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Imagining the shape of a bird

I presented the following essay, written especially for the occasion, at “Sonoran Stories: for the Birds“, a story-telling event held at  of Audubon Arizona’s Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Center, on 23 Sept 2012. It was part of a benefit for Sonoran Desert Heritage‘s efforts to preserve 750,000 acres of desert in Western Maricopa County.  My thanks to Sarah Porter and Doug Bland for giving an unseasoned story-teller a voice in an all pro line-up!  The photos weren’t part of the oral presentation since the audience was called on to conjure up images in their heads; I’ve added them to this website post, since they were the source for many of the descriptive passages. They’ve all appeared previously at — click on the captions to link to the original posts. (All photos by A.Shock) Translation note: the name “Harfang” is from the French name for Snowy Owl: Harfang des Neiges.

Imagine the Shape of a Bird: vertical napping bark

Everyone has their own bird. And everyone’s bird is different. It might be your favorite bird from childhood.  It could be, as birders say, your “best” bird. Maybe it’s a bird you know well because you lived with it – or an exciting bird you saw only once. It could even be a bird you’ve never seen, one you’d cross an ocean to find.

I’d like to invite everyone here to use your mind’s eye to imagine the shape of that bird.

Is your mind’s eye looking up? Did you see a Cliff swallow, swooping down from its tidy mud nest under a Salt River bridge? Or maybe you saw a Costa’s hummingbird at a chuparosa flower, flaring its purple gorget like a dinky dude twirling his cowboy mustache? Or maybe you waxed poetic and pictured the teetering float of a turkey vulture waiting for the sun-warmed scent of carrion – a redolent roadkill ragout – to rise up to its pervious nostrils?

purple moustache majesty >>

We people like to picture birds in the air. We think of a bird as an airborne creature, aloft and at altitude. To those of us on the ground, birds make flight look easy – so easy that we commonly say that a bird is “at home” in the air.

But really, for many birds, when they’re on the wing they’re at work — whether it’s a day job or a night job, or whether, like a lesser nighthawk, they’re working the crepuscular swing shift. On the wing, birds are commuting, feeding, migrating, patrolling their territory, advertising their presence for the benefit of a potential mate or rival.

So instead of a flying bird – a working bird – I’d like to ask you to imagine a less dynamic, more domestic shape: a bird in the place it roosts, rests, nests, or digests. Imagine a bird at home: an elf owl sunning in a saguaro hole, passing for a patch of brown cactus crust. Or, a pair of Spotted Owls loafing shoulder to shoulder on a sycamore limb, doubled-dappled with sunspots and owl spots.

Spotted owls of Scheelite Canyon>>

That’s my bird – an owl at home: Vertical Napping Bark. An owl at rest is a bird in its most basic shape, not doing much, maybe yawning occasionally, scratching its facial disc, or swiveling its head to glare at a scolding wren or agitated jay, cocking its eye upward to follow a red-tail’s flight overhead.

As a birder, I never tire of seeing that shape in the wild, even if it’s just a quick glimpse, or nothing but a silhouette screened by foliage. As an artist, that shape is something I think about a lot. I need to know how an owl’s shape forms and changes, how an owl organizes itself. A sleepy owl, an indignant owl, a startled owl – each of these owls has a different shape.  Let’s consider a loafing owl now.

silhouette of a Great Horned Owl in fall leaves >>

Since owls are good at not being seen, I’ve brought a ringer, a visual aid to help out. Meet my assistant: Harfang [fake owl unveiled from under black velvet bag]. You might notice Harfang is not a desert species. Nevertheless, he’s a local bird. He’s a plastic Snowy owl purchased from the garden dept of a now defunct big box store on Thomas Road, as a scare-pigeon. But in our yard, he perches on the garden wall for decorative effect, ignored by the lesser goldfinch and lovebirds who come to feed on the sunflowers we grow for them.

It’s not his fault Harfang doesn’t scare the songbirds — what could our desert finches, chatty scraps of dry yellow sunshine – know of a hunter of lemmings on the Arctic tundra? Really, though, it’s not geography that’s the problem. And its not because of the way he looks: Harfang’s designers have given him all the owly characteristics – starting with lots of “good feathery detail”. He’s gifted with a large, domed head that functions as a mobile radar dish, strong taloned feet, and alert, upright posture cloaked with cryptic coloration — in his case perfect for mimicking hummocks of tundra.

