Sunday, December 4, 2011

Nicaragua has huge f--king spiders.

Flying over Nicaragua.

Anyone that's a regular follower will know where I was this past week. Shooting footage for Punk Rock Big Year, in Nicaragua. I couldn't add any birds I saw to my big year, though there's been a suggestion by a few people that I should count them but use a different ink colour when I get the tats. I'm not quite convinced yet but we'll see. The trip was incredible. The coffee farm was incredible. The birds were incredible. The spiders were mind-numbingly terrifying. Ok, so a little thing not so many of you know about me. I'm 6' 2", 185 lbs. Not huge but not a little fella' either. I don't look like I scare easily and I don't. I can handle many situations without fear save someone stuffing a gun or spider in my face. I think I might fear the spider more. A gun in your face means you might have met your end but it'll undoubtedly be quick. A spider will take its time, paralyze you with fear and them maybe some poison. It won't likely kill you but leave you scarred beyond any other life experience. Maybe that's just how it goes with me. I have arachnophobia. Not the kind you make jokes about over a couple beers but the kind that actually freezes my muscles and makes me unable to act. I know it's ridiculous. I know it's a completely irrational fear but there it is, as real as the train I'm riding on right now. More on this later.

The new sign at Gaia Estate farm.

I visited a full-sun coffee farm (which will remain unnamed) and Gaia Estate organic, shade-grown, fair trade and Smithsonian Institute certified bird-friendly coffee farm. That's a mouthful to say for sure but if you are a birder and don't drink it (as much as humanly possible) you might just be a bad birder. Ok, maybe you are a good birder that doesn't overdo the iPod bird calls, that doesn't tread on private land for a tick and that doesn't plod into the bush and scare out a bird if it has become secretive. Let's just call you a bad coffee drinker if you don't drink Birds and Beans coffee. Ask my wife, things are often that black and white for me. Since I have become involved and educated about Birds and Beans, I can say that I probably have had about 50 or so cups of non- bird-friendly coffee. I even travel with my own bag of it, kettle and coffee press. The latter two items only cost me about $80. The coffee is priced roughly like any other good coffee per pound. So there's really no reason not to do it.

The birds
Our main reason for the trip was to prove the promises made to me by the owners of Birds and Beans Canada/USA that these farms were used extensively by both local and long- distance migrant birds. In truth, I trusted the owners implicitly, but for the documentary, it wouldn't have been very entertaining for you to have my face on screen saying as much to the camera. I wanted to experience it first hand (and secretly add many birds to my life list). I also wished to see if the difference between Gaia and a random full-sun farm were as vast as they told me. Let me say, the difference was staggering. We got a total of 71 species in two days birding Gaia Estate. The full-sun farm produced no more than 5 species. To be fair, we only birded there for about an hour and a half but it was clear that we'd be wasting our time to be there any longer. 3 out of the 5 were located at the very edges of the farm, near less affected forest, two Yellow Warblers were seen about 300 yards from the edge of the farm and the fifth species was a non-native species (Cattle Egret, not typically a user of heavily forested habitat, which this land only used to be). The other thing to note is that Gaia is only about a third the size of the sun coffee farm.

Squirrel Cuckoo by mindoconexion.
Collared Aracari by lightbrigade.

Our findings on Gaia Estate were extremely similar to that of Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman in January of 2011. We missed a couple they had and had a couple they didn't. Kenn was kind enough to send me his species accounts so we could do our research and make comparisons. I'm not anywhere near his league for bird knowledge but in my humble opinion, both local and our long-distance migrants are using Gaia Estate as a place to actively hunt for food, find shelter and even rear their young (we found several nests on the estate, some right in coffee plants). I feel it is extremely important for every birder (and non-birder) to drink this coffee and only this coffee. If we did, we would cause a ripple effect. Take money from the pocket of a big coffee company (like Starbucks) buying from full-sun and partial shade farms and they'll be quick to react and force their farms to go bird-friendly to recoup lost customers. My marketing experience is enough to know they'll do whatever they can to get their money back. Will you all do it? That's doubtful. But if I can just get some of you on board, that's a start. And then, you can tell two friends, and so on and so on (just like that famous ad campaign said).

