RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2010

That time of year again, the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, one of the world’s biggest exercises in citizen science. The usual drill: one hour of birding in the garden, with the counts being the maximum seen at one time.

  • blue tit × 3
  • great tit × 2
  • coal tit
  • long-tailed tit
  • chaffinch × 3
  • goldfinch
  • woodpigeon × 2
  • pigeon × 4
  • magpie × 3
  • blackbird × 3
  • song thrush
  • robin
  • dunnock × 2
  • ring-necked parakeet × 3
  • sparrowhawk

There’s a few fairly regular visitors missing; greenfinch, jay, great-spotted woodpecker, goldcrest, nuthatch. But on balance think it’s a pretty decent list.

A passing thought on the iPad: handheld ≠ mobile

I think one reason people have a hard time visualising how the iPad will fit into their lives is that they assume it will mainly be a mobile device; i.e. something they will actually carry around with them all the time.

I don’t think that needs to be true for it to be successful. I think it’s significant that Apple had a sofa on stage for the product launch.

Despite the fact that there is more than one real computer in the house, I often use the iPhone at home to look things up on the internet or check my email. Because if you just want to do something quickly, the device which is in the same room beats the one which is somewhere else; but also because sometimes it’s nice to do all that stuff from the comfort of a sofa.

Nintendo recently brought out a larger version of the DS, which might not make sense if you believe that a handheld device is all about portability. But it makes sense to me, because I don’t actually use my DS on the train or waiting for a bus; I sometimes take it on holiday but otherwise it doesn’t leave the house. It’s still nice to be able to just pick it up and play it anywhere. And somehow it feels like less of an effort — you can pick it up, play for a few minutes, put it down — it’s a more casual, comfortable experience than using a ‘real’ games console.

I think the iPad could be a successful product just to have around the house, something to pick up and use for a minute or two as an internet device or for casual gaming; something you can curl up on a sofa with. Something that never leaves the house, except perhaps to take on holiday.

Some people will carry them around, of course, and no doubt people will find lots of ingenious uses for the thing — it is a blank slate — but that may not be the norm.

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Bird of the Year 2009

Starting with the trainspotter-y listing details: I added three birds to my patch list and three to my British list, one of which was a lifer. Really, that’s not a very good score; I got two lifers and a patch tick in the first week of 2010. But the year had a few highlights nonetheless.

The patch ticks were all in Dulwich Park. One was a fieldfare which turned up when it was snowy in February, which was pleasing but if anything slightly overdue.

There was also a peregrine falcon I spotted flying high overhead in March, which wasn’t actually the first time I saw a peregrine in Dulwich Park; it’s just that the first time, many years ago, what I’d actually seen was a pigeon from a funny angle. It was only a fraction of a second before my conscious brain kicked in, but for that moment I ‘knew’ it was a peregrine (Ivory-billed Woodpecker, anyone?). Back then it would have been a truly staggering sighting; but in the last 15 years London peregrines have gone from 0 to 18 breeding pairs. Which is great news, but downgrades my peregrine sighting from ‘staggering’ to ‘exciting’.

And finally, I saw a firecrest, which was a very gratifying reward for all the times (hundreds? thousands?) I have seen goldcrests and dutifully checked for an eyestripe, just in case.

Two of the three British ticks were from the same jaunt to the Lee Valley Park in June where I had a good day, seeing I think eight species of warbler and hearing several nightingales. But I went there on an actual twitch to see the Savi’s warbler that had been hanging around for a bit. I definitely heard it (they have an extraordinary song) and I saw something which looked roughly like a Savi’s warbler and was in the right place… but was so distant it could have been a reed warbler that just happened to be in the same bit of reedbed. But it’s not a lifer or anything and I definitely heard it, so as far as I’m concerned that’s a tick.

And on the same day I saw a brown flash moving from one bush to another which, equally recklessly, I’m going to say was a Cetti’s warbler. Again, it was definitely there — it was singing beautifully — and it’s not  a lifer, so I’m happy to count it on my British list.

And the third British tick is, slightly embarrassingly, really, little-ringed plover. Which is an attractive wee beastie — the eye-ring makes all the difference — but which lacks the real star quality I’m looking for in my Bird of the Year.

I didn’t see anything new in Provence, but I did get a nice selection of the classic Mediterranean species: nightingales singing all over the place, black kite, the inescapable Sardinian warblers; a short-toed treecreeper nesting under the tiles of the villa where we stayed; Dartford warbler, subalpine warbler, woodchat shrike, woodlark, turtle dove. And one of the cutest birds EVAR, one which I haven’t seen for a few years, crested tit.

