Thursday, October 29

A naturalist writes an homage to bird migration

A Season on the Wind
Kenn Kaufman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26

A tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird no
heavier than a ballpoint pen, makes an epic journey each year. In fall, the
bird flies some 10,000 kilometers from its breeding grounds in Alaska or Canada
to its winter retreat in South America. In the spring, the bird undertakes the
return trip. In his memoir A Season on
the Wind,
naturalist Kenn Kaufman shares his awe for the miraculous
round-trip flight this warbler makes every year.

A backdrop to the book is
northwestern Ohio’s “Biggest Week in American Birding,” headquartered at Magee
Marsh in Oak Harbor. As northbound birds like the blackpoll drop into the
marshes that line Lake Erie’s southern shore in early May, so do the birders —
who come to see the hundreds of migratory bird species that stop here to rest and
feed every spring.

Kaufman intertwines his personal
reminiscences with stories of individual bird species and migration science.
His observations are intensely personal, yet also offer insight into the shared
experience of a global community of birders. 
Of the birders who flock from all over the world to Magee Marsh in
spring, he writes, “I see people arriving here with mild curiosity and leaving
with the spark of an intense, passionate interest.” His memoir reads as a love
letter to bird migration, his adopted home of northwestern Ohio and his wife,
Kimberly.

Kaufman has authored a dozen
popular guidebooks to the birds, insects and mammals of North America. In A Season on the Wind, he returns to the
storytelling that won over readers of his classic 1997 memoir Kingbird Highway. That award-winning
book told of his exploits hitchhiking around North America as a teenager in the
1970s in pursuit of a birding “big year”
competing with others to see the greatest number of species in a single
calendar year.

Kaufman’s rich and poetic writing
transforms a little brown winter wren into a polychrome.  He writes, “There are a hundred shades of
brown, from soft and subtle to deep and rich, the browns of hot chocolate, warm
earth, tawny terra-cotta altars in ancient temples, chestnut stallions running
through red-rock canyons — a wilderness of browns.”

Such writing will draw in even those readers with little knowledge of birds and may inspire novices to give bird-watching a try. And for the avid birder, Kaufman offers a soaring flight through a favorite subject.


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