White-throated Magpie Jay by bayucca (busy).
Turquoise-browed Motmot by Rainbirder.
My fave, Rufous-capped Warbler by Seabamirum.

The coffee
We also did a blind taste test of three types of coffee. Gaia's, a partial shade option and a full-sun option. The winner was clear and unanimous among myself and my three companions. The criteria were based on smell (grinds) and taste (fresh-pressed coffee). The owner of the Estate, Jefferson, is in the process of creating a small Eco-tourism plan. They are building cabins and out buildings that guests can stay in and experience the birds, beans, butterflies and trees. It is a very interesting idea and I'm going to help them in any way I can. I'll keep you all posted in case you are interested in visiting them when they are up and running.

Coffee cherries.

The spiders
Since the Eco-tourism part is in it's early stages, there's only one cabin to stay in. I was traveling with my cameraman Chris and two birders that are older than us. They would of course stay in the cabin and Chris and I were in a friend of Jefferson's place on the other side of a valley. This arrangement was fine with us as Jefferson was very graciously providing meals and a bed for us while we were there months ahead of his Eco-tourism schedule. The home we stayed in was not used recently and the bugs/spiders had clearly taken over. Chris and I are both heavily affected by arachnophobia. What are the chances of that? With both of us, it's not really a funny thing. Though we tried to joke as much as we could, we were both relatively paralyzed with fear when in close proximity to the spiders (of which there was no shortage). The ones in Nicaragua are just plain huge. One as large as the palm of my hand, leg tip to leg tip. Suffice to say we drank ourselves to sleep each night. I drank more beer in 5 days than I usually do in 2 months. One morning you could really tell by the look of me that I had had far too much alcohol the evening before. On top of that, we took an Ativan before retiring. I wasn't worried about the health effects, I had done plenty of drugs when I was younger and knew I'd wake up each morning to do my birding. I don't condone my actions but it was the only way I could get any sleep. My other companions, Richard and Margaret, staying in the first built cabin didn't have the same experience. Nor did Kenn and Kim. Kenn dreamt of the garden of Eden and I dreamt of my demise.

A hand-sized spider on our wall.
Margaret and Richard's cabin.

Bonus (the butterflies)
Something I never expected were all the amazing butterflies among other really cool insects. I don't fear insects at all. In fact I quite like seeing them. They are a sure sign of a healthy ecosystem. There were plenty to see at Gaia. We had Azure butterflies, Owl butterflies, many ant species (leaf-cutters among the coolest) and so many others that I can't remember all the names. There were so many butterflies that they were nearly running in to me all the time. I found this to be another great indicator of the need to farm coffee in only this way. On the full-sun farm, there was not even one butterfly. In fact, I only saw one insect; a dragonfly passing high overhead. This is no doubt from all the pesticide used specifically so there are no insects. Without any native species of plants, the insects would only have the coffee to feed on.

This large Owl butterfly's wing has been attacked by something.

The crew
I travelled with a few people. One, a photographer I have worked a great deal with in advertising over the last many years. His name is Chris Gordaneer and you can see some of his work here. Below are some portraits he did of the farm employees. The others are the two people that have helped me with the big year portion of the film more than anyone else. Richard Pope is a retired York U professor/author and Margaret Bain, a retired baby doctor. Dr. Margaret delivered many of the people in the city I grew up in. She started at Oshawa General a year or so after I was born. Had she started a couple years earlier there, she might have delivered me. How cool would that have been? Meeting 40 years later and heading to the Niagara Gorge looking for gulls with the woman that brought me into the world.

© Chris Gordaneer 
© Chris Gordaneer
Richard, Margaret Freder and I birding.

The conclusion
Bird friendly coffee is the only way to go. It is a unique situation where all sides benefit. The environment is preserved, the farmers are working in a healthier environment and fairly paid and it's better for the customer as they get a superior product. It's win, win, win as they say. So please, do this simple thing for me. Order some Birds and
Beans coffee today. It doesn't matter where you live in the US and Canada. They deliver it right to your door. If you have a coffee system at work, try and get them to switch to Birds and Beans product. Ask your favourite barista if their coffee is bird-friendly. Politely demand that they get Birds and Beans. I promise you, you'll be making a difference. The proof is in our lists.

