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.

Bird of the Year 2013: best performances in a supporting role

Even later than usual, but I thought I should at least get the first post out in time for the Oscars.

Best Plant

I spent quite a lot of time last year looking at flowers and butterflies. The names alone are a joy: sainfoin, silverweed, sanicle, harebell, yellow rattle, round-headed rampion, devil’s bit scabious, horseshoe vetch.

I saw at least eight orchid species: fragrant, common-spotted, pyramidal, and man orchid; twayblade, white helleborine, green-flowered helleborine (though not fully open, sadly), and tiny but charming, Autumn Lady’s Tresses:

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There were actually hundreds of them at Rye Harbour, and I tried to get a picture with a cluster, but my iPhone’s autofocus just couldn’t cope.

It was nice to see sundew for the first time in a while; there’s something deeply fascinating about carnivorous plants:

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And perhaps the instinct to choose something a bit rare or unusual is a bad one; for sheer pleasure, it’s hard to beat the green glow of the sun shining through young beech leaves, or a sweep of bright gold coconut-smelling gorse flowers.

But my stand-out plant of the year is a curious flower called Grass Vetchling, one I’d never heard of before I saw it. What’s fascinating about it is that it really does look incredibly like a piece of grass… except with a gorgeous little magenta flower on it.

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That photo is © –Tico– and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. You can get a clearer idea of just how much the plant looks like grass from the photo is this blog post (click for a larger version). It almost looks like an example of bio-mimicry, but it’s hard to imagine the evolutionary advantage of looking like grass.

Best Insect

Last summer I made a particular effort to look for butterflies, sometimes with my father, who is keen on them; specifically, I made it a bit of a project for us to see a Purple Emperor,  the UK’s most glamorous butterfly. And after a slightly miserable wet spring, the summer was properly hot and it turned out to be a particularly good year for butterflies. There were some amazing numbers of Purple Emperor being seen in a wood in Northamptonshire, so we made the pilgrimage up there, and sure enough we saw dozens in flight and several sitting on the ground flashing their purple at us.

I also got several other firsts this year: amazing iridescent Adonis Blues, in their hundredson Malling Down although, it being a cool day, all sitting on the ground; the much less spectacular Silver-studded Blue in huge numbers on Chobham Common, Brown Argus, Silver-spotted Skipper and Dark Green Fritillary, plus Grayling and Wall, which I’m sure I’ve seen before but possible not in the UK. It was also a good year for Clouded Yellow, and I saw quite a few of those fluttering around the north Kent saltmarshes. In total, I saw 35 species of butterfly in the UK last year, which is surely a personal record.

Also a few non-butterfly insects of note: the amazing iridescent green Rose Chafer beetle and its less exciting relative the Garden Chafer; a couple of longhorn beetles, Rutpela maculata and Agapanthia villosoviridescens, and a longhorn moth, Adela croesella. The striking Golden-ringed Dragonfly, and the Ruddy Darter, which I’ve no doubt seen before but now know how to distinguish from its commoner relatives. And best of all, the fabulous Beautiful Demoiselle.

It involved a long trip to a slightly dingy bit of woodland after several failed attempts elsewhere, and was therefore just a tiny bit more stressful than butterfly-hunting should be, but I think I have to award Insect Of The Year to Purple Emperor. Because it really was the fulfilment of a lifetime ambition. For me and my father.

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The photo is © Paul Ritchie and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Best Invertebrate (other)

I actually had a non-insect invertebrate as a target species last summer: the Wasp Spider. But despite several attempts, I couldn’t find one.

So the winner is the edible snail, Helix pomatia. And yes, it is the big fat one commonly eaten with garlic sauce. Known as Roman Snail, because it was introduced to the UK by the Romans — presumably as a foodstuff — and there are still a few in the south of England.

Best Reptile

I saw an adder briefly as it disappeared into a bush. So that was good.

Best Fish

Can’t think of anything for this category.

Best Amphibian

There was masses of toadspawn in the pond this year, and the toadlets were very cute, so I guess toad is the winner by default.

Best Mammal

Otters have made a comeback over the past few decades, but you never actually see them. But I was in the Lee Valley during the January cold spell, and I saw something walking over the ice, and for a moment I thought perhaps the extreme weather had forced one out into the open during the day… and of course it was an [introduced, American] mink. Still, it was an exciting moment and an attractive animal in its own right.

