Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Where's my Tilley hat?

I broke 40 years on earth last Sunday. This may come as somewhat of a shock to people following this blog. I talk a big game about being punk and all that but as cameraman Jon Wayne Brown says, "He's more like an aging lanky punk." I'm still a contrast to the stereotype of a Birdwatcher. But the way I've gone on this year you might peg me for 25 which would place me knocking up Rachel at 21 years of age. Not so strange a scenario for a C student from Oshawa and a girl born in Sudbury. Thankfully, that ain't at all how it went down.

Young me (before marriage). I don't know why I have no shirt on. 
I'm clearly drunk at this wedding.

Still, 40 isn't old. I'm only about half way to my forever dirt nap. If my dad is any indication of my gene-pool, I'm not even close to half way there. But anyone who's over 40 knows, shit gets a bit different; physically. Booze for one is a big one. I remember waking still drink and heading off to work with a smile on my face. And I'm not talking about when I was 18, this was a few years into my career. I could even do a meeting like that back then. At 30, it took a full 12 hours of face down (or in the toilet) recovery. At 40, it's shot up to about 48 hours recovery time. I shudder to think what it'll be like at 50. I guess maybe you aren't supposed to go out to rock shows and drink beer and whiskey until 3am. I just can't promise that isn't going to happen from time to time. My buddy Brad can still do it (he's a couple years older than I am) but his kids are grown and out of the house. Mine are like rats trying to bore a hole into your skull when you're hung over. My fix for that is this; drive to the pub so I can't drink. I'll never drink and drive. It's just so retarded a thing to do. So, I drive, get one pint of beer and free ginger- ale the rest of the night (at some pubs). Anyway, my point here is that I'm clearly aging.

On my honeymoon. Still no sign of aging.

It's as if gravity is getting stronger each year. It's harder to get up hills, stairs, out of bed. Anything up seems to suck just a bit more. Maybe I only notice this because I'm super observant of everything around me and of my own self. It's like I keep track of every change around me (except the decorating changes in my home; to be fair, Rachel changes things weekly). It's that sort of behaviour that makes me good at my job and a nightmare to be married to. For example, I can notice if my office chair has been sat in while I'm away from it at lunch. It's just not the way I left it. I also can't not tell Rachel she shouldn't have put her iPod through the washing machine. I know she knows this fact, probably even feels bad about the fact that we need to buy yet another iPod for her. But I won't be able to get on with life if I don't. So now, instead of telling her, I have a picture of her on my iPhone that I can open and tell, then it's over and done with.

Still looking relatively young in these. Last one's Cuba (hence cigar).
Never did get the Cuban Green Woodpecker.

What does all this mean? It means I'm getting older and I'm wondering if somewhere, there's a Tilley hat being stored in a box with my name on it. Will I become the stereotypical birder? Even if I did, my friends that look the part are not what you think. Richard is so witty and has such a sharp tongue that I'm often left thinking, did I just make that up in my mean old mind or did he say that? It's always the latter. Margaret is much more reserved but she's so crazy intelligent that I'm never not learning from her when we speak. So if I get the hat, the vest, the sensible shoes and the blue hair, bring it on because when I'm driving to the twitch, I'll still be listening to The Dead Kennedys, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death! Or something similar. I will however be listening to it quietly if I'm birding with Richard or Margaret (they aren't big DK fans). Secretly, I want the gray hair. I think I'd look better that way.

Then this happened...

...times two. Here comes aging.

Tomorrow, I'm going birding with Richard and Margaret in Algonquin park. It's the first time I've looked through bins since December 31st. I'll let you know how it goes.

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Go Bird Yourself.

This week, we hear from my wife Rachel. This is the view from the wife of a Big Year birder. Always understanding, not always happy about it. Big shout out to Rachel's blog. If you like art, crafting and laughing, it's kind of the mecca for that stuff.

Rachel's blog header.

My sister Jenna predicted last January that "bird" would become a "four letter word" by the following January around these here parts. She wasn't entirely wrong.

