Christmas pressies for the naturalist 2014

I know, I know I’m late again - it’s just this Christmas business complete with it’s overly commercial aspects turns me off so much. The fact that the major stores, airports and other commercial emporiums are ‘Dreaming of a White Christmas’ (yet another reminder of global climate change to me) and ‘ Decking the Halls’ since way back in September just means I dig my heels in and refuse to be Christmassy until, well, now - Christmas.

It’s probably something to do with the old pagan in me - but every year I wake up start feeling ‘in season’ at about the time everyone else seems to be announcing last day to post warnings and when most have finished their Christmas shopping and are kicking back with a Gluwein.

Which makes this blog seem defunct - I am however relying on at least some of you feeling the same way and being just as behind as me. On a plus side I tend to find that the post works better at this time of the year than usual and that many Christmas gifts and cards sent before the merry meltdown do indeed, despite the warnings and threats, make it on time. Failing that, play with a few definitions; there are twelves days to Christmas after all, starting on the 25th December. Or alternatively you could look at this as a bit of advice on how to spend that cash from Auntie Joan, or as is the nature of blogs - you could be reading this next year, in which case what am I worrying about.

So this is where I independently recommend and review some of the best things that I have discovered as a naturalist this year and are so good I’m forced to share.

Starting with a long over due review of a book that well, simply doesn’t fit - Normally when a book makes it into my possession, I subconsciously have already homed it. The moment I run my hands up its spine or finger through it’s leafs, I can picture where in the regimented shelves of knowledge and enlightenment it will settle.
Without making myself out to be too much of an OCD librarian, this is usually dictated by it’s subject matter, sometimes it is part of a series (and therefore in my library at least it has to sit with it’s bibliographical brethren) or occasionally it’s size, some books simply don’t fit a normal format, and wont fit with the others, these monsters often have to lie down or end up on top of the wardrobe, where there is a bit of ceiling height.

So when the long anticipated ‘ Unfeathered Bird’ was released (to my shame quite some time ago) I found myself in a bit of a fix. Because I know the author and fabulous bird anatomist and artist, Katrina Von Grouw and had seen a few ‘tasters’ of the work that was to be included, I wasn’t expecting a regular run of the mill book, but I certainly wasn’t expecting what I unwrapped.

As the brown cardboard cocoon was torn aside, it revealed a very large book and after the initial slow turn exploration of it’s content I realised pretty soon, that on several counts there was no place in my current library that this would sit.

Subject wise, a book on bird anatomy should reside at least on the shelf of dry text books on other anatomical subjects, bones, skulls and taxidermy, but that doesn’t do justice to the stunning pictures within.

Stunning pictures usually reads as a ‘coffee table’ book but it can’t be because although it’s got loads of illustrations in it’s 287 fine and massive pages, it also has plenty of text and if this was on my hypothetical coffee table I would continually be distracted from conversations by the lively, knowledgeable and overwhelmingly fascinating words within. Besides I don’t have a coffee table, so I’m stumped.

Without word of bias this is a stunning book. I’ve always been fascinated by skeletons and the biological mechanisms hidden within the bodies of the animals that are my subjects. I’ve collected these items and have articulated a few skeletons with as much enthusiasm as some would paw over a Hornby railway set or construct an Airfix kit. So if you like me have even an inclining of interest in osteology - then simply put you have to own this book.

On the other hand if you love birds - either as a hardcore ‘birder’ or someone who puts peanuts and mealworms out in the garden, then equally this book with help you see them in a completely different light - Katrina almost gives you X-ray specs. You will never look at that Bluetit hanging on your peanuts in the same way again or indeed the Robin perched on your spade handle as it is doing bereft of flesh and feather on page 280.

