A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration. Kenn Kaufman. 2019. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
"Last night they were on the move." (p. 1)
A confession: sometimes I audibly groan when we drive up to some out of the way favorite birding spot and find a group of birders already there. It's not that birders aren't fine and interesting people. (Well, most of you are.) But as I have gotten older I find myself cherishing my time spent quietly with Sheila, by ourselves, out of doors. "Alone time" in nature has become a precious commodity as we slide deeper into the Anthropocene. Here in Massachusetts, our preserved open spaces have become increasingly hemmed in by suburbia, and every trail now has a constant parade of joggers, bicyclists, and dog walkers all trying to get some quality time outside. There are few places left to be alone. We are loving our green spaces to death. So the idea of spending quality birding time on a boardwalk, in Ohio, at the peak of spring migration, cheek to jowl with hundreds of birders elicits a kneejerk response from me similar to that of being offered a plate of calves brains in aspic. Thanks, but, really, no thanks! It is a tribute to Kenn Kaufman's writing that I am now considering doing exactly that, by finally attending the Biggest Week in American Birding.
They were a multitude of independent invaders, linked by nothing but an intense awareness, taking to the sky, swarming north. (p. 1)
A Season on the Wind is a very personal account of spring migration written by well-known field guide author, illustrator, photographer, and birder Kenn Kaufman. Kaufman covers all the basics of avian migration in North America, with cameo mentions of such world-famous migration hot spots such as Beidaihe, China; Veracruz, Mexico; and even Central Park, New York City. But the story always returns to Kaufman's home hot spot: the northwestern coast of Ohio. He had been living in Arizona and how he ended up in Ohio is a story of love and birds. Kaufman had just gone through a tough divorce when he met Kimberly from Ohio. It is no exaggeration to describe it as falling head over heels for each other. They thought about where to live together and decided on Kimberly's home state of Ohio, where the shores of Lake Erie offered the promise of endless fallouts of spring migrants.
Reading A Season on the Wind you realize how few birding books focus on the Midwest, not only the birds of that area, but also its history and culture. Unless you have lived there, for many birders Ohio is terra incognita, and reading Kaufman's accounts of birds' movements there is fascinating. I found myself constantly comparing notes with my experiences of the seasons and migration here in Massachusetts. There are similarities, of course, but also real differences because of the way that Lake Erie channels migrants.
Kaufman begins in January and February. Though he had also been born in the Midwest and experienced hard winters there, after Arizona, the frigid temps and icy winds along Lake Erie make birding difficult even for him. The lake offers a few rewards for birders in this season, however. There are congregations of waterfowl on open stretches of the lake and large flocks of Horned Larks on the marshes to enjoy. Kenn and Kimberly are shown a Bald Eagle roost on private land. Near dusk they watch as more than 80 Bald Eagles fly back to roost in this one spot. They leave in the dark, still seeing eagles flying in the car's headlights.
Migration in coastal Ohio really begins with flocks of crows moving along the shore. This starts local birders dreaming of mid-May and the fallouts of Neotropical migrants to come. But there are plenty of other migrants to enjoy as the months pass: waterfowl, Bonaparte's Gulls, shorebirds, and other passerines. Of interest to Massachusetts birders is what Kaufman says about Trumpeter Swans in the state. Though no one is sure of their historical status in the area, in the 1990s the state wildlife agency decided to reintroduce the Trumpeter to northwestern Ohio, a move Kauffman describes as "controversial" (p. 88). The Trumpeters have thrived but now behave more like Mute Swans:
We see them standing around on roadsides in farm country, looking even more slow-witted than golf-course geese or city-park-pond ducks. They're wilderness icons no longer. (p. 88)
This may explain the apparent tameness of the last two Trumpeters seen in Massachusetts.
It may be April, but the hard-core birders have only one thing on their mind:
That feeling—knowing what's coming, waiting for it to arrive—is intoxicating. We dream about the spring rush at other times of the year, impatient for it to come again. (p. 49)
Even when the first Yellow-rumped Warblers, White Crowned, and Fox sparrows start moving through, that is not enough for those who have seen the legendary fallouts of mid-May:
We know it's coming. We should be savoring this early surge. But we're so distracted by looking ahead. (p. 189)
This is what A Season on the Wind does well. It gets inside the minds of birders addicted to spring migration and gives voice to their thoughts. It's the stuff we all feel but rarely talk about. Kaufman is always searching for the right words to convey the deep emotions that May brings to him. He wants the average person to marvel at the fact that a tiny bit of feathers can fly from South America nonstop for days and end up in that bush in front of you on its way to Canada. And it then flies back again in fall. And it is a beautiful bird to boot. You feel that Kaufman won't be satisfied until your jaw drops and you are left speechless.
