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Cool brick, flat squirrel

Yes, earlier this summer we did humanely trap the Enormous Family of Rock Squirrels who were living in our attic and relocated them to a squirrel nirvana. This created a Squirrel Vacuum in our yard, and everyone knows that Nature — like every cat but this one — Abhors a Vacuum (and also being dressed up as a shark). So, it didn’t take long — already the Squirrel Vacuum has been filled:


This just-about-full-grown young one has been closing in on our yard (we’ve heard his loud inquisitive chirps growing progressively closer from down the block), and he finally got here. He looks like he dropped from a great height, but he’s just pressed belly-flat to the cool bricks, taking a break from scouring the back porch for yummies — you can’t see, but his cheeks are packed full. The rugged nature of the image is due to being taken through blinds through a window at a steep angle with my cellphone. Pesky, yes, but Oh So Very Cute. I offer this photo for the enjoyment of those readers who will not be plagued with the patter of little gnawing teeth overhead.TBWF13-NatureExpo

Meanwhile, if you’re in Tucson , today is the last day of the Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival at the Riverpark Inn. The field trips are full, but the Nature Expo is free and is open from 10am to 2pm today (Sunday Aug 18 2013; more info << left, click to make legibly large.). How I come to still have this Monsoon Droplet Beastie Pitcher (below) on the shelf is hard to imagine! So if you haven’t stopped by the Three Star Owl booth to say Hi, now’s your chance! And if you have, stop by again!


Posted by Allison on Aug 18th 2013 | Filed in Events,furbearers,yard list | Comments (0)

Executive “fail”!

No one said all artists are good business people!  Frinstance, I just noticed that I hadn’t updated the Three Star Owl events page in like, all year…


But now it’s current.  So, if you’re wondering where to find Three Star Owl this holiday season, click here (or the Events tab across the top of the page).  And remember, Three Star Owl items can be found all day every day at On The Edge Gallery in Old Town Scottsdale.

Posted by Allison on Oct 22nd 2012 | Filed in art/clay,Events,three star owl,Uncategorized | Comments (3)

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)

It’s not all about owls…

… it just seems like it sometimes.

This Friday Saturday and Sunday, from 10am – 5pm March 9, 10, 11, it’s time for the spring Camelback Studio Tour, and if you visit the Sherwood Heights neighborhood of south Scottsdale, you can find lots of things besides owls, even at Three Star Owl Studio (Studio #3 on this map).  Among the exciting Non-Owlular things available are the metal south-west themed garden sculptures of Tracy Paul of Pentimento Metalwork.  Here’s a tantalizing image of the shadow of one of Tracy’s agave-like creations. >> She’s brought a large selection of delectable items and strewn them artfully around our rambling garden, where you can wander around searching them out.

And, there are three other studios to visit filled with paintings, clay, jewelry, glass, and gourds handmade by local artists Lynn Gustafson, Vickie Morrow, Pam Harrison, Jan Campbell, Chris Demma, Reg McCormick, Bernie Nienebar, Lynn Strolin and Margaret Sullivan.

Of course, Three Star Owl Clay is stocked as usual with a motley assortment of owlishness (that’s motley said with pride), some new like the Boiled Owl Sake Sets (see previous post for photos) and Napping Owl Tumblers — which exude a quaint whiff of Victoriana, pushing Retro all the way back to the Martin Brothers.  But I’ll also have on hand some non-owl favorites like Horned Lizard Bowls, a Gila Monster Effigy bowl, Frog Skeleton Mugs, and also a bit of species-faithful Wazzo-ware for the birders among us, and more.  The photo above is my studio bench tonight, with new items waiting to be photographed and priced — note the Gilded Flicker in the Saguaro vessel: definitely Not An Owl, for a change.  Oh, and a couple of Writhing Rαt Dog planter/bowls.

<< And for the first time ever, I’ll have hand-knit hats for sale by Sylvia Schoenfeld (my mother), like these.  And yes, those are owl cables with button eyes — which makes them most definitely mostly about owls.

(All photos A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Mar 7th 2012 | Filed in art/clay,effigy vessels,Events,three star owl,yard list | Comments (3)

Willcox at eye level

Like the Sandhill cranes, I usually visit Willcox in the winter.  That’s when the town hosts Wings Over Willcox, a birding and cultural event celebrating the cold season presence of Sandhill cranes, who dwell in the fields and wetlands of the Sulphur Springs Valley from October to March.  (below, Stewart St. in Willcox AZ.  Photo A. Shock)

In winter when the trees are bare and the lawns are brown, the city of Willcox Arizona looks very close to the earth: the houses and buildings in the older neighborhoods seem to sit right on the dirt, as if they’d pushed up through the soil like sensible angular mushrooms after a rain. It’s a down-to-earth kind of place, surrounded by ranches and farms, and snow-dusted peaks.

<< Sandhill crane eye, mounted specimen.  Very dinosaur-y, isn’t it?  When I see this eye, I’m glad I’m not a seed.

