Monday, October 31, 2011

Ottawa hates me, it really hates me.

OK, I shouldn't complain but I've really not had the best luck with the city of Ottawa and surrounding areas. Birders out that way have been gifted with so many rare birds this year. I might have been able to get to 300 birds for my big year if I had lived out there. But as my friend Richard puts it, "Riss, if you lived out there, they'd be having a shit year and Cobourg would be full of rarities." What does all this mean? Well, it means I dipped on what might have been the rarest bird for my big year. And this bird isn't just your run of the mill jerk, it's a complete a-hole. It's there the day before I go, giving "excellent scope views" and "excellent scope views" the day after I leave. But on the day I go, nuthin'! The bird in question is a Razorbill. According to Kenn Kaufman (as posted on my Facebook page) its the closest living relative to the extinct Great Auk! Pretty cool.

Great Auk by Museum Wales.
Razorbill by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region.

You all kind of know my situation. Full-time job, twins, wife with a new store. So when something so rare shows up and I know I have to go get it, I do what any twitcher might do. Skip work, abandon my ever understanding wife and drive about 400kms to see it. I grabbed my cameraman Jon and friends Richard and Margaret (the latter two retired and able to more comfortably do these things) so we could film this trip for the film.

We get up before the sun to go because I need to be home at 7pm FOR SURE because Rachel has a class to attend. Should be no problem right, it's only a 3.5 hour drive, we see the bird and drive back. Theoretically it should really only take 9 hours in total. If I leave at 7,  that gives me 12 hours to complete a 9 hour trip. That's 3 hours of error time. Good situation right? Nope. We get there all excited to find this thing. We don't find it. We meet a local birder that can help us look in other places it's been seen. He joins our party and off we go. We check every possible spot. No bird. There were two other possible birds, Red Phalarope and Western Grebe. Neither of those show themselves either. Coincidentally, the Western Grebe starts showing nicely the day after we leave too.

Western Grebe by Mark L. Watson.

The day wasn't a total bust though. I did add Black Scoter to my year list and also I saw some Red-throated Loons. I saw them really quite close up too. Such a nice bird with their heads held high as they swim along. They look almost silvery on the water with so much white on them in their winter plumage. Then, just as we are going to go find a public washroom somewhere, a car drives up, rolls its window down and a man sticks his head out and says, "Possible Pom Jaeger. First parking lot west of the bridge between Ontario and Quebec." This was cool. It would be a lifer for me. So we hop in the car, abandoning the idea of a bathroom and I drive, possibly way too fast, to the spot. We get the wrong parking lot, twice. We know because there's no crowd of birders with their scopes all pointed in the same direction. We finally find the right spot. Lots of cars in the lot means we probably have it right.

Red-throated Loon by davidhofmann08.
Black Scoter by Rick Leche.

We get amazingly close views of the bird sitting on a rock. Now this is a sea bird. A pretty nasty hunter too (Jaeger means hunter in German). Non-birders would call it a brown seagull. You don't always see them just sitting on a rock. I also saw some birders that I met back in the spring at Point Pelee. This happens on a twitch. You just end up running into the same folks again and again. The group decided it was a Pomarine Jaeger. I got such great views with Richard's Carl Zeiss 60x scope. The details were really amazing. Sure it was brownish but the slight details were really subtle and beautiful. It had a silvery bill with a black, hooked tip. The texture on its body and wings were amazing. You could see every detail at this distance. Later that day, some folks that had lots of time and many photographs decided to change it to a Parasitic Jaeger. Something about the very thin bill and a few other details. The digi-scoped photos must have been pretty easy for a real expert to work from. It was pretty close to us.

Parasitic Jaeger by BruceLC.

We searched in vain for that Razorbill for the rest of our time there. To no avail. At 2:45, I knew I'd missed the bird. I had to be back by 7 and leaving by 3 gave me 4 hours to do a 3 hour drive. No problem right? Guess again. We hit this insane traffic jam just by Kingston. So many cars, so few lanes. We were at a complete standstill for at least 15 minutes at one point. The others in the car could feel me getting worried about my very important 7pm deadline. I got really worried when cars began to reverse back past us on the grass beside the highway. At a certain point it became clear I wouldn't make it home on time. So what does a grown man do in that situation? Call his mom of course. I called her and asked if she could drop over to the house at 6:45 to watch the kids until I got home so Rachel could go to her 7pm class. One thing about moms, they will never let you down. Well, mine won't anyway. After the traffic cleared, I drove at insane speeds. The kind you lose your license for if you get caught, dropped Richard and Margaret off and literally flew home as fast as my Subaru would take me. I got there at 7:10. Not bad but certainly not good. Rachel was very understanding again. She must be getting kind of tired of that. Only two months more of this shit left.

