RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

It’s citizen science time again. I got thirteen species this year, which is actually about par; my record is nineteen, but I’ve had several years which were much worse.

Carrion Crow × 3
Magpie × 2

Feral Pigeon × 1
Woodpigeon × 1

Blackbird × 1
Robin × 1
Dunnock × 2

Blue Tit × 1
Great Tit × 4
Coal Tit × 1
Long-tailed Tit × 3

Chaffinch × 5
Goldfinch × 1

It’s a rather boring list, even by suburban London standards; no sparrowhawk, nuthatch, woodpecker, siskin, greenfinch, stock dove… but never mind.

The perfidious Kindle

In 2014 I read almost entirely genre fiction, and I blame the Kindle.

Not there’s anything wrong with genre fiction. When it’s well-written, it is the purest kind of reading pleasure; story-telling with no other purpose than to entertain.

It’s a bit like Hollywood blockbusters; a well-made blockbuster is in some ways the apotheosis of cinema. Brash, glossy, sensational entertainment may not be the most interesting or important thing that cinema can do, but it’s something cinema does uniquely well. All too often, though, I find myself sitting in the cinema watching silly, incoherent, predictable twaddle and promising myself that next time, I won’t be suckered in by the marketing, and I’ll go and see some the interesting Eastern European movie or the documentary instead.

Or the kind of junk food you think will be a self-indulgent treat, but you actually regret ordering even before you finish eating it.

And the Kindle just makes it too easy to keep buying more junk food. There’s always something heavily discounted; you can impulse buy and be reading in seconds; and the books don’t even clutter up your house.

And of course, there’s Amazon’s recommendations; they’re always telling you that if you liked X you might enjoy Y. But that doesn’t really work, for me. Because it’s the quality of the writing which matters more than the specific genre. And believe me, it doesn’t matter how much you like Georgette Heyer, other writers of historical romance are almost always disappointing. And just because you enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, it doesn’t mean you should keep buying random books that Amazon classifies as ‘Space Opera’.

So I’ve made a bit of a New Years resolution: more proper books.

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

This is the family history of three generations of Germans. The author’s grandparents were young during WWII; one grandfather fought in the French Resistance, the other seems to have been a lukewarm Fascist, but both ended up being inspired by the promise of the new socialist East Germany that was going to rise out of the ruins of the war. Then his parents grew up as products of the GDR, and he was a young man when the Berlin Wall came down.

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He’s got plenty of good material, and it’s well-written*, so if it sounds like the kind of thing you might like, you’ll probably like it.

* Apart from some slightly clunky tense shifts; he opens chapters in the past tense to establish the scene then switches to the present tense for the bulk of the text. Maybe it works better in German.

» The photo, ‘KULTUR, BERLIN GDR 1984’ is © phillygdr and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Bird of the Year 2014

I added eight birds to my life list this year, all in Portugal; including two species of vultures, five eagles, two storks, two bustards, bee-eater, roller, hoopoe, golden oriole, two kinds of shrike, two kinds of swift…

Among the species I’d seen before, highlights included Montagu’s Harrier, which is an elegant, long-winged bird of prey that I had wonderful views of; Southern Grey Shrike, which I’d seen before in Morocco and Spain, but certainly never so well; Black Stork, a species I last saw over twenty years ago on the day I did a bungee jump at Victoria Falls; Pallid Swift, because I had previously ticked it on the basis of a somewhat dodgy sighting, so a really good sighting was a weight off my mind (and also because it was picturesque to see them nesting on cliffs overhanging the sea). Bonelli’s Eagle and Golden Eagle are certainly worth mentioning as well, although neither were particularly good views.

And there are all those Mediterranean species which are always a pleasure to see: Black-winged Kite, Short-toed Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Collared Pratincole, Black-winged Stilt, Little Owl, Alpine Swift, Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Golden Oriole, Azure-winged Magpie, Crested Tit, Blue Rock Thrush, Crested Lark, Nightingale, Black-eared Wheatear, Serin, Cirl Bunting.

