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More photographic evidence of a small gremlin

cranky owlet[Updated 6 July 2014: I understand the urge to point out that spiders don’t chase people in swimming pools — the scenario seems unlikely, I agree. But with a gremlin looking on, who knows what curious occult forces were at work? Better?]

The grainy photo below clearly shows a small gremlin in our pine tree (possibly the same one as here). It was making a soft tooting call that sounded exactly like the so-called “bouncing ball” call of the Western Screech-Owl.

WESO pine small

If I hadn’t captured the gremlin on camera, its clever vocal efforts to blend with the local avifauna would have been successful: in the dark, we would have assumed it was one of our local Screech-Owls, which are common in the yard, and which we’ve seen many times.

<< (Photo of Western Screech-Owl exhibiting HCQ — High Cranky Quotient — taken in ambient light with pinecone for scale, A.Shock 4 July 2014. You may click to enlarge, but it doesn’t get any better bigger.)

In this picture, the malevolent entity gazes down disapprovingly, caught in the act of watching the Six-Spotted Fishing Spider chasing me — deliberately, I’m positive, and E will back me up on that — around the shallow end of the pool by skittering energetically and leggily across the surface towards me, repeatedly. The gremlin’s impersonation of a Screech-Owl is nearly perfect down to the tiny fierce talons grasping the branch, although IMO it needs to work on the “ear” tufts, which are frankly weak.

Bonus quote:

“He only has one eye!” — Peter Lorre, Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953), on seeing a portrait in profile

Posted by Allison on Jul 5th 2014 | Filed in birds,cranky owlet,natural history,owls,yard list | Comments (0)

Photographic proof of a small gremlin….

…or perhaps merely a screech owl sitting on a sign in a neighbor’s yard.

You can’t see the little bird vibrating, but it was producing its distinctive whirring trill — that was how we found it.


Western Screech Owl in front of an Ocotillo, Scottsdale, AZ. (Photo A.Shock, April 2014)

It was newly dark, and well beyond the camera’s ability to shoot anything like a real photo, especially without a tripod. But dinking around with the pathetic pixels in photo-editing software produced surprising detail and a painterly, almost pastel-like quality in this image of a small owl and its background, an enormous blooming ocotillo lit from below by landscaping lights.


Posted by Allison on Apr 20th 2014 | Filed in birds,cranky owlet,owls,yard list | Comments (2)

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)

Always look for the Mockingbird

Big excitement around here yesterday! While looking for a Mockingbird that had been singing loudly all morning but was anomalously out of sight, I found a thrilling visitor in our yard: a Long-Eared Owl. It was perched in our back yard acacia tree, just about 9 or 10 feet up. It wasn’t hard to see, once my eyes had accidentally fallen upon it. Despite the thin screening of fine foliage it was relying on for coverage, the blue sky behind gave away its owliness (see photos below).LEOWedit

Long-Eared Owls are not something you see every day. It’s not because they’re rare in the Western U.S., people just don’t spot them very often.

>> Artsy edit of yesterday’s owl, keeping an eye on me keeping an eye on it. Very thankful for a long lens, so I didn’t have to get too close! (photo A.Shock)

This is because for the most part, they’re very hidey creatures, even for owls. Good camo — including spectacular “ear” tufts that are more centrally located and longer relative to its head than those of Screech Owls or Great Horned Owls, plus a bark-like bar-spotted belly pattern — is one reason Long-Eareds are seldom seen. They have great trust in this camo, and yesterday’s bird showed this confidence. It knew I was looking at it, but it held still and didn’t shift, except to open its eyes briefly. The same strategy of motionlessness worked on the local songbirds as well. They knew it was there — I saw lots of them come in to check it out, woodpeckers, hummers, finches, thrashers — but their behavior and vocalizations never became anything as frenzied as a “mob”. The owl sat quietly, and the scene didn’t escalate. I’ve seen Cactus Wrens and Verdins pitch bigger fits over an Elf Owl, a bird which is a fraction of the size of the Long-Eared.

It spent the afternoon dozing and swivelling its head occasionally — I could see it from the safe distance of the back porch, with binoculars — its magnificent cranial tufts wafting slightly in the breeze. At twilight, it spent some time preening, bending its head over its back to align long primaries and tail feathers. At full dark, it gave a raspy bark and flew out into the night.

Like many birders, I’m sometimes asked how to spot an owl.  This is one of the best ways: be sure you always look for the Mockingbird. Not literally always a Mockingbird, of course. But one of the biggest joys of birding (or any sort of getting outside activity) is that you may not find what you’re looking for, but there’s always something to see.

And, also: a dark owl shaped blob in a tree is pretty much a dead giveaway!

LEOWinsituLong-Eared Owls are considered a “medium-sized” owl: bigger than a Screech Owl, but smaller than a Great Horned Owl. If you want to read more about this species, click here.

For the record, here are a couple of less-tweaked images of the owl in situ. Be sure to click to enlarge! (All photos A.Shock)


Posted by Allison on Oct 6th 2013 | Filed in birding,birds,close in,natural history,owls,yard list | Comments (1)

Happy Halloween!

Halloween Greetings to all, with the assistance of a cobweb-and-leaf “Owl” in a tree hollow!

The spooky holiday is just too tempting an occasion to resist re-posting this delightfully faux fowl I found on a hike in the fall woods of Cape Cod a few years ago. (photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Oct 31st 2012 | Filed in natural history,oddities,owls,unexpected,unnatural history | Comments (0)

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)

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)

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