7 Frustrating Truths About Birding

Back in March, I spent a week in southern Arizona birding. While I have looked for birds while hiking in the past, this was my first trip dedicated to birding. I discovered that focused birding is both wonderful and frustrating. Here’s what I learned.

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Black-throated Sparrow (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

1) Birding can be intense. Knowing I might see something I’d never seen before made me vigilant. I concentrated and was alert whenever I was outside. Eventually, every little movement got my attention and I found myself gazing at a spiderweb glinting in the sunlight or a leaf shivering the in the breeze. Given how many leaves there are out there, it’s not surprising how tired I was by the end of the day.

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Acorn Woodpecker: Looks like a clown, acts like a king.  (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

2) You need to take your binoculars everywhere. I missed a good look at a raptor that might have been a new bird for me because I left my binoculars in the car while I went to the bathroom.

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Painted Redstart, one of the easier birds to identify (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

3) That bird you saw so clearly? It isn’t in the field guide. This happens to me all the time. My favorite on this trip was a big black bird I saw with rusty patches under the wings. I scoured the hawk pages, certain these “distinctive” marks would be easy to spot. Nothing. Then I saw Kurt’s photo of the same bird, and discovered it was a raven. Which brings us to

4) You will see more common than exotic birds. 99 times out of a 100, that hawk you saw was a red-tailed hawk, not one of the rarer hawks in the area. Unless it was black. Then it was probably a raven.

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Red-tailed Hawks. Just because they are everywhere doesn’t mean it isn’t a thrill to see them. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

5) Birds are tricky. Even though it was only March, most of the trees had already leafed out where we were, which meant the birds had plenty of places to hide. It was surprising to me how often I could hear a bird without laying eyes on it. You’d think the singing would give its location away.

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Mexican Jay: we thought we were hearing a flock of house sparrows until we finally saw these guys, which took an amazingly long time given their size. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

6) Birds are really tricky. They have either figured out how to travel through wormholes or have cloaking devices. Whichever it is, I can’t count the number of times a bird was right there and then just as suddenly wasn’t.

7) Check every bird in the flock, just in case. Often, different birds will flock together. At a reservoir in New Mexico, I saw one Ross’s goose hiding amongst a bunch of snow geese. Another time, I was certain there were at least three species in the flock of sparrows I was watching, but they all turned out to be Lincoln’s sparrows.

While birding was more work than I expected, it was worth the effort. I picked up 37 new-to-me species and got to see some birds that are Mexican natives. The rarest bird we saw was the streak-backed oriole. We also saw birds that are common to that area but were new to us, like Mexican jays, bridled titmouse, painted redstart, and acorn woodpeckers. Common or rare, moulting or in full breeding plumage, every one of them was a beauty.

Crochet Coloring Pooling Tricks and Tips

After two weeks of experimenting, I finally got crochet color pooling to produce an argyle pattern. For anyone interested in trying it, here are my tips for this technique.

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Crochet color pooling using Red Heart Super Saver “Wildflower”

1) Before you do anything else, watch some good videos. I recommend these by Marly Bird: a how-to that walks you through the basics and her secrets for success which include ten great tips. She mentions that this is a “fussy” technique. This is an understatement.

2) Definitely follow Marly Bird’s Secret Number Three: when stitching the first row, stitch around the foundation chain instead of through it*. With all the tension changes you have to do throughout the piece, the last thing you need is the bottom edge bowed because the tension in later rows doesn’t match the first row (and it never did for me, no matter how many times I tried this).

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This is what happens when you stitch into the chain for the first row. No amount of blocking will fix this.
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A close up of the first row with the stitches around the chain. You can slide them back and forth to match the tension later, giving you a flat, square piece.

3) Figure out the usual number of stitches (where “sc ch 1” = 1 “stitch”) you can get out of each color. (This is my adaptation of Marly Bird’s Secret Number Four.) This is easily discovered. Just crochet in granite/moss pattern. Don’t worry about making the color pooling work. Note down how many stitches you are getting for each color instead. Do four or five color repeats. Then, when you start your color pooling project for real, make sure your first row has the most common number of stitches for each color. Move to a different section of yarn if it doesn’t. This makes things go much more smoothly later.

