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And, speaking of larger owls…

…and I was, as usual…

brownfishowlHere are portraits of two different Brown Fish Owls (Ketupa zeylonensis) spotted on my recent trip to northern India.

<<  Brown Fish Owl, Ranthambhore Natl Park, Rajasthan, India (Click to enlarge, all photos A. Shock)

You might not be surprised that FISH Owls never stray far from permanent water features, where they feed mainly on aquatic prey. This owl (or one just like it) was later seen snacking on a water snake at dawn. Not sure what a water snake was doing within talons-reach of an owl on a cold January dawn, but now it’s owl cells.

Here’s the snake-snack, a Checkered Keelback Water Snake (Xenochrophis piscator) basking stream-side, maybe even the same individual, I’d photographed earlier:Checkered Keelback

Further north, in the Himalayan foothills, another Brown Fish Owl gazed down on us as we walked under its day perch in the Kumeria Forest Preserve near Nainital, Uttarakhand, India:


Brown Fish Owl knows you are up to no good (photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Feb 28th 2014 | Filed in birds,close in,field trips,India,natural history,owls | Comments (2)

No such thing as too many owlets

On this theory, here are more owlets, Spotted again.

Spotted Owlets, photo A.Shock

Spotted Owlets (Athene brama), photo A.Shock

This snuggly pair was day-roosting near Shiva’s old, golden temple in Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur, India. When you are an owlet in India, a good perch is one the macaques don’t know about yet. Macaques are almost always up to no good, in my opinion.

Devi Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune, is often depicted with a white owl, which is her vārana, or symbolic mode of transport >>

I’m going to assume that an owl who can convey a deity is one of the larger species, and not an Owlet, but I’m no expert on where theology and ornithology intersect, or even if Kadam trees are a good place to find large owls, as this sign from the park seems to indicate:


Posted by Allison on Feb 21st 2014 | Filed in birds,field trips,natural history,owls | Comments (0)

Back from the Indian sky

Posts have been thin on the ground around this site recently. One reason is that I’ve been away for nearly a month, traveling and though not entirely disconnected with the internet, at least without a way to get photos off my camera to share. I was lucky enough to spend about three weeks roaming northern India — a country I’ve long wanted to see — just looking, and looking and looking — from the excellent vantage point of open jeeps, trains, tuk-tuks, cycle rickshaws, and a bouncy bus.

There’s no short way to record impressions of any country, but India defies summary even more than most places. So I’m intending to take nibbles of sights and thoughts I carried away with me and present them delicately like morsels of meat offered by a raptor parent to its chick — small pieces easily swallowed, or stored in the crop for later digestion.

And where better for Three Star Owl to start than with OWLS?

spottedowletsIt turns out that India is full of OWLS, and they are often easy to see. The explanation the experts offer is that they are neither hunted for food nor persecuted by the people, so they feel secure in daytime roosts, out in the open. The smaller species (often named “owlets” because of size, not immaturity) string themselves like grapefruit-sized beads on the branches of acacias or rhododendron trees in fields and forests, pressed together in an owly lump in batches of two or several, squinting in the sun and pretending they can’t be seen.

Above are some Spotted Owlets (I believe, although they may be Jungle Owlets — if you know, please chime in!) in eastern Rajasthan, the yellow of mustard fields (grown and pressed for oil production) in the background. (Photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Feb 20th 2014 | Filed in birding,birds,field trips,India,natural history,owls | Comments (2)

Meet some Liz

Heavy deadlining at the clay bench for summer shows PLUS a new camera mean this space will have mostly photographic posts for a stretch. Here are two lizards who obliged while I was in New Mexico recently.

First up is a Crevice Spiny Lizard (bearing the excellent scientific handle Sceloporus poinsettii but in no way resembling a red flower often associated with winter holiday decor, except in a tendency towards pointiness). He was basking unabashedly on the waist-high peakity peak of a large triangular rock in the middle of the well-trodden trail to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.spinyfaceHe (or she, I’m not acquainted with S. poinsettii well enough to know which, and they’re said to be similar anyway) simply did not care that I was there.  It was breezy and the foliage swayed, exposing him alternately to blotches of shade and sunbeams. He didn’t care about that either. Of course, armed with long closeuptelephoto capability, I had no need to approach closely to observe him. We did, however, have to pass very near in order to finish the jaunt up to the cliff dwellings, and if I stopped briefly for a close perusal — which the subject endured without flinching — who can blame me? A lizard whose prime basking platform is a busy trailrock must get good at ignoring curious people. Crevice Spinies have a rep for being shy (one field guide recommends binoculars as an observation aid), so this guy must be an outlier.

