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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Unexpected Fiber Finds While On Vacation

I recently went on a road trip through the Midwest with some good friends. Our itinerary included national parks, museums, and gardens and included a lot of unexpected stops when something caught our eye from the road. When asked what I wanted to see on and do on the trip, I didn’t have much in the way of ideas. I expected there would be lots of great scenery and that I would get to do some birdwatching and maybe even some sketching.

What I didn’t expect was to trip over cool spinning and knitting stuff along the way.

I’m not talking about supply stores. The only shopping we did was at gift stores and to buy groceries. I’m talking about finding fiber-related things in the places we happened to go.

The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in Kansas City, MO turned out to have world-class miniatures on display, more than we could see in the hour and a half we had before the museum closed. We are not talking doll house furniture played with by children (although they have some of that as well), but miniatures made by artisans and admired by avid collectors.

I was in awe of the size (tiny!) and detail (exquisite!) of the furniture, glassware, ceramics, and woven rugs on display. Then I came to the hand knit clothing and it blew my mind. Cable-knit sweaters? Color-work sweaters?! and only two inches high?!? Look at the pictures, and you’ll understand my amazement.

Some intrepid knitters must have used wires to make these


This tiny gem fits in the palm of your hand.

I also found a tiny spinning wheel. I wonder if it works?

If you look in the reflection at the top, you can see my fingers. It gives you and idea of just how small this spinning wheel is.

I should have expected to see fiber art at the T/M museum; I just wasn’t thinking. But I also came across a yarn bomb project in the last place you would imagine: The Mammoth Site museum in Hot Springs, SD. While it’s not as elaborate as a traditional yarn-bombing project can be, I loved the idea of a yarn project that anyone could be part of.


A truly wooly mammoth.

It never occurred to me to include fiber art as part of my vacation plans, and I’m kind of glad I didn’t. I enjoyed these finds all the more because I wasn’t expecting them.

Have you come across fiber projects where you least expected them? What were they and where did you find them?

Outwitting the Airlines: How I Got What I Wanted Despite Their Help

Back in November, I was too sick to fly and had to cancel a trip. I hated doing it. It meant missing a visit with my family but even more painful was the thought that I would have to sort everything out with the airlines at some point. I would have to call the travel website that I had used to make new reservations and I expected the airline would fight with me over the $200 change fee even though I had a letter from my doctor.

I was right and I was wrong. The whole process was an ordeal, but the things that were the biggest problems were not the things I expected.

This plane is not part of the Bigname Airline fleet. (Trying not to get sued here.)
This plane is not part of the Bigname Airline fleet. (Trying not to get sued here.)

I called Famous Travel Site and told them my situation. “You need to talk to the airline first,” the agent told me. So I called Bigname Airline. Their automated answering system kept asking me questions and then never had an option to fit my situation. I kept hanging up and trying again. I got so frustrated that in answer to a question I told the computer “Bite me!” and hung up before it could ask me to repeat my request. I paced and swore until I was calm enough to try again. I guess I had suffered enough because I only had to listen to twenty minutes of bad muzak before I got to talk to a live person.

The live person told me, “You have to make reservations first.” They don’t waive the change fee, they refund it, and you can’t refund something that doesn’t exist yet. They also told me refunds are done entirely online, so at least I could hope that I wouldn’t have to deal with their horrific phone system again.

Once I was back on the line with Famous Travel Site, I found myself wishing I hadn’t been born. If their call center isn’t outsourced to a foreign country, then they did an amazing job hiring people with accents you can’t understand. My first call had gone so well — the woman had known at once who I was and what flight I was talking about. She was fast, efficient, and completely comprehensible.

The Customer Service Gods only give you one intelligent, intelligible support person per lifetime, and I’d wasted mine on that stupid change fee question. (Of course, she got the answer wrong, but let’s not go there.) Now that I needed to book tickets, I had a guy with marbles in his mouth. On top of that, it took him at least ten minutes to find out what the first tech had known in seconds. I spent a whole lot time being the polite lady waiting on the phone as we scheduled my flights one at a mind-numbingly-long time.

