Bird of the Year 2014

I added eight birds to my life list this year, all in Portugal; including two species of vultures, five eagles, two storks, two bustards, bee-eater, roller, hoopoe, golden oriole, two kinds of shrike, two kinds of swift…

Among the species I’d seen before, highlights included Montagu’s Harrier, which is an elegant, long-winged bird of prey that I had wonderful views of; Southern Grey Shrike, which I’d seen before in Morocco and Spain, but certainly never so well; Black Stork, a species I last saw over twenty years ago on the day I did a bungee jump at Victoria Falls; Pallid Swift, because I had previously ticked it on the basis of a somewhat dodgy sighting, so a really good sighting was a weight off my mind (and also because it was picturesque to see them nesting on cliffs overhanging the sea). Bonelli’s Eagle and Golden Eagle are certainly worth mentioning as well, although neither were particularly good views.

And there are all those Mediterranean species which are always a pleasure to see: Black-winged Kite, Short-toed Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Collared Pratincole, Black-winged Stilt, Little Owl, Alpine Swift, Bee-eater, Hoopoe, Golden Oriole, Azure-winged Magpie, Crested Tit, Blue Rock Thrush, Crested Lark, Nightingale, Black-eared Wheatear, Serin, Cirl Bunting.

One of the particular attractions of the trip I took was the unusual cliff-nesting storks. These are White Storks, the ones better-known for nesting on chimneys (and bringing babies). Along this particular bit of the Portuguese coast they’ve developed the habit of nesting on rocks just offshore. I think there are probably at least ten or eleven nests in this picture, although admittedly you may have to take my word for it:

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You should at least be able to make out the streaks of guano, and the flying white bird with black wingtips in front of the left-hand rock. Here’s a photo, taken through binoculars, of a nest which was unusually close to the cliff:

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Of the eight species I saw which were new, the least interesting was Iberian Chiffchaff: a bird which is effectively identical to the (very common, small, drab) Common Chiffchaff, but with a different song. I didn’t even definitely see one — I saw chiffchaffs that weren’t calling and heard Iberian Chiffchaff singing — but I’m ticking it on the song.

Then there was Western Bonelli’s Warbler, another little greenish bird in the same genus as the chiffchaffs. I have to say, it was a much more attractive bird in person than you would think looking at illustrations; but that’s not saying much.

Black Vulture (or Cinereous Vulture, if you want to avoid confusion with the New World species) is a cracking species — the largest bird of prey apart from the condors, with a wingspan from eight to ten feet — but again, not particularly good views. Spanish Imperial Eagle (or as my Portuguese guide tried to persuade me it was called, Iberian Imperial Eagle) is a majestic species which used to be the rarest eagle in world until good conservation work managed to upgrade it to the second rarest*; there were estimated to be 324 breeding pairs in 2012. Again, though, very distant views.

I also saw some Black-bellied Sandgrouse — the sandgrouse are ground-living desert pigeons, sort of — which was the first sandgrouse I’ve seen in Europe. And quite good views of a pair of Stone Curlew, which is a magnificent, goggle-eyed bird.

But when I booked a birding guide for a day, there were three species I particularly wanted to see: Little Bustard, Great Bustard and European Roller.

The roller is a truly spectacular species, a big electric blue bird the size of a crow with deep, royal blue patches on the wings when it flies. We spent a while watching them, and it would almost certainly be my bird of the year if it hadn’t been my winner for BOTY 2007.

Little Bustard is also a great species, and we saw them reasonably well; but my Bird of the Year 2014 has to be Great Bustard. I believe the world’s heaviest recorded flying bird was a Great Bustard; with the slight caveat that the particular individual may have been too fat to fly. On average it’s the second-heaviest, after Kori Bustard, and it’s a big beast of a thing. Here’s the distant, hazy photo I posted for BOTY:BPiaSR:

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Here it is zoomed into the centre a bit, clearly showing five birds:

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The two in the middle [enhance! enhance!]:

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But what’s so good about bustards is what they do to attract a mate. Stick with this video for at least a couple of minutes to get the full effect:

Amazing. I didn’t get views like that, sadly, but I did see them a bit closer than in my photos, and I did see them displaying, and they are brilliant birds.

