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.
What was the first bird that you really took notice of? On pondering this question, one may recall an early experience of birds or perhaps a more recent occurrence. The first bird that I really took notice of was one that some may consider a ‘lowly’ example, the Dunnock.
This particular Dunnock was by no means the first bird I ever saw or could identify myself. In fact that was a Great-crested Grebe that my Grandfather pointed out to me on a family day out to Salhouse Broad. We occasionally joined his friends on their boat and from said vessel he also introduced me to Coots, Moorhens and Mute Swans.
No, this Dunnock joined me as I sat in a suburban garden on the outskirts of Norwich. I was participating in some ‘citizen science’ and taking part in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’. This is where you observe and record the bird species you see in your garden over a designated hour and then submit the data so that trends can be monitored. I thoroughly recommend that anyone with even a mild interest in wildlife joins in with this easily accessible activity as giving something back to nature is a truly rewarding act.
So the Dunnock joined me in the garden and proceeded to accompany me for the entire hour. It was difficult not to take notice of him as the majority of the time he was a metre or so in front of me, confidently patrolling the lawn then stopping, cocking its head and picking off insects from the grass. Occasionally he would just stop and look at me and I would duly look back at him. I had started to take notice.
I had always considered Dunnocks to be the archetypal ‘Little Brown Job’, a term that birders tend to assign to any small, nondescript and obviously brown, bird. When you actually stop and properly take notice of a Dunnock a deep palette of colours and markings begins to take shape. As you delve further into the detail you realise just how intricate they actually are.
Bird identification guides often remark on the Dunnocks drab brown colouring and overall dark appearance. This somewhat lazy conclusion neglects to mention the linear streaking that runs down their mantle, bold and uniform; dropping down from their smoky grey, almost blue chest and throat. These birds are subtly beautiful, and in my opinion not at all drab. I only discovered this because I took notice in the first place.
In the experiences I write about I am trying to convey how beneficial and invigorating my own experiences of birding a patch have been. As the seasons change, the birds change, as the birds change, you change and it all amalgamates together into a cycle of experience. Through this you build a connection with where you are regularly visiting and you develop what could be described as a ‘sense of place’.
A sense of place, in anthropological terms, is defined as the ‘Symbolic relationship formed by people, giving culturally shared emotional/affective meanings to a particular space or piece of land’. This resonates strongly with how I began to feel about my patch. In April 2016, it had started to become a symbolic place to me, in the sense that the more hours I put in, the more species of birds I seemed to be finding there and the more overall enjoyment I was experiencing during and after my visits. I also attached a different emotional perspective to it as a place for escaping and re-energising, although this probably has a lot to do with the fact that I tend to visit after work and I work in a highly stressful environment. Therefore, it seems obvious that I would naturally gravitate towards an environment that I perceive as relaxing and this happens to be my patch.
A study into sense of place by J. Cross identified 6 categories of relationship that describe the ways people relate and connect to a place; and from these 6, t2 of them stand out to me as particularly interesting. The first of these is a commodified relationship and this links strongly to selecting a location. This type of relationship with a place is centred on choosing and selecting a place based on a list of desirable traits. As a birder choosing a potential birding site, these traits could be the criteria for a restorative environment I outlined earlier, or they could be the habitats in a particular area or even the historical bird records. The second relationship is a spiritual one, one that is centred on emotions and feelings, chiefly a sense of belonging. As the connection with a place grows and flourishes, alongside this comes a great sense of belonging there, of being part of it. This is true of regularly visiting a place, monitoring it and unlocking its secrets and this is fantastic in the promotion of positive feelings within oneself and undertaking positive experiences.
I feel that presently it is a good time to give an update on what I’m doing with my Bird Therapy project.
I am still writing when I can but this can often prove difficult when balancing work, my progression as a teacher and the recent purchase of a first house. Over the past year I have essentially finished the bulk of my book content but due to my anxiety and OCD I’ve struggled to accept what I’ve written and invariably I’ve started over again. To date I have 3 chapters that I’m moderately content with and 1 of these has been shared and critiqued by several kind strangers who have helped to further shape my writing for the better.
At times I’ve felt like stopping writing and have become hugely obsessive about the Bird Therapy Twitter page not getting ‘enough’ traffic. These self-imposed expectations have been unrealistic and counter-intuitive, not to mention hugely anxiety inducing. I’m letting go of this a bit more at the minute as I recognise and understand the dangers of these kinds of obsessive behaviours.
I jumped the gun with my aspirations to start facilitating therapeutic birding sessions. I am passionate about this concept and will endeavour to start it one day but I have to be sensible and address the significant, current aspects of my life instead of always being disappointed by not achieving things instantly. I extend massive thanks to those that told me to continue and have a bit of focus and aspect on everything.
The most positive recent news is the endorsement of Bird Therapy by UK optics company Opticron. They have provided me with a beautiful scope and eyepiece which has already hugely transformed my birding. The enhanced clarity of image and zoom capability means I can immerse myself even more in the birds on the lake on my patch, this clarity reduces the frustration of ‘poor views’ and inaccurate counts of distant Gadwall. Already I sense this adding further ease to my mood when birding and adds to the mindful experiences when I am out amongst nature. Anyone interested in Opticron products click on the tab on the homepage.
I had been rigid about the boundaries of my patch but something compelled me to explore a little further that day, a little deeper into the area around the specific boundaries. In order to do this, I simply got into my car after a lap round the patch and had a good old-fashioned mission around some of the local roads. I drove down one I had been down only once before, the gnarled trees contorted over the road above me, the begging branches twisting and creating a darkened tunnel around the path. The trees opened out and a swathe of dead sunflower heads stretched down the field to my right. I thought to myself ‘that would be good for finches’.
