Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Protecting Poker Hands on the Turn

An earlier post offered some suggestions on playing a vulnerable poker hand, like top pair, on the flop. What about protecting it on the turn?

In other words this card has not completed any obvious flush or straight and you reckon still to be ahead. Standard wisdom has it that a bet of half the pot here will price any opponent out of the hand but implied odds suggest this is not so.

To keep the maths relatively simple, suppose there had been 4 big blinds (BB) in the pot on the flop and one opponent remained. This seems like a pretty average scenario. Now, on the turn, there are 12 BBs: the original pot; your bet; and the opponent’s call. If you bet half of this (6BB) and your opponent calls again, the pot will have 24BB on the river.

Then, disaster. The river card hits: it seems to complete a flush or an obvious straight. Your opponent bets to represent this. Do you call or fold? It depends on how much he bets.

Assume that he was drawing to a flush and so had a 4-1 chance of completing on the river. Four times out of five he will lose his turn bet of 6BB for a net deficit of 24BB. The fifth time needs to more than compensate for this. It’s not hard: 18BB already come from the pot and your bet on the turn. Your opponent only needs 6 more to break even. This is a quarter of the pot at the river.

If he bets this or less, you should call. He’ll never make any money that way, which implies that you'll never lose any. In fact, you'll come out ahead by occasionally calling pure bluffs or hands where the bettor genuinely thinks he is ahead but you have him beat.

Unfortunately the river bet is rarely this small. You then have to apply a sliding scale to decide whether to call or not. The bigger the bet, the less inclined you should be and the better hand you will need. It gets a little complicated.

Matters are so much simpler if you bet around the pot on the turn. Yes, we've gone back there with 12BB in the pot. You bet around 12 yourself and your opponent calls. This makes 36BB at the river, when the same disaster strikes. But now your opponent needs to make 48BB to justify losing 12BB four times. 24BB come from the pot and your bet at the turn, so he needs to get another 24BB.

This is a much bigger gamble on the river, fully 2/3 of the pot. Now you can call any bet smaller than this and come out ahead. In fact, again taking bluffs and misjudgements into account, you could probably call near pot-size bets most of the time.

If your opponent were drawing to an open-ended straight, at slightly better than 5-1 odds, he would need nearly 60BB, which is a pot-sized bet. And with any kind of hand (say you’d improved to two pair or a set) you could probably call any bet – with your entire stack if necessary.

Betting aggressively raises the bar, quite a lot, at which you have to make calling decisions. Note that if you’ve identified an opponent who never bluffs, you simply don't call apparent made hands, thereby removing any possible gain he could make from this play. And don't forget to bet for value yourself against a known fish but beware of likely slow-players.

But they're a whole article to themselves.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Another Environmental Yardstick: the McFarthest Spot

This is brilliant: check out the map in particular from what I think is a photography blog in the US, but the words will make you laugh too.

Monday, 28 September 2009

The Berlin Wall for Wildlife

And it's being built in the US of all places. Or not so surprisingly seeing as it's a legacy of the Bush era. Let's hope that Mr Obama can find time from fixing all the old fart's other fuck-ups to get round to this one. The poor chap has his work cut out! An excellent US nature blog reveals all.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Long-Billed Dowitcher, Chew Valley

Long-billed Dowitcher

This American wader just happened to me. BirdGuides had listed it a few days back but I'd thought no more about it until I stopped at Herriott's Bridge this afternoon as part of my standard route round the lake. I was only in the area looking at a room to rent in Chew Stoke, which pretty much has to be a birder’s dream. Fingers crossed on that one.

A gaggle of telescopes at the lay-by told me something was up, so I hauled mine out of the boot and joined them. I picked up the muttering of “long-billed dowitcher” and then remembered the earlier report.

Among half-a-dozen snipe the stranger was easy to separate. But was it a dowitcher? I've seen long-billed dozens of times in California and short-billed often enough, and generally separated them by habitat. By default the long-billed occupied the Bay Area while shorties were more coastal. I guess I even got quite lazy about that because it’s nowhere near a hard-and-fast rule.

