Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Predacious Water Beetles in the Desert

Eretes sticticus, Western Eretes, is often found deep in the desert where only temporary pools offer breeding options. It is a night flyer and is drawn to reflections and lights, so it may land on the roof of your car if you wash it more often than I do. It has the most rapid development rate of any dytiscid, observed to develop from egg to adult in 15 days in a temporary pool in AZ (Kingsley 1985). photographed at my blacklight in Picture Rocks, Pima Co, AZ.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Elf Owl in Nature and Art

Young Elf Owl waiting for food Photo Melanie Barboni

 Last Saturday I visited a Bugging-Friend from the East Coast at his rented casita in Madera Canyon. While waiting for bugs to arrive at our black lights, I was drawn to a group of birders who watched the top of a power post across the street: at ever shorter intervals  small round head appeared in a woodpecker hole. A juvenile Elf Owl who made low 'scolding' noises to express his inpatients and hunger.  Everybody was waiting for the arrival of the parents to deliver food. I was worried that the little crowd of birders with their lights would disturb and inhibit the birds. But I was assured that this was the ninth year of  successful breeding in that hole with similar crowds of birders in attendance. If ever birds were habituated, it was this pair of Elf Owls. So maybe it was the scarcity of insects that slowed the birds down? Madera Canyon is a Mecca for entomologists because insects are so divers and plentiful here, but the drought has been severe  and beetle numbers were very low compared to other years. Consequently, another insectivore, the Elegant Trogon, seems to have shown up in very reduced numbers for this 2021 breeding season.   

A first dinner outside the nest hole Photo by Melanie Barboni

But there was another option, and that proved to be the case here:  raptor parents seem to use  the hunger of their nearly grown brood as a strategy to tease the fledglings out of the nest. I have watched several species of Falcons and hawks do that routinely. At this nest, I missed the great event, but my new acquaintance Melanie was so kind to send me some of her excellent photos later.  

Incidentally, Elf Owls had been very much on my mind for a couple of weeks. I had used the enforced isolation of the COVID year of 2020 to learn a new arts and crafts technique, sculpting in papier-mâché and my latest project had been an Elf Owl.

Papier-mâché is a very old and traditional medium for sculptors and appeals to me because a lot of recycled material can be used. I follow the papier-mâché clay recipe by Jonni Good  I learned most of the technique from her excellent videos and blog.

I began by closely studying the characteristics of our smallest owl on scores of images I pulled up from the internet. The most striking characters besides the diminutive size are the big head, short tail, and prominent white eyebrows.

the armature

Whether you use traditional newspaper strips with flour-paste or the PM Clay that I prepared, you have to base your sculpture on a firm armature, in this case balls of newspaper held together with masking tape, plus some cardboard details like beak and wings. Papier-mâché clay is then added like the icing on a cake.

Detail and texture are added with PM clay

Texture and some additional bulk can be build up by applying several layers of the clay - I let it dry in between because it does shrink somewhat. I had added a cardboard mask for the facial features of the owl, but I removed that later.  I used reverse painted glass cabochons for the eyes. I paint those myself and tried out several sizes, going for a slightly large version which seemed most appropriate for an owl. 
I added volume and the texture of feathers to wings and the stubby little tail. .  .
The skin of papier-mâché clay hardens extremely well without becoming brittle. Paper fibers, glue and chalk from joint-compound form something very similar to a strong polymer that can be carved or sanded. A porcelain-like finish can be achieved with additional thin layers of joint-compound. But for my birds and other animals I like the slightly rough appearance that the paper fibers provide. 

To give my bird some color, I use Acrylic paint.  But as a watercolor painter, I have my problems with the uncompromising opacity of Acrylic paints.  

Before I tackled the owl, I produced a long series of hummingbirds, using metallic paints over the original coat of opaque colors. I first found the results shocking and nearly tacky. but eventually felt that the metallic accents were breaking up the heavy, dead, acrylic layer in a very pleasant way and certainly appropriate for the brilliance of hummingbird plumage.  

Owls are of course rather camouflaged and cryptic to be able to sleep out in the open during daylight hours. But after painting all those hummingbirds I liked those metallic accents.  The grayish patches on head and back of Elf Owls are brightened by light, nearly golden tips of many contour feathers. So I took the artistic freedom to use little dabs of metallic paint to add those brighter spot. I think it nicely pulls the different areas of plumage together and goes well with those big golden eyes.  If it gives the whole sculpture a little jewel-like appearance, so be it. It's the Elf in my owl.

