Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why sleep when you can chase birds?

Ok, this past weekend was a crazy one. My job is pretty stressful right now for a number of reasons. As usual, I can't talk about it here because I have signed a number of pieces of paper saying I won't. Life outside of work is a tad nuts too. My wife and I take on way to much sometimes. Generally, it's worth the effort as things that come too easy are never as satisfying, now are they. The big one for us now is that our house is going to be listed on a tour of southern Ontario heritage homes. What makes ours so special for this popular tour is that it was supposed to be flattened and made into a parking lot for the bank next door. I'm sure they were salivating at the thought of having ten parking spaces instead of the current five. Even if it meant flattening one of the original homes in town. Well, we put a stop to that, we bought it, moved in and brought the derelict house that had been abandoned for years back to life. To show the house, we want to get some stuff done to the place so it looks it's best. And that, my friends, is a boat-load of work. If you want, you can see some of the progress on my wife's blog, the stay lucky. On top of that, as you know, I'm doing a birding big year and trying to make a documentary of said year. Makes raising twins seem pretty easy (yeah right).

As part of the doc. I participated in the Carden Challenge, a 24 hour bird-a-thon. In case you don't know, that means you try to see as many bird species as you can in 24 hours. And you generally bird straight through the night. We did attempt to sleep from about midnight to 3:30am. Though being the new guy, I got the cot. So, I never slept for more than five minutes. Sadly, it wasn't until the alarm went off that I realized I maybe would have been better off just sleeping on the floor. It might have been really hard, but at least it wouldn't have pieces of metal sticking into my back and sides all night. Well, all 3 hours of it. But hey, I'm significantly younger than some other members of our team and though they may have had beds, those beds were surely hard as stone and one participant stayed without electricity or running water.
Prairie Smoke by Blaine Hansel.

We planned to gather at the area to pre-scout on Friday. I was late getting there because of a few things. The saddest reason was to do with my cat. I've said here before that we don't often allow her outside. I'm not worried she'd kill any birds (she's a bit fat for that) but I worry about the strays in the area scratching her up and her getting some sort of crazy cat disease. I never could have planned for what happened. I guess she escaped the house when our baby sitter was watching the kids early Thursday evening so Rachel and I could get some groceries. As I was putting the kids to bed, I had heard a dog barking insistently behind our house. I thought that was odd but not much more than that. Once the kids were down, I went out to bring in the trash/recycling bins to find a very upset neighbour. He was going on about some dog and blood and he was really upset. I went around to the back of his house to see what he was so upset about and I was instantly more upset than him. You see, all that crazy noise was a dog killing my cat. She laid there, so still. I knew right away she was dead. I sat next to her and cried. I had had her for years. She was a great cat as cats go. Sure she sometimes shit under the kitchen but beyond that, she was my Frances. I now had the awful task of telling Rachel and the kids this news. Rachel has a really big heart and there was plenty of love for Frances in there. She was distraught. The kids took it rather well. So, needless to say, that was a crappy start to a weekend I had been looking forward to.

Georgia spending time with Frances.
Really, it could only get better, right? Here's the part where you might think I'll go on and on about more bad stuff. That won't happen, I don't want to depress you guys. France's is resting comfortably in a friends chest freezer and next weekend we will bury her at a pet cemetery nearby. The rest of the weekend was lots of fun. It involved a lot of bird chasing, someone getting locked in an outhouse at 3am and even a flat tire. Read on to find out the details.

Upland Sandpiper by Johnath.
Upland Sandpiper by Bananaram.

As I said, I arrived a bit late. After telling everyone about my situation, all was forgiven. We spent Friday scouting for birds and found some really good stuff for our contest. I got incredible looks at the endangered Loggerhead Shrike. This bird was incredible. I've seen many Northern Shrikes but this thing just tops it in every way. The grey is more like a steel blue on the spring breeding male, the black mask is so much more heavy and seems to be made of the deepest, richest, darkest velvet. The white parts are so white by contrast that you nearly have to squint when you look through a scope. I will travel back there many times to see that bird. Another speciality of the area we birded was the upland sandpiper. It too seems so unique. The head is really small like that of a dove and yet it's eye seem just enormous. Not to mention the fine details of the rest of it. You see them sitting on fence posts a lot. But we even saw them wandering through a native Alvar plant called Prairie Smoke. In case you aren't sure what an Alvar is, it's land that is limestone based with about four inches of soil on top. It holds water really well. This is the same type of landscape when I went to see the Sharp-tailed Grouse in early April. Thankfully, it wasn't an average temperature of minus 20 Celsius this time. The third very cool bird I got to see was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. It's pretty rare around there (usually you get the Black-billed variety).

Loggerhead Shrike by jsutton8.
Loggerhead Shrike by steveberardi.

We staked out some nice birds but we knew the competition was tough. Some of the other birders were the best in Ontario. Some of them had been scouting for a few days prior to the race. We didn't have that luxury. What we did have was lots of fun. Despite Margaret getting stuck in an outhouse for 20 minutes at 3am. That must have been quite scary. You try sitting in a pitch-black closet for 20 minutes. See how it feels. Add to that there are bears in the area and that pretty much makes her a superhero in my books. We had one other major setback. We got a flat tire at the worst possible time. Our first few hours had gone really well and then we got a flat tire. And right when we were on our way to get a few birds that would only call at dusk. I worked at a feverish pace to change that tire but it still caused us to miss a few birds. Another highlight was a tree with a mother bear and two cubs in it. We birded right below them, not even noticing. Until somebody came along and said, look up! I got many new species for my big year, easily bringing my 2011 big year total over 200. See the list below for what I saw that was new. In the end we saw 119 species. The winners came up with 135, smashing last years winning number. The total number of species seen by everyone was 154. But the real winners were the birds we all chased. The event was a charity deal where people would sponsor us on a per species basis. I managed to gather about $400. All together, my team raised about $2000. And the event total was more than $21, 000. Not bad at all. Some of that money is going toward the purchase of more land so those birds we saw can live out their days in peace in protected habitat.

RIP - Frances Riss

Weekend total.

Upland sandpiper
Pied-billed Grebe
Yellow-billed cuckoo (Lifer)
Black-billed cuckoo (Lifer)
Grasshopper sparrow
Common nighthawk
Least bittern (Lifer)
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Whip-poor-whil (heard)
Northern Saw-whet Owl (heard)
Olive-sided Flycatcher

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss


  1. So sorry to hear about your cat, Paul.
    Best wishes,

  2. hmm, Olive-sided Flycatcher you mean :)