Posted in Los Angeles, Travel

Flying a falcon and a hawk: Sky Falconry experience

This weekend we traveled south to Alpine, California, in the San Diego Mountains, for an afternoon flying birds of prey. We purchased a private raptor experience through Sky Falconry, apparently one of the few places in the U.S. licensed for such an activity. We were here to learn all we could about birds of prey and get to experience flying a falcon and a hawk.

After an extremely bumpy ride on the dirt road to their property, we met Kirk and Denise and they soon brought out three birds – a Lanner Falcon and two Harris’s Hawks.

Two Harris’s Hawks and a Lanner Falcon

The Lanner Falcon was a juvenile male, just under two years old, and weighed 0.5kg. His name was Ali Baba. The larger Harris’s Hawk was a female, weighing 1kg, and the smaller male weighed 0.75kg. The female’s name was Steam.

Lanner Falcon – Ali Baba
Harris’s Hawk – Steam

To begin, we received an excellent lesson in all things falconry, learning that falconry as a hunting technique is over 10,000 years old, that these birds’ vision is excellent – Kirk and Denise used the charming analogy that these birds have such good eyesight that they could read a book three miles away – but that their bird brains mean that if something is out of sight, it’s out of mind. We also learned that their powerful talons have ratcheting tendons to grip with 200kg of strength – compared to a human male’s puny 40kg – and that the birds can only be trained with positive reinforcement: they will trade you something but won’t give it up otherwise.

Our first exercise was to learn how to use the leather glove that is very necessary when you want one of these birds to fly to your hand. Then the first flight with Ali Baba began.

Since the Lanner is not native to the U.S. it needs a GPS tracker when in free flight. Once the bird was kitted out with this tracker, a piece of meat (quail) was put on J’s glove and the Ali Baba flew to it. Denise snapped a bunch of photos with my camera but very quickly the falcon was off, over the trees and down the canyon.

With Ali Baba. See the blue GPS backpack he wears
Ali Baba takes off – seen again 20 minutes later!

Mild panic set in as Denise explained that a previous time Ali Baba did this, it took them half a day to find and retrieve him. We watched his path tracked by GPS on the phone and we saw he was very quickly several miles away. Kirk said he was looking for thermals so he could rise, and after about 15 minutes he apparently found one. Ever so slowly he started heading back towards us (the bird has no homing instinct) and eventually was high enough that he could see us.

We scanned the sky and thought we spotted him, but it turned out we’d actually seen a Red Tailed Hawk. We finally spotted Ali Baba a few moments later: he was about 100 ft above the hawk, preparing to attack. He quickly went into a screaming dive towards the hawk before breaking off (perhaps realizing how much bigger it was than he) and heading our way. Kirk was swinging the lure around in a fast arc and shouting “Ho! Ho! Ho!” (the bird signal for “big food”) and Ali Baba came racing into us – doing a flyby and experimental grab of the lure before zooming off, banking and coming back. He grabbed the lure and Kirk and Denise were able to bribe him with some food to get it from him.

We saw on the GPS track that in 23 minutes he had traveled nearly 7 miles and his top speed was 75 mph!

Ali Baba banking for arrival
Snatches the lure
Ali Baba
Ali Baba’s flight – note the “coring” in the air thermals

Meanwhile the two other Hawks, in their boxes, were going crazy with the excitement because they could hear the call for big food. When Kirk got out the female Harris’s it was making a noise that sounded like an impression of a dragon – a throaty deep hiss/growl. Eventually she calmed down and we were able fly her.

Steam preparing for flight

Steam was very heavy when she was sitting on my arm at full stretch, but extremely beautiful close up. We learned more about how they fly. They are the masters of minimum effort – when they fly to a target their eyes are locked on, and they stay close the ground (less than a wingspan) for less turbulence and smoother flight. When they come to land, they fly up to your hand in a flared posture as a braking maneuver. It was fantastic to see Steam do this, as well as to fly through narrow gaps in the trees and to be so agile as to catch something out of the air.

When it came time for our experience to end, we flew Steam to the lure which she grabbed skillfully. This was our lesson in how a bird “mantles” – i.e. hides its food. Steam was doing this beautifully, and again, a tasty snack was deployed to retrieve the lure from her.

