Thursday, 30 July 2009

2008: Herdsman Lake Land Birds, Perth

Little Eagle

The stilts weren't my first bird identification problem. As soon as I got clear of the car park, a raptor tilted and wheeled over sedge beds across the lake. That behaviour back home would have made it all harrier but I was getting some distinctive underwing patterns that didn't match any of the circus genus in the field guide. These birds of prey do indirectly get that taxonomic label from their performing skills: they circle round each other when courting. This bird didn't circle. It disappeared.

No matter. I wasn't going to win them all and I hoped to get a more comfortable view from the Visitor Centre. I had no problem getting in but a sign demanded a gold coin to use the facilities. What was this? A pirate economy? Did I also need a tot of rum and a dead man’s chest? I wondered where to get these gold coins. Tourist Information? It was too late for that, so I roughed it outside.

My raptor, or maybe another one, reappeared and by dint of checking a very useful four pages of overhead drawings in my Morcombe, I pencilled in little eagle for another lifer. I was still racking up the waterbirds with ease but I had more trouble in an area of paperbarks and flooded gums right by the Centre. Various wee birdies there would only keep still long enough for me to be certain of one new species – western gerygone (pronounced jerry-gone-ee with the stress at the end of jerry; I only learned this a month later).

In the more open areas I made the reacquaintance of willie-wagtail. This bold, little, black-and-white, long-tailed flycatcher, not a million miles unrelated to the magpie-lark, would also be a constant companion the breadth of Australia. I added further lifers with a flock of little corellas and, disappointingly, laughing doves. They should have been no closer than India. Finally, a singing honeyeater became world bird number 870 for ten lifers in a couple of hours.

Those hours had taken a slight toll of my skin too and I could feel my face burning. It was time to spend my last sleepless night in Perth.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Internet Domain Name Registration

This is off-topic but semi-related. I've been trying to make a website that is more inclusive of what I do than just this blog. It’s bad enough already that I've set the Pokerbird up to cover two topics and I don't want to dilute it further with other interests. So, I've spent the last few days laying the foundations for a portal domain, one of whose rooms would be this blog.

First, I needed a name and that took me into the murky world of registrations, bidding and auctions. One obvious target was, which was for sale on Sedo. You can generally find that out just by typing the URL into a browser. Sedo seemed kosher enough, so I signed up and discovered that the starting price was $100 to transfer the site.

Hmm. Seventy quid, eh? More than I wanted to pay but still not excessive. I bid and less than 24 hours later got a counter-offer from the vendor of £300. So, what was the deal with a starting price? He further said that he had offers over £300. Well, dummy, take them. What's the point of allowing me to undercut them? Two weeks later I notice that the domain is still for sale. Like I said: a murky world.

Just to ring-fence him I registered, .org and .info for less than £30 at GoDaddy, the world’s biggest domain registrar. In the Web landscape that put me in the suburbs compared with the shiny .com downtown of corporate glass and steel tower blocks. But, hey, the .net neighbourhood in particular is up and coming.

So much for headquartering this blog. I had a bigger problem with my own personal portal. I have a famous name, so andygibb.everything is taken. Even without an illustrious namesake I’m sure few personal domains are untenanted for anybody. Try it for yourself. Actually, the Andy Gibb people had had to settle for .net. I’m sure whoever’s sitting on .com is a relative of my friend. Anyway, in general is out.

Except that for days the answer was staring me in the face at GoDaddy before I twigged. They love to sell domains, so much that they present a list of choices close to what you have requested. These include .net, .org, et al, suffixed domains like andygibbstore and prefixes like my, new and the.

The – Aren’t I the Andy Gibb? Not just any old Andy Gibb, not even that one. The one.

I snapped it up. Job done. Well, not quite. Now I have to create the website and that's a whole other story.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

National Trust, Hanbury Hall

Clouds over Hanbury

This is the weather that's been littering the Midlands. I stopped here for a huge cream tea on my way back from failing to find a decent cagoule under a hundred quid in Worcester. To my shame I've never so much as driven past Hanbury Hall in my long association with this area. Of course, I picked a day when the building itself is closed but I was still getting value for money with my NT membership saving me the £4.50 entry to the grounds.


