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.

https://www.waterstones.com/blog/joanna-cannon-recommends-her-top-5-reads-of-2019

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.

Nap-time, a sodden pushchair and over a thousand Starlings

You can tell when she is tired. She starts to suck her thumb more vigorously and strokes her ear lobe, plus her eyelids look noticeably heavy. She has been tired for half an hour now, in-fact, she is overtired and fighting her bodies natural urge to sleep. Every time she is laid down on the sofa and wrapped up, she looks like she is about to succumb, then smiles and starts to stroke my face – I cannot help but smile back – then it becomes a game. It is probably because she fell asleep in the car seat on the way back from the food shopping. Yes! The car seat! She has never been driven to sleep purposely, but if she misses this nap then the repercussions could continue into the ensuing days. We are going to give it a try.

Within five minutes of being in the seat, she is asleep and we are driving without purpose. The off-road buggy, rain-cover and changing bag are all in the car boot, so really, we can drive anywhere. She needs to sleep for an hour, ideally, so we head away from town and suddenly, the coast seems like the perfect destination and we can get out and go for a walk. It starts to rain, not that heavily, but it is persistent and the wipers have to be clicked up into second gear to clear away the raindrops. The sky is much greyer when we reach the cricket club car park and as we’ve only been driving for forty minutes, the engine will have to keep running to continue the sensation that we are still on the move.

Five clicks of the handbrake and she is awake, grizzling for a s’nack’ and some water. The buggy is put up, she is hastily but gently put in it, the canopy is over, rain-cover on and we are off up the old coast watch track in the driving rain. The buggy’s rough tread helps it to negotiate the muddy brown puddles and we talk all the way to the squat brick shelter. To be fair, though, it’s a one sided conversation about the importance of good sleep patterns and the wonder of bird migration. The rains tenacity increases and it bounces off the rain cover, splashing into the canvas bag tray at the bottom. She’s happy, babbling and laughing each time that the buggy stops and I crouch down to look through her ‘viewing hatch’. We smile and continue walking.

The elder bush is alive with the movement of birds. We can see several Chaffinches, some Reed Buntings and a charm of Goldfinches – that all take flight, coalesce and then separate into the surrounding bushes. We make it to the shelter and as we enter, on the brick windowsill (albeit, long devoid of an actual window) sits a sodden Goldcrest, visibly exhausted and trembling. It does not show concern for our presence and sits for a few minutes, watching, as she eats some coconut rolls and has some water; the Goldcrest, drying. We talk about the journey these birds will have just undertaken; the weather, the loneliness – the magic! The Starlings start to trickle over the cliff like a black band twanging in the wind. They stay in formation, ordered and purposeful, as they continue to stream over the clifftop. Over the next ten minutes or so, hundreds of them emerge from the misty murk and arrow into the beet tops of the field next to the shelter. She has seen the miracle that is bird migration firsthand. I smile – she giggles – and we begin to walk back down the track, once again negotiating the pock marks and puddles.

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.

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

Life without likes

Over the past six weeks I’ve had to dip in and out of using Twitter for reasons (many) that I’ve written about on here before. I noticed that my behaviour regarding Twitter was becoming very obsessive and cyclic and had begun to impact on my mental health in a big way. I also noticed that during the times I haven’t been using it, I’ve felt so relaxed and transparent that I’ve finally been able to make a massive and important decision, that might seem foolish to some but for me, at this time, is the right one. 

I’ve completely accepted that I’m never going to be able to regulate my actions and responses on social media. I will always compare myself to other people and feel worthless in doing so. I will always obsess over likes and retweets and treat it as the only validation that’s worthwhile. Whatever I do, is never going to be enough for me and this leads to cyclic negative thought processes that, put bluntly, are doing my head in. Those who’ve read the book will have further insight into this pattern. 

To be honest with you, I’m quite sick of feeling like this and if I HAD to continue using social media, then I’d consider accessing some talking therapy to try and rectify these issues. However, the simple fact is that I don’t HAVE to use it and so whilst weighing up the pros and cons and considering the impact on me and Bird Therapy – I’ve accepted that I’ve come to the end of a massive chapter in this journey and to disappear, leaving the book to do what I set out to do, help people, is enough. 

Too many strive for acceptance. Courting controversy for attentions sake, wallowing in their own achievements and pasting them for all to see – and I’ve been guilty of this so much. It’s taken me many years to realise – but everyone is out there for themselves. I learnt this when Bird Therapy was published and almost the entire nature writing ‘community’ didn’t even mention it. People whose work I’ve loved and shared on social media myself. Blanked. Someone even told me that I shouldn’t post reviews of my own book as it’s seen as bad etiquette. I mean, what the hell!? It’s my book – am I not allowed to be proud of a good review?

Anyway. I’ve done all the above, behaved in these toxic ways and repeated the cycle over and over – but not any more. It takes up too much of my brain energy. Brain energy better spent in areas of my life that actually care and reciprocate – family, friends, work and birds. At the end of the Winterwatch film I did in January, I said that if Bird Therapy helped just one person in their own battles with mental health, then it would be job done. Well enough people have shared with me, how much it’s helped them, so perhaps it’s time for me to let it properly unfurl it’s wings and fly out into the world. 

