Directly above me, as I write this at my desk, there is a herring gull nest. I can’t see it, of course, because it’s on the roof created by the bay windows of my flat as they jut out slightly from the building. But I saw the parent birds flying back and forth to the site for several days, bringing nesting material, and from across the street, I can just about see an adult hunkered down on the nest.
With lidless, beady eyes, pale pink skin, feathery gills branching from its neck like soft coral, and a seemingly fixed, disconcertingly human-like smile, the axolotl looks more like an alien than your typical salamander. Unsurprisingly, this strange Mexican amphibian has intrigued and fascinated people for centuries, from the ancient Aztecs to modern-day scientists.
During the Victorian Era, there was a botanical equivalent of ‘gold fever’. Wealthy collectors sent explorers to all corners of the world to discover new, exquisite types of orchid. The finest specimens could fetch very high prices indeed, and explorers risked their lives just to find them, travelling through dangerous, unmapped territory in search of these beautiful, delicate flowers.
Last year, I wrote an article about five birds with brilliant but bizarre beaks – from the wrybill, which has a bill that bends to the side, to the impressive shoebill, which has a massive, hook-tipped monster of a beak that is perfect for catching and holding onto large, slippery fish. But picking only five beaks to include in the list proved difficult, and there were several birds that I initially considered that were eventually cut from the final selection.
No bird can stay in the air permanently. At the very least, they must come down to earth to nest. But the common swift, with a streamlined body that is honed to aerodynamic perfection and narrow, sickle-shaped wings, spends more of its life in flight than any other bird. Its habitat is the sky itself.