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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)

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Profile Allison does not consider herself a wildlife artist, but an observer who takes notes in clay. More info...

Calypte “gloriosus”, moustachioed master of the desert

COHUboy

I needed a break from the damp studio and squeezing cold clay in cracked fingers. My need corresponded with weak winter sun breaking through gray clouds, so I wandered outside with my camera. I could hear a high, thin zszsszs like a small air leak, and followed the sound, knowing who was singing it.

adult male Costa’s Hummingbird (Calypte costæ) seeming to sternly glare from a creosote twiglet in Scottsdale, AZ, Dec 2013 (Photo A.Shock)  >>

After a bit of searching I spotted this little dude alternately feeding and roosting in creosote at the very back of the property. Capturing him on his natural twig perch instead of the feeder felt like a real triumph — his flaring purple mustaches aren’t overshadowed by bright red plastic.

Posted by Allison on Dec 7th 2013 | Filed in birds,close in,hummingbirds,yard list | Comments (0)

Rise up

Dinky dude big sky. The setting sun stained this first-year male Costa’s Hummingbird like a winged berry. Really, I missed the shot — a tiny bird preening on the very tip top of the spindly sumac’s crown — but by missing it, got a better one with his dramatic pre-launch wing-spread: his wings had begun to whir even before he let the branch go. 

COHUlaunch

Posting in WordPress seems to have had a peculiar effect on the image’s resolution — it looks oddly noise-reduced, giving his body a digitally brushed look that the original jpeg doesn’t show. Still, you can see his incipient Yosemite Sam moustaches and his bronze-green vest, and the spread flight feathers so thin they look dark only where they overlap. It gives me great joy to have these little guys in the yard.

Posted by Allison on Dec 2nd 2013 | Filed in birds,hummingbirds,natural history,yard list | Comments (0)

Hornworm. That is all.

Close-up of a Sphinx Moth caterpillar. Green. Giant. Loves chile plants. (photo A.Shock)

hornworm headcap

Posted by Allison on Oct 28th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (0)

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)
LEOWshock

 

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

This is not a toad and do not lick it

I’ve noticed a pattern. In late September and early October, Spadefoots come out and wander around the yard. Some are small, and look like young of the year. Some are less small, and may be hatched in previous seasons.

Today I noticed an agitation in the pool — my workspace looks over the shallow end — and I went out to check, expecting a lizard. We’ve got a wildlife ramp set up, but not all plunge-victims find it in time, so I always go out to see what’s causing ripples.

It was a fairly well-grown Spadefoot. As I’ve mentioned here in the past, Spadefoots are not technically toads, although you’d never know by looking, or at least I wouldn’t know. Technically, they are “toad-like amphibians”. Or so I’ve read.

spadey

Here’s an eye-level shot of today’s TLA (toad-like amphibian)

You’ll just have to imagine me lying on my belly on the gritty pool deck with the end of the macro lens just centimeters off this guy’s nose. I think the proximity of the lens is what accounts for the wacky eye-angle: parallax.

more info

#333300;”>And look at those clutching little fingers — I LOVE toad hands. (Yes they’re not toads, and yes they’re not hands, but you know what I mean). Also, it’s hard to tell where its smile ends — does it wrap all the way around its shoulders like a shawl? Am I in danger of being swallowed? In case you’re wondering, its skin isn’t really blue, but it was in the shade, and the digital process cooled its natural tans and dark olives to the color you see. The eyes, however, really are that shattered-glass golden green. The whole animal is not quite three inches long.

I had to rescue it out of the pool twice, and we’ll have to keep checking the filter basket for a few days. At some point, the Spadefoot will have hunted itself into a state of packing enough stored energy to survive its over-wintering self-interment. Then it’ll dig in somewhere in soft soil to wait for next year’s summer storms, when the thunder will boom it up from the ground to enjoy the moist monsoon nights.

How big is it?

