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.”

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.

    The final cover for Bird Therapy

    I’m delighted that today has seen the finalisation of the whole cover of Bird Therapy. It’s a PPC cover, so will be lovely and tactile and at some point, I’ll share the endpapers too – which are equally as beautiful. Some of the comments from my most respected and favourite authors who have read it, have been overwhelming – I’ve shared some of these here too.

    The book is available to preorder at Unbound and also on Amazon

    A week away, some well-stocked feeders and a stone-age pit

    This week, we’ve been at Center Parcs in Elveden for a little half-term break. I’ve been several times and rate it highly, both for children and for disabled access, as I supported someone with a learning disability to visit there twice, in a previous job. I’d always known that it’s good for resident wildlife: deer, squirrels, woodland birds and butterflies – but I’d never fully connected with the birdlife there until this visit.

    Every morning, I spent 30-40 minutes in the observation hide. This slightly raised wooden oblong sits on the precipice of a large dip in the ground, which like some other Breckland sites, is the remnant of some stone-age workings. The dip is surrounded by trees, young and old, and a small pond sits at its nadir, where all of the birds seemed to enjoy a wash and a drink. The array of feeders there is brilliant and one morning I watched them being filled – a military operation of raising, lowering, scooping and pouring, which took twenty minutes to complete.

    When the maintenance team left the birds began to return, tentatively. Blue and Great Tits arrived first in a flicker of blue or blacky-green, offset against bright yellow, a glint and then gone. The skittish flock of Chaffinches came out of hiding and returned to their methodical ground-feeding routines. A peach-blush Brambling stood out amongst them, warm, bold and black-barred.

    A whistling buzz heralded the return of a pair of Siskin to the niger feeders directly in front, offering an eye-level observation of their lemon-yellow zebra-stripes. Their meal was short-lived as a dark scythe cut through the hollow, past their feeders in a rush, down to the next set and then rapidly altering course as it failed to catch its own breakfast. A Sparrowhawk, taking a chance on an easy feed. Dispersing every bird in the vicinity in a cacophony of rapid and urgent warning calls.

    An obvious call, one known well, echoed out over the open space – “pit-choo” – a Marsh Tit. A sound that became familiar around the woodland park, as did the whip-like contact calls of the pair of Nuthatches frequenting the car-park Oaks.

    The week ended with 40 species of bird being seen around the park – mainly in the hide and on the lakes. It was in the hide though, that I was able to completely switch off from everything for a few moments. It was just me and the birds; and it meant that I could spend some time really focusing on, and enjoying, some of the more common bird species. I found myself stripping back to the basics of birdwatching again and it was wonderful. Just like this male Blackbird, whose feathers caught the sun in a dazzling display of depth and light. Magic.

    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.

    You can still pre-order my book and get your name printed in every copy, as a supporter, here