Steam – caught the lure and mantling
Not interested in alternative food source!
Attempting both options
Reward for giving up lure

In our two hours or so with Kirk and Denise we learned so much – they are excellent teachers. We had an absolutely fantastic experience with Sky Falconry and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in birds of prey.


Posted in Travel

Free things to do in Washington DC

In August 2017 I had a work trip to Washington DC, spending three days at a conference. Luckily I had the evenings off, so each day at 4:30pm I left the conference hall and headed straight onto the train into town. Here’s what I got up to – all things were free!

The White House

On the first afternoon, before the conference started, I had an excuse to go into town and meet with a colleague for lunch. We dined at the Iron Gate Restaurant and I had soft-shelled crab for the first time in my life. Walking up to the restaurant from McPherson Square Station, I was interested to see that the architecture was a lot like I remembered in Boston.

Washington DC
Soft-shelled crab

After lunch, I detoured past The White House. The building seemed very small in real life, and for some reason I didn’t take any pictures.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and the Mall

After the first day of the conference I headed to Georgetown, otherwise known as the student district. From Foggy Bottom-GWU station I walked to the Lincoln Memorial and the Mall. The Lincoln Memorial was vast – much bigger than I imagined. I climbed the many steps to the top to admire the Lincoln statue and found it packed with people taking selfies.

Lincoln Memorial
Inside the Lincoln Memorial
View over the Mall

Then I walked alongside the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument. On my flight into National (DCA) we flew right past this monument – from my window seat it looked like we could reach out and touch it. Near the Monument was the National World War II Memorial which was quite beautiful and touching. Like the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument was much bigger in real life.

Lincoln Memorial
Reflecting Pool
World War II memorial
At the Washington Monument
Capitol Building
Sunset and the Washington Monument

Even though it was nearly sunset, I kept walking along the mall. On the lawns there were hundreds of people playing what I would describe as football rounders (I’m sure it’s called something else). It looked like fun! I walked past the Smithsonian Castle and the Smithsonian museums and took pictures of the sunset. At this point I was close to the Capitol Building and was tempted to make my way there, but my feet were seriously sore at this point and I didn’t really want to be out after dark, so I called it a night and got back on the Yellow line to the hotel.

Arlington National Cemetery

I went to Arlington Cemetery the following evening. It was only a short walk from the train station and was free to enter. I got there about 45 minutes before closing, but figured that was enough time to get the idea. I followed the walking path around to see  JFK’s grave and memorial, and the tomb of the unknown soldier. Then I walked out past the thousands of tombstones. It was a sobering place.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Arlington Cemetery

National Air and Space Museum

On the last day, a Saturday, the conference ended at lunch time, so once I’d packed up, it was back to the train station – this time to see the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. I got there at about 2pm and the line was out the door and along the street. Since the museum is free to enter, this line was just for security. Once I figured out I could go in the “no bags” line, I was in fairly quickly. Again, I didn’t have much time here as my flight back to LA was later that evening, so I did an extremely cursory look around. Hubble Space Telescope model: check, Wright Brothers plane: check (wait, didn’t I see that at the Pima Air Museum as well?), Apollo lander: check.

The museum was absolutely packed and there was almost no room to move in some parts. I don’t think I would have liked to have spent much longer in there on such a busy day. However, it was an impressive museum, and I’d like to spend more time there one day.


There are so many great things to do in Washington DC, and it’s very easy to get around. I hope to come back one day to do it properly!

Posted in Los Angeles, Travel

Paso Robles, Morro Bay and Hearst Castle – California Road Trip

Back in late August 2017 mum came to visit us in Los Angeles. As part of her visit we went on a mini road trip to California Wine Country, Morro Bay and a famous tourist spot: Hearst Castle.

Being August the temperature was in the 40C’s (100F) and bush fires were burning around LA. We set out in my car from Pasadena on Saturday afternoon and drove up the I-5 before heading cross country to Paso Robles – a town of many wineries. According to the car, the outside temperature on arrival was 46C/115F.

We headed to Le Vigne Winery which had been recommended to us. Glad for the extra-strong aircon inside the tasting room, we shared a simple tasting with a paired cheese (the “cheese flight”). The wine was fairly average, and the experience of standing up at the bar in a very noisy room was not great. Overall it was not a very interesting experience (for example, compared to a good experience at Pfeiffer Winery, Rutherglen, Australia), so we left fairly quickly and headed to our accommodation – Americas Best Value Inn in Atascadero, which was also not very interesting but was the only place for miles around that had any vacancies. Actually, the interesting thing about the Inn was that the guy behind the reception was so unbelievably rude that it amazed me the place was still in business.

