Monday, 19 October 2009

Approaching the Ultimate Limits?

Modern analysis of a generation-old book about population, production, consumption and pollution seems to show that its nightmare scenario is winning the race to be the most accurate. Prepare for meltdown somwhere around 2050. Thankfully I should be dead by then.

Prepare also for the migration of this blog to WordPress on my main website and its transformation into a journal about transformation and birds, of course.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Semi-Bluff Reraising: A Winning Poker Play?

Girly poker?

For fun, I've incorporated strict suited connectors (down to 54s) to my starting repertoire, which has increased the flops giving me four to a flush or straight. I have no problem semi-bluff betting them when I’m first to act, even if I've been sucked into calling a pre-flop raise. As far as I know, the board hasn't hit my opponents and I may as well bet for information at least or to steal the pot at best.

It’s less fun responding to another player’s post-flop bet. I’m not sure that reraising is working. For a start, I already have information: that my oppo likes his hand, unless he's continuation betting. So, the only motivation for reraising must be to steal the pot. And players are fighting back by re-reraising, damn their eyes. Then not only have I failed in my steal but I’m getting shite odds to call. And to call with a fair proportion of my remaining stack, indeed maybe committing all of it to the hand – not what I had in mind with marginal starting cards.

What if my opponent merely calls my raise? Do I continue the semi-bluff on the turn? Again at far greater cost than my budget for the hand? Basically, I’m getting into scary territory.

I think that floating is the answer. Call the bettor despite the lousy odds, even the implied odds, on the draw. There's still a chance to win the pot on the turn if he gives up the lead. I don't have to worry about distinguishing continuation bets either; I can treat them all the same.

The float doesn't work well against serial bettors, so it’s important to read them. It’s not good against multiple opponents either although, with a draw, they may generate good pot odds by calling. Really, it’s just any old excuse to stay in the hand and chase down a beautiful thing. The hard maths would determine the effectiveness of reraising versus floating but for now I’m going on instinct.

So much for a cash game. The situation in a tournament is different. In the name of pushing on, fast, early doors I'd reraise, even put my entire stack at jeopardy. A 2-1 chance to double up? Ease the next few levels? Be the table bully? Against spending an hour or two struggling to some grisly end, probably against the same odds?

In fact, I’m tending also to play one-gap suited connectors early in tournaments, which increases the reraising dilemma. But it’s a damn sight more fun than waiting for monster hole cards, especially when they’re overtaken to knock you out anyway.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Common Scoters, Bittell

Common Scoters

My Worcestershire list moves on for the third time this month after the earlier great white egret and mandarin ducks. It takes unusual visitors to notch it up and these were sea ducks about as for inland as they could get. A mixture of fifteen females or juveniles treated me to a flying display when I got to the reservoir. Why no males?

I don't know. Much is not known about our only Red-Listed breeding duck except that it may not remain a native breeder. Mink, forestry and oil seem to be the main threats. The species is badly enough off to warrant its own Action Plan. So that's OK, then.

I don't know. Again. How about one great big Action Plan? Something inspired by the observation that “if we keep doing what we do, we'll keep getting what we get”, say.

Now let's talk about me. Or specifically my Bittell list, which has some weird omissions. Today I fixed some of them with little grebe, kestrel, pied wagtail, wigeon and shoveler. So I did well for ducks although I’m still missing teal and pintail, and will probably never add ruddy duck.

It’s been a ducky sort of month so far but it is the time of year when they start to fill our reservoirs, lakes and coastal waters. They're one of the joys of a British winter among... er, not many joys actually. And I’m not getting an escape to Australia like last year’s. (Did I ever mention that?)

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Do Ya Feel Lucky?

We're Destroying the Planet

Well, do ya, punk? Clint’s immortal line in Dirty Harry could stand for our attitude to climate change. Asking if global warming is true or not is futile. Who knows? That question is a sideshow and begs the real question, which runs akin to Pascal's wager. Whether we believe climate change or not and the worst happens, we're fucked. If we don't believe and we're right, what have we lost? Relatively a little time, a little energy, a little prosperity. Maybe a lot but still nothing compared with everything.