Fall is a second spring in the desert, and things are wandering.

tarantula

Immature but already full-grown birds hatched this year are making their first migration, or seeking a permanent residence away from the parental sphere. Young mammals, too, are moving to new locations on their own. Some creatures are fanning out looking for mates, such as tarantulas (right) and other arthropods.

Although many make it, this can be a perilous diaspora, and it brings visibly increased mortality along roads as young inexperienced animals or adults driven by an impulse stronger than their understanding of speeding vehicles try to cross busy highways.

In our yard the main hazard — other numberswiki.com

than waiting predators — is the swimming pool. The male sunspider below (possibly Eremochelis bilobatus) fell into the pool sometime during a nocturnal rambling and couldn’t get out. With luck, he’d found a female before he succumbed, and was able to do his part to continue the local population. 

People often ask how big they are, so I’ve included my hand for scale. (Click to enlarge to see his bristly glory and fierce mandibles. Both photos, A.Shock). Driven to find out more about Solpugids or sunspiders? Check this website. For the record, taxonomists consider them more closely related to Pseudoscorpions than to spiders.

howbigisit

 

Posted by Allison on Sep 10th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,doom and gloom,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (3)

Littleboy

We had a very hard freeze this past winter, and it took its toll in the garden, killing some plants back to the ground, and seriously nipping others. Spring clean-up is long past, but for some reason (maybe it’s the uncompromised-by-cold thorns on its branches!) we never got around to cutting back the partly-killed bougainvillea that clings to the back porch latilla, despite the disorderly brown leaves and gray stem.

Now it’s too late! This little charmer, a first-year male Costa’s Hummingbird, is holding the withered vine and nearby nectar feeder as his own, and I don’t have the heart to prune his perch. Gaze upon his Adolescentness — he’s just growing in his soon-to-be-glorious purple Yosemite Sam moustachios! He’s fairly fearless, and sat on a twig singing just feet from me, as I was taking macro shots of a poor sun-spider I’d fished moribund out of the pool. When I say “singing” I mean emitting a high, thin “sssseeeee” and spraying the sound all around by holding his bill slightly upward, while moving his head gently back and forth like an electric fan. It’s hardly audible to human ears, but clearly does the trick for the species, as he was recently an egg himself.

lilboyCOHU_edited-2

First-year male Costa’s Hummingbird (Photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Sep 5th 2013 | Filed in birds,close in,hummingbirds,natural history,yard list | Comments (0)

Habooborama!

The top of our neighborhood is a great place to view the impressive dust storms that roll into the Phoenix metro area a few times during each monsoon season. My view is to the south, across Papago Park towards South Mountain. This is the direction the storms often come from, the result of a tall cumulous cloud collapsing in a down-draft blast that kicks up agricultural and desert soils in a shock wave of granular murk. They move fast and arrive with a gust of hot wind and chemical-laden grit. I walked up to Oak street to watch this one come in. (Click on each photo to enlarge. All photos A.Shock).

Here’s what the sky to the south looked like pre-haboob. You can just see the brown glow of the dust cloud low to the left of center, a dirt-colored sliver of sky between the two houses, behind the utility pole. The rest are local gray storm clouds. The low sun is the bright glare on the right:

pano

It only took a few minutes for the javelina-brown snout of the haboob (previous snout here) to reach the metro area. In the photo below, it’s engulfing Sky Harbor airport:

haboobish

The photo above is looking southwest. The front of the dust cloud stretched to the east as well. Here’s looking towards the east valley just as the edge of the storm reached our neighborhood:

 haboob east

The gray thunderstorm above the dust cloud was biding its time. It brought some ominous cloud-forms along for the ride. If the front edge of the dust is the snout of the Heavenly Javelina, these clouds were hanging down like her teats:

freakysky

Our part of town was fortunate: just a blast of gritty wind, a smattering of raindrops, some window-rattling lightning, and it was over in half an hour. Other neighborhoods weren’t so lucky: stronger winds downed trees, there were flooded roads, and some lightning strikes that crisped a tree or two.

Posted by Allison on Aug 27th 2013 | Filed in natural history,Papago Park,yard list | Comments (1)

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