Birdwatching banishes the Blue Monday blues

The third Monday of January is known to some in the UK as Blue Monday, supposedly the most depressing day of the year. The theory was first espoused in 2005 by a “life coach,” which immediately raises a vitally important question: what the hell is a life coach? Stage coaches – definitely! Football coaches – maybe. But a life coach – really? Surely life’s complicated enough already without total strangers waltzing up to tell us how to do it better. Dear god, why do we insist on doing stuff like this to ourselves?

The larger of the Hardwick ponds, 15 January 2022

But I digress! According to believers in Blue Monday, on this particular day we’re likely to be regretting the impact of Christmas excesses on waistline and wallet, and will already have miserably failed to stick to our New Year Resolutions. Daylight hours will be short, the weather inclement and television schedules probably packed with unwatchable rubbish and unwanted repeats. And Mondays are, of course, loathed by anyone with a traditional Monday-to-Friday work pattern.

“Most of the usual suspects were there, including…Mute Swans”

It’s nonsense, of course, total bunkum. Even the guy who first came up with the notion is reported to have subsequently disavowed it, describing Blue Monday as a self-fulfilling prophecy that “is not particularly helpful”. But, just to be on the safe side, this year Mrs P and I decided to banish the Blue Monday blues from our lives by doing a spot of birdwatching.

The weather, as it turned out, was perfect, one of those crisp, cold and gloriously sunny midwinter days that make you feel glad to be alive. So we quickly got togged up in our thermals, grabbed cameras and binoculars, and headed off up the M1 to Hardwick ponds.

A single Grey Heron, perched high in a tree, surveyed events below with magisterial disdain

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire is one of our home county’s most significant stately homes, and its impressive parkland includes several large bodies of water that are a haven for a variety of wildfowl. We try to visit Hardwick ponds several times each year, and are never disappointed.

On this occasion both of the larger ponds were partially frozen. Black-headed gulls, wearing winter plumage and puzzled expressions, stood awkwardly on the ice contemplating this unexpected turn of events. The ducks and geese, however, were having none of it and instead sought out those areas of the ponds that remained ice-free.

Female goosanders are largely grey, with a distinctive reddish-brown head, white chin, and white secondary feathers on the wings

Most of the usual suspects were there, including Canada Geese, Mute Swans and a Great Crested Grebe. A single Grey Heron, perched high in a tree, surveyed events below with magisterial disdain. Nothing remarkable in any of this, of course, but what really caught our eye was a gang of good-looking Goosanders.

Goosanders are streamlined diving ducks, fish-eaters that use their long, serrated bills to catch and hold on to their slippery prey. They are members of the sawbill family, which also includes the similar-looking Red-Breasted Merganser. To add to the confusion Goosanders can also be seen in the USA, but there they are known as Common Mergansers!

Male goosanders have a white body and a black head which sports an iridescent green gloss. They have a black back, and a grey rump and tail.

Whereas the Red-Breasted Merganser is most commonly seen around the UK’s coastline in winter, Goosanders favour freshwater. Their summer habitat is the fast-flowing upland rivers of Northern England, Scotland and Wales, where they nest in holes in riverbank trees. In winter they move to gravel pits and reservoirs, as well as lakes or large ponds such as those at Hardwick.

In common with most species of duck, the Goosander displays a high degree of sexual dimorphism. Adult males have a white body and a black head which sports an iridescent green gloss. The have a black back, and a grey rump and tail. Females are largely grey, with a distinctive reddish-brown head, white chin, and white secondary feathers on the wing.

A graphic lesson in sexual dimorphism: male on the left, female on the right, but both the same species!

The Goosander is a relatively new arrival in the UK, having first bred in Scotland in 1871. Its numbers slowly built up there for a century, until in 1970 the species crossed the border to begin colonising England and Wales. There are now thought to be close to 4,000 breeding pairs across the UK as a whole, with the wintering population numbering around 12,000 birds.

Female goosander having a flap, observed by a preening male

At least a dozen members of that wintering population were present at Hardwick ponds on 15 January, many more than we’ve ever encountered before at a single viewing. It was a delight to see them, and all the other birds that were strutting their stuff that morning. You can catch a glimpse of the Goosanders – and some of Hardwick’s other avian residents too – by clicking on the link below to my short YouTube video.

Blue Monday may have come calling for us last week, but I’m pleased to report that we were very much not at home!

“Black-headed gulls, wearing winter plumage and puzzled expressions, stood awkwardly on the ice”. See also one female and two male Goosanders in the open water to the rear of the gulls.

