Thursday, October 30, 2014

Faux Raven Skull

My favorite type of Halloween decoration lies somewhere between an apothecary lab, a witches herb stash and a Professor of Natural History's messy office. I love vintage potion bottles, old books and black and white encyclopedia illustrations, I love specimen jars and creepy things found in the deepest, darkest, moss floored forests.

For the past couple years my Halloween theme has been centered around Ravens and Crows. It started when I found an antique replica of a Raven print with a slip of parchment in it's beak with the word "Nevermore" from Edgar Aleen Poe's classic poem, The Raven.

I've always loved crows. They are beautiful, intelligent birds and through lore and legend have become the symbol of mystery and superstition.

I remember the first time I saw a Raven. We were in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and it landed on a telephone wire above our tent. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I wasn't aware that we had Ravens in Michigan and I couldn't figure out why this crow was so large! But the more I looked at it, something about the broadness of the beak and the shape of the head, I realized it was a Raven. To a bird watching geek like myself, this was a very exciting moment.

I decided that our collection of Halloween decor needed a crow skull...a clay one that is.

What I used:
~Images of real crow skulls on-line for reference
~2 packs of white Sculpy clay
~sculpting tool, or a skewer stick, or a toothpick
~antique white matte acrylic paint
~paint brush
~paper plate or palette dish to squirt paint
~black pastel stick, or a charcoal stick, or black matte eyeshadow
~Q-Tip or brush

I formed this skull from white Sculpy clay. An off-white color would work well also, you wouldn't have to paint it after it bakes, but this is all I had on hand.

I apologize for not having more "sculpting" photos of the original. This wasn't a planned project, I was just messing around one evening and forgot to take pictures. But I'll walk you through the steps and re-create parts of the skull using some left over Sculpy.  

I started by looking at images on-line of real crow skulls. The head of the skull is simply a round ball with two large (exaggerated) eye sockets.

I used my thumb to press the clay out of the socket using a circular motion.

The eye sockets have two points that end where the "brow" bone lies.

Then there's a second point above the nostril meets the beak. I used a sculpting tool to form this dent and then smoothed it with my fingers.

The beak consists of a long pyramid. I curved it in the shape of a beak and then pinched a bit where the nostrils sit. and toward the tip of the beak.

The I poked through the nostril and rotated the stick around in a circle to open up the cavity.

 Repeat on the other side till the nostrils meet in a hollow tube.

The beak had some structural bumps and cavities that can be formed buy denting the material

then pinching it smooth.

Create the opening in the beak by sliding the point of a tooth pick along the side of the beak.

Don't be afraid to make the sculptural elements dramatic. We're going for realistic here, but Halloween realistic, so make the eyes larger, make the beak longer if you like. 

Bake the skull according to the package directions, let cool and paint. I chose off white to give it an aged look. You can also paint the tip of the beak black, as crows have a black beak.

Once the paint dries rub a Q-tip across the side of a pastel stick and buff it into the clay to create shadows and age in the skull. You can make this effect dramatic by darkening crevasses like the eye socket and the nasal cavity.

 This is the finished skull. I'd love to find a glass, specimen display case and maybe have a little label at the bottom.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Oliver Finds His Roots

If you've been following Iron Oak Farm for any length of time you've probably heard me mention our dog Oliver. He is the sweetest thing to enter our lives since our last dog Ceddie. I grew up with Golden Retrievers. My parents raised them before I was born, and though we've had a loveable collection of strays and shelter dogs over the years, we've always had a Golden in the house.

Oliver is one of the most playful dogs I've ever lived with. He has an eagerness to please and is smart as a whip. Zach and I felt that his personality would be perfect for some sort of focused training. So for the last month or so we've been working with him on doing what Retrievers do best...retrieve!

Golden Retrievers were first bred in England to retrieve fowl that had been shot. They have what is called a "soft jaw" which means they carry the game loosely in their mouth as to not damage the bird. They also love water which makes them a perfect breed for duck hunting. 

Since Oliver was a puppy, he's always had the instinct to fetch and retrieve. Even the first week we brought him home we would throw one of his toys and his natural reaction was to bring it back. He wasn't always too keen on letting it go however, and often preferred a friendly game of tug-o-war.

But with some treats and gentle training he soon learned to give up his toy, stick, or whatever the object might be.

For Oliver's training, Zach made a dummy "duck" out of a tube of denim filled with padding and smooth pebbles for weight. We wanted the dummy to be close to the weight of an actual duck and so far Oliver is handling it well. There are ways in which to gradually make the "duck" more lifelike as training continues and we intend to explore these options.