One of the particular attractions of the trip I took was the unusual cliff-nesting storks. These are White Storks, the ones better-known for nesting on chimneys (and bringing babies). Along this particular bit of the Portuguese coast they’ve developed the habit of nesting on rocks just offshore. I think there are probably at least ten or eleven nests in this picture, although admittedly you may have to take my word for it:

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You should at least be able to make out the streaks of guano, and the flying white bird with black wingtips in front of the left-hand rock. Here’s a photo, taken through binoculars, of a nest which was unusually close to the cliff:

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Of the eight species I saw which were new, the least interesting was Iberian Chiffchaff: a bird which is effectively identical to the (very common, small, drab) Common Chiffchaff, but with a different song. I didn’t even definitely see one — I saw chiffchaffs that weren’t calling and heard Iberian Chiffchaff singing — but I’m ticking it on the song.

Then there was Western Bonelli’s Warbler, another little greenish bird in the same genus as the chiffchaffs. I have to say, it was a much more attractive bird in person than you would think looking at illustrations; but that’s not saying much.

Black Vulture (or Cinereous Vulture, if you want to avoid confusion with the New World species) is a cracking species — the largest bird of prey apart from the condors, with a wingspan from eight to ten feet — but again, not particularly good views. Spanish Imperial Eagle (or as my Portuguese guide tried to persuade me it was called, Iberian Imperial Eagle) is a majestic species which used to be the rarest eagle in world until good conservation work managed to upgrade it to the second rarest*; there were estimated to be 324 breeding pairs in 2012. Again, though, very distant views.

I also saw some Black-bellied Sandgrouse — the sandgrouse are ground-living desert pigeons, sort of — which was the first sandgrouse I’ve seen in Europe. And quite good views of a pair of Stone Curlew, which is a magnificent, goggle-eyed bird.

But when I booked a birding guide for a day, there were three species I particularly wanted to see: Little Bustard, Great Bustard and European Roller.

The roller is a truly spectacular species, a big electric blue bird the size of a crow with deep, royal blue patches on the wings when it flies. We spent a while watching them, and it would almost certainly be my bird of the year if it hadn’t been my winner for BOTY 2007.

Little Bustard is also a great species, and we saw them reasonably well; but my Bird of the Year 2014 has to be Great Bustard. I believe the world’s heaviest recorded flying bird was a Great Bustard; with the slight caveat that the particular individual may have been too fat to fly. On average it’s the second-heaviest, after Kori Bustard, and it’s a big beast of a thing. Here’s the distant, hazy photo I posted for BOTY:BPiaSR:

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Here it is zoomed into the centre a bit, clearly showing five birds:

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The two in the middle [enhance! enhance!]:

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But what’s so good about bustards is what they do to attract a mate. Stick with this video for at least a couple of minutes to get the full effect:

Amazing. I didn’t get views like that, sadly, but I did see them a bit closer than in my photos, and I did see them displaying, and they are brilliant birds.

*The massive, monkey-eating Philippine Eagle is now the rarest.

Bird of the Year 2014: best performances in a supporting role

Happy New Year, everybody.

Keen followers of the Bird of the Year Awards will notice a change in the categories this year. Butterflies and moths receive a disproportionate amount of my insecty attention, so I think it makes sense to split them out into their own category. Realistically, I could just split all invertebrates into ‘butterflies and moths’ and ‘other’, but I think it’s good to sit back at the end of the year and try to think of an interesting spider or slug or sea urchin or something.

Best Plant

I went on a lovely holiday in Portugal in the spring, and I mainly chose the timing for the flowers. Everyone goes to the Mediterranean at the wrong time of year. It may not be as hot at the end of April as it is in August, but the whole countryside is full of flowers and birdsong.

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So I was walking along the Atlantic coast of Portugal, and the cliffs were covered in drifts of rockroses — pale yellow, strong yellow, white, pink — but there was also French lavender, thrift, big Spanish broom, little compact mounds of broom with pale yellow flowers, maybe eight or nine different orchids, wild gladioli, amazing vivid blue pimpernels. And sometimes I’d put my backpack down and get a great waft of wild thyme.

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But I have to pick one. Among the various orchids, I was pleased to find these plants of a tongue orchid which is normally burgundy red:

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But perhaps perversely, I’m not going to pick a flower; my plant of the year is the cork oak:

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The numbers on the bark are to keep track of when each tree’s bark was last harvested. The combination of the dark naked trunks and greyish bark sleeves is rather charming, I think.