Certainly the length of the bill is little use in identifying them, so I’m continually amazed when British birders confidently announce one or the other. I used to have the greatest difficulty with them. So, here's the British trick: if you’ve got a dowitcher, which is rare, it’s long-billed. Short-billed is a mega; the last certain sighting was back in 2005.

Still not sure whether I was looking at the right bird, I decided to play a game of sketching what I did see. Here in words is what I came up with: surprisingly similar size and build as the snipe; grey head and breast with darker cap and possible eyebrow; a slight gap between the breast and coverts/scapulars – rather like a common sandpiper; black-spotted grey coverts under black-spotted rufous scapulars, then back to black-spotted grey on the mantle; and a kind of weird, splayed tail-feather configuration. Google Books shows typical shorebird topography for these terms if you scroll down a little. I had to use it.

The spotting on the feathers signifies a juvenile at this time of year, as do the rufous fringes, so I got those bits right. I’m not too sure what was going on with the tail though! The rest of the description is pretty much spot-on for any dowitcher.

Sketching, in my case just ovals and lines (you should see the tiny head on my effort!), is something I should do more. Again, I tend to get lazy. But not this time, not for my 278th British (sic) bird. Surprisingly it did nothing for the year list: good old Shoreline at Mountain View, CA gave me one back in March. Or was it short-billed? Ha! I don't know. However, this afternoon did push the year list on to 575, thanks to my first water rail – so late in the year. I could reckon on getting to 600 since I have yet to see many of our common winter birds.

Did I mention that I was away last winter? I expect so.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Osprey at Chew Valley Lake


Here's something from ten years ago – August 24, to be exact – when ospreys were still a bit of a novelty:

"I had got up early to catch high tide at Severn Beach. I walked out of the door at seven to the start of some persistent rain and changed my mind instantly. There were hides at Chew Valley and I would at least stay dry. There is nothing to be gained from peering through droplet-coated binoculars while getting soaked and probably blown about into the bargain.

"A good decision. Within moments of settling in to the Stratford Bay hide I saw a large shape above. Great Black-backed Gull was my first thought. I had never seen one at Chew, so that wasn't too bad. An instant later better was to come. The bird turned to reveal splayed wing tips -- way too splayed for any gull. I knew that I could only be looking at an Osprey.

"I watched it hunt and thought how expensive an operation it was. No gliding or soaring in this weather. More or less continuous wing-beats and turns punctuated the odd plummet as the bird saw something only to pull out as its prey disappeared. Once it continued its dive, thrashed around and came out with... Well, was there something? The binoculars did not resolve anything and the Osprey continued its quartering.

"A second dive, thrash and lift-off definitely produced a wriggling victim. I was in a state of tension. Would the bird hold on? This fish definitely did not want to be caught. I could see the Osprey try to straighten its catch as I knew it must before it could fly efficiently. I looked out for gulls that might try to harass the Osprey. Eventually it had its cargo stowed to its satisfaction and powered off overhead and away behind the hide.

"You can see all this stuff on the TV but you will always miss the emotional involvement provided by being there and witnessing the whole chase. I felt nearly as exhausted as the Osprey must occasionally have felt after a hard day's work."

21 Robins A-Singing in Walkwood


Doubtless there were more but an hour’s stroll surprised me with this number in such a small Redditch coppice. They were second only to wood pigeons whose abundance was not a surprise. Robins are more obvious at this time of year, being, along with wrens, about the only bird in full cry. It’s all territorial now but even so the song sounds more melancholy than aggressive. There's the pitfall of applying a human interpretation to a wild creature.

Robins also depart from most birds’ behaviour with the female being as adept a singer as the male. She tones it down somewhat in the spring when it is still the bloke’s responsibility to advertise the goods. Now, I’m guessing here because Google has failed me, that the sexes don't have much to do with each other from the autumn onwards. So, each individual bird maintains its own territory, which only breaks down once the spring arrives and love is in the air – la-di-dah.

