In 1973, Kenn Kaufman dropped out of high school to hitchhike across North America and see as many birds as possible in one year. He traveled 80,000 miles and later wrote about his adventures in the witty memoir Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand. His other books include the newly updated Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America and the groundbreaking, first-ever Spanish-language field guide to North America's birds: Guía de campo Kaufman a las aves de norteamerica.
Kaufman loves to encourage people to explore nature, and his approach is a democratic one. "Birdwatching is something that we do for enjoyment, so if you enjoy it, you are already a good birder. If you enjoy it a lot, you are a great birder!" he has written. We asked this veritable birding icon to share his picks for the top 10 experiences (in no particular order) that every American birdwatcher should seek at least once in his or her life. The following, taken from an interview, is in his words:
1. One of the great North American spectacles is in mid-March when the Sandhill Cranes are concentrating on the Platte River in Nebraska during their northward migration. You can easily go out and see half a million cranes along the river, and they are big and loud. It's still cold in mid-March, but it's really worth the effort to go there.
2. Everyone should at some point have a really good owling experience. You have to get past the obstacle that it isn't always easy and you may not see much of anything. But there's something magical about wandering the woods, especially on a calm, warm night in spring when the owls gradually approach and hoot back to you. In the Southwest, in some of the canyons in Arizona, with a lot of hard work and luck you might see six or seven kinds of owls in a night. It's a lot more fun when you imitate the owls yourself (rather than playing a tape of their calls).
3. Seeing a "fallout" of spring migrants is a pretty amazing thing. When the conditions are right, it can be like the cliché about warblers dripping out of the trees in their bright spring plumage. One tree might have a dozen Blackburnian warblers. There are several places where a fallout may happen three to five times in the course of the spring: the upper Texas coast, various places along the Gulf Coast, and around the great lakes like at Point Pelee in Ontario, and at McGee Marsh in Ohio. If you go and stay on the upper Texas coast for a week in spring, there's an excellent chance you'll see a fallout. If you're in a place like this, just talk to all the birders that are studying weather maps and radar [trying to predict one].
Ed. note: A "fallout" is when certain harsh weather conditions, such as strong winds or rain, cause large numbers of migrating birds to collect in a single location (often a wooded coastal area) to rest and feed.
4. A really good pelagic trip [a cruise to spot seabirds offshore] is amazing, when it happens (and that's hard to predict). I've had some days on the water when you feel lucky to see any birds at all. The best time and place is Monterey Bay in California from mid-September to late October. If you go out on half-day boat trips, you're almost certain to see a lot of seabirds out there. You've got a fair chance of seeing Black-footed Albatross. They're such improbable birds. I really like the jaegers too. They're spunky and aggressive and always chasing other birds around. Elegant and fast fliers, they're designed to be speedy.
Ed. note: The purpose of a pelagic trip is to view species of birds that can usually only be seen at sea. You'll see them either sitting on the water or flying by the boat.
5. The biggest spectacles in raptor migration take place in the fall because that's when the populations are higher and because of the geography of North America. The migration is also weather-dependent, so you need to either live near a good hawk-watching spot or visit one for a period of time. Most of the really good concentration points are in the eastern part of the continent. Good places include Cape May, New Jersey, and Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. Duluth, Minnesota, sometimes has amazing concentrations. In Corpus Christi, Texas, the birds tend to be sort of dispersed and flying high, a little bit harder to pin down. The biggest concentrations of migrating birds of prey are in Veracruz, Mexico. At that count the numbers get up to over a million in a season. In the town of Xalapa, you can stay in a hotel and go up on the roof and watch the migration.
6. Seeing the birds in a tropical forest is really a worthwhile experience for birdwatchers. It changes your perception of biodiversity. There are places in South America where they've found nearly as many birds in a couple of miles as you get in all of North America. One problem is that the birds tend to be pretty hard to see, so you're in the jungle and mostly just listening. If someone hasn't been to the tropics and can't hear that well anymore, a good alternative is to go to the mid-elevations of the Andes. Go to one of the lodges with lots of hummingbird feeders and brilliantly colored tanagers. There are lodges in Ecuador where you can see an amazing number of tropical birds. One of the other classic spots is Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad. It doesn't have an overwhelming number of birds, they speak English there, and it's easy to do. You should experience the tropics someplace, even if you're a confirmed homebody.
7. Going to a really good bird festival is a neat experience. It's not purely a birdwatching experience: you get field trips and programs and every optic company known to mankind, all the vendors of bird feeders and bird-related art. There will be hundreds of other people that share the same interest—there's a lot of interesting energy at a bird festival. The very first ones started in the late 1980s and now there are a couple hundred of them. The Cape May Autumn Weekend is one of the best. [The New Jersey Audubon Society] has been running birdwatching weekends for 60 years or so. They always bring in a lot of speakers and some of the best field trip leaders in the country. Another good one is the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, held in Harlingen, Texas, usually in early November. One of the first bird festivals was the Festival of the Cranes in Socorro, New Mexico, and it's very well done. The Midwest Birding Symposium is a big event that's held every other year and it moves around.
8. Finding a rare bird that has been reported way out of range can be exciting and fun. The thrill of it is more social than ornithological. There is no way to predict where or when that might happen. What makes all the difference is who you go with. Get a carload of birding friends and drive to see the bird. You'll also run into people there. It happens on a larger scale with birds that have rarely (or never) been seen on this continent. Last spring in Ohio we had a mixed flock of Glossy Ibis and White-faced Ibis at one of the refuges. You go out to see them and meet people from other parts of Ohio. It's like a little mini-reunion that happens around every rare bird, and that's enjoyable too. A friend referred to it as being like a road rally: you go to the Prairie Falcon checkpoint and see all these people and then go on to the Red-headed Woodpecker checkpoint.
9. At one time, my only vice was that I liked "Big Days": going on a 24-hour, all-out crazed push to see as many species as possible. I'd start out at midnight and dash around the countryside trying to rack up a big list. Then I'd recuperate for several days afterwards. It had absolutely no redeeming value whatsoever. You're not really trying to take the time to admire or appreciate anything. You sort of glance at the Painted Bunting and check it off the list and keep going. It's junk-food birdwatching, and we usually consume a lot of junk food in the process. I guess I would list it as a top birdwatching experience with the caveat that you don't want to just be dragged along with someone who is highly skilled. Go with people who are at the same skill level you are and figure out a route together. Now I don't do it more than once a year. But it can be really exciting.
10. Taking part in a Breeding Bird Atlas project is very rewarding. You've got an area like a county or a state that's been divided up into blocks for surveying. Now they're starting the second Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas Project. There are over 4,000 survey blocks and it's going to be a lot of effort to try to confirm which species are breeding within each block. My wife and I have signed up for a couple of blocks that are relatively small areas, a couple of miles across. We'll be looking at a little plot carefully and asking: how can we prove whether Red-winged Blackbirds or meadowlarks are breeding here? It puts you in a position to look at the birds in a completely different way. You might ignore Common Grackles unless you're trying to prove if they're nesting. You look to see: are they carrying nesting materials? It's the opposite of a Big Day. It's such a fascinating kind of birdwatching, an excuse to go out and be self-indulgent and spend a lot of time watching these birds and contributing to scientific knowledge.