vintage extreme birding: kenn kaufman’s ‘kingbird highway’
I HAD A Big Week one week—at least in the armchair sense—reading about extreme birder Kenn Kaufman’s Big Year of 1973, long before Kaufman created his field-guide series and became a household name to nature-lovers such as myself.
With Kaufman’s memoir “Kingbird Highway” to guide me, I tucked in upstairs and traveled back in time and around and around and around the continent, virtually hitchhiking with him some 69,000ish miles.
I met 671 birds along Kaufman’s crazy route, in places as diverse as Gambell, Alaska, and the Baja peninsula—in sanctuaries and places of great natural splendor, yes, but also in insect-infested garbage dumps (a bird’s gotta eat, right?).
“Kingbird Highway” is set around the time of the beginnings of the American Birding Association, when a growing number of enthusiasts stepped up the pace and took to the road for “gonzo list-chasing,” as Kaufman calls it.
‘IN THE 1970s,” Kaufman writes in the preface of the book, published in 1997 about a journey he had undertaken decades earlier at age 19, “we were not birdwatching. We were birding, and that made all the difference. We were out to seek, to chase, to learn, to find as many different kinds of birds as possible—and, in friendly competition, to try to find more of them than the next birder.”
Spoiler alert: Kaufman ended up with that massive bird count that year, despite supporting himself on about $1 a day throughout the journey. Impressive, yes, but the richest result was not the fact of all those sightings (check! check! check!) but his sharpened awareness. It turns out the list is not the thing, he came to understand—or at least not the only thing.
“The lure of running up a big list made it all too tempting to simply check off a bird and run on to the next,” he writes, “without taking time to really get to know them. And there was so much that I did not know.”
It’s hard to imagine Kaufman ever not really knowing the birds—or other creatures. This is, after all, the man whose name is on the covers of various books in my cabinet of field guides. Books like “Kaufman Guide to North American Birds,” and “Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, ” and “Kaufman Field Guide to the Insects of North America,” and “Kaufman Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America,” (those last two are great ones if you don’t know where to begin with learning about the vast world of insects) and “Kaufman Field Guide to the Nature of New England” (the region where I live; there is also a parallel Midwest volume).
Now that I’ve traveled the “Kingbird Highway,” I realize we have that manic, long-ago, super-low-budget road trip of all road trips—an adventure into adulthood that started as competition—to thank for the fact that Kaufman has spent his life since looking more closely, so that we users of his field guides and other writings can do so, too.