Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dog days of birding

Everyone knows the dog days of summer. Late August, early September. The same lazy, somewhat uneventful days exist in birding too. Spring is over, many birds have completely passed over southern Ontario and moved on to the boreal forest to raise a family. The ones that nest here, and there are a lot of them, are not looking as beautiful as when they first arrived. The massive efforts involved in avian child rearing have started to take it's toll on them. They look a bit tired. This might be my wife's favorite time of year. The weather is nice, and I don't generally disappear each Saturday and Sunday for half or all of the day to chase birds. Even the fishing slows down as streams get lower and trout head back to the lake. Then, I become family Paul. The kind of guy that goes shopping for trees and digs holes to plant them in, moves dirt from one spot to another, makes beds for his twins and generally spends time at home. Birder Paul fades into the background.

Every once in a while he emerges though. Especially when a rare or interesting bird shows up on the list servers I subscribe to. The thing about the rarities is that I NEED them to grow the number on my big year. Certain birds are guaranteed and that's the bulk of them. But it's these unusual instances that really help the number climb beyond what just about any decent birder might hope to achieve. Let's face it, getting to 211 hasn't been all that hard. Soon, the shorebirds will start heading south. It seems to be the best time to get them. I have quite a few but definitely need to be sharp in August to get the easier ones.
A few rarities are popping up this year. Most notably the Willow Ptarmigan. It was within 15 minutes of my house. It seems Ottawa, our nation's capital hates me though. If you remember, a couple weeks ago I drove myself and the twins out to the Ottawa area to see a White-faced Ibis. Seems that bird had some weekend plans of it's own. It was seen the morning I left to go to it, disappeared for the entire time I was there and showed up again the day after I got back home. Then, a few days later a Western Meadowlark shows up a few kilometers from the Ibis spot. There were more than a few hints thrown at Rachel about me going back out there but none of them garnered much more than a very serious face and the terrifying sentence, "Go and see it, if it's what you think is the right thing to do." Anyone who's married knows that it would have been the exact opposite of the right thing to do. So instead, I keep reading about how easily it is seen and that it is loudly calling so that one can be sure it is a Western and not our Eastern variety. It's awfully difficult to tell the difference if they don't vocalize. The birds look virtually identical. But genetics and a song would say otherwise.

Western Meadowlark by NDomer73.

Eastern Meadowlark by kenschneiderusa.

I've seen Western Meadowlarks. Lots of them. I often find myself in Calgary shooting pictures of Subaru vehicles for ads. It's a great place to go birding. I just love the differences between our birds here and theirs there. I can't explain why it's cooler to see a Red-shafted Flicker over a yellow, a Red-breasted Sapsucker over a Yellow-bellied, it just is. Grass is always greener I guess. But here's the thing, Western Meadowlark is a lifer for my Ontario list. Am I going to push the issue with Rachel? No. Life has taught me that some things you need, others you only want. And let's face it, if I don't see it, nobody's gonna die. All that's going to happen is that I'm gonna get one less tick which translates to one less tattoo this year. Watch, when I get to the end of the year and I'm one bird off 300, I'll curse my lazy cowardice self for not stomping and crying and even begging to go see that bird.

Subaru photo by Chris Gordaneer. All rights reserved.

Subaru photo by Chris Gordaneer. All rights reserved.

So for now, I'll make some deposits at the bank of Rachel. Here's hoping they increase in value when the northbound birds I missed in the spring are heading through to hit the tropics again for the winter. And if I'm lucky, that Western Meadowlark will still be kicking around the next time we visit my sister in Ottawa.

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What am I doing with my life?

Looking for Sharp-tailed Grouse in -20  degrees with 70km/hr winds in ankle deep water.