That's enough romance. I also watched three buzzards soaring. How pleasant to see them without fear of some fascist with a gun blasting them out of the sky. I feel almost shell-shocked from the Maltese slaughter.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Another Magnificent Victory for the Men with Guns

This time it's in Saudi Arabia where a northern bald ibis has been shot and killed. The species has now been pretty much extirpated from the Middle East. BirdLife use the word 'extinction' in their headline and I wish they wouldn't: a small population does also cling on in Morocco. Extinction should have the emotional impact of murder or rape or paedophile. Instead it gets overused and diluted. The trouble is that extirpated is such an unwieldy term and few know what it means anyway.

At least in this case the Saudi government seems to be embarrassed by the activities of its hunters. Would that we could get the Maltese overlords even to admit to the existence of any killing in Malta.

Why Not Gun Down the Gunmen?

After witnessing Malta’s war on birds, it is tempting to fight fire with fire: go into the shooters’ lairs and massacre the lot of ‘em. Take out their children and wives too, and by implication all succeeding generations. That would solve the problem, wouldn’t it? In the same vein I've listened to birders here talk of shooting dogs that run amok through flocks of birds, and driving over cats for being... well, being cats.

In a rational moment anyone could predict that these actions would escalate the problem. It is how wars get going. It’s interesting though to dissect why such a notion is tempting.

Number one has to be the motivation of being right where the other guy is so clearly wrong. We all love that and go out of our way to find ever more issues in which to put one over. There's nothing like the feeling of being right. From that standpoint we can totally invalidate the opposition and justify whatever action we take.

There is a problem. Right and wrong don't exist. You can't point at them. They have no weight. We invented the words without, unfortunately, a precise definition or field guide to aid in identifying them. By their tenuous nature right and wrong have become a barrier between people; we no longer connect across the words and neither side gets what it wants.

What's the solution?

We're bad at this. Thousands of years of disputes have come down to the same old answers: have a war; write a law; kill ‘em; bang ‘em up; boycott their goods; fine them; and so on. Each creates a new problem, sometimes a worse one, without even necessarily solving the old. Maybe, as a society we're simply not mature enough yet to be successful at handling problems. Maybe we need to recognise that they will always exist and we don't need to solve them, just turn them into problems we’d like to have.

Here's a nice one, inspired by a couple of incidents from my week on Malta.

On my one day off I caught the bus to Rabat from Dingli, where I waited at the stop with a couple of lads. I asked one when the bus was likely to turn up.

“It’s a bus,” he replied, showing that the universal experience of buses was at least one shared piece of humanity.

We went on to talk in the usual male lingua franca – football. He was a Pompey fan; I’m Saints – the biggest clash of right and wrong on the South Coast. But we connected and no-one came to blows and no birds got shot. He even spent the journey into Rabat pointing out his favourite landmarks.

The second scenario saw me throw an errant football back to a kid in Buskett Gardens. He very politely thanked me in perfect English before continuing his game.

No, I’m not suggesting football as a better problem, although it could have its part to play. But kids, yes. I doubt that either of these two nippers would be interested in blasting bundles of defenceless feathers out of the sky. In fact, wouldn’t a child be horrified by it? I mean actually seeing it and the bloody, broken mess that is the end result? I don't mean as some hypothetical, virtual computer game.

Wouldn’t a child be more in thrall to the beauty of a wild creature? Wouldn’t it be worth capturing that spirit before the murderous adult world begins to impose its twisted values? Win the hearts and minds of the youngsters and they will surely swamp their butchering parents. Then the next ten years will just be a damage limitation exercise.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Three Things I Never Knew About Raptors


Guts. They're the key to a raptor’s ability to soar. Guts and wing area. A shorter gut means less weight, a lower wing-loading and “up she goes!” That's why a sparrowhawk soars and a similarly dimensioned wood pigeon flaps like crazy. The pigeon is full of guts for processing seeds. The hawk with its high-protein diet doesn't need so many.