*The massive, monkey-eating Philippine Eagle is now the rarest.

Bird of the Year 2014: best performances in a supporting role

Happy New Year, everybody.

Keen followers of the Bird of the Year Awards will notice a change in the categories this year. Butterflies and moths receive a disproportionate amount of my insecty attention, so I think it makes sense to split them out into their own category. Realistically, I could just split all invertebrates into ‘butterflies and moths’ and ‘other’, but I think it’s good to sit back at the end of the year and try to think of an interesting spider or slug or sea urchin or something.

Best Plant

I went on a lovely holiday in Portugal in the spring, and I mainly chose the timing for the flowers. Everyone goes to the Mediterranean at the wrong time of year. It may not be as hot at the end of April as it is in August, but the whole countryside is full of flowers and birdsong.

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So I was walking along the Atlantic coast of Portugal, and the cliffs were covered in drifts of rockroses — pale yellow, strong yellow, white, pink — but there was also French lavender, thrift, big Spanish broom, little compact mounds of broom with pale yellow flowers, maybe eight or nine different orchids, wild gladioli, amazing vivid blue pimpernels. And sometimes I’d put my backpack down and get a great waft of wild thyme.

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But I have to pick one. Among the various orchids, I was pleased to find these plants of a tongue orchid which is normally burgundy red:

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But perhaps perversely, I’m not going to pick a flower; my plant of the year is the cork oak:

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The numbers on the bark are to keep track of when each tree’s bark was last harvested. The combination of the dark naked trunks and greyish bark sleeves is rather charming, I think.

Best Butterfly or Moth

I made an effort to tick off a few more British butterfly species this year, and had four life firsts. But they were very much butterflies for the connoisseur; by which I mean they look… unspectacular. The names give you some idea: Essex Skipper, Small Blue, Grizzled Skipper, Dingy Skipper. The Small Blue is indeed remarkably small, but it’s not very blue; the Essex Skipper is distinguished from the Small Skipper by the colour of the undersides of the antennae; and the other two skippers are grizzled and dingy.

I also saw  green hairstreak for the first time in Britain, which is a genuinely pretty butterfly, with iridescent green underwings; but I have seen them before in France. And a few attractive moths, like Clouded Buff, and this Buff Ermine, seen here on the classic habitat of a railway station toilet door:

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But the winner is again from Portugal, a kind of butterfly I have wanted to see for years because it’s an exotic-looking European species not found in the UK: a Festoon. To be exact, this is a Spanish Festoon:

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It’s rather a worn specimen, and it’s a terrible picture taken with my phone through my binoculars, but it’s my butterfly of the year.

Best Insect (other)

The most exciting non-lepidopteran insects I saw this year in the UK were ruby-tailed wasp (so shiny!) and velvet ant (actually a furry wingless wasp, dontcha know). Although the most photogenic might be this dor beetle:

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But I also saw some good beetles in Portugal, like this spotty hairy chafer which I think is probably Oxythyrea funesta (but usually when I think I’ve identified an insect and I consult an entomologist, they tell me I would need to check its genitalia under a microscope to be sure):

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And there was this grotesque mammoth which, I learned later, is an oil beetle:

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But I’m going for this spiky beetle as my best insect (other) for 2014. According to the coleopterist I consulted on Twitter, it’s probably Sepidium bidentatum:

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Best Invertebrate (other)

So I was walking along in Portugal and thought oh, what’s that pink flower the bumblebee is feeding on…

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As it turns out, the bumblebee was not the one doing the feeding. That is a pink crab spider, possibly Thomisus onustus.

