Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Drive, Fish, Drive, Bird, Drive, Bird, Drive, Fish, Drive, Sleep.

This past weekend was spent driving for the most part. All totaled, I was on the road (or a ferry) for 15 and a half hours. It marked the first time my children drove a long distance without turning into screaming maniacal freaks. Ok, they got really close but we decided to risk missing a ferry across lake Huron/Georgian Bay to avoid it. It would've meant waiting 4 hours in Tobermory and an extra $50 dollars. If you have children, you know it's a small price to pay to avoid two screaming kids in the back seat of your car. Thanks to my lead foot, in Tobormory, we ended up having an hour to kill. It's a nice little port town. They all kind of seem the same. The vibe in Tofino, BC isn't a whole lot different feeling from Tobormory. Though I'd rather be in Tofino any day of the week. We ended up sitting by the water listening to a nice girl busking. Shep even played her Ukelele.

You'd think she was tangle him a bag of cobras.
My daughter is so beautiful it hurts my eyes.
Port of Tobormory.
I had read a trip report recently of a Red-shouldered Hawk just south of Tobormory and Brewer's Blackbirds are pretty reliable on HWY. 6 near Ferndale. But they'd have to wait, as this was a family trip, not a birding trip, if that's even possible. We crossed with a calm lake and the kids loved it. They not only spotted pirates, but also sea monsters. Sadly, neither is good for my big year list. Rachel's dad has built a beautiful house on the island and they have now retired there. When I say he built a house, I mean he personally did it with his own two hands. I'm still amazed at how he got the roof trusses up when there was nobody helping him. He said it was nothing more than an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys to disperse the weight so much that one man could do it alone. Whatever it was, I'm still amazed.

As soon as we arrived, Rachel and her mom got the kids busy and Tim, Rachel's dad, and I went fishing. We needed to get dinner. We went over to a spot he has been fishing since winter. There are cage cultures nearby. If you aren't sure what that is, it's where fish are farmed in underwater cages. The fish are shipped daily to Toronto and you are eating them whenever you get rainbow trout at a restaurant. Of course, nature being nature, some of them escape. Lots of them in fact. Much to the dismay of the farmers and much to the delight of the local fisherman. We set up our bait, put the rods in holders and waited, drinking beer to pass the time. In short order, we both had a fish on. Nice rainbows about 3 pounds each. We pulled them in, snapped their necks below the gills and let them bleed out. Quick death is always best. We stuck around for a bit longer and I got one more that was a little bigger. The lack of city smell and noise was incredible. The sound of birds in the trees behind us was a constant. A Black-throated Green Warbler here, a Red-eyed Vireo there, Chipping Sparrows and Chickadees. A few gulls, a tern or two and a close view of a Belted Kingfisher as it flew right past the dock. Suffice to say I was in my own personal version of heaven.

Dinner, part one.

I slept well and went out fishing again at 6am. When I got home, the kids were up and I went outside to play with them. Rachel was tired and needed some more rest. I wandered around the field and pick a bunch. Of wildflowers for Rachel. It was our anniversary after all. We spent too short a time together as I needed to make the 1pm ferry back south. Work was nagging at my head and Monday morning would again be upon me before I knew it. Since I was traveling alone on the way home, I thought I'd stop and try for the Red-shouldered Hawk and the Brewer's Blackirds. The hawk remained elusive but I'd be up again next weekend for the long weekend and would have the better part of a day to get it. The Brewer's turned up pretty easily. I had actually never seen one in Ontario so that was nice. I drove on southward right past a place where there are two nesting pairs of Piping Plovers. I'll get 'em next weekend. They're pretty reliable now that there's babies to feed. I stopped off to fish the Sydenham River south of Owen Sound. It was pretty fruitful. I got several smaller rainbows, one small Brown Trout and a great one pound Rainbow. After two hours there, I was on the road again with a mission to get home with enough light to pick some salad greens and Swiss Chard from my garden to go with the steak that was in the fridge. I ended up picking by flashlight but it was delicious all the same.

Triumph club boards the ferry.
Yacht off the port side.
Sydenham River Rainbow.
Brewer's Blackbird by chuqui.

