Books

Kenn Kaufman's Backyard Is One of the Best Spots to Witness Spring Migration

The legendary birder's latest book is a love letter to Ohio and migratory wonders. Read an excerpt here.

What does the name Kenn Kaufman mean to you? Here at Audubon, it’s a lifeline: As the magazine's field editor and guide to all birdy matters, Kaufman informs almost every fact and photo we publish. From reporters to scientists, interns to policy wonks, he answers our questions day in and day out with the same grace and accuracy that's vaulted him to the top of the ornithological world.

But for most birders, Kaufman's name evokes a spirit of daring and dogged adventure. In 1973, at age 19, he survived—and won—the biggest North American birding competition, hitchiking his way to 673 species in dozens of states. He eventually wrote up his travels in the beloved bestseller Kingbird Highway and went on to publish several avian and ecological field guides.

Now, 32 years later, Kaufman has shifted his sights on confined but no less compelling terrain in his new book A Season on the Wind. For the past two decades the naturalist and author has been tethered to northern Ohio, a region that's only recently been discovered to be pivotal in North American migration. He and his wife Kimberly, the director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, live on the west end of Lake Erie, where the pull of spring brings millions of passerines and other birds to their doorstep. Kaufman narrates this scene through a number of chapters, each time picking a different mystery or marvel to explore. In one passage it's the vanishing Rusty Blackbirds that flock to the meadows near his home. In another it's the quirky crowds of birders that buzz down the Magee Marsh boardwalk during the annual Biggest Week in American Birding.

While the book is rooted in Ohio for the most part, Kaufman paints migration as a ritual without limits. As each chapter escapes into the unknown—the stamina of godwits or the synchronicity of warblers—he circles back to our narrow understanding of the passengers and their behaviors. By doing so, he makes a strong case for scientific research and conservation. If we don't keep questioning and gathering knowledge, he asks, how will we ever help birds grapple with the changes we've created?

Change, of course, is a subjective matter: The baseline shifts with each observor. But years of studying birds has given Kaufman a deep perspective and even deeper powers of interpretation. With his eyes and his words, the ordinary turns extraordinary, just as it does in this excerpt about first spring arrivals.

Excerpted from A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration. Copyright © 2019 by Kenn Kaufman. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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When I first moved to Ohio, the spring flights of Blue Jays were among the things that surprised me most. Birders generally don’t regard Blue Jays as migratory at all. These rambunctious, noisy, colorful jays are staples of backyards almost everywhere east of the Rockies and present year-round practically throughout their range. It’s easy to make the mistaken assumption that Blue Jays must all be permanent residents wherever they occur. However, substantial numbers do migrate south in fall and north in spring. They often go unnoticed among local populations of jays in the lands they traverse, but when northbound jays reach the south shore of Lake Erie in spring, suddenly they become obvious.

These are daytime migrants, unlike most small birds. They seem to take off shortly after sunrise and reach the Lake Erie shoreline soon after. Anywhere along the lakefront on these mornings with southerly winds, we may look up and see long, straggling strings of a dozen or 20 or 50 or more. Long-tailed, with quick, snappy wingbeats, they look dark in silhouette except for light coming through their white tail corners and through the white trailing edges on the wings. Birders seeing this phenomenon for the first time may have trouble recognizing the birds at first, because we just don’t see blue jays this way at other times of the year. Moving steadily, eerily silent, they seem filled with purpose—until we realize that some flocks are moving east along the shore, some are moving west, and some are milling around and doubling back. They’re confounded by the lake, and undecided about what to do next. Their shifts in direction make them hard to count, but on some mornings they number in the thousands.

Some other diurnal migrants are moving also. A few small flocks of goldfinches come bouncing along at treetop level. Flocks of swallows are skimming low over the lake, all going in the same direction, and as the day warms up a few hawks will come by, paralleling the shoreline. But by far the biggest transformation of the day is brought by the birds that have arrived overnight.

These are the birds that bring the brightest magic, arriving mysteriously under the soft cover of night, carrying springtime on their wings.

When I call it magic it might seem like hyperbole, but that is genuinely how it feels to me. Even though I know how these birds came to be here, even though I predicted their arrival for this precise morning, it still seems unbelievable and unreal that they’re actually here. This is especially true if I’ve made the effort to go out the day before and have those observations for a direct comparison.

Yesterday I walked the entire loop of the Magee boardwalk, and the migrants I found were sparse and predictable, much the same as what I might have seen two weeks earlier. I found only four kinds of warblers on the whole trek, and they were the expected ones: fewer than 20 Yellow-rumped Warblers, 3 Palm Warblers, and singles of two other species. This morning I see or hear five species of warblers in the first five minutes. I’ll continue to find more different kinds as the morning goes on. Each one is a treasure, a shining gem of discovery.

Blackpoll Warbler. Photo: Kenn Kaufman

Look: just above eye level, among the buds in this willow, is a male Black-throated Green Warbler. It’s so close, and so brightly patterned: glowing yellow face, black bib stretching down onto the sides of the chest, moss-green back, intricate gray and white marks on the wings. This bird might have been in southern Mexico or Central America less than a month ago, and it undoubtedly arrived here at Magee Marsh overnight.