No sooner had this thought passed than I saw a gargantuan finch flock wheeling around another strip towards the far side of the field. I safely pulled over and then spent a good 45 minutes at the side of the field, my binoculars trained on the flock as it wheeled around. I couldn’t properly count them but my loose estimations put it in the 100’s. Bramblings, Greenfinches, Goldfinches, Linnets and Yellowhammers; all united to feed together providing safety in numbers. So many vivid colours offset against the dark grey sky yet all together seeming to form one solid mass, moving as one from sunflower head to sunflower head.
There is something magical about a flock of birds. Their movement encapsulates freedom and fluidity yet they always remain ordered and symmetrical as they flurry and whirl. I can get so lost in watching a flock of birds going about their business and one such flock provided one of my most memorable birding moments. On the 8th of November 2014, I was at Salthouse, on the North Norfolk Coast. It was my second birding trip with my soon-to-be birding friend Kieran and our aim was for him to show me Snow Buntings for the first time.
It didn’t take him long to locate the flock that had been frequenting the shingle beach that winter. We shuffled along the shingle, cautiously, trying to make as little noise as possible. With patience and precision we managed to get within a few metres of the flock as they busied around feeding. Approximately 35 of these beautiful passerines, with their sandy, rustic wash over arctic white. Every now and then they would take to the air ‘en-masse’, uniformly up and then down to their next feeding location like sand caught by a sudden gust of wind. Birding provides so many uplifting moments often when least expected.
In 2007, Dr. William Bird produced a report for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds named ‘Natural Thinking’, which explored the links between ‘the natural environment, biodiversity and mental health’. In this fantastic and fascinating report, one of the themes that Dr. Bird explores is that of ‘restorative environments’ – places that are the most likely to help restore people who are fatigued from stress. He also explores the features of these environments that give them restorative qualities and it was when I looked at these features that I recognised a correlation between them and my patch. His list of restorative features reads as; “verdant plants, calm or slow moving water, spatial openness, park-like or savannah-like properties, unthreatening wildlife and sense of security.”
How many of the places that I visit for birding fulfil this list of features? How many of the places that YOU visit for birding fulfil this list of features? I feel fairly certain that all of them do in some way. Take Strumpshaw Fen RSPB reserve that I mentioned earlier. Their website describes it as having the “full range of Broadland habitats and wildlife”, including; “reedbeds, woodlands and orchid-rich meadows”. The Fen also runs alongside one of Norfolk’s arterial rivers, the Yare; and the reedbeds are dissected by various areas of water.
So Strumpshaw fen, with its expansive, rolling views over vast reedbeds definitely gets a tick for spatial openness. This also lends itself to savannah-like properties, in the sense that the views are definitely expansive and peppered with shrubs and trees, standing like attentive sentinels up to their knees in whispering reeds. The blend of meadows, reedbeds and wet and dry woodland provides plenty of verdant plants and the adjoining river and scattered wetlands offer the calm or slow moving water. The extensive range of flora and fauna is definitely unthreatening and where else can you find a sense of belonging and security than a place where everybody present shares a similar ethos and reasoning for being there.
In a single paragraph, I have analysed just one local wildlife site that I’m familiar with and it’s evident that Dr. Bird’s observations on restorative environments can be applied to this particular place. After a few reconnaissance missions I started to realise that the patch I had chosen met most of these criteria for a restorative environment in some way. It had areas of spatial openness with savannah-like properties, the lake provided calm or slow moving water and this was surrounded with verdant plants. The wildlife was definitely unthreatening and finally, with the selected areas being part of a chalet park and lands managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust there was a definite sense of security.
As I reflected on these aspects, it became apparent to me that the birding locations recognised as the best offer more than just great opportunities for birders to find and observe a range of species. Through their own natural and often managed biodiversity they also create environments for stress recovery and restoration. On my Twitter page I asked what people thought a birding site would have to offer in order to be a restorative environment and most responses followed a similar vein; peace, calmness and space to think, feel and absorb your surroundings
On the 5th of April, something happened that again shifted my perspective and attitude towards my patch. There had been a couple of Ring Ouzels reported around the Norfolk Coast that week and deep inside I had a longing to find one on the patch. This was more than just a longing though, it was an insatiable drive and determination for it to happen albeit with a few hints of obsessing over it. Whilst I don’t believe that you can actually will things to happen, I guess some would say that ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’.
I had a spare twenty minutes on route to my mindfulness session, so I thought I would pop into Cawston Heath and have a quick scan of the paddocks for any ouzels. In my mind it was as good a place as any and in a prime location, although it’s fifteen miles inland from the coast at Cromer, it is part of a corridor of woodland and heath that stretches North-East from Norwich like a sandy green artery. This makes it an unlikely staging post for anything migrating over the county as the next obviously vegetated area is the Holt-Cromer Ridge to the North of the county.
I walked my familiar circuit, this in itself instilling a feeling of serenity and belonging in the short window of time I had available but not yielding much in the way of birds. I honed in on a Blackbird at the corner of the heath by the horse paddocks. “It’s carrying nesting material” I thought to myself as I watched it moving along the fence-line. I was keen to see if I could observe a probable nest site as any breeding bird records, no matter how common the species is, are nice to share.
It turned to face me, head-on, standing to attention as the commanding sentinel of the hillsides should. The nesting material was in fact its white collar and it was unmistakeably a Ring Ouzel. I brimmed with excitement and this must have manifested in the speed of my movement towards it as I flushed it into flight and up to the top of one of the trees lining the access road uttering its harsh, guttural ‘chack’ call from the highest branches, even more commanding than it had stood before. Time had flown by and I too had to fly to my mindfulness session as the unexpected interruption of this fabulous bird had made me a bit late.