Bird of the Year 2012

Starting with my garden, the most surprising record was a woodcock. Sadly not tickable, because it looked like this:

Presumably the fox got it. Which is a pity, although if it hadn’t I never would have known the woodcock had visited.

The other notable bird, also nocturnal and also slightly frustrating, was a little owl. I knew they were breeding nearby: I still haven’t seen one, but I did hear one calling when were eating in the garden this summer. So that’s one for the garden list.

Widening out a bit, I had my first local wheatear, in Crystal Palace Park, and great views of a firecrest in Dulwich Woods.

I suppose strictly speaking my ‘best’ London bird last year was probably a pair of common scoter, on the river at Rainham Marshes. Other nice London sightings: tawny owl in Kensington Gardens, a big flock of yellow wagtails at Barnes, green sandpiper at Crayford Marshes.

And, not-in-London-by-any-sensible-definition-but-within-the-London-Natural-History-Society-Recording-Area: I started off the year by finally managing to track down a lesser-spotted woodpecker at Bookham Common, after many attempts, and then a couple of weeks later also managed to see hawfinch there.

A fulmar at Oare Creek, brought down by bad weather, was an unexpected bonus.

My rarest bird of the year, and a spectacular species, was this:

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I know, isn’t that just the most amazing… oh hang on a minute, let me zoom that in a bit for you:

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It’s the one on the left, a red-breasted goose, one of the most beautiful birds in the world. And actually I had a better view of it than the photo would suggest: the iPhone/binocular combo doesn’t really do it justice.

But it’s not my bird of the year, because firstly, there’s every chance it’s not a wild bird; they are common in ornamental wildfowl collections so it’s possible it’s an escape. It was consorting with a huge flock of wild Brent Geese who had come in from Siberia, so that is in its favour, but who knows.

Also, because they are common in collections, I have seen many of them before, even if I haven’t seen wild ones. Also taken with my phone, no need for binoculars:

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And I went to twitch it, which is never quite as exciting as finding something for yourself.

No, I think my bird of the year ought to be the one which I was actually most excited by, which was: turtle dove.

Turtle doves have been in horrendous decline, down over 95% in the UK since 1970, and when I found one at Oare I was just thrilled. It was just completely unexpected — although when I pointed it out to a local birder they were totally unimpressed, so perhaps I should have been expecting it. But that would have made it less fun.

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And they are just lovely birds.

That’s not my picture, sadly; Tórtola común 30 de junio de 2011 is © Paco Gómez and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Bird of the Year 2012: best performances in a supporting role

I guess I should post this before the end of January. Not a lot of outstanding sightings to report, though.

Best Plant

I was quite tickled to see some Marsh Mallow plants down in Kent. Because, yes, they are the original stuff that marshmallows were made from.

Best Insect

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This Poplar Hawkmoth was a pleasing find, and my most unexpected sighting was probably a Marbled White just across the road — are they breeding somewhere nearby? was it lost? — but insect of the year might as well be Swollen-thighed Beetle, Oedemera nobilis:

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Because it’s a fun-looking thing, because it has a great name, and because I posted a picture of it on Twitter and the Natural History Museum popped up to tell me what it was. I took that picture when I was out birding, although I later found more of them in the garden, so its clearly a common enough critter. Fun though.

Best Reptile

I went on a twitch to see the Baillon’s Crake which was at Rainham Marshes for a few days. I didn’t see the crake, but while I sat for about three hours in a packed hide staring at the fringes of the water, I did at least see a grass snake. Which was a nice treat.

Best Mammal

There are various places I regularly go which supposedly have water voles, but you hardly ever actually see them; or if you do it’s just a brown nose swimming across a channel from one reedbed to another. But on the same abortive crake twitch, I did find a couple of voles, sitting calm as you like just about eight feet from the path, chewing away at some iris leaves.  In fact if I hadn’t stopped to watch them for a while, I might conceivably have seen the crake, which showed not long before I got there… but it was still nice to see the voles.

Best Invertebrate (other), Best Fish, Best Amphibian, Best Ecosystem

I got nothin’.

Books of the year 2012

Now I list (most of) the books I read on Goodreads, it’s pretty easy to glance back over the books I read in 2012. And I can report the sad fact that I didn’t give a single book a five star rating last year. As the person who gives those scores, I know exactly what a crude measure of quality they are; but still, it suggests that there wasn’t anything which absolutely blew me away, and looking over the list, that seems about right.

Plenty of good stuff, though. At the less literary end, there were two books about public health issues which I found particularly thought-provoking: David Nutt’s Drugs without the Hot Air, which assesses drugs policy in the light of the evidence, and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma, about institutional sources of distortion in drug research.

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It is a good compilation of interviews with Londoners by Craig Taylor. The other London book I particularly enjoyed this year was Birds in London by W.H. Hudson, from 1898; but that might be sitting at rather a niche intersection of interests to recommend for general readers.

Sporting memoirs are a particularly frustrating genre. You always hope that they will offer some genuine insight into the backstage world, and they turn out to be anodyne pap. Andre Agassi’s Open is unusually honest and unusually good.

The Read The World challenge meant yet more first-person accounts of political upheaval. A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek is immediate, raw, and a bit rough around the edges; From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe is more literary and polished.

More far-flung politics in The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah; Ghana this time, and dense, spiky fiction rather than memoir.

One of the absolute stand-out novels that I read in the past few years was Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Gilead couldn’t quite live up to it; but it’s still a very fine novel.

Other novels worth at least a mention: The Lighthouse by Alison Moore; The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst; Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka. None of them are perfect but they’re all worth reading.

And I don’t seem to have read much poetry this year, but I particularly enjoyed Patricia Lockwood’s Balloon Pop Outlaw Black.

