Tuesday, 31 July 2018

My First Tattoo

Today, at the age of 48, I got my first tattoo. And my second and my third.

This surprising occurrence (to those who know me) took place at James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough, after I went in to have the ‘Planning CT Scan’ two weeks prior to starting my radiotherapy.
First, a bit of background. If you’re reading my blog for the first time you might not know that in January I was diagnosed with B-cell Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, and subsequently had five months of intensive chemotherapy treatment, necessitating me spending rather a lot of time as an in-patient in hospital (a new experience for me). The scan I had after the chemotherapy showed that I had had a ‘very excellent response’ to the treatment and that I was in ‘complete metabolic remission’ - meaning that the cancer had, to all intents and purposes, gone. However, just to be absolutely sure that there are no stray cells hanging around from which it might grow back, I have to have three weeks of radiotherapy treatment, starting on the 14th of August. 

And so, back to today’s scan and my tattoos. The scan is so that they know exactly where to target the x-rays (radiotherapy being basically a concentrated beam of high-energy x-rays (my radiographer friends might be able to correct me here)). Before I had the scan I had to lie on a bed with my hands clasped behind my head.  Underneath my top half was a weird sort of air-bag filled with little beads (like a bean-bag).  Four staff members, two on each side, pushed the ‘bean bag’ up against me while the air was being pumped out of it so that it formed a rigid shell around my torso, but I was still able to get in and out of it. The point of this was to make sure that I am lying in exactly the same position each time that I have the radiotherapy. Once that was done they used a black marker pen to draw some dots on my chest (one on either side and one in the middle) and then I had the scan. I have had several CT scans over the past few months and am getting quite used to it. This was one of the ones where they inject a special dye into my veins which will show up on the scan and it was over in a few minutes. 

After that came the great excitement of getting my first tattoos. They had told me in advance that I would be having these and I was looking forward to being properly ‘cool’ and ‘down with the youth’ for the first time in my life. So what have I got, permanently etched on my chest? An eagle and a couple of hearts perhaps? Or maybe three bees to commemorate the jokey name that I gave my ‘Bee-cell Lymphoma’ in the early days of my diagnosis? Sadly it was nothing so good as any of those - it is just three little dots so that they can make sure I am properly lined up when they zap me with high-energy x-rays in two weeks time. 

P.S. And to answer the question which I’m sure some of you are asking - it only hurt a tiny bit, and it felt just like it does when you have a blood test and they say ‘Sharp scratch’ before pricking you with the needle. 

Friday, 27 July 2018

An actual twitch I went on today - Franklin's Gull in North Yorkshire

So, after talking about twitching and what an actual twitcher is, a few days ago, let me tell you about a twitch I went on this morning.

About 18 miles from our house in Middlesbrough is a man-made reservoir called Scaling Dam, which has one end of it (plus much of the woodland and moorland around it) set apart as a nature reserve, with a lovely birdwatching hide (including big, easily opened windows (essential in a good bird hide) and lots of cushions to protect bony bums like mine from the hard wooden benches). Before this morning I had been there a few times and seen quite a few common birds, including gulls, ducks of various species and several of the commoner wader species (that's 'shorebirds' to any north American birders reading this). I had also seen some of our less common species, such as Osprey and Little Ringed Plover.