Our second last sunset.

Trip lists
(G) seen or heard on Gaia Estate 
(H) heard only

Thicket Tinamou (H) (G)
Magnificent Frigatebird
Great Egret
Cattle Egret
Black Vulture (G)
Turkey Vulture (G)
Cooper’s Hawk (G)
Common Black-Hawk
Roadside Hawk (G)
Broad-winged Hawk (G)
American Kestrel (G)
Bat Falcon
Plain Chachalaca (H) (G)
Spotted Sandpiper
Caspian Tern
Rock Pigeon
Red-billed Pigeon (G)
White-winged Dove (G)
Ruddy Ground-Dove
Inca Dove (G)
White-tipped Dove (G)
Orange-fronted Parakeet (G)
Orange-chinned Parakeet (G)
White-fronted Parrot (G)
Squirrel Cuckoo (G)
Groove-billed Ani (G)
Lesser Ground-Cuckoo (H) (G)
Pacific Screech-Owl (H) (G)
Mottled Owl (H) (G)
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (H) (G)
Common Nighthawk (G)
Mexican Whip-poor-will (H) (G)
Vaux’s Swift (G)
Canivet’s Emerald (G)
Cinnamon Hummingbird (G)
Steely-vented Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (G)
Black-headed Trogon (G)
Ringed Kingfisher
Blue-crowned Motmot (G)
Turquoise-browed Motmot (G)
Collared Aracari (G)
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker (G)
Barred Antshrike (H) (G)
Long-tailed Manakin (G)
Northern Beardless-Tyrranulet (G)
Yellow-olive Flycatcher (G)
Tropical Pewee (G)
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (G)
Dusky-capped Flycatcher (G)
Great Crested Flycatcher (G)
Brown-crested Flycatcher (G)
Great Kiskadee (G)
Boat-billed Flycatcher (G)
Social Flycatcher (G)
Piratic Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird (G)
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (G)
Masked Tityra (G)
Gray-breasted Martin
Blue-and-white Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (G)
Cliff Swallow (G)
Barn Swallow (G)
Rufous-naped Wren (G)
Banded Wren (G)
Rufous-and-White Wren (G)
Plain Wren (G)
Wood Thrush (H) (G)
Clay-colored Robin (G)
Tropical Gnatcatcher (H) (G)
White-throated Magpie-Jay (G)
Yellow-throated Vireo (G)
Philadelphia Vireo (G)
Tennessee Warbler (G)
Yellow Warbler (G)
Black-and-white Warbler (G)
Ovenbird (G)
Rufous-capped Warbler (G)
Western Tanager (G)
Blue-gray Tanager
Stripe-headed Sparrow
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (G)
Melodious Blackbird (G)
Great-tailed Grackle (G)
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole (G)
Orchard Oriole (G)
Montezuma Oropendola (G)
House Sparrow

Long-distance migrants seen on Gaia Estate that breed in Ontario, Canada:

Turkey Vulture
Cooper’s Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
American Kestrel
Common Nighthawk
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
Wood Thrush
Yellow-throated Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Tennessee Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Black-and-White Warbler
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Baltimore Oriole
Orchard Oriole

Long-distance migrants seen on full-sun estate that breed in Ontario, Canada:

Yellow Warbler


90 species seen in Nicaragua
71 species seen on Gaia Estate
5 species seen on full-sun estate
21 long-distance migrant species seen on Gaia Estate
1 long-distance migrant species seen on full-sun estate

Our last meal was at the ocean. Just a 30 minute drive away from the farm. Nice view.

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

Thursday, November 17, 2011

You're a birdwatcher?

