Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why sleep when you can chase birds?

Ok, this past weekend was a crazy one. My job is pretty stressful right now for a number of reasons. As usual, I can't talk about it here because I have signed a number of pieces of paper saying I won't. Life outside of work is a tad nuts too. My wife and I take on way to much sometimes. Generally, it's worth the effort as things that come too easy are never as satisfying, now are they. The big one for us now is that our house is going to be listed on a tour of southern Ontario heritage homes. What makes ours so special for this popular tour is that it was supposed to be flattened and made into a parking lot for the bank next door. I'm sure they were salivating at the thought of having ten parking spaces instead of the current five. Even if it meant flattening one of the original homes in town. Well, we put a stop to that, we bought it, moved in and brought the derelict house that had been abandoned for years back to life. To show the house, we want to get some stuff done to the place so it looks it's best. And that, my friends, is a boat-load of work. If you want, you can see some of the progress on my wife's blog, the stay lucky. On top of that, as you know, I'm doing a birding big year and trying to make a documentary of said year. Makes raising twins seem pretty easy (yeah right).

As part of the doc. I participated in the Carden Challenge, a 24 hour bird-a-thon. In case you don't know, that means you try to see as many bird species as you can in 24 hours. And you generally bird straight through the night. We did attempt to sleep from about midnight to 3:30am. Though being the new guy, I got the cot. So, I never slept for more than five minutes. Sadly, it wasn't until the alarm went off that I realized I maybe would have been better off just sleeping on the floor. It might have been really hard, but at least it wouldn't have pieces of metal sticking into my back and sides all night. Well, all 3 hours of it. But hey, I'm significantly younger than some other members of our team and though they may have had beds, those beds were surely hard as stone and one participant stayed without electricity or running water.
Prairie Smoke by Blaine Hansel.

We planned to gather at the area to pre-scout on Friday. I was late getting there because of a few things. The saddest reason was to do with my cat. I've said here before that we don't often allow her outside. I'm not worried she'd kill any birds (she's a bit fat for that) but I worry about the strays in the area scratching her up and her getting some sort of crazy cat disease. I never could have planned for what happened. I guess she escaped the house when our baby sitter was watching the kids early Thursday evening so Rachel and I could get some groceries. As I was putting the kids to bed, I had heard a dog barking insistently behind our house. I thought that was odd but not much more than that. Once the kids were down, I went out to bring in the trash/recycling bins to find a very upset neighbour. He was going on about some dog and blood and he was really upset. I went around to the back of his house to see what he was so upset about and I was instantly more upset than him. You see, all that crazy noise was a dog killing my cat. She laid there, so still. I knew right away she was dead. I sat next to her and cried. I had had her for years. She was a great cat as cats go. Sure she sometimes shit under the kitchen but beyond that, she was my Frances. I now had the awful task of telling Rachel and the kids this news. Rachel has a really big heart and there was plenty of love for Frances in there. She was distraught. The kids took it rather well. So, needless to say, that was a crappy start to a weekend I had been looking forward to.

Georgia spending time with Frances.
Really, it could only get better, right? Here's the part where you might think I'll go on and on about more bad stuff. That won't happen, I don't want to depress you guys. France's is resting comfortably in a friends chest freezer and next weekend we will bury her at a pet cemetery nearby. The rest of the weekend was lots of fun. It involved a lot of bird chasing, someone getting locked in an outhouse at 3am and even a flat tire. Read on to find out the details.

Upland Sandpiper by Johnath.
Upland Sandpiper by Bananaram.

