Saturday, 31 December 2016

And finally...

This quick look back at December completes my series of posts reviewing 2016. Thanks for sticking with it - from the comments and texts urging me on recently, I got the impression that some of you didn't think I was going to make it. I could pretend it was all carefully planned to conclude as the sun sets for the last time on 2016, but that would be a lie. In fact, there was a point last week when I too thought I would never reach the end: it was, to borrow the sporting image of 2016, my Jonny Brownlee moment, and you, dear readers, were my Alistair, dragging me to the finishing line despite having much better things to do with your time.

2016 was of course a year of shock election results, famous folks' funerals and controversial rare birds. The evidence on climate change appeared stronger than ever but the peoples of the free world decided not to let the facts on this and several other matters of public debate get in the way of a good story, especially when it was being told by wealthy demagogues with their fingers crossed behind their backs. On those shock election results, I merely observe that just 27% of eligible Americans voted for Trump, and less than 38% of voting age Brits voted to leave the EU. Whatever you think of the results of both polls, this surely can't be taken as a sign that western democracy is in rude health. I recall fondly the ennobled billionaire tax-exile Lord Ashcroft tweeting after the US election and Brexit results that 'the elites' had lost touch with the people - how fortunate we are to have such down-to-earth meritocrats holding these damned elites to account.
Egrets: I've had a few - Dorset got in on the December Cattle Egret invasion, this bird being one of five with Little Egrets at Nottington
Corn Buntings were singing at Maiden Castle in the unseasonably warm weather of mid-December
 Corn Bunting, Maiden Castle
Much loved celebrities seemed to drop like flies in 2016 - or did they? My theory is that with a rising global population and the bar for celebrity being substantially lowered over time, there are just a larger number of them around to perish - so we'd better get used to more 'Sad death of tragic Brian off of Big Brother' type headlines in 2017. That said, there were some genuine mega-stars who left us during the year, and I had to smile at a recent suggestion on social media that Bowie had created a parallel universe and was in the process of populating it one by one with his own hand-picked choices. 
Marsh Harrier at Middlebere - from a visit early in the month

Little Egret, Middlebere: one of the few beneficiaries of our warming climate
Peregrine at Middlebere from the same visit
As for the controversial rarities, it started early in the year with the Dalmatian Pelican's tour of the south west, and ended with the Cotswolds Blue Rock Thrush. Establishing the provenance of a wide-ranging Lammergeier (not seen by me) and the wandering east coast Western Purple Swamphen (which I did see) was also potentially complicated by the influence of continental re-introduction schemes, even though neither were thought likely to be of captive stock.
A memorable December day saw me heading up to Derbyshire for a close encounter with a Dusky Thrush
Willow Tit at Carsington Water was a long overdue 'photo-tick' on the way back from the Dusky Thrush... was the bonus of an Eastern Black Redstart in Tewkesbury on the way home - the first I had seen of this form and therefore my bird of the month for December
A quick attempt, then, to dish out some meaningless titles for 'whatsit of the year', an exercise fraught with danger not just due to fickle memory, but to the risk of implying that anything not mentioned wasn't fun or special - that would be nonsense, of course, but I'm afraid it's not going to stop me:
  • Bird of the Year: it has to be the Siberian Accentor - the fact that it was part of a multiple occurrence of the species in Britain 'devalued' it for some, but for me it did the opposite, illustrating a genuine natural phenomenon and adding to its authenticity in a year which had more than its share of plastic controversy.
  • Dorset Bird of the Year: Portland's Great Spotted Cuckoo was everything a rarity should be: big, beautiful and photogenic - and a county tick for me.
  • Patch Bird of the Year: a very short shortlist due to a shameful lack of effort - but a self-found autumn Great White Egret claims the title, if stumbling across the birding equivalent of a Concorde in a haystack counts as 'self-found'.
  • Twitch of the Year: it has to be the day trip with my son to St Mary's for the Cliff Swallow - though the Hebridean adventure for the Black-billed Cuckoo, the campervan sleepover for the Great Knot, the smash and grab for the Siberian Accentor and the Dusky Thrush/Eastern Black Redstart bonus ball day ran it a close second, third, fourth and fifth respectively. Not that I''m obsessed with lists, you understand.
  • Photo of the Year: had to think about this one. But I love American waders, and I love photographing rare birds up close, so it's the second one from this series taken during an intimate encounter with the Hudsonian Whimbrel in Cornwall early in the year. 
  • Dip of the year: I learnt long ago not to go too early with 'review of the year' posts and this year is no exception. I was looking forward to reporting 'no long distance dips' to speak of, when last week's Pembrokeshire trip failed to turn up the hoped for Masked Wagtail!
  • The Donald Trump Award for services to climate chaos: having raised the spectre of climate change, I should reflect for a moment on my own carbon footprint: too much driving chasing all these birds around, obviously, but I managed more lift-sharing than usual in an A-rated car, and, apart from two short hops on crop sprayers to the Isles of Scilly, I never got on a proper plane or left the country by any other means in 2016. So not too bad relatively speaking, but certainly room for improvement. Mind you, given the state of sterling, not leaving the country may be less of a choice and more of a necessity in 2017!
The news in 2016 was full of talk of 'blue on blue' conflict, as leading Conservatives knocked lumps out of each other with their Polo hammers. This image of 'blue on blue' - the Blue Rock Thrush against the perfect sky of a cold December afternoon in Stow-on-the-Wold - presents, I feel, a more restful image, and one much less likely to have my Dad shouting at the telly. My photo of the month for December.
So, thanks to the various peregrinations chronicled in these pages in 2016, the number of birds I have seen in Britain according to the official list crept up from 452 at the start of the year to 458 by the end - not including the Swamphen, the Pelican and the Blue Rock Thrush, all suspended in listing purgatory pending consideration by the British Birds Rarities Committee. In statistical terms, therefore, whether or not 2016 can go down as a good or a very good year will in part depend on what these wise folk decide about the year's most controversial birds. The Swamphen should be fine, who knows with the other two. But in the final analysis, the numbers don't much matter: the birds, the butterflies and other interesting critters I saw this year took me to some inspiring places, in the company of some great people, and sometimes with just myself for company, in a search for natural beauty, solitude and fulfilment which undoubtedly kept me sane amid the madness of the modern world.

My thanks, then, to the wildlife, for still being there despite the best efforts of humanity to eradicate much of it; to my fellow travellers, for their companionship and for subjecting themselves to my incessant witterings en route; and to my family, for joining me when it was possible, and tolerating my absence without too much overt celebration when it wasn't. And finally thanks to all of you for reading. It appears that the review of the year by instalments idea was insufficient to avert one last mammoth post for the year, so my resolution for 2017 is a simple one: I'll knock that on the head next year. Assuming the fingers of President Trump's tiny hands haven't already punched in the nuclear codes by then of course. And on that cheerful note, may I wish you a Happy New Year!

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