But my invertebrate of the year is the wasp spider Argiope bruennichi. These have been spreading rapidly across the south of England in the last ten years, helped by a combination of global warming and, I learn from Google, new-found genetic diversity after global warming allowed previously isolated populations to interbreed. It may be a sign of the coming apocalypse, but it’s a handsome beastie which I’ve been trying to see for a couple of years:

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Best Reptile

I saw a grass snake trying to eat a frog in the woods at Bookham Common. I did take a couple of pictures of snake belly in thick grass, but they’re not worth sharing.

Best Fish

No, I’ve got nothing.

Best Amphibian

I’ve seen the usual common frogs and toads — lots of tadpoles in the pond this year — but nothing notable.

Best Mammal

An Egyptian Mongoose in Portugal. I just googled this to check, and apparently it was always assumed that these were an introduced species in Iberia — because of a lack of fossil evidence and the distance from the nearest wild African populations — but there are fossils in North Africa, and recent genetic testing suggests the Iberian mongooses are the descendants of some of those North African animals that presumably crossed over at Gibraltar in the Pleistocene, when there was no sea there.

Either way, it was a neat surprise; I didn’t know they were there.

Best Ecosystem

Obviously the Portuguese cliff-tops were great, the pine scrub was a delight, but my choice is the steppes of Alentejo, where I went with a hired bird guide for a great days birdwatching. I imagine in summer they are baked dry, but when I was there it was gently rolling green fields with flowers forming great hazy patches of colour. I only took a couple of pictures and they don’t do it justice, but here’s one I took through a telescope, admittedly with the saturation punched up a bit, that gives you some idea.

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There are actually some birds in that picture, which is why I took it; but they can wait for the main Bird of the Year 2014 post.

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.

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’.

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:

Bird of the Year 2010

As I mentioned in BOTY 2010:BPiaSR, I haven’t been anywhere even slightly exotic this year, so my list is sadly free of toucans, sandgrouse, bee-eaters, barbets and so on.

But I did have a good year for British birds.

At the most parochial level, I added three species to the garden list: in the cold snaps at the beginning and end of the year I got fieldfare and brambling, which were both perhaps long overdue; and more surprisingly, in March, a stonechat on its way north stopped off to do a bit of flycatching from one of the rose bushes.

The cold weather also brought me a couple of Dulwich ticks: a gadwall in Dulwich park in February, and a snipe which made a flying visit to Belair Park on Boxing day, presumably in search of open water.

An autumn wheatear in Greenwich Park was probably my first for south London. And in Richmond Park I saw my first London red kite and, rather embarrassingly, my first British little owl. A cracking day’s birding around the Lee Valley gave me, among other things, good views of Cetti’s warbler, nightingale, peregrine and several hobby.

On a walk on Sheppey I had good views of bearded tit, which is always a treat, but also what is probably objectively my best bird of the year, and certainly the closest thing to a proper rarity I’ve ever found for myself in the UK: black-winged stilt. It is about as frequent a visitor as a bird can be and still be officially regarded as a rarity, with 241 sightings between 1950 and 2006… but it is a rarity, and I found it. So that was very pleasing. On the other hand I had rubbish views of it, and I’ve seen it much better before, f’rinstance in Spain, where I took this picture…

… so it’s not my bird of the year. Also not my bird of the year was bean goose (tundra bean goose if the species is split), which was a lifer for me but too far away and too, well, grey to be my bird of the year.

A stronger contender, even though I have seen it in the UK before, was water rail, just because I had UNBELIEVABLE views of it. They are normally incredibly secretive, but at the London Wetland Centre in January, when the whole place was frozen over, I saw lots of them out in the open, trotting around on the ice. And particularly, I watched a pair grooming each other through my telescope from about 30 feet, which was just an amazing sighting.