I write this on the train Tuesday morning and I really miss Rachel and the kids. Luckily work is keeping me busy enough for three people. I picked up the Duster from the shop last night. New wheels and tires on her. Rides like a dream. Here a shot. Mmmmmmmmmm, beefy.

June 26th day list

Brewer's Blackbird

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year

Monday, June 20, 2011

Family First

Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove. 2 down, hundreds to go!
So this weekend was father's day weekend. Sunday is one day I get to do whatever I want, no questions asked. Of course, I went birding, but not with just anyone, with my dad. More about that later, let's back up to Friday.

Work is as crazy as ever and there are products that need to tell people about themselves. Since they are just inanimate objects, I'll talk for them. I left work right on time Friday as it had been a rough week and I really needed to not think of banks or cars or anything else advertising related. It was pure family time. I had planned on getting some Latin names tattooed on me Saturday. That meant picking up my tattoo artist Pete from the GO Train station in Oshawa. I got him about 9pm. We came home, sat and caught up a bit and went to bed at a decent hour.

Saturday would be busy as it was the Bent Family Summer Solstice Celebration. What's that? It is when a local record company, Get Bend Records, has a two day camping-concert-family party. There'd be several bands playing and most people pitch a tent and stay the weekend. My friend Bradleyboy Mac Arthur was one of the artists playing and there was another band I was very anxious to see. They are called The Bone Devil and they are the greatest metal band in the world, or so we say on Facebook. They are great. They aren't a typical metal band. Their songs have crazing timing changes and is a bit of a throwback to a 70s metal sound. but they aren't just copying that sound as so many bands today are. They are certainly doing their own thing and have really nailed something down that's pretty unique. Check out their Facebook page and if they're ever in your town, go see them.
Nice to see Beard Team Canada was present.
The see-saw was a hit.
Rachel and the kids enjoying some music.
Bradleyboy Mac Arthur.

Let's reverse again. Saturday morning, Rachel was first up to be tattooed. She'd be working on finishing up her right arm piece. Lots of poppies and butterflies. While she did that, I printed up a bunch of Latin names of the first birds I'd seen this year. Then, I popped over to my moms house for an extension cord and once she heard Pete was in Orono, she wanted to get herself a tattoo. Since this weekend was all about family, I gladly slid myself down the line to get mom tattooed before me. While she got hers, I drove the Duster to Bowmanville and ordered some new wheels and tires. When I returned, she was just getting finished up and I sat down to get some work done. This was to be the inaugural session that would lead to me covering much of my body in bird names. Last week I tweeted asking people where to get the first tattoos. Most people said neck so I started there. After just two names, it was time to go to the Bent Summer Solstice party. Sadly, I only had time for those two names. That's OK. There's lots more time this summer. I already have set up weekly lunchtime sessions with  Pete at his studio in Toronto. So we will be making a dent in the 207 birds I've seen so far.

Rach getting some arm work done.

Pete working under the watchful eye of Lucy.

Mom's new tat. RR stands for Rudy Riss (my dad).

Getting started on my neck.

My usual demeanor.

Mom said, "Smile, you're making a documentary."

More tattoos and my son Shepard.

Me, Georgia and Shep with a Strawberry from a local farm.

A little video of me getting tattooed. Listen carefully as my Aunt Pat threatens to rearrange my face.

Sunday morning I was up at 6am. I made some Birds & Beans coffee and walked over to mom and dad's place. He was ready to go and we headed out to Presqu'ile Provincial Park to look for birds. I asked a few good birding friends where they'd go at this time of year to maybe see something new for my year and that was it. We stopped at a marsh along the way and got a nice Blue-winged Teal, some Killdear and Common Moorhen. There was also a Painted Turtle. Then we headed to the park, paid our $15 fee and drove in. We saw a couple Baltimore Orioles, American Goldfinches and some other usual suspects for this time of year. We also got a Brown Thrasher, a Spotted Sandpiper and lots of Cedar Waxwings (a favourite of dads). The best bird of the day would be a toss up between the Black-billed Cuckoo and the American Woodcock. Both were Lifers for dad. The Woodcock was standing right at the edge of a trail we walked on. I thought I saw something far off that was brownish but never got a great look at it. As we neared the spot, it flushed and scared the shit out of both of us. It flew and we got a good look as it navigated the thick brush trying to find a place to set down. It had waited to flush until we were about a foot away from it. After our hearts slowed back down, we decided to head out for some breakfast/lunch in Cobourg. It was a good day birding that would be finished with a great meal of roasted chicken at mom and dad's house. Aunt Pat and the kids were there too. Family all the way.