So, our baleful effect on the planet needn't be true, just possible. A drunk after a fine old all-nighter in the pub could have come up with the concept and we’d still have to take notice of it. Or a bunch of old men compiling a book many centuries ago. How if the authors of the Bible had warned of worldwide destruction by not believing in global warming instead of personal damnation by not believing in God? Would climate change be a religion now, along with the same compelling reason to bet on it?

As it is a great many respected scientists and thinkers have devoted a great deal of observation and experiment to reach the same conclusion. Doesn't that make it more convincing? If not absolutely compelling. The nay-sayers insist at least on a debate. What a smokescreen this is, the old delaying tactic. When exactly does debate stop and action start? Again, who knows? It may be too late already. It may be time just to believe or not believe.

It is possible not to believe and yet still act. The wager allows this: we're not choosing a belief but a lifestyle. Do we feel lucky? I hope the environmentalists do. An article in the Telegraph suggests that learning to be lucky generates good fortune. Lucky people are more receptive, more aware, more apt to spot luck. We may need it.

For the sake of Blog Action Day, feel lucky, punk.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Redwings & Fieldfares, Upton Warren


Bang on schedule, these winter thrushes are back. Last year I picked them up a day earlier; but what's a day between reuniting friends? The redwings are already numerous, the fieldfares less so. We saw only one small flock. Skylarks too were on the move. They're not an obvious migrant, being a native breeder, but large numbers fly down from their upland breeding areas and in from the north. Whether this means just Scotland or northern Europe, I don't know.

The fieldfares are an especial thrill with their bold patterns and chattering calls. They also have the coolest nest defence mechanism. Basically, they fly above predators and “shit on the bastards below”. Remember that from football songs of yore?

The two thrushes pushed me closer to my goal of 600 species for the year, as I predicted the winter birds would. The list stands at 578 with a trip to Scotland in the offing at the end of the month. Whooper swan, pink-footed goose, velvet scoter and turnstone should be easy, with maybe red-throated diver, purple sandpiper, crested tit, Scottish crossbill and twite depending on where I go. Locally I could still expect Bewick’s swan, grey partridge, Mediterranean gull, little owl, brambling and that darn bittern, reported on BirdForum, which didn't show again today. I’m also missing barn owl, lesser spotted woodpecker, tree sparrow and corn bunting, but Lord knows whither they've retreated.

What's that? 19 off the top of my head. It sounds easy but, like many birders, I over-estimate. The game is much harder than that.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

10 Species You Can Kiss Goodbye

California Condor

An interesting population countdown from LiveScience. I've actually seen one of these species in the wild - the condor, almost a dead cert (no pun intended) down the Big Sur coast of California. I wonder if any bookmakers are running bets on which will be the first species to go.

This sounds like poor taste but it could be the best publicity: get William Hill or someone to sponsor an endangered species and offer a price on its extinction. They'd have a strong motivation not to pay out on those bets.

Mind you it may also give criminals even more motivation to push them to extinction. I'd bet on the publicity winning out.

Australian Roads & Shopping

Kangaroo Road Sign

You know those roadside warning signs? Low-flying aircraft. Slippery when wet. Old people – always bent double; I’m not going to be like that, surely? Wild animals. And in Australia, kangaroos. They get their own special sign. And you know how you ignore them because the hazards never happen?

A mistake for the first one I passed on my way to Armadale from Perth. Just minutes after it, a large ‘roo bounded across the road in front of the car. No worries yet. The animal was far enough ahead and gone quickly enough that it presented no danger but the nether regions of my mind were firing synapses. I was on the brake pedal and checking for tailgaters without a conscious thought. “They travel in pairs,” I had read.

Sure enough, a second, smaller creature appeared under my left bumper. I had time and space to swerve and the animal must have sensed me too, because when I looked behind, the road was clear. No squished carcass. No thud either. No damage to the car. That would have been a good start to the trip.