And on the same day, I saw a bird that looked like being a dead cert for bird of the year right up until December: bittern. I have wanted to se bittern for such a long time, and been to places where they are so many times and failed to see them, that just seeing it was a treat, even though my first view of one was very distant. But just like the water rails, the bitterns were forced out of cover by the ice, and over the course of the day I saw them six or seven times with increasingly excellent views, including two within the same telescope view. Amazing. And I saw them again in December and just yesterday had a brilliant view of one to start off 2011 in style.

But even that is not my bird of the year. No, the official winner of Bird Of The Year 2010 is… waxwing! What a gorgeous bird. And like the bittern, one with a particular mystique for British birders. It’s not actually rare, but it’s just elusive enough, and just occasionally you get a waxwing winter when suddenly there are thousands of them and they turn up in all sorts of unexpected places. This is one of those winters, and they are all over the place… even in Dulwich, although I missed those ones. I made a special trip to Folkestone to see them feeding in the car park of a branch of B&Q. You can see some of my pictures there, but the BOTY year deserves a better portrait than that.

Christmas came early for me today…. © Ian A Kirk used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Waxwing Feeding Frenzy © markkilner used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Waxwing © vesanen.info used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Phwoar.

Bird of the Year 2010: best performances in a supporting role

2010 wasn’t a vintage wildlife year for me. I didn’t go anywhere exotic, or even spend much time outside the M25. My longest wildlife-watching trip was to the car park of B&Q in Folkestone.

Despite that, I did manage to rack up some pretty good bird sightings, but it was pretty slim pickings for the minor categories.

Best Plant

Clearly it’s ludicrous that I can’t think of any stand-out plants for the year. After all, they’re not difficult to see. But nothing springs to mind.

Best Fungus

I don’t think I’ve had this as a category before, but this was a good year for fungi, and I saw loads of them. However I made the important discovery that actually identifying them is almost completely fucking impossible. This one at least is easy; Shaggy Inkcap:

Best Insect

It was nice to see a few seven-spot ladybirds in the garden, because it meant that the Harlequin ladybirds haven’t completely eliminated them. There was the parasitic wasp Gasteruption jaculator, which was a neat little beastie. And apart from the  the usual mix of butterflies and dragonflies, there were a couple of stand-out species. One was a very battered convolvulus hawkmoth brought in by the cat: which means that I have now seen this species exactly twice, and in both cases it was because the cat brought them in.

But the species of the year, both because it’s a dramatic-looking thing and because it was so unexpected that it turned up in the garden: Silver-washed Fritillary (in the name of full disclosure: that picture was taken by me, but not this year and not in the garden). One of Britain’s largest butterflies. And not exceptionally rare, but still a complete surprise, especially as it’s mainly a woodland species.

Best Invertebrate (other), Best Fish, Best Reptile

Best Fish and Best Reptile are often quite difficult categories, of course. But it’s a bit embarrassing that I can’t think of anything for Best Invertebrate (other), which is such a big group of organisms. Obviously I have seen various spiders and slugs and things in 2010, but none I can think of that seem worth a namecheck.

Best Amphibian

This was the year of toads in the garden (i.e. Common Toad, Bufo bufo). There have been the occasional toad before, but this year they were all over the place — commoner than frogs. Which was nice.

Best Mammal

Discounting your basic urban vermin (foxes, rats, mice, squirrels) and the remnant of hedgehog I found in the local woods, I think I saw five species of wild mammals this year.

In January when it was VERY COLD, there was a particularly active and fearless stoat at Rainham Marshes which was scurrying around near and on the pedestrian walkways. Stoats are always a pleasure to watch, bouncy manic furry wiggly critters that they are. And I saw some deer: muntjac, fallow deer, red deer and Sika — but only the muntjac counts as ‘wild’, I think, as the others were in deer parks.

And I went on a bat walk in the local park, where we saw three species of bat: Daubenton’s bat, Common Pipistrelle, and my mammal of the year for 2010 which is… Soprano Pipistrelle.