At this point the legs of the owl were still flexible and unfinished because I still had to chose a base to anchor it to. Right then I got an invitation to submit a piece for the Dia del los muertos exhibit of Tohono Chul Park. 

plastic sculls on bushes in Saguaro National Park 

Some time before, the creosote and palo verde bushes along Picture Rocks Road were suddenly studded with dozens of small plastic skulls. The meaning, if there was one, was unclear. Was it a macabre joke? Was it to commemorate migrant deaths in the desert?  Was it art? Litter? It was clear that the rangers of Saguaro National Park would not tolerate those decorations and remove them quickly. So I stopped and took a couple of them home where they rolled around in a box of found objects that may become part of an art project.

So now the little owl landed on one of them. Was this assemblage a fitting contribution for the exhibit? For me it was just a whim, but I did put it up for discussion to friends and fellow artists. The very numerous responses ranged from enthusiasm and the suggestion to replace the realistic skull with one that would be more in line with stylized Mexican sugar skulls, to philosophical thoughts - here sits the symbol of wisdom on an empty human scull, doubts about cultural appropriation, warnings that pre-Columbian cultures related the owl to very negative aspects of death and witchery, to the rejection of popular culture's fascination with skulls  ... It was quite interesting.  I myself was mostly reminded of the juxtaposition of life and death in the art of my own European culture where the skull has been a common element at least since the renaissance.  But I would not have submitted a piece to an art show that was half made up of a prefabricated plastic object, even though I liked the 'found and recycled' aspect of it.  

For now Elf Owl has landed on the head of my first PM sculpture, the life-sized but cartoonish Bobby Cat. There he is waiting for me to come across the right piece of Cholla wood as a permanent base.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Finally some rain

 Sunday January 24, 2021. Around 9 am dramatic clouds were braking up after a sun-rise gusher had prevented us from our daily morning jog. But we share 'our' state land not only with a heard of cattle but also with a neighbor who walks his 8 pitbull mixes there after breakfast, so we have to stay on schedule. Instead, Chaco and I drove  towards the Salt River Flats to look for Caracaras. I avoided the freeway by winding my way northwest on surface roads. But somehow I got trapped by the lure of Silverbell Rd and the Ironwood Mountains.

 I swung in a big loop  half-ways  around Ragged Top, just fascinated by the ever changing sunlight and cloud shadows on its slopes. 

 There was friendly sunshine, mysterious shadows, threatening low hanging clouds. There were scary looking groups of armed guys in fatigues congregating in some parking areas. There was a lone naturalist watching the light butts of bighorn sheep high on the mountain. 

Saguaros' ghostly shapes looming out of the mist. Many Palo Verdes brutally ripped up by a dirt road widening project. Naked pale roots snaking over black volcanic pumice rocks. I considered if they would be interesting in an art project? How would they age? 

Eventually, a road fork offered to turn north east towards Redrock, my original destination. By now I entered a much flatter landscape. After some more miles  a flooded wash. The water was clear and not moving much. Turning back would have taken lots of bad road in worsening weather. So I crossed it, relying on my Subaru's high clearance. It was much deeper than I had expected, but I made it. Startled a Great Egret. 

Soon Picacho Peak became visible - sort of. It was just a darker shape floating in a dark-gray mass of clouds. No weather for bird watching. I passed the large cattle yard where blackbirds, yellow-headed and red-winged, usually feed by the thousands. But not in this stormy weather. Only a few Grackles on the phoneline and a couple of ravens in the field. A single Turkey Vulture with its v-shaped profile. So they are drifting back north. 

 I headed for the freeway and took it back to Marana.  Along Marana Rd, between puddles and irrigation ditches of empty cotton fields, a band of medium sized wading birds were spooked by an elegant, long winged black and white raptor: a Grey Ghost (Male northern Harrier). By the time I had stopped the car and got my binoculars up, the sky was empty again.            

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Loved and trusted or objectified?


The short blast of hummingbird migration, mostly in form of super aggressive Rufous Hummers, has passed the desert. A lone Costa's male is again king of the realm. We named him, or his predecessor Charlie years ago. The hummingbird feeder is emptied every night by Lesser Long-nosed Bats, But thanks to Randy's diligence Charlie hardly notices that intrusion. 

