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.

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:

The 7th annual Christmas stuffing post

It’s time for the most pointless Christmas tradition of them all! We’re having goose this year instead of turkey, but naturally I’m doing stuffing to go with it.

As usual I’ve made two versions using a base of sausagemeat. Normally they both have sausage, onion, celery, breadcrumbs and egg, but my sister isn’t eating wheat, so this time I skipped the breadcrumbs. Hopefully it won’t adversely affect the texture too much.

I was bored of doing chestnut and mushroom, but my mother insisted that the meal had to include chestnuts somewhere, so one stuffing is apple and chestnut. It has Bramley apple, chestnuts, parsley, thyme, some Calvados and the liver from the goose.

The other one is a repeat from 2007: cherry, apricot, almond and ginger. Dried apricots and sour cherries, some almonds, candied stem ginger, a pinch of mixed spice and some brandy. Oh and the cherries were a bit old so I soaked them in Grand Marnier overnight first.

Books of the year 2011

I guess if I was a newspaper I would have published this rather earlier to serve as Christmas gift buying suggestions. Still, friends and family be damned, you can always buy them for yourself as New Year presents.

As ever, these are just a handful of the books that I enjoyed this year; for a more comprehensive list you can browse my archives or check out the even more comprehensive list on Goodreads.

The Read The World challenge came up trumps this year with a couple of absolutely cracking books — as well as some deeply mediocre ones. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas is just a perfect short novel about childhood and landscape and loss. One of the best novels I have read for a long time. And on the non-fiction side, Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich was also brilliant: interesting, tragic, sometimes darkly funny and surreal, and brilliantly written.

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa was a genuinely remarkable bit of writing — I can see why people rave about it — but it didn’t give me quite as much pure pleasure because it felt a bit like hard work at times.

Looking back over the year, there are a couple of non-fiction books that stand out less for their literary merit than their topicality: Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, and Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson. Nick Davies is the Guardian journalist whose stories helped bring down the News of the World, and Flat Earth News is his book about British newspaper culture. It was written three years ago, before the latest round of that particular scandal broke, but it still provides plenty of useful insights into the industry. Treasure Islands, a book about tax havens, didn’t actually get me very excited at the time I read it — I only gave it three stars on Goodreads! — but it has been sort of bubbling away at the back of my mind ever since. Especially because, thanks to the Occupy movement and UK Uncut, corporate tax avoidance is very much on the political agenda.

I think Lee Jackson’s anthology, Daily Life in Victorian London, deserves a mention, both because it’s really good — I kept reading bits out to people — and because of what it represents about the rapidly changing face of publishing, as a self-published ebook which is as good as any anthology I’ve read for years.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2011

It’s that time of year again. Time for some citizen science! I got off to a great start with two siskins, and ended up with a respectable 17 species:

Blue Tit × 6
Great Tit × 4
Long-tailed Tit × 3

Chaffinch × 5
Greenfinch × 7
Goldfinch × 3
Siskin × 2

Dunnock

Robin

Blackbird

Nuthatch × 2

Woodpigeon × 2
Feral Pigeon × 4
Collared Dove

Great-spotted Woodpecker × 2
Green Woodpecker

Magpie × 2

Collared dove is a new one for the BGBW; it’s a species that only turns up in the garden very occasionally. As always a few regular species failed to show: coal tit, goldcrest, jay and most surprisingly, ring-necked parakeet. But it was still a good year.

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