<< Harfang lui-même happily not scaring Rosy-faced lovebirds in our sunflowers

These are the marks of owliness, recognized by every cautious bird and small scared mammal.  This fundamentally owly shape is so recognizable that when a real owl wants to disappear it can hide in plain sight by making slight changes in that shape: it might turn sideways, draw itself up like a thinnish branch, and squint to hide its vivid eyes. Then, to perfectly complete its innocent stick impersonation, an owl removes itself from the scene by holding…perfectly…still.

And that’s why Harfang, the heavy-duty plastic K-Mart Owl, owly as he appears, fails to effectively frighten. He’s motionless, and therefore invisible: an abstract branch, a bleached stump. Hunted animals know a stump won’t eat you, and you can sit on a branch. To them, Harfang – like a ball park umpire – is merely part of the field.

So physical presence isn’t the whole story of shape. It doesn’t start at the cranial tufts and end at talons or wingtips. It’s not merely what a bird looks like — it’s bigger than that. Ecologists strive to quantify it; hunters, photographers and artists each in their own way try to capture and display it; storytellers remind us: the whole shape of a bird is how each one fits into the world, an interlocking, integral part of a larger picture, like a puzzle piece, or the fibers of a basket.

>> snake snack

It’s a Gambel’s Quail hen pecking at grass seeds while in her nest nearby, three of her eggs are being swallowed by a young gopher snake – the unwilling process of a quail turning grass into snakes.  It’s also a rural school kid explaining that her grandma always says that when you hear a hoot-owl call, it means someone’s going to die.  It’s a well-worn clay pot in the Heard Museum decorated with burrowing owls and spadefoot toads, meant for holding the fruits of the monsoon harvest.  And it’s the motivation of a group of people working to preserve the Sonoran Desert not just for what it can do for humans, but simply on the desert’s own merit.

So whenever you think of a bird, imagine its whole shape. The shape that’s made up of all of these things: a bird’s body, its biology, its presence on the land as well as the place it holds in human minds and hearts – like ours here today as we illustrate stories of birds with our imaginations, along with the help of one funky plastic owl.

Posted by Allison on Sep 23rd 2012 | Filed in birds,environment/activism/politics,Events,natural history,owls | Comments (1)

It’s good to be a vulture!

Wishing everyone a happy International Vulture Awareness Day!

I almost let it slip by due to inattention, but then there it was — a Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura, teetering over our neighborhood, low over the end of the street, and I remembered that today’s their day!

And let me just add: PERVIOUS NOSTRIL!  No carrion-clogged air inlets here after rummaging around in a ripe ribcage.  No tissue to clear your nares of noxious tissue?  No worries — wide-open nostrils are easy to clean of greasy shreds — just one quick sneeze or shake of the head and it’s gristle-be-gone, carcase-ex, rid-O-rot!

(Photo A.Shock, of a Liberty Wildlife vulture on the glove at Boyce Thompson Arbortetum)

Posted by Allison on Sep 1st 2012 | Filed in birds,close in,environment/activism/politics,Events,natural history | Comments (3)

Fiery forest revisited

Exactly one year ago this month, the White Mountains of eastern Arizona were ablaze with the Wallow Fire, the largest fire in state history.  The human-caused fire scorched more than 530,000 acres in four counties in Arizona and one in New Mexico, significantly damaging or destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness habitat, as well as historic and residential buildings, water and timber resources, and range-land.

This weekend, E and I hiked and camped in the high-altitude mixed conifer-aspen, near-alpine grassland biome near Mt. Baldy, curious to see how the fire had affected some of the areas we know and love.  In the few days we were there we found big changes, but perhaps not as drastic as we feared.  We were able to camp and hike in favorite places, each scarred but not destroyed by the wildfire’s effects. The campground was only marginally burnt.  I would love to know if this close call was a natural quirk of fire topography, or if firefighters saved the campground.

