Anyone who has been following Bird Therapy will know that for some time now I have been exploring how to start an outreach project using bird-watching therapeutically. I’ve been planning and researching this for the last year and recently I was granted some funding to help get the project started. I even had sponsors in place, a range of donated resources available and a venue to work out of.
Then everything crashed down around me. I decided to change my job as the uncertainty regarding the future of my employer was impacting my wellbeing. I was offered some interviews and have now accepted a new role which I’m really excited about. However, my new role although in education, is not ‘term-time only’ and my future plans for Bird Therapy centred around this availability.
Cue the realisation that I just can’t do what I want to do at this stage of my life. Obviously this brings with it some darkening thoughts of disappointment and letting people down which in-turn impact on my mental health. I have had to prioritise and compartmentalise what I can realistically achieve otherwise things could mentally get ‘out of hand’ in the long-term.
A friend told me I should sit back and look at what I have achieved in such a short space of time and then reassess where I want to get to. So in 2 years I’ve; been asked to write numerous guest blogs, had my first magazine article published with two more on the way, recorded three ‘tweets of the day’ for Radio 4, been interviewed on local radio, spoke to a hundred people at UCCRI about Bird Therapy and met Sir. David Attenborough… That’s a ridiculous achievement for a few years and enforced a total reality check.
The nature of my OCD means that in striving for unachievable perfection I have a propensity to run away with ideas, promising things that I can’t deliver and overselling myself to try and influence people to accept me and what I want to achieve. Bird Therapy started out as a writing project and seemed to be reaching out to a wider and wider audience. I have decided to focus on this aspect of the whole ‘project’ and deliver what I CAN deliver – the book ‘Bird Therapy’. Sometimes I feel that even calling Bird Therapy a project oversells it.
I hope to do a few talks here and there like the one I am already booked to do at Cley Marshes NWT on September 14th (more info here; https://www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk/whats-on/all-events/2017-09-14-bird-therapy ). I also hope to lead a few bird-watching wellbeing walks before the year is out but that will be it.
There are many things that you can do to attract more birds to an outdoor space and in doing these things you can give something back to birding and to birds in general. My first piece of advice is to spend some time getting to know your ‘bird neighbourhood’, as this foundation knowledge can help you to provide the right food for them. For example, if your most abundant bird family are finches then seed mixes are the best food to be providing. I learnt quickly that although most of the birds that visit my feeders are partial to a seed mix, they also love to tuck into a suet block or ball.
After realising the popularity of suet-based products with my garden visitors I decided to stock up on them. I felt this was a nice way for me to give the birds something back and to strengthen my connection with them. I put out three ‘fat’ balls in a plastic-mesh feeder and bought a cage for a suet block with a few different ones to try out in it. The following morning I was woken by an absolute cacophony of screeching and cackling from my back garden. I ran down the stairs to see what it was, clutching at my dressing gown as I whipped it round my shoulders.
There were eleven Starlings writhing across my feeders and feeder poles – fighting and snapping at each other as they decimated the suet block and balls. I watched them in amazement as they devoured every bit of it and fought over every crumb that dropped to the floor. It was great that they were using and accessing the food I had provided for them but at the same time I became very wary of the cacophony they were making at seven o’clock in the morning on a Sunday. Thinking about my neighbours, I opened the patio door and as I did so the Starlings all took flight at the same time in a flurry of wings, speckles and iridescence. This gave me an opportunity to rapidly remove the offending suet items and stow them away indoors. Ok, so suet products would have to be used sparingly in my garden from that day on.
I was speaking to someone once about their own garden bird feeders and they regaled me with some fantastic tales of Marsh Tits and even a Great-spotted Woodpecker visiting them. I asked what I should put out to attract such exciting visitors and they said “peanuts and sunflower hearts”. Shortly after when buying some bird feed I decided to try out some different products and I took their advice, filling up one feeder with peanuts and one with the hearts along with my usual seed mix. The peanuts didn’t prove to be particularly popular and stagnated in their feeder for a few weeks before I decided to remove them.