I hate this feeling. Traffic Jam by Wyscan.

Saturday Rachel was busy working so I had the opportunity to try and make birders out of my kids again without her meddling in my affairs. This time we would head to the spot I got hooked and I'd try and see what happened if I setup the same experience I had when I was young. IT WORKED. Shep was instantly addicted to feeding chickadees by hand. Dad was pretty proud. Georgia on the other hand tried it once and complained that the bird had bitten her. I explained that it just grabbed a seed from her hand. She went on to say that she wanted to leave immediately and that this would never happen again. Somewhere, Rachel must have been smiling. Georgia is her mother's daughter. Rachel doesn't dislike birds by any means but she isn't interested in them very much, other than maybe painting them. But she doesn't pay any attention to the proper colours. In her mind, a Winter Wren is nice but it'd be nicer if it were entirely peacock blue with yellow bars instead of brown on brown. So, that's just how she painted it. Anyway, after birding for a half hour, I took the kids to Baldwin St. Burger. When we left there for home, Shepard said to me, "Dad, can we go birdwatching again?" I was in birder-dad heaven for a half second. That was shattered by Georgia's blood-curdling scream. "NOOOOOOOOOOO, I DON'T LIKE BIRDWATCHING." I guess one outa' two ain't bad.

P.S. - I had a picture of this but for some reason my iPhone using iOS5 didn't save it anywhere. Guess we gotta' go out and try again next weekend...

Sunday, we had a little party for the kids. A combo Halloween and early birthday party. We decided to do the party early to separate it from Christmas. Also, last time we had a birthday near their Dec. 8th date, someone showed up and brought the nastiest puking flu with them. This ensured that at least one of my family was vomiting throughout the entire two weeks I had off for the holidays. Not so fun. If that happens again, it'll surely be out of our system by Christmas break. Fingers crossed.

Spooky Shep.

Understanding wife.

October 27, 2011 day list

Parasitic Jaeger
Red-throated Loon
Black Scoter

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Punk Rock Big Year hits the road and skies.

So as our fall migration starts to slow down and it gets less and less comfortable to drive the Duster (it has no heater), what's a punk birder to do? Follow the birds I guess.

I have been feverishly planning a couple of really exciting things lately for PRBY. Well, exciting for me anyway. A little less so for my wife and kids. Many of you might remember that me doing this documentary was actually inspired by a few paragraphs in Kenn Kaufman's Kingbird Highway. If you haven't read that book, get to it. It's the story of a dude that drops out of high school to try and break a Big Year record. Even crazier is that he did it spending only $1000 and with no car. He hitched about 50, 000 miles around North America. You birders may already know this story very well. You non-birders should read it. It's a very cool story about a kid finding himself within his passion for birds. Well, now Kenn is one of our most prominent birders and bird conservationists and author of not only Kingbird Highway but other books as well as having his own line of great nature field guides; the Kaufman Field Guide series. Not bad for a dude that dropped outa' high school. I never dropped out but I was certainly vacant most of the time in high school, spending all my time painting, drawing, birding and getting into a fair amount of extra activities that my parents would most certainly have frowned upon. And here I am working for one of the world's most prominent creative advertising agencies. The moral here is school sucks but education is extremely important. Ok, school doesn't always suck but I hated it. Anyone under the age of 18 reading this? Stay in school, take charge, make it what you need it to be. Neither Kenn, nor myself would encourage anyone to do things exactly the way we did.

When I started this thing, Rachel said, "Well, you have to go birding with Kenn on camera." She may rue the day she said that now because that's exactly what's happening. I'm lucky enough to be able to attend the Ohio Young Birders Conference. I wouldn't exactly call myself a young person but I tend to be on the younger side of birding. These are actual young people and they care about birds! Something I never experienced when I was their age. I was pretty much alone in that back then. Oh, and did I forget to mention, I'll get a chance to go birding with Kenn and Kim Kaufman! If you are into sports, it's sort of like playing a game of pick-up hockey with Wayne Gretzky. And if you're in a band, it'd be like being on stage with Neil Young or Tom Waits.

