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.

Napowrimo #22: the baboon

One night a belligerent young baboon
decided he wanted to challenge the moon.
So he pointed his colourful arse at the sky
defying the moon until, bye and bye,
just as his legs were starting to ache
and his vertical bottom beginning to shake,
along came some clouds and the moon went in;
which he decided to count as a win.

Napowrimo #21: The Seal Voice Choir

If you stand on the beach on Holyhead
and listen attentively,
you may hear, above the sound of surf,
an unearthly harmony.

Upon a tiny rocky islet
out of sight of land
the world’s one and only seal voice choir
are sprawled on a patch of sand;

and sometimes, when the waves are still
and the breeze is off the sea
you can pick out a snatch of Cwm Rhondda
or perhaps Abide With Me.

Napowrimo #20: Iceweasels

Deep in the forests of Finland
where humans rarely go
are sometimes found unusual tracks
curving across the snow;

they’re rather like those of the stoat
but each is twelve inches by nine
And often nearby there’s a tuft of blue hair
caught in the bark of a pine.

If you spend a few years with the locals,
persuade them you’re discrete,
they may whisper of the iceweasels
that pad on hairy feet.

They say they live on baby elk;
cloaked by the night they creep,
and ever-so-softly snap the spines
of fawns while they’re asleep.

Napowrimo #18: the Buffalo

A buffalo can make
a quite delightful pet,
as long as you can find
an easy-going vet
who doesn’t mind an animal
that’s really very boring,
apart from the occasional
trampling and goring.

~~~

A buffalo will often make
a charming household pet,
but just in case, make sure you have
an easy-going vet
who doesn’t mind an animal
that’s really very boring
(apart from the occasional
trampling and goring).

Bat!

Exciting sighting: I saw a bat in the park today. It’s not completely unusual to see bats around here: I see a few in the summer, because it’s when I’m most likely to be outside at night. But not many. And to see one flying around over the park pond in daylight is most unusual.

I’ve no idea about the species, of course: it looked medium-large by bat standards, but apart from that… who knows.

» 3 Vintage German Halloween Diecut Bats "Vintage Halloween", posted to Flickr by riptheskull, used under a CC by-nc-sa licence, is one of a whole collection of vintage German Halloween diecuts.

Moby Dick

I thought I ought to reread some of those Great Novels which are sitting on my shelves and I haven’t read for years. I’m not sure why I picked up Moby Dick in particular, but after a few pages I was thinking oh, man, I’d forgotten how funny this book is, and so brilliantly written. But after a couple of hundred pages I remembered why it has a reputation for being unreadable, or at least unfinishable.

whaling scene

The opening scenes, where he meets Queequeg, and goes to the whaling chapel, and joins the Pequod, and the crew are all introduced, are truly superb: grotesque and funny. But then after they get to sea, the book loses forward momentum. Partially because there’s not much plot going on, and it’s very episodic, but especially because of Melville’s (or, I suppose, Ishmael’s) long discourses on whales and whaling. Even those are interesting, and frequently well-written and entertaining. But there’s an awful lot of it, and it’s just rather pale and conventional compared to the weirdness of the narrative stuff. It’s as though Bram Stoker had decided that Dracula would be greatly improved by a few chapters about folk customs in Romania and the best techniques for garlic cultivation.

So the book is rather becalmed. But towards the end it picks up again and builds to a suitably grotesque crescendo when they finally track down Moby Dick.

In all seriousness, although I do think this is a great novel, I also think you could greatly improve it by judicious editing. You could cut it down to about the half and length and change it from a sprawling, discursive tome into something short, dark, strange and intense. Like Heart of Darkness with whales.

Since it’s out of copyright, I suppose I could do it myself. As a public service.

New camera, same old clichés

I’ve got a new camera, so I thought I’d celebrate it in the approved internet fashion: catblogging. You can click through to Flickr to see larger versions.

This is Boris:

And this is Posy, who is a difficult cat to photograph, because she’s so black and shiny:

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:

In the Galapagos

I´ve got a couple of hours in Puerto Ayora (on Santa Cruz, in the Galapagos), so I thought I´d post a quick note.

I can recommend the Galapagos. For a start, the landscape is more varied and more beautiful than I expected; somehow in my head it was all rocks, but from island to island the colour of the rocks and soil changes, the vegetation varies – I mean it´s mainly pretty arid, and so it´s lots of cactus and thornbushes, but one island will be an expanse of rippled black lava with a few small cacti, and another will be densely covered with bushes. This afternoon we´re going to the highlands for the first time, where it´s actually quite green.

We´ve seen most of the Galapagos specialties now – the two iguanas, the flightless cormorants, the finches (5 of the 13 species so far). Wild giant tortoises this afternoon. I´ve snorkelled with sea-lions and penguins and turtles, I was particularly thrilled wih the penguins.

Actually though, apart from the special Galapagos stuff, it´s been nice just being at sea. I hadn´t really thought about it before I came, but it´s great just being able to watch shearwaters and storm-petrels from the boat. And we´ve had dolphins riding the bow-wave of the boat. But almost my most exciting marine sighting was watching manta rays jump clear of the water and tumble back with a big splash.

The famous tameness of the animals is quite interesting; I expected it of the endemic species that have evolved in an environment without predators, but species like Great Blue Heron, which are wary of people in the rest of the Americas, have been letting us get within about 10 feet. We watched one grab a newly hatched turtle from below the sand.

So it´s all good.

Fox cubs

The foxes have cubs at the moment. The foxes are pretty tame in London, since no-one hunts them, and once or twice I’ve seen the cubs playing on the lawn. Mainly you just hear them; squawking, screeching and making a high-pitched twittering like angry plovers.

The foxes and cats seem to co-exist in a state of cautious truce.

Whales watched.