The best thing about the Soprano Pipistrelle is the brilliant name. Common and Soprano Pipistrelles were only split into separate species in 1999; there are apparently various differences of food and habitat, but they were initially split because the Soprano Pipistrelle has a higher-pitched call: 55kHz to the Common’s 45kHz.

Best Ecosystem

Because most of my birding has been in London this year, all my best sightings have been in artificial habitats: a wetland on the site of an old water-treatment plant, a marsh which was formerly an army firing range, a canal and reservoirs originally built to supply water and transport for industrial north London, Victorian suburban parks and ancient royal deer parks, all of them now managed as public amenities and for the benefit of wildlife by various conservation charities, by local councils, and by central government agencies.

Now I know that ‘nature reserve’ is not actually a distinct ecosystem. But fuck knows, if you live in a densely populated, post-industrial, intensively farmed place like southern England, and you have any interest in nature, you owe an intense debt of gratitude to the people who create and manage little pockets of land for the benefit of wildlife instead of turning them into golf courses and housing estates.

Specifically, thank you to: the RSPB, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, Southwark Council, the Royal Parks, London Wildlife Trust and anyone else who puts in the hard work to make sure these animals have somewhere to live.

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.

Bird of the Year 2008: best performances in a supporting role

I know it’s getting slightly late for yearly round-up posts, but hey-ho.

Best Plant

The wildflowers on the cliff-tops in Wales were quite something: gorse, foxgloves, bluebells, red campion, sea campion, thrift, kidney vetch, burnet rose, dodder, spring squill, centaury, ox-eye daisies, cowslips. It really was spectacular. So it’s really just a matter of picking a species. I was actually tempted by bluebell, because although it is a fairly common flower and I see it regularly, it is so lovely and it was great to see it in such large quantities; especially on Skomer, where much of the island was covered by sweeping fields of bluebells or red campion.

img_4835

But I thought I’d pick something more typically seasidey, so I think thrift is the obvious choice. That’s a close-up shot above, but it doesn’t give you a sense of the quantities: big cushiony pink piles of it.

Best Insect

Seeing glow-worms was a genuine life-time ambition fulfilled. They’re not as spectacular as some of the species of bioluminescent insect found elsewhere — just a few gentle green glowing dots in the grass on a June evening — but they were still fabulous.

Best Invertebrate (other)

Umm, let me see. I quite enjoyed pottering around looking for rock-pools in Pembrokeshire, though I didn’t find much apart from a few mussels and sea anemones, so let’s go for something I can post a picture of: an unidentified species of red sea-anenome.

Best Fish

It’s hard to think of anything for this one. The best I can come up with is probably the enormous fat brown trout in the Test in Hampshire.

Best Amphibian, Best Reptile

I haven’t been out of the country this year, and that means there are only a total of twelve species that are even possible (three snakes, three lizards, three newts, two toads and a frog), not counting a few breeding populations of introduced species and the occasional vagrant marine turtle. And I didn’t see any of the rarer ones.

But there was one day last June when all the baby frogs apparently decided to leave the pond at once, and the lawn was full of these tiny tiny little froglets. So that was neat. The Flickr set is here.

Best Mammal

I saw a bat hunting for insects in daylight over the lake in the local park at the end of March, so that was a noteworthy sighting. Perhaps it had just emerged from hibernation and was having its first proper meal of the year? I don’t know what kind of date they come out.

But the easy choice for Mammal of the Year was Grey Seal, which breeds in large numbers in Pembrokeshire. It wasn’t seal breeding season when I was there, so they weren’t all over the beach in big numbers and there were no little fluffy white babies, but there were plenty of seals lurking near the islands.

It’s not much of a picture, but just as evidence that I did see at least one seal:

Best Ecosystem

I think you will have seen this coming: I’m going to go for the islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Because, you know, seals, shags, choughs, puffins, wild flowers, ravens, peregrine… and most notably, perhaps, the seabird colonies on the cliffs where the guillemots, razorbills and fulmars nest.  These weren’t easy to photograph, because they were on cliffs, so you were either peering down from above, or peering up from a boat. Still, this gives you an idea:

There’s a wider view of some of these cliffs that gives some idea of the scale here, but there’s no point reproducing that photo at 500 pixels wide.