As if that's not amazing enough, I'm also in line to go to Nicaragua birding for a few days. This isn't just any birding trip. This is to go birding on coffee estates. The main place we will visit is Gaia Estate. It grows Smithsonian certified Bird-friendly coffee. We will also find a full-sun estate to visit. What I want to show is just how much damage we are doing to habitat when we clear-cut a forest and change it into a full-sun coffee farm. You can read all about bird friendly coffee at an earlier post I did about Birds and Beans coffee companies. If you want to do ONE SIMPLE THING that will dramatically help birds, it's drink ONLY Birds and Beans coffee. Not just at home, ask your favorite coffee shop if they will get it for you. Since I found out about Birds and Beans, I've probably only drank about twenty or thirty cups of coffee where I wasn't sure the origin. Hell, I actually carry around my own coffee, press and kettle (when needed) for when I'm on the road. And shade grown isn't enough. Some farms have shade grown certification with only two or three trees on the estate. That's hardly a good wildlife habitat. Sorry about this always turning into a rant, I'm just really passionate about this subject.

So, big things on the horizon for me and Punk Rock Big Year. Wish me luck and I would like to take this time to thank a few people for my good fortune. Firstly, my wife for being so understanding and supportive all year, putting me first all the time. I love you Rachel. Secondly, Kenn and Kim Kaufman for taking time out of their insanely busy schedules to spend time with me, a heavily tattooed aging punk that just randomly fired them an email this spring. Thirdly, David and Madeleine and Bill from Birds and Beans for helping me get further in touch with Kenn and Kim. Also, all the people supporting me by way of donating time and mad skills with shooting, editing, onlining, sound design and transferring (some of these things won't happen until next year but they are greatly appreciated).

Oh yeah, I also went birding last Sunday morning and found some LBDOs.

Long-billed Dowitcher by almiyi.

October 23, 2011 day list
Long-billed Dowitcher

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mixed emotions about The Big Year.

There are some pretty exciting things happening for Punk Rock Big Year right now but I can't let them out of the bag yet. Don't want to jinx some things that I've been looking forward to so much.

So Sunday night we got a babysitter and Rachel and I went to see The Big Year. The birder in me really loved it. But there's this other side of me. A film lover, a creative professional, a perfectionist. This is what that person thought...

(The following is a comment I left on's excellent blog which I love and read every day.) spoiler alert. A couple things here might spoil it if you've not seen the film yet.

More people aren’t going to be interested in birding because of a bad director. Sure, he’s probably a better director than I am but he’s not great. The film was far too much about a series of birding events and not about the characters. Mark’s book is really great and I felt like maybe I knew those guys by the end of it. There was zero character development in the film, ZERO. If I missed my wife’s fertility treatment for a Snowy Owl, shit would have hit the fan a hell of a lot harder than that. It would have been a devastating blow to an already fragile relationship. Yes, so he lost her, she left him, but what’s the saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” That statement is a serious truth. She never even threw anything at him! As for the relationship with Jack Black and his dad, there was one moment where I might have believed that they connected but it had little to do with the emotion pulled out of the actors by the director and more from the owls all-seeing eyes. The only place I really saw the way I feel when I see a rare bird is when Steve Martin got his Hummingbird at that fence when it seemed he’d miss it. His eyes said a lot in that moment but it was the only half-second where I could turn to my wife and say, “That’s why I’m a birder.”

If you are interested in what I mean by character development, go see a film called 50/50. They did more to tell me about the main character in the first two seconds of the film while he studiously waits for a walk signal before crossing a road while other joggers just go right across. That kind of directing is very powerful and could easily have been done with The Big Year too. There’s no reason I shouldn’t have teared up when Jack Black’s dad finally understood that his son wasn’t a complete failure but a person with a passion that deserved recognition.

For birders, it’s a fine film because we can see bits of ourselves in it, but it ain’t good for anyone else. My wife fell asleep for a bit and I don’t blame her for a moment. I know she’d enjoy the book, though now, I won’t be able to get her to read it.

I’m in the process of trying to make a short documentary about my own big year but if it sucks when it’s done, it’ll stay shelved. As with most big years, it’s turning out to be the people I’ve become acquainted with that are what I’ll remember most. I’ll always love the birds but counting them is getting a bit old after 10 months of it. In a way, I’m glad I did this at a younger age, that way, I can just enjoy looking at birds from January 1, 2012 until the day I keel over, hopefully with my bins in my hand...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thanks for everything.

Canadian followers will know and maybe some American ones as well that this weekend was the Canadian Thanksgiving Weekend. The last of our good-weather long weekends.

Thank you #1
The company I work for, DDB, always gives us four day long weekends during the summer. Unfortunately for me, I had to work Friday on colour transferring a commercial I shot for Subaru a week before. That's OK, I spent the day with Mark (the editor that will work on PRBY), Andrew (the Executive Producer at DDB) and Billy (one of the best transfer dudes in Toronto, maybe Canada). They are all great guys and we usually sit around listening to records while we work.

