Friday, April 29, 2011

Early punk gets the bird.

Today wasn't like every other day. I didn't commute to the city. My wife did. She had an appointment in T.O. today (Friday) so I had to work from home and watch the kids. The sitter arrived at 7, I dropped Rachel off at the train at 7:20. Nobody would be around the office until at least 9 so I went to a very productive local birding spot near the train station; and am I ever glad I did. I wasn't there long but got a couple good birds. Here's the new one's that bring my year total up to 113.
Pine Warbler (female) by cometoseemerganser.

Black-throated Green Warbler by Matt Bango.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher by RunnerJenny.

Gray Catbird by CKM_Photography.

Eastern Towhee by dwaynejava.

Rd-headed Woodpecker by tink tracy.

Baltimore Oriole by Kelly Colgan Azar.

Orchard Oriole by thefixer.

White-crowned Sparrow by ingridtaylar.

Yellow-rumped Warbler by pheanix.

Yellow Warbler by pbonenfant.

April 29, 2011 day list

Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
White-crowned Sparrow
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Red-headed Woodpecker
Eastern Towhee
Gray Catbird
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Black-throated Green Warbler
Pine Warbler

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

Thursday, April 28, 2011

High birding standards, even higher coffee standards.

I've done a lot of birding in my day. In fact,  I've been doing it from the age of about 10. Except that period where I was to cool for it in high school. Sadly, looking back, I never should have taken that hiatus. It did nothing to help the fact that I wasn't the cool kid in school. What it did do is hinder my ability to soak up information like scientific names and bird song when my brain was a great big sponge. Nowadays, it's hard work learning that shit.

In all those years of birding I remember two things most. One; every lifer and where it was seen. Two; birders always had a Tim Horton's coffee with them. Back then, it was all you could get really. But now, I cringe every time I see a birder drinking it. If you are serious about birding, you must be serious about bird conservation. I mean, even if you are nothing more than a lister, you should be into conservation. If for no other reason than to ensure the growth of your list. If you are purely a lister, I encourage you to take it to another level. You can still grow your list whilst really getting to know birds.

I might sound a little hypocritical there because this blog is about a guy doing a big year. That might be true but I'm not really a lister. I have other ideas that are at the heart of this documentary I'm trying to make; Like removing the myth that birders are all the same, and bringing bird conservation to a new audience. The only real list I have is the one I'm making this year. I do have a collection of google images I keep for myself of every bird I've seen anywhere in the world. But I only use it as a reminder of that day or trip. There's no life list that physically exists.

Now, back to coffee. Has anyone actually tasted that 'road' coffee? It's terrible. Nothing more than dirty water really. And worst of all, it's not good for our feathered friends (or the habitat they live in). I also doubt it's great for the farmers in countries it comes from. Any large corporation will do what they can to seem like do-gooders but they aren't. We'd be naive to think that profit isn't king.

My wife jokingly scorns me for being a snob. Frankly, with certain things, I am. And often, I'm proud of my snobbery. Food is one of them. I won't eat pre-packaged food. It's just not worth the money or the time saved. I'd rather spend every waking moment cooking and cleaning dishes than feed my kids a single meal of pre-packaged food. Not to mention I proudly support the farms that my town is surrounded by. Coffee is the other thing. With coffee, I'm something of a SUPER SNOB! Ask anyone I know, I'm sure they'll tell you at length how I am about coffee. And not in that contrived advertising-created 'coffee moment' way. I just want a better tasting product for my very hard earned money, preferably with less negative environmental impact.

If you know anything about coffee, you know it's naturally an undergrowth plant. Meaning it's meant to grow under the shade of other plants and trees. People being people, we just didn't think we were getting enough yield from that natural way of growing coffee. So, we set about modifying the plant to grow it in massive clear cut fields. We probably knew this was wrong, but profit would go up, up, up. So we started flattening forests and making beautiful (looking) green fields of coffee. Those fields DO look quite beautiful in a photo. Lots of green leaves and so on. The problem is, those beautiful expanses of green are lifeless. Or at least not nearly as full of life as they were when the natural forest was standing.

People started drinking shade grown coffee to 'help the environment'. And that was a good start; at least we were caring. The problem is education. To get shade grown certification, you don't need many shade trees on a coffee farm. And by not many, I mean you could have just one or two - or another crop - none of which actually provides good habitat. That's obviously not enough to make as much of a difference as we need to. It's possible to buy coffee from plantations with, on average, 40% shade trees with a variety of native trees and a variety of heights - makes sense when you think about where you see different birds in the forest. To learn everything you need to know about bird-friendly certification, visit The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
Full-sun Coffee plantation. Looks pretty, but it used to be a jungle.