This came out of a fascinating talk given by Keith Offord to the Kidderminster branch of the WMBC last night. Here's more: raptor is a taxonomic term. Yup, the birds have hooked bills, binocular vision and long, pointy claws; but so do owls, which technically are not raptors. Nor are New World vultures, more closely related to our storks. They evolved convergently to the same body pattern. (Actually all vultures have somewhat subdued claws but I’ll skate over that.)

And finally, why are some species’ females bigger than the males but not others? Nobody really knows but there's a correlation between this sexual dimorphism and the speed of the birds’ prey. Dead stuff doesn't move fast at all and the sexes of the carrion eaters, like vultures and kites, are the same size. At the other end of the scale birds are the zippiest things on the planet and the female of our sparrowhawk can be twice the size of the male.

So there's another thing for him to worry about, along with his lack of guts. (Just kidding: I wouldn’t tangle with a male sparrowhawk.)

Monday, 21 September 2009

Pulborough Beats Mizieb Any Day

What a contrast. This morning I enjoyed wood sandpiper, black-tailed godwit, green sandpipers and even an alien species, Egyptian goose, in the English peace of RSPB Pulborough Brooks. A sparrowhawk circled and climbed, and a kestrel flapped low over the wader scrapes. I didn't have to fear for them.

One week ago at the battlefield of Mizieb in Malta, almost certain death would have visited the two birds of prey. As it was, those woods were silent and empty, save for a handful of hostile gunners, looking like mama had just taken their favourite dolly from them. We also walked past a veritable ghetto of crudely constructed shooting hides. I had the impression of passing through a deserted concentration camp, but one that was ready to jackboot to attention in a moment.

Over-dramatic? Not given the latest grisly evidence from Malta’s war on birds. Just yesterday at Mizieb, BirdLife and CABS recovered 76 freshly killed birds supposedly protected from the shooters by the Maltese government. If you think our politicians are cynical, that lot are positively brazen. I don't know how the Maltese can bear them any longer.

Don't Worry about the Alien Species?

Some chap at Sheffield Hallam University springs to the defence of alien species, like ruddy ducks. I guess he is at least examining the question of "should" although I doubt his new term of "eco-xenophobia" will really catch on - a bit of a mouthful, what? He recommends that we focus on problem species instead. Hmm... I can think of one big, big candidate - oh, but it's an alien species too.

(I mean homo sapiens of course.)

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Only Casualties in this War

What you won't see in any travel brochure: “Watch magnificent birds of prey that have flown the length of Europe blasted out of the sky. See those that only have their legs blown away die slowly from being unable to land. Marvel at the rubbish-strewn, lunar landscape, stripped of vegetation by bird-trappers. Endure the dark, hostile scowls of the locals.”
Marsh Harrier

Outside the thin veneer that is Valletta. Mdina and the tourist resorts, this describes a week in Malta.

And what about this side-note? Planes from Britain, the Emirates, Egypt, Spain and other Western nations land just yards from gun-toting hunters. Doesn't this seem crazy? Who can tell the difference between them and Al-Qaeda operatives? The latter could position a whole arsenal by the airport without raising a single eyebrow. Imagine allowing that at Heathrow.

The raptor slaughter is but a pinprick in the hundreds and thousands of other birds who also fall prey to hunters’ guns and traps. Want to see a finch on the island? Go look in a cage. Go look in a British cage. Seriously, you’re more likely see one there.

The finches are more of a local problem. The international scandal is that Europe now invests time, space and money for migrant birds to come and breed in safety. They're our birds, born in our lands. We don't want them gunned down by Mediterranean savages, never to return again. In any other war – and this is a war, declared against birds by Maltese hunters and ruthlessly promoted by them – we would send the army to protect our citizens. As it is, a few dozen brave, dedicated birdwatchers from all over the continent can really only monitor the situation, as helpless as UN observers.

In case the Maltese government hadn’t noticed, the environment is top bill these days, right up there with terrorism. Birds are the environment, in fact one of its best gauges. To slaughter them on such an industrial scale must be the biggest act of vandalism in Europe. It’s time for the country to drag itself into the 20th century. Only then should we even consider allowing them to participate in the 21st century Union.