But my bird of the year was a species I’ve only seen once before, I think, in Norfolk many years ago, and that one was a female or a juvenile, so it looked, not wishing to be rude, a bit drab and nothingy. Whereas the male I saw in France looked like this:

That is one good-looking bird. I just love that little highwayman’s mask it has, and it’s such an elegant colour combination: pink, russet, slate blue and black. Just as birdsong is often beautiful but doesn’t really sound like music, birds are often beautiful, but despite what the creationists will tell you, they don’t necessarily look designed. Or at least not by a designer with real flair. They look like what they are, things which have developed organically.

But there are some species where that organic process has produced something which happens to coincide with human ideas of stylishness, and the red-backed shrike is one of those. It looks fabulous. And that is as good a reason as any to make it my Bird of the Year for 2009.

» Firecrest is © Sergey Yeliseev and used under the by-nc-nd licence. Lanius collurio – Pie-grièche écorcheur – red-backed shrike is © arpian and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

A bit of Essexy birding

I had a good day at Rainham Marshes in Essex today. I got a new bird, Bean Goose; also saw peregrine, loads of ducks (wigeon, pintail, gadwall, shoveler, shelduck etc), stonechat, meadow pipit, huge numbers of lapwing, ruff, possible water rail, and the most obliging bird of the day, this extremely tame Slavonian Grebe:

Ah, the wonders of iPhone digiscoping.

And the most entertaining sighting of the day was an extremely manic and not-at-all-shy stoat which was scampering around the place like a mad thing.

Bird of the Year 2009: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

Provence in May was just a great place for flowers. I claimed on Twitter to have seen nine or ten species of orchid, although it’s entirely possibly I over-claimed, since there tend to be lots of very similar species, some of them are quite variable, and I didn’t have a book with me. Still, I definitely saw an absolute minimum of six species because I saw six kinds of orchid: i.e. a bee-type orchid, a Serapias orchid, Lizard Orchid, some kind of hellebore and so on. This is a Serapias species:

And there were lots of other flowers: various kinds of rockrose, asphodel, wild Gladiolus, broom, poppies. I love the Mediterranean in spring.

But my plant of the year is lavender. Not the fields of lavender which are such a familiar image of Provence, but the wild lavender, Lavandula stoechas, which was blooming in great swathes of purple out in the scrub:

LATE BREAKING NEWS!!

In a controversial move, the BOTY judges [i.e. me] have made the shock last-minute change to their [my] decision!

I know, you’re excited.

I was browsing through my pictures from Provence, looking for ones to use to illustrate this post, when I came across this shot I snapped with my phone of a weird-looking red thing:

When I saw it, I thought it might be a fungus, but on closer examination it was clearly a plant. The lack of chlorophyll made me wonder if it was some kind of broomrape just emerging, but it didn’t really look right… so I snapped a picture of it and went on.

Well, when I found the photo, I decided to post it to the ID Please group on Flickr, and it turns out it is a different parasitic plant: Cytinus ruber. You can see a more fully open specimen here.

Apparently the Cytinus plant grows entirely inside the roots of Cistus plants — i.e. rockroses; the pink petals in the picture are from a Cistus — and only produces an external growth when it flowers. So it has a lifestyle normally associated with fungi.

So that’s kind of cool. But it gets better (or at least geekier). Cytinus was previously included in the same family as the famous Rafflesia, the amazing genus of plants from southeast Asia which include the largest single flower anywhere and which also live inside their host plant when not in flower.

But DNA testing has revealed that Cytinus is not closely related to Rafflesia at all; it has now been moved to the order Malvales, a large group of largely shrubby flowering plants that includes the mallows, hollyhocks, hibiscus, okra, cotton, baobab and indeed Cistus. So this plant which is so alien-looking and so highly specialised is part of a family of woody flowering shrubs; but it has changed so dramatically that only DNA testing makes it possible to discover the relationship.

So, for being both attractive and completely geektastic, Cytinus ruber is my plant of the year for 2009. Sorry Lavandula stoechas; maybe your turn will come round again another time.

Best Insect

I think that the hornet I saw at the Lee Valley Park deserves a mention. To give it its full name, it was the European Hornet, Vespa crabro, the largest wasp in Europe*, which I rarely see. And another good London sighting was the Summer Chafer I saw on Wandsworth Common.