The cream tea wasn't huge either: that's just a turn of phrase.

I thought I had a bird list for Hanbury from my days of living in Stoke Prior; and so, I diligently logged a kestrel, swifts, house martins, wood pigeons, a couple of moorhens and one apiece of blue tit, blackbird and robin. I had no such list. Well, now I do.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

A Sneak Peek at RSPB Middleton

Little egret

And it was sneaky. They're nowhere near ready for visitors yet but we were at Broomey Croft and it was just a short stroll up the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal. So we went.

The water levels were high, not surprising after all this rain, and the wader habitat was swamped. A couple of little plovers, one green sandpiper, an oystercatcher and a few lapwings stuck it out regardless. Little egrets found the conditions more to their liking, as did a goodly selection of wildfowl. One hobby glided through low-level.

The boundary between Warwickshire and Staffordshire snakes through the reserve and it wasn't always clear where to assign sightings. The border zig-zags enough that I had previous visits to Middleton Hall and Dosthill incorrectly down for Warwickshire. So much for accurate county listing.

Consequently Broomey Croft today actually added ten species to my Warwickshire total, including eclipse-plumaged gadwall and shoveler and a juvenile whitethroat. None of these birds looked like their distinctive breeding pictures in the field guides. What with that and the waiting for autumn migration, it’s a hard time of year to bird.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Yellow-legged Gull, Bittell

Caspian Gull

Dave observed that this gull had only one mirror in its wing tips. It was undeniable. My Collins Bird Guide says it has smaller mirrors than the other possible source of confusion, the herring gull, but this bird seemed determined to proclaim its difference. In addition its mantle was a darker shade of grey, but not so dark as to compete with lesser black-backs, and the legs were... well, they weren't pinky. Not obviously yellow either but we were certainly looking at a yellow-legged gull.

I've tried for rarities at Bittell in the past and failed to connect with any. I told Dave this on the drizzly trudge to the upper reservoir and he said, “Thanks. We're not aiming to see a yellow-legged gull, are we?”

“No, we're not. We're going for something else entirely.”

The gull perched obligingly on the buoy where previous birders had reported it and my duck was broken. That was one more to the Worcestershire bird list and another to follow immediately when we got on to the little egrets, also mentioned by those birders. These took me up to 141, just four behind my best English county, Hampshire, but still 37 adrift of Angus. They all pale against my 219 in Santa Clara, California but, hey, everything’s bigger in America.

In a brief respite from the rains, we had earlier dipped on the pom skua reported through Bartley reservoir. It was useful to find out where the place was, though, for future, wintery reference.

Monday, 20 July 2009

2008: Herdsman Lake Waterbirds, Perth

The afternoon was drawing on and I was to collect a car to transport me round the south-west corner of the state. I had to get to Bayswater Car Rental (“No Birds” – hopefully not an omen) in Subiaco, which was a good opportunity to catch a train. I know, I know: I should have outgrown all that. My excuse could be that Perth’s trains work a lot better than its buses but I wasn't to discover that until a week later.

It was too early to park the motor for free back in Northbridge, so I took myself off to one of Bransbury’s top recommendations, Herdsman Lake. He wasn't wrong, nor was his information out of date. Ducks alone added blue-billed, musk, hardhead (aka white-eyed) and Australian shelduck to my world bird list. My 2003 holiday had already given me grey teal and Australian shoveler, so they just joined the trip list. So too did great crested and Australasian grebes, great egret, Australian pelican, white-faced heron, purple swamphen and Australian ibis. Rufous night-heron and yellow-billed spoonbill, however, were also lifers. This was just the waterbirds.
White-headed stiltBlack-winged Stilt

Before leaving them, one enigma remained. My Morcombe guide contains black-winged stilt (himantopus himantopus) but my computer software, Wildlife Recorder, only allows me to enter white-headed stilt (himantopus leucocephalus) to an Australian trip. In other words, the programme counts it as a separate species to the Old World version found in Europe and, very occasionally, Britain. It seems the jury is still out on this one and three other sub-species around the world. You see? Even when you think you’ve nailed a bird, the fluid taxonomic situation can unhinge it.

