bird of the year 2006: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

All those rainforest plants were nice, and I enjoyed taking wildflower photos while I was in Spain. But, not least because it’s nice to pick a winner that I can actually identify, I’m going for the Galapagos Prickly Pear, Opuntia echios. On islands where there are giant tortoises and land iguanas, they’ve evolved woody trunks and have fierce spines; on other islands they don’t have the trunks and they have soft bendy spines. And I enjoyed taking macro pictures of them, like this bit of trunk:

Best Insect

There were some great butterflies in the jungle – notably spectacular blue morphos – and a particularly striking leaf-mimicking moth, but my winner is the Painted Locust.

Best Invertebrate (other)

The shortlist would include the tarantula I saw in the rainforest – a first for me – the Chocolate Chip Sea Star and Galapagos Slipper Lobster (curious-looking and tasty), but the undoubted star in this category was the Sally Lightfoot Crab.

Best Fish

Piranha deserves a mention, even if I didn’t see one actually in the water, and it was very gratifying to see sharks swimming long with just their fins sticking out of the water, like what they do in the movies. But I had two special fish in the Galapagos this year. For the first, we were anchored off an island at night. Lots of fish had been attracted to the boat’s lights, and they in turn had attracted sea-lions and turtles, so we were watching them splashing around in the phosphorescence. Every so often there would be a splash where one of the sea-lions was swimming and a trail of phosphorescence would shoot off, zig-zagging over the water. It took me a few occasions to realise that they were flying fish. Which was cool.

The other came when I was trying to track down something splashing in the distance — I thought it was probably a dolphin, but I kept missing it or not seeing it well enough to identify. When I finally got binoculars on it, I was stunned to realise it was a manta ray leaping clear of the water. Later on in the trip we saw them a bit closer, and it was an absolute thrill. They don’t look like the most aerodynamic beasties, and it’s extraordinary seeing them launch themselves and twist in midair before crashing back into the water. Manta ray and flying fish are both species I’ve wanted to see for a very long time, but the manta wins the award for best fish of 2006.

Best Amphibian

A teeny-weeny poison arrow frog in the rainforest.

Best Reptile

It’s all Galapagos in this category: the shortlist is Green Turtle, Land Iguana, Marine Iguana and Giant Tortoise. It’s always nice to see turtles, and especially to swim with them, but I’ve seen them before. The three Galapagos specialities are all among the most desirable reptile species in the world. The tortoises are fun, and even bigger than you expect; the land iguana is a striking-looking beast. But it’s the marine iguanas which really stand out.

The fact that they’re lizards which swim out to sea to feed would almost be enough to win them the category, but they’re one of the continual pleasures of visiting the islands; you have to be careful not to step on them, they’re so indifferent to your presence. And you see them in great scaly drifts draped all over the lava, occasionally sneezing out the excess salt or aggressively nodding their heads at each other but mainly spending their time basking in the sun like hungover English tourists. They have a rugged, rock-hewn saurian quality that makes them seem like survivors from a distant epoch, which is misleading since in fact the islands, by evolutionary standards, are relatively young.

Best Mammal

I saw squirrels and monkeys in the jungle, and in another year those might be in contention for Best Mammal. And then there was the dozens and dozens of Bottle-nosed Dolphins and False Killer Whales that turned up unexpectedly one morning and which swam around the dinghy for us to see, or the dolphins that rode the bow-wave of the ship, jumping and twisting. But there can be no doubt that the Galapagos Sea Lion is the winner this year. It’s such a treat to be able to just wander past these animals and have them pay you no attention but just get on with playing, suckling their pups (cubs?) or most often just lying around.

The babies are fantastically cute, and the males are imposing, but the general impression is big furry bolsters — until you’re snorkelling along and suddenly a sea lion swims past underneath and looks up at you, and you realise that they’re sleek, graceful, muscular, and quite large. I found having a sea lion stick it’s nose up to my snorkel mask exciting but just a little bit intimidating. I think that’s a good thing; it’s good to be reminded from time to time that animals are not toys or pets or little furry people, but something quite alien. We tend to see animals in a human context, as food, pests, entertainment, ‘endangered species’; it’s good to feel like the outsider in their environment.

Best Ecosystem

Andalusia in spring was gorgeous. The marsh itself, with nightingales and Cetti’s warblers singing in every bush, and the sun on the water; the dry scrubby stuff with Dartford Warblers and Red-legged Partridge, and possibly best of all, sandy pine woodlands, with the amazing contrast between the glare of the noon sun and the deep shade, and the noise of bees and crickets in the heat.

And the lava fields of the Galapagos are like nowhere else on earth. It’s not a gentle landscape — uneven, sunbaked rock with the occasional cactus or thornbush hanging on as best it can — but the ripples and flows of the lava are endlessly fascinating. It’s geology made ridiculously simple; you can just look at it and see how it formed. And it brings home the endless capacity of life to find a way to live in unpromising places; the cacti colonising the bare rock before soil has a chance to form, the mangroves on the beach, and sea lions, seabirds, iguanas, sea stars, crabs and fish on the little fringe where the land meets the sea. And it’s not just interesting; it has a real beauty to it. It’s dramatic and odd and textured.