About a week ago I saw a report, on one of the websites that birders use to learn about sightings of rare and interesting birds, of a Franklin's Gull which had been there for several hours that day, but had flown off. Franklin's Gulls normally spend their entire lives in the Americas, wintering in South America and the Caribbean and breeding, hundreds of miles from the sea, in marshes and inland lakes in the very middle of North America (both in Canada and the United States). They are small gulls, about the same size as our Black-headed Gulls, and like Black-headed Gulls have a dark hood in breeding plumage. However, the hood is much darker than the brown on a Black-headed Gull (this is a real 'black-headed gull'), the grey on the back noticeably darker and the bill blood red.
Despite having made several trips to North America, and having lived there for over a year, I had never seen a Franklin's Gull and was keen to see this one that was so near to my home. As an added incentive, this was an adult bird in full breeding plumage and, judging from the photos which had already been put on the website, a very beautiful bird. It was named after the ill-fated British explorer Sir John Franklin, as the first specimen to be described by (European) science was found on one of his expeditions (an earlier one than the one on which he and all his crew died).
The next day was a Sunday and I decided that if it showed up again I would try and twitch it (in other words, drive over there and try to see it) after church. Unfortunately there was no further sign of it after it flew of on the Saturday, or the whole of the next day. I assumed, as others presumably did, that it had gone off somewhere else, never to be seen again (as is so often the case with rare birds).

But no! A few days later it was seen again, back at Scaling Dam, and right in front of the bird hide, and continued to be seen daily for the next few days. By this time Sue and I were on a little holiday staying at a house in the North York Moors, owned by some friends of ours. This meant that I was now only 7.7 miles from the gull and I was filled with renewed hope that I might see it. My chance came this morning. Yesterday it was seen very (and I mean very) early in the morning, and again in the evening, so I decided to get up early this morning (although not quite as early as it was seen yesterday) and try for it.

I got to Scaling Dam at 5.40am and went to the hide, which is very close to the car park. There were already a few birders there and we were quickly joined by two more, and a bit later by a third. All those present apart from me and the last man to arrive (who I knew slightly as he is a prominent local birder and Scaling Dam is one of his 'patches') had come from some distance, with the furthest, I think, being a woman who had driven down from just north of Glasgow (she set off at 11pm yesterday).
The bird wasn't there and hadn't been seen by anyone yet today! So that meant we had to wait until it showed up or we got bored and left. In the meantime there was plenty to see. In front of the hide there is a narrow spit of land on which many gulls (mostly Herring and Black-headed Gulls) were loafing, along with a good number of Lapwings. Gulls were coming and going all the time, and this was where the Franklin's Gull had been seen before, so we were constantly checking it to see if our bird had arrived. On the water, and on the shore on the other side of the lake there were various geese, ducks, Coots, Moorhens and a single Great-crested Grebe. Then someone spotted a Barn Owl hunting in a field not far from the shore, and very quickly we all saw that there were two together in the same field. Wow! Shortly after they had flown off, an adult Little-ringed Plover was seen, with a well grown chick keeping warm underneath it, on the shore a few meters in front of the hide - an amazing sight, and something I had never seen before (and also evidence that that species was breeding there - although those 'in-the-know' already knew this). A few minutes later, M, the local birder, heard what he thought was a Greenshank calling. As they often call in flight everyone was then looking for it, and we soon found it flying in from the left, then over the spit and off to the other side of the lake where we saw it land on the shore. This sort of thing carried on for a while, with Snipe, Mistle Thrush and Common Sandpiper also being added to the species list.

By 7 o'clock I was thinking of giving up and going home for breakfast. After all, I'd had a lovely morning birding, and even if I hadn't seen my target bird, I had added several species to my 'year list'.
Just as I was summoning up the energy to stand up, the man next to me said "It's here! On the spit!". It took a few seconds for everyone to realise that he was talking about the Franklin's Gull, and a few more seconds for everyone to 'get onto it' (as birders say). I was the last to pick it up but was quickly able to get really good views of it, even looking through my binoculars (everyone else apart from me had telescopes). It was, as I had anticipated, a lovely bird and very obviously different from the Black-headed Gulls around it (at least to someone who has been looking at Black-headed Gulls for most of his life). After an initial scare, when all the Herring Gulls and Lapwings took off and most of them flew away (the Franklin's took off and did a short flight but landed again - in the process showing us its wing-tips which proved that it wasn't the very similar Laughing Gull), the bird settled down - sometimes standing with its head up giving us nice views of its red bill and white eye-crescents (which looked a bit like eye brows but below the eyes as well as above), and sometimes tucking its head under its wing and appearing to go to sleep.
I watched it for over half an hour but was starting to get hungry and a text message from Sue ("what time do you think you'll be back?") gave me the impetus to leave the bird and the birders who, in some small way, I had bonded with over the last two hours. The fact that the two hours parking that I had paid for was about to expire also helped.