Then came the fun part. All along, I was wondering how much more these new tickets might cost. Granted, flying from Denver to Tucson was likely to be a little cheaper than Denver to Baltimore, but with the change fee and who knows what else thrown in, I expected to owe them money.

So I was very interested when the guy finally came back and said, “The flight will cost you grumferdal dollars.”

“Two hundred and fifty dollars?”

“Frumgurdel dollars.”

“Five hundred and fifty dollars?”

“Truffenda dollars.”

I gave up and asked politely for a detailed invoice. We went back and forth on this several times before I understood what he was saying. He sent me the invoice by e-mail and when it showed up, it just said $520 with no indication of how much of it went to the flight and how much to fees, or how much of it (if any) was covered by the existing credit. At least it didn’t say “$grumferdal” or I would have started killing people.

A week later, I applied for my change fee refund. I needed time to cool off and regain my strength before I could face another round wrestling with the airlines but my official reason was to make sure that Bigname Airlines knew I had tickets before I tried to get my change fee back. Miraculously, their refund website worked well. I only had to fill out their form three times before it worked. I attached a scan of my doctor’s note and crossed my fingers. I was assured I would hear from them in 7 to 10 days.

At this point, I didn’t expect anything. I had made a second call to Famous Travel Site trying to get a detailed invoice from them and was sent the exact same non-detailed invoice I already had. As I fumed over the fact that no one could tell me how much anything had cost, I had a brainstorm. I could check my credit card account. Famous Travel Site had charged me $30 over the original cost of the tickets, which put my total travel charges at $520, the magic number on their invoice. I was relieved to discover that the cost of my canceled tickets had been applied to my new ones, and that I wasn’t paying $520 on top of what I’d paid in November.

My fear that Bigname Airlines wouldn’t refund my change fee wasn’t only because of the way I’d been manhandled by their customer service system. The letter from my doctor looked like it was written by a delinquent student. It was one sentence long and had two typos, one of which was the doctor’s name. A handwritten “n” was added to correct the name, but the typed “ilness” was left untouched. At least it was on letter head.

Two days after I submitted my request, a miracle occurred. I got an e-mail telling me that my refund request had been accepted. They gave me back $150 of the $222 which was a separate fee billed to my credit card directly from the airline. It was a sour triumph. When I hear “refund”, I think “return”, so I was a little annoyed not to get all the money back.

On the up side, you could argue I made $150 with two hours worth of work, which is more than I’ve been paid by anyone ever. I think I’ll stick to my day job.

This video of Irish singers explaining plane fees helped me laugh this all off. It’s only four minutes long. Warning: full of swearing (although it’s Irish swearing, so it’s kind of cute).

Art Journal: Hawaii 2007

In 2007, I took a trip with my husband to Hawaii. Since he had to work some of the time, I had plenty of time to explore on my own and to document the trip. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of visual journaling for years, and this is one of the few times I was able to record what I saw, did, and felt in an art journal.

I made the journal myself before we left and then filled in the pages on the road. For the hibiscus on the cover, I made a stamp out of craft foam and brushed it with acrylic paints.

Hawaii Journal, front cover and spine
Hawaii Journal, front cover and spine, by Kit Dunsmore
Hawaii Journal, Back Cover detail
Hawaii Journal, Back Cover detail, by Kit Dunsmore

Many of the pages were word heavy, but I did include drawings of things I saw and wanted to remember. I also pasted in maps marked with where we were when. I used gel pens, markers, and watercolor pencils throughout the book.

Hawaii Journal, 'Apanane page by Kit Dunsmore
Hawaii Journal, ‘Apanane page by Kit Dunsmore
Hawaii Journal, Waterfalls page by Kit Dunsmore
Hawaii Journal, Waterfalls page by Kit Dunsmore
Hawaii Journal, Day Seven by Kit Dunsmore
Hawaii Journal, Day Seven by Kit Dunsmore

One day, I hiked by myself to retrieve audio recording equipment I had helped Kurt deploy. The trip over various lava beds was memorable and the time alone filled my head with words. A book within a book turned out to be the best way to record all my thoughts from that hike.