27 comments

  1. Laurie Graves · January 26

    What a beautiful sight of flapping, preening, swimming life. No wonder you like to go there! Really enjoyed the video.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · January 26

      The birds put on a particularly good show that morning. It was as if they were celebrating the appearance of some bright sunshine after a long period of depressingly dull weather. Pleased you like the video, thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Paddy Tobin · January 26

    I was very keen on bird watching some years ago (the 70s!) but work and family took preference in following years though I still take a bystander interest. Of late, I have begun to use Twitter and follow a number of people locally who are keen on birdwatching and I am amazed at the number of species seen this year which were never seen previously – Avocet, Egret, Greater Egret, Buzzards, Glossy Ibis among them. Climate change?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · January 26

      We started birdwatching in the late 80s, and it’s amazing to reflect on the changes since then. Little Egrets weren’t on the agenda then, but these days are common in wetland habitats. And Red Kites – as rare as hens teeth back in the day – are all over the place now…even flying over our house this time last year! On the other hand, some once common birds are now so much rarer…even the dear old House Sparrow is in trouble. It’s definitely a case of winners and losers, with climate change being one – but not the only – reason.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Paddy Tobin · January 26

        House Sparrows were very and still are very scarce here but they had a huge resurgence in our garden for the years we kept hens – they came for the food!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · January 27

        One of the bird world’s most opportunistic species…but these days we, the human species, just don’t seem to give them enough opportunities. One day, maybe…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Yeah, Another Blogger · January 26

    Even though I can barely identify any species of birds, I like to look at them in settings such as the one you were at. Ponds, for me anyway, are de-stressers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · January 26

      Agree totally. For us, watching birds is a key strategy for dealing with the stresses and traumas of 21st century living. I don’t think being able to identify individual species really matters – what counts is getting out and about in nature, and away from the craziness of the man-made world.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, Platypus Man, I’m still laughing at your comments about Life Coaches. I will have to return at a later to read on about the birds. Too busy chuckling……..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · January 27

      Hi. Good to know that I made you chuckle. Sometimes the world seems so crazy that it feels like the only way to stay sane is to laugh at the preposterousness of it all.

      Liked by 1 person

      • As part of my transition to retirement I found a part time position at a private college teaching natural therapies. Several staff members were “Life Coaches”. One, a relationship expert, had been divorced three times. Three times. That would be a big NO THANKYOU from me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · January 27

        Wonderful story! “Do what I say, not what I do” is a saying we have here (don’t know if you have it there too) which must reflect how this “Life Coach” had to approach his/her role.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. shazza · January 26

    I love Goosanders. We fortunately have a few on the river Ribble nearby. I like the females fetching nut brown quiffs. My sister has a tea tray with Goosanders on it. She must like them too! Will you be doing the RSPB Garden Birdwatch this weekend?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · January 27

      I like those quiffs too…puts me in mind of Elvis in his heyday (not that I was there at the time, of course: I’m not [quite] THAT old!)

      Yes, we will be doing the Birdwatch. Woodpigeons are certainties and a blackbird is probable. If we get a sparrow I’ll break out the champagne…these are dark, dark days for most birds on our suburban estate. 😢

      Like

      • shazza · January 27

        I hope you do get s sparrow then. You can happily have some of mine, they are usually all I get. I will also take part at my sister’s with my niece and nephew. They live in a more rural area, there may be cake on that Goosander Tea Tray . 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · January 27

        Birds AND cake…sounds like the perfect day!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. postcardscribblesblog · January 27

    Not a bird watcher Platypus Man but having been a business coach for 16 years thought I should try and change your perception of another type of coach – ‘life coaches’! There are some awful ones and some great ones but like any proper one-to-one conversations where the aim is to explore thoughts and ideas, the benefit of talking to a stranger who has no related baggage should not be dismissed. Seeing individuals develop a greater understanding of themselves is a very rewarding experience. Life coaching is a faddish label but the basic 1:1 exercise is timeless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · January 28

      My rant at the start of this post was, of course, partly a literary device to get readers hooked, but the term Life Coach does trouble me (call me old fashioned…most people do!). I agree completely with you on the potential value of 1:1 encounters, and over my 65 years have seen it from both sides. It’s the concept that someone can “coach” me on ALL aspects of my life rather than help me with something more specific (career development or physical fitness or personal relationships or financial management, maybe) that I find really troubling. Nobody has the knowledge or skills to “coach” me on everything, but I’m sure lots of people could help me get better at something.

