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.

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.

The Forlorn Adventure by Amir Falique

This is my book from Brunei for the Read The World challenge. Brunei is one of the countries which is particularly difficult to find books from; so when I found this self-published ‘science fiction thriller’ on Amazon I snapped it up.

It is the story of A’jon, a man chosen to be Brunei’s first astronaut because of his expertise in cryptography. His mission is caught up in Dramatic Events, and [SPOILER ALERT, I guess], he is put in suspended animation for 500 years, floating in space, before being revived and brought back to earth where his cryptographic expertise once more gets him involved in Dramatic Events and [even more SPOILERY] he saves the world.

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Sadly it’s not very good; it’s the kind of book that makes people suspicious of self-publishing. This is a sample of the clunky prose and dialogue:

A’jon grabbed his fork and drove it into the middle of the plate. He twirled the fork several times until he grabbed the right amount, and then lifted it without a strand hanging and put it in his mouth. He was careful to not drop any of the sauce and get his new clothes dirty. His tongue reacted instantly to the food. “Mmm, that’s delicious!” he said while chewing the first bite.

“Makes me proud to be an Asian. Pasta originated from China before it was brought to Italy. It’s amazing how the combination of water and wheat can form such remarkable dough. You can mold it into almost any shape you like — fusilli, tagliatelle, ziti, rice vermicelli.”

With each bite, A’jon wrapped as much of the cheesy sauce round his tongue as he could before the flavor disappeared.

I’m resisting the urge to really pull this book apart; because it’s a soft target, and also because its flaws are essentially innocuous. It’s not particularly annoying or offensive, it’s just badly written.

» The picture is of the teapot roundabout in Kuala Belait, Brunei. It is © Rachel Walker and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

Dante International by Sharon Kasanda

Dante International is my book from Namibia for the Read The World challenge.

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A few months ago, I picked a detective novel for Malaysia because I thought it would make a good change to read newly released genre fiction rather than decades-old literary stuff. This is what I said about that book:

21 Immortals was a silly choice, really. Not because of the book itself, which is fine I guess, but because I have never understood the appeal of crime fiction (or indeed the even more depressing genre, ‘true crime’). I’m just not very interested in the grisly murders themselves or the police procedural/CSI stuff. The Malaysian setting gave it some novelty value, but otherwise it was a pretty standard example of the genre and so it largely left me cold.

Apparently I do not learn from my mistakes.

Dante International is not actually a detective novel — the central character is not a sleuth — but it is a crime novel/thriller; women are being murdered in Windhoek and suspicion falls on their boss, an attractive, sexually incontinent self-made businessman called Dante Dumeno.

It was readable enough, I guess, but not really my kind of thing. And I had some problems with the portrayal of Dante, who is a manipulative bullying sexual predator… but apparently we’re supposed to find that attractive in a bad-boy sort of way?

» The photo is Onymacris marginipennis (Breme, 1840), © Udo Schmidt and used under a CC by-sa licence. It’s a beetle from Namibia.

Bird of the Year 2013

Notable birds from last year: Whitethroat was a new one for the garden list; a fine male Red-backed Shrike at Barnes WWT was a real treat (and incidentally a London tick).

A Glossy Ibis was the first I’d seen in Britain although I didn’t get great views of it.

Bonaparte’s Gull — an American species — was a first for me, although it was a distant bird in winter plumage that had to be pointed out to me, so it was nice but not as exciting as it could be.

I picked up the two ‘other buzzards’ this year: Rough-legged Buzzard, which was a new species for me, but came with just enough niggling doubt that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have. Firstly because it was in May, which is pretty late for RLB, although by no means ridiculous. And also because I had good but brief views, which gave me time to note down enough key ID features to count it as RLB but not quite all the details I would have wanted, ideally, to tick a new species. In this case, I noted the wing and tail pattern carefully but didn’t make a mental note of any markings on the chest and belly… and it’s amazing how, even a few seconds after seeing something, if you didn’t consciously pick out a relevant detail, there’s no way you can recover it from memory. Birdwatching really undermines your faith in the idea of eye-witness testimony.

The other other buzzard, by contrast, was the ideal sighting. It was a Honey Buzzard which was spooked up into the air by a passing Common Buzzard, so the two of them were flying around together for a minute or so, giving me the chance to make a direct comparison of size, shape, and behaviour; and gratifyingly, my mental notes matched up pretty perfectly with the ID features listed in the book. Very satisfying. And that was a British tick for me, although I have seen Honey Buzzard before in France.

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But my bird of the year for 2013 was Spotted Crake; a new species for me, an attractive bird, and one which showed well — after a long and patient wait for it to show itself. I’ve spent a lot of time staring into ditches over the years, and it doesn’t always pay off; but this time it did.

» That’s not my photo, sadly. It is © Noel Reynolds and used under a CC-by licence. You can see a photo of the actual individual bird I saw at this post, if you want, but I needed a CC-licensed photo.

Garlicky herby creamed aubergine

A way of cooking aubergines I invented — although it’s pretty similar to various middle-eastern dishes that already exist.

This recipe starts by roasting and mashing three large aubergines (eggplants). So if you’ve never done that: basically just chuck the whole aubergines into a hot oven for maybe 45 minutes. They visibly collapse in on themselves. Scoop out the cooked interior and chop it in a colander to drain off some liquid, then mash it up with a fork or something.

That’s the base of the dish.

I fried three cloves of crushed garlic and a finely chopped shallot — you don’t have to cook them too hard, you just don’t want them to be raw — and mixed that in with the aubergine purée, plus a few spoonfuls of yoghurt and a bit of salt. Then heated it through, and stirred in chopped parsley, coriander (cilantro) and chives — perhaps a handful of each. And it was very nice.

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