Monday, March 5, 2012

Today is a special day for PRBY. I'm posting the point of view of Richard Pope, author, retired professor and my 2011 (and beyond) birding Yoda. We couldn't look more different if we tried. Margaret Bain was not only a very helpful birder, and now good friend, but also the person that dealt with the Latin name changes for ALL 234 birds for my tattoo list. A feat I personally could never have accomplished alone.

Margaret, Richard and I birding Jan. 2. Image by Derek Shapton.
We all look the same doing this.

​Late December, 2010. Some guy I’ve never heard of phones me out of the blue and says he’s an aging punk rocker interested in doing a Big Year. Why me, I think. Just as I’m about to hang up, he says Ron Tozer told him to call me. He then cunningly mentions that he has read my book, The Reluctant Twitcher, and has become inspired. So I listen a bit, dismiss all the nonsense about tattoos and punk rock, ascertain that he is a middling birder keen to step up his game, and agree to take him birding to Niagara on January 2 to kick off his Big Year. I tell Margaret we will be taking along a young birder who wants help with his Big Year but do not stress the punk/tattoo business – or the Mohawk for that matter. They don’t tend to wear their hair this way in Margaret’s family.

On the way to our Newtonville rendez-vous, I mention a bit about punk rock and Mohawks to Margaret, though I skip over the tattoos, which will hopefully be covered up anyway.

We meet at 6:00am in the dark. A tall, gangly, rather louche “dude” in a bizarre pork-pie hat and light jacket (it’s minus 10C and Niagara promises to be windy) gets out of his vehicle, slouches over towards our car, and I immediately know it’s either Riss or a hung-over trumpet player from some 1930’s Berlin jazz band. I also know we can’t do much about it; just take him out as promised, try not to stare at the hair, avert our eyes if we see the tattoos, and then say so long and good luck.

This is the guy they met before sun up in Newtonville.
I wonder if Richard had his gun under the seat?

It doesn’t work out this way. Margaret oddly seems to take to him, though I can’t imagine why, even evincing a prurient interest in the actual tattoos. We are saved by the fact that she is a born teacher and the guy, no matter how bizarre, seems keen to learn, showing once again that you can’t go just by looks in this world.

He tells us all about his plan to make a video of his whole year and to have the Latin name of every species he sees tattooed on his body. All this, he says, is part of an attempt to awaken wider interest in birding, especially among the younger generation. This all seems quite laudable and immediately begins to seem more serious when we pick up his camera man in Toronto and listen to the two of them talk shop on the way to Niagara. They move in a different world than Margaret and I and appear to live in the fast lane; but at least on the birding level we are on top.

​We have a very successful day in Niagara, see nearly all the desired birds, and Risster the Lister, as he later gets called, gets to meet many of the major Ontario birders and even interview a number of them. Late in the day at Queenston, he finds his own Little Gull, which is a lifer for him. He turns out to have good ears and eyes and to be a quick study.

Little Gull by Sergey Yeliseev
Those under-wings stood out among the thousands of other gulls.

We end up getting along - well; too well his wife might say. In fact we end up “bonding,” (I believe this is the term) and birding as a threesome all year. To my surprise, Margaret and I get the bit in our teeth and get really keen on helping him find birds. Knowing he cannot possibly get more than 250 birds with a full-time job, a wife, and 3-year-old twins, Margaret and I settle for trying to get him some good birds – rarities and lifers. Our shared experiences are well-documented in the blog and many are caught on video by his four excellent cameramen.

Us, with guide, in Nicaragua, watching Canadian birds on winter territory.

We get number 234 on New Year’s Eve, a Black-throated Gray Warbler – his last bird. The one before was a Smew, trumping even the Willow Ptarmigan at the nuclear power plant. You get the picture. Pretty good birds. Pretty good blog too, and I expect a pretty good video will result, which will do just what he wants – draw more attention to birds and bird preservation.

​If only he survives the tattooing.


  1. The list was probably best left capped at 234. I hate to think what body parts might be called into play if it grew unwieldy.

  2. Yeah, me too. there was a deal with my wife on day one. no face, and also not that other part.

    More than a few people are suggesting that the Smew get special treatment, as in common name instead of latin and inside bottom lip. ouch.