For those of you who don't know me - I am Rachel, the non-birding half of the marriage to Paul Riss. The Missus Punk Rock Big Year as it were.

There are some ideas that in abstract seem fine. Great even. Snow shoeing across the Arctic, climbing a mountain, fighting a bear - unless you are the dummy left at home while the only other person responsible for helping get shit done in the house - is off doing these things .

When Paul approached me in 2010 with his Punk Rock Big Year idea, admittedly that was one of them. "That sounds awesome babe, do it"! Cut to four months in and I am alone on Mother's Day with two flu riddled children who are doing their very best to leave no surface (myself included) un-barfed on. Not so much. I mean Mother's Day, big deal right? Except it is a big deal. I cranked out two kids at once people, much to the ruination of a perfectly good set of boobs and a mostly intact psyche. And nope I don't expect a medal or a round of applause every time I enter a room (although that would be nice), but I sure as shit expect a day off. Same scenario on my birthday, minus the barf, but I am certain someone, somewhere in my house made a gross mess that I had to clean up, by myself, again. This was pretty much the scenario for much of 2011.

To be fair to Paul, I didn't really understand what a Big Year would mean. We had just moved to the country - to a completely gutted house (as in no walls gutted) so I was a bit distracted. I may have even
thought "great, it will get him out of my hair so I can get stuff done around here without having to discuss it first". I was focused on short-term gain, my bad. By the end of January last year most of the renovations were done and the walls were painted, lights installed.  I imagine I had a moment of clarity. A "WAIT A MINUTE, WTF"!? moment after being left alone, in the country, in the winter, with two three year olds and no drivers license, for the fourth weekend in a row. By then it was a dollar short and a day late to object, Paul's Big Year had begun.

I would never, ever say no to something Paul was passionate about doing. I fully believe life is way too short to sit around wishing and waiting to do something great. This was a big deal to him and his whole heart was in it. I fully supported him in his efforts to make this documentary. I didn't however promise to be nice about it 100% of the time... or even 50% of the time.

Doing this year also meant that a camera was around more than I am comfortable with. I am not a fan of reality T.V, nor am I a fan of appearing like a shrieking harpy on film. Let's face it, it is way more interesting to watch the wife come unwound when her husband announces "they've spotted a blappity blah blah blah bird 10 hours or so north of here" on a Saturday - when she already has plans, than a smiling doe eyed agreeable "yes dear" wife. Bottom line - I don't feel like being the asshole of the film. I do however have a feeling that a few moments of "WHO THE HELL CARES!?! AND STOP THINKING ABOUT YOUR NEXT BLOG POST WHILE WE ARE HAVING A CONVERSATION! I  CAN TOTALLY TELL WHEN YOU ARE DOING THAT FYI"! may have slipped on through.

It wasn't all yelling and hateful thoughts (really! ask him). Luckily for our marriage there were also moments of feeling very happy when Paul would find a "lifer" (is that the right term, or is that only a jail thing)? And many many moments of being incredibly proud of him. He made this work, he stuck to it, he found people to help him make it happen and he got to meet so many wonderful people (Margret Atwood - what??), and new friends along the way that it was hard not to be. Getting to see a rough cut of the trailer was rather heart swelling as well, it was the first time perhaps I actually got why he is doing this. It is odd to be fiercely proud and extraordinarily angry at someone all at the same time. No less confusing for Paul I am sure. I whole heartedly encouraged him to drive to Ohio to meet Kenn and Kim Kaufman, I knew what a big deal it was and I really did mean it when I said "of course go". I also meant it when I called him mid trip crying and threatening divorce if he left me alone with sick kids one more time this year. He called my bluff and left for Nicaragua one week later.

I was actually hesitant to write this post. My opinion on the whole event is much much different than most I am sure. I did however feel that it would offer some closure on what was really a rather hard year on myself and my family. Was it a good idea to do this in the middle of a move to a new house, new town and a complete life shift? Probably not. Would I agree to a part 2. for 2012? Hells no. Am I happy he did it? Very.