Black-billed Cuckoo by ricmcarthur.
American Woodcock by Paco Lyptic.
Now it's Monday and I'm on the commuter train again, heading into the city. The last thing I wanted to do this morning was leave my seat between my two vegetable gardens. I was listening to, and even saw, the Great-crested Flycatcher that lives in my backyard. But, like I said, there's products that need selling and my brain seems to be pretty good at making people want things. Things they may not even need. Think of me next time you feel buyers regret, and know that I'm sorry.

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year

Monday, June 13, 2011

Location, location, location.

Like so much in life, location is of the utmost importance. Birding is no exception. But it's not always what you think. Just like the stereotype of birders, the places we go are not always what you might think either. It's not all beautiful national parks and expansive vistas. I've birded in many countries around the world. Often I get sent places to shoot TV commercials or print ads. And there's not a new place I go without staying on an extra day or two to go birding. Usually, I'll hire a local guide or use With limited time, I just need someone that knows the area so I can get as many new and cool birds as I can, as quickly as possible. This birding thing takes me to places people don't usually see, especially in destinations that offer some of the best tourist traps.

I've been to LA several times and have yet to see Mann's Chinese Theatre, or the Hollywood walk of fame. I've never even been shopping there really other than grabbing a gift for Rachel and the kids. I have no desire to see the cement impressions of people I care so little about or a famous movie theatre. Sewage lagoons are a different matter entirely. I've been to sewage treatment plants in Argentina, The United States, Chile and South Africa to name a few places. There's a good rule of thumb that states, if you don't like how a place smells, birds probably love it there. Now, that said, I've also seen some really beautiful places while birding. It's not all sewers and bogs. If you are reading this and thinking you might get into birding, please don't think you are in for what amounts to standing in the general area of someone that just farted day in and day out. You'll probably start by visiting lovely places but once you get really consumed by birdwatching, and that WILL happen once you start, you just might find yourself enduring a measure of stench for a great bird.

This weekend, I saw, along with most of the Ontario birding community, a bird so rarely seen in southern Ontario that I doubt anybody in attendance has ever seen one this far south in their lifetime. The last known record is from 1867. There are a couple loose reports of one in the 70s but nothing panned out. To see them, you normally have to go to the Arctic. But for me, I only had to make a 10 minute drive. The situation was however, very unique for another reason. The bird I'm writing about, for some unknown reason, has settled down for a stay at the Darlington Nuclear Power Plant not too far from Orono. The bird was first seen by an employee that is an amateur birder. They made their ID and no doubt needed confirmation of such a rare event. I guess they contacted someone from the OFO (Ontario Field Ornithologists) to come and positively ID the bird. From there, word quietly spread to a few people. Luckily for me, one of them was a birder friend of mine. She sent me an e-mail with a couple photos and told me that no matter what my Sunday morning entailed, the plans were now cancelled and that I was to meet her at the Nuclear Station Sunday morning by at least 8am.

Ok, so the bird is a Willow Ptarmigan. It's like a grouse. For non-birders, I guess it's kind of like a wild chicken. You might have heard the local word for Ruffed Grouse, Partridge, in the past. If you know that bird, then you have a rough idea of it.
Willow Ptarmigan by ditzygrly. This is the closest image to the plumage I saw.
Willow Ptarmigan by jpc.raleigh. (summer plumage)
Willow Ptarmigan by american_male. (winter plumage)
Saturday evening was the official CD release for my good friend Bradleyboy Mac Arthur. There were three shows, one in Toronto, Peterborough and Oshawa. The first two shows I couldn't get to. So this third in Oshawa was something that there was no option of not attending. Brad is one of my biggest supporters of PRBY and I don't let a good friend down. The show was great, the opening band was Tarantüla (pronounced Tarantoola). They went on about ten and played right through until about 2:30am. After the show, we were all hungry and so dropped in on a burrito joint and hung out until roughly 3:30am. All the while I'm thinking, "Shit, I gotta' get up in 3 hours to go see a bird." My saving grace was that I drove the Duster into Oshawa that evening and so didn't have more than 3 bottles of beer all night. At least I wouldn't be hung over on top of tired. I got to bed about 4. The alarm went off at 6. I basically fell out of bed, down the stairs, made some birds and beans coffee (I'm SO predictable) and drove half asleep to the power plant. I wanted to be early as I knew there'd be a crowd and if they were doing first come first serve, I needed to be near first. Even so, turns out I was number 48.

