Bird Therapy

Skylark on Gorse

“Even when the world around us is a dark place, the birds still sing, they still migrate – they’re just being there, being, in a way that perhaps we all aspire to be ourselves”

Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness

This week is a strange one. It’s annual leave for me, that means I get to take time off from my paid jobs – which I love – to stay home and do my unpaid ones – about which I’m slightly on the negative side of ambivalent. Luckily, the young Ms RR remains in residence and came up with the idea that I should go out! Another strange thing – going out….. We are of course, in Scotland, in Phase 1 of ‘returning to normal’ which means that unless you’re shielding, you can go out within about 5 miles (or not so far that you need to use a toilet in another persons house). Of course going out, when you’re a carer usually involves a lot more than just…..well, going. However, I currently have live-in help in the form of Ms RR, so after considering all of the reasons why I shouldn’t go and failing to come up with a logical one, I went. Alone. On my own. Yet another strange thing.

So, there I was, out, alone. With my walking boots, my book, a flask of tea, a chicken sandwich and a vague sort of plan to walk along the River Tweed from Dryburgh. At the weekend we had a picnic lunch on the banks of the Tweed and then walked a little way along through the meadow grasses – they were stunning, those pink tinted grasses interspersed with white umbellifers and surrounded by beautiful clumps of Russian Comfrey. I decided then that I wanted to come back and here was the perfect opportunity.

Russian Comfrey

I stopped on the way at Scott’s View, just because it is such an amazing view.

The view from Scott’s View

And that’s when it happened! The first thought – that this was silly, that this was a bad idea, that I couldn’t walk along the river bank alone, sit and have lunch alone. Now, for those that know me, this isn’t such a surprising thing – there are lots of reasons why I shouldn’t do this thing on my own, not least of which is that I have a well known propensity for falling down! I’m always falling over, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve arrived home bruised and scratched from taking a tumble into thorny bushes, or down a flight of muddy steps. What if I fell into the river! Or, heavens above landed in a bush and couldn’t get up! Even worse – what if someone saw me!! As well as this possible calamity, there was the ongoing problem of the foot pain, some days a mile is all I can manage without the burning incapacitation of pain in my feet. What if I got to the river and then couldn’t walk back! Also, though I used to walk a lot on my own, when we lived in Cornwall…..things have changed since we moved North and I seem to have had my ability to venture out on foot alone eroded. All this thinking flew through my brain in nanoseconds as I contemplated the view and listened to Alexander Armstrong on Classic FM. What could I do?

In the end, what I did was, start the engine and drive a little further on. I thought that if I got to Dryburgh and strolled just a few yards to the river, that would be enough. I could eat lunch in the company of the ducks and then stroll back again. So it was with some surprise that I found myself pulling into the car park for the viewpoint from the Wallace Statue – a fair walk from Dryburgh – and steeply downhill at that. But here I was. No-one else in the car park, so safe to leave unnoticed, if I changed my mind.

And so it was with some trepidation and a few palpitations that I stepped out of the car, changed into my walking boots and hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders – you’re not a real walker unless you’re carrying a backpack! Off I set, into the woods…..all the while I was telling myself that I only needed to get to the first bench, sit with my cup of tea and then drive on to the next viewpoint. And then…..not 100 steps into the wood, I spied a bird with a long pointed bill working its way in a hopping action up and down a tree trunk! I stood and watched, and I saw another….Tree creepers I thought. Oh how jealous Mr RR was going to be!! I watched them flitting about, every now and then flying off to a further tree and then back again. It occurred to me that they were feeding young, although I could see no nest in the further tree. I stood and watched and tried to catch a photo for many minutes until a sound somewhere nearby sent them skitting away.

Spot the bird!

It wasn’t until today, that I checked the little bit of bird that I’d managed to capture on camera that I realised – not tree creepers at all, the tail is all wrong and these birds were going up and down the tree – tree creepers only go up! The only British birds that go down the tree headfirst are Nuthatches – elusive, and according to the RSPB website, only rarely seen in southern Scotland, they are found in deciduous woodland and nest in natural holes in trees.

Whatever they were, the standing and the watching and the silence had calmed me and I set off determinedly for the river.

“Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose work most modern, mindful stress-reduction therapies are based around, defines mindfulness as ‘paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally’. When applied to birdwatching practice there are evident correlations. You pay attention in a particular and focused manner, not just on birds, but also on the wider environment. It’s very much a purposeful pastime, as it can be accessed almost everywhere. It grounds us in the present moment – here and now……”

Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness

The path from here down to the pretty village of Dryburgh used to be bordered with dense woodland, but much of this has been thinned now letting in light and air.

Much of the woodland used to screen the William Wallace statue from view before you actually came upon him, but now I can see this massive memorial ahead staring out over the valley towards the Eildon Hills.

Sadly for him, his huge eyes are empty and he stares unseeing at the countryside laid out before him….

From here its downhill along a steep path softly carpeted with beech nut shells, more wood clearing has gone on and the sun is shining through the remaining branches. Through the village and past the currently closed Abbey, and then along the path towards the river. It’s going well!