I am assured that post production and promotion this year will be of minimal upset to my life and schedule. I am also assured that the next planned documentary will not start until 2013. It has been promised that I can pick where we go on vacation this year, and that it won't be a vacation cleverly disguised as a birding trip (he has been known to trick me in the past). I am not sure I believe him 100%, perhaps I should get something in writing, or, tattooed on whatever patch of skin is left after this documentary wraps up.

Much love, much support, do it again and I will leave your ass. Xo.

Monday, January 16, 2012

I am NOT a birder!

This week we hear from Jon Brown, one of the cameramen that helped so much with Punk Rock Big Year. He was the one that I told first and pushed me to the finish line all the way along. Next week; Rachel Riordan, my wife, weighs in on the effect of the big year on her and our family.

Jon Wayne Brown with 20 lbs. of camera.

If thereʼs one thing Iʼve learned from riding on Paulʼs big-year coattails, itʼs that birders are crazy people. Which is probably why I got along with them so well.

It is completely irrational to drive hours upon hours to chase a bird that may or may not be doing its mating dance on a frozen, and at the same time cruelly wet field in the wee hours of a frigid late-winter morning. Even Paul wouldnʼt argue this point, though heʼd probably add that the same can be said for chasing after such lunatics with twenty pounds of camera on your shoulder. Touché.

But Iʼm talking about the best kind of crazy. That irrational impulse to do something you love, despite the naysayers and the costs. I think this experience has really clued me in to the common drive anyone with a passion shares. Itʼs easy to judge another personʼs interest as a foolish waste of time while holding your own up as something noble that warrants countless hours of unrewarded effort, at least in the accepted sense. I should know, Iʼm a writer. With a BFA no less.

So in case you havenʼt figured it out, Iʼm being facetious. A couple of years ago I might have thought birders crazy and meant exactly that. Working on this documentary with Paul has been a definite eyeopener, and I feel privileged for the experience. I hope that the finished film will be able to capture what I saw firsthand and share it with a broader audience. In the end, it isnʼt just about seeing beyond the Tilley hats and safari vests, but about the need for understanding across social boundaries.

As I told my parents when they asked, with a surprising amount of concern I might add - No, this year hasnʼt turned me into a birder. You wonʼt find me on the birder chat sites or amongst the cluster of scopes at the next rare-bird sighting five hours north of god knows where.

But a pair of binoculars is on my wish list. Just a small pair, nothing fancy, that I can toss in my backpack the next time I go hiking. And if I manage to focus the damn things on anything other than a sea gull (rats of the sky as theyʼre known back home, a fishermanʼs prejudice) Iʼll think of the wonderfully crazy birders I feel lucky to have met over the past year.

And if I spot something I think might be rare, Iʼll call Paulʼs wife Rachel up to see if Iʼm allowed to tell him.

Iʼll end with a list of my own, which I will not be tattooing on my body in latin or otherwise.
Jonʼs Big Year Highlights (in no particular order): 

- Sprinting across the wet/frozen field like a giddy fool upon hearing someone yell “Gotʼem!” - Pelee Island. All of it. - My first high speed car chase. 
- Spending more time in the woods than I have for I donʼt know how long.
- Interviewing the teenaged speakers of the Ohio Young Birders Conference and wishing I could be like them.
- A lazy morning at Kenn Kefferʼs drinking Birds & Beans, followed by breakfast pie at Blackberry Corner.
- Paulʼs best line of the year, spoken the first time I filmed one of his tattoo sessions: “If you want a good shot of me in pain, get ready.”
- Our new friend, Rocky the Raccoon.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

233 and 234

Then end of a big year is always slower moving but then again not. You've seen most of what's possible and are constantly hoping for something unusual to show up. Especially something I've chased on many occasions and missed each time (like Bohemian Waxwing). I had pretty much resigned myself to the number 232. Bird 232 was a Snowy Owl in Whitby Harbour. It was terribly uneventful. I read about it on Ontbirds (our local bird email hotline), drove the 20 minutes (kids in tow), and found the bird. It sat motionless for the ten minutes I was there. The kids saw it and promptly started whining about leaving. I guess standing on a pier in the cold wind isn't everyone's idea of good birding. I had kind of slowed my pace by this time. My wife was sick of the 'out of the blue' trips that lasted an entire day for one bird. Frankly, so was I. I mean I wasn't going to set any records for damn sure and I'm clearly not even going to get anywhere near the magic number of 300 for Ontario.