<< aspen and ponderosa forest damaged by the 2011 Wallow Fire (Photoshopped edit, A.Shock photo)

Our relief that things weren’t worse than they were is the result of a non-technical, tourist viewpoint.  For residents, both human and wildlife, the fire changed the landscape in ways that will not be restored in our lifetime. Blackened trees stand everywhere, some killed outright, others damaged and struggling.  Fallen trees — some reduced to a trunk-sized trail of ash — criss-cross the forest floor.  Some of the downed trees were felled as part of federal and state agencies’ safety strategies intended to make the most seriously burnt areas safer for hunters, hikers, and fishermen: many hazard trees near roads, structures, in campgrounds, and along trails have been cut down and piled into charred heaps by feller-buncher equipment and saw-crews.  Bright yellow signs posted at every trailhead and forest road junction caution people venturing into the back country that flames are not the only dangers of fire: once the fires are out, flash flooding, falling trees and branches, and landslides are the legacy of wildfire for seasons to come.

But not all of the forest suffered equally: crown-fire areas, where the flames jumped from treetop to treetop, burnt hotter than others and show more severe damage.  Ground-fire areas burnt spottily, while other places were only lightly toasted.  Some pockets were not touched by flames at all. Yet each of these places shows a welcome resurgence of life.

>> a foot-tall aspen regrowing in the shelter of a charred ponderosa trunk (Photoshopped edit, A.Shock photo)

Although Ponderosa pines appear to be hard hit in many places, aspen trees and firs growing alongside them often seem to have sustained less damage. In addition, 2012’s snowmelt and spring rains provided most areas with a green carpet of grass, re-sprouted shrubs, and young trees.  Elk cows trail gangly calves, and busy Barn swallows, Hermit thrushes and Brewer’s blackbirds have bug-filled beaks, carrying food back to their nestling broods.  A pair of Bald eagles has built a nest in the woods crowning a peninsula of a popular fishing lake: a joyful reason for an area closure, unlike the parts of the forest still closed to recreation because of severe fire damage.

<< watercolor sketch of small aspen that survived the fire (A.Shock)

The flame-colored sky in the background of the top image is reminiscent of the fires that swept through the area last year. But it’s just a mid-June sunset glowing behind the aspens and Ponderosa pines where we camped. Ironically, the blazing sunset is caused by smoke particles in the air, wafting from wildfires currently burning in Arizona and New Mexico — the Poco fire near Young, AZ, and the enormous, lightning-caused Whitewater-Baldy Fire in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest , now classed as the largest fire in the history of that state.

Cucumbers don’t usually have scales

<< Here are my next-door neighbor’s cucumber plants, with a snake napping amidst them. The neighbor noticed it when he was rummaging around in these leaves looking for cukes for dinner. I happened to be in our backyard, and saw him and his wife standing just on the other side of our shared block wall, and went over to see what they were looking at.

“A gopher snake.”

The wall is six feet tall, and I can’t see over it. So I asked him if he would mind snapping a shot of their snake with my cell phone. He obliged, and handed the phone back to me. As I walked away, I checked to see if the picture was in focus; cell-phone cameras are capricious that way. Nope, in fine focus (photo above).

“Umm, Dane? I don’t think that’s a gopher snake.” I fetched a flimsy plastic chair to stand on, and peered over the wall straight down onto the comfy animal. It was a beautiful Western diamondback rattlesnake, curled in the ‘cukes, snoozing and digesting its latest meal. I could see the sun glinting off of its rattle, concealed deep in the center of its keely-scaled coils. >>

The Fire Department was called, and a re-location made. The Scottsdale FD is equipped for reptile removal. They only take snakes from settings urban enough that the reptile might be considered “out of place” — if you live in the foothills, or on the edge of open desert, they will tell you your snake isn’t a suitable candidate for removal, because it’s at home in your yard. But in our mixed suburban-desert zone they came for the neighbor’s rattler, in a huge, danger-green fire engine — three strapping, uniformed Firemen with their names embroidered on their dark blue uniforms (why would a desert community make their public safety officers wear dark blue in the desert sun?) redolent of calm and expertise. The guy with the snake-tongs had on shorts. The entire scene was calm. No one was horrified, or panicked, or officious. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the neighbors have a 14-month old grand-daughter and an overly-mouthy not-too-bright black lab, I think we all would have been happy to let the snake stay put and take in more roof-rats. There’s plenty to go around, along with the pocket mice, cottontails and those tomato-thieving rock squirrels who disemboweled Shelby’s patio furniture cushions to line their nest in our attic with. All of us would have traded the snake for the rodents, any day. But… the grand-toddler… So unless there are more rattlers, the gopher snakes will have to take care of the rats.

