Sunday, 31 May 2009

How Cool is RSPB Saltholme?

RSPB Saltholme

I drove across the Cheviots from Peebles to Teesside for the juvenile purple heron at the new reserve of Saltholme Pools. This lies surrounded by the industrial complex north of Middlesbrough and is perfect according to the theory that birds will go where humans don't. Think of the army ranges on Salisbury Plain, the vicinity of Sizewell and Dungeness nuclear power stations and so on.

Well, almost perfect. Today a few of the local neds decided to scare off the heron. Really. This is what their lives are about.

So, I didn't get to see the bird but I’m staying over at Seaton Carew (which always prompts a refrain of Metal Guru) to have another go tomorrow. I’m not too gutted either because right at the death, as I was leaving the reserve, up popped a yellow wagtail, which I last saw nearly ten years ago. This is so far back that I had some trouble with the bird’s identification. It’s not uncommon, so it’s hard to say how I've managed to miss it all this time, apart from my lengthy spells in America and Scotland.

Therefore, the answer is: very cool. And if Saltholme delivers the heron tomorrow, mega-cool.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Marylebone, 2008: First Stop to Western Australia

Red Kite

I decided to hire a campervan for the Adelaide-Cairns leg. It would be school and Christmas holidays, and I had to find accommodation every night for eight weeks. I needed the widest possible choice and I didn't want to be hunting around for motels in the outback. Would a van be cost-effective against renting a car? It seemed that it would but in the event there was nothing in it: certain unforeseen expenses cropped up. On the plus side I did surprise myself by spending every night bar one in the van; I had expected at least a few in the comfort of a hotel.

So, flights booked through to Auckland, nights in Singapore, Perth and Adelaide, car for Western Australia and van to get me to Cairns, I stowed myself, new suitcase and small backpack for cabin baggage and laptop into a taxi for the first couple of miles down to Redditch station. I wasn't going to make a habit of taxis but I certainly wasn't piling that lot into a Redditch bus.

Saturday, November 22, 2008, mid-morning and the train up to Birmingham to connect with the Marylebone Flyer. At about fifteen quid, I was already saving money on getting to London. I didn't need the fastest route: my flight wasn't until mid-evening and Chiltern Railways take you through... well, the Chilterns, stamping ground of red kites and a good start to the trip list.

Sunday, 24 May 2009


It's the weekend of the Edinburgh 48 Hour Film challenge, so birding, and sleeping, are on the back-burner. By 7 o'clock on Friday our Water of Leith team were set to make a romance about Michael Murray, city employee, and his screwdriver! Well, the screwdriver just had to appear somewhere as did a line of dialogue. Those were the parameters and we had till 7.30 tonight to write, produce, edit and commit to file a 5-minute-ish film. The Starfish? That ended up being the title. As I key this in (painfully on my phone) our editor should be putting the final touches to yesterday's shoot and then we wait for the big screening on Thursday. Fingers crossed!

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Scottish Birds and Art

Elephant House, Edinburgh

Preceded by a picture of Harry Potter's birthplace, apparently, the latest stop on my run down the east coast. Let's see if the Muse rubs off. Yesterday the coast at Auchmithie and Arbroath donated six year birds to the cause - puffin, fulmar, rock pipit, guillemot, shag and kittiwake. Today it's been Turner, Hirst, Warhol and Bellany at the Edinburgh galleries. And confirmation from the Minor Injuries Clinic that I must have gone a couple of rounds with Nessie on Saturday night, not suffered driver's frozen shoulder, which is kind of a relief. Back on the birding trail tomorrow...

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

On Seeing the First Cuckoo

RSPB Loch of Kinnordy

Dodging sharp showers and general cold, I have zigzagged down from Tomintoul to RSPB Kinnordy, pictured. Glen Isla provided a fly-past cuckoo and now the black-headed gull chorus is entertaining me while a pair of reed buntings flit to and from their nest. And it's dry! No dotterels yet: it was way too unpleasant up Glas Maol.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Scottish May Birding

The Black Isle is hidden on the horizon of this shot from Nairn and it looks like the drizzle is here to stay. Add to that a frozen shoulder from the drive out of Glasgow and this trip has all the hallmarks of a great big dip. I'm thinking of dropping down to Lochindorb but Forres Tesco seems more enticing.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Dotterel Dipping in Derbyshire

Getting to High Neb proved beyond me and anyway the weather... as this picture may convey. In desperation I've stopped somewhere east of Buxton. That in itself was a challenge without having to pay. I've obviously been spoiled by the copious free parking down under.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Bogey Bird #1: Dotterel

BirdGuides has been reporting a trip of dotterels up in Nottinghamshire the last few days and I was due to drive to Scotland today. The perfect route for me to take? It would, had my car been ready, which could be turning into a saga in itself, but not for now.

