Friday, May 10, 2013

The Biggest Week - 2013

This is long. But hey, it was the Biggest Week and a lot happened in 4 days.

May is the best month for a birder in the northern hemisphere. And in north America, the first two weeks of May are the absolute best. That's when we get so many neotropical migrants back. And in big numbers too. There's a very special region where a couple flyways converge. For Canada, it's Point Pelee National Park. In the USA, it's Magee Marsh and Black Swamp region of northern Ohio. When I did my big year in 2011, I visited Point Pelee and saw lots of great birds, over 100 were added to my year list and will be forever inked onto my body. This year, I decided to try out Ohio, the self-described Warbler Capitol of the World. And holy shit, did Ohio ever deliver. There's a birding event each spring organized entirely by the amazing Kim Kaufman and her equally amazing staff at BSBO. It's called the Biggest Week in American Birding and if you want to see spring migrants dripping from the trees, this is the place to be from May 1-15 and beyond.

I had an amazing birding experience but an equally amazing people-ing experience. I had the distinct honor of being a keynote speaker at the Biggest Week this year. My talk was written to introduce people to Punk Rock Big Year and why I'm doing it. It also gave the folks already following me a closer look at the film, the tattoos and the person behind the initiative. I was very nervous about taking to so many people (there must have been over 100 in the room). If you know me personally, you know I'm not a big public speaker. For work, I present to people all the time, but never more than about 5 or 6. Other than one heckler, I think it went pretty well. I never puked or wet myself beforehand so I guess that says a lot. Let me say right here that I don't think Mr. Heckler was intending on disrupting me but more engaging with me so I ain't gonna complain about it. Here's a clip from my film. Some of the music is just a placeholder the edit is not 100% final but it gives you a little idea of where it might be going.

The people

This was a Kentucky Warbler. Showing nicely.

Let's start with Kim and Kenn Kaufman. What can I say? Kenn is the man that inspired me to do Punk Rock Big Year (PRBY). Both he and Kim have been huge supporters since the first day we met. They are awesome and often I work to impress them and that's why things are still churning with PRBY. I don't need to tell you how good of birders these two are do I? I birded once with Kenn in 2011 and it was like birding with a living field guide. A great experience that taught me much in just a few hours.

Then, let's move on to Sharon, the infamous Birdchick. She is pure positive energy and awesomeness wrapped in a small package (I literally towered over her) but was blown away by how inclusive she was with anyone or anything to do with her mission, bird love and conservation. She thinks strategically about how to amplify bird conservation and never stops working at it. She's also a killer birder and I will never ever EVER forget going Wookcocking with her. No matter what craziness you get up to, Woodcocking is stranger than that. Visit her site, like and follow her, you won't be sorry you did. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Sharon's husband, non-birding Bill. He shares a thing or two in common with my lovely wife Rachel. And that thing ain't birds.

Rue Mapp. There's a lady that has a goal. Nothing will ever stop this woman. I for one would hate to be an obstacle between her and her goals. What are those goals? To get black Americans to connect with nature. Her organization is called Outdoor Afro and no matter what colour you are, you need to check out her initiatives. It's great stuff and I found her very inspiring to be around. Why? Well, I'm trying to influence another group that has potentially lost their connection to nature, youth. We share a common goal and now we have shared the experience of Woodcocking too. I think it was a first for both of us. So go, learn more about her. You'll be a better person for knowing her.

Prior to going to the Biggest Week, Rachel and I started watching a Netflix series called Hemlock Grove. After the first episode, we looked at one another and said, "What the f**k just happened?" but in a good way. It felt the same sort of good you felt after a first encounter with the Log Lady in Twin Peaks. We were intrigued. We watched another episode each night prior to me departing for Ohio. We got to 7 or 8. The series never leveled out on the normalcy scale, it stayed nicely weird. We were happy to see a few actors/actresses we both enjoy in it. One of them was Lili Taylor. She plays the mother of one of the characters, and she's also a birder, and she was also at the Biggest Week. I certainly didn't want to bother her on what was obviously some personal time. But I figured I should at least say hi and that I really enjoy her work. So I walked over and asked (like any birder would).

"What have you got there?"
I can't remember now what bird it was. 
Then I said, "I know you, don't I?"
She said, "Probably, and I know you. You're that punk birder guy."

What? She knew me? Crazy. We chatted a bit and birded a bit. Turns out she also knew Birdchick Sharon and Rue Mapp. Much to my delight, we all kind of hung out and birded together for the next few days. Ya, we all went Woodcocking together. Lili is a delightful person to spend time with and I hope we will bird together again some day. It was super cool to meet an artist I respect and find out that I can also respect the person behind the art.

Birding with LiliTaylor.

Remember I said I was nervous about my talk, well, shit got more stressful when Rue, Sharon and Lili said they'd be attending my keynote. And to make things ever more intense for me, actual punks were showing up too. I'm kind of an old punk but not like a musician, more like I just love punk music and artists. The two dudes that I heard were attending the show were none other than Tony Croasdale and Bull Gervais of R.A.M.B.O. fame. If you don't know them, look them up. They were a great punk band that are also birders. They aren't the only real punk birders I've met but are for sure the only ones that were coming to the Biggest Week. They turned out to be awesome dudes and they said I did just fine with my presentation. Though they are punk as f**k, these days, Tony is an Environmental Education Program Coordinator and Bull gave me a business card that says he manages a Food CO-OP in Philly. Both very natural things for punks to be doing.