To confuse matters further, the white-headed stilt is far more likely to have black on its head than the black-winged. Is everything clear now?

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Redditch Garden Birds

Song Thrush

A song thrush has treated me with early morning visits to Dave’s Walkwood garden. The usual fare is blackbirds, including one juvenile that pecks at nearly everything in sight – I guess it'll learn – so it’s good to see this speckled member of the same family. I associate it with the first inkling of the massive population decline in birds. Ten years ago those headlines seemed to solely concern song thrushes until a dismaying cohort of other species joined them – skylark, yellowhammer, marsh tit, grey partridge, bullfinch, corn bunting, inter alia, and now even house sparrow and starling.

Walkwood does hang on to a few marsh tits, bullfinches, sparrows and starlings, more so in the winter. In July the most obvious birds seem to be wood pigeons, the jumbo jet of the back lawn. As I type, a jay flies across; a few days ago, a family of three manoeuvred through the coppice over the road.

Having bred for the year, black-headed gulls are back on the school playing-field and regularly lope over the house. A sparrowhawk – a female, it was so large (too much to hope for goshawk in these parts!) – flap-flap-glided past as I pulled in from shopping yesterday. And of course I see the usual tits, finches, corvids, dunnocks and robins. We don't need to worry about them.

Do we?

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Feb: A New Kiwi Bird (but not a Kiwi!)

From Auckland’s Ponsonby Road to the Northern Motorway is a short but intricate journey, especially when night makes street signs hard to see. I think I managed a reasonably direct route and so found myself bowling over Waitemata Harbour and then up the North Shore district. For this the darkness wasn't a problem and I soon got on to the Albany road. Then the lights ran out and navigating to Coatesville became a challenge.

Finding the home of my old Bristol University friend, Tony, was even more so. I had to get out of the car a couple of times to search out house numbers. Just ten miles from downtown Auckland I seemed to be in the bush.

I always get there in the end though and Tony and his exuberant dog greeted me. I had worried about recognising him after thirty-odd years. I needn't have. The fellow facing me could have just stepped out of the JCR at Wills Hall, circa 1975. Life down under had clearly suited him.

I met his wife, Kathy, a northern lass – well, northern from my Winchester perspective – and unloaded what I needed from the car when an unexpected sound broke the air. My New Zealand bird guide describes it as “more-pork, more-pork”.

I don't know. Perhaps I never hear these things the same way as others. Anyway the bird was easy to identify as an owl and on the North Island that means only a morepork. OK, I guess if you're going to hear the call that way, why not use it as the name? It works for chiffchaff; it works for hoopoe; and doubtless many others. It worked for me that night – lifer number 1046.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Warwickshire Birding

Well, I got my tripod – a nice Velbon Sherpa with a one-twist action to lock and unlock panning and tilt together. What an improvement! I'd had to use two hands before. I left Focus Optics, chuffed as hell. Then guess what?

I only dropped the fucker again. In a brief half-hour I'd forgotten that on this model the legs didn't all extend together, which I did want: it cuts out the cross-struts. Anyhoo, I parked the tripod, thought I'd got it balanced and biff! However, I don't think I've damaged it or the scope, God willing.
Tufted ducks

I gave the whole combo a trial run at Coton, the Warwickshire adjunct to Kingsbury Water Park. Very sturdy it was too. I had no trouble picking ruddy ducks and pochards out from the tufties at the far side of the lake, but couldn't turn any of them into scaup.

Dozens of swifts and sand martins skimmed the water’s surface, which was heartening, especially the swifts. A sedge warbler kept up its crazed song and occasionally flitted into view. These all filled a pleasant dry hour until black clouds started to lour over Tamworth. I scuttled off not too long before another downpour of tropical dimensions descended from the heavens.

I will need that cagoule.

Sharpen those Sea Bird Identification Skills!