Aware of the inverse irony of the situation, I drove more slowly that day, that week and for the bulk of the holiday, all the way from Adelaide to Cairns. It was truly ironic, then, that not a single other kangaroo road-hopped in all that time.

I stopped at Armadale, which seemed basically to be a shopping centre, as unremarkable as Redditch. Except that Redditch folk don't shop in bare feet. Nor does everyone in Armadale and at first I thought I was seeing some grossly underprivileged section of Australian society. It was weird and a little unnerving. Didn't these people even worry about broken glass or dog shit? But that was me being particularly British. Australia is relatively litter-free. The roadsides, for instance, are pristine compared with our corpse- and McDonald’s-strewn motorways. Down under, you only have to watch for the wildlife.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Impressionist Mandarin Duck

Impressionist Mandarin Duck

Were I sneaky enough, I'd assert that today I dashed this little watercolour off while watching a colony of mandarin ducks on the River Severn at Trimpley, Worcestershire. No-one who reads this blog knows my dismal 9-grade for art O-level aeons ago. However, the picture is the best I can salvage from my Olympus SP-560 stretched to full capability in trying to capture the flock right across the other side of the river. The Severn is wide at Trimpley! The ducks also refused to venture from the very strong shadows cast by the Wyre Forest and a blazing southerly sun.

Alien species seem also to be a Pokerbird theme but these guys are so handsome and apparently innocuous that they're worth a fifty-mile round trip, especially to become my 145th county bird. The list joins Hampshire, my birthplace, on this total, but both still lag Angus on 178. Santa Clara, over in Silicon Valley, beats everything hollow with 219. I know, I know: these figures are not a patch on the real record holders.

On the subject of dismal tallies, the Walkwood Watchers attempt at the Big Sit! yesterday actually bettered some other teams’ scores. Goddammit, we can't even win the wooden spoon!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Buzzard Brings Down the Curtain on Big Sit!


A raptor would have to figure prominently in a Pokerbird adventure, this time to bring the Walkwood Watchers’ day tally to a meagre 18 and prove my earlier prediction wrong. But what a great 18th bird and so nice to enjoy it without the fear of Maltese bastards gunning it to shreds. Not that they get a chance at our common buzzard; they pick (as though there were anything selective in their slaughter) on the honey buzzard, which isn't even in the same genus despite having a similar name. Buzzard clearly got applied liberally to birds of prey.

The local magpies took exception to it and at one stage four of them were trying to see it off. One persisted much longer than the others and at times I thought I would witness one of those moments photographed recently of the bird riding on the buzzard’s back. It didn't happen.

Nor did the Big Sit really. Unless we pull out a late tawny owl, not heard in these parts for nearly a year, or redwings fly over; and they were reported from the Wyre Forest this morning. The big miss was bullfinch. You expect one or two of those in a day but you also expect compensatory irregulars. We could have had several of woodpecker, nuthatch, goldfinch, starling, marsh tit, lesser black-backed gull, sparrowhawk or pied wagtail without raising eyebrows.

Ah well, here's to next year.

Big Sit! Score Struggles to 17


A flyover chaffinch has just added to the expected coal tit, jackdaw and jay in the last few hours. The mizzle – it could hardly even be called a drizzle – lasted until mid-afternoon; it doesn't really stop the birds coming in but it does stop the birders going out. A good thing I included four feet of dining room within the circle; this is England after all. At least we could watch the feeders.

The next targets are bullfinch and, strangely, buzzard. I see both every month but that doesn't guarantee every day. And the evening is already beginning to draw in. I’m guessing that, unless we get a last burst of sun, there's no chance of any raptors.

Chiffchaff and great spotted woodpecker bring up the second rank of birds I've seen frequently around Walkwood. Well, chiffchaff informs you I've not endured a winter here. Great spot though is a good candidate for at least being heard. The next two hours will tell.

A Slow Start to the Big Sit!