"You're a birdwatcher?" That's a question I get over and over. It is inevitably followed by, "You really don't look like a birdwatcher." If I push the issue, I always get the same thing, "I though birdwatchers were all little old ladies in Tilley hats." I hear this happens to a lot of birders my age that 'look' like me. Below are some people I've met this year that don't fit the stereotype. None of them are old ladies; they may have a Tilley hat but I doubt it. All of them however have lots of tattoos, are heavily into music and are crazy nuts for birding. If you are one of those old ladies out there in the field wondering what the person covered in tattoos is doing at the sewage lagoons, now you know. Enjoy the punk birders telling you about themselves in their own words.



My tattoos are bats that were originally art by former Groovie Ghoulies front man, Kepi Ghoulie.  The Groovie Ghoulies were one of the first bands that I got into when I "found" punk rock, and I always liked his art. There isn't much more story or meaning behind them beyond that.

I have been interested in birds and wildlife in general for as long as I can remember.  I grew up in a rural area on a farm type setting.  There were always birds we looked for - most notably the bald eagles that always seemed to be in the same stand of trees year after year. We almost always had chickens and an uncle with a farm "a field away" who had an assortment of different types of fowl. When I was a bit older, I raised pigeons.  

While the interest was always there, I didn't get into birding until I visited Farmington Bay WMA almost four years ago.  I had no clue it existed until I heard an advertisement from a local NPR station about a field trip out there.  I skipped their field trip but went on my own. I was utterly amazed at what was just a mere 30 minutes from my home. Watching great blue herons fly over me towards the seemingly endless wetlands as I walked along the dike roads was enough to hook me... And have been hooked ever since.



Since I was a kid, I've always loved tattoos, but never thought I'd be 'allowed' to have any. They were merely an art form that I observed from afar. I grew up in a religious home and tattoos were considered taboo. I'm a grown ass man now and concluded, "If my body is a temple, tattoos will be the stain-glass windows." After that, all bets were off and in 1999 I got a small tattoo of the sun on my shoulder. It was a pretty bad ink job that quickly faded and long since been covered. I got a few small tattoos during the next 4--5 years: a band around my arm that makes the skin look braided, a kanji that means 'energy' and the four aces from a deck of cards. My wife and I were married in 2005. For our anniversary we thought we'd get matching tattoos. We considered a bunch of different designs and styles. Since we were married in the 'Year of the Rooster' we went with that theme. After getting a big piece we were fully addicted. Since then, we both have 30+ hours in the chair. I've got a heart wearing headphones on my chest "always listening to beats!", The cards and kanji are now surrounded by a horseshoe, a flower, and a banner that reads, 'wonder junkie'. The armband serves as the base for the whole piece. The rest of that area is filled in with wind bars. The back of my right calf is covered with a 'wizard-like' hand holding some Skittles candy and words shooting out that say, "the left hand knows". It's a bit zany, but I really like it. Surprisingly, getting ink on my calf hurt the worst of all. I've got transport control buttons (rewind, fast forward, play, pause, stop) down my bicep behind the rooster. Across my wrists it say's "live music". My latest is an old school styled bird. Not a particular species, but more a symbol. Let's call it a sparrow. It's my favorite tat so far.  My wife has about 1/3 of her body covered. She's a trooper for ink.

I was informed the Boy Scouts had erected a Great-Blue Heron rookery about 15 miles from my house. So on June 30, 2009, I enthusiastically headed to the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area to find me some Herons! I reckon that was my first outing as a birder and consider it my birding birthday. I didn't know it yet, but I had found my conduit for getting in touch with nature and the divine. Not God, the divine. I couldn't believe I lived so close to such great habitat. So as I fell in love with birds, I also fell in love with the Great Salt Lake and it's surrounding wetlands. I grew up in the area and had no idea such places existed near our dead sea. In Utah, we're moslty mountain people and the Great Salt Lake is largely ignored. I spent a great deal of 2010 exploring every accessible shore of the Great Salt Lake. It's amazing. Nowadays, I'm well aware of the GSL's key importance to all birds. Particularly, migratory birds. It's a global rest stop. Paydirt for birders. Bald Eagles winter in the area as well. Bald Eagles are easy to exalt and after a season of watching them I was well on my way to becoming a fully obsessed birder. I'm getting close to adding the 300th bird to my life list and this year I've ticked 276 species. If I'm outside or looking out a window, chances are I'm birding. Birds have made life simpler and my soul feels ever full. I doubt I'll ever look back for there are more birds up ahead! So if you're birding in Utah and find a tatted up, mohawk wearing, middle-aged badass with binoculars glued to his face, come say hello. "I never thought I'd find myself standing in a field, looking for birds. But there I was, finding myself."