Since we've started this training, many people have asked us if we think it's a good idea to encourage this sort of behavior when we have chickens free ranging all over the yard. Oliver is a bird dog, it's true. However, his instinct and training is not to hunt, but to retrieve a dead bird. He is not being encouraged to chase, kill, or hunt. He's also been taught as a puppy to leave the chickens alone and he can even be trusted to come in the coop with me to collect eggs. So far, we haven't seen any increase in interest with the chickens since this training has started. (For more on Chickens and Dogs (and cute puppy photos) read my Community Chickens post 50 Chickens and a Bird Dog.)    

Fetch and retrieve are already engrained in his behavior, so lately, his training has been focused on keeping those instincts correlated with our commands. Mostly in the form of the "wait" and "fetch" command. He is also learning had signals and can almost carry out the entire "fetch" circuit silently. (We're still working on consistency there.)

Before, when we would throw something across the yard, he would automatically run and fetch it. We are now teaching him that he must sit and wait, watch where the "duck" falls and only retrieve when he hears or sees the "fetch" command.

In the beginning, he would be so excited to run and grab the "duck" that he would shake with eagerness. Zach kept a finger on the back of his collar to remind him that he hasn't been released yet. After a week and a half, he is getting pretty consistent and we no longer have to touch his collar.

We are now working on fetching from a different source. Now Zach gives the commands, while I throw the duck from different areas of the yard. He's learning that he has to pay more attention because the action isn't starting from where he is sitting. Oliver is doing wonderful and we're so proud of our smart boy.

So far our training methods have come from You-Tube videos but if things keep on as they are and he responds positively, we might take things further and see if there are local training group in our area.

Zach and I aren't big hunters, in fact, neither one of us has ever been hunting. But we do enjoy a bit of target practice now and again with our backstop on the property so Oliver is use-to the noise and doesn't seem to be gun shy. But even if we never shoot a duck, we are all enjoying this time together out on the field each evening.

Oliver loves to run and fetch and turns circles when we get the "duck" off the shelf to go train/play outside. I think it makes Oliver feel important to an extent, which he is of course. And he's always a fan of praise, cookies and scratches which we hand out frequently out on the field.  

Friday, October 24, 2014

Photo Friday

We've been waking to frost covered mornings, but the smell of the woodsmoke and fresh brewed coffee warms the soul and gets me going in the morning. Over night it seems, the brilliant yellow and orange Maple trees have gone bare and the leaves carpet the ground like a jewel toned tapestry. I hate to rake them up...I think I'll leave them just a week or two more to enjoy the last bit of Autumn color and that satisfying crunch beneath our boots. The Oak Trees are now in their autumnal prime, boasting rust and burnt orange shades, deep browns and caramels. Many times the Oaks will hold onto their leaves until Spring.

Zach and I have been visiting our local orchards, just to take in the sights and smells of this too short season...I sometimes wish it could go on forever, but perhaps that would make it less special. We purchased a bottle of Apple Desert Wine and a jug of Hard Apple Cider from Spicer's Orchard down the road from us. They make the wine and cider on site and these two varieties are our favorites especially this time of year. The Apple wine is delicious with mulling spices.

Iron Oak Farm Acron T-Shirt
Iron Oak Farm Acorn T-Shirt
My mom and I spent Wednesday afternoon collecting acorns and hickory nuts for Fall decorating and nut wreaths. We were a little late in the season as many of the squirrels have scurried away with the nuts leaving only the caps. Some of the nuts have cracked open with growth and tiny Oak Trees are sprouting out the tip of the acorn. I think the acorn is one of the greatest examples of potential. A tiny nut that becomes a giant tree. Fascinating! 

We plan to carve pumpkins this weekend. Though, we have to grab a couple new ones since the turkeys hollowed out our two Jack-O-Lanterns on the porch. They pecked a giant hole in the side of each one and scooped out every bit of soft flesh and all the seeds...oh well. If it makes them happy.

Here''s some sights from this week. Hope you enjoy them.

Tight fisted Queen Anne's Lace withered blossoms covered in frost

Windmill at a local orchard in the sunset

Before the turkeys got to it

Butternut Squash and Jack-O-Lanterns

Frost on the Thistle down

Frost covered Autumn morning

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Roasted Sweet Potato and Rosemary Pasta

This recipe is delicious! It's very warm and soothing on a cool Autumn night and I love the fact that it's a sweet potato recipe that doesn't involve cinnamon or brown sugar! 

