Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Back in Ontario.

After a week working in Vancouver and not getting any birding done in Ontario, I flew back Sunday, January 23rd. I arrived to a very tired wife (as anyone would be looking after a couple crazed 3 year olds for 9 days) and some very excited children. I decided to take a couple days off work since I had been away for two weekends in a row. We spent Monday just hanging out and thoroughly enjoying being a complete family again.
It didn't take long to get the itch to twitch again though. I checked out some of the online postings and there were a couple of very interesting birds to be had at Presqu'ile Provincial Park about 45 minutes east of Orono. I contacted a new friend, Richard Pope, and he agreed to go and try for them with me. The first and more possible bird was a Barrow's Goldeneye. I saw plenty of them in the ocean at Stanley Park in Vancouver but it's a tough one here in Ontario. You can really only get them in winter and Presqu'ile is a pretty good place to get one.

Barrow's Goldeneye by ingridtaylar

The second bird, one I have seen once before but not this year, is a Boreal Chickadee. Chickadees have a special place in my memories. They were one of the first birds that got me hooked on birding. My dad used to take me to a spot where you could feed Black-capped Chickadees in your hand. I loved it right away. And one of the things I find most fun about birding in new places is a bird that is structurally very similar to another one but just has different plumage. It makes me wonder why they are different when their habitat is not a huge visual departure. I don't think that brown cap does much more to help a Boreal Chickadee blend in to its surroundings than the black  cap of a Black-capped Chickadee.

Boreal Chickadee by Firstmac
Sadly, I missed both birds yesterday. On top of that, my kids didn't take their usual nap in the afternoon. As a result, it was an unfair position to put my wife in after me being away for 9 days. When I got home, my son sat me down and said that he didn't want me to leave him again. I think he actually thought I was leaving for a long time. I knew doing a big year would be difficult at times but when you go out and fail like I did yesterday at the expense of a happy wife, it almost doesn't seem worth it. So let me publicly apologize to Rachel and my kids. And to thank them for supporting me in this slightly crazy endeavor.
It wasn't all bad though, I was birding with great people and I did see a couple new birds for this year. We also saw what we decided was a hybrid Barrow's Goldeneye/Hooded Merganser. It was a full adult male and quite interesting to see. But as Hugh Currie might say, "It's nice, but it's not a tick."

January 24th, 2011 day listCommon Raven, Orono.
January 25th, 2011 day list
Pine Siskin (On Sunday morning before going to Presqu'ile)
Song Sparrow  (On Sunday morning before going to Presqu'ile)

Red-breasted Nuthatch (On Sunday morning before going to Presqu'ile)
Barred Owl

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Spotted Towhee = Yes! Ontario = No!

As you know, I'm hoping to see that Spotted Towhee in Long Point. It'd be a great bird for an Ontario big year. I saw one today. Hell, I saw about 40. BUT, I'm not in Ontario. I'm in Vancouver. So they don't count. That's OK. They were as amazing as they'd be in Ontario, jumping around, tossing dead leaves about looking for a snack. I had a day off today and spent it walking around Stanley Park looking for birds. It was a great day. A little rainy but very birdy too.

As I sit in my fancy, smancy hotel and listen to Motorhead, I'm going to leave you with my day list and a video of some avian pals from today. I'm going to guess I'm the only one rocking Ian Fraser Kilmister in this place tonight.

January 16th, 2011 day list. (None able to be on the PRBY list)

Canada Goose
Gold-crowned Kinglet (hundreds of them)
Northwestern Crow
Ring-billed Gull
Fox Sparrow
Spotted Towhee
Black-capped Chickadee
American Wigeon
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Bonaparte's Gull
Northern Flicker (Red-shafted race)
Varied Thrush
Wood Duck
Barrow's Goldeneye (Lifer. Well, the male)
Song Sparrow
Chestnut-backed Chickadee (The Hell's Angels of Stanley Park)
Brown Creeper
Dark-eyed Junco (I love the western ones)
Red-breasted Sapsucker
Bewick's Wren (Lifer)
Black Oystercatcher
Surf Scoter
Greater Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Mute Swan
Great-blue Heron
Lesser Scaup
Ring-necked Duck
Bald Eagle

Total birds today: 33
Total towards Punk Rock Big Year: 0

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year

Friday, January 14, 2011

The office finally helps my Big Year

After my post yesterday, all about my job getting the way, it presents me with bird number 56.