Hey, I get a mention as a volunteer in a sea bird survey press release. It’s only two weeks away. Yikes! I need to get my skates on. For starters, I still want a new tripod. I’m sure it will be necessary, so I’m taking myself off to Focus Optics at Corley today. I may even sneak in a visit to Kingsbury at the same time. It depends on the weather.

Which, continuing the metaphor, leads me to the second skate. I’ll need some protection against wet weather, especially given the present deluge conditions. I don't think my weedy little poncho will stand up to a good Cornish battering. I’ll be after one o’ they there spiffy Gore-Tex cagoule-type thingies. Ah, Jim lad! Oops, I'd better cure myself of that before venturing west.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Hopeless Poker Strategy: Shoving Under the Gun

I think I've answered my dilemma about being the poker tournament short stack.

Wait. Bleed to death if necessary. Just don't blow all the hard work by shoving any two the hand before the blinds hit, where you need either everyone to fold, or luck. Given the loose tables I play, the former is unlikely, so why not trust to the luck of cards to come? I did just this in my latest tournament.

I was down to three big blinds but, under the gun, let a trash hand go. My reward? AQ as the big blind with one raiser and a caller. I couldn't have been happier. My hand made, I trebled up and kept the same policy right into second place. I know this is just one instance but I've done it before and seen others do it often enough that it looks almost +EV (i.e. in the long run it will win money).

I'd got to this parlous state after breaking one of my cardinal rules. I'd hit the ignorant end of a straight on the flop and bet out. I got one caller. An innocuous card on the turn prompted another bet and another call. Then, disaster. The river made possible a higher straight.

I'd worked out a while back that it always pays either to bet on or check and call. An opponent chasing that straight could never make it pay long-term, even if they took all your chips on the river. The stacks in a tournament aren’t big enough. Therefore, if you’ve not given them the odds each time, you're +EV to commit everything on the river. And when you add the possibility of a bluff into the equation, you're well quids in.

I checked. He shoved. I folded. He showed AK and my straight had been good. I felt sick. He may truly have thought he had the better hand but basically I'd been suckered. The only reason I'd folded was my previous dismal run. I didn't want yet another early loss. That's the way fear works in this game.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Birds & Poker Web-site Links

I figured I'd share a few of these plus the reasons why I like 'em.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Arizona Bird Listing, 2001

Sedona, Arizona

First off, thanks to Max Silverman for donating his picture of a red kite to this blog’s header. And talking of pictures...

I was browsing my friend, Baxter’s, photographs when I saw this great vista of Arizona, where I lived in the late 80’s. I could kick myself: I wasn't birding back then. What riches did I miss?

To find out, I returned for a few days in my Silicon Valley period – not to Sedona, the location of this shot, but back to Phoenix and Tucson, the latter being the birdy hotspot. I added fifteen species to my life list in a couple of days and, but for the standard stingy American vacation allowance, would have stayed for more.

Of the new birds, five have remained my only sighting ever: gilded flicker and pyrrhuloxia at San Xavier Mission; and canyon towhee, painted redstart and yellow-eyed junco at Madera Canyon. Of the others I think that verdin has become my favourite. I've seen this little tit-like bird since in Southern California.

I had entered the state at Needles and driven down through a night at Lake Havasu City and actually avoided Phoenix on a loop round highway 85, where the strange town of Ajo held cactus wrens for the trip’s first lifer. I had to wait for the next day’s visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to really get the list going with five more additions. Then came the Mission and the Canyon.

Almost as a final act I revisited my old apartment block in Tempe to find my first ever Inca doves. Just think: they'd probably been there all the time.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Arrow Valley Park, Redditch

Two common terns continue here, down from the seven recorded on last month's list. There's no evidence of breeding although the birds seemed to be feeding each other. Is this tern courtship?

A couple of sedge warblers were still singing around the reeds and the Canada geese are getting out of control. Whose bright idea was it to invite them over?