Slight drizzle is keeping the bird numbers down from within the Walkwood Watchers’ 17-foot circle. Before I did a quick stint out in the damp just now, only eight species had appeared, among them the usual suspects of blackbird, robin, wood pigeon, dunnock, greenfinch and blue and great tits. Long-tailed tit is never so numerous but they too were on the list.

The last five minutes added magpie, crow, a yaffling green woodpecker, wren and black-headed gulls calling somewhere over Morton Stanley Park. So, we're up to unlucky thirteen. Notable absentees thus far include coal tit, jackdaw and jay, which has been plentiful and obvious, collecting acorns over the last few weeks.

Hopeful of a few of the less regular species, we're still on for around twenty. There's time left to sponsor as well if you’d care to support BirdLife Malta and the RSPB.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Free Games #1: The Big Sit!

Tomorrow sees the world’s best non-competitive competition, organised by the Bird Watcher's Digest. Basically a team counts all the species of bird seen or heard from within one 17-foot diameter circle. Note that it’s the team not the birds who are restricted to the circle! A flyer (no pun, I’m sure) details the full rules of the challenge.

The Walkwood Watchers, that is Dave (who doesn't know it yet) and I, will probably struggle to get much beyond a count of twenty but is inviting sponsors. I’m in for 50p a species. We'll send the money to BirdLife Malta, whose current home page video is just sickening, and the RSPB. I have to include them: any organisation whose president says “vagina” on the telly has my vote! Good on yer, Kate.

Back to the Big Sit! Anyone out there fancy taking on the might of the Walkwood Watchers? Or at least sponsoring us?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Scottish Icterine Warblers

Icterine Warbler

Oh, Lordy. Here's another tricky, non-descript species to get to grips with, found thanks to work on the BTO Breeding Atlas. No, no, no, it's a Good Thing, right? Yes, it is.

Moon Crash vs. Chicxulub Crash: Away Win

The conspiracy theorists and panic-mongers are having a fine time with NASA’s plan to crash a rocket into the Moon at 12:30 today. Will it be the end of the world as we know it? Hardly. That little world suffers a good dozen similar collisions every year and the craters we see from here show it survives impacts that dwarf one piddly rocket.

Coincidentally, I've just read about the meteorite that hit Chicxulub 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous Period. That was a crash.

I can only get my head round it this way. Imagine taking a Redditch-size ice-cream scoop out of the planet, preferably Redditch itself. There's your meteorite, more like an asteroid, what? Now fire it out of a great big gun, let's say at South Wimbledon, another shite place where I’ve lived.

On a planetary scale hurling Redditch at a bit of London is pretty small beer – just a pinprick on the globe – but if you were anywhere near it... how near? Most of us have felt that satisfactory thump of something quite big going off, like a huge firework. Imagine a house going off then, or a plane (I’m sure we can all do this), or an office block, then a complete town. You’d get out of the immediate neighbourhood.
Near the Chicxulub crater

So now, how far? Well, the Chicxulub impact threw up instant Himalayas ninety miles away. Curiously, that's Redditch distance. That's Coventry too. See how I've got it in for some places? Actually that's the entire south-east of England done for and it doesn't end there. Wikipedia fills in the next few moments better than I could.

It also posits a tsunami because Chicxulub at that time was on a continental shelf. Look at the height of this wave though – half a mile to a mile. The recent ones in Samoa and more distantly Indonesia, terrible as they were, didn’t even crawl out of the cradle in comparison.

Not much to do with birds but, of the dinosaur family, they may be the only survivors from the mass extinction that followed. The meteorite might not have been the sole culprit: the ecosystem was already under stress from a vast series of volcanoes separating India from Madagascar. In any case the Tertiary Period and large mammals were on their way in. That was the K-T Boundary that was.

I don't think we'll get the same show from NASA’s rocket.

Thursday, 8 October 2009


Need a summary of The Gibb Life? Bung me an email address and I’ll throw it on the mailing list. Limited edition of one trillion only. Hurry.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Rhythm of Nature

Gwennap Head

On the second day of my voluntary seabird-watching job the wind wrecked our sheltering umbrella construction and drove a spray up into our optics. Again, we needed the arrival of John who moved us further up the cliff to get us out of the weather’s worst. Still, visibility was bad with frequent showers and often the only object of interest was a rock just below our viewpoint.

