Thursday, November 17, 2011

You're a birdwatcher?

"You're a birdwatcher?" That's a question I get over and over. It is inevitably followed by, "You really don't look like a birdwatcher." If I push the issue, I always get the same thing, "I though birdwatchers were all little old ladies in Tilley hats." I hear this happens to a lot of birders my age that 'look' like me. Below are some people I've met this year that don't fit the stereotype. None of them are old ladies; they may have a Tilley hat but I doubt it. All of them however have lots of tattoos, are heavily into music and are crazy nuts for birding. If you are one of those old ladies out there in the field wondering what the person covered in tattoos is doing at the sewage lagoons, now you know. Enjoy the punk birders telling you about themselves in their own words.



My tattoos are bats that were originally art by former Groovie Ghoulies front man, Kepi Ghoulie.  The Groovie Ghoulies were one of the first bands that I got into when I "found" punk rock, and I always liked his art. There isn't much more story or meaning behind them beyond that.

I have been interested in birds and wildlife in general for as long as I can remember.  I grew up in a rural area on a farm type setting.  There were always birds we looked for - most notably the bald eagles that always seemed to be in the same stand of trees year after year. We almost always had chickens and an uncle with a farm "a field away" who had an assortment of different types of fowl. When I was a bit older, I raised pigeons.  

While the interest was always there, I didn't get into birding until I visited Farmington Bay WMA almost four years ago.  I had no clue it existed until I heard an advertisement from a local NPR station about a field trip out there.  I skipped their field trip but went on my own. I was utterly amazed at what was just a mere 30 minutes from my home. Watching great blue herons fly over me towards the seemingly endless wetlands as I walked along the dike roads was enough to hook me... And have been hooked ever since.



Since I was a kid, I've always loved tattoos, but never thought I'd be 'allowed' to have any. They were merely an art form that I observed from afar. I grew up in a religious home and tattoos were considered taboo. I'm a grown ass man now and concluded, "If my body is a temple, tattoos will be the stain-glass windows." After that, all bets were off and in 1999 I got a small tattoo of the sun on my shoulder. It was a pretty bad ink job that quickly faded and long since been covered. I got a few small tattoos during the next 4--5 years: a band around my arm that makes the skin look braided, a kanji that means 'energy' and the four aces from a deck of cards. My wife and I were married in 2005. For our anniversary we thought we'd get matching tattoos. We considered a bunch of different designs and styles. Since we were married in the 'Year of the Rooster' we went with that theme. After getting a big piece we were fully addicted. Since then, we both have 30+ hours in the chair. I've got a heart wearing headphones on my chest "always listening to beats!", The cards and kanji are now surrounded by a horseshoe, a flower, and a banner that reads, 'wonder junkie'. The armband serves as the base for the whole piece. The rest of that area is filled in with wind bars. The back of my right calf is covered with a 'wizard-like' hand holding some Skittles candy and words shooting out that say, "the left hand knows". It's a bit zany, but I really like it. Surprisingly, getting ink on my calf hurt the worst of all. I've got transport control buttons (rewind, fast forward, play, pause, stop) down my bicep behind the rooster. Across my wrists it say's "live music". My latest is an old school styled bird. Not a particular species, but more a symbol. Let's call it a sparrow. It's my favorite tat so far.  My wife has about 1/3 of her body covered. She's a trooper for ink.

I was informed the Boy Scouts had erected a Great-Blue Heron rookery about 15 miles from my house. So on June 30, 2009, I enthusiastically headed to the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area to find me some Herons! I reckon that was my first outing as a birder and consider it my birding birthday. I didn't know it yet, but I had found my conduit for getting in touch with nature and the divine. Not God, the divine. I couldn't believe I lived so close to such great habitat. So as I fell in love with birds, I also fell in love with the Great Salt Lake and it's surrounding wetlands. I grew up in the area and had no idea such places existed near our dead sea. In Utah, we're moslty mountain people and the Great Salt Lake is largely ignored. I spent a great deal of 2010 exploring every accessible shore of the Great Salt Lake. It's amazing. Nowadays, I'm well aware of the GSL's key importance to all birds. Particularly, migratory birds. It's a global rest stop. Paydirt for birders. Bald Eagles winter in the area as well. Bald Eagles are easy to exalt and after a season of watching them I was well on my way to becoming a fully obsessed birder. I'm getting close to adding the 300th bird to my life list and this year I've ticked 276 species. If I'm outside or looking out a window, chances are I'm birding. Birds have made life simpler and my soul feels ever full. I doubt I'll ever look back for there are more birds up ahead! So if you're birding in Utah and find a tatted up, mohawk wearing, middle-aged badass with binoculars glued to his face, come say hello. "I never thought I'd find myself standing in a field, looking for birds. But there I was, finding myself."