I am in love with all things wild. My passion for the natural world was fostered during my childhood when my mom brought me to the ocean to swim, surf, and explore.  I vividly remember being captivated and enthralled by the foraging behavior of sanderlings. My innate passion and love for wildness was nurtured when I moved to the Southern Appalachians of Western North Carolina to study botany and work as a Botanist Assistant at a native plant sanctuary in Asheville, N.C. From there I traveled to the Adirondacks and lived in a little cabin that was off the grid and electricity free for two years. After a six year hiatus from academia I decided to go back to school. I truly want to affect change and do everything that I can to conserve biodiversity and work towards solving important environmental problems. I am currently a senior at the University of Rhode Island studying Wildlife Conservation Biology. I have been fortunate to work for the U.S. F&WS as a Biological Science Technican for the past year and half and have had the opportunity to dedicate my time, energy, and passions to various conservation issues including the management and protection of endangered shorebirds.

Paul asked me to talk about my tattoos and my love of birds. There are so many reasons that I am in love with birds and birding. To put it simply birds fill me with an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual contentment that is acutely intimate and deeply satisfying. Birding allows me to connect with my bioregion or any bioregion that I am visiting and with the biotic community in general. Modernity has alienated me from the natural world and the experience of birding helps re-wild my heart and reconnect me with nature. As a field biologist I am very fascinated and interested with the life history of birds, specifically with their migration, breeding, and foraging ecology. I am very passionate about conservation biology and I have some big goals in conservation that I am looking forward to accomplishing. I decided to get tattoos that reflect the experiences and animals that bring me joy and happiness. The animals that I have tattooed on me are of species that I encounter on a regular basis. Seeing a Black-capped chickadee in the heart of winter puts a smile on my face and reminds me of the beauty of life and how important it is to protect and conserve the natural world. I identify strongly with bio-regionalism on a political, social, and emotional level. My tattoos express my love of birds, wildness, and bioregionalism.



I'd love to tell you a story about how I got hooked on birding that includes some reference to me being inspired by a famous bird writer or being encouraged by a father figure; but that just isn't me! I don't have heros and believe me during my youth I never had a worthy father figure. My obsession with birding had almost certainly grown out of nature rather than nurture; though to be fair there was some encouragement by my mother and school teachers along the way.

I started birding seriously at quite a young age; initially as a form of escape from a less than pleasant home life. As I got more drawn into the world of birding my obsession grew. I think it is the adrenaline buzz you get when you see something new (or at least think that you have something new) that got me hooked!

I feel very fortunate to have met all these folks through this past year trying to make and promote a birding documentary. Even if only knowing them online, it has been great to know that I'm not alone as a punk birder.



I'm 26, an intern with BirdLife Malta and really passionate about wildlife conservation. My love of birds definitely preceded my love of tattoos, the ones I remember from the 90s were things like geckos and those barbed wire armbands. Either those or wrinkly bulldogs on the arms of pot-bellied, pub-lurking men in their fifties.

My mum was the one who introduced me to birding, my dad would constantly tease us with 'it's just a fat sparrow!' but I feel really lucky to have been taught the names of most British species just through family walks and trips to feed the ducks at our local park. It surprised me when I realized that not all 10 year olds knew a Coot from a Moorhen or a Blue Tit from a Great Tit.

I started thinking about tattoos when I was about 18 and into the alternative music scene. Suddenly everyone had tribal tattoos, which at the time I thought were cool but now I am so relieved I didn't get. My back piece came about when I was at uni by the sea. I used to watch Starling murmurations almost every evening in winter while sitting on a beach and it made me realize that I desperately wanted to work in conservation, to help wildlife in some way. So there they are, my six starlings.