Apart from that, all was quiet.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Green Sandpipers, Upton Warren

At least eight of these handsome chaps (or, more likely chappesses, but there is no visible difference) dotted the Flashes this afternoon. In the bird world it’s autumn already and these individuals are returning from their nesting grounds, leaving their mates, generally the male, to raise the young. You see? Us blokes doing all the hard graft again. The distribution map in my Collins Bird Guide shows the sandpiper’s nearest breeding range as Norway or Sweden, maybe Finland too, so these ladies have flown over the North Sea on their journey back to Africa.

Also recently in from breeding closer to home, on our own upland moors, were a dozen curlews, of which several were identifiably young. Upton’s own little ringed plovers seemed to have one chick – an improvement on last year, if so. Only one avocet remained and one returning shoveler nearly escaped detection among the mallards by being in eclipse plumage.

Far sadder was a lone starling. Have matters come to such a low ebb for starlings that they can no longer find huge gangs in which to roam? It seems almost impossible that these birds could become endangered. A couple of colourful linnets completed the list of birds outside those normally resident.

So, which will be the next southbound migrants?

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Tournament Poker Doldrums

Since the previous euphoria at changing my sit’n’go poker strategy along the lines of Mr Moshman, my bankroll is now only recovering by degrees. In fact, another recent run of six losses has left me pretty much at the level of my last post. Along the way I did manage another milestone – two first places on the bounce. The game truly is a yo-yo.

I’m running some post-game analysis with a thirty-day free trial of SitNGo Wizard. It’s told me two things. Shoving under-the-gun, even when about to be blinded out (as both Moshman and Snyder advise), is a money-loser. Of course, I understand that bleeding slowly to death is also a money-loser. Perhaps the message here is that you're truly fucked with a stack of only five or six big blinds. Exit in a blaze of glory; or drag your bloody corpse the closest you can to the bubble? It’s all the same.

Second, I don't push enough heads-up from the small blind or when I have the big stack. Well, at least I can cure these. It just takes a little more balls.

Balls? Yo-yos? What game am I playing here?

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

2008: Perth CBD Birding


Unlocking phones is expensive unless you have time to trawl the Web to find free codes. I didn't. So, on Friday morning, having supplemented my meagre breakfast with the Village Café’s more substantial offering, I found it cheaper to buy a pay-as-you-go Aussie phone. I needed to call Hillary’s Boat Harbour to confirm the next day’s whale-watching trip. Although fascinated by whales, I mainly wanted to get among the seabirds, just like the old days out in Monterey Bay.

Drat, and double drat. I must wait for the phone to charge up and register on the network.

Having left it doing just that back at Noise Central, I drifted down to the riverfront. This was a smart move: among the prehistoric-looking pied, little pied and little black cormorants was the even more atavistic Australian darter. This snake-necked member of the pelicaniformes would have been right at home in Jurassic Park. Time and again Australia provided glimpses of the ancient- (and sometimes hot-) as-hell past, from these birds through its animals and forests to the very structure of the land itself. Here was the first of them, competing with powerboats and loathsome jet-skis, under the glass and steel backdrop of downtown Perth.Swan River (and brewery!)

Swallows, gulls, ducks, coots, a surprising pied oystercatcher and the swans that gave the river its name completed the roll-call. It was time to use the phone and discover that the whales had long passed and no trips were due till next spring. That left Saturday wide open for a rejig of my plans.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The Shortest Story

So, Dave was asking what the shortest length a story could be. I figure at least three words to give the beginning, middle and end; or acts one to three. Something like: no-one, birth, death. Or: nothing, bang, universe. The empty state seems like a good opening but not the only one. Any takers?

Monday, 6 July 2009

2008: King’s Park, Perth – II

Port Lincoln parrot

Not hard to find in the Park (they'll even eat off your table with little encouragement), Australian ringnecks comprise four races. The two dark-headed westerners include the more urban Port Lincoln parrot, which became my second, and last, lifer of the day. I would see the differently patterned twenty-eight parrot later in the forests of the south. At least that's my neat distinction right now but I’m not sure there isn't some cross-over between these sub-species. I have seen pictures that are neither one nor the other; and certainly people use the names interchangeably. The Park’s own bird list pictures the twenty-eight.