I ask myself, "What am I doing with my life?" on a pretty regular basis. See, I probably should be on some ship or in a small country fighting giant corporations that are out to ruin our planet. But I'm not. Instead I'm working for the big corporations, selling their wares. Some products I push I believe in more than others. I guess as an advertising professional, I can decide against producing some ideas that might pop into my head (and I have certainly had ideas that'd sell things that I just never committed to paper, for fear they might actually get produced and work a little too well). I can also decide what ad agencies I work for, thereby determining what brands I promote. One thing is for sure, being an ad guy has made me impervious to it's charms. Without getting myself in trouble, let me just say that everyone should be very involved in their purchases. I can take some comfort in the fact that I also do a lot of free thinking for charity. Especially environmental stuff. I make a point of it.

I also ask myself "What am I doing?" in my personal life. Anyone out there that has children does, and if they say they don't, they are bold-faced liars. Raising kids is the hardest thing I've ever done. There are times when kids make you want to punch yourself in the face over and over for being so stupid as to think reproducing human life was a good idea. Don't get me wrong, I love my kids fiercely and would put a city of people in their graves to save them without even thinking twice. Shepard and Georgia are worth every second of the difficulty but if you say you never EVER think it may have been easier to live out your life without kids, you lie. But, if you know Rachel and I, we rarely, if ever take the easy route.

I also question myself when it comes to this Punk Rock Big Year thing. I mean, who am I to think I know how to make a documentary? Why is my ego such that I feel the need to make a film about myself? Why would anybody even give a shit about me. I'm just Paul. There are millions of us out there. Who has time to devote to following some dude that's chasing birds around? Especially when they are all busy punching themselves in the face pondering why they ever decided to have sex in the first place. And why on earth would I EVER, EVER, EVER, EVER, EVER, decide to permanently cover the vast majority of my body in Latin words, very few of which I even know the actual meaning of? It seems crazy. It is crazy. There are so many times when I just think, "Stop it, stop being so weird and just be a normal person. Normal people don't do this." And believe me, when I'm standing ankle deep in ice-water in 70km/hr winds with watering eyes that pretty much instantly freeze up, 800km from my wife and kids, I can't help but think I'm wasting my time here. Its even worse that I did that whole trip in 36 hours.

Then, I get a random message on Facebook. It goes like this:

Hey man, just wanted to send a little note of INSPIRATION to you. When I first heard about your Big Year, I kind of might have said "He's gonna what? try to see a bunch of birds this year" "Then I might have said a little something like "What the heck, I see birds all the time?"

Here's where the message gets a little nice. I have to admit, I'm not a bird watcher or anything but I do know a little bit about identifying a few birds, probably more than the average person, but I've been reading all your blogs and posts and I'm finding the whole thing fascinating. Your travels, the different causes and all the other stuff.

Around April we started going down to the conservation area by us to feed the birds by hand. Chickadees, woodpeckers, red-winged blackbirds, blue jays all those a plenty. From there we ended up putting some feeders in our yard. I've been guilty of calling the birds with my Ipod but have since stopped after reading your post about people like me who do that.

Anyways man, just wanted to let you know that it's been interesting following your Big Year, even as a non-birder. I have to give credit to my kids for getting me started by wanting to go feed the chickadees and stuff but your Big Year definitely has increased my interest in our feathered friends and might have helped me sound smart when talking to my family about birds, and I love sounding smart. Not sure if I can still call myself a non-birder as whenever I hear a different call I usually try to find it to see what it is (something i never really used to do before) but I can never find them.

Good luck with the rest of your year!

This is the kind of thing that makes me want to keep going, someone got more into birding because of PRBY, and not only that, they took their kids with them and those kids might now be part of our future generation of birders. That's why I'm doing this. Get young kids to care about birds, appreciate natural beauty, and they can't help but want to preserve it. They, and the generations after them, are the only ones who can ensure our planet doesn't go the way of the Dodo. Because we will all be dirt before too long. I'm already halfway to my end. That means we don't have much time and we need to keep at them. If it means covering my body in ink to get their attention, I'm up for it. I just hope there are others behind me that will do things as crazy, or crazier, to get people riled up and giving a shit.

