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Hen Triumphant!

We’ve been watching a hummingbird Hen — we think she’s an Anna’s (Calypte anna) — on a nest since the middle of February.  Lots of people have passed close to her chosen spot, which was fairly low in a crooked Aleppo pine in our backyard, right over a gravel path through the side of the garden.  There was a big wind storm, and chilly late-winter temperatures.

>> Hummingbird nestling (photo A.Shock; click to embiggen)

But the Hen kept sitting, and we finally saw the results of her diligence: one slightly fluffy, fairly well-grown chick peering out over the edge of the small cup-like nest (see photo above).  There’s going to be one more influx of people in the next couple of days to try its courage.  But at least the weather is warm now, and many more flowers are blooming, including some recovered chuparosa flowers, so when the new little bird fledges, there should be lots of nectar and gnats to learn on.

And, for those who follow this blog regularly, I believe I forgot to mention here the last appearance of the unusual (for Phoenix) male Broad-billed hummingbird in our yard last month.  He stuck around until the 16th of February, and we haven’t seen him since.

In other hummingbird news around the yard, yesterday, March 14, we saw our first-of-season Black-chinned hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri) at one of the feeders.

<< Black-chinned hummingbird magnet (Three Star Owl/A.Shock)

Or rather, saw and heard: the males’ wings produce a whirring zizzz in flight: usually we hear them in the yard before we see them.  These hummers are slender, and the males have a black head which shows a purple swash at the bottom edge along their neck, but only if the light is just right.

Posted by Allison on Mar 15th 2011 | Filed in birds,close in,hummingbirds,increments,natural history,nidification,yard list | Comments (2)

I know where the Hen she sits…

…and also why it’s called “Broad-billed”.

Although those two statements concern two different birds.

Update: as of Friday morning, “Bill”, the Broad-billed hummingbird, is still reporting in to our backyard feeders, passing the 72-hour mark (I first observed him on Monday afternoon).  We guess he’ll be here until he’s not!

Breeding season for Anna’s hummers is in full swing here in Phoenix.  The males are executing their showy flights, shrieking down from a height with their gorgets flashing scarlet, making a loud peeping pop with their tail feathers like tiny bullroarers, then rising vertically upward to do it again and again, usually targeting a perched female to impress her with this routine.

<< Anna’s hummer on current nest in Aleppo pine (click to enlarge; all photos A.Shock)

And from my studio I’ve been watching a female Anna’s gathering spider webs and flying away with her beak wrapped in gossamer, a sure sign of “nidification,” otherwise known as nesting.

When our trees were trimmed last week, we searched hard beforehand to make sure there were no current nests in the trees affected, and didn’t find anything. However, late this afternoon, while scanning for the errant Broad-billed hummingbird who has been working our feeders, I did find a nest, just by luck: I saw the Hen fly up into a low pine branch, and stick.  Binox showed me a little beaky head above an apparently completed nest, built above a pine cone on a nearly horizontal branch.  From everyone’s perspective, it’s not a great spot: it’s fairly low over the path through the part of our yard we call the Sonoran Garden, and E could (and probably unintentionally will) bump the branch with his head as he walks by. To me it seems a very exposed location.  In fact, while I was watching her, the Broad-bill zoomed up and perched on a smaller branch just inches below the nest with hen, apparently unaware of her.  She knew he was there: she froze, and waited perfectly still until he went away, which was soon — he’s a restless body.

>> Male Broad-billed hummer, out of place, out of season, but he’s been here for 48 hours, that we know of.  (Click to enlarge.)

The Broad-bill flew a short distance away and settled on a preferred perch in the “ugly” lemon tree.  Although the photo isn’t perfectly sharp, you can see that the base of his bill is slightly flattened, making it look broad, especially in comparison with the needle-like rest-of-the-beak.

Incidentally, for the first time ever, the normally prolific “ugly” lemon tree set one whole lemon as its entire crop this season, and it dropped that during the tree-trimming episode.  So as far as I’m concerned the shirking citrus can bear the burden of a tiny colorful bird as its tangy winter crop for a while longer.