Sitting on a boat and watching a raven come and steal guillemot eggs: how cool is that? The guillemots did try to resist, but the raven just flung them out of the way. It’s not easy being an auk.

Bird of the Year 2008

Nearly all Welsh this year, I think. I’ve seen bugger-all in the garden, and haven’t done that much birding, so it’s mainly down to my spring trip to Pembrokeshire.

Before I get onto that, though, my other notable birdy trip this year was to the WWT reserve at Welney, where they feed the overwintering swans. They weren’t there in the kinds of numbers that they have been sometimes in the past – apparently the whooper swans migrate down through northern Europe and they think because the weather had been mild they were still in Germany or the Netherlands. But they were there, and they are lovely birds which I don’t often see, so that was nice. All the swans in this picture are the wrong species, so you’ll have to take my word for it that there were whooper swans there as well.

So, Pembrokeshire. Lots of the relatively common stuff: sedge warblers, whitethroats, linnets, stonechats, marsh harrier, spotted flycatcher, peregrine. The best bird other than my main target species was garganey, a very attractive little duck and a British tick for me. Oh, and grasshopper warbler deserves a mention, too, especially since I spent so long trying to find the damn thing: it has very distinctive call, a kind of mechanical buzzing, but it lurks.

But the birds I went there for were those of the cliff-tops and offshore islands. The most boring of them were the rock pipits, which are a genuine cliffy speciality but let’s be honest, they have the charisma (and indeed general appearance and personality) of mice. Much more exciting were the choughs [‘chuffs’]. To slip into Shakespeare for a moment:

When they him spy,
As wild geese that the creeping fowler eye,
Or russet-pated choughs, many in sort,
Rising and cawing at the gun’s report,
Sever themselves and madly sweep the sky,
So, at his sight, away his fellows fly

Choughs aren’t actually russet-pated, as such, they have red beaks and legs. Very attractive birds, and they make this great metallic chee-ow noise as they fly around. Here’s my photo, not the best ever, but it gives you the idea:

Chough might be a real contender for bird of the year except that I’ve seen them before, years ago in Morocco.

After that, it’s all sea birds, starting with gulls and the fulmar, a bird which looks superficially like a gull but is actually a tubenose; sort of like a tiny fat albatross. Then there’s the cormorant and its more glamorous cousin the shag (a really gorgeous bird, with an oilgreen tint to its black feathers, a yellow gape and a little Tintin crest). And I took an evening boat trip to see another tubenose: the Manx shearwaters coming in to land. They feed their young at night to avoid predators, so although on the island of Skomer I saw lots of dead ones in various states of disintegration, I didn’t see a single live one. Apparently they make an unholy racket during the night, though.

Confusingly, Manx shearwater has the Latin name Puffinus puffinus, which leads me onto my last set of birds, the auks. Three species, the guillemot, the razorbill, and the puffin.

They are all beautiful species, and it was great to take a boat trip to see the huge colonies on the cliffs with thousands of guillemots and razorbills — and to see a raven stealing guillemot eggs — but the reason I went to Wales and my Bird of the Year 2008 is puffin. Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctica, to be exact.

If you feel cold at this time of the year, spare a thought for the puffins, which overwinter out in the middle of the north Atlantic. Brrr.

Bird of the Year 2007: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

There’s lots of choice here; I’ll just give a hat-tip to the big trees of Kew Gardens and Greenwich Park which I got over excited about in the autumn.