Snowy Owl by this is for the birds.
So I spent all of the holidays just hanging with Rachel and the kids. I'm off work until January 2nd. December 27th Rachel had a day long meeting to attend. That left me alone with the kids all day. What to do? I though I'd start by taking them out to breakfast someplace. We headed out, dropped Rach off and went to a place to eat. Closed. Hmmm. We tried a second one. Closed as well. A third. Closed. This was starting to bug me and Georgia was beginning to whine about stomach pains. Our fourth try was booked for a private event. Who the hell has a private event breakfast on December 27th in the Orono cafe? I guess that doesn't matter, as someone clearly needed to do that. I popped the kids back into the car and the phone rang immediately. 
It was Richard. He was excited about something. He said, "Where are you?"
"Orono", I replied.
"There's a f**king Smew in Whitby Harbour!"
"Ok.", I said.
I knew it was a rare bird. My knowledge was punctuated by his expletive and tone of voice. Richard doesn't always exhibit that sort of behavior. But what would I do about my rather hungry children? My need for food had quickly dissipated with the knowledge that there was a Mega Tick lifer not 30 km from my house. But my kids worried more for a snack. The fools.
I did something that day that I'm not proud of. If you've been following my blog you know I'm not a fan of fast food. I grow much of my own vegetables in summer. I won't buy meat I don't know the origin of. I generally try and eat only non-processed food. All this means I don't eat McDonalds. They have very much perfected cheap fast food. They've turned food into something so easy and cheap that it kind of ruins our relationship with the ingredients of a meal. But this was a Smew! And my kids were complaining of sore stomachs from a lack of breakfast. Four closed restos constitutes me having tried very hard to feed them properly. So what's a twitcher supposed to do. This one went to the McDonalds drive through. I haven't been to McDonalds in years. It is nothing like what it was when I was a kid. I didn't recognize a thing on the menu. I didn't even see a Big Mac. After what was surely mind numbing questions for the girl that worked there, I decided on a bagel (with butter) for each of the kids and an apple juice. This would put something into their stomachs and not be so bad for them. I wasn't happy about them experiencing the ease of drive-thru (I don't even like that they have to mis-spell the word through) food but they thought that Mrs. McDonald, as they called her, that worked the window was nice. They explained to me that they had a Mrs. McDonald teacher at school but she wasn't the one in the window.
After that, I raced down the highway to Whitby. As I arrived, I was informed that the bird had flown 15 minutes ago but was giving great views. I was unhappy about that. Richard arrived a few moments later. We scanned the water but no bird. All the usual people were there and had just seen it. They said it flew over the dyke and dropped behind it. Richard, myself and a few others decided to drive around and try to find the bird from the other side. I undid the kids from their seats (no easy task) for the fourth time this day and carried them down the path to the beach and ran along to the spot where we'd check for the Smew. They are heavy. My arms were like jelly. No bird! We took turns scanning the water and talked about maybe driving one more bay west since there were tonnes of ducks heading in that direction out over the water. Then, my phone rang. It was Jean Iron. The bird was back where we originally were. I announced it to the group. Suddenly, everyone was running down the beach carrying scopes. I was once again carrying 60 pounds of children. My arms were so sore that I thought I'd drop the kids. My bins were bouncing around my chest and the kids were getting so heavy. We all jumped into our cars and everyone but me sped off. I laboriously strapped the kids back into their seats. 
I drove around to where the bird was, got out, locked the car and ran over to look through a scope. I had it. It was a relatively plain bird. Red on the back of its head. Very dainty in comparison to so many of the ducks it was with. Then I ran back to the car and gathered the kids up. They came over and got their first (and maybe last) Smew. We all stood around watching it, doing the usual chatting and catching up that always happens at a twitch.
My number that I thought was going to be at 232 changed to 233. And what a 233! This would easily be the rarest bird I would have this year. And I got to experience it with my kids. So great.