The capture was uneventful; the snake’s belly was bulging from recent feeding, and it only rattled a little. It was taken away along with repeated assurances it was destined for safe relocation (I chose to believe the nice officers). The fireman with the snake even paused to let us take photos — my neighbor had his video cam and I was still hanging over the wall with my camera. The rattler, which was only about three feet long, just looked pissed off.

The folks next door have lived in their house since the 1970s, and they’ve never seen a rattlesnake around here in all that time. But the Army National Guard just paved over a generous chunk of their desert two blocks south, and the city has an on-going streets improvement project a couple of blocks in the other direction. I’ve seen more coyotes in the past few months than in the rest of the time we’ve lived here, including one IN our (totally walled) yard. We suspect this habitat loss and upset is forcing critters there to move into our streets.

Not infrequently the topic of snakes comes up among the folks who live here, and I often mention what a good idea it is to not kill snakes because they eat rodents (we’re in a part of the Phoenix area plagued with non-native roofrats). One of the reassuring things I tell people is, “Anyway, all the snakes around here are non-venomous — we don’t have rattlers any more in this area.” Oops. Also, I’ll be carrying a flashlight when I go out into the yard at night, now. There hasn’t really been a need: the raccoons are scrappy, but they’re not venomous.

And it’s still not a good idea to kill snakes.

(All photos A.Shock; click to enlarge)

Query, possibly — or possibly not — political:

Which feels worse, the hollowed out jalapeño or the worm what done it?

Go ahead; click on it just to make yourself miserable.

Four calling owls, three quail hens, two Inca doves…

…and a Phainopepla in a Palo Verde tree.

As around the turn of every new year, Christmas Bird Counts are happening across America.  Under the auspices of the Audubon Society winter bird distribution and population information is compiled, fourpeakscollected by volunteers, most of whom are not ornithologists but people with a non-professional — although sometimes intense — interest in birds.  The vast quantity of info gathered in this time period is used “to assess the health of bird populations – and to help guide conservation action” in the U.S.

What do the volunteers gain from their long, often cold, hours in the field counting both species and individual birds seen?  For some it’s competition, to best a personal record for birds seen in a given area, and of course, there’s the satisfaction of adding to what’s known about North American avifauna.

right: Four Peaks above the Verde Valley

For me, it’s getting out into in the winter landscape, among plants and animals which, sometimes, it’s been too long since I’ve seen.  Of course, the birds are a big draw for me — but it’s not just birds.  We regularly see other critters on our patch of territory: jackrabbits, coyotes and cottontails are common, but one year, we spotted a bobcat.


For the past three years, I’ve  helped with the Salt and Verde Rivers CBC.

left: Yavapai Nation on the Verde River showing the bands of habitats we census.

Our particular area is in the Yavapai Nation along the Verde River east of the Phoenix metro area (special permission to bird the Indian Community is necessary), under the changeable faces of Four Peaks, at about 7600 feet, the highest peaks close to Phoenix.