Just a few yards farther along: here’s a box elder tree in its early spring dress, pale green leaves just starting to open, flowers blooming along the branches. The flowers aren’t impressive, just limp, stringy greenish strands, but they must hold some nectar or small insects or both: a Cape May Warbler is methodically working over the blooms. It’s a stunning bird, brilliant yellow with strong black stripes on the chest, rich reddish brown all over the face, a big white wing patch, lots of pattern crowded onto the typical tiny warbler frame. Cape May Warblers spend the winter mostly on islands in the Caribbean and fly to spruce forests of Canada for the summer. During the next couple of weeks they’ll be numerous here (much more so than they ever are at Cape May, New Jersey, merely the place where the species first caught the attention of a scientist), but this is the first one I’ve seen this year.

Birders use the term “FOY”—first of the year—quite a lot at this season, and it carries more emotional weight than the casual abbreviation might imply. First of the year! After the last one I managed to find in October, after the long decline of late fall, after the cold winter and slow spring, here is this stunning little warbler again, the first one I’ve seen in more than six months. I watch it eagerly, following its delicate movements with binoculars, drinking in every little detail.

But I can’t linger too long, because there are so many other birds to see. Slowly I work along the edge of the woods and then onto the west entrance of the boardwalk. Crowds of people are here—some had read my predictions about this day, but many would have been here anyway—and everyone is moving slowly, speaking in hushed tones, looking around in delight.

Look: here in the bare twigs at eye level, only a few feet from the boardwalk’s edge, a Blackburnian Warbler glows like a hot coal, a shocking, brilliant orange. It might have been in southern Ohio yesterday and in South America a month ago, but here it is yards away from Lake Erie, on its way to Canada. Over in the next tree, another Cape May Warbler. Then two Yellow-rumped Warblers—there are many more around today than yesterday—and then a Blue-headed Vireo, hopping along the branches more deliberately than a warbler, the white rings around its eyes giving it a surprised look. Then a female Black-throated Green Warbler, almost as colorful as the male, and then in the next tree there will be more surprises, and more, and more, all along the boardwalk. It’s like a treasure hunt in which tiny treasures keep on coming, or an Easter egg hunt in which the eggs have hatched into brilliantly colorful creatures, moving around the trees and singing. We lucky birders are lost in wonder, surrounded with the extravagant abundance of spring.

“Nature’s first green is gold,” wrote Robert Frost, “her hardest hue to hold.” He could have been writing about this very morning, with the pale green of opening leaves glowing in the pale golden mist among the trees. The dawn of the first big migrant wave feels like a return to the Garden of Eden. The world has been wiped clean; everything is fresh and new.

Black-throated Green Warbler. Photo: Kenn Kaufman

The first major pulse of migrants in this time frame usually brings numbers of Baltimore Orioles and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and usually some Scarlet Tanagers. There’s no particular connection between these birds, but all three are medium-sized songbirds (larger than warblers, smaller than robins), they’re all coming from the tropics, and males of all three are colorful enough to draw attention even from casual observers.

My first male Scarlet Tanager of the season always comes as a shock. It’s a brilliant, flaming red, glowing as if it were lit up from the inside, set off by black wings and tail. Against the pale green of small new leaves in the mostly bare branches it looks even brighter, and looks out of place, as if it had just escaped from someone’s tropical hothouse aviary. Scarlet Tanagers will continue passing through woodlots along Lake Erie through most of May, and many will stay for the summer in the Oak Openings region just west of Toledo, but they are harder to see in their usual treetop haunts after all the leaves come out. These earliest ones of the spring always seem like gifts for our eyes.

Baltimore Orioles usually arrive in a rush during this wave. Females are an attractively bright yellow-orange, but adult males are unbelievably gorgeous, with shades of orange so deep and rich that they appear to have been melted and poured onto the birds. Their songs, too, are deep rich whistles; they sound just like they look.

If skies have been clear and winds continuous throughout the night, migrants will be mostly concentrated near the lakeshore. But if storms with heavy rain have moved through the area sometime between midnight and dawn, they bring a more widespread kind of magic: migrating birds will have come down wherever they happened to encounter the storms, so they will be spread through woodlots and backyards all over the region.

In that scenario, even people who usually pay scant attention to nature may notice the sudden influx of Baltimore Orioles. And if they have any kind of bird feeder out, even the simplest and most casual sort, there’s a good chance a Rose-breasted Grosbeak will find it. These chunky, flashy birds have an uncanny ability to scope out sunflower seeds, perhaps by following the lead of resident birds like cardinals and sparrows.

With their big beaks and with the big patches of black, white, and red on the males, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks seem to be decked out in ill-fitting clown suits. Their actions are so slow and hesitant that they don’t seem like birds that could migrate to Central America and back. And yet here they are, looking around in sluggish surprise, as if they had not expected to get here. Because they may appear at any backyard feeder, and because they are relatively slow-moving and brightly patterned, they make good ambassadors for people who are just beginning to catch the spark for birding.

On a day like this, I can’t imagine anything better that might happen in a person’s life than for them to start paying attention to birds—to become aware of this magical world that exists all around us, unnoticed by many but totally captivating for those who know its secrets. This kind of spring day, with its bountiful myriads of colorful sprites just arrived from tropical shores, has to be one of the greatest gifts of life on Earth.

On days like this I want to grab complete strangers—gently—and beg them to look, just look, at this vast parade of tiny travelers ushering in the wonders of springtime. In effect, though, that’s what we’re about to do. The biggest, splashiest, most unusual celebration of birds anywhere in North America is starting in a few days right here in northwestern Ohio. Thousands of complete strangers will indeed be grabbed by the news, and at least some of them will be inspired to come out and look.

 

A Season on the Wind, by Kenn Kaufman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 282 pages, $26. Buy it at Barnes & Noble.

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