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.

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.

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

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2009

My list for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch:

Blue tit 3
Great tit 2
Long-tailed tit 2

Chaffinch 2

Robin 2
Dunnock 1

Magpie 1
Carrion crow 4

Green woodpecker 1

Town pigeon 4
Woodpigeon 2

Sparrowhawk 1

Which is basically pretty rubbish — it was very quiet today — but is livened up by a couple of decent species: sparrowhawk, which is increasingly common around here but by no means something I see in the garden often, and green woodpecker, which it turns out I have seen once before on a BGBW, but was still pleasing.

Most ridiculous gap on that list: blackbird. I mean, come on. Almost as surprising, no ring-necked parakeet.

Lots of possibles that didn’t show: wren, goldcrest, goldfinch, nuthatch, coal tit, great-spotted woodpecker.  The garden has been weirdly short of birds for the past two or three years, though. We used to have lots of starlings: I’ve seen about two this year. Same with greenfinches. There used to be lots more chaffinches. I haven’t seen siskin this year.

I don’t know why this is true, but it’s faintly depressing. Ho-hum.

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