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: 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: 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: 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:

Provençal wildlife roundup

It was really a bit late in the year for the best of the wildlife; many of the classic Mediterranean birds — bee-eaters and what have you — were probably already in Africa, and there weren’t many flowers around. Although the oleander everywhere still looked spectacular.

Not that it was a complete bust on the bird front. It was nice to see lots of black redstarts everywhere; I saw a couple of female pied flycatchers, which are also charming little birds; there were crag martins flying around at the Pont du Gard (above); and I saw dipper at a coffee break on the way back. So no absolute show-stoppers, but some nice things.

Also, to stay on-theme with my recent post, I was pleased to see plenty of hornets around. It’s very much wasp time of year, of course: my mother tells me that the wasps ‘come with the plums’. It’s not strictly true, you see wasps all summer, but there are a lot more in late summer/autumn. That’s because (I learnt recently while reading about hornets), a lone queen starts a new nest every year.* Which makes large wasp nests all the more impressive.

The queen then has to build the nest and gather food for the young on her own until there are enough workers around to do the scut work, and she can concentrate on producing eggs. And they build up the nest until in late autumn they produce a load of reproductive individuals — queens and drones — and those fertilised queens who survive the winter set out and start the cycle again in spring. So a single wasp queen may have generated thousands of individuals by the time the plums are ripe. Or hundreds, for the hornets.

Also pleasing was a praying mantis; we don’t get those up here in northern Europe. I think the species was Mantis religiosa, which I guess was the very first of the mantids to be given a Latin name, presumably by Carl Linnæus personally.

Another curiosity with a great Latin name was a tree with what looked like huge red chiles growing on it. It turns out the tree is a relative of the pistachio called terebinth (another great name, incidentally), and the ‘chile’ is a gall formed by an aphid, Baizongia pistaciae. To which I just have to say: baizongia!

And finally on to the Lepidoptera. Above is a pretty little day-flying moth, related to the burnets, called Zygaena fausta. The flower is Virgin’s-bower, Clematis flammula.

And there were loads of good butterflies, which I mainly don’t have photos of. Clouded Yellow, Cleopatra (the Brimstone’s flashier cousin), Southern White Admiral, some kind of amazing iridescent blue which was probably either Adonis Blue or Turquoise Blue, and the curious-looking Nettle-tree Butterfly or European Beak.

And there was this tiny little fellow, the Geranium Bronze, living up to his slightly inaccurate name by sitting on a pelargonium:

The Geranium Bronze is actually an import from South Africa which apparently arrived on imports of pot plants. Notice the teensy little swallowtails! Cute.

But the most spectacular butterflies were two big species. One, the Great Banded Grayling, is hard to do justice to in photographs because it sits with its wings closed, but this blog post shows one displaying itself properly.

And most remarkable was a huge great fast-flying thing which when you see it properly, looks pretty amazing above and maybe even more spectacular below. Yup, it’s one of Europe’s most exotic-looking butterflies, the Two-tailed Pasha or Foxy Emperor. Woo-hoo.

* or to be more strictly accurate: most European species of social wasp start a new nest each year; your local wasps may vary.

A palate cleanser

OK, enough with the all the Murdoch-ery. Time for something a bit more wholesome.

Summer isn’t a great time for birding; you can tell when summer is well and truly here because bird bloggers start posting pictures of moths. Moths are like birdwatcher methadone.

So it seemed like a good time of year to check out a dragonfly sanctuary. 23 species have been recorded there — half the British list — although to be honest, there are a fairly limited number I would have any chance of identifying. In the event I only saw a handful of species; some small blue damselflies, plus Banded Demoiselle, Emperor Dragonfly and Brown Hawker. But Banded Demoiselle and Brown Hawker are particularly gorgeous, so it’s always nice to see them. The Brown Hawker has a bronze-brown tint to its wings which looks amazing when it catches the light: like a warm halo around the insect.

And there were lots of butterflies around, too: Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Large Heath, Small Skipper. Nothing very remarkable, but nice to see. The best butterfly was Small Tortoiseshell, a species which used to be common as muck but which is depressingly scarce in the south of England these days.