But my ecosystem of the year was none of those; it was the Ecuadorian cloudforest. I mean, it’s a rainforest with spectacular mountain views: how can you go wrong? The birds are actually sometimes at eye-level, unlike the lowland forest, and the temperatures are very moderate, even chilly sometimes. The humidity is such that plants just grow everywhere; you get the feeling that if you nodded off up on the mountain, you’d wake up covered in moss. There are trees up there which are so covered in epiphytes, bromeliads, moss, ferns and creepers that you can only roughly tell where the trunk and branches are. And every so often the cloud closes in, and instead of spectacular vistas, the world shrinks right down so it’s just you and the mist and a lot of weird calls from invisible birds.

I don’t have a photo which does justice to the vegetation (my camera batteries died), but here are some mountains:

(my) bird of the year, 2006

While I’m rounding up 2006.

2006 was a pretty good birding year for me, mainly because of my trip to Andalusia at Easter and Galapagos/Ecuador in the autumn. But I did get one lifer in Britain this year, which for a rather occasional, fair weather birder like me was very exciting. That was Horned Grebe (what used to be called Slavonian Grebe), which I saw in the sea off Hampshire when I was visiting my sister last month. But a winter-plumage grebe some way out to sea isn’t going to be my bird of the year, nice though it was (and the grebes are a great family of birds).

The new birds I saw in Spain were particularly exciting because I’ve been using European bird guides for 20 years now, and the birds in the guide which are not found in the UK have a particular glamour for me. However gorgeous the bird, if you’ve never heard of it before you see it, it’s not as exciting as something you’ve wanted to see for decades.

The three best birds on that trip were probably Collared Pratincole, Azure-winged Magpie, and Royal Tern. For once, I can illustrate a bird with a picture of my own. This is a Collared Pratincole:

It’s one of those appealing animals that has rather obviously evolved away from the standard model of its ancestors into a different niche. As I said about this photo on Flickr, “Runs like a plover, flies like a tern.” Pratincoles are waders, like plovers and sandpipers, but at some point in their evolutionary history they took to catching insects on the wing. Perched they look like rather stretched plovers; in flight their long, pointed wings and agile flight make them look like terns or swallows.

Azure-winged Magpie is just a beautiful bird. Like most crows, they have a bit of personality, but it’s those incredible blue wings and tail that make them special. And Royal Tern is a rarity; a basically new world species that also breeds on the Atlantic coast of Africa (Mauritania, I think, but don’t quote me on it) and occasionally turns up on the south coast of Spain, where I saw it. So that was cool.

The Galapagos was full of good stuff, of course. The total list wasn’t that huge (53), but there were some classy birds on it.

Some species worthy of note:

Everyone’s favourite Galapagos bird, the Blue-footed Booby. It has blue feet! And a silly name! Flightless Cormorant – for me, the name says it all. Woodpecker Finch – the least finch-like of the ‘Darwin finches’, and so the most striking example of adaptive radiation. Swallow-tailed Gull- the world’s only nocturnal gull. And frigatebirds, which I’ve seen a few times before but are just one of my favourite families of birds.

It was also just a pleasure to be at sea for a week and be able to watch real marine species, the kind that only come to land to breed: shearwaters, petrels and storm petrels. I’ve seen other shearwater species a few times before, and they’re great things. They ride the air currents just above the waves, whipping along stiff-winged with one wing-tip practically touching the water surface and occasionally swivelling from one side to the other. But to see storm petrels was one of various lifetime ambitions fulfilled on that trip (I have a lot of wildlife-related lifetime ambitions, so I’m not going to run out anytime soon), and they weren’t a disappointment. Whereas shearwaters seem perfectly suited to the rigours of the open ocean — all wing, seeming to travel effortlessly with just the tiniest movements — storm petrels are delicate little fluttery birds. The Japanese call them umi-tsubame: sea swallows. Their cutest habit is ‘walking’ on the water – flying just above the sea with their feet pattering on the surface whille they look for food. I could happily watch them for hours.

And so to Ecuador. Birding in the tropics is just extraordinary: the sheer number of species makes it quite unlike birding up here in the north. And so many of them are colourful (parrots, toucans, hummingbirds, trogons, quetzals, tanagers) or just excitingly different (woodcreepers, spinetails, antbirds, antpittas, tapaculos). The birds that stand out in memory include Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Long-billed Woodcreeper, Grass-green Tanager, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, and perhaps the cutest bird in the whole world, the Booted Racket-tail.