4) Be less than perfect. While Marly Bird’s argyle patterns are crisp and inspire us to reach for perfection, I had to lighten up when it came to some sections of yarn. I found that the greatest variation in color length happened when two similar colors or two colors of similar value were adjacent to one another. My yarn (Red Heart Super Saver “Wildflower”) has a section of teal that changes to grass green. You almost can’t see the color change, which makes it hard to find the transition. Also, this section seemed to be the least consistent in color length. Sometimes I got 4 teal stitches, sometimes 3. And the grass green could be 2 or 3. What I found was that together, the teal and grass green usually came out to 6 stitches, no matter how the stitch number varied for each color. So I made that my goal and stopped worrying about where the teal turned green. This also happened with a light green to light blue section, so I did the same thing there. Because the values are so close, this compromise doesn’t affect the overall pattern very much.

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If you look closely at the blue-green stripe running from upper left to lower right, you’ll see that in any one row, the number of grass green and teal green stitches vary. Keeping the total number of blue-green stitches the same is easier to do.

5) Be prepared to work slowly. There is lots of ripping back and stitching again. Once I got my yarn working for me (using the tips above), I was able to do more straight crocheting without changing hooks. But there are still plenty of places (usually the edges when I turn) that I wind up re-making the same stitches two or three times.

6) Be prepared to concentrate. This is not a project to make when you are sitting in meetings or lectures. Even after lots of practice, I find I can’t pay much attention to anything else while working on my project. The TV can be on, but it has to be mindless (sporting events or something I’m not really interested in). Educational TV is out; I miss most of what’s said.

*For those who didn’t watch the secrets video: when you turn to start the first row, stitch in the chain for the first granite/moss stitch. After that, it’s around the chain for the rest of the row.

The Upside of Stubborn

I saw this video on how to make an argyle pattern with a crochet stitch and got all excited. I had to try it. I went through my stash and found a yarn I thought would work (based on their explanations) but after several tries, I hadn’t succeeded.

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One of many failed attempts (this one used a sock yarn I had in my stash). NOTE: I’m pretty sure I could get this yarn to work now that I know more about it.
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Intentional crochet color pooling, or how to get an argyle pattern using only one yarn.

Determined to make something using this fun technique, I went out and bought a yarn that was on one of many lists of yarns that have been tested and work. I bought a crochet hook (I) to match the yarn and went to it.

I tried. And I tried. And I tried. I started using smaller and smaller hooks to see if I could get the pattern to work, but nothing was working. I went through 5 different hooks (I had to buy 3 of them). I crocheted, then ripped it out, then crocheted some more. Lots of ripping it back out.

I had ideas I thought would fix my problems and none of them worked.

But I still wanted to succeed.

So I watched another video. This one had a few details I had missed before, plus it cleared up a misconception I had about how the pattern should develop. She was much more adamant about the fussiness of this technique. I knew I might need to adjust tension now and then. She explained it was something that must be done constantly.

I started again, this time with a set of 3 hooks (G, H, I). I kept close tabs on how the colors were showing up in the stitches, and would change hooks to fix the tension (pulling out stitches to re-make them) until the colors were in the right places.

It is a fussy technique, but at last, I got it working. And I realized that stubbornness (more kindly referred to as determination) only makes us successful if we recognize that something isn’t working and we change what we are doing. To keep doing the thing that doesn’t work over and over again doesn’t get us anywhere.

I changed hooks. I gathered more ideas about how to do it by watching another video. I made more notes to help myself figure out how to get the colors to come out right.

And I succeeded.

FOR THOSE WHO ARE INTERESTED: Click here for the tips and tricks that helped me most.

When has being stubborn paid off for you?

Sock Critter Inspiration: Beyond the Sock Monkey

After sharing about my recycled sock kitty, I started cruising the web to see what else I could make with socks. I found some great ideas.

The classic sock critter is of course the monkey, but I’ve never really liked the traditional pattern (those red lips freak me out).

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Nightmare fuel.

However, people have taken the sock monkey in lots of interesting directions. I love Pippa Joyce’s colorful sock monkeys.

