Preview: CBC’s Rare Bird Alert spies the birders in our midst

I recently moved from Toronto to a small town just outside of Gatineau, QC. Surrounded by forest, the big-city robins and cardinals I spotted in Southern Ontario have been swapped for blue jays, woodpeckers, chickadees, warblers and wild turkeys. I’ve downloaded the Merlin Bird ID app from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology onto my iPhone and am constantly searching for and documenting my findings. Needless to say, I was intrigued to watch a screener of Paul Riss’ documentary.

“Rare Bird Alert,” broadcast as part of CBC Docs POV this Saturday at 8 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem, embarks on a one-man odyssey to meet other enthusiasts and take the pulse of birdwatching in North America. Turns out I’m not the only one on the birding bandwagon; birdwatching has become one of the fastest-growing pastimes on the continent. With the Latin names of 234 birds tattooed on his body, Hamilton-based Riss heads out to meet a few folks amid the growing flock.

In Canada, one in five people is an active birder who spends more than a quarter of the year watching birds. According to the Canadian Nature Survey, more than half of these are women; birdwatching has now become more popular than gardening.

Among those Riss meets are biologist Melissa Hafting, teenage birding phenomenon Toby Theriault, LBGTQ visual artist Christina Baal, and Philadelphia rocker and naturalist Tony Croasdale. All have their own reasons for birding, from passion to environmental activism.

There are also some sobering stats. The bird population is dropping worldwide, sounding the alarm on climate change.

“Rare Bird Alert” is fun and funky, with an engaging soundtrack and great graphics to accompany stunning shots of birds in varying backdrops. From a cattle egret in Hamilton’s Royal Botanical Gardens, a least bittern in Long Point and Anna’s hummingbird in Vancouver, the must-don’ts of birding (always confirm your sighting) and the definition behind “lifer” and “face-melter,” Riss’ project is for anyone interested in birding or the people who do it.

“Rare Bird Alert” airs as part of CBC Docs POV, Saturday at 8 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.

Images courtesy of Dream Street Pictures.