One of America’s top birders, Kenn Kaufman, hitchhiked his way across the country in 1973, determined to count as many bird species as possible during his big year. Audubon caught up with Kaufman, author of numerous field guides and books, to ask him about his experience.
In the world of big year birding, you are a legend. What were the factors that led you to set out to do a big year in 1973?
I had been a rabid birder from the age of six. In my early teens, my favorite book was Wild America, by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher. The book describes a trip around North America that those two naturalists took in 1953. In the course of their trip (and some side trips before and after), Peterson set a big year record for North America with 572 species. Having practically memorized Wild America, I felt compelled to go out and try that kind of intensive birding travel myself. At the beginning of 1973 I was 18 years old, I had no money and no job and no car, but I was good at hitchhiking, and I figured I could spend the whole year thumbing rides to all the birding hotspots on the continent.
Who is the best birder you have birded with?
I've been lucky enough to know a lot of talented birders. One who stands out as having the highest, genius-level skill would have to be Ted Parker. We were part of the same birding "gang" when we were in our late teens and early twenties, so I had plenty of chances to see him in action. Even as a teenager, his ability to find and identify birds, to understand what they were doing, and to predict where they would be seemed almost supernatural. He wasn’t infallible, but week after week, month after month, he was just way out ahead of everyone else in his knowledge and understanding. He went on revolutionize our knowledge of tropical birds, before tragically dying in a plane crash in South America at the age of 40.
You notoriously won a big year on a budget of $1,000. Is it still possible today to do a big year on a shoestring?
That depends partly on how much area you want to cover. Recently, a number of birders have tried doing a BIGBY (Big Green Birding Year), meaning doing all their birding by bicycle or on foot, or by other carbon-neutral forms of transportation. Some of them have run up impressive annual totals for their county or state. For a big year covering all of North America, it would be frustrating to do it on a small budget today, because now we have instant communication about rare birds. You would be hearing constantly about fabulous rarities showing up in Florida and Alaska and Texas and California, but if you were operating on a tight budget, you wouldn’t be able to just jump on a plane to go chase those things. Back in 1973, I didn’t hear about most of the rare sightings until months later, so the fact that I couldn't chase them didn't bother me.
Where was your favorite place to bird during your big year?
If I had to pick, it would be the Inuit village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. It took close to a quarter of my entire year's budget just to fly out there, but it was phenomenal. There were hundreds of thousands of seabirds flying around just offshore, rare Arctic birds on the flats and the mountainside behind the village, and the cliffs of Siberia shining on the western horizon. It was a wild, remote, exotic, beautiful place, certainly the most extraordinary place that I had visited up to that point.
Any advice for budding birders out there?
There are many different ways to go birding. As long as you're not harming the birds, their habitat, or other people, there is no wrong way to go birding, so don't let anyone tell you that you have to approach it in a certain way. Birding is something we do for enjoyment, so if you enjoy it, you’re a good birder. If you enjoy it a lot, you’re a great birder.