

This led to me visiting my patch almost every day after work and I spent a lot of time observing the movements of a large tit-flock that roved through the trees encircling the lake. I’d found a spot where tree branches enclosed the path, about a foot above head height – and this was seemingly the perfect spot to stand and wait for them. I could set my scope up and observe the lake, whilst patiently waiting for the rising tumult of contact calls from the Long-tailed Tits. This encircled position meant I could enjoy and scrutinise the entire flock as it spilled around me – immersed and unrehearsed.

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I’d learnt from other people, literature and most importantly, experience, that vagrant birds often tag onto these flocks. Several days had passed without any stragglers within the flock, but on the third day, after about twenty minutes, I could hear them approaching and I waited.  Still, under the green canopy, my anticipation increasing as they got nearer – contact calls increasing in volume until the first birds were moving above me. The delicately thin tail of a Long-tailed Tit, a silhouette in the foliage, then the bulkier frame of a Great Tit passing to my right. Lots of smaller birds were moving through too and I assumed they were Goldcrests. I watched until the majority of the fifty birds had passed.

It was time to move on and complete a customary lap of the lake, when out of nowhere “Swee-Ooh” slurred just over my shoulder. I recognised the call immediately – but surely it couldn’t be? I snatched at my binoculars and searched frantically for the bird that had uttered that familiar sound. The call broke out again from directly in front of me and then it appeared, flicking confidently into my view escorted by a cavalry of two flanking Goldcrest’s.

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There it was. The desired target of all my searching – a Yellow-browed Warbler. They’re beautiful little leaf warblers and a species I never expected to actually encounter at my patch. Determination and sheer persistence was really paying off for me when it came to patch birding. I had put the hours in and been determined to find something wonderful. This was just that – wonderful.  Even though I cherish the everyday experiences of nature and revel in their beauty, there is still something intrinsically magical about finding a scarce bird in your local area. This was  a product of stoic observation of patterns and by now you should know how much I love a pattern! Patterns in the weather, patterns in birds passing through – the patterns of nature.

Thanks to Mark Thomas for the great picture of one in the hand.

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