But most of the possibilities were in Crete. Crete has more species of plant than the UK, and a bundle of them are endemics. In spring, it’s an amazing place for wildflowers. Among too many species to mention were little white cyclamens, two species of asphodel, and at least eight different orchids. For example, according to my own notes on Flickr which may or may not accurate, this is either Ophrys phryganae or Ophrys sicula:

Cretan orchid

Either way it’s a cute little thing. But marvellous though all these delicate little wildflowers were, my plant of the year was something bigger and more grotesque: Dracunculus vulgaris, the Dragon Arum. I was just blown away by this thing. I mean look at it! It’s about four foot tall and apparently gives off a smell of rotting flesh, though on balance I’m pleased to say I didn’t notice it.

Dragon Arum

Best Insect

A quick mention for the attractive/destructive rosemary beetles that have been eating my herbs. And I saw Scarce Swallowtail in Crete which is a nice butterfly. But the clear winner this year is the Jersey Tiger moth that appeared in the garden. In the UK the Jersey Tiger used to be confined, as the name suggests, to the Channel Islands and the south coast of Devon, but over the past couple of years a colony has mysteriously sprung up in south London. No-one knows how they got here but it’s very exciting. Particularly as I hadn’t heard the news when I saw one in the garden.

Best Invertebrate (other) and Best Fish

Considering that invertebrates make up such a large proportion of the world’s species, it’s slightly embarrassing to admit I can’t think of a winner. Not a single noteworthy crustacean, mollusc, cephalopod, arachnid, cnidarian or anything else. The fish thing is less surprising, as I didn’t spent any time in a boat or diving or snorkelling last year. Still, in 2008 I must do better.

Best Amphibian

A tree frog I saw in Crete.

European Tree Frog

Best Reptile

I was having some difficulty thinking of any contenders here, but in the end I came up with two, both lizards. One was a slow-worm, a species of legless lizard, which I saw on a country walk; the other was the Balkan Green Lizard, remarkable for being big, fat, and super-super-green. I think the BGL edges it.

Best Mammal

I could only think of one possibility here, but it’s quite a good one. It’s an unidentified bat species. I was in Chania, in Crete, and kept hearing distant bat-squeaks. But despite plenty of street-lighting, I couldn’t see any bats, so I was starting to wonder whether it was something else. But standing in the square in front of the church and gazing up one evening, I managed to see the bats flying around. I noticed than sometimes one bat would chase another one, and I could hear the squeaking get louder and faster. But what was really exciting was seeing a bat chase a moth, and hearing the bat’s calls, which were normally quite sporadic, accelerate up to a crescendo as it approached the moth. I knew that bats did this: given that they ‘see’ with sonar, it’s their equivalent of shining a flashlight. It lets them see more accurately. But I didn’t really expect to observe it with the naked eye (and naked ear). So that was cool.

Best Ecosystem

Up in the mountains above the Lasithi plateau, I found what I think was the closest I’ve ever encountered to a wild version of the classic Alpine garden: lots of big rocks, and growing between them were these delicate little dwarf flowers in endless varieties. It’s an ecosystem for obsessive-compulsives; walk slowly and keep your eyes at your feet. Or to be more accurate, climb up off the path and scramble over the rocks, keeping your eyes at your feet. I took lots of pictures of the flowers but none quite capture the general appearance of the mountainside as I remember it. This will do, though. It’s a picture I took of an orchid, possibly Orchis tridentata:

orchid among rocks

That flower spike is probably only five or six inches tall, and it was all like that: small flowers between the rocks. The casual walker might get an impression of plentiful floweriness, but to really appreciate the richness of the environment it needed careful, patient searching.

I’d always imagined Alpine plants being kept small by cold and wind; as having a short growing season when the snow melted. In this case the opposite was true; they have a brief, early flowering season before Crete becomes bakingly hot and dry. And above all the ecosystem is maintained by goats. Give it three hundred years without any goats or sheep, and Crete, like all the Greek islands, would apparently revert to forest. It’s an interesting angle on the richness of Crete’s flora; I don’t know how long the goats have been there, but it’s a thousands rather than millions of years. Were all those Cretan endemics existing in tiny fragmentary environments beforehand, but able to take advantage of the changes the goats created? Or have they evolved in those few thousand years?

cyclamens in Crete

Either way, if you get the chance to visit Crete in April, I recommend it.

