Harris’s Hawk in Colorado: Is it a Lifer or is it Unnatural?

This winter, we’ve had an unusual visitor to northeastern Colorado: a Harris’s hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus). Normally a resident of southernmost Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, this chocolate-brown and chestnut-red hawk is far from home. Back in December, a friend told me about this vagrant* after the hawk had been reliably sighted roosting in trees belonging to a recycling center adjacent to a local natural area. Having only seen Harris’s hawks in captivity, I was eager to see one in the wild so I could add it to my life list.

It took me four separate trips to the natural area in order to spot the hawk. When Guy Turenne, photographer, said the same thing (“four visits before I saw him”), I jokingly named the bird “Four Visit Harry.” That is how I think of him, even though I don’t know whether the bird is male or female.

Four Visit Harry, the Harris’s hawk living in Fort Collins, CO (photo by Guy Turenne)

My weekend trips to see Harry were both several hours long, and I met lots of friendly birders who like me did not get to see him then. I made a mid-day stop at the natural area on a weekday and had the place to myself. Again, I failed to see Harry, but was encouraged by several false alarms. The first was a dark shape in one of the trees others identified as a favorite perch for the hawk. I saw it a few minutes after arriving and thought “gotcha!” only I was wrong. As I got closer, the “bird” climbed down the branch, morphing into a squirrel. As I walked the trail, I spotted red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) overhead, but they didn’t fool me for long.

On the way back, I again got a “That’s it!” shock when a hawk with white on the tail erupted out of the grass ahead of me. Fortunately, I got a really good look at it, even though there was a tree between us most of the time, and I realized at once it was missing the other key markings — the nearly dark brown back with red-brown wing patches. So I knew I was looking at a juvenile northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) and not a Harris’s hawk within a few minutes. Still, I found it exciting rather than disappointing. It was the closest I’ve ever been to a harrier. I had to go home for lunch and thought: This is a great day for hawks. So I ran some Christmas errands, then went back to the natural area for the fourth time.

Diagram by Kit Dunsmore

After scanning the big patch of trees in the recycling area and seeing nothing, I took the trail that ran behind the center. There, I met two young men with binoculars and a spotting scope. For the first time, my question (“Have you seen the Harris’s?”) was met with a yes. They pointed back to the trees I had just scanned and then I saw it, a dark blob with red-brown wing patches, sitting lower in the trees than I had originally looked. It flew off only a few minutes later, so I had only just caught it. The birders asked me if it was a lifer (if I would count this as my first Harris’s hawk for the list of all the bird species I’ve seen in my life). I was excited to be able to say it was. What I didn’t realize is not everyone would agree with me about that.

A bird like this Harris’s hawk is often referred to as “vagrant” or “accidental.” Usually, birds far from home get lost during migration, blown off course by a storm, or losing their way because they are inexperienced or sick. But Harris’s hawks don’t migrate. They are considered permanent residents of their range, so any individual very far outside that range is hard to explain. In fact, National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America is rather adamant that a Harris’s hawk out of its territory escaped from or was released by a falconer. Period.

After I read that, I realized my “lifer” was in jeopardy. The American Birding Association (ABA) has rules for keeping a life list, and one of those rules is that the bird you count can’t have been transported by humans to the place where you saw it. Understandably, they consider this an unnatural situation, even though the bird is flying free at the time of sighting. If Four Visit Harry is a falconer’s bird, then I can’t count him. But there’s no way for me to tell if he is or isn’t. And I confess I find myself miffed at the thought that someone who trained, maybe even raised, a hawk for falconry would release it nearly 700 miles from its natural habitat. Surely falconers are more responsible and ethical than that.

Harris’s hawks do not migrate, but they must disperse after fledging, which is the one time they might move into new territory. eBird maps show these hawks are being spotted much farther north in New Mexico and Texas then their historical range allows for, and I doubt all of these are lost falconry birds. There are even rare individuals who have been seen as far north as Montana.