In any case, I can't get to them, nor to the more recent and closer ones in Derbyshire, and this is why they're a bogey bird. Over the years I have tried for them up Glas Maol in Angus, in the Cairngorms, on Carnethy Hill, south-west of Edinburgh, and latterly on Bredon Hill. Can another year pass without adding them to my world list?

Trapped in Redditch, I had another shot at Titan’s $15 tournament this morning. The entry fee, or time of day, seems to trim the field to a manageable 130 or so and the prize is a decent $600-ish. I make a habit of lasting to the first break but not in good shape and so have to move soon after. This usually results in my exit. Out of five attempts I have once been sailing into the bubble only to self-destruct one position off. By my calculations I can have another thirty goes before it becomes a losing proposition. That's the joy of hitting first place.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Auckland, Feb 2009

Beryl & Me, Burger Fuel

My second time out of Melbourne airport, without any great drama on the fire front but visibility was still poor, so God knows what route we took. Our descent into Auckland was clear enough despite the intricate topography of the area. Then I had to clear bio-control again. I do it voluntarily: I don't want to be spreading yet more noxious aliens around the world. I got my boots cleaned for nothing. OK, maybe I'm not that altruistic.

So, out into the terminal, where Beryl was waiting. She had flown in from Sydney an hour before, 12,000 miles and more than half a year from our last meeting. Doesn't the world seem such a small place? We picked up the car I had booked and headed for her hostel. I only managed to stall the motor a couple of times before remembering it was not automatic.

Beryl navigated us just fine into the CBD, then we went a little wrong. Roadworks didn't help, nor did various streets with pretty much the same name, but we got there. Then on to Burger Fuel and a very good burger, as the name would suggest. The helpful locals down Ponsonby Road recommended it although how sober they were is doubtful.

I had to get on to my old Uni friend, Tony, up in Coatesville, so our meal was brief, with just time for the one photo call, as shown. ⇐

Monday, 11 May 2009

The Penny Poker Bird

Oo-er, just found The Penny Poker Bird - nice piccie, but.

HawkWatch, Golden Gate

Turkey Vulture

I have surveyed raptors too. The fall, as the Americans call it (and we used to), of 2002 found me on Hawk Hill in the company of a diverse crew, all looking for that speck on the horizon to turn into another blip on the ever-rising tally of birds migrating south. I had acquired the taste for this back in 1997 on a visit to Derby Hill near Oswego, NY. Then, I merely observed the participants calling out “Sharpie”, “TV” or whatever at the speck’s appearance. I asked one of them how he could be so sure. “Oh, it gets easier after the first million,” he replied.

Now it was my turn but I still needed a good binocular-filling view to be sure of my identification. We watched north, east, west and, less logically, south. One person recorded each quadrant and several scanned. Frequently the fifth quadrant, straight overhead, caught us out. How could any bird sneak up to take us so unawares?

On the days that weren't fogbound, that is. This being San Francisco we had a couple of sock-ins early in the season. Then there was nothing for it but to bird the Marin Headlands and Rodeo Lagoon.

We had some highlights, mainly among the passerines. The first August watch produced western tanager and the second elegant tern. We also had a broad-winged hawk and a regular white turkey vulture. But it was the constant passage of these winged killers that seemed most impressive of all – so far to go, and all of it to do back again in the spring.

Australia Fires, Feb 2009

I flew out of Melbourne on the afternoon that the Black Saturday bushfires raged. I had spent most of the day at the airport after deciding that downtown was just too hot to be lugging around suitcase, computer and brolly(!) Even in the terminal I could feel the heat radiating in through the windows and I'm sure the air-conditioning was struggling. The departure gates swayed as the wind moaned around the structure. Extreme heat - 47 degrees, which I'd not experienced even in my Arizona years - and gusty wind, the perfect ingredients for disaster.

Our take-off was late because these conditions were interfering with the navigation equipment. I guess it was the same for everyone but finally we climbed out of the airport and through a layer of smog, I reckon to about 10,000 feet. This did not seem worrisome because a few days earlier I had bounced down through the same smog from previous, less disastrous bushfires. It was not until breakfast news next morning in Tasmania that the full impact began to appear.