Bradleyboy Mac Arthur finishing up The Beatles, Blackbird. Written for PRBY.
Download a free track here. Get the record here.

Tarantüla with Bradleyboy singing Gloria.

Special thanks goes out to the Darlington Nuclear Power Station for even letting us all come and see the bird. They didn't need to and if I know anything about big companies, they don't often care about stuff like this. But they have environmentalists on staff and quickly organized a superb twitch for all us crazies. It was a who's who's of Ontario birding for sure. Many of the best birders were there. So many I have met on various twitches this year. I always get the same smile from Dave Milsom. As if to say, "Not Riss again! Tarnishing the birding community with his inappropriate haircut, yellow muscle car and t-shirt full of holes." Of course, this is in jest, Dave was essential in helping me see Sharp-tailed Grouse last April and we get on really well.

Once the three bus loads of birders were driven to the location the bird was being monitored, the team, including Jean Iron (check her account with photos of the actual bird), slowly and carefully walked toward the bird. It casually strolled out into the open, way closer to us than I ever expected. It was amazing. It wandered through the short grass a bit, pecked at the ground and ate a few things. It seemed comfortable enough with the crowd. Then, it slowly wandered back into the thicker brush and was gone. It was spotted once more just sitting in some tall grasses and low shrubs. It pecked away at things, eating and generally being a Willow Ptarmigan. Being that it's summer now, this bird was in it's summer plumage though had more white than expected for June. It had a reddish bit over the eye, some white with rusty brown/red patches all over. The rusty colour is finely scalloped with darker brown. The white is as pure as untouched snow. It stood in an all green setting and nearly disappeared. How it did when it's not even remotely the same colour as it's surroundings is really quite cool. All the birders then got back into the bus and went home. That's how a good twitch works, we all gather and the excitement is electric. The community spends a few brief few hours somewhere, then just goes their own ways until the next twitch.

Afterward, I drove straight home to look after the kids for the rest of the day as Rachel has a commission to work on. By about 2pm, I was excruciatingly tired. I talked the kids into going inside to watch a bit of TV. They were only to happy to oblige. I caught a short nap while they sat on me and watched a couple episodes of Star Wars Clone Wars cartoon. After that we went outside to weed the garden and draw chalk versions of ourselves on the sidewalk. I got to do the things I like best this weekend, see a great band with my great wife, see a great bird with great friends and see my great kids. What more can an aging, lanky punk ask for?

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

June 12, day list.

Willow Ptarmigan (lifer)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Punk Rock Big Year gets dirty.

WARNING: This post contains nothing about birds. Though I did hear many species that are breeding in the forest behind my house. A favourite is the Great-crested Flycatcher.

One of the main goals behind moving from the city to the country was to be sure the kids understand a little more about where their food comes from. Since moving, we have visited many farms that sell meat and produce. When we eat, we talk about what we eat by what it actually is. Steak is cows, pork is pigs, chickens are, well, chickens. The kids love going to farms, and I hope are understanding more and more that they are eating those animals in the field. Vegetable farms are definitely of less interest to them. It's easy to have fun feeding some goats or cows. Not so much watching people pick asparagus or trim the new growth off of tomato plants.