I work directly in the middle of the city. Yonge & Bloor, Toronto. There are not a lot of species to be had from my office on the 17th floor, save a few raptors and pigeons. I often watch the action from my desk. I've witnessed the death of many a pigeon from there. Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting in a really important meeting discussing some ongoing projects with my bosses. Suddenly, they both see that my attention is not where it should be any more. I'm sure they notice this all the time. My mind tends to wander at the best of times. What caught my attention this time was a big Red-tailed Hawk circling just outside the window. Nice to see but I already have that species for my Big Year. Then, out of nowhere, a Peregrine Falcon whips through my field of vision. It missed the mark but was quick to fly up above the hawk again. It got a certain height, recoiled it's wings and dove again. The speed at which it did this was, as usual, incredible. The second time it didn't miss. The hawk dropped lower in the air from the impact. This happened over and over as the hawk tried to escape the beating. For those that don't know, a Peregrine Falcon is smaller than a Red-tailed Hawk. It was a bit of a David and Goliath situation. Fun to watch. The hawk eventually got out of the area owned by the Peregrine. The falcon perched on top of the CIBC building on the North-West corner of the intersection as if to say, "Tell your friends what happened here today!"

So, thanks DDB for species number 56.

Peregrine Falcon

Total birds to date: 56

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Long Point and a Spotted Towhee

It's just been a few days since I saw the Varied Thrush west of Waterloo. It was a 2.5 hour drive that resulted in a great experience and a great bird. Already, I have a bird to chase even further away. A Spotted Towhee is being regularly seen at a feeder on Long Point. This one is three and a half hours drive. One way. It's even more important to get this one than the Thrush was. They just don't come to Ontario very often. Though their range seems to extend closer to Ontario than the Thrush, it seems like it's a harder bird to get here. You can learn more about them here.

The easy way to do this would be go and see the bird this weekend. The problem with that isn't family related this time, its work. Maybe you know, maybe you don't, but I'm an Associate Creative Director at Canada's top advertising agency (not everyone would agree with that statement), DDB Canada. It's a stressful job at times and doesn't really care too much about my Spotted Towhee. They are very supportive of me on this personal project but wouldn't let it get in the way of getting the work done, and done well. Right now, things are VERY busy at work. I have a few pretty important projects on the go. Time sensitive stuff. Stuff that is going to fly me out to Vancouver for about 10 days starting this Saturday at 5am. As you can see, this weekend is not going to happen. Nor is next weekend (I fly back next sunday). The time change will make sure I miss out on the chance to go that day.

So, it looks like there's no way I'll see this bird. Very frustrating. It's only compounded by the fact that my photo shoot was moved a few days for reasons I can't discuss here. Effectively making me miss a trip I had planned for next Saturday to Ottawa to see a Gray Partridge (among others). This will be another hard bird to find later this year. I doubt I will. Not to mention that it would be good chance at a Snowy Owl which for some reason are not being seen as much this year. All of the above is pilled on top of the fact that I won't see my family for 10 days. Hotel living is not something I enjoy without their company.

This is getting to be a rather depressing post. Let's 'happy' it up a bit. I always get to do a bit of birding when I travel for work. I really look forward to seeing a flock of Westen Grebes on the west side of Stanley Park. They always seem to be there when I go in the winter. Then there's the Red-breasted Sapsucker at the trees by the Pier. And I have the chance to go to Brackedale where all the Bald Eagles hang out in big numbers. That'll be fun. Rainy, but fun.

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius) = Yes!

What a great weekend. I didn't add lots of birds but what I added was important. Best of all was the Varied Thrush near Waterloo. It was quite a day for one bird (though I got two more on route).

I left the house at 10am, much to the dismay of my two children, Shepard and Georgia. It's always tough to leave the house while they are wailing that they don't want me to go. My mother has since informed me that they forgot about me within moments of me leaving. I wonder if she's just trying to make me feel a little less guilty. It was an hours drive into Toronto to drop my wife at a friend's and pick up my cameraman. Then another 2 hours to the location where the bird was. It was pretty easy to find thanks to some directions I got from a birding hot line.