I would rather think these out-of-range hawks are pioneers moving out into new territory, that Four Visit Harry is a maverick with wanderlust, rather than some falconer’s escaped bird. But I have no proof either way. Maybe he did hitch a ride here, but Harry is making a living on the prairie despite being away from home and without other hawks to help him hunt. (Harris’s hawks hunt in groups.) And my sighting of him (though it required some help from other birders) felt natural to me. Fortunately, I am not actually submitting my life list to the ABA. I am keeping it for my own pleasure. Considering our long and colorful history, I’ve decided that Four Visit Harry is a lifer.

*Vagrant is one of the terms birders use to describe birds far out of their recognized range. I prefer the term “maverick.”

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.

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).

This is what happens when you stitch into the chain for the first row. No amount of blocking will fix this.
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.

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.

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.
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?

Embracing The Function of Beauty

Why is beauty never considered a function? — Ronald Rael

I came across this thought-provoking quote in the middle of a video about green technology. While the video shows the building blocks made from 3-D printers, it asks bigger questions. The most important one confronts artists and artisans alike: is it functional or is it “just” beautiful?

This particular question resonates with me because I grew up in a house full of art and craft. Dad took photos that he developed himself. Mom made pottery and took art classes. My sister drew and painted and I learned to sew and knit. Where the line between art and craft actually is has always been fuzzy in my mind and this idea of functionality versus beauty is tied to it.

Take my mom Jane Dunsmore, for example. She mostly made functional pottery to be sold at craft fairs. Treating her creative pursuit as a business meant she needed to make money. Common sense says that people are more likely to buy pottery they can use. Pottery that is “merely” pretty or decorative isn’t going to sell.

Fortunately, Mom has been able to break away from this mold. Today she makes sculpture and tiles, a far cry from the more prosaic and practical bowls, mugs, and plates she made in the past*.

“Singer of Myths” by Jane Dunsmore; photo by Donald Dunsmore

I asked her how she was able to escape from the functional trap and two things came up: a change in mind-set and a change in materials. She needed both to make the change.

The mindset change came from a combination of things. When she retired from teaching, she returned to her pottery studio without the pressure to make money. Also, she was bored after years of showing students how to make round things on a wheel. She gave herself permission to make the things she wanted to and she started experimenting with free-standing forms.

Initially, she was frustrated. The shapes she was interested in didn’t work well in clay — they cracked, something every functional potter considers a fatal flaw.

“Hello, World” by Jane Dunsmore; photo by Donald Dunsmore

Then she discovered paper clay (which is clay that contains anywhere from 5 to 25% paper pulp). Suddenly, she was able to make the shapes she’d always wanted to with little to no cracking. Paper clay opened the door to sculpture for her.

Occasionally, a piece still cracks, but now she sees it as part of the work instead of a flaw. Sometimes she fills the cracks with other materials, sometimes she leaves them alone. Letting go of perfectionism, as well as the expectation that everything she makes must sell, has freed her to make the work she wants to make. Her ceramics still have a function, but now it is usually beauty first.

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserable each day
for lack
of what is found there.

— William Carlos Williams

Beauty is a function: for many people it is what makes something a work of art**. It’s also a key component of every craft there is. We knit and sew and embroider in order to make functional things in our lives beautiful as well.

“Anne’s Velvet Roses” by Jane Dunsmore; photo by Donald Dunsmore. This sculpture is approximately 20 inches tall.

While I love her bowls and mugs, Mom’s heart is much more obvious in her newer work. I’m glad she’s found her way past the artificial boundaries set in her path to work that treats beauty as a function.

*She still makes bowls and mugs from time to time, but how they look is much more important to her than how they work. 
**Art historians, critics, and teachers have a much more complex definition of art but they are a pretty small part of the population. 