The sunflower hearts, on the other hand, would be full in the morning when I left for work and then empty upon my return. It took several refills until the weekend when I could stake out and identify the culprit(s). I sat on a dining room chair, cup of tea in hand and watched the feeding station from my front row seat by the patio door. A handful of House Sparrows, two Blue Tits, a lone Great Tit and then a Coal Tit that I have written about before, seemingly appeared from nowhere, deftly extracted a heart, popped up onto the fence and seemed to stash it inside a woody crevice. I watched it repeat this action three times before zipping off over my next door neighbour’s garden. Watching and sharing this moment was beautiful and was one of those little nuances that one doesn’t often get to see. I thought to myself about what a fantastic and intelligent way of preserving food this was and respected the moment even more because of this observation.
In 2016 feeding birds in your garden was ‘formally’ recognised as an activity that benefits your wellbeing. Daniel Cox, a researcher at the University of Exeter published a paper that researched the very topic. In his research he found that his participants overall wellbeing improved when they noticed birds in their garden. He also discussed feelings of ‘connectedness with nature’ through doing this. Another aspect he looked into was whether maintaining and watching bird feeders over time could help with reducing stress levels. His research pointed towards increased self-reported feelings of relaxation so yes it could be interpreted that garden bird feeding does in fact help reduce symptoms of stress. Interestingly, when asked on social media how they felt they gave something back to birding – from sixteen respondents eight of them discussed feeding birds in their gardens and providing a water source for them.
Birding is magical in its ability to transcend so many different feelings and thought processes. How else in one day can you practically meditate whilst watching hundreds of sea-duck bobbing along in front of you then hours later be invigorated by the electrical energy of seeing a stupidly rare goose a few miles up the road. There is a running theme in all my winter birding experiences and that is in the sheer numbers of birds. Call them flocks, groups, masses – one thing is for certain and that is that there are lots and lots of birds around in winter and generally they are together. On reflection, this in itself is somewhat paradoxical; in some of the bleakest and darkest times our lives are enthusiastically brightened by the togetherness of nature.
Another type of flock that is redolent of winter is thrushes. In literature you will often see thrush flocks prefixed with the word winter, coining the term ‘winter thrushes’. Our winter thrush flocks usually consist of two Scandinavian visitors, the Redwing and the Fieldfare and large flocks will invariably contain a mixture of both. Their names give us some identification tips; one tends to ‘fare’ in fields and one has red on its underwing. Fields, paddocks and grasslands are the best places to check for a winter thrush flock and it feels fantastic the first time you find one close to home.
Not long ago I was walking around my patch in the hope of finding a stray warbler wintering on the heath. It was eerily quiet with little in the way of birds around at all. As I followed the slope down towards the copse that enclosed the car-park I thought it might be worth having a scan of the adjacent fields. As someone who finds solitude in patterns, I was provided with a treat as I looked out across the field. Marching across it in unison was a huge flock of Fieldfare and Redwing, scattered across in a seemingly symmetrical pattern.
Their military gait and syncopated movements created an almost hypnotic sight. Each bird seemed to scurry about a foot in length then stand tall with their wings projecting back. This formed an upright, authoritative pose before they rapidly bobbed down and moved again. In the depths of winter when the fields are frosted and the sky is dark and brooding, these roving flocks move to wherever they can access their favoured feeding grounds of cropped grass. These cold times can be a great opportunity for finding and observing large flocks of thrushes closer to home and often offers the best views of these wintry wonders.
In the few weeks prior to this visit I had read daily on social media and beyond; many diatribes extolling the sea-duck ‘spectacular’ that was floating in the sheltered bay off Titchwell. However, I will never forget the sight that awaited us as we reached the end of the path; where a few birders were gathered – telescopes trained on the sea. As far as I could feasibly see the bay was awash with flotillas of sea-duck, bobbing passively on the millpond-like water which the grey sky seemed to merge into.
Birds were on the move all the time with small groups taking off and moving east and west; a quintet of Long-tailed Ducks, in their beautifully demure winter coats, silently passed over a huge raft of Common Scoter. Further out, a few Velvet Scoters were mixed into flocks of their commoner cousins, picked out by the flash of white in their otherwise black wings. Closer in a small group of Goldeneye paddled past, already practising their ‘head-tossing’ display dances.
The scene was captivating to say the least and it felt as though time had softly slowed to a state of inertia. My negative thoughts had wafted away as I slowly inhaled the view, my only focus being the panorama of winter sea-ducks ahead. My friend wanted to record some video footage and so I left him to his filming and set-up my telescope to properly survey the scene.