We got the camera set up and waited. We filmed a little of me talking about the bird. We filmed a few sparrows and chickadees eating. Then, suddenly, it arrived. At that exact moment, the camera stopped working. We had some technical difficulties. I watched the bird as my cameraman and friend, Chris Gordaneer, cursed Canon and several other random things. The bird was a perfect looking specimen. The colour was just perfect, not a feather out of place. As quickly as it arrived, it left. And the camera started working just then too. More curses were thrown about the car by both Chris and myself. I saw it, but had no footage for the documentary of the bird. As luck would have it, that Thrush was hungry and returned. Our camera was in fine working order and we got some great footage.

Afterward, we were invited into the home to warm up by a nice wood fire. The homeowner was a very interesting man, a retired violin maker. He showed us some other shots of birds he'd had at his feeder. Great birds. And he told us many stories about his property. He had been living there for 45 years and knew every inch of the land. One thing he said really stuck with me. As we sat beside the wood stove in a moment of silence, he said, "A wood fire is the best heat there is. Do you know why?"
To that I replied, "No, I don't."
"It's because that tree spent so many years collecting the heat of the sun, and now, it's giving all that back to us." he said, staring at the stove. 
That has nothing to do with birding but everything to do with the experience of birding. You never know exactly what you'll see, but it's always amazing.

Varied Thrush
Hairy Woodpecker
Rough-legged Hawk

Total birds to date: 55

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ixoreus naevius = NO; Calcarius lapponicus, Plectrophenax nivalis, Eremophila alpestris = YES

Today was to be an important day for my Big Year. I was going to drive 200 kilometers to see a Varied Thrush and then come home. Yes, 400 kilometers for one bird. This is an important bird for me as my Big Year only includes birds seen within the province of Ontario. This bird, if you aren't a birder, generally sticks to the west coast in Canada. It's actually pretty common to see in Vancouver (I've seen it there many times). But here in Ontario, not so much.

I awoke at 6am this morning to the sound of my son crying my name. He's got a cold and isn't sleeping well, which means I'm also not sleeping well (even after 3 pints last night with our good friends Brad and Jude). Once we got moving and some breakfast into us we started to feel a bit better. Then I got a text message from Derek, the cameraman that was going to film me chasing the Thrush. He explained I should check the weather report. Though it looked fine in my hometown of Orono, Toronto was a mess. 6 inches of snow on the major highways and no sign of any plows. I logged onto a website that shows highway camera views along the route I'd need to take to see this bird. It was pretty ugly. This was clearly not going to happen today.

I was pissed off for sure. I mean, who knows how long this bird will stay. Especially with weather like that. My mother, who would be watching the kids today, said, "Just go tomorrow. I'll watch the kids again." Thanks mom. So, after much finagling, like finding a new cameraman as Derek would be working Sunday, I have the chance to go tomorrow provided the weather gets better. The forecast is good. We'll see.

On the bright side of things, I got to hang out with the kids at home, work a little on a project for DDB (my day job) and stay in Orono which is always better than leaving town. Then, I got an e-mail from one of the three birders I was out with on that trip last weekend to Niagara, Margaret Bain. She has hooked me up with a local e-mail list that talks about interesting bird sightings close to where I live. Turns out there was a large flock of birds containing three species I still needed about a 15 minute drive from home. It was just about time to put the kids down for a nap and though I was excruciatingly tired from such a short sleep Friday night, I decided to go get them.

I got 'em. The flock was probably about 200-250 birds strong, I did manage to see the three species that were said to be there. They are the first three of todays list. Not a long list, but a good one. I also stopped at a place north of Bowmanville that has tonnes of berries still on a large group of trees. There were lots of species I already have but the two sparrows were new this year.

Lapland Longspur
Snow Bunting
Horned Lark
American Tree Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

Total birds to date: 52

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

C'mon Waterloo, give me your Ixoreus naevius

There had been a Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius) visiting Waterloo, Ontario in December. This bird shouldn't really be any further west than the very west part of Calgary according to most range maps. But there it was in little old Waterloo. And at someone's front yard feeder no less. Up until yesterday, one of the bird sighting lists I belong to had the bird showing up daily to grab some free grub. Sadly, yesterday, someone reported that it didn't show at the feeder. I was so hoping to go get this bird on Saturday. That's one of the tricky things about my big year. I have to work and it may cause me to miss really important birds like this Varied Thrush. I might get another one this year, but you never know. So c'mon Waterloo, show some avian hospitality and keep that Thrush where I need it until Saturday.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A trip to Wal-mart and a Lanius excubitor

I had to go to Wal-mart today. My wife will attest, I'd rather get a punch square in the face than go to that hell-hole. The trip was made bearable by 3 things. My wife was the company and I saw a Lanius excubitor (Norther Shrike for those non-birders) and a Blue Jay. The rest of the day was spent indoors with the twins. Family time. No birds allowed.