The immediate censusing area is a mix of riverside riparian (cottonwoods, willows and invasive salt cedars), cattle-trampled mesquite bosques (mesquite and graythorn with little in between but sand and cowpies), desert upland (saguaros, creosote, cholla, palo verde and ironwood), and agricultural rioverdeland: the tribe maintains many acres in pecan groves, citrus, and alfalfa. There’s also a patch of semi-rural residential area where tribe members and employees live.  Such variable habitats make for a fairly diverse species assortment, ranging from invasive exotics, like Eurasian Collared Doves and starlings, to uncommon natives like Bald Eagles, which nest along the Verde River.

right: Rio Verde

This area distinguishes itself in a few ways: in numbers of sparrows, including white-crowned, savannah, lark, song, vesper (photo below), and lincoln’s, which glean brushy ditches cut through the fields, alongside verdin, bewick’s wrens, and lesser goldfinch.  Other small birds like orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets and both expected species of gnatcatchers hang in the cottonwoods — this year we saw bushtits for the first time. SASPsRed-winged black birds, meadowlarks, mourning doves, american pipits and house finches fill the fields and line the electrical wires along the road.  The river hosts wintering waterfowl large and small: gadwall, mergansers, wigeon, mallards, bufflehead, canada geese, coots, and this year, even snow geese.  Throw in five or six species of woodpeckers and other Sonoran upland species like thrashers, Abert’s towhees, cardinals, and quail — the area holds a record for most Phainopepla counted on a CBC — and you’ve got quite an assortment.

With such a smorgasbord of small birds — so very tasty! — there are plentiful predators like Peregrine falcons, Cooper’s hawks, Red tailed LOSHclosehawks, American kestrels, and harriers.  One “functional raptor” we encountered was a Loggerhead shrike, working the brushy ditches for reptiles and insects, maybe even a sparrow to eat.

right: Loggerhead shrike

There’s even raptor-on-raptor pursuit: I saw a Peregrine dive at a kestrel.  As the smaller falcon coursed over alfalfa fields searching for an unwary or slow pipit, the peregrine above took a shot at it out of the sun, its dive so steep and sharp that I could hear its feathers buzz like a bullroarer, the avian equivalent of a sonic boom.  But before the strike, it pulled up short, giving the impression of having accomplished a dry run; the kestrel only dipped in the air evasively, and went on its way.

Experiencing the unpredictability of the natural world is what makes getting out to count enjoyable.  And it doesn’t have to be far from the bustle of people and suburbia: sometimes, it’s all within a few miles of the intersection of a major highway, a casino, and the inevitable Denny’s.

(All photos taken by A.Shock during the 2009 Salt/Verde River Christmas Bird Count)

Posted by Allison on Dec 16th 2009 | Filed in birding,birds,environment/activism/politics,field trips,natural history | Comments (0)

Many thanks to everyone….

…who stopped by to visit Three Star Owl at the Audubon Arizona Gifts from Nature fundraiser and show in Scottsdale this Friday and Saturday.  The rain stayed away, and it was nice to see everyone out and about!  Special thanks to everyone at Audubon Arizona, for once again wrangling a great show!coatinose

(photo: smoke-fired coati effigy vessel, photo and piece by A.Shock)

It’s hard to believe that I have to jump right into gearing up for Wings Over Willcox, the Sandhill Crane and birding and nature festival coming up in Willcox, AZ, in the middle of next month (details here)!

Thanks again to you all, and Happy Holidays!

Announcing the next Three Star Owl event:

Audubon Arizona’s Gifts from Nature fundraiser.

Save the date!  Coming up quickly on the 11th and 12th of December, at the Cattletrack Compound in Scottsdale:


The Friday evening event is a festive preview and advance sale, with music, hors d’oevres, wine and hot cider.  It’s $25 per person (call for reservations, 602-468-6470 ext. 103). The Saturday public sale goes from 10 am – 4 pm, and has a recommended donation of $4.

There will be lots of local artists and their nature-related artwork – it’s a great place to do your holiday shopping.  Plus, proceeds plus a portion of the artist’s profits go to supporting environmental education and conservation in Arizona. Hope you can make it!  (And, keep your fingers crossed for fine weather!)


The next Three Star Owl event will be after the New Year, at Wings Over Willcox, January 13-17, 2010.