Hawaii Journal, Today I Was... by Kit Dunsmore
Hawaii Journal, Today I Was… by Kit Dunsmore

We also took a long hike down into Haleakala and I made a fold-out to capture the landmarks of that trail.

Hawaii Journal, Haleakala page by Kit Dunsmore
Hawaii Journal, Haleakala page by Kit Dunsmore
Hawaii Journal, Big Hike fold out by Kit Dunsmore
Hawaii Journal, Big Hike fold out by Kit Dunsmore

I don’t remember doing all this journaling while I was in Hawaii, but I’m grateful that I did. While I remember a handful of key events, this book has captured details that would have been lost. Re-reading it takes me back, reminds me of things I’d forgotten about (like my one-day shopping spree), and tells me of things I no longer remember.

The one thing I really want to remember: keeping a visual journal while on vacation is fun! My goal is to plan other trips that are relaxed enough to allow me to do this sort of recording in the moment.

How do you record important memories from your vacations? Is there anything you want to do differently in the future?

Unexpected Gifts on the Road Less Traveled

photo by Kit Dunsmore
photo by Kit Dunsmore

We spent Labor Day at Grand Teton National Park with my parents. Despite the holiday, the park wasn’t all that crowded. We were able to park at the Jenny Lake Overlook and get pictures of the mountains towering over the lake without getting jostled. We even found an empty table at the picnic area at noon. While we appreciated that the number of visitors was lower than usual, my whole family prefers to get away from crowds, so when my husband Kurt suggested we drive the River Road on our way back out of the park, it seemed like a good idea.

The River Road is unpaved and runs across the valley. It gets closer to the Snake River than Teton Park Road does, so we figured this was our chance to see the river. The road is 4-wheel drive only. Kurt figured this would mean even fewer crowds. He checked at the visitor’s center to make sure it was in decent shape and they said our car had high enough clearance and would be fine.

We weren’t on the road long before we all began to wonder if we had made a mistake. Initially, the road was covered in small rocks, bigger than gravel, with random water-filled holes in it. Later, it changed to a rutted dirt track.

Kurt and Dad look at the road and wonder what we've gotten ourselves into.
Kurt and Dad look at the road and wonder what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Even in our backroad-loving car, the ride was rough, with lots of bumping and jerking. Kurt kept apologizing to my parents for the bouncy ride, but they graciously said it was worth it.

The views we got looking back towards the mountains were spectacular, but we’d also spent the whole morning admiring and photographing the same mountain range. The afternoon light wasn’t as favorable for mountains to our west, and even jaw-dropping beauty gets old after a few hours.

Grand Teton mountain range as seen from River Road; photo by Kit Dunsmore
Grand Teton mountain range as seen from River Road; photo by Kit Dunsmore

We were definitely away from the crowds. During our four hour drive, we saw ten other cars at most, a big change from the steady stream of traffic along the main road.

We also got much closer to the river. At times, the road ran right along the cliff edge. We stopped multiple times to get out and enjoy the view of the Snake River, which twisted like satin ribbon along the valley floor below us.

Snake River, Wyoming; photo by Kit Dunsmore
Snake River, Wyoming; photo by Kit Dunsmore

After a few hours of having our fillings shaken out of our head, we all started to wonder if we would ever reach the end of the road. We got out the map and realized it was nearly fifteen miles long, not five like we’d thought. We were lucky to go 25 mph along some stretches, so it was no wonder the drive seemed eternal.

We all got in the car again and gritted our teeth. We saw rafts on the river and hawks in trees, but no sign of the T in the road that would take us back to pavement and a smooth ride.

A pick-up truck came over a hill and stopped to tell us that there were bison ahead, some off to the left and some off to the right. We thanked the driver and got excited. We were going to see some wildlife!

We came over a rise, and there they were, between us and the mountains. Two bison wading through the grass. Close enough to recognize but too far for my camera’s short lens. Brown dots on green, but definitely bison.