And in Provence in May I saw some nice butterfly species, like Swallowtail and Scarce Swallowtail, masses of little blue ones, Red Admirals, Painted Lady, and the Southern White Admiral, which was new to me:

There was also the extraordinary Libelloides coccajus, which completely threw me for a loop when I saw it. I didn’t have most of my books with me, and I don’t know when I’ve last been so baffled by an animal. Being unable to identify an insect isn’t a surprise; they are really hard, and while I’m a reasonably competent birdwatcher, outside the class Aves I’m a complete lightweight. But to see such a large and spectacular insect and have absolutely no idea what group of insects it belonged to was startling. And cool.

And the insect spectacle of the year was the Great Painted Lady Invasion. Painted Lady butterflies were all over the place in Provence, but although there were certainly a lot of them, I didn’t think much of it; and then they started turning up in the UK in record numbers. Painted Ladies are migratory, and they make it to Britain in fairly small numbers in most years; this year they arrived in their millions. And I initially learned about it on the internet: suddenly references to Painted Ladies, sometimes thousands of Painted Ladies, started popping up in my Twitter feeds and on blogs. By the time they reached London they had spread out a bit, and I never saw more than half a dozen in the garden at once. But they were all tending to travel in the same direction, and they just kept on coming for days. I did a half-hour count on May 29th and saw 36 pass through. One a minute is infrequent enough that you could be in the garden and miss what was happening; but scale up those numbers over the whole of the country — over the whole of Northern Europe, probably — and it’s a staggering phenomenon. And all because of a particularly good thistle-growing season in Morocco the previous year, apparently.

But despite stiff competition, my insect of the year was Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth, Hemaris tityus, which, as you can see at that link, is a moth which looks like a bee, right down to the transparent wings. It’s something I’ve wanted to see ever since I got my first moth book, and I was thoroughly pleased to see them in Provence.

Best Invertebrate (other)

Once again, embarrassingly, despite the fact that so many of the world’s species are non-insect invertebrates, I can’t think of single particularly notable spider, scorpion, snail, squid, sea squirt or anything else which I saw in the wild this year…

Best Fish

…and I don’t have anything for the fish category either. Though that’s not particularly surprising because the little buggers live underwater all the time, so you don’t tend to spot them when you’re just casually out and about.

Best Amphibian

Marsh Frogs, at the London Wetland Centre, Barnes, making quacking noises that sound more a duck than most ducks do.

Best Reptile

There’s not a lot of choice in this category, but that’s OK, I’m very happy to choose Moorish Gecko.

I love geckos, with their little buggy eyes, their flat feet, and the way they scamper around on the walls as though it was the easiest thing in the word to ignore the laws of physics.

Best Mammal

My mammal of the year 2009 is the water vole, Arvicola amphibius. These used to be a common sight in British rivers and canals, but they’re sadly quite rare these days, so I was pleased to see one in the Lee Valley. And I’m fairly sure it actually was a water vole rather than the much commoner and much less adorable brown rat.

Best Ecosystem

I love dry scrubby habitats — heathland, savannah, Mediterranean scrub — although it’s hard to explain why, exactly. So the Provençal scrub in the spring, with the wild lavender and rockrose in flower, and orchids and gladiolus, and pine and broom, and the nightingales singing, and butterflies everywhere … love it. There’s nowhere better. And it is certainly my ecosystem of the year for 2009.

Tune in again in an unspecified amount of time to discover the winner of the most prestigious award of all, Bird of the Year 2009.

* To get seriously geeky about it, and here at the BOTY awards we are unashamedly geeky about such things, it is the largest eusocial wasp; i.e. the largest of those wasps that builds a large paper nest. Which are what people normally think of as wasps. Using the term ‘wasp’ in a broader sense, the horntail/great wood-wasp Urocerus gigas is certainly larger, and I think there are even larger species of parasitic wasps in other parts of Europe.

I know what the Apple Tablet is for

Among all the speculation about the forthcoming Apple Tablet/iSlate/iPad has been a thread of uncertainty: no one is really sure what it’s for; what niche it fills.

Everyone has been missing the obvious: it’s an e-reader for birdwatchers.

I have two field guides on my iPhone: butterflies and birds. I haven’t had a chance to use the bird guide in earnest yet, but the butterfly guide has been useful several times. You never know when you might see a butterfly, and when you do, you need the information on hand immediately if you’re going to have a chance to identify it. I would happily fill my phone with other field guides — trees, flowers, fungi, dragonflies — just so I could always have that information to hand.