We are sitting at our patio table having breakfast. Since the sun is reaching into the depth of the patio, Charlie pays little attention to his sugar water feeder. Instead he regularly takes off from his roost on the chain of an empty planthanger to buzz my face, my bare shoulders, arms and hands. What? He pays much less attention to Randy, who is covered by his usual long-sleeved, pearl buttoned western shirt

Today, the intrusive bird is not the only annoyance. Little flies, less than 2mm long and with a fat, light colored abdomen keep landing on my skin or hovering in front of my eyes. If those are no-see-ums the name does not quite fit: I can see them dancing in the the rays of the rising sun. Nearly like dust particles, but not quite. 

When Charlie finally picks one from my arm I am sure that the bird's behavior is correlated to the prevalence of those bugs on this cool, sunny morning. He can obviously see them very well. He even grabs them out of the air in front of my nose. He is molting, so I guess he can use the proteine.

I know that many bird watchers would be happy to have a 'trusting friend' like Charlie defending them from intrusive bugs. But being a sceptic, even a cynic, and a scientist, I have a different interpretation. The bird is certainly used to us - we sit there quietly eating, reading, solving cryptoquips and sudokus, every morning, all year round. We are part of the landscape. Depending on barometric pressure, temperature, wind or humidity, skipped shower after running, we attract different numbers of those little insects. Like any warm rock, tree trunk or flower. By not showing any fear, Charlie is not showing friendship or trust, but simply objectifying me. I am sure he never thinks of me by any name ...

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

September Morning

 A cool and hazy morning - finally a sign of autumn? The sun hung there like a red balloon, burning neither my retinas nor the skin of my shoulders. There was no wind and no bird song. For days, there have been quail or dove hunters around, which probably explains why the birds seemed subdued. In the old ironwood skeleton that marks the turn-around of my morning run hunkered a dark shape. A vulture? As we came closer it unfolded itself into hawk-silhouette and screeched: Old Dark Female (RT) who has now greeted me like that for more than a decade - screaming like a fake eagle in a klishee western movie whenever I enter her territory, now even in early September. Without the lift of raising warm air, she took off on heavy wings and turned around rather soon to roost again - and screech some more

Friday, July 31, 2020

The end of July 2020

Running northwest for a mile and a half among creosote and saguaros. The setting sun just barely off to the left, so not in my eyes. The sand under my feet is dry and springy, then, when I follow a wash, deep and soft. The dogs are chasing lizards. 7:10 pm and still 109 degrees. Turning back, going southeast now. Thunderheads loom over Wassen Peak. To the right, still building and growing, sharply modeled in bright whites and yellows by the sun that has dipped under the horizon from my  point of view. To the left, anvil shaped and floating apart, rain streaking down on the Tucson Mountains or virgos withering away without reaching the ground? Pink and ominous purple. Lightning striking across and seeking the peaks. Above the cold white moon in the still icy blue sky. Night hawks streaking by me, very fast, though their wing beats are slow. I believe that I can hear them slicing the air. Which is getting heavier. I am not running now. The dogs let their slobbering tongues hang. Will those fit back into their mouths? Will they have to curl them around loosely floating brains, woodpecker-like? No. Those tongues will eventually, but not very soon, deflate and shrink again. Back home at 7:30. Still 106 on the patio 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Night Hawks as Weather Forecasters

 We live between Saguaro National Park West and the Santa Cruz River. Every evening just before sunset, I run about 2 miles with one of my dogs. Chaco and Kira take their turns in that.  On my way home, running south, I always encounter several dozens of Lesser Night Hawks that are moving from their breeding grounds in the Tucson Mountains (including our own backyard) to their nightly feeding area at the river in Marana. They appear like clock work as soon as the sun touches the horizon, and they always all fly in the same direction - north. In May and June, they were usually silhouetted against the sky because they were flying quite high. 

Lately, they come in low, dodging saguaros and even me and my dog on their way, and impossible to photograph. 
My grandmother in Germany always told me to watch if swallows and swifts were flying high: more sunshine to come. Low flying swallows: rainy days ahead. Now I think it's the bugs that fly high or low and insectivore, on-the-wing-hunting birds are just following suit. The bugs may be influenced by the barometric pressure changes, or the coming rain just brings out different bugs. My grandma was certainly as good as any weather forecaster in the seventies in Germany