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)

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