The Canada Incident

So, I was supposed to be at the Point Pelee Festival of Birds this weekend, something I was really looking forward to doing--both as a presenter and field trip leader and as a birder to the area.  The warbler watching is legendary. But Canada refused me entry to their country. I've been to a lot of places.  I'm not as well traveled as some of my professional bird guide friends, but Kazakhstan, Israel, Guatemala--no problem. The country immediately north of the state I live in?  Easy, laid back Canada? They're the ones who have a problem with me? What the heck?

So here's the story. I'm not putting this in to make excuses for missing a festival, but I've had more than one person ask about my criminal record or if I had something naughty in my vehicle.  No, it was simply a clerical error.

Swarovski Optik is a sponsor of my blog and periodically, they will send me out to bird festivals to help demonstrate product--especially for digiscoping. They are also very generous when a bird festival has a small budget and would like to bring me in as a speaker and will sometimes help cover some of my costs. For Point Pelee, Swarovski paid my travel and lodging, while the festival paid my speaking fee. And let's be clear, I charge a livable wage, not David Allen Sibley rates.

When this was coming together, I asked if there was anything I needed to know about coming into Canada.  I asked several people, including my travel agent. Everyone felt there would be no problems with this.

My plan was to be at the Biggest Week in North American Birding and then drive up through Detroit into Canada and spend a weekend in Point Pelee National Park. The two areas are fairly close, so I spent Friday morning at the Biggest Week helping people get looks (and photos with their phones) of a hidden eastern whip-poor-will.

I took this with my iPhone through the scope, see it? If you don't see it right away, don't feel bad.  Taking this with my phone actually helped because I could show people this and point to exactly where they needed to look to see the whip-poor-will.  Most would exclaim, "Oh, wait, I thought that was the log."

Kudos to whoever found this bird in the first place, it was really hidden.  I just managed to get my scope on it so everyone could have a chance to view this little nightjar.  I had to chuckle while watching it. The last time I had a whip-poor-will encounter it was on skinny dipping trip that resulted in one of the worst reactions to poison ivy I've ever had in my life.  Remember that night, NBB?

As you can imagine, lots of people wanted to see a whip-poor-will and since it was so hard to find, it was times easier to line up behind my scope.

Bird guide, Erick Bruhnke got a photo of my solution to my claustrophobia on the Magee Marsh boardwalk when birders would crowd together: perching up on the railing.  I wanted everyone to have a chance at the whip but I also kept my eye on the time because I needed to head north to Canada.  Eventually, I got a friend to set his scope up in my place and I headed out to Canada with the knowledge that if traffic wasn't bad, I could do some lovely evening birding before leading a trip the next morning at 7am.

I got to the border and as I pulled my car up, the first customs agent had some questions:

Customs: Is this your first visit to Canada?

Me: Yes.

Customs: Why are you here?

Me: Bird watching.

Customs: Where?

Me: Point Pelee

Customs: Why there?

Me: There's a bird festival.

Customs: What will you be doing at the festival?

Me: Leading field trips and giving a photography workshop.

Customs: Is that what you do for a living?

Me: More or less.

Customs: Are you getting paid?

Me: Yes.

Customs: Who is paying you?

Me: The festival.

Customs: Since this is your first trip to Canada, please pull into the parking area and step inside.

Inside I had another customs agent question me more thoroughly and then she said, "You need a work visa, you have to go back to the US."

Perplexed, I asked what she was talking about and said, "Since you are getting paid to come here, you could be taking work away from a Canadain. The festival needs to get a work permit for you and prove that no one else in Canada can do what you do. What? You're a photographer? There could be a Canadian who could do that."

A combination of panic at missing a field trip and a little indignation I said, "I teach a very specific technique of taking photos of birds with an iPhone and a spotting scope."

In a very no nonsense tone she said, "Anybody could take a picture of a bird with an iPhone."

"Not the way I do it," I said, and my brain kicked in and said, "Back off, Shaz, don't cause a scene."

I asked if I could just pay the visa fee now...even though it was half my speaking fee and she said no, that it has to be applied for ahead of time.  I asked, "So, what if I don't get paid, what I refuse the fee?"

She said, "You've already stated that you're going to get paid, it's too late."

"What can I do so I can fulfill my duties at this festival tomorrow?"

She handed me a sheet of paper with a bunch of uses numbers that the festival organizers could call to try and speed through a visa for me but since it was Friday one was answering those phone lines.

Sarah Rupert tried very hard all weekend to get hold of someone but it just didn't happen. Poor thing had her own duties with the festival and had to take over my field trips and cancel my workshops.

I think if I had a reasonable customs agent, things could have gone a different way, but I had the no nonsense, no sense of humor agent and my Jedi mind tricks would not work on her.

As I related my tale via text and Facebook to friends as the situation was going down, people suggested alternate borders and trying to get in on Saturday.  Since I was questioned so thoroughly and they had a computer record, I really didn't want to risk any further trouble.

I ended up going back to Biggest Week but didn't enjoy it nearly as much because I felt like I was shirking my duties at Point Pelee.  This is the first time I've had this kind of utter failure with a festival.  I feel especially bad because I met so many people at Biggest Week who were coming to the digiscoping workshop in Point Pelee.  One woman said she had signed up for one at a different festival and when she arrived the organizers told her that the instructor just didn't show up.  I tried to explain that there may have been mitigating circumstances for the instructor like illness or family emergency.  She seemed dubious and said she looked forward to mine...wonder what she thought when I didn't show up on Sunday?

Again, I apologize for any inconvenience for people who showed up to the festival.  We're going to try and make it happen again in the future.