Leading away from the main buildings, an elevated walkway climbed through the tree-tops. Apparently peculiar to Australia, this is an excellent idea for getting those canopy-dwelling birds. They tend to be small and flit readily, which, from below, is hard work on the neck, especially just to get a glimpse of anonymous underparts.

However, it wasn't until I got into the bushier, less manicured, parts of the Park that I started hitting more interesting birds. Here, I added both rufous and golden whistlers, the latter a female and so taking me a good quarter hour to identify. Brown honeyeater and a rainbow bee-eater suggested that a lot of eating was going down. A lot of heat was also coming down and I began to wilt. The wilder regions had little shelter, so I scuttled back to town to check out phone-unlocking services. I needed to get an Australian SIM-card.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

The Local Patch

Oswestry Close

Redditch is blessed with greenery, one of the up-sides of being a New Town. Behind Dave’s house, pictured, lies a coppice that gives the district of Walkwood its name. Many birds make their home here and a typical walk, like this morning’s, will turn up the usual complement of finches, tits, thrushes, carolling wrens, nuthatches, wood pigeons and corvids. More notable among them today were marsh tits, bullfinches and jays, two of which had just flown out of shot pre-picture.

Summer visitors include chiffchaffs and blackcaps, singing hesitantly at this time of year. In fact at the height of raising chicks, birding is all about sound – and generally only little contact calls at that. The odd, more strident, blackcap still remained quite invisible. I couldn't find a single garden warbler, nor have I this year. Are they in trouble too? Their song is so similar to the blackcap’s that I don't find identification by sound alone that reliable.

The more open farmland at Green Lane brought skylarks, stock doves, a female kestrel and a surprising hare. I think it was young: it looked kind of small but I’m no expert on mammals.Morton Stanley Park

I returned through Morton Stanley Park, which has some attempt at a reed-fringed pond, but I've never seen more than a desultory mallard in it. The sign reads: Dogs on Leads in this Zone Please. With no effect; a dog-owner’s cooperation would be too much to expect, so the area remains a pooch-bath.

A couple of more secluded pools at the end of the walk have held grey wagtail in the past but are so stagnant now. Room for improvement there too? Or maybe they are the natural order of things.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Cannock Nightjars with the RSPB


My British bird list includes a few I've not seen for a decade – a legacy of spending most of this century in California then Scotland. Yellow wagtail was one such and a heard-only nightjar another. For a while, I've thought of searching for nightjars on Cannock Chase but quailed at the size of the place. Yesterday, though, I caught wind of an RSPB evening visit, which seemed perfect for pointing me in the right direction.

An amazing 30-ish people gathered at the Katyn Memorial and trooped off to the Sherbrook Valley, as being the most likely spot. We were early, by at least an hour, but we also hoped to see woodcock. The hour came and went, we moved back closer to the car park and, apart from one hobby, our staple fare was wood pigeons and crows.

Dusk fell. A couple of stonechats bush-hopped and a distant cuckoo fired up then shut down again. Still we waited for the nightjar’s churring.

Nothing. Even after a couple more shifts of location nearer still to the cars. It was ten o'clock. Some of the party called it a day; some of us tried a final time, across the road, past the café.

We had strung out by then and a handful of us got lucky: a couple of pissiting woodcock sped past, like one huge bat in pursuit of another. It was over in an instant and a further half hour’s wait brought nothing else.

Most of us then gave up and, right at the death, we heard a faint call and scurried back. Finally, two birds were serenading. I didn't get to see them, again; but, like quail, they just seem to be that way for me. I wouldn’t even have heard them if the presence of the group hadn’t kept me on the Chase for three hours; so, many thanks to all of them.

Just as an appetiser, I had dropped by Gailey Reservoir late afternoon for its black-necked grebe, which did give high-magnification telescope views. Like this year’s curlew sandpiper and phalarope, I had never seen this species in breeding plumage. It was a bonus added on top of my previous sighting in this country having been in 1999 – almost the lost decade.

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