Can you find the bison? (They're on the bottom right.)
Can you find the bison? (They’re on the bottom right.)

We were ecstatic and took lots of photos. Kurt kept inching us down the road, which improved the view and also got us closer to the end of our arduous ride. We agreed we’d taken all the photos we wanted and went on our way.

That’s when we saw more bison, off to the right, and closer. More clicking cameras. As we came around bend, we realized the bison were very close to the road. We were going to get a much better view. Then it became clear that they weren’t near it — they were on it. We would be driving right through the herd.

Papa Bison, Mommy Bison, and Baby Bison were all in our way!
Papa Bison, Mommy Bison, and Baby Bison were all in our way!

The herd was at least one hundred animals strong and moving west to east, straight across our path. They didn’t seem to care about us much one way or the other, but the males had a way of turning to stare at us that froze my blood. We watched them sniffing the females, heard them grunting at one another, and saw one big male chase several others away from a female. There were calves in the herd, too, but clearly the males were in rut, or getting ready for it, and the females would be in heat soon.

Bison are big. And scary. photo by Kit Dunsmore
Bison are big. And scary. photo by Kit Dunsmore

One ton of bison is intimidating to get close to. One ton of bison pumped full of hormones is downright scary. Fortunately, Kurt had previous experience driving through a giraffe herd and knew when to inch forward and when to wait. It took us twenty minutes to go maybe fifty feet as the bison sauntered past us. The animals got so close we could have reached out and touched them, but we weren’t about to try it.

Bison through the car window. They got really close to the car.
Bison through the car window. They got really close to the car.

When we finally got back to the road, we stopped at the park lodge for dinner. All we could talk about was the bison we’d seen on River Road, bison we would never have seen at all if we’d stayed on the main road with the rest of the crowd. The teeth shaking and bumps were forgotten, as was the length of the drive. Our adventure had reminded us that the gifts of road less traveled outweigh the challenges.

Lake Loveland

The last night my parents were here, we went to dinner in Loveland. When we came out of the restaurant, it was a gorgeous evening, so we decided to drive to a nearby park for a little walk before the sun went down. However, we got sidetracked as we were driving past Lake Loveland. We pulled off at Lakeside Park and watched the glorious sunset. It felt like the perfect end to a wonderful visit. There was even a statue for us to enjoy.

Generations, Lake Loveland, Colorado

I was taken with the colors and texture of the lake surface as the sunset went on. I took several reference shots, thinking I might make something to mimic this look.

But the sunset itself was the real treat, and I have pictures that document the entire evolution of the event, from burning to burnt out.

Sunset over Lake Loveland

This is turning into the Summer of Sunsets. I’m grateful to live in Colorado, where we are surrounded by such beauty every single day.

Fossil Creek Reservoir

We drive right by the Fossil Creek Reservoir every time we go to Denver. I had no idea what a gorgeous spot it was until I went there with my parents after dinner one night.

Fossil Creek Reservoir

The lake is down slope from a large prairie, which is full of wildlife. The bunnies were particularly bold.

Desert Cottontail

As with all of our little adventures, we took lots of pictures. Dad spent some time trying to get a good shot of the western meadowlark serenading us.

The meadowlark is the tiny dot on the pole to the right

Because of the water, the area attracts lots of birds. At the west end of the trail is a blind, where you can sit and watch the birds on the lake. Inside are tables and seats, plus lots of labeled pictures of the birds you might see.

Mom and Dad view the lake from the blind

My attempts at bird photos did not work out that night — everything was too far away. But we saw quite a few species, including a gadwall mother with her brood. The excited babies swam in circles like wind-up toys. I did manage to get some pictures of the field full of sunflowers that lies just up the slope from the lake.

Common Sunflowers

The most amazing part of our evening was the sunset, which would not quit. My picture hardly does it justice. I can’t wait to see what my father does with all the versions he took of this:

Sunset over the Rockies

Tomorrow: Another amazing sunset in Colorado