But overall this is a beautiful if eccentric book, packed with stunning illustrations and explanations for all manner of details such as why Herons and Cormorants have Kinky necks, why birds necks are bendy, how penguins sink, and why a whooping crane whoops. Quirky and eccentric Katrina takes us on a fascinating journey into new worlds within a world familiar to most of us. She deliberately avoids tying you up in jargon while at the same time not patronising the reader and in doing so she’s managed to tread that very thin line. As a consequence this book has rare appeal to everyone from ornithologist to artist. As to where to put it? I’ve given it a shelf all of its own with nothing but a Black-browed Albatross skull for company.

I’ve not had a huge amount of time to get through many books this year and my beside table bears testament to this statement with a teetering mountain of knowledge, still un-read. So I must apologise to those who have sent me your books to review this year, they will get looked at I promise.

One that does stand out is Patrick Barkham’s book ‘Badgerlands’. I’m a bit of a badger fan it has to be said and anything new published on them, automatically gets bought, but this ones publication is particularly timely - given the rather strained political relationship we have with this beast at the moment.

I loved Patricks writing in his previous book ‘The Butterfly Isles’ which is still a fabulous read for anyone with a passion for these insects and so I had high hoped for Badgerlands. I wasn’t disappointed either, rarely do I find a factual book so ‘not put downable’ I simply consumed it, in one or two large bites.

If you love, like or hate them or indeed if you are Princess Anne or a politician or who keeps quoting nonsense about them, then I strongly recommend this book for a good un-biased, neutral over view of this animals natural history and it’s place in our national conscience. It deals with everything from badger watching, badger eating, badger social lives, badger science and of course the very prickly issue of badger populations and their association with cattle, us and a little bacterium. If you wish to get up to speed on the issue, then this book empowers you or if you just want to become enlightened about our largest land based carnivore, and where it sits in our landscape and our culture then ‘Badgerlands' is a great place to start.

How about a gift that keeps giving? I can’t get enough of these things - camera traps are simply brilliant, it’s like leaving your eyes and ears out in the woods at night. I can’t think of a better bit of technology that will improve your naturalist skills and give you insight into what is going on out there in the garden or the countryside at night. A great bit of kit for a young one who you have trouble tearing away from the technology, this is tech that you have to use outside. There are many different makes and models to choose from out there, but invest as much as you can afford and you’ll be rewarded.

I like the Bushnell’s and while not perfect (there isn’t a perfect one on the market yet) they are a neat, easy and user-friendly design. I’ve got a bunch of Nature View HD’s as they have a flash invisible to most, shoot video and still pictures and have a good degree of flexibility in that you can screw in adapter lenses which allow you to capture creatures closer to the lens, perfect for filming birds on your garden feeders or small mammals.

Suffice to say this technology is improving all the time and these cameras are allowing us to achieve in the field what we could only do with a complex and expensive tangle of infra-red trips, sensors and wires.

I will be reviewing a few more cameras in greater detail in the future.

Once again, I’ve had a year being almost exclusively encased in my Favorite fluff - I simply swear by merino wool base layers. They are the perfect, practical gift for anyone who spends time out of doors. Versatile and lightweight, perfect for layering, you don’t get cold if they get wet and they don’t smell (well they do a bit - after several weeks of sweating around Dartmoor doing field work, I have to confess, while I didn’t smell of a sweaty human, I did begin to sniff slightly of damp sheep. Having said that the odour pervading from a humid Ovine isn’t that unpleasant). The only downside in my house is the moths love them - i was told a few years back that Icebreaker had impregnated their fabrics with moth repellant and indeed I have one older T that seems to have survived relatively un-perforated. Sadly the same can’t be said for the rest. If you’ve not got a mothy old house I suggest you invest in moth balls or cedar wood blocks.

Now they might seem expensive but they are worth it, I barely use any other T-shirts, socks or underpants. The great thing is - if you can’t stretch your budget for a T then you can always get them the most exciting, comfortable socks in the world. I know, I know there was a time in my life when socks were the worst present you could get anyone - not anymore! I just hope some of my family read this.