Monday, March 7, 2011

A bird-less weekend

I had a birdless weekend. Sadly, there was no birding to be done. Nothing too special around that I needed. No time to get it even if there was. And it rained for about 24 hours straight this weekend. Then, after that, it got very cold and everything froze right up. So I spent all my time with the family, trying to do something my dad did for me so very long ago.
Shepard Thrasher Riss
Georgia Wren Riss
Kids on the front deck.

I took my kids to dance class. Now, my father never took me to dance class that I'm aware of but who knows. I barely remember the last ten minutes, never mind the last 30 years. What my dad DID do was take me to a conservation area with an old pair of binoculars to see a few birds. I really have no recollection of how it went leading up to the moment I became insanely obsessed by birds. I don't remember standing in the woods with my hand held out, waiting. I don't remember the type of seeds in the palm of my hand. I don't remember what time of year it was or what time of day it was. I don't even remember what car we drove there. What I do remember with intensity, is exactly how heavy (or rather not heavy) a Black-capped Chickadee was. How it's impossibly small silver-grey legs looked, and how the tiny claws at the ends of it's toes felt on the palm of my hand. I still love this feeling 30 years later.
Black-capped Chickadee by mybulldog

Chestnut-backed Chickadees in Stanley Park, Van. BC
See, I still love that.

I wish I was able to see my face at that moment. I bet dad remembers my expression. If there's one thing you tend to remember, its when your child is ecstatic about something you did for them. This was the moment for me. Every birder has it. The bird that changes every moment of your life moving forward. For Kenn Kaufman, it was a Western Kingbird, for Phoebe Snetsinger, it was a Blackburnian Warbler. For me, it was an extremely common and rather plain looking Black-capped Chickadee. I'm sure you non-birders are reading this and thinking, "OK, so the Paul I thought I knew is a complete nut-job. Like, more than I had originally suspected." But seriously, it changed the way I looked at the world. I never saw the sky or a tree or even a car the same way again. That last one might sound a little out of place. The sky, a tree, they both often contain birds, but a car? What does that have to do with birds? Everything. Cars were no longer an object of desire for me like most young teens. They were a way to get to birds. New birds. Birds I never even knew existed.

Western Kingbird by goingslo.
Blackburnian Warbler by dobak.

Things were amazing, I was a young artist that found a new subject to paint. And I always said I'd never paint one unless I saw it first. So to paint one I liked in the Golden Field-guide my dad bought for me, I'd have to find it first. That took things to a slightly different level. Now I'd have to go looking for them, learn where they hid out, hunt them down. I certainly never saw it as twitching or anything, just that I needed to find it to paint it. And of course, I'd need to keep track of the ones I saw so I knew what I could and couldn't paint. That's where listing started to come in. I guess I became a birder not because I knew other birders and learned how to be one. It was much more organic than that. It happened out of necessity. Actually, it was almost an accident.

As I got older, and started listening to music that wasn't my mom's, things started to get more interesting. I wasn't drawn to anything I heard on the radio. I was much more interested in punk and metal. Like most teenagers, I wanted to get my driver's license. Though the reasons were not like anybody else I knew (It was already very clear to me I wasn't ever going to be the cool kid at school, not even a car would help that). I wanted it so I could drive around and look for birds I hadn't seen before. I could go places I heard of where bluebirds or owls might be seen. I started doing something I still do to this day. On the drive to a twitch, there's inevitably heavy music played at loud levels.

Being an artist, I was also interested in tattoos. But I wasn't sure what I'd get, if I ever did. Then one day I got a small tat on my left forearm. After that, I was kind of hooked. It was the chickadee of tattoos. I started designing and getting tattoos regularly. Just like with birding, it went from a small thing to something much bigger. When I decided it was time to get a full sleeve tattoo, I knew it'd be birds. The birth of our twins told me what birds it would be (I named my children Thrasher & Wren). I was always fascinated by the way John James Audubon painted birds. They had such dynamic body shapes and his compositions were amazing. So I had my artist, Pete, combine Audubon's Brown Thrasher and Marsh Wren pieces on my right arm. I'm still working on those.
Bird tattoos.

Combine all those things and what do you get? A Punk Rock Birder. Throw in a love of reading bird books (Kingbird Highway), and a love of watching documentary films and you have the recipe for Punk Rock Big Year, A Painful Obsession. It's a delicate combination of zero social life in high school, a love of being outdoors and a healthy dose of guitar shredding thrown in for good measure. And if anyone is wondering, the kids quite enjoyed dance class, but secretly, I'm hoping that they get the same birding bug I have. I'll try the very same tactic my dad did. I can picture them standing in the woods now, surrounded by chickadees, feeling a lot like me 30 years ago.
Off to find a flock of hungry Chickadees.

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

P.S. - Even if you aren't a birder, I suggest reading Kingbird Highway. It's a pretty amazing story that has inspired me to do my Punk Rock Big Year. If you think I'm crazy, you should read what he did. I don't plan on finding out what cat food is the most palatable.

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