Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Rules

Every game must have its rules and yearlisting is no exception. The good thing, for me, is that this yearlist is my yearlist, so I am de facto in charge of the rules. I decree that they shall be thus:

  1. To count on the list every species seen must be a vertebrate. I don’t have to see its backbone but I do have to believe it has one.
  1. The species must actually be seen; species which are only heard do not count.
  1. It must be seen in the wild as part of a self-sustaining population. Individual escapes from captivity do not count (which is a shame as there is a gorgeous golden pheasant just down the road from my house).
  1. Well-established feral species with self-sustaining populations (such as brown hares in the UK, helmeted guinea-fowl in Madagascar, and feral pigeons just about everywhere) do count. Who are we to that decide that certain animals are not wild when it is down to our meddling that they live where they do? In any case, I like grey squirrels and I shall probably not be in North America in 2012.
  1. Taxonomy (i.e., for our purposes, what is recognised as a species and what is merely a geographical form of a species) and nomenclature (i.e. what each species is called) are entirely up to me and will largely depend on which books I am using for each chunk of the world I visit. (You wait until you see how much of a problem this is in India: three recent field guides to the birds and three sets of names.) Sometimes such things will depend solely on my whims. Not everyone will agree, but tough: it’s my list.
  1. Species seen temporarily restrained (e.g. small mammals removed from live traps or bats removed under licence from their boxes) count as long as they are swiftly and safely returned to their natural habitat.
  1. Yesterday I saw a little grebe with a fish in its bill. I couldn’t see what the fish was but, had I identified it, I don’t know whether it would have counted. Leave this one with me. I’ll get back to you.
  1. If at any point during the year it dawns on me that the rules need bending, or a new rule needs invoking, I shall do so at will.
We’ll manage. Tomorrow the list begins and for a year I will keep you posted of the wild critters I see. This is a good thing: if there’s one thing I like, it’s wild critters.

Happy New Year everyone: may it bring you many good things and much beautiful wildlife.

Friday, 30 December 2011

A challenge

To folks who, like me, grew up watching wildlife in North Norfolk, yearlists come as standard. Even if it’s just in your head, in a there's-my-first-bullfinch sort of way, on January 1st you start a new list of the birds you see; and by the end of the year you’re berating yourself for not having looked for lesser spotted woodpeckers. (In 2011 I did, twice, and failed to find them, twice.) A yearlist is a goal and it adds excitement to cold January birding when all the birds around are the same ones as were around in December.

For years now I have been scheming something altogether bigger: an all-taxa yearlist, to include every species I identified in every group of wildlife – birds, mammals, plants, insects, molluscs, crustaceans, reptiles, fungi, you name it. This would be marginally feasible here in the UK, but to do it would be heroic. Put simply: there are a lot of species out there, even on our small, cold, subarctic island. The problem – and blessing – I have is that my work each year spans continents. I generally have a good idea of the birds and mammals in the countries where I work. And in many I can get to grips with reptiles and amphibians. In some places I am au fait with a few plants. Even insects. Sometimes the odd fish works for me too.

But there are plenty of groups about which I know nothing. As I wander through a rainforest in Madagascar I can name the birds and the mammals, and I might even manage a satanic leaf-tailed gecko or two, but the plants… well the plants are wholly alien. And the same is largely true even of countries where I’ve worked for months or years, like India and Bolivia.

Nonetheless, to set this bright, shiny, new blog-ball rolling I want to take up a challenge: a monstrous, death-defying, never-before-attempted yearlist. For the reasons given above, I simply can’t list all the species I see everywhere in the world. No-one could. It’s not so much a question of my knowledge, though I freely admit to vast holes in that; it’s more a question of time. No-one would have the time to identify and list every plant, every bird, every fish, every mammal, every invertebrate he or she saw in so many places. The task would bring Hercules to his knees.