Certified bird-friendly coffee plantation.
Enter Birds and Beans triple certified coffee. Certified organic, certified bird friendly, certified fair trade and rainforest alliance. They even roast it with Bullfrog Power green energy. These people are environmentalists at heart that found a great way to do some good. Let's face it, if it's good for the planet, it's often viewed as the hard way for people. Not so with Birds and Beans. Here is a way you can do good environmentally whilst getting a superior product in the process. It's good all around; you get a WAY better cup of coffee, the environment gets a much deserved break and farmers are paid properly for their efforts. It encourages farmers to go the organic, natural route and preserve their natural environment as a result of us paying them better. Win, win and win.

org_logo_smBirds and Beans are certified organic by Ecocert to offer our certified organic coffees.
bird_friendly_coffeeThey are licensed with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to offer Certified Bird Friendly® coffees.
logo_fairtradeThey are licensed with Transfair Canada to offer Certified Fair Trade coffees.
ra_smAnd they are licensed with the Rainforest Alliance to offer Rainforest Alliance certified coffees.

Here's my recipe for the perfect cup of coffee. I only make mine with the Aerobie AeroPress. $39 dollars very well spent. Since I got it, I haven't used my drip machine even once.

Boil some water with your kettle. Sure there's a perfect temperature it should be but I don't worry too much. I boil some water and let it sit for 10 minutes in the kettle to cool a bit.

Grind just enough Birds and Beans coffee for that one cup. Two scoops with the AeroPress scoop. Don't you dare buy pre-ground coffee. Do it yourself. And only enough for each cup you drink (enter the coffee snob). Sometimes, on weekends when I have the time, I even grind it by hand using our manual grinder. Warning: this adds at least 10-15 minutes to making a cup but it smells sooooo good, you use less energy and gain a tiny bit of exercise in the process.

Insert the little filter. 

Place your press onto the cup you love.

Put your freshly ground Birds and Beans coffee into the press.

Pour your slightly cooled boiling water in. 

Stir it with the provided stir-stick for about ten seconds.

Then press it slowly. Take about 15-20 seconds to press it. Don't rush. If you're making coffee this way, you clearly have the extra seconds to spare.

Remove the press, discard the coffee and tiny paper filter into your bucket to go out to the compost in your back yard.

You've just made yourself a perfect espresso coffee. If you prefer a full cup, just fill the rest of your cup with more kettle water.

Having finished that, you can go outside and wait for the birds to wake up while you have your advertising-prescribed 'coffee moment'. The various chirping sounds you hear are the birds thanking you for caring.

You can learn everything you need to about ditching corporate coffee (basically just dirty water) and switching to the better way here.
If you happen to live in the USA, try

Images used were provided by Birds and Beans (except the coffee making process, those were shot by my wife, Rachel).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch!

Last night, I got a tattoo finished up. 3 and a half hours of searing pain. So fun and so worth the effort. Super huge thanks to Pete, Chris, Jonathan, Aric, Thomas and Westside for the space. It was the final work to be done on the main Punk Rock Big Year tat. Well, there'll always be some small touch-ups later but it's essentially done. I'll be brief with this post but wanted to share some stuff from last nights session. We of course filmed the whole thing. Here are a few out-take shots and videos. Next up, the Latin names.

J-Bo and Pete doing their thing.

J-Bo and Pete working hard. (hours later)

That red = pain.

The mark left from the metal chair. Sitting still for 3.5 hrs.

Only seconds old. Angry red skin...

The morning after. Looking less painful.

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bird 100! (We love nature).

Listening to a Pileated Woodpecker.

For anyone who hasn't checked my list lately, I got to bird 99 last Monday on Manitoulin Island. I went out in the woods behind my house last night after the kids went to bed and called for owls. Didn't get any responses. And I'm actually quite happy I didn't. Crazy as that might sound, it gave me the perfect opportunity to get bird 100 with my entire family by my side.