And lots of flowers. I can’t identify most of them down to the species level, and didn’t try, but for example: loosestrife, willowherb, vetch, yarrow, mallow, bedstraw, deadnettle, teasels and thistles. What fabulous names they have.

The photo, incidentally, is of cinnabar moth caterpillars and soldier beetles on ragwort flowers. One of the beetles is Rhagonycha fulva; the other looks like it has darker wingcases, in which case it’s probably Cantharis rustica. But I’m relying on a pocket guide to the insects of Britain and Western Europe, so anything I say should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Birding again

The glorious summery weather is back, and I had a good day of birding today, just out of London. On the spring migrant front: masses of chiffchaffs and blackcaps, the odd willow warbler, a single swallow. Also treecreeper, nuthatch, buzzard and so on, but the bird of the day was bullfinch. To capture my immediate, pseudo-spontaneous reaction, here’s the tweet I posted at the time:

Wow. Bullfinch. What a genuinely incredible bird. I must try to see it more often.

And seriously, a male bullfinch in peak spring plumage is as beautiful as any bird I have seen anywhere, including barbets and toucans and hummingbirds… it is a proper cracker.

That’s not my picture, obviously, apart from anything else, it certainly wasn’t snowy today… but what a gorgeous beasty.

So, it was a lovely day out. The sky was blue, there was masses of blackthorn covered in bright white flowers, I saw about seven or eight species of butterfly*. Tasty.

And I was amused to find this on the pavement near my house:

Apparently the local drug dealers are sufficiently well organised these days that they sell their product in cute little cannabis-themed bags. I had no idea. The bag still smells of weed; oh the nostalgia. It almost makes me want to roll up, tune in and drop out.

* Definitely Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Orange-Tip; and I think Speckled Wood, Holly Blue, Small White, Small Tortoiseshell.

» The photo Eurasian Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) male is © Steve Garvie and used under a CC by-sa licence.

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: 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.

Butterfly update

Butterfly Conservation are holding an organised Painted Lady count this Saturday when they’re asking people to count passing butterflies for two hours and post their sightings online. It’s an exciting aspect of the internet that it allows this kind of rapidly organised exercise in citizen science.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a little preliminary count of my own at lunchtime and just counted PLs in the half hour between 12.30 and 1.00. The result: 36. Slightly over one a minute.

What’s interesting is that on the one hand, that’s a staggering number, when you extrapolate out over the whole country: butterflies going past at the rate of one a minute for days at a time over the whole of England (the whole of Northern Europe, possibly). And yet if you weren’t paying attention, it would be possible to be out in the garden and not even notice that this huge natural phenomenon was going on.

Ladies, stags and owls

Last week — last Thursday, I think? — I was walking along the road and saw a butterfly go past which I thought was maybe a Painted Lady. Not actually my first of the year, because I’d only recently returned from Provence where I saw *thousands* of ’em, but still quite pleasing because they’re a migrant species resident in North Africa, and while they are not actually a rarity in Britain — some turn up every year — they’re not especially common either.

Then the next day there were a few in the garden, and mentions of them started popping up on the blogs and Twitter feeds of the handful of British natural history bloggers and twitterers I follow. And so I started thinking maybe this was going to be one of those years, when all the conditions come together and they are suddenly all over the place. Something that became very clear when I saw this tweet from @SallyCourt on Sunday:

An incredible sight at Strumpshaw Fen today with hundreds, probably thousands of Painted Ladies flying west. Also Swallowtails + H Dragonfly

In fact over the past week we’ve been in the middle of a massive movement of painted ladies across the whole country. Apparently it’s because they had good weather for thistles in Morocco over the winter. It probably isn’t a coincidence that I saw quite so many of them in Provence; I didn’t think that much of it at the time, since they’re a more common species in the Mediterranean, but there were an awful lot there. Maybe some of them were the same ones that are now fluttering across England.