Thank you #2
I spent Saturday hanging out with my kids. Early Saturday morning, like every morning, I could hear a flock of Canada Geese approaching my house. I happened to look out side just as they went over. On the right tip of the flock was a Snow Goose! A new bird for the year! I also went to see a movie with Rach called 50/50. I highly recommend it. Very funny at times and very touching at others. Great little film.

Snow Goose by kukkurovaca.

Thank you #3
Sunday, Rachel's new shop, Sunday's Child, was closed for the holiday Sunday/Monday. Read it again, that sentence makes sense. We went apple picking and pumpkin buying with the kids. We never got around to planting our own apple trees or pumpkins this year. We also had a great outdoor dinner for Thanksgiving. It was a great time spent with friends and family. We killed a turkey, but I know it had a humane existence on a nearby farm prior to it's demise. Many of our veges came from our own garden.

Thank you #4
Monday was not the best but it was a cloud with a silver lining. The kids seemed to have grabbed a sore throat type of cold. Lots of hacking and spitting of phlegm. Both Rachel and I got this one too. Still feeling it today as I head to work. Why am I thankful for that? Well, we folded our couch out into a bed and spent the day renting movies from apple TV and generally just spending time together.

Thank you #5
In lieu of working Friday while the rest of DDB was enjoying the spectacular weather we were having, I took Tuesday to go birding and shoot some footage for PRBY. I never got a lot of new birds and missed a couple I was trying for but I got two new birds. A pair of Trumpeter Swans  and a pair of Hudsonian Godwits. It was a great day spent wandering around looking at birds with two great people, Richard Pope and Margaret Bain, my birding teachers.

Trumpeter Swan by James Marvin Phelps.
Hudsonian Godwit by Henry McLin.
Hudsonian Godwit Digiscoping I did.

Thank you #6
Thanks to all the people reading and following my blog. This year is drawing to a close. What should I do next year?

October 8, 2011 day list
Snow Goose

October 11, 2011 day list
Trumpeter Swan
Hudsonian Godwit

P.S. Last Thursday I finally got to do a couple hours of tattoos of bird names. We managed to get 13 of them done. I'm realizing that I'll be tattooing well into 2012. It takes longer than I expected. I need a strategy, any ideas?

And so it begins.
Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What kind of birder will you be?

There's an awful lot of chatter about the Hollywood film coming out about birding big years. Well, there is in the birding community. The rest of society has no idea about our world really, now do they? I'll have to reserve judgement on the film. The above trailer doesn't fill me with confidence but that doesn't mean anything. Trailers can be deceiving. At the very least, people that never knew birding even existed will know it after this. But will it bring anyone new into the realm of birding. I kind of doubt it. My guess is that most folks will come away saying, "Those birders are silly." Too bad if thats the case because the book was really amazing. Hopefully we will see some other interesting takes on birding films, preferably more real and less Hollywood. Maybe that can grab a few people to be our new birders.

I guess I'm writing this post in response to a couple of others I've read recently on the subject of new birders and how they will change birding. Gunnar and Alvan have both written on the subject.

I want more people to be birders. Lots more. But as to what kind of birder they'll be, I just don't care. As long as they are in it for love. Some might want to photograph them (I personally have no interest in that side of it), some may want to be crazy listers (I don't really do that much either [beyond my 2011 big year]), some may just want to be feeders (like my mom) and some might want to get deep into the world of bird ID (I like that but it's not everything to me). What's most important is that they love the birds in their own way, respect the birds boundaries and share their passion with somebody else.

I don't think we should limit the way we get new birders. Let's welcome them all in with open arms, teach them as much as they want to know and give them nothing more than what they want. As long as they appreciate and love birds, they'll be much more inclined to care about their survival and therefore be more inclined to care about our planetary ecosystem. Who cares if they're only doing it to continue to get their Blue Jays and Chickadees to their feeder, as long as they're doing it.

I work in advertising and most advertisers see the huge value (to their brands) of youth. They are a powerful group of consumers and advertisers take full advantage of that. I don't always agree with the way they do it but we birders can learn from them. We should target youth and try to bring them into the fold at a young age. If they grow up appreciating the natural beauty of birds, that can only translate into good things for the environment. Check out this blog of a young Californian birder. We need more people as devoted as he is to seeing a bird. (lost this link, will add it soon).

In case you're wondering. I went out birding Sunday morning, trying desperately to squeeze in a couple species before taking the kids to a birthday party of a friend form school by 10:30am. I'm not sure what the hell I was thinking since the drive to the spot is and hour, the drive home is an hour. It left me with about 25 minutes of birding. I guess it was worth a shot. I found nothing I went looking for, though my friend Richard saw them the very next day.

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year