Le Vigne Winery
The Cheese Fridge at Le Vigne Winery

Since Atascadero had a lake, we headed there for a walk before dinner. The lake was beautiful and the temperature had dropped to manageable levels. There were a few people jogging, and others strolling around. Back at the carpark we paused at the little zoo which had flamingos in an outside enclosure.

Atascadero lake
Flamingos – yes, they are real!

We had fish and chips for dinner at Pier 46 Seafood Market in Templeton. Afterwards we got beer from the local Trader Joe’s then headed back to the hotel for the night.

The next morning, Sunday, we drove towards San Simeon and Hearst Castle. The coast road was very scenic and strangely quite empty. We stopped off in Cambria to get closer to the water. Scrambling down a small cliff with limited stairs we found a rocky beach which was actually more rocks than beach. After looking at the water for a while we headed on to Hearst Castle.

We arrived at the visitor center at the base of the hill at opening time. Like pros we went straight to the gift shop to get postcards – something which is pretty close to impossible to find in Pasadena ­– then got coffee.

As we had prepaid our tour tickets online via the California State Parks Reservation System we thought we were all set, but little did we know that those tickets are useless without also going to, yes, the ticket counter, to get them exchanged for…tickets. This wouldn’t have been an issue if we’d known when we arrived and the line was non-existent. However, by the time we found this strange fact out the ticket line was literally out the door: 100 people long. Luckily once we had stood in the line for about 20 minutes we were good to go.

Hearst Castle, as seen from the visitor center

We boarded the bus which drove us up the steep and winding road to the villa on top of the hill. On arrival we were greeted at a wide set of steps by a number of volunteers, all pleased to see us. Just for a second it was easy to imagine arriving as a VIP.

Our guide was extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of the villa, and she took our group on the “upstairs suites” tour. William Hearst Sr. apparently loved to entertain guests at the villa, and had differently designed bedrooms for guests. We were amazed by the amount of European art and sculpture in each room. We also saw the spectacular dining room and library.

Living Room
Guest bedroom
Another guest bedroom
Dining Room
View to the Pacific Ocean from inside the Villa

After the tour we were able to wander around the grounds. We enjoyed the piazza and the wonderful views before heading to the last stop which was the swimming pool, tiled in azure blue and gold leaf mosaic tiles. It looked so inviting it was hard not to jump in.

Guest suite?
Hearst Castle swimming pool
Hearst Castle swimming pool
Hearst Castle swimming pool

That afternoon we drove to Morro Bay and arrived at our accommodation (Morro Crest Inn) to discover it did not have aircon. Luckily it was only 100F at that point so we had a cup of tea then went for a walk along the bay to look for birds and other wildlife.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Along with various sea birds, sea otters and seals we saw a pretty spectacular sunset. We had dinner at Blue Sky Bistro and enjoyed the evening’s cooler temperatures.

Sunset and Morro Rock
Dinner – clam chowder

The next morning, we had breakfast at the same place then after checkout drove along the bay to spot the local sea lions. These are extremely noisy creatures and we found a big group of them sitting on a yellow contraption in the middle of the bay, honking at each other. At Morro Rock we saw a great group of sea otters, and upon walking around the Rock we saw some interesting birds and lizards.

More sea lions
Western Fence Lizard
White-crowned Sparrow
Black Phoebe
California Ground Squirrel
Sea Otters


After this we set our sights for Pasadena, heading along Highway 1 as much as possible. We stopped at Solvang on the way and found it to be a very touristy experience. We sampled the famous aebleskivers and were underwhelmed!


This was quite a low-key road trip as in total we drove about 550 miles in three days. I would like go back to Morro Bay to explore the area more, and I think Hearst Castle is an interesting place for out-of-town tourists – but I wouldn’t go out of my way for Paso Robles!

Posted in Travel

Winter in London

After Geneva and a lovely Christmas at home with the family, J and I got the bus to London for a few days before our flight home to Los Angeles. As with everything London, even the experience getting there was an experience. The bus driver decided to go a different route to normal and we ended up getting stuck in rugby-match-day traffic around Twickenham. Eventually we arrived at Victoria Bus Station, only an hour late, and we decided to act like tourists and get a Black Cab to our hotel, the Marriott off Oxford Street. This proved to be an efficient but expensive way to travel.