Posted by Allison on Nov 29th 2009 | Filed in art/clay,environment/activism/politics,Events,three star owl | Comments (0)

Mesquite meal fest

We’ve been trying to Green Up around here.  In addition to starting up a composting system for garden waste and kitchen scraps, as well as having plans for an herb and chile garden to use the compost on, we recently went to a mesquite-pod milling event.pods

Left: dried mesquite pods

Mesquite pods and seeds are really hard.  Really really hard.  The seeds especially.  So hard that not many animals, even hungry desert mammals with sharp teeth and strong jaws, eat them — despite the seeds’ high protein content.  Rock squirrels, coyotes, and gray foxes are among the modern Sonoran species that use the copious pods for a food source.  Often, pods are chewed briefly and swallowed whole for the animals’ stomach acid to take care of, and the hard seeds are pooped out later on, germination-enhanced, ready to sprout into fast-growing hardy trees.

Southwestern mesquite tree species evolved at the same time as large Pleistocene grazers like Mastodon and Ground Sloths (below), whose massive grinding molars and powerful slothdigestive systems propagated the seeds efficiently. The trees’ fast growth habit could keep pace with major inroads of hungry megafauna, and the animals spread the seeds far and wide (cattle have largely replaced these extinct giants in the modern system).  People are prodigious users of mesquite, too, for food, furniture, and firewood, and browse for livestock. In some seasons and years, mesquite kept people alive, both indigeños and pioneers. Indigenous people milled the pods for gruel, atole and cakes, but the seeds are almost too hard to grind by hand with a mano and metate, which often were of wood.

This is where the Desert Harvesters come in.  They are a group dedicated to using food sources native to the Sonoran desert, including mesquite mealthe_rig, which is nutritious, naturally sweet but with a low glycemic index, and gluten-free.

Right: The Desert Harvesters hammer mill rig

To get mesquite meal, the pods must be ground quite fine, so they use a generator-operated steel hammer mill on a trailer, which they tow to various locations around the state for milling events.  The one we attended was sponsored by the Phoenix Permaculture Guild at Roadrunner Park Farmer’s Market.  For $5 per 5-gallon bucket, they will grind your clean, dry mesquite pods into fabulously tasty, nutritious meal.   We toasted our pods in the oven first, so our meal seems particularly sweet and nutty.the_hammers

Right: the steel “hammers”

Collecting the pods is easy, but time-consuming.  If you’d like to mill your pods, collect whole, dry, brown pods just as they begin to drop from the trees. rules In the Phoenix area, this is roughly mid-summer as the monsoon rains are really beginning to get underway.  Dry the pods thoroughly, or toast them in a warm oven until they’re slightly brown.  Then store them in an insect-proof bucket until the hammer-milling event is in your neck of the woods, usually the end of October or the beginning of November.  (If you live in the Tucson area, you have a few more date options, since Tucson is Desert Harvesters’ home base, but all around the same time of year.)

lineStanding on line waiting for the millers to put your beans in the machine gives you ample time to shop around the Farmer’s Market or talk to other mesquite-bean collectors, and swap mesquite recipes and chat.  We talked to Jean, who also had carob pods to grind.  The process is not rapid — only a handful of pods goes in at a time, with the mill operators keeping a sharp eye out for rocks and debris, even though everyone’s pods are inspected once already, since hard objects in the steel blades would be hazardous and damaging. The millers often stop to remove the “chaff” from the hammer chamber: even with the powerful steel grinders, bean_going_inthe seeds and tough fiber don’t pulverize, and has to be vacuumed out with a shop-vac every few minutes.  The chaff is saved for composting, brewing beer or tea, or feeding goats.

Left, our beans going into the hopper; note dude’s ear-plugs.

The meal-collection bin is emptied after each person’s pods have been ground, so the meal you end up with is from your own pods.  We brought two 5-gallon buckets of beans, and ended up with several pounds of meal.

Since there’s no gluten in mesquite meal, it can’t replace wheat flour 1:1 in most recipes, but you can use mesquite meal for up to 1/3 of the total flour amount, including gluten-free recipes.  This morning, we enjoyed mesquite pancakes sweetened with agave nectar for breakfast. oursNative Seed Search is an excellent source for info about mesquite meal, or for the meal itself, if you don’t have mesquite trees where you live.  But if you do, when you see the price, you’ll definitely want to collect and grind your own.

Right: our mesquite meal being poured back into our bucket

(All photos A or E Shock)

Posted by Allison on Nov 1st 2009 | Filed in environment/activism/politics,natural history | Comments (2)

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