Posted by Allison on Feb 9th 2011 | Filed in birds,close in,hummingbirds,increments,natural history,nidification,yard list | Comments (2)

The Beastly Details

The Beasties are coming!

Here is a close-up of the finished surfaces of the same Beastie Pitchers shown in raw clay a couple of posts ago.  They, and other functional and sculptural ware, will be offered for sale at the upcoming Three Star Owl Open Studio, coming toward the end of this month!  Stay tuned for more details.

Posted by Allison on Feb 4th 2011 | Filed in art/clay,close in,effigy vessels,Events,increments,three star owl | Comments (0)

Beasties in the Raw

It’s the Return of the Beastie Pitcher! For those of you familiar with Three Star Owl Beastie Ware” — functional clayware that looks like it might nip your fingers, or wrestle the napkin holder to the ground — here’s a march of the beastie pitchers: three in-progress, highly textured pitchers in various stages of drying, destined (if they survive their ordeal of fire) for an Open Studio/sale coming up in just over a month. Stay tuned for more details!

Posted by Allison on Jan 23rd 2011 | Filed in art/clay,effigy vessels,Events,increments,three star owl | Comments (1)

The unfinished hive

What if you had to raise large numbers of owls, herds of owls, swarms of tiny owls, all at once? What if that was your job? What would you need? You might need an Owl Hive. Or a cluster of Owl Hives. What would an owl hive be like? Each hive would have to have entrances, so that the owls could fly in and out. There would have to be an interior chamber, so the owls could build their elaborate, communal owlcomb. There would have to be access for you the Owl Keeper, to extract whatever product the owl colony produced and stored inside, like vole honey or rabbit suede. It would need a lower hole to expel pellets and admit fresh air. At the very least, there would need to be a roof for the owls to land on, and a lofty perch from which to Keep an Eye on Things.

Here are some detail photos of unfinished architectural-effigy-nest-vessel-box objects in progress, some only bisqued, some completely innocent of the kiln as yet — the most recent Three Star Owl clay project. They might be Owl Hives. They might be sculpture or effigy vessels. They might be small ovens or incense censors. Or, they might be actors, waiting to be cast as archæological artifacts in an upcoming fiction post on this blog. Of course, they might be all of the above. Stay tuned to this location to see how it goes. (All photos and objects A.Shock)

And it goes on…

It always makes me happy to see infant animals in the yard; it means the world is rolling along, as it should, species replenishing themselves and the natural systems functioning. This is why people love seeing babies — it gives the same satisfaction: that the world is carrying on as usual, despite everything, and because of everything. I feel it when seeing tiny cottontails hidden out in the open in their form, hatchling praying mantids swarming out of their bread-loaf egg-case, nest-cached hummingbirds waiting for mother to dispense nectar-and-gnat soup, even young raccoons trundling behind their mother, wreaking havoc in the yard, and young serpents making their way on the soil, searching for prey something the girth of a pencil can handle.

Pituophis catenifer affinis, the Sonoran Gophersnake (Photo A.Shock)

In the warm desert, a lot of this new life begins in fall, our functional second spring: ahead is the cool weather with its longer nights for foraging, the scorching hot temperatures are behind us. Monsoon is winding down too, a time when the intermittent deluges of late summer storms kick-start the food web after the stingy, dry weeks of early summer. This moisture encourages hatching and births, vegetation sprouts everywhere, and arthropod and rodent pray abounds, generously giving hungry young animals a solid start.

Yesterday, it was young lizards: the herb and vegetable garden we planted this year with its slightly raised-bed construction, bounded by hollow cinder blocks and stocked with minute invertebrate-rich compost, has proven to be a successful nursery for both Tiger whiptails and Ornate tree lizards. While watering, I watched three young tree lizards simultaneously hunting ants and other tiny prey: they would dash forward, whip out their tongue, swallow, and then slowly, sinuously wave their tails back in forth in an undulating movement — a slow-motion lash — that just looked like someone rubbing their hands in self-satisfaction. Each lizlet was only 2 inches long. A young whiptail, larger by species, but still young — its long tail was still faintly electric blue — was also puttering around in the vicinity, taking advantage of my shadow to hang out in the coolness of some overflow water from the beds.