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It hasn’t been particularly obvious that they’ve been migrating in my garden; there are a few flowers they like and so I’ve been seeing them fluttering back and forth, in no apparent hurry to get anywhere. But while it might appear to be the same three butterflies going round and round in circles, I guess it has probably been a whole sequence of new ones.

Today, after a couple of days of rain when I guess all the butterflies have been sensibly laying low, I saw one fly past outside the window, so I went along to the local park. And sure enough, there they were. Not in their thousands, but a regular stream of them passing through, looking much more determined, flying more or less straight by, heading about NNW. One every few minutes rather than one every few seconds, but once you knew what you were looking for, it was still quite striking.

Here’s an intriguing snippet about painted ladies from my butterfly guide:

Reported occasionally from Iceland, which has no indigenous butterflies.

I bet a few will make it to Iceland this year.

So that was good. My other good local sighting was this (apologies for the rubbishy iPhone photo):

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That’s a Stag Beetle. There are many species of stag beetle worldwide, so to be exact it’s Lucanus cervus, but in the UK it’s just Stag Beetle because we only have the one species with proper antlers. There is also, to be pedantic, the lesser stag beetle, but that’s much less interesting.

South London isn’t exactly a wildlife stronghold for many species, but stag beetles are increasingly rare nationally and doing pretty well around here, so it’s good to see one. It’s also good to see them because they are just fabulous little beasties.

While I’m on insects, a few things from Provence. We saw lots of butterflies, most of then just too hard (or too much work) to identify: blues, fritillaries, either Pale or Berger’s Clouded Yellow and so on. But also Swallowtail, Scarce Swallowtail, Red Admiral, Brimstone, Orange Tip. And this, the Southern White Admiral; another iPhone picture but it has come out looking surprisingly good. Most of the time they didn’t actually look that blue, but the light was obviously catching it just right.

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As well as butterflies, there were a few other things; lots of burnet moths flying around, which are always nice, and the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth I mentioned earlier. Those big black ants which are one of my earliest memories of southern Europe. And one critter that was a real puzzle. Take a look at this:

Now maybe you know what that is, but it confused the hell out of me. It looks most like a dragonfly, sort of, and it flies rather like a dragonfly, but the head isn’t right and look at those antennae! They were almost enough to make me think it was some kind of weird clearwing moth or even weirder butterfly — but it just doesn’t look right for either.

Thankfully for the sake of my sanity, my mother’s superior Google skills came to the rescue when we got back: it is an owlfly. A what? I’d never heard of them. They are related, Wikipedia informs me, to the lacewings and antlions, something which is not at all apparent when you see them sitting with their wings spread like dragonflies, but which makes more sense when you occasionally see one with its wings folded.

» All the pictures except the last were taken by me. The last is Libelloides coccajus, uploaded to Flickr by and © Le pot-ager (Philippe Vannier).

‘Butterflies of Britain and Ireland’ on the iPhone

Having written a whole post the other day about how much I wanted field guides on the iPhone and was willing to pay good money for them, I was pleased to hear that a new field guide was available in the App Store: Butterflies of Britain and Ireland (iTunes store link).

It’s an interesting reflection on how much I expect to pay for iPhone apps that a price of £9.99 seemed quite a lot, especially since I just paid £13.49 for a field guide to the butterflies of Europe that I’ll probably use about twice a year at most. Perhaps it’s because I just ordered that book (which hasn’t arrived yet) that I slightly balked at buying another field guide to butterflies. They’re not my main interest, after all. Still, by any reasonable standards a tenner isn’t a lot of money.

I haven’t actually used it in the field yet, but here are my immediate impressions. On the positive side, the content is excellent: high quality and comprehensive. My slight reservations are to do with the app’s usability as a field guide. I’ll give you a quick tour of the way the guide works and then explain what I mean.

It opens with a list of butterflies, which can be sorted either taxonomically or alphabetically:

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This list doesn’t scroll quite as smoothly as it might, btw, but that’s a fairly trivial point. When you select a species, you get a screen like this:

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As well as illustrations of the adult butterflies, it also includes the eggs, caterpillars and cocoons, plus a selection of photographs, a distribution map, a calendar, and a text description for each species. Te arrows in the top-right corner move between species.