So that’s good. But but but: the screen is not big enough. A real, paper field guide would have several species, each with several illustrations, and distribution maps, and text, all on the same double-page spread. The phone has space for one or maybe two illustrations per screen; that means an awful lot of scrolling backwards and forwards to compare species.

Until screens get much much higher resolution, you’re never going to fit as much information onto a screen as you can on a printed page; but for these purposes, any increase in screen size is a bonus. And no, even with 16 levels of grey, an electronic paper display is not going to cut it.

And it’s not just field guides: there’s a new app for the iPhone that, for £25, has 1:50,000 scale Ordnance Survey maps of, for example, the South-East of England. Always having an OS map with you whenever you go for a country walk: how cool is that? Well, it’s a damn sight cooler with a 10″ screen than it is with a 3½″ one.

So, since the Tablet is going to be aimed at birdwatchers and ramblers, I confidently predict it will be a rugged, waterproof device designed for outdoor use.

No, just kidding.

OK, so the examples that spring to mind for me are rather specific, and Steve Jobs isn’t about to launch an incredible new product aimed specifically at birdwatchers and hikers. Sadly. But really, I think people might be overthinking this. After all, when is a bigger screen not a useful thing to have?

» iTunes links: butterflies, birds, OS maps.

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Links

‘Mini Picture Show’ at the Bankside Gallery

I was given a membership of The Art Fund for Christmas. For those who don’t know, The Art Fund uses membership fees and other donations to help British museums and galleries to buy art for their collections; membership gets you discounted or free entry to a range of museums and galleries. So that was a nice present.

Anyway, they sent me a booklet with all the various participating venues in it; there are 78 in London. I’m familiar with quite a lot of them, but there are still plenty that are new to me. It occurred to me that it would be quite an interesting exercise to visit all of them; I’m not officially committing myself to that right now, but it’s certainly a possible project. I might as well get my money’s worth.

In that spirit, when I went to buy coffee today I glanced at the map to see if there were any galleries near Borough Market, and sure enough, there was the Bankside Gallery, just next to Tate Modern. I’ve been past the Bankside many times, but I’ve obviously been suffering from Curiosity Fail because I never went in. It turns out to be the gallery of the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers.* Or perhaps the shop of those societies, since the work was all for sale; except that places selling art have done an excellent PR job of making sure that we think of them as part of a subtly different category from places that sell fridges or mayonnaise. Their current line of produce is

Work on a small scale by Members of the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. Original paintings and prints are immediately available, both framed and unframed, with prices from just £50.

Which I’m guessing is basically an exhibition aimed at the Christmas present market. And why not, after all. I actually rather like going around exhibitions where everything has a price next to it; it focusses the mind a bit.

It reminded me of the rooms at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition where they stick all the small pieces, although the art wasn’t quite crowded together as it normally is at the RA. It’s the same mixture of stuff, tending toward the conventional, occasionally very covetable. Certainly well worth popping in and having a look round for the bargain price of free, and I shall do so again from time to time (to be clear, the Bankside has free entry for everyone, not just Art Fund members).

So, this may turn out to the be the first in a long series of posts about some of London’s more obscure museums and galleries; or it may not. We’ll see.

* The Royal Watercolour Society is the RWS; the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers is the RE. Obviously.

» The images are ‘Rikyu Tea Whisk’ and ‘Tea Bowl’ from the ‘One Hundred Views of MITATE’ series by Nana Shiomi. Which I really liked.

Books of the Year 2009

As per usual, these are books I happened to read in 2009, rather than books published in 2009.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller
Chaka, Thomas Mofolo
Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
Echoes from the Dead Zone, Yiannis Papadakis
The Maias, José Maria de Eça de Queirós
Across Arctic America, Knud Rasmussen
Them, Jon Ronson
Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin
The Culture of Lies, Dubravka Ugrešić
Leaves of the Banyan Tree, Albert Wendt

Glancing over that list, there’s plenty of good stuff, but I’m not sure it has been a completely vintage year. A nice healthy mix of subjects and genres, though.

Links of the year 2009

A (not very methodical) selection of the best links I posted over the past year. The ones picked out in green were those which struck me as especially memorable when I looked back.

Andy Goldsworthy // Better planning for healthcare — British foods — British wrestling posters // Cardiff at night — Colour-coded children — Composite photos of New York // Dolphins and bubbles // Endurance cycling — Europa — Evolving blackcaps // Football fans without a team // Ghanaian film poster paintings — Glass microbiology // Ham radio cards — Hubble Ultra Deep Field in 3-D // LEGO Pop-up Kinkaku-ji — Living root bridges // Martian Dust Devil Trails — Masal Bugduv // Night skatersNon-porn porn — Notgeld // Peculiar book covers — Peculiar book covers, again — Photosketch — Playground rhymes // Rigging an internet poll // Sand animation — Solitary confinement — Stickney Crater // Teddy bear typologies — Toilet-roll face sculptures // Weaving spider silk // X-ray speech

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I’m back

Or more precisely, my computer’s back from the repair people. Yay.

A couple of observations about that: Time Machine (Apple’s automatic backup software) is just brilliant. Having your computer die by inches is so much less stressful when you know you can rescue everything. And actually it works even better than I realised: my computer came back with Leopard installed on its new blank hard drive, because for licensing reasons they can only install the version of the OS that the machine shipped with. But you just pop it the Snow Leopard install disc, select ‘Restore from Time Machine backup’, and a couple of hours later everything is back to just the way it was before. I had to re-enter a few software license codes for some reason, but that’s no great hardship.

It also means that I’ve been using the iPhone as my main computer. And it is almost comical how much powerful it is than the first computer I owned; it has something like 50 times the RAM and 200 times the storage capacity. Although the iPhone’s screen does only have half as many pixels as my original 13″ monitor.

But power isn’t everything, and if I needed to write a long essay, I would still prefer to use that old IIcx, with its keyboard and its slightly larger screen. Which is the main reason I haven’t blogged much since the computer started dying: it is just so much more like work when you have to type on the phone’s virtual keyboard, and you can only see a few lines of text.

Even the things which the phone is better suited to, like checking email, using the internet, reading RSS feeds — browsing, basically; stuff that doesn’t require much typing — they are so much nicer on a proper computer. It’s partially the screen size, but also the sheer speed and responsiveness. It is a joy.

» The image is ‘Macintosh IIcx Owner’s Guide, Page 38’, © Jeff Jackson and used under a CC by-nd licence. Though having said that, surely it must be © Apple Inc.? Anyway. It seemed appropriate.

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Christmas food debrief, bitterns etc

I should note in advance: the bitterns are not part of the food debrief. I daresay they turned up on Henry VIII’s dining table, but not mine.

Food notes: the fruity stuffing was good, the pistachio one mainly tasted of parsley and garlic, which was pleasant enough but not very christmassy. The prunes in bacon were delish, a much better addition than sausages in bacon. Cooking a whole boned ham leads to Too Much Ham. I’m quite glad I did it this once, but I won’t again.

And actually I don’t think I’m going to do turkey next year; even with a (very expensive) free range organic slow-grown turkey, cooked beautifully, though I do say so myself, it’s just a big boring. The stuffing is much better than the actual bird. Maybe I’ll do a big joint of beef instead.

I had a great day birding today: I’d heard via the London Wetland Centre’s Twitter feed (@wwtlondon) that the cold weather had produced an unprecedented influx of bitterns. They aren’t sure whether they’re from elsewhere in the UK or from the continent, but yesterday and today they’ve had 6 or 7 on site. Now bitterns are notoriously skulky and difficult to see, being streaky reed-coloured birds that live in reedbeds — and incidentally, I believe the American Bittern is rather easier to see than the European, for comparison — and last time I went bitterning at Barnes I saw diddly-squat, but I figured I’d never get a better chance.

And sure enough I had six sightings of bittern, each closer and clearer than the one before. The water was mainly frozen over, and they were presumably desperate enough for food that they were stalking along the ice just by the edge of the reeds, with their surprisingly large feet sliding with every step.

I also had great views of water rail, the bird you may remember me mentioning before which has, according to the book, ‘a discontented piglet-like squeal, soon dying away’. I saw four pairs, including telescope views of a pair preening each other about thirty feet away.

And my last special bird of the day was jack snipe, a smaller, less elegant and generally more self-effacing version of the normal snipe, but my second lifer of the day after the bitterns.

So some early contenders for the Bird Of The Year Award 2010. I do btw still intend to do BOTY 2009, but it can wait until my computer has been fixed. Using the iPhone for blogging works better than you might think but it’s no substitute when it comes to long posts with links and pictures.