Friday, 18 September 2009

On Flying Away from Malta

It's been a strange raptor-watching holiday when you've been urging the birds to "Just go. Fly away. It's not safe here." This picture shows, if you can pick them out, a few of the killers' hides, dotting the departure coast of Malta. The gunners will even shoot birds down over the sea, which gives the lie to any claim of hunting for food.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Death in the Afternoon

Yesterday saw the start of the 3 o'clock hunting ban, so we enjoyed peace at the Mtahleb killing fields. So did a flock of bee-eaters, without fear of their gorgeous plumage being ripped to shreds by assassins' shot. Even a much later young honey buzzard seemed safe and we admired cracking views as it sought evening refuge. It had almost dropped over the horizon when it appeared to stoop. A second later, "crack, crack, crack" told a different story.

We were struck dumb. The first flouting of the law in hours and some cunt had slaughtered yet another of our birds.

Malta has decades yet to go to catch up with the 21st century.

Monday, 14 September 2009

A Maltese Attitude to Hunting

Sunday afternoon our raptor-surveying team met a plane-spotter at the airport and heard a normal Maltese's reaction to the gun-toting hooligans. He and several friends had watched a "large bird" fusilladed down at their watchpoint. "Grown men, we wanted to cry," he said. Everywhere the teams go, the same message from the majority but too intimidated by the bully boys. That's why we're here.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Hunting Birds on Malta

You can do it with binoculars or guns. Sadly, guns are more prominent, especially this morning when rain promises to bring birds in. A nice welcome for them. Again, a minority makes life a misery for everyone else. It seems that the Maltese are scared out of their own backyard by the gun louts. How often does this pattern repeat itself?

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Malta Ain't So Rustic

There's a little bit of postbox England in Malta, right outside the hotel. Last night I also passed belisha beacons, which seem to have disappeared back home. Things are rural round here but it took miles of urban getting away from the airport - not what I expected.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Another Critically Endangered Species Found

BirdLife reports sightings of Fiji petrels attracted to pungent bait at sea. They also have the tally of critically endangered birds at 192, not the 190 I reported from the BirdFair, but hey, around 2% of the world's birds is too big a number.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Playing the Perfect Poker Path

Only one player wins a tournament.

So, everyone else is on a path leading to their elimination. Even if they play correctly all the way through, the rest of the entrants will not win the main prize. Their final correct play will fail when the inevitable call or all-in push hits a bad beat or a monster. That's the nature of the game: it’s a gamble.

Playing correctly is supposed to work over the long run. Such a player will win more than his fair share of tournaments and come out ahead. But consider the problem of one tournament in isolation. Could some incorrect strategy increase the chance of winning it, and increase it enough to swamp the maths of the long run?

Consider the simple case of a tournament where everyone, including you, is playing correctly. You'll most likely lose. Unless you play incorrectly somewhere to change the perfect path. And play incorrectly often enough to put yourself on the perfect path, if at all possible. The trick is knowing where.

You can't know, of course, and in reality incorrect plays elsewhere move the perfect path. So, it may be more useful to view this path as a ridge above the surrounding landscape of the other player’s ridges. The higher your ridge, the less likely it will be terminated by contributing to some bigger ridge. This is called insurance. And you need it early. That is the time to play incorrectly.

I've seen it so often. The idiots, who double and treble up within minutes by throwing everything into seven-two offsuit, are maybe not such idiots. I’m not advocating this extreme an approach but, even as early as the first few hands, the surrounding ridges are growing. Fast. You need to grow with them. Play those marginal hands, bet those draws and call those bluffs – more so than my earlier thoughts on tournament poker strategy. Hard to be so reckless? Not if the entry fee for the tournament is an amount you could risk for just a few hands of poker. Plenty of players do it; you'll have more success than you think.