I am not a photographer and the only camera I had with me was on my phone. I had tried a few times to get a picture through my 'bins' (birder slang for binoculars), using my phone camera but didn't think I had taken any as I couldn't (I thought) get it in focus. I had settled instead for a couple of shots of the spit with the gulls on it, but only using my phone camera, zoomed in as far as it would go. Imagine my surprise when, after getting back to the house, I was looking through the shots I had taken without the binoculars (all too distant to see the gull properly), I found one shot that I must have accidentally taken  through my bins, and miraculously it was almost in focus (although surrounded by a big ring made by the eye-piece of the binoculars) and the Franklin's gull was clearly visible, and identifiable, in the middle of it.

I realise that non-birders among you will look at these pictures and say "What? It just looks like a blob/seagull/exactly the same as a Black-headed Gull to me!" but, trust me, it isn't and, my rubbish photo notwithstanding, this was a very exciting bird and a brilliant end to a lovely morning's birding.

The Spit, with the gulls on, as photographed using my phone and no other magnification
The Franklin's Gull, plus a few Black-headed Gulls, taken with my phone, through my binoculars
A cropped and zoomed in version of the above picture.
 Even in this awful photo you can see the white around the eye, against the black of the head.
The red bill, unfortunately, is not visible on this picture.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

A Poem wot I wrote

This is a poem I wrote back in early May this year while I was walking around Flatts Lane Country Park, just outside Middlesbrough. If I remember correctly, it was just after I had got out of hospital after five days of chemotherapy and it was a glorious day. There were birds singing everywhere and I was staying as much as possible in the shady woodland so that I didn't get sunburnt (chemotherapy made me more vulnerable to the sun). Sticking to the woodland, in a park well used by dog walkers did mean that as well as birds and flowers I frequently saw a less welcome sight. Here is my poem:

On a springtime walk in Flatts Lane Country Park.
by Colin Conroy

Little bags of dog poo hanging from the trees
Pungent plums blowing in the breeze
Light glistens playfully on the black polythene

Black charred tree stump, empty cans beneath
Is this some ancient lightning strike and a neolithic midden?

Despite the crap the Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Wren
Chaffinches and Robins, sing their glorious song

Bird cherry blossom scent triumphs oe’r the pong

Copyright Colin Conroy, 9th May 2018

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Twitching, birdwatching and birding - some definitions

The word 'Twitcher' is often used by the print media in this country (particularly The Sun and the Daily Mail), to mean 'anyone who is even vaguely interested in birds, and perhaps has a bird feeder in their back garden'. Usually this is in the context of some celebrity who has confessed a love of the outdoors and a liking for our feathered friends, and perhaps even owns a pair of binoculars. However, amongst birdwatchers this is not actually what it means. It doesn't even mean  'someone who is more keen, has a good pair of binoculars and maybe even a telescope and can tell without looking up that there are Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins flying about with the Swifts overhead '.

So what does it mean?  Well, in the world inhabited by birders, twitching is the act of going to try and see an individual bird (or, more rarely a group of birds) that has been reported by another person (or persons), in a different location. This could entail flying to the Shetland Isles to see a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, or it could be simply driving to the car park of your local branch of Sainsbury's to see the flock of Waxwings which has been reported feeding on the trees there, because you haven't yet seen one this year. So, at its simplest, a 'twitcher' is someone who does this. In practice however, although most birders have, by my definition at least, twitched birds many times in their lives, a lot of birders would baulk at being called 'a twitcher' because for them that word implies that they are one of those crazy people who is always racing around the country after rarities and who has had several speeding tickets, a couple of lost jobs and probably at least one broken marriage because of it.

