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.

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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.

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Lanner Falcon – Ali Baba
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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.

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With Ali Baba. See the blue GPS backpack he wears
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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!

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Ali Baba banking for arrival
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Snatches the lure
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Ali Baba
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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.

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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.

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Steam – caught the lure and mantling
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Not interested in alternative food source!
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Attempting both options
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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.

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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.

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Le Vigne Winery
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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.

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Atascadero lake
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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.

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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.

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Living Room
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Guest bedroom
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Another guest bedroom
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Library
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Dining Room
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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.

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Pond
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Guest suite?
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Piazza
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Hearst Castle swimming pool
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Hearst Castle swimming pool
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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.

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Black-crowned Night-Heron
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Seal
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Osprey

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.

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Sunset and Morro Rock
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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.

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Sealions
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More sea lions
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Western Fence Lizard
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White-crowned Sparrow
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Black Phoebe
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California Ground Squirrel
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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!

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Solvang

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 astronomy, Los Angeles

Astronomy from the inside

About a year and a half ago my husband and I were lucky enough to accompany an astronomer to Palomar Observatory as he set about installing a new instrument on the 200-inch Hale telescope.

The astronomer who invited us, Gregg, is a professor with the energy of three people, and the talking speed to match. Gregg and his colleague, Leon, along with a few other astronomers and engineers were at Palomar to install an instrument designed to search for low mass planetary bodies in the outer solar system.

Although I’ve since been lucky enough to visit Magellan, Gemini, and Cerro Tololo in Chile, and I’m working on the project to build the next great telescope, at the time this was my first visit to a working optical observatory. My husband is a radio astronomer, so he was equally at sea.

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200-inch Hale telescope dome at Palomar Observatory

We arrived from Pasadena late on Friday night, driving up Palomar mountain in complete darkness, and met Gregg outside the dome of the 200-inch. Our eyes had adjusted for only a few seconds when we saw the spectacular sky. Gregg however, was not happy. They had just spent the day installing the instrument, but now they couldn’t start observing because of the humidity.

This was lucky for us however, because we got a quick tour of the inside of the telescope dome – the adaptive optics lab, the control room, and after checking behind approximately ten identical doors, the pool table. Gregg then took us up several flights of stairs, along corridors, past the giant telescope, through a heavy door and outside onto the catwalk. Once we became accustomed to standing on a see-through gantry, we looked at the horizon and saw the marine layer of clouds sitting over San Diego. This is what was causing the humidity problem. But not one to stand still for a second, Gregg got out his camera and tripod and took a bunch of photos of us with the Milky Way in the background.

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The 200-inch up close.

Then, all of a sudden, the catwalk started moving – the dome was rotating! We headed inside to discover that the humidity had dropped below the required amount, and now they were turning the dome to various angles to the wind to dry it off in the gentle breeze.  It would be unfortunate, after all, for a big drip of moisture to land on the 5-meter wide mirror.

An hour later, the telescope operator pronounced the dome to be sufficiently dry and started the procedure to open it. At once the control room was a flurry of activity. Four astronomers huddled around the control system, changing settings, asking the support astronomer to move to different stars as they tried to adjust focus. Once everyone was happy, they asked for the telescope to be moved to M22 – a globular cluster. The stars filled the field and the focus was adjusted some more. The “seeing” was sub-arcsecond, which is remarkable but also not surprising: there is a good reason the Palomar Observatory is located where it is. The image on the screen was very clear but things were not working to the astronomers’ satisfaction.

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Inside the control room

By 3am, with the instrument still not working, my husband and I were finding it hard to stifle yawns. The rest of the team were already tuned into the night cycle, so Gregg took pity on us and drove us down to the Monastery. We stupidly crept about trying not to make any noise before realizing it didn’t matter because everyone was at the telescope. We slept behind blackout curtains in a comfortable bed surrounded outside by a very peaceful forest while the astronomers worked until dawn to debug their problem.

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The Monastery
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Spartan but comfortable

We were up around noon, and after having a very quiet breakfast in the communal dining room we went for a walk on the site. We saw inside the 200-inch dome from the ‘tourist’ side and checked out the small but impressively informative visitor center.