I can’t decide whether to leave the account open or not, as I feel I’m letting down the dedicated followers who made the book real, but what’s the point? I’ll only obsess about the follower count going down over time as others grow and grow, it’ll eat away at me and I don’t want or need that. So here we are. I don’t know when or if I’ll bring myself to deactivate it, but think I might need to as an act of closure, I think.

I’m still here though, you can email me anytime at birdtherapy@hotmail.co.uk and I’ll never stop writing my blog as it’s the journal accompanying my ongoing road to wellness. 

I have a few cool things happening at the moment. I’ve just written features for the Guardian and BBC Wildlife Magazine, I had some photos taken for the Guardian article yesterday, which was particularly cringeworthy! There’s a feature I wrote about writing the book, in the next issue of Birdwatching magazine, which I believe is already out to subscribers – I’ve not seen it yet though. I also went into three Norwich bookshops yesterday (Jarrolds, Book Hive and Waterstones) and signed all the copies of Bird Therapy on the shelf. Below are some of events I’ve got coming up:

  • 8th and 9th August I’m recording the audiobook for Bird Therapy. 
  • Friday 16th August at 3pm I’m signing copies of Bird Therapy with Chris Packham at the Birdfair – Wildsounds stand 
  • Saturday 17th August – 1130 I’m signing copies of Bird Therapy at the Birdfair – Wildsounds stand 
  • Saturday 17th August 13:45-14:30 I’m speaking in the authors forum at Birdfair and then signing some books after. 
  • Thursday 29th August – evening in conversation with Nick Acheson at NWT Cley. 
  • Tuesday 22nd October – speaking at Norwich Science Festival.

No doubt there’ll be some other stuff too, but if you see it then great and if you don’t, for once I won’t be ramming it into your eye sockets via twitter. Twitter followers – you’ve carried me through all of this and I’ve enjoyed engaging with you all. I’ve tried so hard to respond and interact with you all and I’m so sorry I can’t carry on with it. Much love. Joe.

The art of noticing

One of the core ethos’s of Bird Therapy is to take notice and chapter three of the book is focused around this idea and that if we slow down and take notice of the everyday beauty around us, then many benefits may be unlocked. From feeling more connected to our world, to feeling more connected with ourselves; this blog post follows these two arcs and I’ve found myself hyper-focused on taking notice recently, as you will see.

In June and July, there’s a little bit of a lull in the usual hubbub of our local avifauna. Sandwiched between spring and autumn passage, the summer months are a time of tending and tenderness, as local breeders fledge their young and some move onto second broods. We have 3 S’s nesting in our eaves – Sparrows, Starlings and Swifts. In times of confusion and despondency, I know I can always look up and observe their nesting and feeding behaviours – the Swifts are especially fascinating. There’s so much to notice about them when you can see them up-close; their tiny feet, folded scythe wings and vigilant head movements as they deposit food to the nest.

In the summer months – when it’s hot and humid – I suffer. I find myself afflicted with what I can only describe as summer ‘blues.’ It can be beautifully sunny outside, but inside my mind it remains overcast. As the end of the summer term, time speeds up at lighting pace and I become heavily engrained in my work. Outdoor time is often confined to the back garden with my daughter; delighting in the Blackbird that’s brazen enough to visit the lawn next to us and laughing at the silliness of ‘Mr. Pigeon’.

My friend has been brilliant and has allowed me to share his passion for moth trapping wherever possible. Sometimes before work or at the weekends, I pop to his and we have a coffee as we look at the moths he’s caught overnight. It’s such a different experience to the whole-body immersion of birdwatching. It’s like opening a present and the surprise and variety inside can be magical. I notice how calm I feel in his company and whilst looking at the winged-wonders as they sit stoically inside of the wooden cube. It’s another world in that box – with the free-flying outside world becoming microcosmic and focused. It allows my own hyper-focus and the noticing of minute details and nuances to sharpen even more.

When I do get out, perhaps to the local common for an hour, it’s now more powerful than ever. I find myself noticing every element of the flora and fauna laid out around me. Day-flying Burnet moths zoom over the meadow-tops. Ringlet butterflies are everywhere – lurking and emerging from beneath the grasses. Large Skippers flash a juicy orange as they move from clover to thistle. Lower down, the Common Spotted orchids bloom in pastel pinks and candied colours and over the western side, a cluster of Marsh Fragrant orchids stand tall amongst the swathes of Tufted Vetch. A deeper purple, their heady saccharine scent pervades the senses and sweetens the mind. The aroma of summer.

As I notice more and more detail on these micro-forays into nature, again, I notice more about myself. Social media has become a huge issue for me once more. I’m so close to stopping it and disappearing, which I know will happen eventually, but so soon after the book being published – I don’t want to abandon the people that my words and story seem to be helping. You see, I’ve finally accepted my place in the world as a normal guy who has shared their story and through this, can help other people. I’ll never be ‘known’ and will always be an imposter, but I think I’m finally at peace with where I’m at in this ongoing struggle.

Back to the common.

Bird Therapy T-shirts are available for 3 more days. £15 plus postage. 50% of profit to Norwich Men’s Shed. Help spread the word about the benefits of birdwatching. T-Shirts are here!