Stitch Meditations: Don’t Box Me In

For years, I have been searching for a form of mediation that really works for me. As someone with a busy brain, sitting still and trying to think of nothing borders on torture. I do a little better with guided meditation, unless I’m asked to make decisions. Visualizing my favorite place or the last time I was deeply happy stop me cold — I spend so much time trying to figure out the answer I miss the instructions that follow.

One thing that does work for me is moving meditation. Anything that requires me to focus in and stay on task can help quiet the rest of my mind if I let it. Combine it with an activity I love like sewing, and I’m in. Hence, my interest in Liz Kettle‘s daily stitch meditations.

I’d seen examples of Liz’s stitch meditations on Facebook but it was only after she posted a video on how and why she does them that I was inspired to try it myself. I took notes on the few simple rules she follows and made plans to put together a box of supplies so that I could sit down and sew-meditate without interruptions.

The only problem was that I couldn’t figure out what I should put in the box. I have a room full of sewing supplies. How to get down to just the essentials when I couldn’t be sure what I would need? Clearly, I needed basic tools: needle, scissors, thread, thimble. But what color thread? What size needle?

I also needed something to use as a base. Liz uses flannel, but I don’t have any right now so I cut up some felt. My fabric scraps are already in a clear plastic jug where it’s easy to see them. It didn’t make sense to transfer them to the box.

My scraps (in a handy see-through jug)

One thing went in the box without any thought: my entire (tiny) collection of perle cotton. Decorative stitching looks much better with nice fat thread.

My incomplete stitch meditation “kit” (L to R): Finished meditations, sewing thread, needles, felt bases,  and perle cotton.

Even though my kit wasn’t ready, I decided to start in on stitch meditations. I would learn what I needed as I went, and after a while, I would be able to fill my meditation box with confidence.

I’ve only been at it for a week, but I’ve learned two things already. First, I quickly developed a step-by-step process for my meditations.


Second, I found out I like having access to my entire studio. It’s not overwhelming, like I thought it would be. I look at the piece and think: “I need red thread” and I go get some. Or “I need something spiky” and I dig through a drawer of found metal objects until I find just the right thing. I have an idea of what I want and can quickly find what I need, or something very much like it.

From pretty to gritty: as I got used to stitch meditation, I started letting the pieces reflect my mood.

The colors and materials that appeal to me change a lot from day to day, especially now that I am starting to actually settle into the moment and express my emotions instead of just making something pretty. I’m using colors and materials that are not my usual choices. I may be able to make myself a travel kit at some point, but right now, I’m still learning what sort of things I need. I imagine they will change with time.

The best part of stitch meditation is that I am devoted to it. It’s fun. There’s no thought of skipping it. The half hour (or less) that it takes doesn’t feel like a waste of time. My first meditations weren’t very restful because I was figuring things out, but by the end of the week, that had changed.

I make all my choices based on gut feeling, then think about why I made them while I sew. What does this color mean? What does that remind me of? How am I feeling today and why? I am still playing around, trying to be as relaxed and easy going as I can with every stage of the process, but already it’s starting to talk to me and tell me things I didn’t know.

Only time will tell if this is truly the meditation method for me, but right now I’m thinking: this is it!

What about you? Do you find sewing meditative?

When Writers Fear Reading: The Struggle to Be Original

There are no new ideas. There are only new presentations. — Deborah Robson

I’m currently reading a book I should love (Hild, by Nicola Griffith). It’s historical fiction set in 7th c. England, only a century later than the setting I’ve chosen for my novelization of Rapunzel. Hild is full of words, concepts, and details I’ve been swimming in for years as I’ve researched pagan Anglo-Saxon England. Reading her book is like returning to a place I’ve visited many times before.