There you have it, five tattooed birders. And that's not all of them I've met. I'll be making this a regular page on the blog soon enough so if you are an alternative birder (to the stereotype) and want to be featured, let me know. i'll be super happy to do this again.

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A lifer that doesn't count.

This past weekend was a bit of a whirlwind. I drove 1500 round trip to a place where no birds I saw would count towards my big year number. But I didn't care about that because I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the Ohio Young Birders Conference. No only that, I'd get a change to meet, interview and go birding with North America's number one bird expert, Kenn Kaufman.

You should know that Punk Rock Big Year only exists because of four sentences Kenn wrote many years ago in Kingbird Highway. It was a conversation with a non-birder. When that non-birder found out Kenn was a birdwatcher, they said:

"You can't be. Aren't birdwatchers all little old ladies with blue hair? Or old guys with skinny legs and funny-looking shorts and safari hats? If you were a real birdwatcher, wouldn't you be wearing a little birdwatcher's uniform?

When I read that, I thought to myself, "People say that to me all the time." That happened to Kenn in the early 70s and it was still happening to me to this day. The stereotype was still prevalent so many years later. I don't need to remind you of how I'm attempting to smash that stereotype to bits.

So when Kenn and his wife Kim asked me to attend the Ohio Young Birders Conference, I was really honored and there was no way I could miss out on the chance to meet the dude that inspired my whole project. I arrived after taking ten hours to drive an eight hour drive. Why? Well, I forgot my passport at home. That meant I had to drive all the way back home to get it. Then, we got back on the road and drove almost straight except for a quick stop to grab lunch at Aunt Millie's. It was a great, fast lunch and a chance to get the footage until that point onto a hard drive. We arrived in Columbus Ohio at about 8:15 pm. A guy walked up behind me in the lobby of a restaurant and says, "Hey, are you guys birders?" I turn around to see Kenn Kaufman standing there. Then Kim comes around the corner and gives me a hug. We chat a bit over a meal and head to the hotel as it'll be an early start.

The Ohio Young Birders Conference is a unique conference. How so? It's completely controlled by the young birders that started it five years ago. They are the paid speakers, they help organize it all, they kind of run the show. Logistics that they can't handle are graciously covered by the staff of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO). In the morning there was a bird walk with Kenn as the leader. I was amazed to find that some of these kids that were under 15 years of age were able to tell what birds were around just by sound. I got a lifer in the second bird we saw. We were surrounded by Carolina Chickadees. I got a lifer my first time birding with Kenn. When I said as much, he stopped walking, looked at me with a happy expression, extended his hand and said, "Congratulations man." That's how it is with birders. We are genuinely happy for a complete stranger when they get a new bird because we know the awesome feeling of discovering something new. The walk was followed by a banding demonstration in which we saw them band a leucistic Hermit Thrush. It had white feathers scattered all over its body. Then there were the speakers. Most of them were under 16. All of them gave interesting talks about their experiences with birds or field biology in general. One of them went to Alaska for two months studying shorebirds in a field camp. It was an inspiring story that so many other young people would have been jealous of. Hell, I was jealous. What I would have given for an opportunity like that.

Bird banding demonstration. Notice one kid up in a tree to the right.

Kenn helping a pretty young birder with ID.

The presenters at the Ohio Young Birders Conference.

Carolina Chickadee by cotinis. Mostly told by geographical location.
Notice it shows a little less white on the wing in general. 
Black-capped Chickadee by noflickster. Shows more white on wing.