I woke this morning at 5:30 to the sound of the same American Robin that wakes me every morning. Instead of getting right up, I fell back to sleep, woke about 7 and headed down to make a Birds & beans coffee. When Rachel and the kids got up, I made everyone bacon and eggs. Then, I suggested we all go for a hike in the Orono Crown Lands. We have over 600 hectares of protected forest surrounding Orono. Orono loves nature almost as much as we do. We wandered around the forest, stopping at the creek and watching the Rainbow Trout that are upstream to spawn. I got that itchy feeling only a fisherman knows. Season opens next saturday. Soon there'll be fresh trout on the dinner table.

Kids watching the Rainbow Trout.

We saw and heard lots of the usual birds for the area. One bird was a new one for me. A Brown Creeper. Bird 100. To thank nature, we all hugged a tree.

Georgia the tree hugger. Even a kiss. 
Shepard the tree hugger.

April 22, 2011 day list.

Brown Creeper (BIRD #100)
Tree Swallow (seen later in the day with my Dad)

April 24, 2011 day list

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Not rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep us from the birds.

This weekend was amazing. Saturday, it poured big, cold drops of rain. Sideways. Sunday saw snow, rain, sleet, and hailed, with a few sunny patches. How is this amazing? Birds of course. Lifers even. True, the weather Saturday and Sunday was absolute shit and Monday was only marginally better. Though it really felt so much more amazing because of the two previous days.

I took a big birding trip this weekend with two good friends, Bradleyboy Mac Arthur and Jon Wayne Brown. Brad is a one-man-band doing the soundtrack for this documentary and John is a talented screen writer (currently writing a series called Small Time) that was acting as my cameraman. The trip wasn't really on the weekend; we did most of the birding Monday. Sunday was spent driving 600 plus kilometers just to get to the spot. I saw a few birds along the way but the weather was so bad that in six hours I really only saw six birds. A pair of Common Mergansers, a single Wild Turkey, a pair of Common Loons and one Northern Harrier. The latter being new for my Big Year.

Northern Harriers by kevincole.

We left Orono about 8:30 Sunday morning and drove to Gore Bay on Manitoulin Island. Making one stop in Bala for breakfast (with desert) and one stop in Little Current to pick up our birding guide, Dave Milsom (President of Flora & Fauna Field Tours). We arrived in Little Current at 3:30 pm to howling winds, very cold temperatures and a lone Pine Siskin singing in a tree. There was no sign of Dave even though we were a half hour late. He would've been birding with a larger group all that day and might be late if they had seen something special. We wandered the town and observed that there were only two places open, The Anchor Bar and the beer store. We though maybe beer should be our first order of business because they way this town looked, it might close at any second. 12 PBRs were purchased. That should be enough for one night's stay (barely). After that, we went back to The Anchor Bar and grabbed a pint and waited. Looking out the window, I saw a few Double-crested Cormorants, a Common Loon in the frigid water and then a Volkswagon Jetta that was filled with what could only be birders.

Little Current Swing Birdge by haven't the slightest.

Dave came in for a pint and then we headed off to the hotel, trying and failing for some Loggerhead Shrike he had seen the previous day. We checked in, ate dinner, ordered breakfast for 5 am the next day and quickly went out birding again. That evening we failed to find any American Woodcock. Nor did we see the expected Short-eared Owl. We did find a group of Sandhill Cranes. I'd seen these many times this year already but what was special about this was that it was just after dusk and the Cranes were displaying. Sandhills display by dancing. They dip their head in the water, fan their wings, jump up and down and shake their head about. It was really a beautiful sight. So many people will die having never experienced that. Too bad for them. It was a peaceful way to end a pretty tiring day. We went back to the hotel and got to know Dave a bit better while we drank most of our beer.

This isn't quite the same as seeing it in the late evening but it gives you an idea.

At about midnight, we retired. I never really slept until probably about 2am. It can be like that when you're going out to see a lifer the next morning. I woke at about 4:45 to the sound of Jon and Dave talking in the next room. I got up, dressed and looked outside. Spring had not arrived overnight. I touched the glass door of the room. Freezing. I decided right there that three pairs of long johns, three shirts, jeans and two winter coats wasn't too much. We all sat and ate eggs and bacon with toast out of cardboard boxes. Then we packed the car and hit the road. It seemed nice enough out. No more wind to speak of. That would certainly change things.

Manitoulin's version of Spring by Dave Milsom (With Cranes).