The tide was such that an occasional wave would wash over the rock, leaving on its surface a pool which gradually disgorged back to the sea through a couple of waterfalls. One of the flows was quite robust but the other would sometimes dry up before the next replenishing wave. I fell into a reverie of imagining the falls in Yosemite and how they operated on the same principle, except with snow as their reservoir. A mild panic even began to set in when, rarity of rarities, the main waterfall threatened to falter.

It never did. Whoosh, wave. Pool, falls. Vigorous waters, slowing. One fall, drying, sometimes dried. Whoosh, wave...

That's what the hours can do to you. Again, it was a different pace of life, relaxing into the pulses of the natural world. And the day passed quickly. Before I knew it, I was back at the B&B and marking up the final totals for an email to Russell and BirdGuides. Yes, my day wasn't over until the paperwork was done and the paperwork showed 25 Balearics for the two days – bang on target thus far.

An Albatross-Eye View

Not quite a movie but a camera snapping away every thirty seconds has filled in some gaps in our albatross knowledge. These pictures have come from round about the saddle of three individuals and give a hypothetical rider's view. Clearly this is fascinating from the ornithological perspective but also provides a glimpse of what's really out there in the oceans - something still pretty much a mystery.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Another Excuse for Gun-Happy Morons to Wage their War on Birds

This time it's the poor old parakeets that people, mark you, introduced to this country. And here we are trying to tell Malta that the greater any list of legal targets, the more the wanton killers can cover up any illegal hunting.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Great (White) Egret, nr Pershore

Great Egret

Egretta alba according to the Collins Bird Guide; Ardea alba to Wildlife Recorder (WR) and BirdGuides, which includes the “White” in its name. WR only includes “White” for its alternative Egretta alba scientific name. Sibley in the US and Morcombe in Aus both agree on great egret Ardea alba but Robertson & Heather in New Zealand call it white heron Egretta alba. And Robson for South-East Asia throws a complete spanner in the scientific works with Casmerodius albus.

Is this the same bird around the world? To which genus does it belong? Ardea tends to be the herons and Egretta, the egrets. I've had trouble with consolidating worldwide records for this species since I first started seeing it. The confusion seems to be historic and Wikipedia suggests that the egret is in fact a heron, with the possibility that the down-under race is a separate species.

Got that straight? The visitor to Worcestershire showed for all of three seconds this afternoon, less than 1% of the time it took to sort out its taxonomy. Still, the glimpse was long enough to identify black feet, which in the absence of an accurate size is the best distinction from little egret. I was happy enough with it anyway.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

1999: Fulmar and Sandwich Terns at Lyme Regis


OK, I've a whole series of these things from ten years ago, this time August 25. Like I said: I've been at this game for a while:

"I had driven through nearly an hour of torrential rain and lightning from the M5 down to Lyme Regis. Chard had threatened to turn into Venice with waterfalls cascading off roofs to join the rivers forming in the streets. I was beat almost before the trip had begun.

Lyme itself was not much better. I spent another hour trying to find shelter to eat my sandwiches. Only the Herring Gulls looked relatively unperturbed.

However, in the midst of all this gloom and murk another gull flew across the front and veered out to sea. I don't know why I noticed it particularly -- some sixth sense maybe? As it turned away its flight action became more apparent -- those stiff wings, flickering more than beating. I got the binoculars on to the bird and sure enough the colouring and shape was all Fulmar. Suddenly munching a rye bread and Marmite sandwich in a sodden Dorset town did not seem like such a bad idea after all.
Sandwich Tern

Later the weather turned completely and it became too hot for jeans and t-shirt. It also became possible to check out the other birds. A pair of terns called out at sea. I suspected Sandwich Tern from the shape, and the call did not seem like that of a Common; but I am no expert and these birds were too far out to tell for sure. Five minutes passed and the pair obliged by settling on the fast disappearing rocks 100 meters away. This time I could definitely make out the yellow tip to the bill and the slight crest.