Bird of the Year 2007

It’s that time again. Last year when I did this, I’d been birding in Spain in the spring and then the Galapagos and Ecuador in the autumn. This year has been less dramatic—no albatrosses or toucans—but I did see some great stuff in Crete in April.

First, though, some local stuff. There have been Little Grebes in the local park this year, I think for the first time, and they successfully raised a chick, so that was good. And also in the park, a Mandarin Duck (an Asian species, but there’s quite a large breeding population in the UK now). Back in February, this Stock Dove was the year’s only new bird for my garden list:

stock dove

And there were also a couple of birds which I haven’t had in the garden for a long time; I heard a Tawny Owl in July, and perhaps the most exciting of the lot, I saw a House Sparrow on the bird feeders in August. Sadly, she was the only one.

On, then, to Crete. Crete was pretty fabulous, bird-wise. Lots of stuff, and some of it special. Apart from anything else, what could be nicer than being in the Mediterranean in the springtime? It’s nice just seeing all the common Mediterranean species like Crested Lark, Serin, and Sardinian Warbler:

Sardinian Warbler

Then there were species I’d seen before, but not for a long time, or not very well, which I had great views of; like the amazing flock of Golden Orioles flying one by one up the valley above Paleohora, or the oh-so-elegantly coloured Blue Rock Thrush nesting in a cliff face I saw from about the same spot, or the Wryneck I eventually saw after about an hour spent wandering around the Lasithi Plateau, trying to track them down by their call. Or this Cirl Bunting, a bird I think I last saw at Mycenae when I was 18.

Cirl Bunting

And Woodchat Shrike, Griffon Vulture, Squacco Heron and Purple Heron, which were all species I also saw last spring in Andalucia, but no less pleasing for all that.

I saw eight lifers in Crete, which I think is pretty good for a holiday in Europe. Any life tick is pleasing, but the least exciting would be Short-toed Lark (small, brown, distant; even the name is boring) and Ferruginous Duck (a good bird, but a very brief, distant sighting). Black-eared Wheatear [below] and Collared Flycatcher are both really attractive birds; Quail are famously skulking and difficult to see in Britain, so when a couple of them suddenly flushed out from almost under my feet it was a bit of a rush.

Black-eared Wheatear

But my best photographic opportunity came at the reservoir at Ayia. A lot of the birds were remarkably approachable, I think because they were simply exhausted by migration. I got close to some commoner species, like Whinchat and Cuckoo, but the really amazing sightings were two species that are, normally, very difficult to see because they spend all their time lurking in deep vegetation. The first was a species I’ve seen before, but never expected to see as well as this: Little Bittern.

Little Bittern

Both times I’ve seen them before, it was just a quick moment as a bird flew from one reedbed to another. I never expected to be able to approach one to about 25 feet, set up a telescope and take a picture. Even better, though, was another species, Little Crake. The bittern eventually, when I got really close, ducked into the reeds and stayed hidden. But the crakes just wandered around feeding at the water’s edge, blithely ignoring any birders nearby as though they were natural exhibitionists. I saw about eight individuals, and the only reason I didn’t get more good photos of them was that the little buggers never stayed still for a moment. Still, I’m particularly pleased with this one:

Little Crake

But even that wasn’t my bird of the year. My bird of the year was a European Roller. It’s big and colourful, I’ve wanted to see one ever since I had my first bird book—so probably for about 25 years now—and, just as icing on the cake, it’s even a rarity for Crete. I didn’t have my telescope with me when I saw it, so I couldn’t take a picture, but since it’s my bird of the year, here’s one taken by someone else:

» ROLIEIRO, posted to Flickr by sparkyfaisca.

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.

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