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


  1. Good job Paul! Congrats on completing your big year! As I read this, I noticed the page had 234 "likes"...weird...

  2. Congrats! The Snowy Owl and Smew are awesome!

  3. Talk about ending your year with some great birds!! Congrats, and I look forward to seeing your film.

  4. Cheryl. Thanks and yes indeed, that is very odd. hope it's a good sign.

    Jeremy. Thanks again. That Smew was really unbelievable.

    Crystal. Thanks and so do I...

  5. That was a good read! Congratulations on your total Paul! I achieved considerably less but pleased with my final count too.

  6. Thanks Dena. We'd all be liars if we said our number didn't count but it matters much less than the experiences gathered in the searching and finding (or not finding) of the birds. Let's keep in touch. My Spain list currently sits at zero and my wife loves the idea of seeing Spain...

  7. Congratulations, Paul. Now the fun begins.

  8. Congrats Paul on your big year. I chuckled when reading the account of you going to McDonalds and then running around looking for birds carrying 60 pounds of kid.

    I wish you luck in selling your film~Let me know when you get it together..i will try to help spread the word.

    Wishing you and yours a Terrific New year!

  9. Thanks Dawn. I'll certainly keep you posted. It may take me 6 months to get through the editing process but I'm looking forward to it. The footage amounts to more that 4 terabytes of info on disk. Yikes! I'll keep posting regularly on the progress.

    Those kids are so damn heavy now. But it was a Smew. At 40, I may never see another in North America.

    Wishing you a great new year as well. Be sure to let me know if you are ever near Toronto in your Homey.

  10. OC: You mean fun as in watching 100 hours of footage to find an hour that's good? ;-)

    Thank man.

  11. 100 to 1 was the ratio for "Opposable Chums.". Yeah, I found it fun, but I'm a cuttin' fool and no error.

    It's where the movie gets made. As a painting metaphor, everything up to now has been the considered mixing of the right colors on the palet. Now it's time to paint a picture. The Fun part.

  12. Sorry this comment took so long to appear OC. it never told me it needed approval. I have new screening DVDs to pick up today!