There’s ploughing just started in a nearby field and in the air, the smell of the newly furrowed earth. As I pass this field, ahead of me I spot a deer, just its head visible above the crops, I stand and watch as it saunters towards a line of trees.

And then I’m on that path alongside the river, walking between the wild flowers and grasses.

I decide that I’m going along as far as the Mertoun Bridge which is about a mile or so and then, if I feel like it, I’ll cross over the bridge and continue to walk along in the same direction looking for somewhere to stop for lunch.

After the meadow, there is a hill up through more woods and then I’m high above the river looking down through the trees on the sand martins and oyster catchers far below. In the field, right next to me as I stand and stare, a dunnock is having a bath in an old water-filled trough. I stay still until he’s finished but then he hops onto a nearby rock and starts drying and preening himself. Joe Harkness talks about dunnocks in his book, he says they are:

“the archetypal ‘little brown job’ which is a term that birdwatchers tend to assign to any small, nondescript and (obviously) brown bird. If you take your time and study one properly, you’ll actually see a deep palette of colours and markings taking shape. Delve further into their detail and you’ll begin to realise just how intricately marked they are.”

Personally, I feel I’ve noticed enough details for now, I’m getting hungry, so selfishly, before he’s halfway dry I decide to move on, finally startling him out of his own meditation and sending him fluttering to the nearest tree.

To get to the Mertoun Bridge I need to descend some roughly cut steep steps and as I approach them I know instinctively that this is danger time! If I’m going to fall….it’s going to be here. The top two steps are completely worn away meaning there’s a huge crumbly leap down to the first safe-looking standing place. Here’s where I turn back…..except without even a hesitation I hang on to a wooden post and lunge down, inelegant but achieved! I manage to come to a stop on the third step with only grumbling knees to show. Ha! Today is not a falling day! Down I go, one slippy slidey step after another until I’m on the road, a big silly smile on my face. Luckily there’s no-one to see and no traffic to bother me as I walk on across the bridge to the footpath on the other side.

The view from Mertoun Bridge…I’m heading for the path in the right hand corner.

More steps down on this side, but safer ones, built out of wood. And then I’m in the woods again walking along beside the river keeping an eye open for a good lunch spot. The path diverts away from the water for a while as the river bank is eroding but its soon back alongside and in the distance I can see a pebbly shore just right for a sit down.

I stay and eat. Across the water a pair of swans and oyster catchers, mallards and gulls. And in the air hundreds and hundreds of sand martins in their continual insect catching flight. I stay for an hour or so just watching.

This swan floated along meditatively for the whole time I was there, oblivious to its surroundings, to the frantic flights of the sand martins (that’s the blur in the foreground) and the high pitched call of the oyster catchers….just all in its own world.

Decision time now….go back the way I’ve come or walk on the other bank of the river through the golf course and into St Boswell’s and back via the chain bridge. The golf course is busy and I’m reluctant to be ducking out of the way of golf balls and not feeling like nodding hello to golfers, so I go back the way I’ve come.

Mertoun Bridge on the way back.

Back up the wooden steps, knees creaking, across the bridge and make for the crumbly steps. I’ve deliberately not thought about getting back up till now, I have to do it so I just keep going. My feet slide under me a couple of times and then its a clamber up to the top over the missing step on hands and knees – even more inelegant! But I make it and set off across the field and back down through the woods, spotting a woodpecker on the way.

It’s a lovely afternoon so instead of heading back through the village, I find a place on the river bank and take out my book. It’s quiet, just the sound of the golfers shouting whatever it is they shout every now and then, and the oyster catchers calling their calls. And then about 20 minutes in…….a huge flock of gulls descend. Time to go!

The timing is right, I’m in need of a cup of tea and because the sun is shining families are coming to the river to paddle and play. I wander back slowly up the hill, past William Wallace and through the woods to the car, feeling quite pleased with myself…..I may do it again one day!


Bird Therapy is a lovely book by a guy who writes about his struggle with his own mental health and how connecting with nature and in particular with birds has helped him in his journey to wellbeing.

In the book Joe talks about a morning when he was ‘awoken at seven by a witch-like din of screeching and cackling from the back garden’. What he finds are ‘eleven shimmering starlings writhing across my feeders, jostling and snapping at each other….’ Well I know just what he means. We have our own ‘murmuration of starlings’ in our back and front gardens. Even as I write this, there must be 50 or so adult and juvenile starlings all trying to crowd onto the single bird feeder in the back garden and a similar cacophony happening in the front! All of the babies are fledged, and all of them are shrieking and screaming and demanding to be fed! Even the cat has retreated indoors and is sulking on the sofa!

One thought on “Bird Therapy

  1. Steve June 11, 2020 / 5:54 pm

    Thanks for sharing your day out. I have a pair of nuthatches in the park near me – what first alerted me to their presence was the noisy calls they made when digging their nest hole in an old tree. The tree creepers are much more elusive.

    Liked by 1 person

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