A smart pair of Grey Wagtails, possibly my favourite bird, on the stream running through the town was a welcome late addition to the day's list. Then I had to head back to Winchester."

Movie Star at Arrow Valley Park, Redditch


Not really but, in an odd departure from the factual, my Collins Bird Guide describes the nuthatch as visiting birdtables in worst Rambo style. This is not the first time the Pokerbird has associated a nuthatch with a film. There must be something about the Sittidae family, maybe that Zorro-like mask? Digression apart, today was my first record of our nuthatch at the Valley to bring my score there up to 67. I also logged only my second sighting of tufted duck, which Upton usually delivers for Worcestershire.

Now fully attuned to the phenomenon, I heard one partial burst of a chiffchaff’s song, which is a lot more normal than the full works that have grabbed the country’s attention lately. A grey wagtail broke a five-month drought for what is my favourite species. This is too long and it’s not as though I've been avoiding their habitat: I religiously check streams and ponds for them.

This one obliged by giving me good binocular views and even wagged its way into the same scene as a song thrush, a bird that I totally missed last month. That would have been a great picture if I'd had a camera and 2000mm lens; they were that far away. The sight is lodged in my mind instead, which is what counts really.

Friday, 2 October 2009

The Meaning of the Chiffchaff’s Autumn Song?


Fascinating edition of Autumnwatch this evening, if a bit exhausting. Maybe it’s my age (and a considerable amount of Banrock Station). I was at least alert enough to register the bit about chiffchaffs singing. I’ve never been aware of this in the autumn, yet today one was very obvious outside the West Hide at Upton and last week another was calling in Walkwood. Now it seems that others have noticed it too.

What can it all mean?

Mute Swans, Upton Warren

Mute Swans

Seems like they've done well this year, six cygnets all looking a decent, easily defended size. Until recently I laboured under the common misapprehension that the Romans introduced the species into Britain but it appears they merely domesticated the bird. Mute swans are more native than we are. In fact only a handful of species are more alien.

One undoubted stranger graced the Moors Pool this morning too. It looked more ruddy shelduck than anything else but also included touches of red-breasted goose, mallard and Egyptian goose. It would be interesting to see its family tree. These weird hybrids turn up often.

Also regular at Upton, teal, lapwing, Cetti’s warbler (seen!), tufted duck and reed bunting were present. I note them especially just to ensure that they appear in my Worcestershire list. As I left, a couple of swallows dashed across, the latest I've seen them in the county. They must have been hightailing it for the South Coast, where they will hang on, maybe till the end of the month.

No winter returnees yet but it can't be long.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Great Tits in Walkwood

Great Tit

The only wonder is that I’ve resisted that headline for so long. Actually the coppice was dripping with the birds on my start-the-month-list stroll this morning. Their buzzy, rattling calls and sharp, insistent cheep-cheeps filled the glades. These are just two examples of their vocal repertoire, which some authorities number at 57 – as many varieties as Heinz, which sounds just a little too coincidental. It’s a lot anyway, enough that great tits are probably the source of any unidentified noise in a patch of British woodland.

They're cheerful, cheeky little chappies too, which got me to thinking again about the robin’s autumn song. One hears it and feels it as melancholy but is it really that way round? Pre-music I can imagine early people getting the blues as the year declined, with which the song would have been inextricably linked. Then when we came to making our own music and wanted to express sadness, might that have sounded a bit robin-like? I bet this isn't an original idea.

I know I've banged on about my year list for 2009 but, taking a non-calendar twelve months, the year ending yesterday has been my best ever – 652 species. This isn't a patch on the dedicated listers but I didn't think that I would ever better it. However, my twelve months running up to the end of this October already stands at 649 and it’s missing relatively local birds like bittern, grey partridge, little owl and brambling. I may even hope for jack snipe, lesser spotted woodpecker or corn bunting. Or more.

In any case it’s going to be a good birding month. (It always is.)

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