Below is another photo of the same liz. The subtle coppery green iridescence of the scales was caught by the camera in this shot, an artifact of sun angles and lens physics, apparently: to our human eye, the animal looked mostly gray and white with darker bands. Another lizard would have been all over the beautiful radiance immediately, its eye and brain built specifically to receive that shimmering information.


Now meet a whiptailed lizard (below), whose textures are quite different from the spiny lizard above. I think she’s a Desert Grassland Whiptail (Aspidoscelis uniparens).  Some species of whiptail are unisexual: all individuals are females who reproduce by laying unfertilized eggs each with a tiny clone embryo ready to hatch out and carry on mama’s DNA. The Desert Grassland Whiptail is one of them, which explains its Latin moniker. She’s very beady and sleek in the sun — whiptails are abroad in the heat of the day — but was well warmed up and didn’t stay long to be admired, or to be questioned on her parthenogenetic lifestyle; there were termites to eat and predators to evade.


Posted by Allison on Jul 3rd 2013 | Filed in close in,field trips,natural history,reptiles and amphibians | Comments (1)

Wren rocks

When you get out, you see things.

On a recent drive through a favorite stretch of desert mountain backroad, we saw a small thing that I’ve always wanted to see, ever since reading about it.  We saw it.  And I got a picture of it.  It’s this:


A tiny bird in a tiny hole in a big desert-dirt wall above a desert dirt road.   (Photo A.Shock)

That’s a Rock Wren — Salpinctes obsoletus — standing at the entrance to its nest cavity.  It’s not the bird itself that I’ve been hankering to see, because I’ve seen a few Rock Wrens: in the right place and time, they’re largely (or small-ly) unavoidable in craggy arid regions of the western US, Mexico, and Canada.  We even have them in our neighborhood occasionally.  What I was so excited about is the small expanse of rock chips to the left of the bird: the Rock Wren’s very rocks!

It’s not actually a pile, please, it took more effort than that.  It’s a pavement.  A mysterious pavement.  Rock Wrens are known to construct paved areas leading to their nests, and sometimes to lay a foundation of flat stones under the cup nest they construct in a crack, crevice, hollow, split boulder, or other rocky vug. But no one knows why, exactly.

Building this pavement requires a lot of time, energy, and effort.  Each bird of a nesting pair carries stone after stone in its beak from its source to the nest — sometimes as many as two or three hundred, then deliberately sets them in front of its chosen inaccessible and hidden location.  Both males and females have been seen doing this, although some observers report that it’s mostly the females who pave.  The stones are flat, and though they’re small by our human scale, they can weigh up to a third of the bird’s body weight.  Theories about why they go to the trouble lie as thick on the ground as wren-rocks, ranging from pair-bonding to mate-evaluating activities, to nest and nestling thermoregulation, to steep site soil stabilization, to landing pad or sign-post or defensive barrier.  Ornithologists studying an unrelated old-world species, the Blackstart, hypothesized that stone pavements or ramparts built by their subject birds could function as a predator defense system, providing early warning of a predator as it moves rocks aside to get into the hidden part of the nest. (In this case, the study was done in Israel in the Ein Gedi Nature Preserve, and the Blackstart pairs closest to the archæological sites there employed potsherds along with rocks to build their ramparts — how Bronze-Age is that?)

I watched this pair of Rock Wrens for twenty minutes as they fed their nestlings in the deep dark of the niche.  The babies were concealed in shadow, but mom and dad called frequently — Rock Wrens are very vocal — and took turns flying in and out of the small adit, their curved bills full of insects pried from crevices in nearby rock and streamside boulders.

(I should add that it wasn’t necessary to get close the nest site to watch the parents and take photos: this location was in a road-cut about 15 feet above the dirt road at a creek crossing, so I just walked up the road a bit to get an eye-level observation spot away from the nest, and watched quietly with binox and a telephoto lens. I don’t need to remind you how important it is to never agitate nesting birds, or wasps, mountain lions, or your sleepless neighbor with a new baby, right?  It’s rude and at best stressful for everyone, if not potentially harmful.)