As I steadied my tripod-head and adjusted the focus wheel my peripheral anxieties caused by work and overthinking were blocked out. It was just me and the birds that filled this experience. On a still sea with no breeze or disturbance it is possible to stand right on the tideline. The gentle lapping of wavelets a few feet away and the sound of sea-ducks babbling contact calls is incredibly soothing, bringing an almost meditative state.
This state was broken by my friend shouting out “Great Northern Diver” a bird I had been hopeful of seeing that day as several had been reported in the days leading up to then. He directed me to where it was taking off from and I got its hulking, torpedo-like frame into my telescope view. It’s bulk akin to a jet taking off from a liquid runway, dominating the other seabirds present. This was a ‘lifer’ for me, a bird I had not seen before (in my life, hence the term lifer) and it was an added bonus on a grey winter’s day.
In mid-February I sat at my dining room table finalising a chapter on birdsong whilst being periodically serenaded by the trilling stutter of a Wren that had taken up residence in my back garden. I hadn’t realised but every time that it sang, I stopped. I stopped and looked for it and most importantly – I smiled. It became a familiar sound and a sound I almost came to expect while I was writing. It made me feel stabilised and focused, this localised melody became my familiarity, my own garden Wren anchoring me in the present.
I flicked back through my notes and came across a comment that somebody had left me on a forum. It simply said “nothing chills me out like the sound of a curlew.” I thought back to the last time I had heard a Curlew myself. It was a few weeks before at Blakeney Freshmarsh in Norfolk. A haunting whistle that ghosted across the bleak and open landscape. A sound that is instantly synonymous with the coast and I think it’s fair to say that the coast is synonymous with relaxation.
If I had to choose a bird call or song to signify the coastal flats of Norfolk then it would be a Curlew. It then dawned on me that certain bird songs and calls can evoke memories and they can also represent specific things such as; changes in seasons, habitats or even specific life events.
I remembered a day when I had a really stressful event at work that manifested as a miniature episodic breakdown. My default response was to get outside in the fresh air and go for a walk so I went to a small area of heathland I know well. As I stood in the middle of the heath I watched a passerine fly up from the floor and high into the sky above me.
It flew up so high that it was soon a distant dot in the blue sky and then I heard it. The first time you hear a Woodlark sing is a magical moment that stays with you. It’s so difficult to describe, melancholic yet vitalising, a descending staccato of piped notes that lift and swirl in a flurry of sweet melody. I was awestruck by its beauty and clarity; this was the loveliest birdsong I had ever heard. I attached a meaning to this song and it became my ‘sunny spring day on the heath’ song; repeated every spring since.
Bird Therapy as an all-round project has been moving from ‘strength-to-strength’ and I feel like it’s a good time to share some of the positive progress that I’ve been making.
I’ve written a few guest blogs which I’ve added to a new ‘guest blogs and articles’ tab on the homepage of this blog. I have also written an article for a well known nature publication which should go to print in May; more on that nearer the time. As far as my book goes I’ve now completed around half of it which is just over 150 pages worth. This has been an absolute labour of love since I started, especially as a full-time teacher, but a final product edges closer and closer.
Social Media and Publicity
The Bird Therapy Twitter page continues to be a positive outlet. I’ve started to post less and have learnt to accept that negative attention-seeking mass tweeting is not conducive to positive mental well-being.
I gave a 5 minute interview on Radio Norfolk in February which was really positive.The radio car picked me up from home and we went to Sparham Pools NWT for a ‘site’ interview, which was great.
I fell asleep and missed a golden opportunity to be on BBC breakfast news and 5live, however Paul Brook, who also writes about mental health and birding, spoke about the topic and was awesome! He also gave Bird Therapy a mention which was great.
I’ve also been invited to have a stand and do some ‘pop-up’ speaking at an event in Cambridge called ‘Earth Optimism’, more info on the event here; http://www.cambridgeconservation.org/earthoptimism/
The Real Bird Therapy
For a long time now, I’ve been planning a way to put Bird Therapy to practice. For the past year I’ve been researching, meeting with various parties, collating data and finally I’m confident in the plan I’ve put together. In the summer I’ll be facilitating my first therapeutic birdwatching sessions and will soon be promoting the work I will be doing more widely. There are also some interesting collaborations in the pipeline!