The whales behaved very prettily – a group of Long-finned Pilot Whales came over and swam around the boat so we could see them. Also Common Dolphin and Striped Dolphin. They saw the first Sperm Whale of the season yesterday, apparently, but no such luck for us.

Also saw what I’m pretty sure must have been a pair of Balearic Shearwaters – the proportions seem wrong for Cory’s and the pale underside wasn’t that striking – but not being familiar with either species and only seeing them fleetingly, I don’t know if I can count it.

whale-watching

I’ve booked a whale-watching trip for tomorrow. I suspect this means a few dolphins and a pilot whale if you’re lucky, rather than enormous skeins of sperm whales stretching as far as the eye can see. But I figure it will also be a good way to see some pelagic birds – skuas, shearwaters, petrels and suchlike. It certainly seems worth a punt.

I am slightly worried that the famous local windiness will result in a trip mostly memorable for the vomiting, but hey-ho, the wind and the rain.

Top ten animals – #2, Snow Leopard

What actually got me started thinking about this top ten animals list was a documentary about the Snow Leopard, Uncia uncia. Two film-makers had spent three years in Kashmir and managed to get about two minutes of what of the kind of action footage you’d normally expect from a wildlife programme – the cats hunting, courting, and at their prey. Apart from a few shots of snow leopards walking through rocks, and film of the film makers not finding leopards, most of the rest of the hour-long documentary was filled out with footage taken by automatic cameras set up to be triggered by motion sensors. But the only places they could rely on the cats being were the sites where they marked their territories, so it was basically a whole hour of snow leopards pissing. Which they do surprisingly elegantly.

People just don’t see these animals. They live in incredibly inaccessible areas, they can have territories stretching hundreds of square miles, and even if you do happen to pass within a few hundred feet of one, they’re so well camouflaged for rocky terrain that you’ll probably not notice it.

Here’s a snow leopard in Mongolia:

Photo by Fritz Polking. Courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust, where you can also see some video of snow leopards.

I think that they’re also the most beautiful of the big cats. Look at the colouring! Look at the tail!

Top ten animals – #8, Narwhal

I was surprised by how many cetaceans made it into my longlist. Part of it, perhaps, is that the difficulty of seeing marine animals adds to their desirability. And of course a lot of whales are *big*. Anyway, I considered Blue Whale, Killer Whale, Beluga, and Sperm Whale, and though Sperm Whale came closest (Moby Dick!) in the end, I went for the Narwhal, Monodon monoceros.

By whale standards, it’s not that big – the body’s only 4-5m [only!] – although the male’s tusk can add another 3m. What an extraordinary thing, though, that long, spiralling tooth. We tend to imagine that narwhal tusks were taken as unicorn horns because of a coincidental similarity; that one long spiralling ‘horn’ was assumed to be another. But actually, that form, the long helical tooth, is pretty much unique to narwhals. All those medieval images of unicorns were derived from the narwhal horns.

Another picture:

These are really special animals.

Top ten animals – #9, Chimpanzee

To see any of the apes in the wild would be a big deal. In some ways, the others are more appealing; the huge but (relatively) gentle gorilla, the mournful-looking orange Orang*, and the currently trendy pan-sexual bonobo all have a glamour to them which the chimp has rather lost, with the PG Tips ads and the years spent hanging out with Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson. I was even tempted to choose one of the gibbons; they may be ‘lesser’ apes, but they have a hell of an acrobatic way of getting through the trees.

In the end, though it had to be the Common Chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes.

(picture of chimp in the Gombe Reserve, Tanzania, from National Geographic).

The chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, of course. We’re equally closely related to common chimps and bonobos, but I picked P. troglodytes because – well, I don’t know, really.

One thing that’s not always appreciated about chimps is that if you ever see a trained chimp, in a Tarzan movie or an advert, it’s a juvenile. That’s because while a young chimp is cute, trainable and manageable, an adult male is 120 pounds of unpredictable, aggressive muscle. The one pictured above, named Frodo by Jane Goodall in one of her stupider moments, later stole, killed, and started to eat the child of a park employee. Tolkien would be proud.

Chimps aren’t nice. But they are clever. They crack nuts open with rocks, they strip leaves from twigs and use them to fish termites out of mounds, they hunt cooperatively, they’re political; you can even teach them some rudimentary language. They are nearly what we are; we are nearly what they are. They’re the point at which the mystery of evolution comes closest to home, and yet it’s still not easy to think of something like them turning into us.

Baby chimps look more human than the adults, with flatter faces:

At some stage in our evolution, the physical development of our heads became slowed or interrupted in some way. Desmond Morris called us ‘The Naked Ape’, but we’re also the baby-faced ape.

*isn’t it a pleasing coincidence that ‘orange’ and ‘orang’ are almost the same word?

wireless networks, bunnies

I’ve spent most of the afternoon browsing around the web looking for the best way to fix the wireless network* so that it works everywhere it needs to. I’ve now officially lost the will to live. Here’s a calming picture of some bunnies:

bunnies

*The problem is that the current router (a Belkin F5D7630, since you ask) isn’t very flexible or upgradeable – you can’t plug in an antenna, and Belkin’s own range extender thingy doesn’t work with it. So whatever I do is going to involve buying a new base station. My instinct is to just buy Apple stuff, since all the computers are Macs and will play nicely with it. An Airport Extreme base station and an Airport Express to act as a range extender would (probably) sort out the problem. And they look pretty. But they’re more expensive than the competition. There are various MIMO/Pre-N routers whch should have greater range and might sort out the problem – but if they didn’t, I’d be back where I started, except 60 quid down.

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