Best Ecosystem

Biodiversity is a marvellous concept burdened with a terrible bureaucratic name. It’s not difficult to explain intellectually, but people don’t have an instinctive emotional connection to it.

And it’s not always very obvious, even when you’re in the middle of it. Even in the most famously biodiverse habitat, tropical rainforest: a casual visitor walking through it will often be a bit disappointed, because what you mainly see is lots and lots of very similar-looking trees. The birds and butterflies and snakes and monkeys and frogs and beetles are all out there, but you often have to work a bit to find them.

But anyone can see the difference between a wildflower meadow and pasture which has been ‘improved’ by agriculture. The improved version is attractive enough: a thick pillow of lush green grass, unbroken by anything except perhaps the occasional hardy thistle. That deep vibrant green in spring is a joy to see after the grey of winter, and it seems so full of life; it has become our idea of what the English countryside should look like. But it’s all just grass. It has the ‘bio’ part — it’s producing a lot of biomass — but it’s completely lacking in diversity.

Whereas the unimproved meadow is immediately, obviously completely different. It will be covered in flowers, pink ones, white ones, yellow, blue; some hugging close to the ground, others holding their blooms up above the grass, flowers in spikes and disks and whorls. And crawling and buzzing and fluttering, there will be caterpillars, hoverflies, beetles, wasps, and most obviously, butterflies. And you don’t need to be able to identify any of them: you can see the variety. Anyone can see the stark contrast between the lush but boring improved pasture and the messy, rich, complicated wildflower meadow.

And if you do learn to identify the flowers and insects, the diversity becomes even more apparent, because the mix will vary from meadow to meadow, depending on the soil, the exposure, the amount of grazing and the time of year.

A green sweep of ‘improved’ pasture can make for a beautiful landscape, but the wildflower meadow invites you to stop and pay attention to your immediate surroundings, to take pleasure in the details. The harder you look, the more there is to see.

London Film Festival debrief, 2013

So, I saw five films this year. Some quick notes:

Story of my Death [Història de la meva mort].

The LFF said:

Albert Serra’s teasing period-piece sees Casanova and Dracula meeting as Enlightenment reason gives way to the dangerous passions of the Romantic era.

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Which sounded like it might be fun, if perhaps a bit silly. Maybe a trifle camp. In fact it was surprisingly boring.

I like the fact that artier films can allow themselves to be a bit slow-paced, and a use longer takes and longer shots: if nothing else it makes a change from the freneticness of commercial cinema. But allowing yourself to be leisurely, and give the characters room to breathe, doesn’t mean that every scene has to be like that, that every shot has to carry on for several seconds longer than necessary. And if you are going to make a film like that, and it ends up being nearly two and a half hours long, it starts to feel a little bit self-indulgent.

The director said in the Q&A afterwards that he’d never seen any genre films because he wasn’t interested in them, which explained why his handling of the Dracula scenes was so artless; artless mainly in a bad way.

On the positive side: it often looked good, and among the completely amateur Catalan cast, Casanova in particular was excellent.

Portrait of Jason

The LFF said:

Shirley Clarke’s cinéma-vérité masterpiece about a gay African-American cabaret performer and prostitute revealingly restored.

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This is a black and white documentary from 1967; Jason Holliday is interviewed in his apartment about his life as a house boy, prostitute, hustler and would-be cabaret performer as he gets steadily drunk and stoned. He is the only person we see; he replies to questions from off-camera and spins yarns which may or may not be strictly true. It’s very rough-looking; the restorer spent years looking for a good quality print before finding that what was marked as out-takes in the archive was in fact the edited film, which is complete with conversations between the director and the cameraman, moments when the screen goes black, shots out of focus and so on. But apparently there are pages and pages of editing notes to prove that this is a very carefully crafted version of roughness.

I enjoyed it, Jason is a fascinating, charming and rather tragic figure, and the style is interesting too.

My Fathers, My Mother and Me

Paul-Julien Robert’s quietly devastating documentary revisits the former residents of the experimental 1970s free-love commune in which he grew up.

