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

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

Best Plant

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


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

Best Insect

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

Best Invertebrate (other)

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

Best Fish

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

Best Amphibian, Best Reptile

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

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

Best Mammal

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

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

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

Best Ecosystem

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

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

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


Links of the year 2008

A not very methodical selection of about 50 links from the 300 or so I posted last year.

amazing camera — Anne of Green Gables
beachobatics — Billys and Charleys — Björk on television
cat playing the theramin — Chicago storefront churches — collapsing USA — CSS Homer — curators at work

Detroit dancing
financial meltdown — forehead wrinkles — fossil bird
Galileo’s magic trick — ghost slugs

hairy women — head-tracking 3D display — hermit in glass house — historical voting
ingenious glasses — interviewed chief — ironclad
Japanese typewriters — Jefferson’s Bible

kitten eating broccoli — knitted viscera
lakes on Titan — landscape design
male strippers — medieval watermarks

Native Americans — new Pope
photos of TV — psychology of suicide
railway signal — restless stereographs — robot dog — robotic prosthetic

search photos by colour — sheep stomach lamp — sign names — snails on face — solargraphs — spooky metronomes — springtime on Mars — a stupid name
transsexual toilets

unbuilt London
vest test — Victorian egg-diving — video editing magic
wandering oak boulder — Welsh roadsign — Wikipedia — wooden mirror


Books of the Year 2008

As ever, these are books I read in 2008, not necessarily or usually books published in 2008. The selection process wasn’t terribly rigorous; I just quickly picked out titles I particularly remember enjoying. I blogged about most of the books I read this year, so rather than go over them again, I’ve provided links to those posts. In the order I read them, these are my picks for the year:

Looking at that list, I’ve had a particularly good year for fiction this year, partially because of the Read The World challenge; the Aitmatov stands out as an example of a book I thought was really good and which it’s very unlikely I would have read if I hadn’t been looking for a title from Kyrgyzstan.

The Mitford letters might be the pick of the non-fiction; I knew they’d probably be worth reading, because they were an extraordinary bunch and several of them wrote well, but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy them as much as I did. Like a sparkling, witty and very posh version of Heat magazine, only with Hitler and Evelyn Waugh instead of Amy Winehouse.


Bird of the Year 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me Nature

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2008

It’s that time of year again. I haven’t been looking forward to it particularly because it has just been a rubbish year for birds in the garden. I don’t know why. I’m not sure we’ve ever had quite as many birds since we moved all the feeders onto a pole in open space nearer the house (to make the birds easier to see and keep off the squirrels), but the feeders were busy enough in the summer, so I don’t know if that’s it. Anyway, in the event my results were about comparable to last year, with the difference that last year I felt I’d been really unlucky whereas this year it seems about right.

Blackbird – 3
Blue tit – 3
Great tit – 2
Dunnock – 1
Feral pigeon – 4
Woodpigeon – 4
Magpie – 2
Robin – 1
Wren – 1
Siskin – 3
Chaffinch – 2

No goldfinch, no greenfinch, no coal tit, no great-spotted woodpecker, no jay, no crow. Let alone any of the relative long shots like long-tailed tit or goldcrest. I didn’t even get any parakeets during my chosen hour, although they’re the one bird we’ve been getting a lot of.

For comparison: 2005, 2006, 2007.

If you’re in the UK, you’ve still got until the end of the weekend to take part. Please do!