But for my bird of year, we’re going back to the Galapagos and the Waved Albatross:

To see albatross was another lifetime ambition. They are the epitome of wildness; breeding on remote rocky islands in the southern oceans and spending most of their time out at sea. And they’re big; Waved isn’t the biggest species, but it still has a 7′ 7″ wingspan. When one of those flies low overhead, as they did when we were on the island where they breed, it’s a special moment. It was great to see them on land and get a really good view of them, and particularly to see them ‘dancing’: the pair mirrors each other movements and go through a whole repertoire of posing, beak-rattling, throwing their heads back, leaning one way and the other. But for me it was especially satisfying that I saw my first one at sea. We were out on deck looking for whales and the albatross went past quite unexpectedly — it was the opposite end of the archipelago from where they breed — and as soon as I was sure I screamed ‘Albatross! Albatross!’; largely, it has to be said, to the bemusement of all the non-birders around me. That moment, when you suddenly see a bird you really want, is such a rush. I’m sure it taps into millions of years of our ancestors’ hunting instincts. But I’m not picking Waved Albatross as my bird of the year just because it gave me an adrenaline hit. It was a special bird.

Fave books of 2006

It’s end-of-year list time. These weren’t all first published this year, and I daresay I’ve forgotten some, but they are at least all books I’d recommend. In no particular order:

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama.

I blogged about this before. Simon is a serious historian (rather than, say, a journalist who writes occasional books) who writes brilliantly and is a firm believer in the virtues of a narrative approach to history. So I think he’s usually worth checking out. In this case I think he does a really good job telling the life of Rembrandt and establishing it in context. As a bonus, the book is full of gorgeous glossy plates of the paintings — it would almost be worth buying for the pictures alone.

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.

Another one I blogged about earlier. I’ll just quote some of what I said then: “Oliver Sacks fans will remember Temple Grandin as the autistic slaughterhouse designer in An Anthropologist on Mars. She has a particular affinity with animals and has used her talent for understanding them to help her design corrals, feedlots and slaughterhouses which are less stressful for the animals. The subtitle of Animals in Translation is ‘Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior’. Grandin uses her insights as an autistic person to help explain how animals behave and in the process explores the nature of autism itself.”

A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley.

The title is an accurate description of the book. On the basis that everything people do is shaped by their times, I guess you could write a social history of English anything – theatre, banking, food – and there would be plenty of subject matter. But cricket does seem especially appropriate, and not just because it’s a stereotypically English pursuit.

The reason cricket neatly brings out some of the tensions in English society is that cricket was the one sport that attempted to combine amateurs and professionals. Of the other English sports, football quickly became a commercial activity, played and watched by mainly working-class men in professional leagues dominated by the great industrial cities. Rugby split into two sports: Rugby League (professional, working class) and Rugby Union (amateur, middle class). But cricket rose to prominence in the gambling culture of the C18th with aristocrats fielding teams against each other for high stakes, and the teams would include talented men from their estates or the local villages – grooms and blacksmiths and so on – who were paid to play. So from the beginning there was a culture of gentlemen amateurs and working class pros in the same team. Given the class-riddled state of English society for most of the past 250 years, a staggering amount of hypocrisy and doublethink was the result.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by Wendy Jones.

The memoirs of the Turner Prize winning potter. I blogged about this before here and here.

Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stainton.

A well-written biography of an interesting man I didn’t know much about before. Being a gay socialist modernist poet from one of the most conservative regions of Spain in the 1920s and 30s didn’t exactly make Lorca’s life easy. But it does make for an involving story. The poetry was interesting too, though it’s the kind of work that leaves you wondering how much you’re missing in translation.

The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

A book about cooking meat which combines practical information — the various cuts, how to choose the best meat and the underlying principles of different cooking methods — with information about different meat production methods and labelling schemes and a thoughtful consideration of the ethical aspects of buying and eating meat. And indeed a lot of recipes and a list of high-quality meat suppliers. A rare example of a food book which manages to be much more than just a list of recipes.

And finally, a book which I didn’t buy or read for the first time this year but deserves a plug – the Collins Bird Guide (to the birds of Britain and Europe) by Lars Svensson, Peter J. Grant, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom. I’ve had the book for a bit, but I was struck again by how good it is when I was in Spain this year. You never quite know how good a field guide is until you use it, and this one seems to consistently provide the right information to allow you identify the bird you’re looking at. The illustrations are excellent and the text is thorough and lucid. I’ve used plenty of different field guides over the years, of insects and flowers and birds from different parts of the world. This is certainly the best of them.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2006

If you’re in the UK, there’s still time to do the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2006 this weekend. Just watch your garden or local park for an hour, record all the bird species and what the maximum number you saw at one time was, and submit the results to the RSPB.

This year I saw:

blue tit – 6
great tit – 3
coal tit – 1

siskin – 3
chaffinch – 7
greenfinch – 5
goldfinch – 2

nuthatch – 1
wren – 1
dunnock – 1
goldcrest – 1
robin – 1

jay – 1
magpie – 1
carrion crow – 2

great spotted woodpecker – 2
ring-necked parakeet – 2
feral pigeon – 8

song thrush – 1
blackbird – 3

which isn’t bad. Marginally better than last year, though I’m interested to see I had three starlings last year, because there aren’t any around at the moment. Still no house sparrows, sadly. I’ve seen one about 5 minutes walk away, so perhaps in a year or two they’ll be back here.

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