Rare Bird Alert review — Birdwatching doc a lot of feathery fun

Directed by Michael Melski | 43 min | CBC Gem 

Nova Scotia filmmaker Michael Melski returns to the documentary form after the creepfest The Child Remains with this look at hardcore birders across Canada and into the United States. It’s an enthusiastic exploration and endorsement of birdwatching through its most eager purveyors, reminding us some of the stereotypes around people who love to watch birds are nowhere near on the money.

The film watches over the shoulder of Paul Riss, a Hamilton-based creative director, punk music enthusiast, and family man who spends a lot of his time in the bush looking for birds. He’s a charismatic lead and entirely committed — I’d watch a whole series of this guy travelling the world seeking elusive avians and meeting people. One big year he kept track of all the birds he was able to see through tattoos — more than 240 latin names all over his body.

We follow him into his favourite bird-watching environs and across the country to Vancouver Island, and then down to New Jersey to a bird-watching conference. (There are such things, or were in the pre-Covid times.) The community of birders we meet through him is diverse, occasionally eccentric, and touched with a dollop of collector mania, but they do no harm in their collecting. They’re just people who appreciate the beauty of nature and have a concern for its conservation — which should be all of us, really.

Melski — and, full disclosure, I’ve consulted on some of his earlier projects — is remarkable for his restless muse. He refuses to stick to genre, having done horror, crime thriller, and comedy, as well as documentaries. This effort is something special. It includes a lot of information about the birds themselves told at a good pace to fit into the CBC DocsPOV hour-long format (with commercials). It’s inspirational on multiple fronts and a good time, too. Don’t be surprised when meeting this group of bird enthusiasts it stirs an interest in you.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.