This morning it was the young Gopher snake (above), about a foot long, but only as big around as a finger. Gophers are common in our yard, but I always admire how their yellow and chocolate pattern shifts subtly from head to tail, from yellow-on-brown to brown-on-yellow. You can’t tell where the change-over happens, but the tail is positively different from the head.

<< The change-over zone (Photo A.Shock)

Unfortunately, this beautiful pattern is the reason so many gopher snakes are killed by fearful people: it’s reminiscent of the diamond-pattern on rattlesnakes. Gophers (or bull snakes) are especially welcome here as efficient rodent predators; our part of the Phoenix area has been plagued with roof-rats for a decade or so.

This young’un in the photo above saw me before I saw it, and hid its head under an orange leaf, leaving the full length of its boldly patterned body out in the open. Here it is, sneaking slowly away in the hopes the looming predator (me) doesn’t notice.

in which I reveal my graphic petticoats along with an Orange-billed sparrow

… or, saving shots by going artsy…

Not all photos are created equal, especially if you’re an amateur photog like me who asks my competent but limited point-and-shoot digital camera to do things it wasn’t meant to do, like capture images of cryptic birds high in trees with too many leaves against the light on an overcast day through a fogged-up scope (see previous potoo posts) in a hurry.

And, some birds don’t have the courtesy to pose standing still six feet away in the open in the light for an hour while some fudge-fingered camera-camel like me tries to get a shot off before they get on with their lives finding scarce food, competing for mates, and evading swift-grasping predators.

<< app-altered digital image of an Orange-billed sparrow (photo and alteration A.Shock).  Orange-billed sparrows (Arremon aurantiirostris) are striking but rather skulking sparrows inhabiting moist woodlands from southern Mexico to northern South America, not terribly uncommon or hard to see but tough to photo.  A bold black-and-white head pattern, a lovely olive back, golden epaulette and neon orange bill make them distinctive as they hop about the shadowy forest floor in small flocks.

So, not all photos are created equal.  I have lots of “unequal” photos from trips, including this last Costa Rica visit.  Despite expert bird-finding leadership turning up an unexpected number of fabulous sightings by eye, dim and moisty cloud forests, furtive species (and you know who you are, Silvery-fronted tapaculo), and awkwardly-wielded umbrellas all cut down the number of useful pix to post here.  Some species (Quetzales for instance) I missed entirely; others, such as the Orange-billed sparrow, I only got blurry, distant, or otherwise unusable images of.  Photoshop (even the archaic version I’m still using) and iPhoto are both hugely helpful, and have saved many a photo for publication.  But now I have new tools — cribs, if you insist — to produce internet-ready images for this space from unpromising jpegs.  (Let me add FYI, in case the reader hasn’t read the fine print at, that this is not a commercial blog, and I receive no compensation whatever for testing, using, praising, demonstrating, criticizing, or even just mentioning any product, service, or company).

A recent fairly unintentional acquisition of an iPad has given me tools that are similar to Adobe Illustrator and its kin, but are even more user-friendly: SketchmeeHD, SketchbookPro, and TypeDrawing.  Here is the step-by-step process by which I used these apps to turn an unusable jpeg image into a lively illustration for this post:

<< Far left, original unaltered shot of Orange-billed sparrow: subject too small to see.  Near left, cropped to zoom, the colorful plumage and bill are captured, but the lack of focus due to movement and low light is painfully evident.  Verdict: not publishable in either form.

