It has been a busy year. As far as I can tell, I have had four books published (one of which won a national award for best travel guidebook); written 46 articles for magazines and newspapers; had 381 photographs published in books, magazines and newspapers; and edited three books and two magazines. But that’s all work. This blogpost is about play. Rather than a detailed review of the year, here are ten things that caught my eye.
I did a bit of moth-twitching this year, albeit very largely around Norwich. Local highlights included Dark Crimson Underwing courtesy of David Norgate and Goat Moth courtesy of Weeting Heath NWT. Further afield, I twitched Dungeness twice – first for a Beautiful Marbled (with a back-up American Black Tern and brilliant orthoptera) and then for an Oleander Hawk-moth. The latter is surely unparalleled among moths – so slightly a shame that it didn’t occur in 2019 whenmuch of my life - both work and play - will focus on all things moth...
Undoubtedly the most astonishing UK animal to which my eyes treated this year was a young Beluga Whale in the Thames estuary. Will Soar and I were out the door with a handful of minutes of learning of its presence (although in retrospect we could have waited hours, days, weeks and even months...). Even better, it was found by a friend – Dave Andrews – during his working day. He was justly celebrated the next time he made it to the pub.
I somewhat reduced my orchid-chasing activities in 2018. Nevertheless, I got to grips with (1000s!) of my penultimate UK orchid, Small White Orchid. The same trip up north also produced some fabulous hybrids, including Lesser Butterfly x Small White, and Frog x Northern Marsh. And there was the usual (and much-appreciated) East Anglian fare in summer – Fen Orchid,Military Orchid, ochroleuca Early Marsh Orchid etc. But here I’m going to celebrate with the ‘second coming’ of the Essex Tongue Orchids. I twitched these straight after they were discovered in 2017, when the site was under wraps and the flowers had gone over. I then joined Sean Cole’s organised trip in 2018 – when the flowers were in much better nick, if still past their best. The smart money remains on this being an accidental introduction rather than a full-on native colony. Even so, they were smart – and much appreciated.
Birds… The early months of 2018 felt like a rerun of winter 1990/91: Snowy Owl, Parrot Crossbills, Arctic Redpolls and American Bittern - although all in East Anglia this time, so not demanding much travel. Very nice – but it didn’t really fire me. I was more excited by a snowy hike along a Norwich river during the Beast from the East. North American Horned Lark was the only tick of early 2018, and even that was merely a subspecies. Spring produced two new birds:Green Heron and Moltoni’s Warbler, the latter found by two Norwich friends. Summer and early autumn produced American Royal Tern and American Black Tern (a subspecies, but one in the bag for a future split) but also a long-distance dip on Sooty Tern. Then came a fabulous eight-days in mid-October. In a normal year, Norfolk’s first Brown Shrikemight have been prize enough, but it was eclipsed by unequivocal Stejneger’s Stonechat, a long-overdue Grey Catbird and – the ultimate prize, a UK 1st seen by barely 100 people - White-rumped Swift. In a pleasing coda, it was my tweeted photos that nailed the in-field identification of the latter and sent the mega alert whirling. Right time, right place.
The usual wonderful Adder experiences were a key part of the period February to April. They included perhaps my finest viper day yet, spending six hours with fighting male adders, a dispute that culminated in a major surprise when the subordinate male succeeded in mating. Time for a hemipenis pic, then.
I had an awful year of finding rare birds, despite a lot of effort invested, particularly in autumn. My only decent scarce was an Olive-backed Pipit (Norfolk, October), and even that was too brief to document so cannot be submitted. Fail. Other than moths (see Orache, above), I didn’t personally find any scarce insects either. So it was particularly pleasing to be in on Phil Saunders’ find of Spurn’s first Vagrant Emperor, andto get the awful-yet-sufficient photos (on manual focus) that nailed the identification.
I did plenty of garden moth-ing, although the first six months of the year were much more productive than the last six months – perhaps due to a faulty (dim) MV bulb that wasn’t bringing in the goods. Nevertheless, in spring, I had an amazing run of rarities with two Dewick’s Plusia eclipsed by a Scarce Black Arches and – OMG! OMFG! – an Orache. Beautiful, rare and unexpected: the perfect combo.
A week-long press trip to central Colombia – which will be written up in The Telegraph, Bird Watching and Neotropical Birding during 2019 – produced quite a few wonderful natural experiences. A male Glass Frog guarding its eggs was a highlight; so too a couple of young Fer-de-lance on the path between lodge and sleeping quarters. A large number of globally threatened birds included the amazing and Critically Endangered Glittering Starfrontlet, but it was this image of the (Endangered) Chestnut-bellied Flowerpiercer that took the photographic biscuit.
Moths aside, there was quality among my 2018 insects, if not quantity. I completed the set of UK dragonflies with Azure Hawker, but failed to photograph it. I identified the UK's first Yellow-spotted Emerald from a Twitter photo - but then dipped it! I enjoyed my penultimate UK butterfly, Mountain Ringlet. A sexy longhorn beetle and Bumblebee Robberfly also starred on the same Scottish trip. But arguably the best invertebrate experience was seeing scores of Southern Migrant Hawkers – a recent colonist to the UK – take their maiden flight from an Essex ditch.