Sunday, April 15, 2012

Audubon Rules!

You all know I'm heavily tattooed. You may know that my right upper arm is covered in John James Audubon's paintings. I guess you could say he has left an impression on me both literally and figuratively. Well, now I can say I've made an impression on Audubon. Not him obviously but his namesake organization. I'm really proud to say that Punk Rock Big Year is on the Audubon Magazine's main website. How cool is that? It feels like a lifer of a different kind. Visit, read, leave comments. Punk Rock Big Year Paul Riss

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I'm a shit birder.

Eastern Wood-Pewee by Henry McLin.

Among my friends, I'm a birding genius. Among my birding peers, I'm tall and have tattoos. See, my friends don't know anything about birding and therefore I seem to know everything about it. But I'm going to make a confession to them. I suck, SO hard at birding. And punctuation I guess. A few weeks ago, with a brief early summer, people were seeing birds ahead of schedule. I was hearing them. I'm walking down main street Orono and I clearly hear a Pewee. Peeaweee, peeaaa, he sang. Impulsive as ever and thinking you all hang on my every tweet, I posted it. I was promptly corrected and told this was impossible in March. Like never has happened in history impossible. But it was that song. There've been no sightings of Mockingbirds on main street that I know of, not lately anyway. Still, the entire Ontario birding world would have descended upon me if I were right. I found the starling the next day singing from the top of a neighbour's. If I knew the lyrics to a culling song, that starling would've taken a dirt nap that night.

Alder Flycatcher by jerryoldenettel.

A few days later I see a flycatcher in the tree behind my home (to be fair, I had no bins and it was a good 45 ft away). A good birder would've went right to Eastern Phoebe based on where and what date. A shit one like me went right to Empidonax flycatchers upon hearing it sing to make an ID. Of course, like an arse, I tweet that I have a Alder Flycatcher in my yard. Not paying enough attention to the call, which would've put me squarely on Eastern Phoebe. Again I'm politely corrected. Much eye rolling I'm sure by several good birders nice enough to give me the time of day, despite my clear and monumental retardation.

Eastern Phoebe by kenschneiderusa.

Anyway, I could go on about stupid mistakes in ID that I've made if you have a few days to spare, but instead, I'll focus on how severe and public embarrassment is a great learning tool. Those two mistakes alone will help me ID three birds correctly from now on (four if you count the starling). I guess the key to learning bird ID is f**king up the first few times.

European Starling by Kelly Colgan Azar.

Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

This is getting ridiculous

Bohemian Waxwings by Bill Bouton.

You know I did a big year last year. You know I got 234 species. You know I had some great successes and terrible dips. But the one thing that keeps eating away at my brain is the bird you see above this text. I have developed a really annoying jinx bird. I'm probably making it worse by admitting it here and fixating on it. But the Bohemian Waxwing clearly hates my guts. Until last year I never really chased them much. I was content with my many sightings of Cedar Waxwings. They are splendid birds. But do an Ontario big year and they quickly turn to a junk bird.

Last year, I drove about a total of 500km trying to find BOWAs. Last year, I drove about a total of 500km trying to find BOWAs. Writing that sentence twice isn't a mistake in editing. It's on purpose. That statement keeps ripping through my mind like a really annoying but catchy song. To most people it's just pure insanity. It is to my wife and most of my friends that aren't birders. To hardcore birders, it's clear that I didn't work hard enough at it. Glenn Coady drove to Rainy River from Toronto over a weekend. Yes, he left work at 5pm and drove directly there, birded as long as he could spare and drove back arriving just in time for work Monday morning. Rainy River is 20 hours and 39 minutes drive from Toronto. Now that's crazy but I guess that's why he has the record for most species seen in Ontario in a single calendar year. 338 birds I believe.

Back to my BOWA situation. I would get calls from all my birder friends all season long telling me where they were. I'd go there as soon as I could, most often only a few hours after the call. At most a day. But with BOWAs, that's often too late. As their name suggests, they always move around. I would regularly visit places they SHOULD have been. Berry bushes around my home. The list-serve that I follow religiously would have posts about them. I'd read it over a morning coffee, be there only hours later to find trees stripped of food but never a BOWA. Once, on the advise of Margaret Bain, I zipped about 30 min. north-east of my hometown. Her directions were very specific. A friend of hers had them in her back yard but would be at work that day. I was granted permission to wander around her yard as they were seen in the back of the house near the back of their land. I was told that her husband, who would be asleep in the basement after a night shift, would have no problem with a total stranger punk with a Mohawk wandering about the property in knee-deep snow. I couldn't help having the death fantasy of him waking, wandering into the kitchen and dispatching the punk trespasser with a 22 from the safety of an open window.

I came close that day. I heard them. I took out my Sibley app and listened to be sure. It was them! I was excited. Kind of like a super-juiced-up version of that feeling you used to have on Christmas morning when you were a kid. You know the one, just after your eyes crack open but just before the explosion of pillows, covers and stuffed animals that finds you bounding downstairs to the tree. I mean, I had already chased them so many times. I just couldn't find them that day.

Another time, I drove to a place north of Pickering where people were regularly seeing them. Some conservation area. The weather was starting to turn bad about half way there. By the time I got to the spot, it was a full-on blizzard. Snow was ripping sideways across the parking lot. So I did what any birder would do, got out and went looking. The snow was deep. I put on my snow shoes. I wandered into the field, over some hills and into the forest. I got to the spot but there were no birds. Like zero birds. I couldn't even rustle up a nuthatch out there. It was a miserable waste of time.

On yet another occasion, just a couple weeks ago, I went birding with Margaret. She had seen BOWAs on the Saturday, but when we went to the area Sunday, they were of course gone. By that time, I had just settled in to the fact that I wouldn't see them again this winter. I don't know what their problem is. I'm not doing a big year anymore so they should be ok with me seeing them. Unless they plan to become a full-on, long-term jinx bird.

So now I'm not even trying anymore. The season for them in our area is over now. I've always got warblers to see now. But dammit I've seen all but two or three of them. Certainly I have all the ones we regularly get here in southern Ontario. Then, my writer partner, Adam, goes off to visit his dad in Red Deer Alberta. What does this have to do with the story? Well, he texts me this message, "Huge flock of really cool birds at my dad's house. Very much like a Cardinal but mostly gray. With some bright colours on the wing and tail." I reply, "Waxwings. What colour are they under the tail?", not even really thinking they'd be BOWAs. He sends back, "Kind of red. My guide says Bohemian Waxwings. Really cool birds. About 1000 of them."


Punk Rock Big Year
Paul Riss