So, I sicced the iPad app “SketchmeeHD” on the cropped version of the original jpeg.  This cool application renders an original image into an algorhythmically-generated series of layered colors and strokes, as if it were drawn from colored pencil.  It’s easy and quick for the operator (and entertaining, as the image is produced in stages as if being drawn before your eyes by an invisible hand), and nearly but not entirely idiot-proof: there are choices to make, such as opacity, density and substrait.

<< These were the results. It looks adequate artistically (click to enlarge to see pencil-marks), but it’s a bit mechanical looking, sterile.  Annoyingly, but not surprisingly, the lack of focus was faithfully transmitted from the source image, and not magically cured.  Worse, from a birder’s point of view — and probably a bird’s, too — all the distinctive colors have been muted to the point of dullness.  Where’s the olive back?  The golden epaulette?  The eye? The eponymous orange bill, for crying out loud? These are Important Characteristics, Field Marks, and not to be done without, even if this is not a field guide.  Especially if they’re only eradicated by the mere randomness of digital manipulation.  Verdict: insufficient improvement, unpublishable.

But, I have recourse.  At this point, I opened the SketchmeeHD-altered jpeg with SketchbookPro, another iPad app.  By “drawing” with my finger on the iPad’s interactive screen and selecting parameters such as color, point type, width and opacity, I was able to restore liveliness and color to the automatically-generated “pencil strokes” by adding my own hand-controlled digital marks which, even through the electronic medium, supply the human touch, visible in the finished version.

<< The final step was to use the app TypeDrawing to add the bird name caption.  This app allows you to enter type in a color, size, font of choice and place it in your image; the path of your finger on the screen determines the line and position of the text.

Verdict: Publishable illustration of Orange-billed sparrow.

The photos I use on this site, whether taken by me or others, are minimally altered for clear viewing, and never “faked” (except for fictional effect and with full disclosure). Altering photos to prove the identification or occurrence of a bird in a particular place or time is obviously just wrong (for instance, my Maroon-chested dove shots are unaltered except for cropping to enlarge the bird, and the video is entirely unaltered).  Images in this blog, for the most part, are intended to tell a story, please the reader (and myself), and provide visual interest besides text.  Most are digital photos.  Some, like the joyfully garish Resplendent Quetzal image are produced entirely from scratch from a blank “page” with SketchbookPro, driven by the touch-interaction of the iPad screen with my nail-bitten finger.

By contrast, an image like the Orange-billed sparrow above is heavily altered — in fact, it’s published only because of my ability to alter it. I do “real drawings” too with pencil, colored pencil, and water color, and to me the apps are not going to replace those techniques — they’re just a different medium than those more traditional paper-born tools, with different limitations and different advantages. Maybe you’re comfortable with this process, maybe not.  Possibly, by posting the techniques behind the results, I’ve made readers think less of a finished product like the Orange-billed sparrow image, as not being real “art”, or requiring less skill than a “real drawing”.  That’s up to everyone to decide for themselves.  Personally, I consider it illustration, and I’m thrilled to be able to present a pleasing visual image of a lovely creature that otherwise would have remained uselessly stuck in the craw of my computer.

Posted by Allison on Jul 25th 2010 | Filed in art/clay,birds,close in,drawn in,increments,natural history | Comments (1)

Ladybug heaven was…

…our aphid-infested herb garden.

Last week, we found a lady bug (AKA lady beetle, lady bird beetle) wandering around on the ground; we scooped her up and put her on a cilantro plant badly infested with aphids.  A few days later, the flower stalks of the plant were alive with the black-and-orange alligator-like larvae of the ladybug.  There were so many aphids on these stems, the larvae stuck around, pupated, and hatched into mint new beetles.  Here’s the process in photos (A & E Shock).

We didn’t think to look for eggs, so the first thing we saw was about two dozen larvae slurping up aphids on the cilantro plant.  In the picture on the right >>, the final instar of a larva (lower) is attaching itself to the stem in preparation of pupating.  The critter above it, which looks like a wrinkly beetle, is what it becomes: a pupa, waiting for the beetle inside to reach adulthood.