So why is this novel making me shake in my boots? Mostly, because Griffith is doing her job so well. She’s using Anglo-Saxon terms I’ve never seen before for relationships common to both centuries and has me wondering if I’ve used the wrong ones myself. She even has the thing I’ve been beating the bushes for — an unfamiliar word for “witch” — and again, it’s a word I’ve never encountered. When I’ve finished reading this book, I’ll look up the words she’s chosen to see where they’ve come from. Even if they are perfect for what I want, I may not be able to bring myself to use them, however, for fear of looking like a copy-cat.

This problem of not being able to enjoy reading books that are of great interest to me has been a problem since the day I started working on Rapunzel. Deciding to explore a well-known fairy tale meant sharing the skeleton of my story with other writers. Even Disney has put out a movie version of Rapunzel in the years that I’ve been working on my book, and every variation on Rapunzel out there has scared me. If I weren’t wading through the bog pulling my story bit by bit out of the muck, I’d be diving into these other books, hoping to love them.

My goofy fear is that someone will “beat me to it” and write the book I am trying to write. The writer who won’t tell you their idea for fear you will steal it is in this exact same boat. But no one is going to tell Rapunzel’s story exactly the way I am, and I’m pretty sure no one is going to even get close, because I’ve decided on such a specific historical setting. And yet, this is one of the reasons Hild is scary for me. The familiar world of her book makes it feel like Griffith has beat me to it, even though her heroine is a historic figure, and mine is a fairy tale icon.

The other thing that initially kept me from reading other versions of Rapunzel, and even from seeing the Disney version more than once, is the fear that I will unwittingly incorporate another’s ideas into my story. I have put so much work into this novel already that the last thing I want is someone saying I stole this or that from someone else. But as my writer friend Deb Robson reminded me, there are no new ideas. Everything in my book will ultimately be stolen from somewhere. It’s just a question of how obvious it will be.

I’m a little sad that I can’t just relax and enjoy reading Hild. It’s so exactly my kind of book! Perhaps I’ll be able to read it again in the future in a more relaxed state, maybe after Rapunzel is truly finished, or at least after I’ve made it through once and realized that the book Griffith wrote is not the book I am writing. But what I really do not want is for Hild to scare me into silence.

As soon as I finish the revision I am working on, I will return to Rapunzel. I want my fairy-tale adaptation to be a glowing tapestry, to make the rich life of the Dark Ages understandable to a modern audience as well as provide an interesting situation to help explain the odd details of Rapunzel’s story. I’m hoping I can do it half as well as Griffith has done with her Hild. In the meantime, all I can do is work at emulating her example without falling into the trap of copying her.

Are you ever afraid to read? How does the work of others affect you?

Beyond Raptors: Other Birds at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

I may have given you the impression that the only birds at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum are raptors, like the barn owl and Harris’s hawks I saw in their daily Raptor Free-Flights. But visitors to the ASDM see plenty of other interesting birds, all native to some part of Arizona.

When I was there in February, I was greeted by a desert favorite of mine, the cactus wren. A little smaller than a robin, this feisty bird actually nests inside dead saguaro. I heard them calling throughout the day, and they hopped past me even in the parking lot. One came out in the open and sang his heart out for me.

Singing cactus wren, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Singing cactus wren, photo by Kit Dunsmore

When I saw a bird a top a saguaro skeleton, I half-expected it to be another wren. Instead, it was a the more common mockingbird.

Mockingbird, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Mockingbird, photo by Kit Dunsmore

The museum has two walk-in aviaries. One includes a mix of birds. I caught sight of quail, hummingbirds, pyrrhuloxia, and a beautiful black-bellied whistling duck.

Black-bellied whistling duck, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Black-bellied whistling duck, photo by Kit Dunsmore

The second aviary is smaller, and dedicated to hummingbirds alone. My photographs did not turn out well, but the most striking hummingbird we saw was Costa’s. Even in my fuzzy picture, you can see the brilliant purple neck frill this hummingbird sports.

A Costa's hummingbird, fuzzy photo by Kit Dunsmore
A Costa’s hummingbird, fuzzy photo by Kit Dunsmore