After the conference, the young birders went on their way and a bunch of the organizers went for a bite to eat. I bought Kenn the birthday pint I had promised him a few months ago. Then, we headed up to Oak Harbor. Jon, my cameraman and I crashed at Ken Keffer's house. In the morning, Ken made us a Birds and Beans coffee and we sat out front of his house watching birds and drinking coffee. We saw Rusty Blackbirds, a single Eastern Bluebird, Grackles, Robins, a Bluejay and we heard Juncos and a White-breasted Nuthatch. Then, we headed to a local spot for breakfast with Kenn and Kim. After eating, we headed over to the BSBO headquarters and interviewed Kenn. Then, after all that stuff, Kenn and I went birding. Most birds are already passed through the area but I didn't care, I was going birding with Kenn Kaufman. We did see a few things: Winter Wren, Carolina Wren, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Golden-crowned Kinglet, White-throated Sparrow, Canada Geese, Great Blue Heron, Rusty Blackbirds and a rather large flock of American Crows. Birding with Kenn is very interesting. It's not just looking at birds, it's learning about them. Things you didn't know are brought to your attention in an educational way that isn't intrusive but just casual conversation. I now know that Carolina Chickadees tend to look a little darker on the folded wings than Black-capped Chickadees and that the reason a Hairy Woodpecker is called that is because the bottom edge of the white feathers on its back. They are stiffer and hairier when the Downy's are softer, downier. Let me just say it was super-cool to go birding with Kenn. At 2:30, Jon and I hit the road toward Canada, laden with a whole bunch of gifts from Kim Kaufman and the BSBO. Kim is so thoughtful that she even included something for my kids and Rachel. I was invited to come back in the spring for The Biggest Week in American Birding. There was even mention of me leading a bird walk or two. I'm not sure I'm qualified but Kenn and Kim seem to think I am. Either way, they suggested we keep in touch and I most certainly will. I've always got room for good people in my life.

Kenn and I birding the famous Magee Marsh boardwalk.
In spring, there are more warblers here than anywhere in the world.

I returned home to a very sick family. Both Shep and Georgia had a fresh flu from the one they had when I left. Rachel was also feeling a tad shitty.

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

Monday, October 31, 2011

Ottawa hates me, it really hates me.

OK, I shouldn't complain but I've really not had the best luck with the city of Ottawa and surrounding areas. Birders out that way have been gifted with so many rare birds this year. I might have been able to get to 300 birds for my big year if I had lived out there. But as my friend Richard puts it, "Riss, if you lived out there, they'd be having a shit year and Cobourg would be full of rarities." What does all this mean? Well, it means I dipped on what might have been the rarest bird for my big year. And this bird isn't just your run of the mill jerk, it's a complete a-hole. It's there the day before I go, giving "excellent scope views" and "excellent scope views" the day after I leave. But on the day I go, nuthin'! The bird in question is a Razorbill. According to Kenn Kaufman (as posted on my Facebook page) its the closest living relative to the extinct Great Auk! Pretty cool.

Great Auk by Museum Wales.
Razorbill by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region.

You all kind of know my situation. Full-time job, twins, wife with a new store. So when something so rare shows up and I know I have to go get it, I do what any twitcher might do. Skip work, abandon my ever understanding wife and drive about 400kms to see it. I grabbed my cameraman Jon and friends Richard and Margaret (the latter two retired and able to more comfortably do these things) so we could film this trip for the film.

We get up before the sun to go because I need to be home at 7pm FOR SURE because Rachel has a class to attend. Should be no problem right, it's only a 3.5 hour drive, we see the bird and drive back. Theoretically it should really only take 9 hours in total. If I leave at 7,  that gives me 12 hours to complete a 9 hour trip. That's 3 hours of error time. Good situation right? Nope. We get there all excited to find this thing. We don't find it. We meet a local birder that can help us look in other places it's been seen. He joins our party and off we go. We check every possible spot. No bird. There were two other possible birds, Red Phalarope and Western Grebe. Neither of those show themselves either. Coincidentally, the Western Grebe starts showing nicely the day after we leave too.

Western Grebe by Mark L. Watson.

The day wasn't a total bust though. I did add Black Scoter to my year list and also I saw some Red-throated Loons. I saw them really quite close up too. Such a nice bird with their heads held high as they swim along. They look almost silvery on the water with so much white on them in their winter plumage. Then, just as we are going to go find a public washroom somewhere, a car drives up, rolls its window down and a man sticks his head out and says, "Possible Pom Jaeger. First parking lot west of the bridge between Ontario and Quebec." This was cool. It would be a lifer for me. So we hop in the car, abandoning the idea of a bathroom and I drive, possibly way too fast, to the spot. We get the wrong parking lot, twice. We know because there's no crowd of birders with their scopes all pointed in the same direction. We finally find the right spot. Lots of cars in the lot means we probably have it right.