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Not nightmare fuel. (Sock monkeys by Pippa Joyce)

I was really wowed by this sock gorilla but I can’t find any reference to who made it. The post also includes links to some daring sock monkey variations (click at your own peril). My favorite is the Sock Monkey of Willendorf.

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This sock monkey makes a statement. (“Get out of my face!”) [Maker unknown]
Many of the really nice looking sock critters are available as kits, made from brand new and cool looking socks. While this isn’t recycling, it does produce some lovely toys. Sock Creatures in the UK has a particularly nice set of rainbow-striped kits. My favorite was the snail.

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Sock snail (kit available from Sock Creatures)

Zarzak makes clever use of toe socks, and is available as a book and kit (Stupid Sock Creatures Box Set) as well. (I first saw Zarzak on Anita LaHay’s web site and have used her picture below because it is so great.)

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Anita LaHay’s interpretation of the Zarzak pattern.

There are also brave souls making something cool with their old socks without a pattern. I really love Karin Emsbroek’s original designs. Where does she buy her socks?

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Sock whale by Karin Emsbroek
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Sock bat by Karin Emsbroek

Or if you love the unique but are too lazy to make your own, you can commission one. I would go to Jayme at Rawr because her designs are all wonderful. Below I show my favorite, her owl.

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Sock owl by Jayme at Rawr.

Now that I have insulted sock monkeys everywhere, I’m ready for your input. Nightmare fuel or not? Let me know!

Making It Through Creative Limbo

January is here and I am baffled. Where is the excitement I usually feel?

I like to spend January getting excited about what’s next. I had planned on returning to my novel. Thanks to NaNoWriMo, I had developed a strong daily writing habit. My re-write of Rapunzel was going to rocket forward.

Then my husband hit a patch of ice on his mountain bike and broke his hip.

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Two of the handful of drawings I’ve done in the last month.

As he lay in the ER, Kurt tried to figure out how he could make his meetings the next day. It didn’t occur to him that he would still be in the hospital the next day.

While I was quicker than Kurt was to realize that our world had changed, I didn’t realize exactly how I would be affected. I would have to be his nurse, as well as take sole responsiblity for all the tasks we normally shared, so I expected to be busy. I expected to be tired.

I did not expect to be completely unplugged from my creative self.

Early on, I was so overwhelmed and exhausted that I had to choose. On any given day, I could only do a little. Groceries took precedence. Doctor appointments came first. Cooking and laundry? Essential to the point of being inescapable.

Writing had to wait.

After a few weeks, however, I expected to get back to normal. Kurt was home and we had developed a new routine. Surely I could get back to my writing?

But I couldn’t. I usually write daily. I also knit, quilt, or draw on a regular basis. Since Kurt’s accident, I’ve gone days without creating, and I don’t seem to care.

My lack of enthusiasm frightens me. I feel like I’ve lost a piece of my brain. I signed up for some weekly online inspirational sessions to help me focus on my dreams, hoping this would help me find my way back to my creative self.

It turns out, I can’t do that, either. Attempts to dig deep and look at the big picture are fruitless and frustrating.

Whether I like it or not, I am in creative limbo right now.

Just as Kurt is sleeping much more than usual, I apparently also need to be still. As the days go by, however, I wonder when the my enthusiasm will be back. Like Kurt, I am anxious to return to my normal activities, and like Kurt, I must be patient.

The temptation is to force things, to makes something happen, but sometimes you can’t push it. Sometimes, you have to accept where you are at and go with the flow. We cannot always be making. We have to stop and breathe and let ourselves rest now and then.

Creativity is supposed to go in cycles. My hope is that this flat, gray, unproductive time is just part of the cycle, and that soon I will move on to a new phase.

In the meantime, I must wait.

A Use for Unwearable Handknit Socks: Cable Kitty

One of the down sides to making things by hand is that sometimes it doesn’t go the way you planned. I like to knit socks, but even though I have made so many pairs that I have the pattern memorized, not every pair is a success. Sometimes the yarn is a bad choice, or the size isn’t quite right. As a result, I have a bag of handknit socks that I don’t wear but haven’t been able to throw away.

Imagine my delight when I came across the book Stray Sock Sewing: Making One of A Kind Creatures From Socks. Here was a book with patterns turning socks into totally adorable little critters. I was stoked.

