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.

A T. Rex Dressed As Elizabeth I

For Halloween this year, Tiny the T. rex decided to be Elizabeth I of England. She looked through books until she found a dress she liked (the jewel encrusted gown of the Ditchley portrait), then asked her Aunt Rexie if she could help her with her costume.

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The Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth I (ca. 1592)

Aunt Rexie took one look, sighed, and then got out her sewing kit. After all, she adores Tiny. She spent days putting “gems” and ribbon on fabric before she could even begin sewing the dress, but the end result, and the happy look on Tiny’s face, was well worth the effort.

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Tiny LOVES her dress! (Thanks, Aunt Rexie!)

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Note: This is probably the most elaborate costume I’ve ever made. What was yours?

Saving Dinosaurs, One Sweater At A Time

The Dinosaur Foundation wants to bring back the fascinating animals that went extinct 65 million years ago due to unfortunate circumstances beyond their control. Impossible you say? Not really. We have a simple three step plan that will have us all neck deep in dinosaurs in no time.

We know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Dinosaur Foundation, you’re nuts! Didn’t you see Jurassic Park? You DO NOT want to make dinosaurs from incomplete DNA!”

You’re right, we don’t. We want natural, organic, 100%-as-they-were-in-the-past dinosaurs, so we’re trying something a little different.

We’re knitting them sweaters.

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What’s the point?

To keep them warm, of course.

Every school kid knows that dinosaurs were wiped out when an asteroid hit the earth, filled the atmosphere with dust, and lowered the temperature around the world. If the dinosaurs had only had sweaters, they would have survived and would be with us here, today.

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So we’re busy knitting sweaters, while our physicist friends work on the time machine* we need to deliver them.

The Dinosaur Foundation’s Three Step Plan to Save the Dinosaurs:

1) Knit a bunch of sweaters. Really really big sweaters.
2) Invent a time machine.**
3) Take sweaters back to the dinosaurs before the asteroid hits.

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The Dinosaur Foundation is looking for dedicated knitters ready to take on this challenge. The good news: we’ll be using a time machine, so there’s really no deadline. Please let us know if you would like to help.

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*For those who think it’s impossible to build a time machine, scientists say it’s practically impossible, which means it’s at least a tiny little bit possible. We’re all optimists here at the Dinosaur Foundation. We believe that if we care enough, it can be done.
**For those who argue that we could just bring the dinosaurs back in a time machine without all this messing around with yarn: we don’t think so. We’ve agreed that building a time machine is practically impossible. A time machine that’s also big enough to transport dinosaurs? Not happening.

The Search for The Perfect Spoon Rest

Over the holidays, I decided that I needed to buy a new spoon rest. We’ve been using a small plated every since I broke our old one. Maybe it was seeing the lovely spoon rests in other people’s kitchens. Maybe it was just that New Year thing that convinced me I needed something new in the kitchen. Maybe I was possessed by Martha Stewart.

Whatever the cause, my search for a spoon rest proved enlightening. (I say search because I was so dedicated. I went to two whole stores.) Assuming spoon rests would be hard to find, I tried big name chains that carry lots of inventory. The first was an “international” decorating store that I hoped would have something delightfully funky.

What I found was unexpected. Their suppliers all defined spoon rest the same way: a metal monstrosity with a quirky hard-to-clean owl design. I like owls and these spoon rests were funky, but these were not what I was looking for.

The second store was geared towards house keeping. I knew they would have more practical designs, and they did. They were so practical that they qualified as The World’s Most Boring spoon rests Ever. They were also metal and large. No owls, though. The only ceramic spoon rest I saw was glazed to look like a fat Italian chef. I didn’t think it fit in with our kitchen, even though our style is basically No Plan Whatsoever (also known as It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time).

Along with being practical, the second store was also clueless. They had loads of “double” spoon rests, designed to handle more than one spoon at a time. All I could see when I looked at it was a penis. All I could think was “Who buys these?” (My husband tells me not everyone will think these are phallic, but I’m not sure I believe him.)