London Film Festival 2012, personal roundup

I do enjoy the LFF: interesting films, cinemas full of largely well-behaved audiences, and no ads or trailers. I went to five films this year, this is what I thought of them. Obviously.

Reality

An Italian film about a Naples fishmonger and petty criminal who becomes dangerously obsessed with appearing on the reality show Big Brother (or, strictly speaking, Grande Fratello). It’s funny and odd and well acted, and it looks terrific, with Naples providing a backdrop of decayed grandeur. I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending, but overall I thought it was really good.

Helter Skelter

A film about a hugely popular model with a dark secret: her looks are entirely produced by a radical, dangerous form of plastic surgery. On one level it’s a satire, but it does the classic exploitation movie thing of supposedly decrying our cultural obsession with youth and beauty while the camera lingers lasciviously on the face and body of the star.

The messaging is clunkingly heavy handed, and it’s stylistically and tonally very uneven, but it was good salacious fun. Personally I think it needed to be even more unapologetically salacious and exploitative; you could surely cut half an hour of the more ponderous stuff to give a tighter focus on the sex, violence and body horror.

Tey [‘Today’]

A Senegalese film about a man who, for reasons which are never explained, knows that he is going to die at the end of the day. Someone has seen it in a vision or something, and it’s somehow an honour, but it’s never made clear: all we know is that he’s not going to wake up the next morning. I don’t know whether this is a cultural trope that a Senegalese audience would find familiar, or if it’s intended to be as strange as it seems to me.

The film is then about what he decides to do with his last day; some of it mundane, some parts more profound, and all of it freighted with extra significance. Odd but quite effective.

Midnight’s Children

The film of what must be Salman Rushdie’s most popular novel, if not his most famous (somehow I don’t think that one is going to be made into a film any time soon).

It started off well, but lost me along the way. It’s a big fat complicated novel that takes place over multiple generations, and the film failed to hold it all together. It didn’t help that for much of the film, a lot of the heavy lifting is being done by child actors. And because the lives of these children, born at the moment of Indian independence, are supposed to parallel modern Indian history, we get that history explained to us with big dollops of expository voiceover.

Overall, though, it just seemed a bit one-paced. And considering the richness of the original novel and the fireworks of Rushdie’s prose, it was just a bit tame and conventional. Perhaps it was a mistake for Rushdie to write the script himself, or perhaps it needed a different director.

Village at the End of the World

An Anglo-Danish documentary about a village in Greenland. It’s a brutal environment, and life is marginal at the best of times, but also they are dealing with the closure of the small fish-processing plant that was their main source of income, and global warming is making the ice treacherous for hunting in winter.

It’s funnier and warmer than that makes it sound, mainly because they found some great characters. And it helps that it just looks amazing: bleak but beautiful, glowing in the summer, and of course completely dark in winter, with just the windows lit up against in the night.

It’s partially an environmental documentary, and partially a film about tensions between tradition and modernity, and a record of a life that will no doubt be very different, again, in a few years time. But above all it’s beautifully made and enjoyable to watch.

Read The World challenge: status report, 2012

August 1st marked four years of the Read The World challenge. Last time I did a status report was two years ago: at that point I calculated that, at the rate I was reading them, it would take me another four years to finish.

Well, I’ve done the sums again, and at the current rate it’s going to take me… another four years. Hmmm.

However, leaving aside the fact that I don’t appear to be getting any closer to the finish line, I have read a few good books in the meantime — as well as some that were a bit of a chore.

The two outstanding books were Voices from Chernobyl, which is a fascinating, moving and poetic piece of non-fiction, and The Ice Palace, which is a poetic short novel about childhood and loss and winter.

The fact I use the word ‘poetic’ for both of my favourites says something about my literary biases. Or the poverty of my vocabulary.

Other books that stand out in my memory when I look back over the list (which may not be the same as saying they were the best books):

Born in Tibet and The Sands of Oxus were both interesting from a cultural tourism point of view more than for their literary merit.

Noli Me Tangere and This Earth of Mankind are good old-fashioned novels from the Philippines and Malaysia respectively. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Cities of Salt are somewhat more contemporary examples from Ghana and Jordan.*

Three good childhood memoirs: Shadows of your Black Memory is about growing up caught between Catholicism and traditional religion in Equatorial Guinea; The Devil that Danced on the Water is written by the daughter of a politician in Sierra Leone who spent much of her childhood in exile in the UK; and From the Land of Green Ghosts is about growing up in a remote part of Burma and being involved as a student in the 1988 political uprising that was brutally crushed by the government.

* Stylistically contemporary at least: I thought I should check, and was surprised to find Beautyful Ones was actually published before This Earth of Mankind. But even apart from the fact that This Earth of Mankind is set at the end of the C19th, it just feels like a much more traditional novel.

» The Mappa Mundi game is from the V&A.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2012

It’s time for some citizen science again. I got 19 species, which turns out to equal my previous best. Not that I saw anything very surprising; it was mainly that I didn’t miss any of the very common species. As usual, the counts are for the maximum present at any one time.

feral pigeon × 5
woodpigeon × 5

blue tit × 5
great tit × 2
long-tailed tit
coal tit

chaffinch × 4
greenfinch × 2
goldfinch

robin × 2
wren
dunnock × 2
starling × 2

blackbird × 4
mistle thrush

great spotted woodpecker × 2
ring-necked parakeet × 3

carrion crow
magpie × 3

There’s certainly scope to beat that number — jay might be the most obvious missing species, and heron, goldcrest, green woodpecker, siskin, sparrowhawk, song thrush, collared dove, stock dove and nuthatch are all entirely plausible — but I’d have to get fairly lucky.

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