Obviously the Marriott is a very expensive hotel but thanks to our rewards credit card we were able to stay there for 4 nights, in a club room, for free. So we checked in, dropped our gear in the small room, and headed down to the club for free appetizers and wine. On the way down we seemed to be constantly getting out of the way of beautiful people and their entourage laden with bags from Primark.

The next day we headed over to Brown’s Hotel for afternoon tea. When we are in London we make a point of trying afternoon tea at a different establishment, preferably the place voted best by the British Tea Society. Our first ever time was at Claridge’s in 2006 and that still remains the pinnacle of our experience. At Brown’s we scored a table right in front of the fireplace and over the next couple of hours stuffed ourselves with delicious scones, sandwiches and sweets, washed down with some convoluted but delicious tea. It was an excellent experience and to be recommended.


Later that day we met up with my best friend from Australia who happened to be living in London at the time. Chantal brought along her two-year-old and we all walked over to the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. On the way we spotted a Bugatti Veyron, a 1-million-pound car, parked in a dark corner with discreet body(car) guards nearby.

Bugatti Veyron

The Winter Wonderland is basically a fun fair, with carnival type games and activities and some loud flashy rides. Because we had the two-year-old with us, our choices of activities were determined by her, but she seemed to have a good time.

Hyde Park Winter Wonderland


Later we took the Tube back to Hackney, where they live, and husband Damo picked us up and drove us back to their council flat, which is now worth about 5 billion pounds in this gentrified hipster suburb. We partook of some adult beverages and opened some Christmas presents and generally passed a pleasant evening.

The next day we had arranged to meet up again, this time at The Shard. Because it was a nice day (i.e. not raining), we decided to head there on foot. After breakfast at the hotel we set out to leisurely take in the sights on the way. We saw part of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, we crossed the Thames by the London Eye and walked along to Borough Market before arriving at the Shard.


People waiting to see the Changing of the Guard


We arrived at the Shard and went up in the elevator to the 35th floor. We were booked in for a late lunch at TĪNG, and we were seated on a kind of sofa-table situation – no luck on getting by the window, and had a rather expensive lunch but an excellent chat. We also got the opportunity to check out the view from the same floor. (Top tip if you are cheap: skip lunch and just go to this floor for a look!).

The Shard
View from Ting
Sunset view
Night lights of London

By the time we were done it was dark, so we took the Tube back to the hotel and collapsed in a heap.

The next day, our last in London, we decided to go out for a full English breakfast. Unfortunately, our chosen location was shut so we had to switch to plan B, which was a Lebanese place – Comptoir Libanais. Breakfast was spicy but delicious.

Comptoir Libanais

Then, with J ready for some downtime, and me incapable of such a thing, I set off solo for a 5 hour random walk around London with my camera.

According to my Garmin I did 22,000 steps which is about 10 miles. I started walking east-ish down Oxford Street and after a while ended up near the British Museum. I stopped at a café nearby for a ploughman’s sandwich, then continued around to Regents Street then Piccadilly Circus. Then I decided to go to Harrods, so I wandered over and by the time I got there it was dark (4pm). It was absolutely packed inside, to the point where you could hardly make progress, so I quickly gave up and came back outside and spent some time being amused at the ridiculous traffic jam and the two Lamborghinis stuck in it.



Regent Street
Regent Street
Picadilly Circus
Walking to Harrods


Then I headed back towards the hotel. I decided to go through Hyde Park because it would be more interesting, even though it was dark. It was also foggy which was excellent and made it very atmospheric. I could see the Winter Wonderland looming in the distance so I knew roughly which way to go. I exited the park at Marble Arch and went across the road to the McDonald’s to pick up dinner (a tradition of ours is to make sure we bring back McDonald’s to any 5-star hotel we stay at). The queue was immense but I got our food eventually. Then I headed back down Oxford Street to the hotel.

Hyde Park


Oxford Street

London is a great city to walk in, especially if you want to explore. Around every corner is something interesting or famous, and there’s always a Tube station nearby if you really get stuck. We thoroughly enjoyed these few days in London, even though it was freezing cold. The spirit of Christmas was still in the air which made it extra special. We will definitely be back.