SMEW! by Rictor Norton & David Allen.

My plan was to spend the daylight hours of December 31st trying to find something new. My wife wasn't going to be happy about it but she'd be understanding about it. She always is. The main target would be a Black-throated Gray Warbler. This is a bird I had a few years ago in its usual rang in California. But here in Ontario, it was pretty special. Lucky for me it was near the home of Jesse Senko, one of the cameramen that has helped out this year. He volunteered to meet us at the spot and film the day.

I met Richard and Margaret, the two people that have helped me so much with finding birds this year, in Newtonville at 9am and off we went on our 200plus km trip. Unbeknownst to us, at that exact time people were observing the bird at very close range. We arrived at about 10:30. Do the math, I drove fast. We looked and looked with several other birders to no avail. One of those birders had been four times already and missed it. After two hours of searching, I figured we had wasted the day, gas and my wife-favour-points. Then, out of the blue, I hear Richard yelling my name from down the path. I stopped speaking to Jesse mid-sentence and ran. This was possibly my very last bird of the year. I half wondered if they weren't just pulling my leg to see if I'd actually sprint for it. Then again, birders are generally too serious for that kind of shit if it's a great bird. I caught up to them while also realizing that I'm morbidly out of shape. My physical shape is just fine but clearly I need some cardio in 2012. I looked up, arms kind of shaky, lungs feeling as if they were bleeding profusely and there it was. My number 234. All the way in from the west coast to make my day. I watched it for a while, loving every second of it. Then, just like any other type of junkie, I lowered my bins and said, "Should we try for that Brant Goose that sometimes hangs out on the grass at Spenser Smith Park." It was on the way home and would only take ten seconds to glass the lawn at the park and leave. So we left. Dropped by the park. No bird. Got back in the car and raced like mad to get home to spend the remainder of the day with my family. I have no idea where all the police were but they weren't patrolling the 407 for bird nerds breaking the sound barrier, that's for sure. 
Black-throated Gray Warbler by jessi bryan.

Now this is all done. I'm happy and sad. I am not going to feel obliged to chase birds and subsequently guilty for not spending time with my family. I'm also a bit sad because I have a strange feeling of no responsibility. My job will rip that feeling from my hands ruthlessly tomorrow morning at about 9am. Then there's the watching of all this raw footage, making notes with time-codes, editing, transferring, onlining, packaging and selling the damn thing. Luckily I have a producer to help keep me on track. I spent some time with my mom today watching a show about a friggin' pawn shop in Las Vegas. If that can be entertaining enough to watch, then I should be able to get something out of this year.

234 is NOT a big Ontario Big Year number. I can easily and all too quickly think of 10-15 birds I missed or didn't run for. That upsets me a bit but really, a guy with the type of job I have and twins that are 4 years old, 234 is not too bad. Non-birders nearly fall off their chair when I say that number. SO I have to be happy about it. I'll never feel the same about Brant Geese for denying me a nice 235 though.
Big thanks to everyone that has helped me out this year in any way that you did. Big thanks to all of you that have paid attention and helped me spread the word. Super huge impossible thanks to my family, Rachel, Shepard, Georgia and my parents and Rachel's parents and our sisters and their families, for they really sacrificed the most. There will be more posts. Maybe about birds, maybe not but I hope to keep in contact with each and every one of you. Good birding (or whatever it is you like to do).
December 17, 2011 day list
Snowy Owl
December 27, 2011 day list
December 31, 2011 day list
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year