As I said, I arrived a bit late. After telling everyone about my situation, all was forgiven. We spent Friday scouting for birds and found some really good stuff for our contest. I got incredible looks at the endangered Loggerhead Shrike. This bird was incredible. I've seen many Northern Shrikes but this thing just tops it in every way. The grey is more like a steel blue on the spring breeding male, the black mask is so much more heavy and seems to be made of the deepest, richest, darkest velvet. The white parts are so white by contrast that you nearly have to squint when you look through a scope. I will travel back there many times to see that bird. Another speciality of the area we birded was the upland sandpiper. It too seems so unique. The head is really small like that of a dove and yet it's eye seem just enormous. Not to mention the fine details of the rest of it. You see them sitting on fence posts a lot. But we even saw them wandering through a native Alvar plant called Prairie Smoke. In case you aren't sure what an Alvar is, it's land that is limestone based with about four inches of soil on top. It holds water really well. This is the same type of landscape when I went to see the Sharp-tailed Grouse in early April. Thankfully, it wasn't an average temperature of minus 20 Celsius this time. The third very cool bird I got to see was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. It's pretty rare around there (usually you get the Black-billed variety).

Loggerhead Shrike by jsutton8.
Loggerhead Shrike by steveberardi.

We staked out some nice birds but we knew the competition was tough. Some of the other birders were the best in Ontario. Some of them had been scouting for a few days prior to the race. We didn't have that luxury. What we did have was lots of fun. Despite Margaret getting stuck in an outhouse for 20 minutes at 3am. That must have been quite scary. You try sitting in a pitch-black closet for 20 minutes. See how it feels. Add to that there are bears in the area and that pretty much makes her a superhero in my books. We had one other major setback. We got a flat tire at the worst possible time. Our first few hours had gone really well and then we got a flat tire. And right when we were on our way to get a few birds that would only call at dusk. I worked at a feverish pace to change that tire but it still caused us to miss a few birds. Another highlight was a tree with a mother bear and two cubs in it. We birded right below them, not even noticing. Until somebody came along and said, look up! I got many new species for my big year, easily bringing my 2011 big year total over 200. See the list below for what I saw that was new. In the end we saw 119 species. The winners came up with 135, smashing last years winning number. The total number of species seen by everyone was 154. But the real winners were the birds we all chased. The event was a charity deal where people would sponsor us on a per species basis. I managed to gather about $400. All together, my team raised about $2000. And the event total was more than $21, 000. Not bad at all. Some of that money is going toward the purchase of more land so those birds we saw can live out their days in peace in protected habitat.

RIP - Frances Riss

Weekend total.

Upland sandpiper
Pied-billed Grebe
Yellow-billed cuckoo (Lifer)
Black-billed cuckoo (Lifer)
Grasshopper sparrow
Common nighthawk
Least bittern (Lifer)
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Whip-poor-whil (heard)
Northern Saw-whet Owl (heard)
Olive-sided Flycatcher

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Birding by ear.

In the spirit of birding by ear, this post only contains images of places I heard birds singing. No actual birds.

This much needed long weekend with the family was spent birding 24/7. You could almost call it a Big Weekend. I didn't get any knew birds to my knowledge. So many great birders would probably say they make most IDs by ear. Im not great at that but certainly im getting better, right Richard? So that's the way this weekend went for me, practicing my birding by ear. Not because the birds were particularly difficult to see. Some were visiting my feeder. But I was busy. These four days off (my company gives us the extra day for each summer long weekend) were to be very productive. Not birding productive but more about getting shit done in the yard productive. You see, when we bought this small town home, we knew it'd be some work to get her all cleaned up inside. We also knew doing the yard would be difficult too. The backyard is right at the edge of a forest with a stream. Unfortunately, our property was abandoned for many years and became a midnight dumping ground where the land grades down to the forest.

What we needed to do was dig out some shit and haul it away. We started in on the task, listening to all the birds Friday morning, I decided to create a Big Sit/Weekend list. There was lots to hear over the four days (see the list at the end of this post). More importantly, once we started to dig, we found an awful lot of rock, or so we thought. More uncovering showed us what was really there. We knew there was once a barn standing where we were digging but we also had heard it was deemed unsafe and crushed and taken away by the town. We found many chunks of the stone and concrete foundation walls. They had been crumbled in on themselves and were all askew under the earth and weeds. Way to big to move, I'd dig around one, smash it to more manageable sized pieces and drag it off to a 'fence' we'd made from the rubble. This would happen over and over until we uncovered one that seemed way too big for that technique. We kept removing dirt waiting to find the edge. No edge really ever showed up. This proved to be a huge concrete pad. And in perfect condition. We uncovered it as much as we could and now we have a free deck right at the edge of the woods. Monday, I woke and sat with my family and drank a nice cup of birds and beans coffee. This had been a perfect long weekend. I really didn't want it to end.

