Thursday, November 10, 2011

A lifer that doesn't count.

This past weekend was a bit of a whirlwind. I drove 1500 round trip to a place where no birds I saw would count towards my big year number. But I didn't care about that because I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the Ohio Young Birders Conference. No only that, I'd get a change to meet, interview and go birding with North America's number one bird expert, Kenn Kaufman.

You should know that Punk Rock Big Year only exists because of four sentences Kenn wrote many years ago in Kingbird Highway. It was a conversation with a non-birder. When that non-birder found out Kenn was a birdwatcher, they said:

"You can't be. Aren't birdwatchers all little old ladies with blue hair? Or old guys with skinny legs and funny-looking shorts and safari hats? If you were a real birdwatcher, wouldn't you be wearing a little birdwatcher's uniform?

When I read that, I thought to myself, "People say that to me all the time." That happened to Kenn in the early 70s and it was still happening to me to this day. The stereotype was still prevalent so many years later. I don't need to remind you of how I'm attempting to smash that stereotype to bits.

So when Kenn and his wife Kim asked me to attend the Ohio Young Birders Conference, I was really honored and there was no way I could miss out on the chance to meet the dude that inspired my whole project. I arrived after taking ten hours to drive an eight hour drive. Why? Well, I forgot my passport at home. That meant I had to drive all the way back home to get it. Then, we got back on the road and drove almost straight except for a quick stop to grab lunch at Aunt Millie's. It was a great, fast lunch and a chance to get the footage until that point onto a hard drive. We arrived in Columbus Ohio at about 8:15 pm. A guy walked up behind me in the lobby of a restaurant and says, "Hey, are you guys birders?" I turn around to see Kenn Kaufman standing there. Then Kim comes around the corner and gives me a hug. We chat a bit over a meal and head to the hotel as it'll be an early start.

The Ohio Young Birders Conference is a unique conference. How so? It's completely controlled by the young birders that started it five years ago. They are the paid speakers, they help organize it all, they kind of run the show. Logistics that they can't handle are graciously covered by the staff of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO). In the morning there was a bird walk with Kenn as the leader. I was amazed to find that some of these kids that were under 15 years of age were able to tell what birds were around just by sound. I got a lifer in the second bird we saw. We were surrounded by Carolina Chickadees. I got a lifer my first time birding with Kenn. When I said as much, he stopped walking, looked at me with a happy expression, extended his hand and said, "Congratulations man." That's how it is with birders. We are genuinely happy for a complete stranger when they get a new bird because we know the awesome feeling of discovering something new. The walk was followed by a banding demonstration in which we saw them band a leucistic Hermit Thrush. It had white feathers scattered all over its body. Then there were the speakers. Most of them were under 16. All of them gave interesting talks about their experiences with birds or field biology in general. One of them went to Alaska for two months studying shorebirds in a field camp. It was an inspiring story that so many other young people would have been jealous of. Hell, I was jealous. What I would have given for an opportunity like that.

Bird banding demonstration. Notice one kid up in a tree to the right.

Kenn helping a pretty young birder with ID.

The presenters at the Ohio Young Birders Conference.

Carolina Chickadee by cotinis. Mostly told by geographical location.
Notice it shows a little less white on the wing in general. 
Black-capped Chickadee by noflickster. Shows more white on wing.

After the conference, the young birders went on their way and a bunch of the organizers went for a bite to eat. I bought Kenn the birthday pint I had promised him a few months ago. Then, we headed up to Oak Harbor. Jon, my cameraman and I crashed at Ken Keffer's house. In the morning, Ken made us a Birds and Beans coffee and we sat out front of his house watching birds and drinking coffee. We saw Rusty Blackbirds, a single Eastern Bluebird, Grackles, Robins, a Bluejay and we heard Juncos and a White-breasted Nuthatch. Then, we headed to a local spot for breakfast with Kenn and Kim. After eating, we headed over to the BSBO headquarters and interviewed Kenn. Then, after all that stuff, Kenn and I went birding. Most birds are already passed through the area but I didn't care, I was going birding with Kenn Kaufman. We did see a few things: Winter Wren, Carolina Wren, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Golden-crowned Kinglet, White-throated Sparrow, Canada Geese, Great Blue Heron, Rusty Blackbirds and a rather large flock of American Crows. Birding with Kenn is very interesting. It's not just looking at birds, it's learning about them. Things you didn't know are brought to your attention in an educational way that isn't intrusive but just casual conversation. I now know that Carolina Chickadees tend to look a little darker on the folded wings than Black-capped Chickadees and that the reason a Hairy Woodpecker is called that is because the bottom edge of the white feathers on its back. They are stiffer and hairier when the Downy's are softer, downier. Let me just say it was super-cool to go birding with Kenn. At 2:30, Jon and I hit the road toward Canada, laden with a whole bunch of gifts from Kim Kaufman and the BSBO. Kim is so thoughtful that she even included something for my kids and Rachel. I was invited to come back in the spring for The Biggest Week in American Birding. There was even mention of me leading a bird walk or two. I'm not sure I'm qualified but Kenn and Kim seem to think I am. Either way, they suggested we keep in touch and I most certainly will. I've always got room for good people in my life.

Kenn and I birding the famous Magee Marsh boardwalk.
In spring, there are more warblers here than anywhere in the world.

I returned home to a very sick family. Both Shep and Georgia had a fresh flu from the one they had when I left. Rachel was also feeling a tad shitty.

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss


  1. Cool story.

    Pursuant to the four sentences from "Kingbird Highway:"

    When I had been birding for a few years, it became time to upgrade my optics. So I went to one of Manhattan's top optics specialists to see what he would recommend.

    He said, "Well, first, it'll depend on what you want to use the optics for."

    I told him I was a birdwatcher.

    He eyed me suspiciously and said, "Hmph...guy YOUR age?"

    One of Manhattan's top optics specialists...

  2. I know right? It's nuts man. My next post is all about tattooed/alternative birders. The folks I have so far lined up are all pretty heavily tattooed and super passionate about birds and birding.