We all know the rest of the story. My own personal postscript is of returning to Victoria to tour the Great Ocean Road and the Grampians and back via Bendigo. I was aiming to spend my last night between there and Melbourne but, seeing fires on the horizon, I opted to get as close as possible to the airport at the Formule 1. I also did not care to get anywhere the source of the smoke, as I might have done a week previously.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Mute Swan

OK, it's a pretty unremarkable bird but this was the first picture I took with my phone and is a great test of posting "on the road".


I'll be at SeaWatch SW for the first few days of August, hoping to add a couple of shearwaters to my British list if my identification skills are up to it. I haven't been to Cornwall for years, except to catch the Bay of Biscay pelagic in 2006, which did provide my only record of Balearic Shearwater, as well as Great Shearwater, Sabine's Gull and Storm Petrel.

50 Ways to Leave a Tourney, Part 2

So, you’ve flopped a straight or flush. This hasn't happened since Canute was a boy. Relax, for the first time in recent memory you can slowplay it, extract the maximum from the fish who have been swimming all the way to the river and sucking out on you there.

Wrong. Just as top pair is frequently beaten by an overlooked set, here the flop could be hiding seven outs to a full house – one to convert the set into quads and two apiece for the other board cards, just sitting there all innocuous, like, at the moment. You need to bet at least half the pot. And again on the turn because now there are ten outs, worse than facing a flush draw.

I’m talking to myself, of course. Myself of a few hours ago. Too late, again.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Farmland Bird Survey 2005


My second year of volunteering for this took me a few miles north-west of Dundee, near to Piperdam Loch, which inevitably added an osprey to the species list. I visited the farm in May, June and July as the birds settled and the crops grew. The fields were a stronghold for the Red List species of yellowhammer and skylark and even had a reed bunting and linnet territory apiece. I logged grey partridges but couldn't find any breeding evidence. Likewise song thrush and starling.

Each survey took all morning and I walked the edge of every field in the study, which thankfully was not the entire farm. Even so, it was an interesting application of the Travelling Salesman problem, which took me back to my year of study for an artificial intelligence Masters. I could have written a genetic algorithm to solve it!

I was not much concerned with efficiency though, just enjoying myself, and it was a fine thing to be swishing through oil seed rape and barley of an Angus morning. I logged every bird seen, with direction of travel and behaviour. Someone back in the RSPB office would then interpret this as a breeding individual or not. All simple enough for my part and value added to a birdwatching trip.

Top Pair is Rarely Enough

I have to keep reminding myself of this, especially against a player I've already identified as solid. I guess I'll keep on going out of tournaments because of it, though. When to call? When not to? Is your kicker good? Did they flop a set, always so hard to see? The irritating part is that by not calling you never know but by calling you do know, often to your detriment.

And is that solid player as solid as he looks? These rocks tend to melt as the blinds rise, as we all should. Some of them get tricky too, calling the flop, raising the turn. Did that innocuous deuce hit them? Had they just been reeling you in? More fool them for that in a fast tournament where free cards are worth much more than their weight in chips.

Ah, the uncertainty. That's poker, I guess.

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Oldest Blogger In Town

Heavens! I'm an older hand at this than I had thought. Follow the link to travel back to the 90s. And I was even at it on MySpace a couple of years ago.

Birding Australia, 2008-9

New Holland honeyeater

But first, and to be interspersed throughout these posts, the story of how my life list climbed from 850 to 1058 of the world's 10,000 species of bird. It took one trip, principally to Australia, which I had been promising myself since spending a mere week in the country, back in 2003. The landscapes and the birds had captivated me. I needed to see more of both.

The trip would never have happened but for the combination of a mental landlady and her psychopath son. I was homeless in Edinburgh, which is not a pretty prospect, and had to decamp to my mate’s house in Redditch. This seemed the perfect platform from which to launch Round-The-World Mark Two.

I needed a route. I never reckon on wandering aimlessly. Certainly, I wanted to take in Perth, and Queensland was a must. How to fill in the gap between? I also needed a quest, apart from generally boosting my life list. I settled on the 73 species of honeyeater, a very Australian family of birds. I would try to see most of them, which determined the route: southern West Australia; Adelaide to Cape York via the outback; and Tasmania. I figured only a definite couple of misses that way, and a couple of extremely unlikely birds.

I was set. Now I only had to buy the tickets, and pay for them.

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