Which brings us to the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, now nationally recognized as one of the best places to get close views of migrants. A Season on the Wind contains a detailed history of this vast wetland area. It was first saved from destruction by local duck hunters, who had a long history of hunting the marshes. Birders soon recognized that tromping through the coastal vegetation revealed outstanding numbers and varieties of migrants, particularly in spring. To prevent the birders from destroying the very habitat they were enjoying, the famous boardwalk was built, and Magee Marsh became a premier birding destination during May migration.
Then came the Biggest Week in American Birding, a ten-day bird festival created by Kenn and Kimberly centered around Magee Marsh. It was wildly successful almost from the start. Bigger venues for meetings had to be arranged, alternative birding spots had to be promoted to relieve crowds at the boardwalk, buses to get the overflow birders to those spots had to be coordinated, and guides had to be hired to work the boardwalk and anywhere else people congregated. It was the "Hey! Kids! Let's put on a show!" trope from the old movies, but this time for and by birders. Now birders from around the world congregate annually in northwestern Ohio. During the Biggest Week, it's not unusual to find hundreds of birders, hard-core and neophyte, shoulder to shoulder, enjoying close views of a Cape May or (with luck!) a Kirtland's. Birding organizations from around the world also lend their support, even if it's just to serve as one of the many gold-capped guides. Lectures and events are added every year. The Biggest Week now even has a birder's prom. The Biggest Week also brings loads of money into the local economy, and local and state politicians now recognize the importance of attracting birders to their state.
Behind all the hoopla of planning a mega-event like this is the idea of creating, at least for a moment, Kenn and Kimberly's vision of a perfect place to bird.
For me the Magee Marsh boardwalk in late April and May is the scene of a gigantic party. A party where all the people talk quietly, move gently, and share knowledge about the natural world. For me it's a deeply soul-satisfying experience to be there. But I know it's not for everyone. (p. 204)
The Biggest Week in American Birding is like one of the transcendentalist communes from the nineteenth century in which earnest true believers tried to organize a more perfect society. Kaufmann is adamant about the meeting the challenge of promoting racial, sexual, and socio-economic diversity in birding and the role that the Biggest Week can play in creating a more diverse birding population:
People of color are part of the public face of the Biggest Week in American Birding, and we hope the message comes through loud and clear: everyone is welcome here. (p. 236)
Issues of diversity are so rarely talked about among birders that it is refreshing to read Kaufmann just come out and state his beliefs plainly.
There are several secondary stories that run through A Season on the Wind. One of the most interesting is when Kimberly Kaufmann and the American Bird Conservancy try to prevent a wind farm being erected at the nearby Camp Perry Military Reservation. An entire review could be written about everything Kenn and Kimberly found out about how wind farms are sited and how environmentalists have often not been honest about the impacts of the turbines on birds and other creatures like bats. At one point, while attempting to gather information, they meet with the heads and lawyers of the large Blue Creek Wind Farm in central Ohio owned by the energy giant Iberdrola. Kimberly wanted to look at their data on bird collisions, something they were supposed to keep. After a lot of huddled whispering back and forth among the wind farm lawyers, Kimberly and the Bird Conservancy were told they could be given a list of species that collided with the turbines, but not the numbers because the total mortality figures "contained trade secrets" (p. 172).
But more than forty species made the list each year including scarce migratory songbirds like golden-winged and black-throated blue warblers.(p. 173-4)
Kimberly still demanded to see the complete figures, but as of this writing they have yet to get them. It seems dealing with wind farm companies is not that different from dealing with other large energy companies. It is hoped that in the future Kimberly Kaufman will write a book on her experiences.
As migration starts to wind down in the last week of May, Kaufman steps outside at night to listen to the small number of migrants still passing overhead. It is at this point in A Season on the Wind that Kaufman experiences what many of us have as the noisy and colorful migration season of May turns to the breeding season of June: there is a sense of loss. We miss that sense of giddy expectation that any species might show up in the next tree or bush. Migration for birders is about surprise and spectacle. Beneath this there is a feeling of mortality and the sense that maybe we won't get the chance to experience this magic again. After all, who knows what the next winter may bring? A Season on the Wind is a fine book about the science of migration. What makes this book unique and worth reading is Kaufman's exploration of how birders think about migration.
I'm filled with a desperate longing to stop the passage of time—to back it up a few days to the heart of the bird festival, and then live in the moment, to live in that moment, forever. To be in that perfect time when I'm with my lovely Kimberly and all our friends are around, all of us celebrating the dazzling peak of spring migration. (p. 265)