Eyes on the Sky

Bird-watching expert Kenn Kaufman gears up for another migratory bird season in Northwest Ohio.

This was not a day for the birds. It was a particularly lousy winter’s day along the shoreline between Port Clinton and Toledo, overcast and cold with winds gusting in a way sure to keep most winged creatures huddled in the leeward boughs of big trees.

Visitors to these lake marshes would need to be blindfolded to avoid seeing birds in spring, when swarms of migrants pass through the region during their long flights between winter homes in the South and nesting grounds in the North. The seasonal migration that makes the western Lake Erie basin one of the hottest springtime bird- watching spots in all of North America had yet to begin.

Despite these obstacles, Kenn Kaufman agreed to lead a writer around the marshes to get a feel for the bird-watching opportunities here. And there was every reason to be optimistic — Kaufman is a birder of international fame and the author of a popular series of field guides.

And so against all odds, there we were at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory near Oak Harbor, beginning our tour by watching flocks of goldfinches and American sparrows flit about bird feeders in a wind-sheltered cove. Kaufman was discussing the winter plumage on the goldfinches when suddenly the birds scattered as if caught by a sudden gust, and a large, brown form blew by the window in a blur.

Kaufman leaned closer to the window glass and calmly explained the cause of the commotion. “A sharp-shinned hawk has taken one of the sparrows. Look, he has it in his talons.”

The scene lasted only seconds but was like a John James Audubon print: the small bird motionless in the clutches of the raptor; the larger bird, all sharp beak and fierce eyes, pausing just a moment to catch its breath or get its bearings. Then it took off across the marsh and was gone.

The violent demonstration at the feeder was not only a lesson about the ephemeral nature of life in the wild but also offered a glimpse into what it is like to go birding with Kenn Kaufman — even on bad days, the species just drop out of the sky.

In the 1970s, while still a teenager, Kaufman dropped out of high school and hitchhiked across the country, traveling nearly 70,000 miles in 12 months in an effort to set a record for the number of bird species spotted in a year. His quest is detailed in his book, Kingbird Highway, which was published in 1997.

While he was not the first to attempt a “Big Year,” his book has become a classic among birders and launched many similar ventures, like the 1998 contest chronicled in the recent book and movie “The Big Year.”

Most of us don’t have the time, expertise or inclination to quit our jobs and travel the country in search of birds. But when spring comes to the western Lake Erie basin, the birds drop in by the hundreds of thousands, whether Kaufman is there or not.

And in May, when warblers and other songbirds pass through, they are met by tens of thousands of enthusiastic bird watchers who come from all over the country to see them. They line up on the Magee Marsh boardwalk like gadget geeks waiting for the newest Apple product, looking toward the tops of the trees and risking an ailment well known to bird-watchers: “warblerneck.”

Kaufman moved to the area seven years ago. His wife, Kimberly, is director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, a nonprofit organization dedicated to habitat protection in the area. Kenn Kaufman isn’t on the staff there, but he’s an enthusiastic spokesman for the area and reaching Kaufman’s national audience has been a great gift to the region, says Mark Schieldcastle, a wildlife biologist and one of the founders of the 20-year-old observatory.

“Kenn has added a well-known and respected voice to the cause of bird conservation in this region,” Shieldcastle says. “He has allowed us to rapidly move forward with our messages that would have taken years to get out there without such an iconic figure taking up the cause.”

In Kingbird Highway, Kaufman writes that his frantic tour around North America fairly cured him of obsessive listing. “One thing was becoming obvious to me now: list-chasing was not the best way to learn birds,” he wrote, and he affirms that now. As does Shield-castle, who describes Kaufman as a patient observer today.

“He would rather sit there and look at the most common thing around, and really study its behavior, and explain it to the people who are with him,” says Shieldcastle. During the migration, Kaufman will lead many programs at the observatory and then go out onto the boardwalk and just chat with people. “It’s one thing to know what you’re talking about. It’s another to be able to explain it to a hot-to-trot birder, a 70-year-old or a 10-year-old.”

On a midwinter day with a strong wind and very little effort, Kaufman pointed out a dozen species that the untrained eye would not have been able to identify from the silhouette against the dark clouds of the sky or the wind-flecked waters of Lake Erie. He teaches about the birds as he points them out.

The brown blob teetering on the power line is an American kestrel. Tundra swans fly in slow-moving skeins above the refuge, like so many origami kites knit together and buffeted by strong winds — smaller than trumpeter swans but still much larger than the Canada geese. Mallards, common to us now, he explains, were not nearly as abundant in this area until the forests were cleared. Gadwalls standing on weak marsh ice. Redheads (a type of duck) floating amid flocks of black ducks and mallards. Coots, which look like ducks but are actually more closely related to rails, with toes that are padded but not webbed.

It’s all a lot to learn, but Kaufman cautions against trying to know everything.

“One piece of advice I give to people is not to get too hung up on identifying every bird,” he says. “I think it is important to be open to the whole experience. It would be really sad to be out there on a beautiful spring day, out in the woods surrounded by spring flowers, and to be disappointed because you are not seeing enough birds.”

Have a Big Day Birding

The first two weeks of May are the peak of the spring warbler migration in northern Ohio, but birds of every feather flock to the area beginning in mid-April and at least through International Migratory Bird Day (May 12–13 this year). The Black Swamp Bird Observatory will sponsor "The Biggest Week in American Birding" between May 4 and 11. Register for this series of programs and field experiences at biggestweekinamericanbirding.com.

The observatory and gift shop are located at the entrance to the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area at
13551 W. St. Rte. 2 in Oak Harbor. For information, call 419/898-4070. The Wildlife Area features the famed boardwalk in a small wooded area next to Lake Erie. Before you get there, though, stop at the Sportsmen’s Migratory Bird Center for bird checklists and to see habitat displays and a 42-foot observation tower. Friends of Magee Marsh lead programs year-round. Learn more at friendsofmageemarsh.org.

Just down the road, at 14000 W. St. Rte. 2, is the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge features foot trails, an auto tour, a visitor center and a photography blind (available for a small fee by reservation). Call 419/898-0014 or visit fws.gov/midwest/ottawa. Other birding locations include Maumee Bay and East Harbor State Parks.
For information on dining and accommodations, contact the Ottawa County Visitors Bureau at 800/441-1271. Kaufman says avid birders gather to eat and compare notes at the Blackberry Corners Tavern in Martin (bbctavern.com), Porky’s Pizza Trof in Weston, 419/898-1500, or the Eagle’s Nest in Oregon (eaglesnest