Or you'll go out. But you were going out anyway.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

World's Smallest Parrot Filmed

The first ever film of buff-faced pygmy parrots has just shown on BBC1 in the Lost Land of the Volcano series. Apart from these the expedition team has been finding oodles of new creatures and some other pretty elusive birds.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Marsh and Willow Tits

A walk down to Trimpley Reservoir brought my first marsh tit sighting for a couple of months. I was actually on the trail of a willow tit. I thought I heard one but it’s been nearly six years since I even logged one and I’m quite out of touch with its call. It has a nasal, buzzy quality, just like a chickadee, but the marsh tit has a similar, softer call. I got two birds in the binoculars but both were clearly marsh. I’ll have to practise with my Roché bird songs and go again.

The woodland held a wealth of species – great, coal and blue tits, great spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, treecreeper, spotted flycatchers, goldcrest and a raven. That’s certainly flavour of the moment. There was even a train. Ha-ha! The video recorder on my phone works, as does uploading to YouTube – two more landmarks to go with this, my hundredth post.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Immigration Crisis Over: Swallows Leaving


Lord knows what our robins, blackbirds, tits and finches think when waves of hirundines, warblers and swifts sweep into the country from the Third World. Is there an avian equivalent of the BNP? And would the blackbirds be welcome in it anyway? It’s not even as though party leader, Griffon (Vulture), is a native.

OK, that's enough allegory. Or is it metaphor? Upton Warren today saw a stream of swallows, house martins and sand martins pushing their way back to Africa. Hobbies seemed to be following: one perched obligingly by the Moors Pool and darted out for insects. Another laboured over the hide with some unidentifiable feathered victim in its talons.

Birds of prey, in general, appeared to be on the move, too. I saw several buzzards, one of which looked distinctly osprey-like with long, straight, fingered wings. The light was appalling and I was trying to see through trees, so I had to write it off as yet another one that got away. I heard later that a marsh harrier had passed at about that time but I would never have put my bird down as any sort of harrier.

No rarities, then. But some damn fine birds all the same.

Friday, 4 September 2009

International Vulture Awareness Day

10,000 Birds gives the reasons why we need this tomorrow. Not a species us Brits get to see and it doesn't help our awareness when Hollywood movies call them buzzards, as in Clint's immortal line from The Outlaw Josey Wales that "Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms."

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Our Population of Ruddy Ducks

A bit parky at Arrow Valley this morning and, look, the leaves are turning. Brr! I should be heading south again.

The lake held the usual suspects: swans, mallards, great crested grebes, herons, coots, moorhens, greylag geese, Canada geese. So, I got to thinking about ruddy ducks, not that I've ever seen one in Redditch. No, over breakfast I'd read a story in Scribble that opened with ruddy ducks quacking. Had I ever heard a ruddy duck quack? I didn't think so. I'd heard them doing that chest-thumping thang but... quacking?

I checked my Collins Bird Guide which states that they are mainly silent. I thought so. Brownie points for me.

Still I kept thinking about them. Ruddy ducks used to be regular at Upton Warren but my last sighting was over a year ago. I know Defra are shooting them because of their threat to an endangered cousin, the white-headed duck. Doesn't this rather lower the conservation morality to the huntin’-shootin’n’fishin’ level?

It’s one of those dilemmas and, what's more, it begs the question posed by a deeper dilemma. Should we even be removing the duck? The killing fraternity likes to argue from the basic stance of controlling pests, regardless of the method. Pest is one of those words, like weed, that we conveniently apply to what we find inconvenient, like a duck that's outside its known historical range.

Known to us, that is, and in our time frame. Ruddies threaten the white-headed by breeding with them and producing impure offspring. Doesn't this suggest that the two ducks are so close genetically that we may be witnessing speciation in progress? And how many times has speciation been interrupted by outside events pushing the diverging populations back together again?

In a way it hardly matters whether the ruddy ought to be here or not. We've changed the environment so much in the last couple of thousand years that it’s hard to say what should be and what shouldn't. Maybe we should examine our relationship with the word “should”.

So, philosophically, should I head south?

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Are We All Running as Big a Scam as Madoff?