<< The next photo shows a newly-emerged adult beetle clinging to its empty pupal husk.  The unripe tomato color of its wings deepens as it dries, possibly in response to UV exposure.  Also, ghostly gray dots appear and darken along with the elytra.  The wings, pale yellow and transluscent, retract fully under the elytra, and the beetle is ready to trundle — or fly — off.

The photo below shows two empty pupal cases, the sun shining through them and split open like… well, like invertebrate pupal cases, abandoned where their larvae attached to the stem.

Finally, the familiar mature, deep red-orange, sun-spotted lady bugs spread out, looking for food and mates to start the cycle all over again (below).

Hard not to appreciate the aphids giving up their sticky little plant-sucking lives for such a delightful result.  And, thanks, ladybugs, for clearing out the thuggish aphids.  Not to anthropomorphize or anything…

Posted by Allison on May 15th 2010 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,increments,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (4)

Nudging clay horned lizards along

A while back, I posted about my process for making horned lizard bowls (affectionately known as Horny toads) from clay.  Here are the next few steps, all shown in one photo, below.

To the right is a now completely assembled and textured horned lizard, in the leather hard stage, drying.  In the center is a bone dry and partially tinted lizard — note that the clay is now a lighter buff.  I use a sponge and mute slip colors to give the textured skin a mottled appearance, like a horned lizard’s camo-flecked pelt.  (You may remember that slip is a paint-like water and clay mixture with mineral oxides and stains added.)   The colors, which look very contrasty and unnatural at this point, will calm down and become more subtle during firing.  Normally, adding slip is done no later than the leather hard stage to avoid flaking, but the refined slips I use have no problems hanging on.  On the left is a completed horned lizard awaiting its first, or bisque, firing. I’ve added the ants with a very fine brush (a 00 squirrel liner), also in slips.  This is a touchy job: the fine work requires a fairly long process of painting delicate lines — the more ants, the longer the work time — and a lot of handling of a bone dry piece with pointy sticky-outy bits.  If you’ve worked with clay you know that this bone-dry phase (where all the liquid water has evaporated from the clay body) is when a piece is at its most fragile.  On top of that, if something like a horn, a toe or a leg snaps off, it is difficult or even impossible to reattach it trustworthily.  Not that… ahem… that ever happens, or if it did I would admit it… These guys, Regal Horned Lizards, have 10 coronal horns, and so I have to be careful while “anting” them.

<< A favorite teeshirt of E‘s, a mimbres horned lizard design.  Nice depiction of the lateral spiny scales along its flanks.

A note on the ants.  They are Pogonomyrmex, a genus of harvester ants, called Pogos for short, understandably.  These are the guys you see issuing forth from their nests, with every seed and scrap of vegetation gleaned clean to the grit for a 5 meter radius around the entrance.  They have a potent and painful bite, but despite that, they are Horned lizards’ most favoritest thing to eat.  It’s tough to capture their essence in a sludgy, opaque medium like clay slip, because they’re waxy like tropical fruit: sort of clear but satiny, too.  I can get close to the effect by depicting them with highlights in white on their red bodies.

Pogonomyrmex ants photographed at Kartchner Caverns State Park (A.Shock)   >>

They’re extraordinary animals: physically very strong, and focused in their social pursuits, with big bolster-like heads (which appear to be larger than their abdomens) sporting impressive grasping mouthparts you would have no trouble seeing with your naked eye, if you got close enough.  Or, you can just click on the photo above — which I call Pogos Agogo — and look at the solitary ant to the lower left.

If you love excellent up-your-nose close-up photos of ants (and who doesn’t?) check out the site of Alex Wild, myrmecologist, or studier of ants.  Better still click here to see his photos of Pogo ants in particular, to get a much better view of the fearsome mouthparts than in my photo above.

Etymological side-bar. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles’ posse were the Myrmidons. μύρμηξ, myrmex, is ant in Greek.

You can see finished horned lizard bowls in the Three Star Owl Shop.

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