Then we arrived at the field that was said to house seven Sharp-tailed Grouse. We got out of the car and realized where all the wind was. The wind blew so strong that my eyes started to tear up right away. It was really cold. Then Dave says, "We'll go in here and circle over that way and head toward those trees. Hopefully we find the Lek quickly." We did not. I took my first step and immediately broke through the crust of icy snow and sunk to just above my ankle in water. Brad's idea of wearing plastic grocery bags on our feet was much appreciated at that moment. Each step was pretty much the same. Being out in that field was like walking in a giant shallow pool filled with ice-cubes and freezing water while a humongous fan blew cold air into your face. After an awful lot of searching, there were no signs of these birds. We wandered around the field, stopped, scanned the field, then wandered some more. When we had covered most of it, we started to head back. I was sure we were done and that I'd be going home without the bird I needed so badly. Suddenly, I saw something flying low over the ground. Bigger than a Robin, very stout and brownish-gray. I called out to Dave. We scanned the area where I saw it. Nothing. We turned to head back to the car and Dave shouts, "I've got it! It's sitting on a rock, the bloody thing is sitting up on top of a rock!" I looked but saw nothing (there were at least 5000 rocks to choose from). He ran to his scope, scanned, scanned, scanned and then, "Oh, I got them boys." We all gathered at the scope, got really good looks at them, creeped closer, looked again. They were dancing up a storm, in a storm. It was exactly like the video I have here. I got some nice looks at a few of the birds and then we headed back to the car. It's just so typical of birds to show up right about where you started after you wander around for an hour.

Sharp-tailed Grouse by Dave Milsom.

Back at the car, I had so much ice on my pants and boots that I had to hack at it with the windshield scraper. From there, the day only got better. It warmed up, the sun came out and we saw plenty of good birds and in such cool ways. One Pileated Woodpecker was frozen with fear as a Bald Eagle flew past and a Merlin swooped at it. Both predators were within moments of each other. She dashed into the hole she'd made in the telephone pole for safety. But not before Dave got these photos of her. Another highlight was a pair of Loggerhead Shrike hunting in a field. While we watched them, another Merlin comes to land on a telephone wire right above our heads. We stopped at a house feeder and got superb views of a Vesper Sparrow, the kind where you can study all the features that are important, the chestnut shoulder, the eye ring and moustache.

Loggerheard Shrike by Dave Milsom (Note the leg band).

Merlin (A Falcon) by Dave Milsom.

Pileated Woodpecker by Dave Milsom.

Every trip has it's jinx bird. This time it was Fox Sparrow. I missed it several times throughout the day. Then, casually, Brad asks what bird is up in the tree above the car. Dave gets on it right away and it's a Fox Sparrow. I can't find it even though it's in the open right in front of us. Even Jon (sans bins) gets it through the sun roof. I still can't see it. After another moment, I get it. Just then, a second one lands next to it. It get great views of them. Sparrows always look the same until you have moments like this and the Vesper. Then, they look nothing alike at all. You begin to wonder how you could even begin to have trouble making an ID. It's just that most views are not so lengthy, nor in perfect light.

Vesper Sparrow by Dave Milsom.

This trip was a great success, though I really only added a few new birds, some would be difficult later in the year. We got on the highway and headed home, stopping in Espanola where I removed several layers of clothing in a parking lot of a restaurant. I'm sure the locals loved that. We dropped Dave at his car in Alliston and Jon in Toronto and Brad and I returned to Orono; very tired, with sore backs and legs, we parted ways and went home. Neither Brad nor Jon are birders but I think they gained a real appreciation for birding and what people will go through to see a species.

April 15, 2011 day list
Belted Kingfisher

April 17, 2011 day list
Northern Harrier

April 18, 2011 day list
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Eastern Meadowlark
Vesper Sparrow
Eastern Phoebe
Hermit Thrush
Ring-necked Pheasant
Fox Sparrow
Loggerhead Shrike
Broad-winged Hawk

Other birds seen (but already counted this year):
American Robin
Common loon
Wild Turkey
Common Merganser
Common Raven
Turkey Vulture
Black-capped Chickadee
Common Grackle
European Starling
American Crow
Red-tailed Hawk
Common Goldeneye
Black Duck
Rock Pigeon
Ring-necked Duck
Tree Sparrow
Brown-headed Cowbird
Pileated Woodpecker (6-7)
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-breasted Nuthatch
American Kestral
Canada Goose
Sandhill Crane
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Dark-eyed Junco
Double-crested Cormorant
Song sparrow
Horned lark
Coopers hawk
Fox sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Hooded Merganser
Common Goldeneye
Pine Siskin
Bald Eagle

Paul Riss