Since I had such a great weekend spent entirely with my wife and kids, I thought I'd leave you with something that might make your Monday just a little brighter. My kids dancing up a storm.

Big Weekend (by ear) list

American Goldfinch
Black-capped Chickadee
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
European Starling
Red-eyed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Yellow Warbler
Chimney Swift
Ring-billed Gull
Canada Goose
Northern Cardinal
House Wren
Eastern Wood Pewee
Great-crested Flycatcher
Song Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Baltimore Oriole

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Carden Challenge fund raiser.

Punk Rock Big Year is about to embark on the Carden Challenge. What's that? It's a contest to see what team can find the most bird species in 24 hours. But even better, we do it to raise money that goes toward habitat and bird conservation. Be Good. Help me, help birds. Click here to learn more.

Some of you have asked for more info. on this Carden Challenge. Here's a note I recieved from the organizer.

"I wanted to let you know that the Couchiching Conservancy has decided to allocate half of the funds raised by the Carden Challenge this year towards the purchase of Bluebird Ranch.  This is a 206-acre property at the southern end of Wylie Road, on the west side, and directly behind the Important Bird Area sign.  As many visitors to Carden know, the fencelines here are a great spot for Eastern Bluebirds, as well as Wilson's Snipe and sometimes Upland Sandpiper.  The wet area within the property sometimes has Sedge Wrens, and a few years ago hosted a highly visible Henslow's Sparrow for about a week.  Besides its attractions to birders, the Ranch has patches of alvar plants, and links directly to Windmill Ranch to the north.  As part of the deal, we are purchasing two one-acre residential lots that were recently severed and fenced near the corner; those lots will never be developed.  Obviously we are very keen on this purchase, and want to be sure that we have all the funds needed in place for closing this fall."

If you were thinking of making a pledge, remember that some of your money will go toward the Bluebird Ranch purchase.  We are confident that 75% of the funds needed are in place, but still need to raise $75,000, so every dollar is important.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hoping for a not-so-big day

WARNING: This post contains images of dead birds. I encourage you to read on. I feel showing these images is very important to the issue at hand. If you just can't look at that, here's a link to some Sharp-tailed Grouse I saw on Manitoulin Island.

Tomorrow, I'm making what could be called a pilgrimage for Ontario birders. It's the best place to see birds at the best time of year to see them. In North-West Ohio, Kenn Kaufman takes part in a very large birding week. In fact, it's The Biggest Week in American Birding. Ours happens in and around Point Pelee and Pelee Island (home to the Pelee Island Bird Observatory). That's very close to North-West Ohio. Only a few miles apart actually, separated by lake Erie, these two places make two of the most significant stops for migrating birds in north America. They are located where parts of both the Mississippi and the Atlantic Flyways come together.

Note: I know cats kill MANY birds a year. We don't usually let our cat outside. 
She must have escaped an open window. Hence the fact that she's on the roof.