Posted by Allison on Apr 18th 2013 | Filed in birds,field trips,natural history,nidification,rox | Comments (1)

Spot the Bird: horned edition

spotthebirdlogocopyIt’s Spot the Bird without a bird.  No clues, except that it’s all elbows.  Answer below the fold.hiding



Adult Desert Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) hiding under a shrub, Joshua Tree National Park (photos A.Shock March 2013)


Posted by Allison on Mar 27th 2013 | Filed in close in,field trips,natural history,reptiles and amphibians,spot the bird | Comments (1)

The desert pops

Lots of rain, sunshine, and warm temperatures after a tough winter have started the desert’s flower-fueled engines, pumping poppies out of “nowhere” like magicianbartlettvista‘s flowers.

<< View across Bartlett Lake to SB Mountain in the Mazatzal Wilderness area. The bright orange wash just below the high peaks is poppy fields. The bright green on the lower right edge of the image is chartreuse lichen on the “Yellow Cliffs”.

E and I entered the flowery fray on Sunday, in search of blooms. The west side of Bartlett Lake was our destination — we realized we’d never been there in all these years — and it was good.  To those searching solitude, I should explain that the lake itself is potentially off-putting; not its actual self, or setting, or vistas, which are spectacular, but because on weekends speed boats and jet skiswhiteandgold and other motorized etceteræ mix with the sound of the breeze in the saguaro needles, and the blue calm of the water.

>> Roadside mix of orange and less common white Mexican Gold Poppy (Eschsholzia californica ssp. mexicana, see last photo below for portrait of a white poppy)

This early in the season this traffic is bearable since it’s nowhere near the height of the boys-with-toys influx and fossil fuel frenzy which will invade after school’s out and with warmer temps.  But here you’re on the edge of wilderness, not in it.  Fortunately, the shoreside trail we chose to explore was near a non-motorized cove, which meant most of the motorcraft were inaudible on the opposite side of the lake, and the hardy, self-powered paddle-boarders and unexpected numbers of distance swimmers lupenpopsbraving the winter-cold riffles were impossible to object to.

<< More Mexican gold poppy and Coulter’s Lupine (Lupinus sparsiflorus).

The annual bloom seemed near peak, scattered in the granite gravelly bits among tough perennials like Chuparosa, Brittlebush, Pink Fairy Duster, Buckwheat, and Desert Lavender.  The saguaros and other spring-blooming cactus haven’t begun yet here, but the Ocotillo are in leaf, and in a week or two their hot-poker flowers will ignite their branch tips.

New to us was the subtle but spectacular Mentzelia (probably involucrata, Sand Blazing Star), which we missed on the outward bound walk but caught on the back-track — probably because it opened its transluscentsand blazing star cream-colored flowers mid-morning, after we passed them earlier on. >>

Lizards were the only reptiles we encountered — including the largest Tiger Whiptails I’ve ever seen! — and birds were active with spring pursuits.  Most were “the usual suspects”: the locals like Northern Cardinals, Verdin, Rock and Cactus Wren, Common Ravens, an American Kestrel hunting for shoreline grasshoppers from a lake-side snag.  There were some newly-returned breeders, like a Bell’s Vireo emitting its chewy song from within the brush, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and a spectacular male Vermilion Flycatcher performing his rising, stalling, and calling nuptial flight, glowing red like a stoplight against the blue skyshorebird (click here to view an excellent slo-mo video of a male feeding).  There was even a Turkey Vulture doing an impression of a shorebird (photo E.Shock)>>

Chia buds were up and only beginning to open, but the curled necks of purplish Scorpion weed (Phacelia ambigua, below) nodded over the trail in places, as well as Woolly Daisies, two species of Camissonia, Whispering Bells, Fiddleneck, Blue dicks, Gilia, Cream cups, and Desert Marigold.scorpionweed

<< Scorpion weed (photo E.Shock)

About three roundtrip miles of hiking and a trip up the road yielded around twenty species of annuals either in bloom or about to bloom (no doubt more for those with more expertise).