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year

Monday, July 11, 2011

You win some, you lose some.

This weekend, I lost, in a pretty big way. If you are a regular reader, then you know the last two weekends in June were spent mostly driving long distances. Once to drop my wife and kids off on Manitoulin Island for a week. Then, the very next weekend, I drove up to get them again with a stop at Sauble Beach to see some Piping Plovers. So this past weekend was going to be an around the house weekend. Lots of gardening and great home cooked meals with the kids (Rachel was off to do a 5k obstacle course run called The Warrior Race). It was going to be just me, the kids and almost no driving at all.

This is where I would've been this weekend.
And this is what we would've been doing. 
Maybe some of this too.

Alas, it wasn't meant to be. You see, all week long I had been watching reports of what at first was a possible White-faced Ibis. As the days went on I was insanely busy at work but kept checking the reports. The possible bird became a sure thing. People were seeing and photographing it daily from Tuesday onward. There was a sighting Friday. I contacted my friends Richard Pope and Margaret Bain and we decided I should maybe go for the bird. I may never get another chance at one this year. They are certainly not common. It was time to pace up and down Main St. Orono contemplating the idea of going. What would it mean? It would mean driving about 1200 km round trip to Ottawa, with the twins, asking if I could stay with my sister when she already had company that weekend, finding a baby sitter I could trust with my two favourite humans while I chased the Ibis, letting my Aunt Pat know that the dinner plans we had were cancelled at the last minute and doing this all on my own. I started to formulate a plan. Kim was fine with more visitors, Aunt Pat liked the idea of joining me on the trip and Kim's daughter Lainey would watch the kids for me.

White-faced Ibis by chuqui.

I contacted Bruce Di Labio, the birder that found and had been monitoring the bird. It was doing the exact same thing every day. Flying into a watery area and spending much of the day feeding. In the late afternoon, it'd fly off and go wherever it was roosting. Nobody knew where that was. If so, I might have had two locations to check. So much the better. In talking with Bruce on Saturday morning, he said he hadn't seen the bird that morning but someone had very early on. It broke patter that morning, leaving the Carp River and flying west until it was out of sight. Things started to seem a little shaky with my plan. I was doubting going. I posted to twitter about my situation, asking followers what they thought. They all said I should go. It would be a great adventure they had said. And they were ,at least in part, right. So I go inside and ask the kids if they want to go see their Aunt Kim and Uncle Rob. They adore Kearan and Lainey (Kim's kids) so I wasn't too surprised by their approval of the idea. What the kids were not yet able to comprehend is the 3 hour drive before seeing anyone.

White-faced Ibis by chuqui.

So I packed up some clothes, snacks and optics and off we went. It certainly helped to have Pat in the car with me. the kids lasted about 2 and half hours before losing their shit. There's nothing quite like the feeling of driving 130 kms down the 401/416 Hwys with two kids shrieking like demons in the back seat. And I'm not a huge fan of stopping on the side of big highways like that, what with the constant barrage of transport trucks whipping by. pat and I keep assuring the kids that we are almost there. If a half hour constitutes being close. At this point I'm seriously doubting my plan. We finally arrive at Kim's and like turning a light switch off, the demons fled my kids bodies and they were sweet, innocent, beautiful children again. My stress levels were a bit lower but I started to feel a bit like a shitty father having just put them through that. Once they get on the trampoline with Lainey, all is forgiven. I sit and have a cool ginger ale. Then, once I'm satisfied the kids are all good, I go to the spot. There's another couple birders there. Turns out it's a photographer from the area and his young son. They kind of reminded me of myself and dad when I was younger. The young fellow shrieking every tie he caught sight of a bird, his dad telling him to keep it down and then them looking at the bird with their bins. He was really good with his son. Teaching him that you have to study the bird, look at it for as long as it sat visible, then try and think about what it might be. Not to make snap decisions and remember what you saw and really identify it.