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Paul-Julien Robert didn’t know who his biological father was until he was 12, in 1991, when the Friedrichshof commune was dissolved and as part of the fall-out the various children were given blood tests to determine paternity. In this documentary, he talks to his mother, to the various men who were potential fathers, and to the other children who lived there with him. It is fascinating stuff, especially because the leader of the commune, Otto Muehl, was obsessed with documenting the life there, so the interviews are intercut with lots and lots of footage of the commune in action.

It starts out seeming fun and quirky; slightly bonkers, but free-spirited, well-meaning and optimistic as well. But it gets steadily darker, as it gradually becomes clear that a free-love commune built on the eradication of the nuclear family is not in fact a great environment for raising children. Not, at least, if it is being run by a controlling egomaniac.

It’s fascinating on all sorts of levels, not least the disconnect between the adults’ experience of the commune and the children’s. Apparently it was only really when making the film that he felt able to talk openly about his childhood, and there are some particularly painful conversations with his mother.

Grigris

A Chadian street photographer’s romantic interest in a would-be model lands him in a murky criminal underworld in this smart thriller.

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To be pedantic about it, he’s not actually a ‘street photographer’ as I would understand it; he’s not taking candid shots of urban life. He takes photos for ID cards and the like. He’s also a nightclub dancer with a withered leg.

The thriller-y bits could have been edited a bit more snappily, perhaps, but basically I enjoyed this. It usually looks good, it has plenty of plot, which is sometimes a bit lacking at the kind of films I tend to go to at the festival, and the central performances are good. And a pretty girl and some good dance sequences.

The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas [Η Αιώνια Επιστροφή Του Αντώνη Παρασκευά]

A dark satire on current Greek woes that sees a failing TV personality stage his own kidnapping, only to start to unravel as he holds himself hostage.

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This is an almost silent film. Paraskevas is holed up in an empty hotel alone while the world thinks he has been kidnapped, and for most of the film the only dialogue is from the TV news and videos he is watching. He is already perhaps a little unstable to have thought this was a good idea, but the solitude pushes him further over the edge and the initially comic tone turns darker.

It’s genuinely funny in the funny bits, and the turn to the dark works as well. There are perhaps a couple of mis-steps along the way, but generally I really liked it. Christos Stergioglou is great in the central role; there’s an almost Buster Keaton quality to the way he manages to be silently expressive with a mournful and impassive face.

Read The World challenge: status report, 2013

As of August 1st, I’ve been reading my way round the world for five years and I’m at 135 countries accounted for — or 99 books read since I started (99½, actually). You can check the map here.

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Which means I’ve read 16 (and a half!) this year. Which is down from the rate I managed at first — 53 in the first two years — but about in line with what I’ve done since. So at least I haven’t slowed down even more. Or stopped altogether.

None of those 16 were absolutely stand-out classics, but there are several I can recommend if they sound like the kind of thing that would interest you:

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek is well-written, interesting and informative. It’s becoming ever less topical as the situation in Syria moves on; but as long as we have dictatorships, the subject of life as a dissident in a (wobbling, unstable) police state is still going to have relevance.

Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner is a book that tells a remarkable story, of a man who survived the Khmer Rouge and ended up winning an Oscar for his performance in a film about it.

Life and a Half by Sony Labou Tansi is yet another book about dictatorship, this time a dark, strange, poetic novel which I thought was very worth reading.

And not recommendations exactly, but a few books which stand out in my memory because of their subject matter rather than their literary qualities: 88 Days (Somali piracy), The Chronicles of Dathra (Kuwaiti chick-lit, sort of), and African Philosophy (African philosophy).

» Cupid Shooting Arrows at the World Globe is attributed to Otto van Veen and apparently 1608ish. From the Met.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2013

This year’s list:

robin × 3
blackbird × 2
dunnock × 2

great tit × 2
blue tit × 4
coal tit

chaffinch × 3
siskin × 3

carrion crow

ring-necked parakeet × 2
starling × 2

pigeon × 4
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Which is pretty terrible, frankly. The siskins were a pleasant surprise, but I’m missing long-tailed tit, goldfinch, magpie, jay, song thrush, both woodpeckers, wren, nuthatch… even the numbers are a bit disappointing. But there you go.

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