Best Butterfly or Moth

I made an effort to tick off a few more British butterfly species this year, and had four life firsts. But they were very much butterflies for the connoisseur; by which I mean they look… unspectacular. The names give you some idea: Essex Skipper, Small Blue, Grizzled Skipper, Dingy Skipper. The Small Blue is indeed remarkably small, but it’s not very blue; the Essex Skipper is distinguished from the Small Skipper by the colour of the undersides of the antennae; and the other two skippers are grizzled and dingy.

I also saw  green hairstreak for the first time in Britain, which is a genuinely pretty butterfly, with iridescent green underwings; but I have seen them before in France. And a few attractive moths, like Clouded Buff, and this Buff Ermine, seen here on the classic habitat of a railway station toilet door:

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But the winner is again from Portugal, a kind of butterfly I have wanted to see for years because it’s an exotic-looking European species not found in the UK: a Festoon. To be exact, this is a Spanish Festoon:

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It’s rather a worn specimen, and it’s a terrible picture taken with my phone through my binoculars, but it’s my butterfly of the year.

Best Insect (other)

The most exciting non-lepidopteran insects I saw this year in the UK were ruby-tailed wasp (so shiny!) and velvet ant (actually a furry wingless wasp, dontcha know). Although the most photogenic might be this dor beetle:

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But I also saw some good beetles in Portugal, like this spotty hairy chafer which I think is probably Oxythyrea funesta (but usually when I think I’ve identified an insect and I consult an entomologist, they tell me I would need to check its genitalia under a microscope to be sure):

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And there was this grotesque mammoth which, I learned later, is an oil beetle:

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But I’m going for this spiky beetle as my best insect (other) for 2014. According to the coleopterist I consulted on Twitter, it’s probably Sepidium bidentatum:

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Best Invertebrate (other)

So I was walking along in Portugal and thought oh, what’s that pink flower the bumblebee is feeding on…

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As it turns out, the bumblebee was not the one doing the feeding. That is a pink crab spider, possibly Thomisus onustus.

But my invertebrate of the year is the wasp spider Argiope bruennichi. These have been spreading rapidly across the south of England in the last ten years, helped by a combination of global warming and, I learn from Google, new-found genetic diversity after global warming allowed previously isolated populations to interbreed. It may be a sign of the coming apocalypse, but it’s a handsome beastie which I’ve been trying to see for a couple of years:

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Best Reptile

I saw a grass snake trying to eat a frog in the woods at Bookham Common. I did take a couple of pictures of snake belly in thick grass, but they’re not worth sharing.

Best Fish

No, I’ve got nothing.

Best Amphibian

I’ve seen the usual common frogs and toads — lots of tadpoles in the pond this year — but nothing notable.

Best Mammal

An Egyptian Mongoose in Portugal. I just googled this to check, and apparently it was always assumed that these were an introduced species in Iberia — because of a lack of fossil evidence and the distance from the nearest wild African populations — but there are fossils in North Africa, and recent genetic testing suggests the Iberian mongooses are the descendants of some of those North African animals that presumably crossed over at Gibraltar in the Pleistocene, when there was no sea there.

Either way, it was a neat surprise; I didn’t know they were there.

Best Ecosystem

Obviously the Portuguese cliff-tops were great, the pine scrub was a delight, but my choice is the steppes of Alentejo, where I went with a hired bird guide for a great days birdwatching. I imagine in summer they are baked dry, but when I was there it was gently rolling green fields with flowers forming great hazy patches of colour. I only took a couple of pictures and they don’t do it justice, but here’s one I took through a telescope, admittedly with the saturation punched up a bit, that gives you some idea.

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There are actually some birds in that picture, which is why I took it; but they can wait for the main Bird of the Year 2014 post.

The 9th [nearly] annual Christmas stuffing post

I didn’t do one of these posts last year because my campaign to have something other than turkey for Christmas dinner finally paid off — we had beef. But we’re back to turkey this year; turkey, prunes wrapped in bacon, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and two types of stuffing. Both stuffings, as usual, were made with a base of sausagemeat, bread, onion, and celery; one was chestnut and mushroom (again), and for the other one, I added pecans and dried figs steeped in Marsala. Which was very nice, though I do say so myself.