White-faced Ibis by chuqui.

Least Sandpiper by cotinis.
Spotted Sandpiper by kenschneiderusa.

My iPhone battery dies in the night sometime and so dad wakes me at 6:15am. Great way to start the chase. I was planning on being there at 6. I go downstairs, brush my teeth and we head out. No coffee, no breakfast and sadly, upon arrival to the Carp River, no Ibis. We wait, getting a bit chewed by mosquitoes. There were none the previous day as it was so hot. But this early, they are pretty numerous. They don't really bother me too much as I'm just focused on the bird showing up. We see a few gulls, some Great Blue Herons,  perfect specimen of a Green Heron, some Least and Spotted Sandpipers. There's lots of Killdeer, Red-winged Blackbirds, and a couple of Wilson's Snipe fluttering here and there. A pretty darn good morning of birding, unless you are doing a big year and have all those birds already. A while later we come to the conclusion that this isn't going to happen. We pack up and leave, not so happy with the outcome of the trip. We drive around on the concessions trying various points where the Carp River crosses roads but get no Ibis. We go home, happy to have seen what we did but with an air of defeat. All I can think is what the drive home will be like. Loud, I'm guessing. Turns out they slept for the first hour, watched a movie for the next hour and a half and were again possessed by demons for the last half hour. As an example of how crazy kids can be, listen to this:

Shep is asleep, Georgia is awake and fussing. Aunt Pat crawls halfway to the back to grab a blanket. She can only reach Shep's. She puts it onto Georgia. G falls back to sleep. Shep wakes to see that G has his blanket and completely loses his mind. To the point I had no choice but to pull over and get him his blanket and give G hers. She goes ballistic at the idea of forgiving his blanket in exchange for hers.

It's all so crazy I can't even fathom it. I contemplate wandering into the highway traffic for just a second, but I'm anything but a quitter. Then, I get back into the car and we drive on, to the delightful sounds of demonic possession.

When I get home, I find out Rachel's race went really well and she's already talking about doing it again next year. I'm very pleased and proud of her. I'm also very happy that I won't be doing a big year next year. I'm just going to look at birds for the pure joy of it. After this weekend, I can't wait for that kind of birding.

July 9, 2011 day list

Least Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What would you do to see an endangered species?

Note: All Plover shots were taken by Brendan Toews.

I'd do a lot it would seem. Drive 700 km round trip. Have a bag of salt and malt vinegar chips and 3 bottles of beer for dinner. Spend 4 hours trying to get wet wood to burn. Sleep in 8 degree weather in nothing but a sleeping bag that was half the length of me and an old t-shirt. Wake at 6 am and eat nothing but a granola bar. All under the watchful eye of a video camera.

Just another day in a Punk Rock Big Year, right? One thing this big year is teaching me is that 40 isn't actually the new 30. My body tells me every chance it gets that I'm not as young (and punk) as I once was. Would I do it all again for the chance at an endangered species? Hell yeah, I'd do it the very next day for that, and probably for a fairly common species. Especially when it comes with making a couple new birder friends. Even better, one of them was a metalhead.

I picked  Jon Wayne Brown up in Toronto right after grabbing some gear from a great director friend of mine, Jonathan Bensimon, who was cool enough to lend me his camera, tripod and a nice long lens to film my adventures this past weekend. Jonathan and I sat and had a coffee while transferring some footage he'd shot while I was helping FLAP collect dead and injured birds in early May. He also showed me some things he was working on that were really cool uses of stills in video. Hard to explain but when the video comes out, it'll be amazing. Then I headed across town to meet Jon. We got right on the highway and promptly into gridlock traffic. You see it was Canada Day and every person in Toronto was heading north. It's an odd phenomenon. Everybody heads north to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city. But since everyone's doing it, you don't escape a thing. It's the same shit, with Mosquitos. At least that's how I see much of Muskoka. I went further north but the endangered bird is nesting on one of the most popular tourist beaches in Ontario. Thankfully, people are not usually out in full force at 6am.