Posted in Travel

Geneva: CERN and other things to do

In December 2016, after our trip to Zermatt and Montreux, we stayed with friends in Versoix, a pretty village with a little harbor on the outskirts of Geneva. During our short trip here we visited CERN, downtown Geneva, The Red Cross Museum and the Jura Mountains.

Versoix harbor


Being science geeks, we were most excited about visiting CERN. Getting tickets was a bit of a palaver and involved stalking the website at a precise day and time. However, we succeeded and so on our first morning in town we got the train then the tram to CERN HQ. Aside from being freezing cold and having to passively smoke about 15 cigarettes, the journey was simple.

On arrival we were first invited to visit the Microcosm, the coolest part of which was a display of a full scale replica of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Then we gathered as a group in the lobby and followed our guide outside for a long cold walk to a nondescript building. Inside we learned from the guide about the history of CERN before heading through more doors to see CERN’s first particle collider. This was geek heaven for us and I was very impressed with the presentation of this somewhat esoteric topic.

CMS in the Microcosm museum
CERN’s first accelerator: the 600 MeV Synchrocyclotron

Back out into the cold we following our guide across the road, past a giant blob of a building (AKA The Globe of Science & Innovation) over to the LHC control building. Of course we couldn’t go down into the LHC – that’s just for VIPs – but we saw the control room from behind glass and watched a 3D presentation. We also saw a pretty awesome Lego model. The whole tour lasted a couple of hours and by the end we’d learned a lot.

The Globe of Science and Innovation
Mural depicting the ALTAS detector – 1/3 scale!
Control Room
Awesome Lego model

We headed back on the tram to the main train station and I used my very rusty French to get us a couple of sandwiches and hot chocolates at a café. Refueled, we went for a walk around town. We didn’t really know much about Geneva, having done precisely zero research beyond CERN, but I had procured a tourist map from somewhere so we wandered around admiring cobbled shopping streets and churches and alleyways until we arrived what was apparently the main attraction: The Big Fountain (known as Jet d’Eau). Having lived for five years in another city with a Big Fountain we just had a quick look then moved on.

Jet d’Eau

Red Cross and the Mountains

The next day, our host took us to the Red Cross Museum. This was a sobering place with exhibits about disaster relief efforts and the organization’s role during WW2. We could’ve spent many hours there but our next agenda item was a drive into France and into the Jura mountains. Disconcertingly, there didn’t appear to be any border post between Switzerland and France. It was a grey day in Geneva, a common situation in winter, but we were heading into the mountains and soon we burst through the cloud layer into the blazing sunshine. Then almost instantly we arrived at our destination: the restaurant Le Refuge de Florimont.

Inside we were confronted with a thick smell of cooking meat. We were shown to a window booth in the sun and we rejoiced in taking off our coats and being warm. There were furs on the seats and light fittings made out of antlers. We ordered a dish that you cook yourself on a hot stone in the center of the table. It was delicious and not too complicated. There may have been ice-cream for dessert. After lunch we drove further up into the hills to a spectacular viewpoint.

Geneva is under there…

That evening back in Geneva, our hosts took us to the neighborhood ice rink where we joined the locals in an evening’s skate. At one point the local ice hockey team coach came out and started batting a puck about, which the kids on the rink thought was awesome, until one of them fell over backwards and brained himself on the ice… (he was fine).

Not Easy Jet

It was a few days before Christmas when we left Geneva to fly back to the UK. We got the train from Versoix and arrived at Geneva airport two hours before departure. We were flying with EasyJet (never again) and we found ourselves at the back of the longest queue I have ever seen in an airport. It might have been a quarter of a mile long because, in their wisdom, all EasyJet flights back drops were in the same line.


It took us an hour to get to the bag drop and with that done we raced to security and were confronted with another gigantic line, but this time with all the people in the airport in it, and everyone being shameless about pushing in. After about 45 minutes we got through security and with 15 minutes until departure we ran through the terminal, briefly skidding to a halt at the passport check, and got to the back of the line as boarding started.


Geneva is an interesting place with a variety of museum-y and mountain-y things to do. CERN is a significant highlight for those interested in science. On the whole we enjoyed our trip to Switzerland, and I’m sure we’ll be back… perhaps in summer though!