For one year of my life (1997) it would probably be fair to say that I was a twitcher, as I went to look for birds immediately or shortly after they were found, and travelled quite large distances for the purpose (thankfully, without the lost jobs, broken marriages etc (although now I think back, my first ever speeding ticket (of two), did come while driving home from seeing a Pacific Golden-plover on the Humber Estuary in the year 2000)). However, for the rest of the time before and since then I would probably be better described as a birder who occasionally goes on twitches, when the birds aren't too far away and when it fits in with the rest of my schedule.

So what about 'birder' and 'birdwatcher'? Well, in reality they are pretty much the same thing, but most really keen, experienced and knowledgeable bird enthusiasts (and a lot who are slightly lower down this scale), tend to call themselves 'birders' rather than 'birdwatchers'. I tend to vary what I call myself, depending on who am talking to, and I suspect that this is true for most of the 'birding community'. I don't mind being called a birdwatcher - although there is far more to birding than just watching the birds, and on the occasions when I go out birding and keep a list, it is quite possible that a good proportion of the species on the list were never actually seen by me, but rather they were identified by their calls, or their songs. The one thing I do object to being called is 'bird-spotter'! I suspect that most birders/birdwatchers (and definitely all twitchers) would correct you (possibly quite fiercely) if you used that term when talking about them. This is probably because it brings up images of those people who stand with notebooks to write down the names and numbers of inanimate, man-made objects, such as trains or planes, and birders want to distance themselves from that image. They want instead to identify with rugged outdoor types, but with added field-craft and scientific skills. I think this is a bit ironic, particularly in connection with some of the really hard-core twitchers, who actually have quite a lot in common with train spotters (but don't tell them I said so).


A couple of weeks ago Sue and I spent a couple of days visiting friends in the village of Middleham in Wensleydale, which is part of the Yorkshire Dales (although just outside the Yorkshire Dales National Park).
On one of the days we visited two different ruins dating from the 12th Century:- Jervaulx Abbey, which was completed in the middle of that century, and Middleham Castle, which came a bit later, the building not being started until the year 1190 AD.
The castle was owned and lived in by various different powerful people over the years, with probably the most notable being the future King Richard III (although it is thought that he spent little or no time there after becoming king). One of the pubs in Middleham is named in his honour.
The abbey, for most of its life until it was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century, was owned and lived in by the Cistercian order of monks.
Jervaulx Abbey, East Witton, North Yorkshire
(Photo © Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jervaulx_Abbey)

The geology of the Yorkshire Dales is dominated by limestone, and this results in quite a lot of interesting plants and we saw a few while we were there - one of these was one I had never seen before - Giant Bellflower (Campanula latifolia), and I got quite excited about it. While writing this blog-post I discovered that there is a pub in Selby, just south of York, called The Giant Bellflower. I would like to visit it one day (just because of the name) although I'm slightly nervous as it is a Wetherspoons pub and has had some pretty impressively bad reviews on TripAdvisor over the last few years.
Giant Bellflower (Campanula latifolia)
Although usually the flowers are purple,
most of the ones we saw were whitish.
A botanist (me) identifying Giant Bellflower
(see the leaves in the bottom left of the picture)
Betony (Betonica officinalis) - not a very rare plant, and one that I have seen in many parts of England,
but never as abundantly as it was growing in the valley of the River Cover, near Middleham.
There were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of plants.Although the flowers might look,
to the lay-person, a bit 'orchid-like', it is actually in the Mint family
Not every plant in the Dales is a rare or unusual one! I spent some time trying to turn this into something
rare, but had to admit in the end that it was Common Bird's-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus),
an extremely common plant, which you probably have growing within 500 metres of you, wherever
you are now (if you're in Great Britain or Ireland, that is)