A Ponzi, or pyramid, scheme is one whereby the early entrants get to rake off profits from the contributions of those who join the bandwagon later. Golly gosh, doesn't this sound a bit like expecting the next generation to pay for this generation's excesses? And in the process denying the coming generation any of its riches, like the nineteenth century's passenger pigeons? Hardly the spirit of generosity. The Chronicle brings up the Madoff parallel much better than I could.

The Sea-Watching Volunteer

Manx Shearwater

It was like an epiphany, spending five days learning how to use my binoculars and telescope. I'd never been in such a long relationship with them. I also learned how to manage my expectations. When you see a figure like 3024 Manx shearwaters in that period, it’s tempting to think they were streaming past. Divide that number by the 3600 minutes that twelve hours a day makes and the stream reduces to a trickle. Add the fact that shearwaters also tend to clump into groups of anything up to twenty and there's actually an awful lot of quietness out there.

We did have the constant company of gannets. Who could complain about that? The local shags and fulmars also went about their business. And the paperwork kept us busy. Every hour we monitored the state of the wind, clouds, sea and its glare. To get an accurate reading for the wind meant a scramble up 50 metres to the top of the cliffs. Twelve times a day for five days... strewth, I climbed the equivalent of three Munros. No wonder my packed breakfast disappeared faster and faster each day.

The rhythm of scanning, recording and monitoring kept boredom at bay and gradually became the normal stuff of life. The rest of the world lost focus, turned unreal, irrelevant. Michael Jackson could have died and we wouldn’t have noticed (actually, he already had).

Back to 7:36 on the Sunday morning, I was yet to settle in to this pace. The first Balearic slipped past to set going another rhythm – ten that day; fifteen the next; and so on. We were counting beats, beats in the passage of sea life.
Great Skua

By eight o'clock the first of very few auks – a razorbill – had entered the records and my wind-climb produced a peregrine falcon. On the next hour I missed a passing great skua. Another pattern developed; it became a standing joke that the skuas would wait for me to start my ascent. My compensation that time was ravens and, at ten o'clock, a wheatear. The ensuing hour the Balearics peaked at four and I finally had a good enough view of one to honestly add it to my British list.

The morning ticked on. At twelve we broke for an hour, the period of maximum glare, then settled back to the rhythm. Before long, a sooty shearwater appeared, looking like a gigantic swift skimming the ocean. Another British first for me, we counted twelve in the entire five days.

A land-based distraction punctuated the afternoon: a pair of choughs probing the turf on the cliffs behind us. Meanwhile on the non-avian front Julie was having a quiet time until a basking shark appeared, quite close by. For me the day was indeed full of firsts.

And the weather held. We needed the umbrellas against twelve full hours of sunshine. It was a different story on the Monday.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Extinction is for Ever

Fuck the anniversary of the start of World War Two. That of the death of the last passenger pigeon is far more symbolic of mankind's latent Nazism, but on an entire species level. Reduce a population of wild birds from billions to zero in little more than a century? Impossible, the sustainable-hunting fraternity will tell you. No, we are capable of anything, except adjusting our own behaviour to accommodate the rest of the planet.

Raven, Redditch


First of the month, so my rather irregular jaunt round the coppice at Walkwood to get the September list going. Well, last month I was on my voluntary job in Cornwall; in July on an outing with the RSPB at Cannock Chase; June dipping on purple heron at RSPB Saltholme... Dave and I hadn’t gone far into the wood when a loud cronk issued from the canopy.

So, out on the moors, up a bleak hill or on some storm-lashed cliffs, raven would have come to mind immediately. But in Redditch? I caught a black shape flap noisily away above us. It was indisputably a raven.

The call took me back a few days to walking back from Tesco, a route through suburban Redditch, when I also heard a single cronk. I looked up then, saw nothing and dismissed it as a figment but now realise that it too must have come from a raven. The species does seem to be spreading. I see it regularly at Bittell and reports appear on BirdForum from Upton Warren, so I can't be long adding it to that list.

There's no reason, apart from persecution, why these “honorary raptors” shouldn't spread. I used to see them regularly in the Bay Area where, like golden eagles and harriers, they thrive in the absence of gamekeepers. Funny that, ain’t it?

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