Jan 3rd - Day list

Blue Jay
Northern Shrike

PRBY - Jan 2, 2011 day list.

Sunday was a great day. Waking at 5 am. McMuffin breakfast. Standing in the cold for hours. Being crammed into a car with 5 other people. Freezing wind and snow blowing in my face all day. Like I said, Sunday was a great day. Except for the McDonalds breakfast, it was disgusting. I ate it as an homage to Morgan Spurlock. What made Sunday so great was spending 14 hours looking at birds. OK, we looked at birds for about 6 hours, the rest was spent driving from place to place.

I was lucky enough to be able to bird the Niagara/Hamilton area with some great people. Those people were Richard Pope, Margaret Bain and Hugh Currie. Richard is the author of a great book about his own big year titled, The Reluctant Twitcher. I highly recommend reading it. Even if you aren't a birder, he's a funny guy and it comes through in his writing. These three are great friends that bird together all the time. You can tell by the way they go at each other all day long. It was nice to have Richard take a shot at me here and there, making me feel like one of the gang. A highlight of the day was that I was first to find the day's last bird, a Little Gull, flying amongst hundreds of similar looking gulls. To that, Richard might say, "Oh, this again? Are we still going to be hearing about this Little Gull in December?"

Here's the days final list.

Canada Goose
American Crow
Bald Eagle
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Common Goldeneye
White-winged Scoter
Red-breasted Merganser
Surf Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Common Merganser
American Goldfinch
Greater Scaup
Northern Pintail
King Eider
Glaucous Gull
Bonaparte's Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Iceland Gull
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Tufted Titmouse
House Finch
House Sparrow
White-breasted Nuthatch
Northern Cardinal
Slate-coloured Junco
Tundra Swan
American Coot
Thayer's Gull
American Black Duck
Double-crested Cormorant
Hooded Merganser
Little Gull

Bird of the day would go to the Little Gull. Mostly because I found it. Richard, that's the last time you'll hear that from me.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Day one bird list

Well, as I prepare to get to bed for a 6am wake-up call to go to Niagara and hunt for rare gulls, I leave you with the birds I saw today. Not a big list, but I really wasn't searching. These ones just happened to present themselves to me today.

PRBY - Jan 1, 2011

Rock Dove
Mourning Dove
European Starling
American Kestral
Red-Tailed Hawk
Black-Capped Chickadee

The bird of the day was the American Kestral. It was a male in all his Blue-grey and rusty brown glory. Sadly, he was hunting in a field that was about to be raped and turned into a mega neighbourhood called 'Chestnut falls' or something stupid like that. Next year, he'll need to find food elsewhere.

Looking forward to tomorrows trip, all except the part about leaving at 6am.

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year

PRBY bird 1 = Columba livia

Last night my wife and I were lucky enough to have her sister watch the twins so we could spend the evening at Lee's Palace in Toronto watching three great bands. Those bands were Bradleyboy, Catl and Elliott Brood. It was an amazing night watching the bands from the green room. Great times were had by all.

Then there was the midnight kiss. And right after that, I went outside to start my Punk Rock Big Year. Surprisingly, I was unable to find a Rock Dove (Pigeon) when I went outside. This was crazy when you consider I've had them fly into head while riding my bike downtown. I walked all the way to the Bathurst subway station trying to find one. No luck. It didn't seem like a great way to start my Big Year. I returned to the show to watch some more great music. When things started winding down at 2am, I hung outside Lee's having a burrito with Rachel (my wife) Bradleyboy and Miss Jude (Bradleyboy's wife). Then I saw it. Two dirty, ratty looking Rock Doves huddled on an equally dirty window sil above the burrito joint. Ugly as they were, they represented my first bird species of the year. The first tattoo will read, "Columba livia."

Here's Bradleyboy ending his set.

Here's Catl ending their set.

And here's a bit of Elliott Brood. Along with a crazy drunk girl that kept getting up on stage. We found a cut out of a crow in the green room which was handed to me. can't count it but I'll get the real thing in a day or so.

Happy New Year everyone and good birding in 2011. If you're into that sort of thing.

Paul Riss