In an attempt at making vegetables more interesting, we decided to try our hand at growing some of own. The garden went in a little late though. It was a combination of a really wet, rainy spring and all the birdwatching I needed to do this year. My big year number is now at 206. I don't expect it to grow much for the next couple months. I'll chase anything rare that shows up but the summer is generally slower as all the long distance migrants are now up in the boreal forest and beyond raising their families and I've seen most of the local breeding birds. And this year, it's all about the list! Now back to food. I had built the raised-bed garden boxes quite a while ago. This weekend we filled them with nice rich soil (35 wheel barrel loads to be exact).

Empty gardens made in Late March/early April.
Friday evening was spent watching Elliott Brood, Bradleyboy and Poor Pelley perform in Oshawa to celebrate Rachel's birthday. The bands were great. Also memorable was eating wings on the street with a very drunk complete stranger. She just walked up with a take-out container of wings and started sharing them with us. It was odd.

Tearing up Oh, Alberta.
Bradleyboy singing with The Brood.
The weekend wasn't great weather the whole time, in fact, it rained heavily Saturday until at least 3pm. That was fine as we needed to do something every father fears. The dreaded dance recital. Don't get me wrong, I am very supportive of Georgia being involved in dance. It does a lot of good thing for her. It's very social, it's great exercise and it's not TV. I'm going to be excruciatingly honest here and say G is the ONLY kid I cared to watch dance. As I'm sure all the other dads felt about their kid. Though they might stifle the urge to say so in a public forum. Ask Rachel, that's just not my way. Shep was in the class for two lessons and quietly told me he wasn't into it. Now, when G is at dance class, Shep and dad get haircuts or go to the hardware store. Another favorite activity is returning empty beer bottles. I don't know why he likes it so much but he does. I think it has more to do with us doing something no one else does but us. I fondly remember doing those things with my dad too.

Sunday was a different story. It was the best possible day you could ask for living in the country. Mosquitos are pretty much relegated to dusk and black-fly season is over. Now, it's just nice out. But a day of rest it was not. I woke at 5:30am and headed outside to finish moving the dirt to the garden boxes. At 7, Shep was up and helping me move dirt. He borrowed a small wheel barrel from a neighbour. Rachel and Georgia joined us about 8:30. They came with big stacks of pancakes and real maple syrup bought from a local place. We sat in the morning sun and ate. After that, the kids played in the dirt filled gardens; no food planted yet. Rachel and I started in on a fence. It would mean six posts had to be cemented into the ground. I had already dug the wholes. Everyone thought I was nuts not to rent an auger. I just felt like the right thing to do was avoid using any gas or electricity to dig these holes. How hard could it be? Pretty damn hard actually. Six holes, 3-4 ft. deep each. It took some time and caused some muscle pain but I have to say it's very satisfying and almost therapeutic to dig holes. We cut the sona tubes, placed the posts and cemented them in. It took significantly longer to do it than typing that last sentence.

When that was done, it was off to a local plant shop to get our food. It's nearby and a great place for the kids to run around. We bought several varieties of heirloom tomato, cucumber, beans, peas, watermelon, onions, squash, peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and parsnips, many types of lettuce and lots of herbs too. My Aunt Pat dropped by that afternoon and helped me and the kids plant all the veg. while Rachel worked on the flower gardens going down the hill. It was a lot of work but also lots of fun. There was one other hole to dig. You might remember that our cat Frances had been killed by a dog last weekend. We looked at burying her at a local pet cemetery but the $600 fee seemed a tad steep. Like $575 to steep. We found a nice place for her in the back garden and I dug yet another hole. This one was a bit bigger than fence post holes. 4 ft. deep and about two ft. by three ft. I wanted to be sure no fox, raccoon or other critter would disturb her. We marked her grave in the old style of pilling rocks over it. Among the rocks, the kids sprinkled some colourful little stones. I think it looks quite nice. See for yourself.

Tomatoes and herb in.
Working on the layout.
Aunt Pat working hard. She's a fast planter.
Georgia gets involved.

Shep (and a robot) trampling things more than helping, really.
Strangling dad usually helps move things along. 
Shep preparing to put in some onions.
Even Frances has a place in the garden.
But not the vege garden.

I write this post as I ride the commuter train back into the city for work Monday morning. I wish I was putting boards on the fence and spending another perfect day with the family, but I guess I gotta' pay for that fence somehow...

This is what my commute looks like. Yuk.

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss