Bird of the Year 2011

As I mentioned in BOTY:BPIASR, I’ve been a bit slow about this because it wasn’t a particularly interesting year for birds.But there were a few things worth a shout-out, including some I’d forgotten — I’m not very efficient with the records.

Last year waxwing was my Bird of the Year, and I could do worse than go for the same again, because in January the great waxwing invasion was still going strong and some of them turned up near my house, to give me more amazing views of what is after all an amazing bird. I’ve got the crappy pictures to prove it:

But it seems silly to give it to the same bird two years running.

I had a trip to Provence, but it was really out of season for most of the classic Mediterranean species, so I didn’t see much there, apart from lots of black redstarts and a couple of pied flycatchers.

A few trips to the Lee Valley have been very nice without throwing up anything earth-shattering. While it was wintry at the start of the year I saw some lovely smew and great, if brief, views of a bittern. Later in the year I got the usual Cetti’s warbler, nightingale, and hobby, and saw the very obliging kingfishers at the Rye Meads reserve.

Bookham Common provided me with marsh tit and bullfinch, as well as small tortoiseshell, white admiral and silver-washed fritillary, while continuing to frustrate my attempts to find purple emperor or lesser-spotted woodpecker (although, spoiler alert for BOTY 2012).

A couple of trips to the north Kent marshes gave me red-breasted mergansers, yellowhammers and bearded tit, as well as the usual shedloads of waders and ducks (curlews and oystercatchers and godwits and plovers and avocets and shelduck and teal and what have you… it’s a gorgeous place. Boris is a complete fucking philistine for wanting to turn it into an airport).

And on a jaunt down to the coast, to Rye Harbour, it was great to see the breeding Mediterranean gulls, little terns and Sandwich terns, as well as lesser whitethroat, although I managed to pick one of those days when it’s glorious sunshine but you have to walk at an angle to stay upright against the wind.

On the listing front… I don’t think I added anything to the garden list this year. A ring ouzel at Rainham Marshes was certainly a London tick, as was a Ruff at Barnes. Scaup was one for the British list. And I just had a couple of lifers this year. One was mealy redpoll, at Barnes. The other was woodcock, in Richmond Park, as well as a Tufted Duck × Ring-necked Duck hybrid which is sort of half a tick.

But my Bird of the Year is something I’ve seen plenty of times before: in Wales, in the Alps, in Arizona. Even so, when I was walking on the South Downs and heard that amazing grroonk sound that meant there was a raven nearby… that was my most exciting bird moment of 2011.

Ravens are wonderful birds; they’re huge (four foot wingspan!), jet black, and with a beak that looks like it could punch a hole in a car door… or make short work of your fleshy parts, given the chance. They’re intelligent and playful; you see them indulging in aerobatic tumbling, apparently just for the fun of it. And that amazing atmospheric sound:

Given their general awesomeness, it’s not surprising that they’re so culturally resonant: the ravens of the Tower of London; the ravens feeding Elijah in the wilderness; the two ravens Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory) who flew out every day to bring back news to Odin; and in some Native American mythologies, Raven the trickster god who created the world.

But the reason I was so excited to see one was simply that it came as a complete surprise. Not very long ago, and certainly when I started birdwatching, you had to go to the wilder parts of this country to have a chance of seeing ravens: mountaintops, windswept moorlands and craggy sea cliffs.

And so in my mind they are birds of wild places; but actually it was just that they had been hunted, trapped and poisoned by farmers and gamekeepers. And since I only keep up with bird news casually and sporadically, I was only vaguely aware that, like a lot of our predatory birds, better legal protection is allowing them to make a comeback. So that grroonk was a total shock and a happy surprise. Just as I never thought I would see peregrines over central London, I never thought I would see ravens over the South Downs.

So there you go. Raven is my winner of Bird of the Year 2011. Congratulations to the raven, and thanks to Leo called me that day and suggested it was a nice day for a walk.

» The raven photo is © Sergey Yeliseev and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. The alder wood bowl in the form of a raven is from the British Museum; it was made sometime in the C19th by the Haida people of British Columbia.

Ecclesiastical overreach & gay marriage

John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, has been arguing against gay marriage. Which, in itself, hardly seems worth commenting about. But what gets my goat is that he supports civil partnerships but opposes gay marriage because, you know, sacred institution between a man and a woman blah blah yawn.

This actually annoys me more than if he just came out and spoke straightforwardly and unapologetically against all forms of homosexual relationship. Because after all, preaching about morality is what religions do, and the idea that homosexuality is a sin has been standard doctrine in nearly all branches of Christianity for most of history. It’s an old-fashioned, socially poisonous doctrine, admittedly; but expounding old-fashioned ideas seems to me to be firmly within the job description of an archbishop.

But when he claims that the state’s definition of marriage should be his definition… well, then he can just fuck off. Marriage is one of the central defining structures our society is built around; the Church of England cannot be allowed to claim ownership of it. Marriage predates Christianity, and is entered into by people of all religions and of no religion. The whole reason that people choose not to get married in church is that they don’t want the church in their marriage.

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RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2012

It’s time for some citizen science again. I got 19 species, which turns out to equal my previous best. Not that I saw anything very surprising; it was mainly that I didn’t miss any of the very common species. As usual, the counts are for the maximum present at any one time.

feral pigeon × 5
woodpigeon × 5

blue tit × 5
great tit × 2
long-tailed tit
coal tit

chaffinch × 4
greenfinch × 2
goldfinch

robin × 2
wren
dunnock × 2
starling × 2

blackbird × 4
mistle thrush

great spotted woodpecker × 2
ring-necked parakeet × 3

carrion crow
magpie × 3

There’s certainly scope to beat that number — jay might be the most obvious missing species, and heron, goldcrest, green woodpecker, siskin, sparrowhawk, song thrush, collared dove, stock dove and nuthatch are all entirely plausible — but I’d have to get fairly lucky.

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From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe

From the Land of Green Ghosts is an autobiography. Pascal Khoo Thwe is from the Padaung ethnic minority in Burma — best known for the brass neck-rings worn by the women which elongate their necks — and was brought up with both the local animist traditions and Catholicism; the two religious traditions seem to have coexisted rather more easily than a strict reading of Catholic theology might allow.

He went to a Catholic seminary but later decided he didn’t want to be a priest, and instead went to university in Mandalay, where he studied for a couple of years before witnessing some of the political uprising of of 1988 and the government’s brutal response. He was briefly a political activist before it became clear that the revolution had failed, when he was forced to flee across country, initially to the area held by the longstanding ethnic Karenni rebellion and then across the border to Thailand. Eventually, thanks to an earlier chance meeting with a Cambridge professor visiting Mandalay, he was offered the chance to go to England to study literature at Cambridge.

The early parts, about a childhood in the backwoods of Burma with traditional customs and a Catholic education, are interesting and atmospheric; but it really comes into its own with the uprising. He was a relatively unpolitical youth confronted by staggering government violence, and he communicates something of the shock and the anger.

I’ve read quite a lot of books about dictatorships and government repression and civil war and so on as part of the Read The World challenge — mainly I think because it’s a subject that appeals to English language publishers — but this is one of the better ones. Above all because Khoo Thwe is a good writer. But what I particularly like is that it’s the opposite of self-aggrandising. He’s clearly a fairly impressive individual; at various times his actions show intelligence, courage and resourcefulness. But he constantly undercuts any hint that he’s the hero, even of his own story; he presents himself as naive, uncertain, and always at the mercy of events.

I’m not suggesting this is mock humility; I’m sure he genuinely felt those things. And after all, it’s basically a story of failed revolution and exile, although that’s hardly his fault. But another writer might have been less willing to be so frank, and the story would have been less interesting as a result.

From the Land of Green Ghosts is my book from Myanmar/Burma for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is from Burma but admittedly only tangentially relevant. Lion Taming For Beginners 101 is © Taro Taylor and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Bird of the Year 2011: best performances in a supporting role

I’ve been rather laggardly about doing BOTY this year because I had such an underwhelming year for birds. But I thought I should keep up the tradition, and  as the end of January approaches I’d better get on with it.

Best Plant

I went on a jaunt to a quarry in Essex which has some rare orchids. It was a bit early for the hellebores, but there were masses of Common Spotted Orchid and Twayblade, and the best species I managed to find was Man Orchid:

Best Insect

I saw some brilliant butterflies in Provence, notably Great Banded Grayling, Two-Tailed Pasha, Southern White Admiral, and Nettle-tree Butterfly. The Pasha particularly was a cracking beastie. Also Praying Mantis and Pistachio Aphid, and those lovely grey-brown grasshoppers with coloured underwings which flash when they fly.

It was great as well to see hornet in the garden, and to see the hornet nest in the park, even if it was later destroyed by the philistines at Southwark Council.

And there was a wasp beetle in the garden, and an Elephant Hawkmoth caterpillar in Croydon:

But my insect of the year is a slightly offbeat choice, not the most spectacular I’ve seen this year. But it’s a British butterfly I’ve never seen before and it was great to go out on a sunny day and walk through a wildflower meadow and be surrounded by hundreds of butterflies. So my insect of the year is Chalkhill Blue. Try to ignore the dog turd and just enjoy the butterflies ;)

Best Invertebrate (other)

For the third year in a row, and for the fourth time in six years, I don’t have an entry for this category. All those possibilities — lobsters, crabs, squid, jellyfish, spiders, scorpions, snails — and I can’t think of a single noteworthy example. I have obviously seen some slugs and spiders and at least one millipede this year, but none of them were very interesting. Pathetic, I know.

Best Reptile

Well, I’ve seen Common Lizard in the UK, and there was a lizard with  bright green tail in Provence that I don’t know the species of… I guess Common Lizard might have to win by default.

Best Fish

No, I got nothing. I suppose if I’m going to have Best Fish and Best Invertebrate (other) as categories, I really need to make sure I do some scuba diving during the year.

Best Amphibian

Well, it’s not a particularly special species, but I might as well take the opportunity to repost this recording of marsh frogs, Rana ridibunda, at Rainham Marshes:

Best Mammal

Take a look at this beauty:

That blob in the middle? It’s a seal. Obviously. Seriously, though, it was a bit out of range for my phone camera, but through binoculars it was a pretty good sighting. Common Seal, I think; just near Conyer in Kent.

Best Ecosystem

Mudflat:

‘Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination’ at the British Library

I went round this exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Royal collection today. Any of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I got a bit distracted by finding birds in the margins. I found 17 species in total*, which is pretty good. And I mainly started looking for them because it was fun, but I do think it’s interesting that birds of clearly identifiable species seem to outnumber the invented, whimsical ones.

Admittedly, quite a few of the species were found on one particular page that seemed to have been illuminated by a genuine enthusiast, a medieval birder. Not only did it have a crane, a jay, a green woodpecker and a kingfisher, which are all striking birds, and the most unexpected bird of the lot, a seagull; it also had a pair of bullfinches. The brightly coloured male is an obvious choice to liven up a margin, but including the female seems like the work of someone who actually liked birds.

The exhibition is certainly worth a visit, even for non-birders, although personally I think I would have enjoyed it more with half the number of exhibits (as long as they didn’t discard any good birds, obviously). I just found that by the end I was losing concentration a bit.

*Great tit, chaffinch, goldfinch, robin, jay, crane, peacock, green woodpecker, kingfisher, bullfinch, common gull, pheasant, hooded crow, redpoll, magpie, hoopoe and blackcap.

Syncing non-Amazon books between Kindle and iPhone

One of the nice things about the Kindle is that it syncs with the Kindle app on iOS, so that you can read a few pages on your phone when you don’t have the Kindle with you.

But I thought that it only worked with books bought from Amazon and not those, for example, downloaded from Project Gutenburg. Which was annoying.

However, I have discovered that there is a way of making it work. Perhaps this is common knowledge, but I only found it by accident so I thought I’d share it.

The trick, such as it is, is to email the file to your Send-to-Kindle email address, which is the address used to add personal documents to the Kindle. It’s in the form name_xxx@kindle.com and you can find it in the Kindle settings.

Once it appears on the Kindle, it will also be available as an archived item in the Kindle app, and it should sync across devices in the normal way.

The syncing doesn’t work if you add the files to the iOS Kindle app via iTunes, or download them direct to the Kindle from the web, for example via the Project Gutenberg Magic Catalog, or if you put them onto the Kindle via USB.

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Londoners by Craig Taylor

To give it its full, ludicrously long title: Londoners: The Days and Nights of London as Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Long for It, Have Left It and Everything Inbetween.

This makes a good pair with Daily Life in Victorian London. It’s a compilation of interviews with Londoners of all sorts. Some of them are the obvious London clichés — black cab driver, yeoman warder, hedge fund manager , refugee — and some are more exotic: beekeeper, dominatrix, Wiccan priestess. And most are are just, well, ordinary: teacher, street cleaner, personal trainer, estate agent, student.

But of course the key to books like this is that ‘ordinary’ people often turn to be unexpectedly interesting when you scratch the surface. Either because they have led unexpectedly interesting lives, or because they are charming or funny or insightful in telling their own stories. And those who don’t have great back-stories and who aren’t great storytellers: even they are always good for a couple of paragraphs to help build up the mosaic.

There’s obviously no shortage of material in a place the size of London, so a book like this is entirely dependent on the skill of the person who conducts the interviews and then edits and curates them. Craig Taylor has done a cracking job and it’s well worth reading.

» the Big Issue seller’s licence is from the Museum of London collection.

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The Artist

I’m just back from seeing The Artist. I was keen it see it just because the idea of someone making a modern silent movie was a fascinating one. In the end, though, it’s not modern, it’s just new.

Because it’s a generally light-hearted film about the early days of Hollywood, in a lovingly recreated pastiche of the style of those films,* there’s an obvious logic to it being a silent movie which means there’s no challenge for the audience to overcome. It’s still impressive how successful it is — there’s a real pleasure in it just as a technical exercise, but it’s also a genuinely entertaining film — even so, in the end it feels like a brilliant jeu d’esprit rather than anything more profoundly boundary-pushing.

I don’t want to sound too churlish about it. The film is what it is, and on its own terms it’s very successful. But it would have been even more interesting if it was a silent film that was full colour, widescreen and in a contemporary setting. That would be a genuine exploration of the artistic possibilities of silent cinema in an age of sound.

*Although to be strictly accurate, a lot of the time it evokes black-and-white talkies rather than silent films. But it’s all part of the same nostalgia for old movies.