Piping Plover by Brendan Toews.
The bird in question is a Piping Plover. A small shorebird that hasn't been nesting on the east shore of Lake Huron since about the 50s or 60s. In 2007, Kim Toews (pronounced Taves) and her son Brendan, were walking along the beach doing a little morning birding. Kim has been coming to the Sauble Beach area since before Brendan was born so she was well versed in it's nesting species. She saw something she wasn't too sure of. Brendan, already a very keen birder, said immediately that it was a Piping Plover. He told me that he was just reading about it the night before for some reason. He and his mom knew this was an exciting discovery but they kept it under wraps until they were sure that the birds weren't just passing through to another area further north. After carefully watching them a few days, they noticed Behaviour that might suggest nesting. They contacted the powers that be and things started getting really exciting. The beach was blocked off and 24 hour surveillance was started. The birds were banded and so were the chicks when they showed up.
Piping Plover with chick by Brendan Toews.
Kim and Brendan had discovered a new nesting pair of birds that were endangered in Ontario. It was like a birder's dream come true. I know I'd like to discover such a thing and I don't know a serious birder that wouldn't. The Ontario Field Ornithologists gave them an award and they have been back every year to see the progress. When I visited, about 4 years later, there were now two nesting pairs. They have seen a female chick from the 2009 season return in 2010 and successfully nest and fledge young (making this an Ontario record). The hope is that these little guys keep coming back and start to flourish again. One pair is great, two is twice as good. My fingers are crossed for more progress. Someday, I'd like to bring my kids to see one of the ten nesting pairs. That would be something.
Piping Plover chick by Brendan Toews.
I see a lot of myself in Brendan. It's been a while since I was 17 but my dad has since told me I was not your average kid. I feel that way about Brendan. He seems wise beyond his years. He might wear a Metallica t-shirt but he's also able to identify 95% of Ontario's birds by sight and 75% by sound alone (way more than me, even at 40yrs. of age). I'm sure he has his teen side but he's more than just an average teenager. I felt like I could have intelligent one to one conversations with him. Not something I often feel around someone his age. Usually I feel like throwing teenaged kids off the nearest cliff but that might just be me becoming a curmudgeon as I age. His mom is just flat out, a nice person. She's easy to talk to and very kind. She approached me about coming up to see the bird. She offered to show me around and make sure I got the best looks possible for my documentary. And she definitely delivered. I got very nice views of both the male, female and even the chicks. The male stood on a driftwood stump while his young fed on the shore behind him. He watched us as much as we watched him. How could he know that the three of us would probably take a bullet to save one of his chicks.
Piping Plover by Brendan Toews.
Piping Plover by Brendan Toews.
Afterward, I dropped Jon off in Owen Sound so he could get a bus home. How's that for dedication to the project? I headed further north to see my family again. If you remember from the last post, I left them on Manitoulin Island for a week. Now I'd head up and they'd be in my arms again. We spent an awesome weekend on the island, touring it a bit. Sure I saw some birds, heard even more of them, but the big deal to me was being with my wife and kids again. We drove home on Monday to avoid some traffic. Boy did I ever pay for it at work Tuesday. It was kind of like getting hit with a dictionary in the face. Not fun at all. But the first day back to work is behind me and I write this at my antique Oak desk in the quiet of my living room, drinking a beer and a little Irish Whiskey; kids sleeping soundly upstairs. Right now, life seems perfect, if you don't count all the writing of ads due this week and the fact that unusual birds seem to be turning up at each of the four corners of Ontario this week. No rest for a Punk Birder I guess...

July 1st day list

Piping Plover
Great Egret

July 3rd day list

Northern Goshawk