Red-throated Loon by davidhofmann08.
Black Scoter by Rick Leche.

We get amazingly close views of the bird sitting on a rock. Now this is a sea bird. A pretty nasty hunter too (Jaeger means hunter in German). Non-birders would call it a brown seagull. You don't always see them just sitting on a rock. I also saw some birders that I met back in the spring at Point Pelee. This happens on a twitch. You just end up running into the same folks again and again. The group decided it was a Pomarine Jaeger. I got such great views with Richard's Carl Zeiss 60x scope. The details were really amazing. Sure it was brownish but the slight details were really subtle and beautiful. It had a silvery bill with a black, hooked tip. The texture on its body and wings were amazing. You could see every detail at this distance. Later that day, some folks that had lots of time and many photographs decided to change it to a Parasitic Jaeger. Something about the very thin bill and a few other details. The digi-scoped photos must have been pretty easy for a real expert to work from. It was pretty close to us.

Parasitic Jaeger by BruceLC.

We searched in vain for that Razorbill for the rest of our time there. To no avail. At 2:45, I knew I'd missed the bird. I had to be back by 7 and leaving by 3 gave me 4 hours to do a 3 hour drive. No problem right? Guess again. We hit this insane traffic jam just by Kingston. So many cars, so few lanes. We were at a complete standstill for at least 15 minutes at one point. The others in the car could feel me getting worried about my very important 7pm deadline. I got really worried when cars began to reverse back past us on the grass beside the highway. At a certain point it became clear I wouldn't make it home on time. So what does a grown man do in that situation? Call his mom of course. I called her and asked if she could drop over to the house at 6:45 to watch the kids until I got home so Rachel could go to her 7pm class. One thing about moms, they will never let you down. Well, mine won't anyway. After the traffic cleared, I drove at insane speeds. The kind you lose your license for if you get caught, dropped Richard and Margaret off and literally flew home as fast as my Subaru would take me. I got there at 7:10. Not bad but certainly not good. Rachel was very understanding again. She must be getting kind of tired of that. Only two months more of this shit left.

I hate this feeling. Traffic Jam by Wyscan.

Saturday Rachel was busy working so I had the opportunity to try and make birders out of my kids again without her meddling in my affairs. This time we would head to the spot I got hooked and I'd try and see what happened if I setup the same experience I had when I was young. IT WORKED. Shep was instantly addicted to feeding chickadees by hand. Dad was pretty proud. Georgia on the other hand tried it once and complained that the bird had bitten her. I explained that it just grabbed a seed from her hand. She went on to say that she wanted to leave immediately and that this would never happen again. Somewhere, Rachel must have been smiling. Georgia is her mother's daughter. Rachel doesn't dislike birds by any means but she isn't interested in them very much, other than maybe painting them. But she doesn't pay any attention to the proper colours. In her mind, a Winter Wren is nice but it'd be nicer if it were entirely peacock blue with yellow bars instead of brown on brown. So, that's just how she painted it. Anyway, after birding for a half hour, I took the kids to Baldwin St. Burger. When we left there for home, Shepard said to me, "Dad, can we go birdwatching again?" I was in birder-dad heaven for a half second. That was shattered by Georgia's blood-curdling scream. "NOOOOOOOOOOO, I DON'T LIKE BIRDWATCHING." I guess one outa' two ain't bad.

P.S. - I had a picture of this but for some reason my iPhone using iOS5 didn't save it anywhere. Guess we gotta' go out and try again next weekend...

Sunday, we had a little party for the kids. A combo Halloween and early birthday party. We decided to do the party early to separate it from Christmas. Also, last time we had a birthday near their Dec. 8th date, someone showed up and brought the nastiest puking flu with them. This ensured that at least one of my family was vomiting throughout the entire two weeks I had off for the holidays. Not so fun. If that happens again, it'll surely be out of our system by Christmas break. Fingers crossed.

Spooky Shep.

Understanding wife.

October 27, 2011 day list

Parasitic Jaeger
Red-throated Loon
Black Scoter

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year