The illustrations are by the excellent Richard Lewington.

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You can flick from one picture to the next within a species, and zoom in on the illustrations or turn the phone to see them larger in landscape mode. In fact it behaves pretty much like the iPhone’s built-in Photos app, which is effectively what it is.

There are illustrations of male, female, upperside and underside, and sometimes variant forms. And here’s an example of a map:

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The text is also very thorough:

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As you can see, the content is really impressive: detailed, comprehensive and of high quality. I don’t have the expertise to judge the accuracy of the details, but it all appears to be very professional. Incidentally, I suppose one advantage of an electronic guide is that if people do spot any inaccuracies, they can be corrected via a software update.

But as I say, I don’t know how easy it would be to use as a field guide. If you were on a walk in the country, saw a butterfly and wanted to know what it was, it wouldn’t be that easy to quickly see what the possibilities are. There’s no easy way to compare the illustrations or information between two different species. Certainly you don’t have several illustrations on the same page in the way you would with a paper field guide, but also there’s no easy way to flick quickly back and forward between two or three species. You can’t skim through the information.

I don’t want to sound too negative: part of the problem is the fundamental limitations of the technology, particularly the size and resolution of the screen. And it’s still early days; I’m quite sure that over time developers will work out ways to make these apps more usable. The kind of key which is sometimes used for wildflowers, which uses a series of questions to help find the right species (is the stem smooth or hairy? are the leaves in pairs along the stem or alternating?) seems well suited to the iPhone, for example.

For this particular app I would ideally try to make the main screen for each species more informative at a glance: perhaps with a kind of summary screen showing two or three pictures of the adult butterflies — male and female or whatever is appropriate for that species — and a very rough distribution map. It would be a bit crowded and the pictures wouldn’t be very big, but it would be just enough information so you could quickly see whether you wanted to look in more detail or move on to another species. Then you could swipe the screen left to reveal the species screen as it is now, and drill down to find all the juicy details.

So the main species screen could look something like this (apologies for the clumsy mock-up):

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And then you swipe across, or hit a button or whatever, to get the species screen as it is now, with all the more detailed information.

Anyway, I don’t mean to be too picky; as much as anything I’m just thinking out loud because I find it interesting. And despite the pickyness, I’m really pleased to see a British field guide in the App Store, and pleased that it has such high quality content. Hopefully it’s the first of many.

Some local insects

Earlier in the season, most of the damselflies were blue ones; now they’re all blue-tailed:

This bit of south London is, slightly unexpectedly, a stronghold for the increasingly rare stag beetle. At this time of year you tend to see them flying overhead in the evening; but the weather has been so miserable that I haven’t really been outside much in the evenings. I did see one crawling across the pavement a couple of days ago, though. This, however, is not that species; it’s the more common lesser stag beetle, which is not nearly as big, and even the males don’t have antlers.

This is a hoverfly. Like most hoverflies, it’s a wasp mimic; they nearly all have black and yellow stripes, but they don’t sting. This is more spectacular than most, though; the large size and brownish colour are its attempt to look like a hornet. I think it does quite a good job, although looking at it closely like this it’s obviously a species of fly. We don’t actually have any hornets around here—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one in the UK, although they do live here—so I don’t know how effective the mimicry is.

And here’s a holly blue. You can see the abdomen curled around on the ivy; presumably it’s laying eggs. It’s lives on the holly and the ivy, which is very Christmassy of it.

Butterflies

There’s a peacock butterfly flying around outside the front of the house this morning in pretty much exactly the same place it was yesterday. Buterflies tend to be used as the epitome of aimless, carefree wandering, so it might come as a surprise to a lot of people to know that they are often highly territorial. If you ever play badminton near a Large White, you’ll see it aggressively chasing the shuttlecock.

I nearly wrote ‘if you ever play badminton near a Great White’, which really would be an extreme sport.

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:

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