1 large sweet potato
2-3 tbsp olive oil
salt & pepper

1 lb angel hair pasta cooked in heavily salted water

2 tbsp butter
1 cup white wine
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary minced
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp nutmeg
pureed sweet potato from above
3/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1 cup reserved pasta water (if needed)
salt & pepper

Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Peel the sweet potato and dice into 1 inch cubes. Toss the cubes in olive oil and spread out in a 9 x 9 glass baking pan in one layer. Roast in oven for 45 minutes to an hour, till soft and caramelized, turning halfway through.

Allow to cool to the touch then place the cubed in a bowl and mash with a fork or puree in a food processor with a bit of water.

Prepare pasta, reserve pasta water.

The Sauce
Melt the butter in a pan, allow it to brown slightly until it smells nutty, but don't burn it! Add the wine and rosemary and simmer until reduced by half and you can no longer smell the tang of the alcohol. Turn heat down and add cream, nutmeg and sweet potato. Whisk the potato until silky smooth. Stir in Parmesan cheese, if the mixture gets too thick add some pasta water to thin it out. Take off the heat and toss with the pasta. Season with salt and pepper.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Solway Bottle Holder Cage Watering Trough and a GIVEAWAY!!!

I'm excited to share with you the new Bottle Holder Cage Watering Trough from Solway Feeders. This cage waterer is super easy to install and even easier to fill and re-fill.

It will also fit any recycled bottle including a two liter pop bottle! I like the two liter option because it holds more water and requires less frequent filling. The small trough keeps the drinking water free from debris and the outside fill design gives the caged animal more room inside.

The cage waterer consists of three parts.

To install, simply slip the black trough through the cage wiring. The small design makes it possible to use with narrow spaced cage wire without having to cut the cage.

Then slip the red spacer wedge between the cage and the trough to secure and tighten the trough.

Then attach the bottle ring at the desired height for your bottle.

Fill your bottle and quickly invert it into the vacuum cup.

This design works wonderful for poultry that need to be caged either for quarantine or shows. For more on setting up a quarantine area for your flock check out my Community Chickens Post Quarantine Set Up.

The great thing is that two of our readers are going to win one of these fabulous waterers!!! To enter, leave a comment below with your name, e-mail and a bit about how this waterer would help make watering easier with your flock. I'll choose a lucky winner on Tuesday, October 28th, 2014. If you enter, be sure to check back after the contest to see if you won, if the prize is not claimed by November 4th, 2014 another winner will be chosen.

Can't wait to win? Or maybe you need two? three? The Solway Bottle Holder Cage Watering Trough is available for purchase in the US click here Water Trough. Check out all the great Solway products available for purchase at their website Solway is currently in the process of getting their US website up and running. Products purchased from the United States will be mailed from their Florida location. If you have any questions feel free to contact their US Representative, J.Richard Sabonjohn at

I was not paid to write this article. I only write reviews for products that I believe in and this is seriously a cool product! 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Photo Friday

It was somewhat of a rainy week, but fall is in it's all time glory. The colors are amazing! We visited a local farm this week and I enjoyed photographing some of their animals. Oh how I wish the little lamb was ours!!! 

It's been a nice simple week, gathering firewood for the coming winter months, working with Oliver and his fetch game, planting spring bulbs with my mom and finishing up a crocheted afghan for a Christmas present. (I'll be sharing pictures soon.) I've been making hearty meals that stick to the ribs like Pork Roast and From Scratch Cream of Chicken Noodle Soup. The fall hunger has set in, that basic instinct to bulk up for the hibernation months.

Because of the rain, we have seen some beautiful sunsets and interesting skies. One night the golden hue was breathtaking and all the trees seemed to glow. I hope you enjoy this week's photos!

Three little pigs from a local farm
Sweetest little lamb. Such a face!
Isa Red
Glorious sky
The view of our porch
The fallen leaves seem to reflect the trees that they've fallen from
One of our Sugar Maples
The big Sugar Maple
The Autumn view from our porch
Oliver waiting for me at the top of the stairs. LOVE that dog.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Carnival Squash

So not technically a Pumpkin, but still in the Cucurbita genus this colorful Carnival Squash is similar in shape to an Acorn squash. The flesh is multicolored in creamy yellow, dark green and an orange mottled pattern. This pattern presents itself differently each year depending on the temperatures of the growing season. Hot weather creates more green tones. This year has been cool, which explains the orange coverge. The flesh is more fibrous than acorn and not as sweet. I personally prefer Acorn squash for eating, but you can't beat the fun colors of this Carnival Squash!

For more interesting pumpkin varieties, visit the Iron Oak Farm Pumpkin Page.