Rare Bird Alert

Take a journey across North America with a punk rock birdwatcher who explores how the climate crisis is affecting birds, from the viewpoint of birders.
Available on CBC Gem

Rare Bird Alert


Rare Bird Alert is not just a documentary for avid birders, but for everyone with a love of nature — and human nature — too.

Punk rock birder Paul Riss faced social rejection as a teenager because of his love of painting birds. Today, he’s a successful creative director living in Hamilton and somewhat of a legend on the Ontario birding scene. With the Latin names of over 240 birds tattooed on his body, his personal mission is to change the stereotype of birdwatchers as old men and women in Tilley hats, shuffling along a country trail, binoculars at the ready.

Nowadays, more young and diverse people are sporting high-powered spotting scopes and online field guides to connect with nature’s wonders. Birding has gone mainstream and is soaring in popularity. Almost one in five Canadians are active birders who spend more than a third of the year, on average, watching birds. More than half of these are women. And Rare Bird Alert finds every birder is their own unique species.

Related Links

•   Why punk music and birdwatching belong together •   Birders of all skills and ages join forces to count as many birds as they can •   CBC Radio: Birder Alain Clavette inteviews writer and director of Rare Bird Alert •   Birding for beginners: What you need and need to know

Riss criss-crosses the continent to connect with birders like biologist Melissa Hafting in Vancouver. For Hafting, birding creates a deeper awareness of the environment that supports these exceptional creatures and is intertwined with their fates and our own. In Tofino, he meets teenage phenomenon Toby Theriault who finds birding both a passionate obsession and form of environmental activism. She takes Riss on a memorable boating trip spotting shorebirds in Clayoquot Sound.

LGBTQ visual artist Christina Baal tells Riss that birds are an inspiration for her work and are how she found love. And for Philadelphia rocker and naturalist Tony Croasdale, birding connects the DIY aesthetic of punk with environmentalism.

Rare Bird Alert is filled with beautiful bird sightings and environmental insights. It also touches on important issues, such as Hafting’s struggle to overcome racial and gender bias as she was building her reputation as one of B.C.’s top birders. Through food entrepreneur Tom Ferguson, Riss discovers birding can go far beyond a hobby into a search for life’s meaning and redemption. Ferguson reveals that birding has been an act of personal healing for him — one that, he believes, saved his life.

From Hamilton to the Long Point Bird Observatory on Lake Erie, from B.C. to the Cape May birding festival in New Jersey, Riss’s journey culminates on Florida’s Space Coast, in an early morning hunt for the rare and elusive saltmarsh sparrow, which is expected to become extinct within decades.

By the end of his journey, Riss discovers that in the world of birding and birders, he has truly found his tribe.

Stream Now on CBC Gem

Rare Bird Alert