Followed by (shop-bought) Christmas pudding, which was alright, although personally I’d rather have trifle every year.

Also the Sri Lankan Christmas cake recipe I’ve done for the past two years, and a ham boiled in ginger beer and baked with a brown sugar and mustard glaze.

Almaty-Transit  by Dana Mazur

This is my book from Kazakhstan for the Read The World challenge, and it is, unusually, contemporary literary fiction (from 2010!). Which would be even more unusual if it had actually been translated from Kazakh or Russian, but it’s a novel in English by a Kazakh immigrant to the US. And the action moves between Los Angeles — where Aidar, a Kazakh man, lives with his American musician wife and son — and Almaty where his mother lives.

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[SPOILER ALERT, I guess; the event mentioned happens pretty early in the book, but if you don’t want to know the result, look away now]

The full title of the book is Almaty-Transit — A Ghost Story, and most of the action happens after the death of Aidar, when his spirit finds itself back home in Kazakhstan, but wanting to find some way to help his wife and child back in the States. It’s hard to give any more detail without getting even more spoilery, but I would say that for much of the book the supernatural part is handled well, and it seems like an extension of a character-driven narrative, rather than wacky stuff happening just to try and make the book more interesting. By the end, as the supernatural elements got more elaborate and more gothic fairy-tale in tone, I was starting to get a bit impatient with it, but it wasn’t enough to spoil the book for me.

So, yeah, on the whole I enjoyed this, I thought it was well-written and the characters were engaging, even though the thing which is most distinctive about it — the supernatural side of the story — was in some ways the least appealing part, for me.

»The photo Almaty City is © Vladimir Yaitskiy and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Read The World challenge: status report, 2014

I’ve only ticked off nine new countries in the last twelve months. This means that the finish-line has receded even further into the future, but hey-ho.

Doña Bárbara by Rómulo Gallegos

An interesting fact about Rómulo Gallegos: he was the first democratically elected president of Venezuela, in 1948 (although only for a few months before losing power to a coup d’état). He was a writer before he was a politician; Doña Bárbara was published in 1929. It is, of course, my book from Venezuela for the Read The World challenge.

I didn’t choose it because the author was president of Venezuela. I was more attracted by the fact that it has been made into a movie twice and a telenovela three times. And that suggests a novel with a good story to tell.

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It is indeed a rollicking yarn, full of love, lust, jealousy, dancing, cattle rustling, chicanery, revenge, murder, sweeping landscapes, colourful birds, and manly men riding across the plains. The portrayal of women is slightly more problematic, in that there are only two major female characters, and one is pure, virginal, innocent, passive and ineffectual, while the other — the eponymous Doña Bàrbara — is manipulative, ruthless, corrupt, witchy, and uses sex as a weapon.

To be fair, Doña Bàrbara is a terrific character, a sort of cowboy Lady Macbeth. Or Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the witches rolled into one. And in best superhero fashion, she is given a backstory of childhood trauma to account for her villainy. It’s just the contrast with the young Marisela which implies a rather narrow role for what a good woman can be like.

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Despite Gallegos’s later career, this didn’t strike me as a particularly political novel in the same way as, for example, a lot of the post-colonial fiction I’ve been reading. Although you can see how it could be a part of a developing Venezuelan nationalism, because it is very much a novel about a place and a culture; the plains and the plainsmen who raise cattle there. I could see it forming part of a Venezuelan identity, rather as other cowboys did in the US.

However, the Wikipedia entry for Doña Bàrbara notes that ‘it was because of the book’s criticisms of the regime of longtime dictator Juan Vicente Gómez that [Gallegos] was forced to flee the country’. So I obviously missed some nuances. I guess the portrayal of political corruption — even though mainly at the local level in the book — is the kind of thing that dictators get annoyed by. They’re a notoriously thin-skinned bunch.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. And despite the tone of my comments, not just as a slightly melodramatic yarn — although that was enjoyable — but as a literary novel. It has an evocative sense of place, atmospheric set pieces, strong characters. Good stuff.

» I’ve actually been to the llanos of Venezuela; I was there looking for birds. ‘Scarlet Ibis | Corocoras rojas (Eudocimus ruber)’ is © Fernando Flores and used under a CC by-sa licence.