I had some lovely Bird Therapy t-shirts made through a website called mercht. You don’t make a great deal from it but I managed to sell 17 shirts and put a little bit of funds into the project coffers. I started another print run which ends in 7 days and if anyone is interested here’s the link; https://www.mercht.com/c/birdtherapy3
A friend once told me where I could go and listen to a Nightingale singing in the early evenings. It meant a slight detour on my way home from work but having never heard one of nature’s most renowned songsters before; I felt it was worth it. Another friend had said to me that after a stressful day at work, they sometimes got home and listened to Nightingale song to de-stress. I had just experienced my own particularly challenging day at work and was hopeful that I too might be able to test out its rejuvenating effects for myself.
That particular evening luck was not on my side. I thought I had heard a few scratches of song drift past me, but nothing tangible enough to fully acknowledge the presence and power. The following evening I decided to have another go and this also came after another stressful day at work. It was a stuffy evening, of the kind that gives you a bit of a headache. I had positioned myself on a picnic bench adjacent to a patch of dense scrub the size of a small house I waited for ten minutes, nothing, twenty minutes and still nothing. This was where I had been told to go, the best spot, maybe it wasn’t to be.
Then it came. Too often we try to attach our own adjectives to sounds and experiences. It really is impossible to do this with the Nightingale as it genuinely is a sublime sound – bubbly and uplifting, powerful and true. I did it then, tried to attach superlatives to something I can’t describe. If I could recommend one single birdsong to experience when you are feeling down then Nightingale song would be top of the list. I have been back to the same spot at the same time of the year many times. It is somewhere that I know I can go when I want to be on my own, immersed and wrapped up in one of the most beautiful sounds of nature.
After a horrendous day at work once, I went back to that same bench and sat. There was no sound this time and although despondent that I couldn’t close my eyes and soak the song up, something else equally as magical happened. I found myself at eye level with a bird I didn’t recognise, drab, long-tailed, sleek and plainly beautiful. I realised that it was the evening soloist himself, the Nightingale. I looked at him and he looked at me, croaked and then turned round, disappearing back into the foliage. It was a fleeting moment where we both just knew.
An interesting study into the motivations of birdwatchers categorised ‘wildlife enthusiasts’ into different specialisations, one of which is to be ‘affiliation oriented’. This category identifies those who engage with wildlife recreation in order to accompany or spend time with another person or people, enjoy their company and strengthen personal relationships. When I first started birding I was definitely trying to connect with others in this way, hence researching local groups and joining various social media platforms. This may have also been due to the social void in my life as a result of my lifestyle changes but I certainly was looking for a form of connection and interaction on some level.
Earlier in the chapter I mentioned the birder who had messaged me on Bird Forum enquiring about whether I was ‘another young birder in Norfolk’. The individual in question is now one of my close friends who I am comfortable talking to about my mental health and the majority of my standout birding experiences have been in his company. I find it inspiring that a foray into a new hobby and a shared interest can serve as the foundation of a strong friendship. From the random 100 survey respondents, 10 people mentioned words pertaining to friendship, friends and socialising when sharing what they felt they had gained from birding. One respondent shared a wonderful anecdote which I am including here.
“You can do it on your own or with other people, but when I do it with others the pressure to interact in a social way feels much less to me than it does in some other less-structured social situations. When birding there’s no pressure to maintain conversation because if you do you’re likely to see far fewer birds! Also, I find it easier to converse (when appropriate) because I know the people I am with are interested in and passionate about the same thing as me, birds, so it’s much easier than having to try to think of what to say to a new person – even if I’m birding with people.”
It was also recommended to me that I should set up a Twitter account for birding. I promptly took on this advice and followed a few organisations and local birders whose names I had heard mentioned. In fact, a survey respondent wrote that “a chance remark made me open a Twitter account to follow local birders. This in-turn led to me meeting some of them and widening my circle of friends and acquaintances.” This proved to be a very shrewd move as Twitter is used very constructively by local birders and I was able to find out much more about local bird sightings and talk to people about local birding sites. I mentioned in the previous chapter that I find patterns in birding very useful in helping to manage my mental health. I find researching trends and patterns in local bird migration very interesting and love using this to try and pinpoint where migrant species may turn up. The use of Twitter has given me a great platform for finding out more and I in turn would thoroughly recommend using it as a way of connecting with like-minded birders.