So I’ve hit a compromise. This year, my blog will feature a list of all the vertebrates I see. You can be sure that I’ll mention many non-vertebrate species too, especially here in the UK where I’m a bit of a plant-geek and I have a soft spot for dragonflies, but only vertebrates will make the list. I’m booked to work in all sorts of exciting places and I’m looking forward to seeing many species of vertebrate, most of them old friends in corners of the world where I’ve often worked in the past.

My commitment, then, is to watch wildlife (easy), to blog about it enthusiastically (the enthusiasm will be easy, the discipline less so), and to keep a giant vertebrate yearlist here (hard work, frankly). Since, to my knowledge, nobody has done this before, I have high hopes of setting the world vertebrate yearlist record (WVYR).

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Your commitment is simple: read. And every now and again let me know what you think. I have other plans for you too, but I’ll let you know about those once we’ve started seeing some wildlife.

For now, just keep reading.

Look I made a grebe

My house is by a river and very close to the place where my father showed my little-child self his first little grebe. Passing nearby this morning I thought of grebes and, in the very moment the thought popped into my head, a sinuous grebe popped out of the water with a silvery fish in its beak.

The thought world and the material world sang, in that one moment, the same song.

Look I made a grebe, where there never was a grebe (with apologies to Sondheim).


It shouldn’t take much for readers to twig that I neither have, nor claim, any affiliation with cheap car insurance, nor indeed with meerkats. This blog’s name is simply a play on words, in homage to a piece of advertising genius.

But just for the record, for cheap car insurance click here, and for meerkats click here.

Well, it’s not just a play on words. It’s a play on birds too. In the UK perhaps the hardest resident species to identify by sight are marsh tit and willow tit. They are birds to compare with care. The ever-brilliant Simon Barnes elegantly expresses the matter and its meaning:

Apparently the willow tit has a slightly less shiny cap than a marsh tit. Oh really? Buggered if I can see it. And it has a pale wing panel, and that’s not the easiest thing in the world to see, either. Really: you make an effort to like birds and right at the start, they throw a curve ball like that at you. It’s the rank ingratitude of it all that gets you.

The only thing for a bad birdwatcher to do at this sensitive stage of development is to ignore it, in the most tactful way possible. Acknowledge the presence of the marsh or willow tit, but don’t let it upset you. The point is that even so early in birding life, you meet an unfathomable mystery. And if we are not here for unfathomable mysteries, then what is the point of life?

Simon Barnes
How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher

If you are interested in nature, and you speak English, and you haven’t read any Simon Barnes, it’s time you did.

Pink-footed geese yap across a rose-gold sky over my house as I write. This is going to be fun.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

I stole a pen

I stole a pen once, in India. I didn’t mean to. Among my numerous wonderful jobs is leading wildlife-watching holidays for Naturetrek. This was the end of a peerless holiday called A Wildlife Cruise on the Brahmaputra and I was marshalling my group through passport control at Kolkata airport. When I had shown almost everyone which form to fill, and how, I realised I had not filled it myself. Nor did I have a pen with which to do so. I turned to the last clients remaining with me, legally in India, and sheepishly craved a pen of them. The husband handed me a handsome chrome affair and I promised to restore it to him in the departure lounge.

Passports, tickets, security, phew. Of course the pen slipped my mind. It wasn’t until I reached Norfolk that I realised I had filched it. Immediately I sent off a shamefaced email, apologising for my crime. By return I received a charming note, giving me the pen, but asking me to use it to write, really write. ‘You should,’ he said.

These words, then, are for the pen’s rightful owner. They are also for the countless other people with whom it has been my privilege to share wildlife and wild places for as long as I can remember. For my family and the teachers at school who nurtured my enthusiasm. For the lifelong friends with whom I still regularly raise binoculars. For the experts who have poured their knowledge and excitement into me, in every country in which it has been my joy to live and work. For the clients who travel with me, and for the many people who attend the Norfolk Wildlife Trust workshops I lead. Thank you all, for loving wildlife.

In a funny sort of way it’s for a puffin too. But that’s another story.