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.

Crazy Knitting Projects: Ceramic Flamingo Accessories – Part 1

Now that I’ve finished my shawl project, I’m feeling the need to knit for animals again. I still adore my pony, cow (OK, bull), and pig pajamas, but this time I want to do something a little different, which is why I’ve decided to knit for my flamingo salt and pepper shakers.

Flamingo salt and pepper shakers. Classic!
Flamingo salt and pepper shakers. Classic!

I inherited these shakers from my grandmother. I don’t know if they were important to her or not, but she owned them, so they are really important to me. Also, they are souvenirs from the most unlikely place imaginable: Faulkton, South Dakota. My grandparents went to church in Faulkton and we often ate breakfast at the cafe there. Faulkton is not big (pop. 740), it’s not a tourist destination, and I doubt they have had a live flamingo inside the city limits ever. I don’t know who thought these shakers were a good idea, but he must have been crazy as a loon a very special person.

I had to leave the label on them or no one would believe me.
I had to leave the label on them or no one would believe me.

Even without all those great reasons to love them, I adore their 1950s Miami vibe. For the first few years I had them, I used them, proud of my kitschy style. Then, alas, one hit the floor and broke in two. I’ve been hauling them around with me ever since, but I only got around to gluing the broken shaker back together recently.

Mended but it shows.
Mended but it shows.

Even though it’s repaired, this flamingo’s life as a shaker is over. Plus the crack shows. In fact, that line is annoying — it destroys the sleek look of that slender neck.

And that’s when inspiration struck. What do flamingos who live in South Dakota need? Woolly things to keep them warm! Hats and scarves and turtlenecks!

I have left over multi-colored pastel sock yarn and 00 needles. Time to knit my swatch, calculate my gauge, and figure out how to dress these little pink birds. I am so excited!

So now you know. The only one crazier than the guy who sold flamingo salt and pepper shakers as souvenirs in South Dakota is me.

What would you knit for flamingo salt and pepper shakers? Or is this just too nuts?

UPDATE: You can see the clothing I knitted for these shakers here.

7 Unexpected Perks of Water Aerobics

I’ve been attending early morning water-aerobics classes for a month now, and I’ve learned a few things. I’ve already written about the more practical lessons I’ve had, like park in the same place and pack your gym bag the night before. But water aerobics offers unexpected perks in addition to the more obvious health benefits.

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Water aerobics with style!

1) Water aerobics is a practical lesson in Newtonian mechanics. Since I take a deep-water class, I wear a floatation belt and bob around like a cork. Most of the exercises have balanced motions of the arms and legs so you stay in one place no matter how hard you work. At least a few times each class, I find myself heading for the wall, or worse, another person, when I’m supposed to stay put. I’m amazed at how hard it can be to figure out which part of the move is causing me to travel and how difficult it can be to get things back in balance so I don’t run into anyone.

2) It also teaches you about the theory of relativity. Einstein proved that time is relative, and water aerobics is a great way to experience it personally. The last time an hour was this long, I was a kid waiting for Santa.

3) It attracts fun-loving people. A few weeks ago, the instructor told us to really push ourselves. “I want to see some waves!” So one of the smart-alecks in our class lifted her hand out of the water and waved at the teacher. I still can’t believe that I can laugh so much at seven in the morning.

4) It trains you for a whole new and interesting life. It’s great practice for those interested in being a mermaid or a dolphin. Future astronauts also get plenty of practice maneuvering in low gravity (see number 1).

Ed White takes the first U.S. space walk. (Astronauts train for low gravity in swimming pools.)
Ed White takes the first U.S. space walk. (Astronauts train for low gravity in swimming pools.)

5) You get to see some hot guys in swimsuits. No, they aren’t fellow classmates. At our gym, there are lap swimmers who use the outdoor pool and come inside to return equipment they’ve borrowed while we are in class. The kind of guy who is willing to swim outside before 7 am on a winter morning tends to be in amazing shape. There’s a reason Tarzan was played by a swimmer.

Johnny Weismuller behind the scenes. The winner of 5 Olympic gold medals, Weismuller starred as Tarzan in the 1930s and 40s.
Johnny Weissmuller behind the scenes. The winner of 5 Olympic gold medals, Weissmuller starred as Tarzan in the 1930s and 40s.

6) It’s a time machine. You get transported back to childhood. Splashing and laughing in the pool brings back memories of swimming in the neighbor’s pool on summer days as a kid. I always climb out of the pool feeling younger than I did when I got in.

7) It’s great exercise for the brain. My friendly fellow students know everyone’s name, including mine. It’s made me pay attention and really work on learning who is who. Remembering names is not one of my strengths, and there’s an added challenge when you go from the pool to the locker room — all those floating heads look very different when you see them on land. Suddenly they are also tall or short, fat or thin, and in clothes instead of their swimsuit. Definitely push-ups for my brain.

Does your favorite exercise class have unexpected perks? What are they?

8 Reasons to Avoid Growing Up

Children long to be adults. They want to drive a car, to stay up as late, to have their school years behind them, to eat dessert for dinner. They want to be in charge of their lives instead of having all the adults around them telling them what to do. They think adulthood means freedom to be and do whatever they want, whenever they want, and they can’t wait to get there.

The desire to drive strikes early.
The desire to drive strikes early.

I was exactly like that. When I was sixteen, I thought I was done growing up and knew everything there was to know. Thirty years later, I look back and laugh at the naive girl who had so much to learn, and still does. Like the kid who longs to be old enough, I something wish I were still a kid, free to run off and play while the adults pack for the camping trip or deal with making dinner.

Here is my list of Reasons to Never Grow Up. (If someone had warned me about them in time, I could have signed up for the Peter Pan plan and stayed a child forever.)

  1. Trips to the DMV. The driver’s license may seem like a ticket to freedom, but it has its drawbacks — like standing in line for hours so they can take a photo that makes you like a junkie or a felon. Every time I have to show my driver’s license to an official, I expect to be arrested. I like to think it resembles me so little that a cop might think it’s not mine.
  2. Mammograms. All that waiting to grow boobs, and now I pay someone to torture me by smashing them flat. Annually.
  3. Income tax forms. You definitely make more money as an adult than you ever dreamed of having as a kid. Then you give yourself a migraine filling out forms to convince the government that you’ve paid them your share already.
  4. Root canals. Like many unfortunates, I got plenty of dental torture as a kid — tooth extractions, fillings, and four long years of stone-age braces. I had no idea that there are worse dental procedures to look forward to. My only (I hope!) root canal was the worst dental experience of my life. And given my history, that’s saying something.
  5. Colonoscopies. Need I say more?
  6. PMS. Thanks to false advertising by the school system, I thought getting my period was going to be a mystical, life-changing experience. I would be transformed magically from a lumpy girl to a graceful Disney princess. No one told me my cupboard would contain so many painkillers that I could open a pharmacy.
  7. Customer Service. Getting to stay up late and watch TV is also on the average kid’s Why I Want To Grow Up Now list. But things don’t always work, and when they don’t, you have to get help. What should be a simple phone call can turn into an arduous ordeal, leading you to question why you signed up for cable service in the first place.
  8. Belonging to a Home Owners’ Association. As an adult, you can buy a home. Then you can paint it any color you want, put in that massive tree house you’ve always dreamed of, and blow off mowing the lawn and go to the movies. As long as it’s OK with your HOA.

It’s easy to think I would have passed on adulthood if someone had bothered to tell me this stuff, but I know the kid me. I’m sure someone tried. I just wasn’t listening.

What about you? What did you most look forward to about becoming a grown up? What do you like least about being one?

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).