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Unfortunately, while the book title implies you will be using cast-off socks to make your new friends, the results are much better if you buy new socks for these projects. Socks that have been worn are stretched in places so that the stuffed shapes you make are warped. Brand-new baby socks seem to work best — tiny weave and tiny feet make for the sweetest tiny critters. Also, you can choose the coloring of the sock to enhance the appearance of your finished creature.

Making these toys out of socks knit by hand with colorful yarns? Not really what the author had in mind.

I refused to be daunted. I was not about to buy socks for my project. My goal was to find a way to use the socks I already had. So I dug through my bag and decided to make a cat from pair of rainbow socks that I didn’t wear because they hurt my feet (the yarn was too thick and hard).

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It worked in the end. Granted, my kitty is not the sweet, tiny, Japanese-style creation that this book promotes. Instead, it’s big and chunky. But I love it.

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Because I was already in recycling mode, I was inspired to give the cat a necklace that is actually a bracelet I made but never wore. The birds on the necklace seemed exactly the sort of thing this happy little kitty would wear and by dumb luck, it fit.

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Best of all, this little cat has a job. The cable that runs from my laptop to my monitor on my standing desk has a tiny connection and a heavy dongle. I was afraid the strain on the plug would damage the computer, the cable, or both. But my recycled sock kitty is the perfect size to hold up the cable, and she loves her job.

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You can tell she loves her job. She’s smiling!

What do you do with unused knitting projects?

The Unknown Rules to Novel Writing

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I finished NaNoWriMo in record time this year. I had written 50,000 words by November 23rd and finished my story on November 24th. I had five days to do other things at the end of the month, and one of the things I did was look back over November to figure out why my novel went so well.

The short answer is: I have no idea.

I wish I could say it was superior preparation. I did start thinking about my project in October, but I didn’t have any sort of outline. In fact, my attempts to lay out major scenes as guideposts, which worked so well for me in 2013, didn’t seem to help at all. I knew a lot of what would happen in a general way, but the scenes didn’t fit the structure I used in the past.

I wish I could say it was skill. Sure, I’ve done NaNoWriMo for 11 years in a row now, and in some ways things have gotten easier. I am better prepared for the pitfalls that can crop up, from trips and holidays, to running out of story three days into the month.

I wish I could say it was not taking any trips while writing. I wrote every day, and did not have to sleep away from home at any time. But I’ve had great success writing first drafts on the road. My second most successful November included three trips! I was away from home most of the month. And I’ve had dismal NaNoWriMos when I didn’t go anywhere physically and still struggled to get the words down.

So what happened? The muse smiled on me. That’s all I can think. The words were there, I never lacked for ideas, it was easy to get myself to sit down and write. Also, I had great fun, chuckling when my characters surprised me. I loved Ophelia’s feminist rants and laughed when the ghost told her she was “only a girl” because I knew how much that would piss her off.

While I am grateful that this draft was so easy for me to write, I keep wondering: what was the secret? Did I do something that made it go like this? Can I do it again?

The fact is, every year has been different because every first draft is different. Every novel has its own needs when it comes to the first draft. Just because something worked really well for one book doesn’t mean it will work for the next one. There is no magic formula. There are no rules.

There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are. — W. Somerset Maugham

How I wish this wasn’t true. While it may not be a universal experience, plenty of writers say that every book is a new adventure and that they have to figure out how to write a novel all over again, no matter how many novels they’ve written in the past.

Sometimes creation is easy and sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I am flooded with ideas, and the words flow out of me as a result. Other times, the ideas come in fits and spurts and the gaps in between require gritting my teeth and writing anyway. Occasionally I am possessed by a muse of fire and, burning with the need to create whatever I have envisioned, I work obsessively to get it done as soon as I can.

However it happens, the most helpful thing I can do is keep showing up. When I’m tired or uninspired or distracted by other shiny things, I can still put time in with my writing project and move it forward. Even when I write something that is all wrong, I have made progress. I have learned what is not right for my story.

There are no rules and there are no tricks. There is just doing the work. We run, we walk, we limp, we crawl. But whatever we do, we must show up and move.