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.


Links of the year 2007

After a quick and dirty winnowing-out, here are what might be the best of the links which I posted last year.

Arctic artefactsAttack of the GIANT NEGROES!!

Bait-Fishing CrowsBeautiful Specimensbird-eating batsBuilding Stonehenge

C19th London snail-gathererschilled bees & yellow rainChinese building blocksCollege RepublicansCormac McCarthy & the semi-colonCroatian bees sniff out landmines

Defiant Gardensdogs in elk

English Accents and Dialects

Faster speciation in the tropics?Fela Kuti documentaryFlags By ColoursFlight ExposureFossil Rivers

Galveston on Stilts

hamster-powered paper shredderhobo nickelsHothead: 1902how to camouflage a whole factoryhuman yellowhammer

Iggy Pop’s concert riderIntensified continuity revisited

Jamaican Label ArtJapanese Love HotelsJen Stark paper sculptures

Kyushu Medical Books

La Tonnara and the Chamber of DeathLarge ejaculate from a spiny genital organlook-a-like portraits

on the Heritability and Malleability of IQ

Pac-Man the text adventureParasite manipulates host’s sense of smellPhotosynth demopigeons alignerPlains Indian Ledger Artplaster casts of termite moundsPolk MillerPolynesian Stick Charts

Rafael Benitez The MagicianRIP Joe Engressia, the original Phone PhreakRoxanne Shante: Who need a royalty check?

Simon Norfolk photographsSome So-Called Out of Place Artifactsspiny anteater reveals bizarre penisstripper polaroidsSuper Mario levels that play themselves

Taliban portrait photosThamesmead, Riverside School, 76-78The Bhagavata PuranaThe Broken Column HouseThe Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-BressonThe Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the WebThe flipping shipThe Visual Erotics of Mini-Marriagesthread in spiderwebsToutes les autos de TintinTypography and HMS Victory

X-rays of paintings


Me Nature

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.


Books of the year, 2007

Since I’ve recorded [nearly all] the books I’ve read since March this year on a special book page, and it’s possible to view them ordered according to my rating, I hardly need to to do a books of the year post. Here are some links to some of the longer posts I did about books:

The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner is a fabulous book about a long-term study of Galapagos finches and what it revealed about natural selection.

Large Cactus Ground finch

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is about life in the Green Zone in Baghdad; what was then the base of the US administration of Iraq and is now the embassy complex.

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst is a very good book about typography.

George III and the Mad-Business by Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter is about George III’s illness and its broader cultural context.

The Utility of Force, by the eminent British general Rupert Smith, is about modern warfare and how it’s different.

» The Galapagos finch photo is one taken by putneymark which I found on Flickr and am using under a Creative Commons by-sa licence.


RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2007

I did the annual RSPB garden birdwatch yesterday. This was my third time and by far my worst list yet. Not because of any catastrophic decline in birds, but just because I had a rather dud hour. It didn’t help that I did it at midday, which is never the best time for birds.

Despite the fact that it’s just a statistical exercise, and not a competition, there was a terrible temptation to cheat and try to make the list a better reflection of the species I see regularly. But I manfully resisted. Here’s the list (for comparison: 2005, 2006). Numbers refer to the maximum number seen at once.

Woodpigeon – 1
Feral Pigeon – 2

Dunnock – 2

(Eurasian) Robin – 2
Blackbird – 1

Blue Tit – 3
Great Tit – 3
Coal Tit – 1
Long-tailed Tit – 2

Chaffinch – 2