For dessert, below is a close-up of a fully open, satiny white poppy, agitated by both bees and the breeze, dusted with its own pollen.

(All photos by A.Shock, unless noted. Be sure to click on each, in some cases to enlarge, but also because clicked-on images in WordPress generally have better resolution than images embedded in the text.)whitepop


Posted by Allison on Mar 25th 2013 | Filed in botany,close in,field trips,natural history | Comments (2)

Spot the Bird

mawrI’ve entered this as the first Spot the Bird of the new year, but, having set it in the text, I can see that it’s not much of a challenge. So I made the image small — like the bird itself.  That might slow you down. (Once you’ve spotted the bird, however, do click on it to enlarge to see it better, I’ve uploaded a largish file.)

It’s a tiny, jauntily barred Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris, rummaging around in the winter cattails at the Needle Rock picnic area on the Rio Verde northeast of Phoenix AZ. As usual with these skulky wrens we heard it before we saw it: it was rattling the dry stems and giving its harsh scold note as it foraged. The wren, a Song Sparrow and two Black Phoebes were taking advantage of an abundance of flies, picking them off the surface of the river where they were swarming right before sunset.


How amazing to see a little organism so dependent on water living its entire life in a dense but narrow strip of cattails within 20 yards of an arid, saguaro-studded thornscrub landscape.

(Photo by E Shock, who somehow managed to capture a very small moving target in fading light!)

Posted by Allison on Feb 16th 2013 | Filed in birds,field trips,natural history,spot the bird | Comments (1)

Through the woods

The calendar presses on our shoulders and breathes down our necks, as hard to evade as a lap-seeking, too-hairy cat who won’t take no for an answer. Progress escapes us in our habitual surroundings. But a change of scene can help, letting concentration in and familiar domestic distraction out through the scathole. So, pursued by deadlines, E and I fled uphill towards a working getaway for the weekend.

On the way we sped through the state’s last fifteen minutes of winter (above, snow and pines above the Rim). And we eyed the sacred, cloud-shawled San Francisco peaks above golden grasslands << before landing in our digs, a comfy set-up in a hotel with a good restaurant in a plain-faced old Arizona town.

We were bound to get something done: it was raining and there were few distractions. It’s not that there’s nothing to see around here — there’s a big hole in the ground made by a hurtling chunk of space rock, ancient homes whose stones stud the hills and whose builders’ descendants still live nearby, and an entire forest that petrified where it fell.

<< Homol’ovi State Park, Pueblo #2 with a painted pot sherd superimposed on the stormy sky.

But for tourists interested in more than just “standin’ on the corner”, the main attraction of the old town is the grand hotel we’re staying in: La Posada sits on the rail line, so there are intermittent trains to ogle on the BNSF’s Seligman sub (supposedly up to 70 a day!), and occasionally they whistle or croak as they pass, like the ravens lodged in the high tops of leafless cottonwoods on the hotel grounds. The gardens must be beautiful in warm months, but on Saturday its sodden hay-bale labyrinth looked dreary in drizzle and mud.

The building itself is a labyrinth, but not at all dreary. It is a labor of love layered by laboring love — two stories of imagination, design, and money lavished on the last Fred Harvey Company railway hotel: the first time from the ground up by architect Mary Colter during the original construction — stuffed full of furniture and curios as if the resident ravens had plundered the continents in their forays; and the second time from the inside out by its current owners who are still restoring it in the spirit of Colter’s ambitious fantasy. It’s a daunting effort, cleaning up and re-constructing the huge building after a couple of decades of use and abuse as the Santa Fe railroad division offices, when it was gutted, divided into cubicles and otherwise desecrated. Here’s a historic photo of the “Ball Room” during the office days above a photo of its current manifestation.>> The ceilings tell the whole story: one, a hideous lowered acoustic tiled, fluorescent-fixtured horror, the other a lofty arched and painted heaven.

There’s plenty of distraction in exploring the details and contents of the building, a work-in-progress for the restorers, but the calendar still lurks in the corner of our eyes, waiting to pounce, and E and I return to the room between walkabouts to push forward our own work in progress.

a detail of the ballroom’s turquoise corbels and copper designs on the rafters>>

Posted by Allison on Jan 28th 2013 | Filed in field trips | Comments (0)

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