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Maybe Kurt’s right. In this picture, it looks more like a butt.

I returned home empty handed, discouraged, and fearing that I would never find a spoon rest that was truly us. In my mind, I’d pictured something ceramic, handmade, small, and easy to clean. Nothing I’d seen in the stores was even close. My only hope was that some potter somewhere had made a spoon rest, and was trying to sell it in a store near me.

I stood in my kitchen, feeling defeated. More shopping was the last thing I wanted to do.

Then I saw it, sitting on my kitchen counter. The green plate with flamingos my mother made as a test and gave to me because I thought it was cute. The plate I was already using as a spoon rest.

Handmade. Compact. Ceramic. Quirky. Not at all owl-ly or obscene.

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Flamingo plate by Jane Dunsmore

I didn’t have to settle for someone else’s strange or bland idea of what a spoon rest should be. I already had the perfect spoon rest. No more shopping required! (I did a happy dance.)

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See? it holds a spoon just fine! (Plate by Jane Dunsmore)

What did I learn? First, that I hate shopping because they never have what I want.* And second, that I am essentially a handmade woman. I prefer items that show the maker’s thought, care, and hard work. I want every object in my house to have heart, even my spoon rest.

Lucky for me there’s a potter in my family.

*You could argue that someone has what I want, I just didn’t go to the right store. The question is: am I willing to look that hard? Clearly, the answer is “no.”

Do you have a spoon rest? What does it say about you?

Halloween Costume for a T-Rex: Elsa from Frozen

When Tiny told her Aunt Rexie she wanted to be Elsa from Frozen for Halloween, Aunt Rexie was stumped. She doesn’t know how to sew, only how to knit, and she’s still a beginner. But she promised Tiny she’d make her Halloween costume this year, so she looked at pictures of Elsa and got to work.

Knitting this outfit was no easy task, but Aunt Rexie went for it.
Elsa from Frozen. Knitting this outfit was no easy task, but Aunt Rexie went for it.

The slim cut dress wouldn’t fit over T-Rex hips, so Rexie put slits up the side. She knew if she just made the skirt wide enough to wear, Tiny would look more like Cinderella than Elsa. She also knit a lacy cover for the cape with sleeves, hoping it would be enough like the translucent layer Elsa wore in the movie to satisfy her niece.

Tiny in her Elsa outfit. She loves it!
Tiny in her Elsa outfit. She loves it!
Rather than knit snowflakes into the gown, Rexie used glittery sequins.
Rather than knit snowflakes into the gown, Rexie used glittery sequins.
You can't be Elsa without the braid.
You can’t be Elsa without the braid.

Rexie also had to make a wig*. What a great excuse to buy more yarn!

While she found knitting the lace part challenging, she still got it done before Halloween. Best of all, Tiny loves it. She’s been wearing it around the house every day this week.

Halloween, here she comes!
Halloween, here she comes!

*My husband says it’s demeaning to put a wig on a dinosaur, especially a T-Rex. All I can say in my defense is: Tiny insisted.

Technical details for the curious: I used size 00 needles and a smooth, slightly shiny cotton yarn to knit the dress. The cape is knit from single strands of a sparkly embroidery floss on size 3 (cape) and size 2 (sleeves) needles. I do not recommend using the sparkly floss for knitting. The stuff was stiff and slippery and not knitting friendly. I nearly gave up on it.

Back-to-School Knits for Your T-Rex

September is here, and little tyrannosaurs are heading back to school. Despite the mixed results she got when she knit Tiny a sweater, Aunt Rexie launched right into another big project. Her needles have been knitting faster than a velociraptor.

The first day of school! Tiny poses in her new outfit for Mom (who always has her camera handy).
The first day of school! Tiny poses in her new outfit for Mom (who is always ready with her camera).