So why is this post called, "Hoping for a not-so-big day?" Well because today I did a different kind of birding. It still involved waking before the sun rose, heading to a specific 'hotspot', and searching for birds. The difference was that most of the birds we'd be seeing would be dying, injured or dead. Today, I am volunteering with an organization called FLAP. That stands for Fatal Light Awareness Program. Their full name can be a bit misleading. I'll explain that subtlety later. What FLAP does every morning during spring and fall migration is head downtown Toronto before the throngs of people arrive and collect dead and injured birds.
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher with a really bad looking eye.
Why are there enough dead and injured birds to warrant an organization to collect them? The reason is two fold. Firstly, at night, birds use the constellations to help them navigate as they migrate and tall buildings with lights on all night confuse them (hence the name Fatal Light Awareness Program). They get lost in the maze of skyscrapers. Secondly, during the day, reflective glass buildings basically make the buildings invisible to birds. For example, when a bird is in a tree or garden near a glass building and they see another tree next to them, they fly over to it, expecting to find more shelter and food. Instead, it was only a reflection of the tree they were already in and they strike the glass, often killing them. When the glass is transparent, they see 'decorative' foliage inside as another safe place to be. You might think they wouldn't fly fast enough to kill themselves when just hopping from tree to tree. Think about the last time you banged your shin on a coffee table. You didn't expect it to be there so you walked pretty swiftly into it. Or, think of the last time you bit your tongue. Through the searing pain, you might wonder, "Why the hell was I biting a French Fry so effing hard that I made my tongue bleed for ten minutes?" My point is, you aren't aware of how much force is involved in even the smallest thing. So I'd guess bird aren't either. They just do things.
Olive-sided Flycatcher.

If they do survive a strike, they aren't in the clear yet. A stunned bird will just lie there and wait out the dizziness. That's all well and good except for the gulls. Gulls are smart birds. They actually sit around waiting in areas they know birds hit windows. I witnessed this behavior this morning. As the sun rose, gulls stated appearing out of nowhere. All around me I could hear and see White-throated Sparrows. So when a small bird hits the glass, gulls are there to eat them alive. Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against nature running it's course, but when a building is involved, we altered that course beyond what's fair to the songbirds. So in this case, I think it's OK to intervene and save them.
A bag of dead Brown Creepers.
The people that run FLAP are Michael Mesure and Susan Krajnc. They founded FLAP in 1993 and are still the only paid employees. The rest of the people are volunteers. I found out about FLAP by attending a meeting to become a volunteer. I had no problem waking before dawn to help them out before heading to work everyday. Then something happened. I had twins and my volunteer days were over before they even started. Still wanting to help, I brought the idea of working on some sort of advertising for them to my employer. Thankfully, DDB Canada, where I work, was very supportive of me helping them out. My partner and I got to work thinking about how we could help spread the word. The result of that thinking was The Common Birds of Toronto. It was basically a field guide like any other that profiled ten very common birds you can find in Toronto. The difference with our guide was that all the birds in the paintings were dead. The copy went on to explain what each species dealt with in the event of a window strike. Often, it means death. Some people thought it was a little extreme but it's an extreme situation. Millions of birds die every year. Other people thought it was a great piece. It was handed out to people on their morning commute to help them understand what was going on in the buildings they worked in every day.
American Woodcock with various others including a few Canada Warblers.
Canada Warblers are listed as Threatened.
Today, FLAP is a key witness in a couple court of cases where Ecojustice and Ontario Nature are actually suing building owners with cruelty to animals, among other charges, for not doing anything about their problem buildings. It gets really scary when you hear that some of the birds dying are either 'species at risk' or even threatened. It's not only little songbirds. FLAP have collected everything from Hummingbirds to bigger things like Saw-whet Owls, Sharp-shinned Hawks and even an American Bittern. Since it's inception 1993, FLAP has collected over 52,000 birds consisting of 164 species (24 of which are in population decline). Thats a life list of the worst kind. Things aren't all dark though, the birds they do find alive are sent to wildlife rehabilitation facilities like The Toronto Wildlife Centre and are released far from the city so they might continue on their trip to Canada's Boreal forests to mate. Also, laws have been passed that any new construction in the city of Toronto must take precautions for bird safety. That's a huge win for FLAP. But if you ask Michael or Susan, it's a huge win for the birds.

My favorite bird, a Brown Thrasher. This one really put a lump in my throat.
I named my son after this bird, that's how much I love it.

Close-up of a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

The worst kind of life list...