Three Gray Birds Outside My Window

I’ve mentioned that I’m spending a couple of weeks quarantined in the Hermits’ Rest house, working from my little den (which is lovely, other than poor connectivity). A real highlight has been looking out the window, where I can see a long fence that leads to the woods.

The view out my window, bordered by the computer monitors I try my best to focus on. Notice that the window also tells me how to not be a better conversationalist.

The main thing I regret about my window is that there’s a window screen. Otherwise, I’d be getting some really good photos of gray birds. Gray birds just love that fence. It’s apparently an ideal insect-hunting platform. Let me introduce you to the friends I see every day.

Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos

Like most of you in North America, I’ve lived around mockingbirds my whole life. They are the state bird of Florida, where I grew up, so I’ve known them my whole life. When I was a kid, I thought they were a boring bird. I have changed my mind!

Northern mockingbird. Photo copyright BJ Stanley (CC)

Through the years, I grew to love the birds that sat on the streetlight outside my house in Brushy Creek, Texas. They would sing so many songs, and occasionally emit the sound of a car alarm or cell phone. They are amazing singers.

Now that I’m at the ranch and working in Cameron, I watch mockingbirds every day. They’re big and bold, and very hungry. I love watching them catching bugs and finding food on the ground. The flash of white you see when one of these guys takes off means something interesting’s about to happen. I always know them on the fence by their long tails that are quite mobile.

Over at my fence, the mockingbirds are pretty bossy. They often make all the other birds move, so they get the best observation spot. They are fearless.

Here, the mockingbird chased off one phoebe, and moved the other one out of the prime viewing area.

Now, the mockingbirds don’t only hunt out in the open. I often see them flying into the woods, and singing from the tip-tops of the trees (when crows aren’t using those spots!). So, I salute these fascinating creatures, my first gray bird friends.

Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe

I had never run into phoebes until I got to the ranch here. Since then, I’ve heard and seen them often in my house in Austin. I guess there just weren’t any at my first Texas house.

These may be gray, but they’re striking. Their heads are founded, and they have lovely light breasts. Photo copyright Pedro Alanis (CC).

Here, you can’t miss the little darlings. They have been nesting and raising babies in our porches, and sitting on the porches announcing their presence. They conveniently announce who they are by strongly shouting, “Phoebe! Phoebe!” You can’t miss them.

When they’re out on the fence among the other gray birds, the easiest way to distinguish phoebes from the others is the shape of their heads. They have some feathers at the top of their heads that makes it look bigger or more rounded than other birds. It makes them look sort of “husky.” They also have much shorter tails than the mockingbirds.

This photo by Benjamin Schwartz shows the little crest on its head.

Phoebes are flycatchers (actually tyrant flycatchers), so it’s no wonder they are out there every day going after insects. It’s their job. They’re so acrobatic, too, making loops and circles before heading back to the fence to chew and spot the next bug.

Right now I have at least a pair of them hanging around (the males are slightly darker), so I often get to enjoy two at a time. I’m so glad to share my home with them!

Loggerhead Shrike Lanius ludovicianus

I’ve written about these birds before, but they are the third gray bird I keep seeing on my fence. I feel honored to have a rare bird on the property.

Loggerhead Shrike Lanius ludovicianus along FM 2810 SW of Marfa, Presidio Co., Texas 12 September 2005. Photo copyright Greg Lasley (CC) – he’s one of the guys I looked at shrikes with before.

These are incredibly beautiful birds. I was just out back looking at a flock of American robins (they were eating smilax berries so loudly I could find them by ear), when I saw one of our shrikes in a tree by the pond. Their black-and white feathers are really striking from behind.

This beautiful photo by Jonathan Eisen (CC) of a parent and baby shows how easy it is to ID them from the back.

When I try to look at the gray birds out my window, the phoebe and the loggerhead shrike are initially hard to tell apart, thanks to the darned window screen, since they are both grayish birds with pale breasts.

That IS the shrike, however.

But, the phoebe is a more brownish gray, and has an entirely dark head, while the shrike has that cool “bandit mask” through its eyes. And of course, their behavior is different. I really enjoy running across the kills made by the shrikes, who impale them on our fences.

Here’s a photo I took last September of a bug caught by a shrike. You don’t even have to see them to know they were here!

As you can imagine, I keep seeing movement in my peripheral vision and feel compelled to check it out. Usually it’s one of these gray birds, but that’s not all I see. Right now I see a male cardinal (who I’d been hearing in the woods when I was looking at the robins), a mockingbird and the female phoebe. A few minutes ago, a troop of eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) came marching by in their quest for bugs on the ground.

Oh, and three large duck-shaped birds with rings around their necks flew over, and I had no idea what they were until I checked Merlin Bird ID and realized they were wood ducks! I sure wish I’d seen them in the water, since they are so beautiful

Winter is a FUN season for bird watching around here!

What can you see at your house?

PS: I looked out just now and saw another gray bird, but I easily identified it as Gertie, our guinea fowl.

Check Your Gauge, the Knitting Mantra

Pretty much any knitting pattern that is not an amorphous blob is supposed to come out a certain size. To do that, you have to knit a certain number of stitches per inch or four centimeters. You frequently see this (with the capital letters):

TAKE TIME TO CHECK YOUR GAUGE!

That means, don’t knit an entire sweater, only to discover it’s a baby sweater, not one for you, or vice versa. Knitting a little square in the pattern used in the item and measuring your stitches will help you make something come out like you wanted it to.

But, do people do that? Well, professionals usually do. Regular people just say, “What the heck,” and use the size of needles called for in the pattern and some yarn they figure is close to the one called for in the pattern (which is, quite often, no longer available).

What do I do? I immediately go two sizes of needles smaller than what’s called for, knowing that I knit loosely, and I try to use a yarn of the same weight as the one called for in the pattern. That often works. And it’s fine for a shawl, afghan, or other item that doesn’t need to be an exact size.

My latest project uses a simple lace pattern called Montague, by Berroco, which calls for a Linen blend worsted weight yarn (the original yarn is no longer available!). I’m using a 100% wool worsted weight yarn with a thick-and-thin texture, Noro Kureopatora (New). It’s for a table runner in Lee’s office. I started off using the size needle in the smaller range for the yarn, a 6. I knitted an inch or so, and Lee asked, “Doesn’t that seem a bit big?”

It does sorta look like a snake

Argh. Well, I hadn’t gotten too far, and it did show how nicely the seed stitch border will look. I frogged it (ripped it out), and re-started on two sizes smaller needles, size 4, which I should have done in the first place.

It came out significantly less wide, and most important, will fit on the piece of furniture it’s destined to rest on.

It’s still not 22 inches, as the instructions call for, but that’s okay. I just needed it to be more narrow than the stereo cabinet it will decorate. Now I can happily knit away.

Lesson? I should have checked my gauge!

It looks like delicious ice cream flavors.

The above picture is the entire border. Next is the lace pattern, which will require a bit of concentration. I got the first row established on my lunch hour, though, so I can work on it this evening after work.

Speaking of work, it is very hard to concentrate on it, because there is a pair of phoebes outside flitting around, catching bugs, and chasing each other. They are such beautiful birds. And with two of them, they are just like their call, “Phoebe! Phoebe!”

The screen makes it hard to see, but there’s a second bird farther along the fence.

That’s from yesterday. Today it’s raining again. Great news!

Have a good Tuesday. Those of you who pray, let’s pray for an uneventful day tomorrow. That’s where what spare energy I have is going!