      Reaching a better understanding of ourselves and our potential sounds like a good thing in principle, and 1:1 sessions with knowledgeable but disinterested third parties may well help with this. However I’d like to see more humility amongst the experts. So, in my book, it’s a big “no” to Life Coaches, but a cautious welcome to skilled “career mentors,” “relationship advisers” etc.

      And it’s a big, big NO to the notion of Blue Monday which, as far as I can see, helps nobody at all!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. tanjabrittonwriter · January 31

    I think time spent with birds is good against the blues anytime of the year, not only in January. I know you agree.

    What a lovely time you and Mrs. P enjoyed in this beautiful setting. Isn’t it funny that two English-speaking countries have two different names for the same species (unless one wants to make the point that American English isn’t really English)? We also get to enjoy goosanders/mergansers during the winter here in Colorado.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · January 31

      We are very fortunate to live quite close to several scenic, wildlife-rich places where we can chill out with nature, although they are on a much smaller scale than you will be familiar with in your part of the US.

      I shall avoid controversy by declining to share my views on “American English,” and on American spellings of that “English” 🙂🙂🙂. But I guess the most important thing is that, despite these occasional confusions, Brits and Americans can still communicate effectively with one another most of the time. And anyway, there is no reason for me to be smug, considering the way that most British birds have various local (vernacular dialect) names. For example, in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland (my favourite place in the whole world, incidentally) the goosander is apparently known as a “rantock.” Confused? Me too! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · February 1

        There is nothing wrong with living on a small scale. Even when the landscape is big-scale, one can only experience small parcels at a time.

        I find it quite interesting to pay attention to the differences between American and British English, as well as to different regional variations, such as the word “rantock.”
        Whenever I get bent out of shape about a suggested or de-facto novel use of a word or spelling, I have to remind myself that language has forever been in flux, and new does not necessarily mean worse.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · February 2

        Agreed, small is also beautiful. But small can make it more difficult to truly escape from irritations of the 21st century. It’s not evident from the photos in this post (or my YouTube video) that the frantically busy M1 motorway (freeway!) passes just behind the trees. Although it can’t be seen from Hardwick ponds, the background noise is inescapable and rather annoying.

        And on language, I also agree. One of the joys of language is that it is constantly evolving, but that can make it very difficult to keep up!

        Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · February 4

        Our little interchange about the differences between AE and BE came back to me today when I was looking up new words I came across while reading “The Cabaret of Plants” by Richard Mabey. I had never heard of transhumance, bolthole, and tannoy. Are these terms you are familiar with?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · February 4

        Yes, all three are known to me. As you will now know, transhumance is a technical term relating to the relationship between humans and their livestock. I first heard it during my formal education several decades ago, possibly in world geography lessons at secondary school, or maybe as part of my archaeology and anthropology course at university. I also remember coming across and recognising the word when visiting the rim of the Grand Canyon – this link that Professor Google has just directed me to covers similar ground: http://www.digitalteamworks.com/canyons/fisher/transhumance.htm It’s a highly specific word with very limited relevance to life in 21st century UK, and I’d be surprised if more than 1% to 2% of my fellow citizens could say what it means. Bolthole and tannoy, however, are in common usage and I suspect would be readily understood by a majority of Brits.

        Incidentally, Richard Mabey is also known to me. I recall his first book “Food for Free” creating a lot of interest in the early 1970s, and I’ve since come across his name quite often in relation to native plant life. I think I’ve seen him on nature programmes on television, but confess I’ve never ready anything by him since dipping into Food for Free nearly half a century ago!!! (Ooh, I do feel so old, I think I need to go and have a lie down 🙂🙂🙂)

        Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · February 5

        Thank you for responding to my question in such detailed fashion, Mr.P.

        Once I read the explanation of the word transhumance, I knew exactly what it referred, as I witnessed that movement of livestock as a child in Northern Italy, when the herd was taken to the lush, green mountain meadows in the summer. Furthermore, a blogger who farms in the Azores also moves his sheep around the island depending on the seasons, but I didn’t know a name existed for that activity.

        I have learned a few more British terms from Richard Mabey (we actually own three of his books, “Nature Cure,” “Weeds,” and the aforementioned volume), but the latter is the first one I have read. He mentions his “Food for Free,” and I imagine those were very different times.

        So sorry to have been the cause of your fatigue, but I hope your lie down was restorative. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · February 6

        Slept like a baby, and so now I’m full of vim and vigour (I wonder if that phrase has made it to the US? Maybe not, I guess) 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · February 6

        Glad to hear about your vim and vigor, which has made it here, but with the American spelling, of course. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s