Close your eyes, and in your mind’s eye picture what you think a typical bird watcher looks like. Paul Riss used to see the same vision.
“People always think bird watchers are little old ladies,” said Riss, a 42-year-old Canadian. “I thought I would try to change that (stereotype) by making a documentary, called ‘Punk Rock Big Year.’ People say I don’t look like a bird watcher.”
Riss is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding, which will be held May 3-12 in various locations around Port Clinton, Marblehead, the Lake Erie Islands, and Northwest Ohio. Riss has been “birding,” he said, since he was 10 or 11 years old.
“My dad was kind of looking for a way to spend time with his son,” Riss said. “One of his buddies said, ‘Take him to the conservation area.’ That very first time, a Chickadee landed on my hand and that was it. I was hooked. Ever since then I’ve been crazy about birding.”
The term “crazy” may be putting it mildly. Riss has covered his body in 88 bird tattoos, and he plans to increase that number to more than 200.
"That very first time, a Chickadee landed on my hand and that was it. I was hooked. Ever since then I’ve been crazy about birding.”
Born and raised in a small town about an hour east of Toronto, Riss and his wife, Rachel, are the parents of 5-year-old boy and girl twins. The family produces 8 percent of its own food, Riss said, and built a greenhouse in the backyard.
The tattoos, he said, are a tribute to his love of birding.
“I want people to say, ‘He did what? That’s crazy!” Riss said. “When people meet me or read my blog, they say this guy’s really not nuts, he’s just passionate about this. I have a very good job, and a wife and 5-year-old twins. When people watch my film, I want people to understand bird watchers aren’t necessarily what you think they are.
“Maybe they’ll pay a little bit more attention to someone who is covered in tattoos and interested in punk music. Birds are kind of the gateway ‘drug’ to the rest of nature. Kids love them. We have a bird feeder in our backyard and my son says, ‘Dad, I wish I was a bird.’ I say, ‘why?’ He says, ‘Cause I wish I could fly.’ If we can gets kids into it, that’s awesome.”
Oak Harbor resident and famous birding author Kenn Kaufman, who is also a naturalist and conservationist, was the inspiration for Riss’s film “Punk Rock Big Year.” Riss said being a keynote speaker at this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding is “quite an honor.”
“Kenn Kaufman is kind of a birding hero for me,” Riss said. “There are two sentences in his book, Kingbird Highway, where that really gave me the inspiration for doing the ‘Punk Rock Big Year’ thing. Kenn dropped out of high school as a kid and hitchhiked 70,000 miles to see as many birds as he could in America. He was going someplace to see these crows. He got picked up and said he was a bird watcher, and they said he didn’t look like a bird watcher. They said bird watchers are blue-haired and 70 years old.”
On Jan. 1, 2011, Riss decided he was going to take an entire year to try to see as many different species of birds as he could in the Ontario area. “Punk Rock Big Year” tells that story.
“I’m trying to do something different to catch peoples’ attention,” Riss said. “I grew up listening to punk music. I vowed to tattoo the Latin name of every bird that I saw on my body. I ended up seeing 234 birds, and I have 88 (tattoos) done so far. I had a full-time job in advertising and I had to work with my wife and our kids. Had I had more time, I could have gotten to 300 birds easily.
“The documentary creates a little bit of drama. Friday after work I would drive home, kiss my wife and kids, drive 1,500 kilometers (932 miles), see one bird and drive 1,500 kilometers back. I did that several times.”
Paul and Rachel have been together for 15 years and married for nine. Ironically, she isn’t quite the bird enthusiast as her husband.
“Rachel has no interest in birding at all,” Paul said. “It’s kind of interesting. I try to plan vacations and be real sneaky about it and make them birding vacations. Sometimes my plans work out, and sometimes they don’t. Her dad is very much into birds. He was a conservation officer and they always had bird feeders at their house. Because her dad was so interested in it, naturally, she wasn’t.”
“Punk Rock Big Year” is in the editing stages right now, but a few scenes will be shown at the Biggest Week in American Birding festival. Riss said he is pretty much funding the documentary by himself.
“There’s some interesting stuff there,” he said. “My editor, Kyle McNair, is a super talented guy and is also covered in tattoos. At the very latest it should be completed at the end of the summer. I lined up half a dozen cameramen. They were like photographers and directors, friends of mine. I just basically drive to their house, pick them up and we drive to see the birds.”
Riss, who is schedule to speak at the festival at 7:30 p.m. on May 4, said his favorite bird is the brown thrasher.
“I have no idea why,” he said. “I love the look of it - stern face and curved bill. Just a beautiful thing. They’re in Eastern North America. I’ve seen one about a block from my house.”
"I lined up half a dozen cameramen. They were like photographers and directors, friends of mine. I just basically drive to their house, pick them up and we drive to see the birds.”
Riss did not attend the previous Biggest Week in American Birding events, so he said he doesn’t know what to expect. He is good friends with Kenn Kaufman and his wife, Kim, who is the executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Oak Harbor.
“I’m expecting big crowds,” Riss said. “I know a lot of people go there. It’s the warbler capital of the world for bird watchers. Warblers are the most beautifully colored birds in North America. They’re on migration and they just come down and feed from the trees. You don’t need binoculars most of the time.”
Kim Kaufman said she is thrilled that Riss will be a keynote speaker this year.
“Paul absolutely smashes the stereotype of birders,” she said. “He’s a super cool guy. Just when you think you know what a bird watcher looks like, here comes Paul Riss. His goal is to really smash that stereotype and spread the word that everyone should be out bird watching. His goal is to get more people interested in birding, because if they like birds and care about birds and understand what their needs are, they’ll support habitat conservation.”
Information on The Biggest Week in American Birding is available at www.biggestweekinamericanbirding.com.