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George Ellery Hale
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Concrete blank of the 5 meter mirror

Later in the afternoon we headed down to the dining room and met up with everyone again for coffee. The discussion was of continued issues with the instrument – they had not been able to solve the problem last night. We were treated to the story of how the original version of the instrument was designed and built in only a few months, and how for some parts it was simpler to use a Canon camera lens and an amateur telescope, and how 24 hours before the instrument was due at Palomar it was sitting in 100 pieces on the floor of the lab in Pasadena.

To pass the time before dinner, Gregg took us up on the catwalk of the 200-inch again to see the view in daylight. Tourists below us asked “how do we get up there?” “Sorry,” we called down smugly, “you can’t”.  Then as dinner time approached Gregg gave us a tour of the other telescopes on site, trying to remember what key opened what telescope dome and giving us a rapid history lesson at each one.

Discussion at dinner was of giant telescopes, and what they would mean for the future of astronomy.

Once it was dark, we all headed back to the 200-inch. I brought my film camera and tripod ready for a night of long exposures and star trails. But, all was not well in the control room. Something still wasn’t working, and as the evening began, the astronomers continued to debug their system – one person on Skype in Pasadena, another at the prime focus right at the top of the telescope, the third in the control room.

At this point Gregg suggested that my husband and I should take this opportunity for a visit to the prime focus. For an astronomer geek this is just about as exciting as it gets.

We went up from the internal catwalk in the world’s slowest “elevator” until we were 17 meters above the priceless mirror (luckily with its cover on). Leon and his colleague switched out cameras and used an alarming number of cable ties to secure everything into position. Aluminum foil – light-tight and excellent for keeping things dark – was used in abundance.

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Working on the instrument at the prime focus

Back down in the control room, we sat around for a while, then decided to make the most of the ‘free’ time while debugging continued to go outside take some star-trail photos. We set up and were out for what seemed like an age (probably a couple of hours), looking at the stars, and spotting the occasional meteor or fireball.

Cold and with sore necks from looking up, we headed back into the telescope, having luckily remembered where the door was, which while it never moves, is also is never in the same place relative to the opening of the dome. The mood in the control room was jubilant – the problem had been fixed and they were taking real data. Soon, the music was cranked up, and celebratory refreshments were passed around.

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That evening I reflected how lucky we were to have such an opportunity to visit what was once the world’s largest telescope, to have an instrument builder take his time to show us everything and involve us in his work. As is required now and again, when the day to day of work seems so far removed from what we are ultimately trying to achieve, this visit rekindled my passion for astronomy and reminded me why we strive to build giant telescopes: to enable astronomers to do their magic and push the frontiers of human knowledge.


Thank you Gregg for an amazing weekend!

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Posted in Life, Los Angeles

Where is home?

This time of year I am often asked “are you going home for Christmas?” and this brings up a good expat-worthy question – not about Christmas, but about “home”. Where is it?

Here’s the situation. I was born on the UK. I grew up mostly in the UK but as an adult I lived in Australia for more than a decade (I also spent 4 years as a child in Australia, so I’ve lived in the UK and Australia for nearly the same number of years). I am a British citizen but I’m also an Australian citizen. My husband is Australian. We got married there.

On the other hand we have lived in the US for nearly four years. We bought a house in Pasadena, CA, where we have lived and worked for nearly two years. You can see there is an array of options for ‘home’.

I’m not the first person to struggle with this question: expat articles are full of people asking the same thing. Here’s just one great example.

And it might be tempting to ask – does it matter? Well, clearly it does to me since I’m writing at 500 word post about it. It matters because, as an expat, it’s comforting to know where home is – were your base, your return point, is located. That’s the whole point of being ‘away’.

My natural reaction to “are you going home for Christmas?” is to think of Bournemouth, UK, as home – I would be going back to the house I grew up in, to my parents and extended family. This is the main contender for ‘home’.

Bournemouth - never gets old
Bournemouth – never gets old

After moving to Australia quite some years ago, I spent nearly five years getting over my homesickness for Bournemouth. But, for whatever reason (living in three different cities in twelve years, always being seen as British because of my accent), I never got deeply attached to Australia. Australia is not my home. Plus, Christmas when it’s 40C outside is just wrong.

That said, I would live in Australia over the UK any day of the week for so many reasons (not all of them having to do with the availability of Cherry Ripes). So, that’s confusing.