You might ask why there were punks at a birding festival. Mostly because of the amazing birds that would be there but also, they were a great addition to Kim's whole theme of this years Biggest Week, a focus on diversity. A longtime ago we had an idea that we might try and be the first ever birding festival that held a tattoo contest. It was so good. We had 11 people enter. That was 10 more than we thought we'd have. I was of course disqualified because I was a judge. Tony and Bull though were not and did they ever bring it. Bull ended up the winner of the grand prize, a new pair of binoculars. Tony was a runner up. All the tats were awesome. Bull's entire upper body is a huge tribute to birds. Some rare, some not rare, some extinct, some from America, some from Asia. But the best part was his huge necklace made of woodpeckers and storks. It was awesome. When I began PRBY I had wondered if I were the only one. This past weekend cemented the fact that I was not.

Judging Tony Croasdale of R.A.M.B.O.
The winner, Bull. Ya, that's an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Oh yeah, there were birds too. Birds like mad. I've never seen anything like it before. At times you never knew where to look. There were certain birds I had before but needed better views of, some I had dipped on before and some that we're just plain out of my reach. Magee Marsh Boardwalk killed nearly all the missing species I needed and wanted. The views I had of a Worm-eating Warbler were insane. I had views like I've had of Black-throated Green Warblers. It was nuts. The Mourning Warbler was basically at my feet. I had never seen that bird in full sun before. That colour I had always assumed was a muted flat gray, shone in the sunlight like a classic hotrod painted with 20 coats of deep gray, followed by a coating of sparkling silver and then a dozen coats of clear coat. I've never seen anything like it before on a bird. Then there was the Kentucky Warbler (a bird I had missed during my big year). It practically picked a bug out of a crack in my boot leather. A Warbling Vireo at arms length, a Scarlet Tanager that almost hurt my eyes it was so brilliant, a Northern and Louisiana Waterthrush foraging in the same two feet of wet leaf litter. I could go on but you probably have better things to do. Suffice to say you should go there next spring.

Some people commented on the odd picture I posted where there were Hughes crowds looking at a great bird. They said it looked terrible. If you follow my twitter feed you know I'm not one for crowds but this is different. People are respectful and we all make sure everyone gets a look. I never would've got the two Waterthrushes if it weren't for a woman that told me to stay and that it's habit was to leave and then return every 10 minutes. I stayed and I got the bird along with 20 other birders. I understand if you prefer to bird alone. Sometimes I do too but that's not what the Biggest Weeks all about. It's a birding festival, it'll be busy, we get to see folks we haven't in a while, meet new and interesting people. Hell, if I didn't go to this because of the crowds, I never would have met Sharon, Tony, Lili, Rue, Bull and so many other amazing people. Knowing that, I wouldn't trade the last few days for anything. It was an amazing experience. And besides, when I'm looking through my bins, it's just me and the bird, nobody else.

The birds

Not that it really matters but here's my list from those few days. 100 species. Not terrible.

Pied-billed Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant

Great-blue Heron
Great Egret

Trumpeter Swan
Canada Goose
Blue-winged Teal

Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Bald Eagle
American Kestrel


Ring-billed Gull
Common Tern

Mourning Dove
Rock Pigeon

Black-billed Cuckoo

Eastern Screech Owl (lifer) grey
Great-horned Owlette

Eastern Whip-poor-will (lifer-visually)

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker

Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great-crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird

Red-eyed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
White-eyed Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo

Blue Jay
American Crow

Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow

Black-capped Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

Carolina Wren
House Wren
Marsh Wren

Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

American Robin
Wood Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
Hermit Thrush

Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher

European Starling

Northern Parula
Orange-crowned Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Blue-winged Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Palm Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Worm-eating Warbler (lifer)
Prothonotary Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Northern Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush (lifer)
Kentucky Warbler (lifer)
Connecticut Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Canada Warbler
29 effing Warblers! Had I counted before writing this, I would have worked harder for the Wilson's that was around...

Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Eastern Towhee
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow

Brown-headed Cowbird
Red-Winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
Orchard Oriole

House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Paul Riss
Punk Rock Big Year


  1. That's crazy! I delivered produce to the CO-OP Bull works at...I knew he was a birder, but I never realized how many of his tattoos were birds! Small world.

  2. Good blog. I read Rue's perspective of the week, it was cool to read yours, as well. She shouted you out, so I had to check you out. Looks like your work deserves a shout out. Imma keep my eye on you. What you're doing looks real intriguing and helpful! And I've never been woodcocking. What was so trippy about it?

  3. Hey Drew, his tats even went beyond birds to other animals too. They were awesome.

  4. Thanks John.
    Woodcocking involves sneaking up on one on your hands and knees in the grass while it is up flying around. they tend to land right in the same spot. it was part of a video The Birdchick was making that week.