I am in love with all things wild. My passion for the natural world was fostered during my childhood when my mom brought me to the ocean to swim, surf, and explore.  I vividly remember being captivated and enthralled by the foraging behavior of sanderlings. My innate passion and love for wildness was nurtured when I moved to the Southern Appalachians of Western North Carolina to study botany and work as a Botanist Assistant at a native plant sanctuary in Asheville, N.C. From there I traveled to the Adirondacks and lived in a little cabin that was off the grid and electricity free for two years. After a six year hiatus from academia I decided to go back to school. I truly want to affect change and do everything that I can to conserve biodiversity and work towards solving important environmental problems. I am currently a senior at the University of Rhode Island studying Wildlife Conservation Biology. I have been fortunate to work for the U.S. F&WS as a Biological Science Technican for the past year and half and have had the opportunity to dedicate my time, energy, and passions to various conservation issues including the management and protection of endangered shorebirds.

Paul asked me to talk about my tattoos and my love of birds. There are so many reasons that I am in love with birds and birding. To put it simply birds fill me with an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual contentment that is acutely intimate and deeply satisfying. Birding allows me to connect with my bioregion or any bioregion that I am visiting and with the biotic community in general. Modernity has alienated me from the natural world and the experience of birding helps re-wild my heart and reconnect me with nature. As a field biologist I am very fascinated and interested with the life history of birds, specifically with their migration, breeding, and foraging ecology. I am very passionate about conservation biology and I have some big goals in conservation that I am looking forward to accomplishing. I decided to get tattoos that reflect the experiences and animals that bring me joy and happiness. The animals that I have tattooed on me are of species that I encounter on a regular basis. Seeing a Black-capped chickadee in the heart of winter puts a smile on my face and reminds me of the beauty of life and how important it is to protect and conserve the natural world. I identify strongly with bio-regionalism on a political, social, and emotional level. My tattoos express my love of birds, wildness, and bioregionalism.



I'd love to tell you a story about how I got hooked on birding that includes some reference to me being inspired by a famous bird writer or being encouraged by a father figure; but that just isn't me! I don't have heros and believe me during my youth I never had a worthy father figure. My obsession with birding had almost certainly grown out of nature rather than nurture; though to be fair there was some encouragement by my mother and school teachers along the way.

I started birding seriously at quite a young age; initially as a form of escape from a less than pleasant home life. As I got more drawn into the world of birding my obsession grew. I think it is the adrenaline buzz you get when you see something new (or at least think that you have something new) that got me hooked!

I feel very fortunate to have met all these folks through this past year trying to make and promote a birding documentary. Even if only knowing them online, it has been great to know that I'm not alone as a punk birder.



I'm 26, an intern with BirdLife Malta and really passionate about wildlife conservation. My love of birds definitely preceded my love of tattoos, the ones I remember from the 90s were things like geckos and those barbed wire armbands. Either those or wrinkly bulldogs on the arms of pot-bellied, pub-lurking men in their fifties.

My mum was the one who introduced me to birding, my dad would constantly tease us with 'it's just a fat sparrow!' but I feel really lucky to have been taught the names of most British species just through family walks and trips to feed the ducks at our local park. It surprised me when I realized that not all 10 year olds knew a Coot from a Moorhen or a Blue Tit from a Great Tit.

I started thinking about tattoos when I was about 18 and into the alternative music scene. Suddenly everyone had tribal tattoos, which at the time I thought were cool but now I am so relieved I didn't get. My back piece came about when I was at uni by the sea. I used to watch Starling murmurations almost every evening in winter while sitting on a beach and it made me realize that I desperately wanted to work in conservation, to help wildlife in some way. So there they are, my six starlings.


There you have it, five tattooed birders. And that's not all of them I've met. I'll be making this a regular page on the blog soon enough so if you are an alternative birder (to the stereotype) and want to be featured, let me know. i'll be super happy to do this again.

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

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