Except for the newer part of town, which is latched onto Interstate 10’s throat like a tick, the town has pretty much one of everything — just what folks who live here need, but no more: a couple of gas stations, a mechanic or two, a winery, a golf course, a handful of restaurants that may or may not be under the same ownership each time I return, or even open at all; schools, fire department, churches.  But down-to-earth Willcox also has a big sky feel.  This time of year that sky infuses the fields and grasslands with earnest birds, gleaning seeds from grassheads, foraging the fields for leftover crop — not only large cranes, but also lark bunting, meadowlarks, vesper, savannah, song, white-crowned and lark sparrows.  Raptors and shrikes follow the birds: the kestrels, merlins, and accipiters sharp-eyeing the sparrows, the larger hawks stalking rodents above ground during the sunny days; owls take over the hunt in the waxing moon nights. Ravens hang in high places cawing, opportunistically looking for a tidbit or some fun anywhere.  Birders and tourists flock here as well, to the festival and on their own, following all of it: cranes, owls, raptors, sparrows, and scope-toting tour leaders with fieldguides tucked into their khaki vests. (Photo above: twilight over the Sulphur Springs Valley outside of Willcox.  There are thousands of invisible cranes in this picture, standing in the yellow grasses in the mid-distance.  The black dots in the air low on the left edge of the image are cranes coming in to join them to roost for the night.  Photo A.Shock)

All of this activity is watched over by Willcox’s long history.  Once known as the cattle capital of the U.S., ranching and agriculture are still big here, although Interstate 10 has replaced the railroad as the town’s main lifeline.  But freight still rumbles through town, rolling between southern California and Texas railyards: the noisy calling of cranes in the fields is often momentarily drowned out by train horns, a more soulful, lonely sound than the busy clacking of the social birds.

>> Rex Allen also watches over Willcox. The Willcox native, known as the “Arizona cowboy”, was a Western singer and actor known for his folksy film narration.  His autographed images hang on the walls of just about every joint in town, from Tex’s BBQ Dining Car to the chain hotel lobbies.

Posted by Allison on Jan 15th 2012 | Filed in Events,field trips,three star owl | Comments (2)


Tens of thousands of Sandhill cranes winter in the fields and wetlands of far southeastern Arizona each year, and they have their own festival: Wings Over Willcox, held in mid-January by the historical community of Willcox, AZ. This year is the 19th Annual WOW Festival, and it’s part of SE Arizona’s celebration of the state centennial.

>> Dawn pinkens sandhill cranes standing in the icy waters of Crane Lake south of Willcox, AZ (Photo A.Shock)

There are tours to the local hotspots, not just for crane-sighting, but for other winter birding specialties in the bird-rich, high-desert grassland in and around the Sulphur Springs Valley: the Chiricahua Mountains, Whitewater Draw, Lake Cochise, and more.  Not all of the outings are bird-related: there are historical, agricultural, gastronomic, and archeological tours, too. Check availability for tickets here. There are also seminars by local experts on anything from photography to astronomy to more birds and birding, which I believe are free.

If your tour of choice is sold out, don’t despair. The cranes can be viewed (and heard!) flying in v-formation overhead often, but you can also visit places like Crane Lake (above) and Whitewater Draw at dawn and dusk to see flights of cranes leaving (morning) or returning (afternoon) to and from foraging in the agricultural fields during daylight hours.  Driving the public farm roads south of town at any time of day, you can luck into hundreds of cranes moving in a group through a field, or a fierce bird of prey like a Ferruginous hawk patrolling the skies or perched on a wire over the field margins.  Loggerhead shrikes are fairly common, as well: check out a previous post of mine for more photos.

<< three Sandhill crane magnets by Three Star Owl will be available at WOW for $16 each

Three Star Owl will be at the Nature Expo portion of the event, held in the Willcox Community Center, which is the headquarters for the festival.  The Nature Expo will be open from Thursday afternoon until Sunday, check my Events page for more specific hours and a link to a map and driving directions.  If you’re in the area, please stop by and say Hello — admission to the Nature Expo is FREE!

A word of advice to those planning on visiting: although sunny winter days in this part of AZ can be comfortable, Willcox is at 4200 feet above sea level, so night-time temps usually dip well below freezing this time of year, and if it’s windy or overcast, daytime temps will be brisk.  So if you plan to get out into the world on your trip here, dress for the weather!

Posted by Allison on Jan 6th 2012 | Filed in birding,birds,Events,field trips,natural history,three star owl | Comments (1)

Last chance to see…

“Ossuary: an archæology of resurrection” in the show Death and Rebirth at Maryville University’s Morton May Gallery in St.Louis.  The show will be up until this friday, December 2.  Click here for details about the show and about the Ossuary.

<< Detail (photo and piece, A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Nov 28th 2011 | Filed in art/clay,artefaux,effigy vessels,Events,field trips,owls,three star owl | Comments (0)

Pick of the litter

Among the sculptural vessels I’ve made recently for upcoming holiday sales, a couple things stand out.  This is one of them:

Feather Bundle Jar with Owl (13.5″ ht, stoneware 2011, photo and object A.Shock)  >>

What you can’t see in the photo is the interior glaze, a fiery glossy red that contrasts strongly with the dry, dinosaur-green outside.  The jewel-like red studs give a hint of what’s on the inside, however.

This piece will be available starting tomorrow at the Three Star Owl booth at Audubon Arizona’s Gifts from Nature event tomorrow and Sunday (12 – 13 Nov, 10am-4pm, click here for details).

I’ll also be offering functional pieces, including frog skeleton mugs, scorpion mugs, beastie pitchers, and ravenware, just for starters.  As always it bears repeating: Come early for best selection!

And, they’ve pretty much taken rain out of the forecast for Saturday, at least — so really, there’s no excuse!

Posted by Allison on Nov 11th 2011 | Filed in art/clay,effigy vessels,Events,owls,three star owl | Comments (0)

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