Mmmm cherry goodnesss.
Mmmm cherry goodness.
Brisbane circa 2006 - my favourite place in Australia
Brisbane circa 2006 – my favourite place in Australia

As it turns out, I have decided that Pasadena, right now, is home. It’s where my husband and I, as a family live. It’s strange but even though we have no plans to leave, I already miss living here. A lot.

And in some ways, treating this as home is strange – we are in immigration limbo right now, legal only for the length of the stamp in our passport (less than a year right now). And if everything went wrong with some disaster in LA, we’d be on the first plane out.

It’s also strange because by definition an expat shouldn’t really be living in the place they call home. But having thought about this regularly since we moved to the US, I have concluded that while I’m definitely still an expat (I’m not FROM here – and that’s a whole another blog post – because the answer to that question anyone’s guess), I have been away for so long that I don’t feel bound to any one place.

Can't go wrong when you get hummingbirds in your garden.
Pasadena: I don’t think you can go wrong when you get hummingbirds in your garden.

And this brings me to a conversation we recently had with the couple who saved us from going crazy when we first moved to the US. She is English, he is Canadian. We got to know them when we all lived in Cambridge, MA. Recently we went to their wedding in England and a few weeks ago we caught up with them in San Francisco as they passed through for a conference on the way back from their honeymoon in Argentina. (Are you following?) After contemplating the circumstances that brought us together for that weekend in San Francisco, we decided that the best way to describe expats like us is that we have “international lives” – the world is where we live and we intersect with our extended friends and family wherever we can.

The obvious place to go for dinner...
The obvious place to go for dinner…

With that in mind, we cannot predict when our international lives will take us to our next destination, so perhaps while we live almost exactly half way between Australia and Europe, a better question for next year might be, “are you coming to our home for Christmas?”

See you then?

Question – is home where you live? Are you going home for Christmas?

Posted in Life, Los Angeles, Running

Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s our third Thanksgiving since moving to US and I think we hit the traditional high points this year: I ran a Turkey Trot in the morning, then we baked (made chestnut stuffing and made the Christmas Cake), and then we went round to a friend’s place for a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast.

Turkey Trot

I was up at 6am to get the train to Downtown LA for the Turkey Trot 5k.  I met a colleague from work (who I’m sure wouldn’t want to be named) and we did the obligatory photos and had a walk about. It was cold COLD cold (for LA).

We set off at 8am from outside City Hall and were immediately faced with two significant hills. The second (which was actually part of the first hill, just further up) was almost one to walk, but since we’d only done about 0.5 miles I wasn’t going to give in.  Luckily after about a mile it was downhill for a good amount of time.  Then after the turnaround at 8th Street it was a long gentle (brutal) uphill to the finish line.  It was especially discouraging to note my Garmin registered 3 miles we were still about 5 minutes from the finish line. Sure enough, according to me the course was an extra 0.3 miles long – which doesn’t sound like a lot, but after 3.1 miles it made a difference!

The good news was I finished 17th in my division – my best result since I restarted running in 2012.

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Baking

Having realized that it was the end of November and the Christmas Cake still hadn’t been made, I put it together when I got back from the run.  Happily my mother-in-law is in town and was able to give it a stir (as per tradition), but the bad news is that I only soaked the fruit in brandy for 12 hours, instead of the usual 24, so I think the cake has come out a bit dry.

We also made chestnut stuffing (as per my grandfather’s mother’s recipe) to take to dinner.  This dish calls for peeling a pound of hot chestnuts, but luckily my husband was on hand for this unpleasant task.  The stuffing came out great.

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Christmas Cake on the left, chestnut stuffing on the right

Feast & Thanks

In the late afternoon we went to friend’s house for a Thanksgiving party/dinner.  We had the opportunity to meet lots of new people, and catch up with others we had met at Christmas at the same house.  We had an amazing meal, and the host gave an inspiring speech.  She noted that the group of guests was diverse in many ways, and especially in national origin, and gave thanks for that and said, “let diversity define us, but also let it unite us.”

It was a fantastic day, and when we are recovered from all the food we are seriously contemplating tackling Black Friday shopping!

Menu: all homemade dishes

So much amazing food

Yes, I did eat all that. And dessert.
Yes, I did eat all that. And dessert.

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