Birders flock together in Michael Melski’s new documentary Rare Bird Alert

The documentary film from Halifax's Dream Street Pictures premieres on CBC Docs POV October 3

Through his adventures, Paul Riss (right with fellow birder Tom Ferguson) comes to a deeper realization that in the world of birding and birders, he has found his tribe.
Through his adventures, Paul Riss (right with fellow birder Tom Ferguson) comes to a deeper realization that in the world of birding and birders, he has found his tribe.

From the horror of The Child Remains to the delightful and insightful documentary about obsessive birdwatchers in Rare Bird Alert, Halifax filmmaker Michael Melski seems to be going out of his way to defy any labels.

“I had just finished making and promoting The Child Remains and touring it worldwide. I was in a lot of hotels and airport waiting areas, and it was a bit of a grind,” says Melski by phone. “The film was successful, but it made me want to do something radically different for the next project and Rick [LeGuerrier] and Tim [Hogan] at Dream Street pitched me birdwatching.”

While not a birdwatcher (or “birder” as they prefer) himself at the time of the pitch, the documentary appealed to Melski not only for its change of pace but also from a personal interest in nature.

A fly fisher and amateur forager specializing in mushroom hunting, Melski saw it as an opportunity to explore a topic he didn’t know much about but was still related to his interests. “I’m inherently interested in nature,” he says. “I was raised that way, and I’ve always thought of myself as a conservationist.”

Calling the making of the documentary a fantastic experience, Melski’s enthusiasm for the subject matter is evident throughout the documentary. It follows Hamilton, Ontario birder and punk rocker Paul Riss as he crisscrosses North America chasing sightings of rare birds and meeting other birding enthusiasts.

With his body tattooed with the Latin names of 234, Riss is the perfect subject to help subvert the stereotype of birdwatchers as older men and women in Tilley hats on a country trail with binoculars at the ready. So too are the others that Melski and Riss encountered on their travels.

Among them are Vancouver biologist Melissa Hafting who views birding as a gateway drug for a deeper awareness of the environment, LBGTQ visual artist Christina Baal who uses birding as inspiration for her work, and food entrepreneur Tom Ferguson who says birding saved his life.

"Everyone was extremely decent and kind but you just felt the birds were more important than the camera at all times. Not in the pejorative but they are very ADD. They see a bird and they are gone." - filmmaker Michael Melski (pictured above on location during the filming of Rare Bird Alert).
“Everyone was extremely decent and kind but you just felt the birds were more important than the camera at all times. Not in the pejorative but they are very ADD. They see a bird and they are gone.” – filmmaker Michael Melski (pictured above on location during the filming of Rare Bird Alert).

Surprised by just how popular birding was during his travels with Riss, Melski isn’t quite so shocked to see how the pastime has grown in recent months because of the pandemic.

“It’s actually soared in popularity even more now because people locked down around the world are craving nature, craving the outdoors in a way they had never been denied before,” he says, predicting it will continue to grow bigger post-pandemic.

Melski admits his film changed him into something of a birder himself, even if it took the time in post-production for him to realize it.

“I was so busy on set as director and writer that I didn’t appreciate as much of what was in the camera until the editing process,” he says. “It was good to go back to those places like Space Coast in Florida and Tofino, and I started to remember the birds and the waves of passion and enthusiasm everyone had. It definitely stimulated something; it catalyzed me into thinking that I had this rare experience and felt compelled to keep doing it.”

But while Rare Bird Alert may have a similar effect on some viewers, Melski’s biggest hope is his film will be restorative, a way of reminding people of the beauty of nature at a time when we’re on the verge of destroying it.

“Birds are this beautiful, divine spark of creation that fly around us all day long, and we don’t see them for the beauty that it is,” he says. “If the documentary simulates that in people, then I hope it turns them into birders because birders are conservationists and active in changing laws. And that is what we really need now because we can’t rely on politicians to do it for us.”

Or, if that is a little too far outside someone’s comfort zone, Melski hopes Rare Bird Alert might compel others to make a smaller change in their lives.

“Even if it is grabbing a set of binoculars or going to Point Pleasant Park and spending a day connecting with nature via birds. That would be a really cool thing if it were the net result of the doc,” he says.

Rare Bird Alert premieres on CBC Docs POV on Saturday, October 3, at 8:00 pm on CBC and the free CBC Gem streaming service. Check your local listings for details.