Determined to send Tiny back to school in style, Aunt Rexie knit her leg warmers, a ruffled skirt, and a hair bow, all in pink, to match Tiny’s new lunchbox.

Tiny loves Hello Kitty.
Tiny loves Hello Kitty.

Aunt Rexie made great choices. Tiny loves pink. And bows. And ruffles. (Just because you look tough doesn’t mean you have to dress that way.)

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Aunt Rexie isn’t done. She’s been talking to Tiny about Halloween to see if she can help provide her with a costume this year. I’ll be sure to post pictures once I have them.

Technical notes: Once again, these knits are all my crazy idea. Knit on size 0 needles with fingering weight yarn, I developed the patterns through trial and error. The skirt in particular gave me trouble. For some reason, I kept casting on too many stitches and the waistband didn’t fit. Leg warmers that slide on over those big clawed feet were also tricky. The only easy thing was the bow. I made the lunchbox from cardboard, paper, and ribbon. Once I had her dressed I couldn’t send her to school without one.

Knits For Your Favorite T-Rex

I’ve always been intrigued by dinosaurs. As a kid, my favorites were the Triceratops and Brontosaurus (now known as the Brachiosaurus), both herbivores. Maybe it’s because I’ve become a meat eater again, but I am suddenly drawn to the Tyrannosaurus rex. I have plenty of patterns for knitting dinosaurs, but thinking of the T-rex, I realized that what I’m really interested in is knitting for dinosaurs.

So I bought myself a T-rex and some yarn. Her name is Tiny.

Tiny the T-rex, playing with the yarn I bought for her sweater.
Tiny the T-rex, playing with the yarn I bought for her sweater.

While I’ve done plenty of knitting for critters in the last year or so, I wanted this to be different. As soon as I found Tiny, I was in love. She is so striking looking that I couldn’t settle on just one project. I decided to knit whatever I felt like, but instead of sewing things onto her, I would make every piece removable. That way I could change her clothes and knit as many things as I wanted to for her.

As I knitted, I imagined that Tiny had a loving aunt, one who was fairly new to knitting but enthusiastically making things for everyone in her family. She would start with scarves, graduate to hats, then branch out to mittens once she felt a little more confident.

Tiny shows off her hat, scarf, and mittens.
Tiny shows off her hat, scarf, and mittens.
Mom makes Tiny pose for a photo so they can show Aunt Rexie how much she loves her gifts.
Mom makes Tiny pose for a photo so they can show Aunt Rexie how much she loves her gifts.
Tyrannosaurs don't have thumbs, but everyone needs mittens. Especially when there's a comet in the forecast.
Tyrannosaurs don’t have thumbs, but everyone needs mittens. Especially when there’s a comet in the forecast.

The knitting bug is not easily fed, however, and it wouldn’t be long before Aunt Rexie would go for the Big Project and make her beloved niece a sweater like the one Velma wears on Scooby-Doo. (Tiny loves that show.) Aunt Rexie was understandably proud of herself for finishing it, even if the results weren’t quite what she expected.

Tiny loves her Velma sweater... mostly.
Tiny loves her Velma sweater… mostly.
"Thanks, Aunt Rexie!"
“Thanks, Aunt Rexie!”
Close up of the sweater (because I couldn't resist).
Close up of the sweater (because I couldn’t resist).

Aunt Rexie will keep knitting for Tiny, but it may be a while before she tackles another big project. She has to get her confidence back (and her niece’s measurements) before she tries again. In the meantime, she’ll knit some dish cloths to keep her hand in.

Technical notes for the curious: all of these pieces are my own invention, created using what I know about knitting for humans. Yarns are fingering weight or sock yarns knitted on size 0 needles. The sweater was particularly interesting to make, because the arm holes are horizontal instead vertical in order to accommodate Tiny’s forward reaching arms. It took a couple of tries to get things right, but the key is most definitely: 1) getting the gauge from a swatch and 2) careful measurement of the T-rex in order to design the pattern.