In the early days of my birding experiences I spent a lot of time at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) site ‘Sparham Pools’. The pools in question are the by-product of gravel extraction and these man-made water-bodies are a typical site throughout the Wensum Valley. Several of them are publicly accessible for fishing or nature recreation purposes. I had made a decision to build up my base birding knowledge and Sparham provided a great platform to do this, as the small-scale reserve has a diverse range of habitats. The pools are circled by a thin ring of woodland, creating a natural ‘bowl’ effect. A walk up the path from the car park in spring leads you up through the dark, damp copse and opens out onto pastel-coloured field margins. A walk around the pools at most times of the year can easily yield 50 or so species and this enabled me to hone my identification skills and also begin to understand the notion and pleasure in connecting with a location.
I had an experience at Sparham Pools that would be inconsequential to many but it resonates with me to this day. I visited early one winter morning, the sky was overcast and the early morning dampness hung heavy. Everything was still and barely a sound was noted in the stifling silence. When you first walk up the main path at the pools, it funnels into a tight and almost claustrophobic gantry that runs along the main pools steep edges. The gorse is usually overgrown, creating the sensation of being squeezed along the path. A sharp corner causes the path to curve around to the right and along a majestic treeline of looming oaks which in summer are a haven for Purple Hairstreak butterflies. The inclination to continue walking here is strong but I had been shown a detour at this corner which leads onto a field edge. This is the perfect position to stop and observe for any feeding finches so I opted to follow it.
Not long after walking through the dew-studded gorse bushes I could sense movement along the field edge so I parted the foliage to afford myself a better view. I could see the blushing pink tones of several Chaffinches as they dropped down to feed in the furrows and then flew back into the treeline in unison. As I stood here watching through my binoculars I could sense movement behind me. An elderly gentleman sidled up to me accompanied by his somewhat overweight black Labrador; he asked me what I was watching? I gestured towards the Chaffinches in the furrows and explained. He listened intently then regaled me with tales of his garden feeders, how much he enjoyed the colours of the visiting Siskins and how despondent he was that they hadn’t visited this winter. He asked if I had seen Siskins before but I explained to him that in my birding ‘infancy’ I was yet to encounter them. He said that I would love them when I did finally see them and then bid me farewell.
He left me with the Chaffinches and I stood and contemplated the power of birds and birding. I realised that there needn’t be any pressure associated with the natural enjoyment of birds and that wherever I could, I would embed this principle into my own birding experiences. I reflected on the accessibility of birding and nature in general and the notion of a shared interest was invoked again, as we all share experiences of nature and birds – no matter how small or inconsequential they may be. This shared interest is no more apparent to me than now as I write this chapter. I have been visiting my patch for just over 2 years and as a regular weekly visitor I have got to know some of the residents by face and name and often stop to have a chat with some of them. The majority of the residents know what I’m doing there and the binoculars round my neck act as an unspoken code that I’m a birder.
The binocular code.
On a daily basis, birds that are defined as ‘common’ are often overlooked. However, as you immerse yourself in the world of birds and birding you begin to recognise the beauty in the everyday birds as well as the rarer and scarcer species. I mentioned the Dunnock in my previous post but would argue that all our ‘garden birds’ fall into this category too.
Recently I’ve been spending more time observing the birds that visit my garden feeders. This highly accessible way to engage with birding happens when I’m in my kitchen as all the windows face out onto the back garden. I’m usually occupied with a kitchen-related task but as soon as a bird pops onto the feeder I am invariably distracted from the task at hand as I observe the bird in question.
Through these observations I have been able to deduce who are the regular visitors to the garden. Take ‘Colin’ the Coal Tit for example, who heralds his arrival with a couple of piping ‘tweee’ calls before zipping in with a flash of wing-bars and taking a sunflower seed over to the fence for dismantling. There’s also the pair of Collared Doves, one usually on the fence as the other recces for any scraps on the grass. On a colder day I know that the visitors are likely to be more varied and this can lead to dramatic lengthening of the washing-up process.
These recurring visitors and moments generate a sense of consistency and safety, two words that were recurring themes of my counselling sessions. I know that they are there, even when I’m not there and this in itself is a comforting thought. Nature and birding in particular, offers us a great deal of stability. In the life of someone living with daily mental-health issues this can act as an anchor to the present and a veritable blessing in disguise.