A naturalist writes an homage to bird migration

A Season on the Wind shares observations of the passage of birds through northwestern Ohio

blackpoll warbler

The blackpoll warbler’s migration is the longest of any American warbler and includes a southbound flight over the open Atlantic in fall. The blackpoll and other migrating birds are featured in A Season on the Wind.

PJTurgeon/Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

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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