American Birding Podcast



The Kaufman Challenge, v. 0.5

What could be simpler? Learn the names of fifty plants and animals around your home. That’s all there is to it. That’s the essence of what I’ve come to think of as “The Kaufman Challenge.” Kenn Kaufman, in an interview in the February 2007 issue of Birding, put it this way:

“My wish is that every person might learn to recognize fifty species of plants and animals native to his or her own region. That may not sound like much, but I’m convinced that it would profoundly change each person’s sense of values, each person’s sense of responsibility to the ecosystems that support all of our fellow creatures. That basic level of natural history could revolutionize our view of humanity’s place in the world. Maybe I’m just a dreamer, but I’m going to go on trying to communicate that basic appreciation of nature to everyone.”

Easy as pie. Why, I’ve made the acquaintance of fifty-plus species of wood-warblers alone. Same thing with shorebirds. In many instances, I can even tell you male vs. female, adult vs. juvenile, basic vs. alternate.

But that’s not The Kaufman Challenge. You have to do it all in your proverbial backyard, and there aren’t anywhere near 50 warbler species or 50 shorebird species around my home in Lafayette, Colorado, northwest of Denver.

No problem. I’ll just expand to all bird species. According to eBird, I saw 61 bird species around my local patch in the first two weeks of July of this year. Mission accomplished.

Actually, no. The central tenet, the whole point, of The Kaufman Challenge is that you have to get other people to learn the names of 50 plants and animals around their homes. Well, back on July 3, I led a bird walk for the City of Lafayette. Our eBird checklist shows 41 species. We fell short. I should say, “we” fell short. Realistically, I was the only person who saw all 41. And I confess: My eBird checklist for July 3 includes birds seen before and after the bird walk. I probably got the group satisfactory looks at about 20 species. And of those 20, how many did they actually learn?

A Double-crested Cormorant swimming close to shore made an impression. But did anybody in the group really learn that bird? Three weeks later, do any of them remember the name of the bird, or any of the things I told them (eats fish, nests in trees, dives expertly)? I’m not certain of that. If I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge the possibility that the group learned—actually retained knowledge of—a grand total of zero species that sunny summer afternoon.

The Kaufman Challenge, I’ve come to realize, is a tough nut to crack. But it’s a worthy challenge. The stakes are high. As Kaufman says, “I’m convinced that it would profoundly change each person’s sense of values, each person’s sense of responsibility to the ecosystems that support all of our fellow creatures. That basic level of natural history could revolutionize our view of humanity’s place in the world.”

According to Kenn Kaufman, "I’m going to go on trying to communicate that basic appreciation of nature to everyone.” An initiative by the City of Lafayette, Colorado, aims to do likewise.

According to Kenn Kaufman, “I’m going to go on trying to communicate that basic appreciation of nature to everyone.” An initiative by the City of Lafayette, Colorado, aims to do likewise.

How do we do it? How do we “go on trying to communicate that basic appreciation of nature to everyone”?

I have some ideas. (Fancy that.)

First, I think we need to be judicious about which 50 species make the cut. Although I delight in the prospect of encountering 50 species of wood-warblers or 50 species of shorebirds, I suspect that most, hmm, normal people do not. Normal people want diversity.

Diversity is good, and so is ease of identification. So Thayer’s Gulls and Traill’s Flycatchers are out.

The “wow!” factor—Painted Buntings, if you have them, or a Pileated Woodpecker or something—is good. But don’t get carried away on this point. Cardinals and monarchs are fine. They’re easily spotted, easily named, and stunning.

Monarchs? Those Old World songbirds in the family Monarchidae? No, I’m talking about monarch butterflies. Insects. The Kaufman Challenge encompasses all taxa. The monarch butterfly is an exemplary “Kaufman species,” if you will. Many other butterflies qualify. Dragonflies qualify, big time, as do tiger beetles.

Each “Kaufman species” needs a story, a bit of natural history lore: how it got here, who it eats, what it’s “good for,” etc. Superlatives—fastest, longest, nastiest—are memorable. This is the “gee whiz” factor that complements the “wow!” factor, above.

There’s something else. “Kaufman species” ought to be photogenic. Look, I need to tell you something: Everyone has a camera these days. All those kids in the park playing Pokémon Go?—their phones have cameras. All the people on the bird walk I led for the city?—they didn’t have binoculars, but they had cameras.

This isn’t the place for musings on the recent and extraordinary ascendance of cameras in nature study. (My ABA colleague Greg Neise has the corner on that story). I’ll just say that many people, probably most people, carry a camera in the field these days. And a great many of them routinely get stunning photos of the birds, butterflies, and other biota around their homes. Check the internet if you don’t believe me. (Again: cue Neise. He’s got this one down.)

They’re not, by and large, using binoculars—and neither should we. Okay, I’m obviously going to need to convince you of that. Don’t use binoculars? Is he crazy? I think some of you know that I’m an advocate of bare-naked birding, that is to say, doing it without binoculars. Doing so levels the playing field. When I see birds through $2,000 bins, I see them in a way most others cannot. I see them through the lens of privilege—not just the privilege of wealth, but also the privilege of experience and perspective.

So put down your binoculars. See the world as everybody else does.

A final thought before we move on. Call me unambitious, but I think fifty species is a bit much. My goal is to get folks to learn to identify twenty-five species around their homes—half The Kaufman Challenge, or The Kaufman Challenge, v. 0.5.


logo-abaI mentioned that I lead bird and nature walks in my community. Next up for me is an outing on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 7. We start at 1 pm. Afternoon bird walks are the best, as turnout tends to be huge. (Birders start at 0-dark-30, but normal people do not.) Anyhow, the outing is organized by the City of Lafayette, and cosponsored by our own American Birding Association. The venue will be the Greenlee Preserve–Waneka Lake–Thomas Open Space complex near my house.logo-Lafayette

I’ll have a camera with me, of course, and I anticipate that most of the participants will too. With just a smartphone camera (think Pokémon Go), you can get excellent photos of many of the cool insects at Greenlee–Waneka–Thomas. For bird photos, a “real” camera is better, but it doesn’t have to be fancy. I use the Canon PowerShot SX50 HD, smaller than my binoculars—which I’ll be leaving at home. I’ve noticed that an awful lot of birders and other natural historians have made the switch in the past couple years to powerful and economical “bridge cameras” like the Canon SX50.

What will we find out there? My goal is modest: 25 species—half birds, half insects. (Nothing against sedges and squirrels, but I just don’t know them all that well.) Each species has to be photogenic. Despite some folks’ reasoned misgivings, I think the click-first-ID-later approach to nature study works great in this smartphone camera era of ours. Also, each species should have a story. So that’s the basic plan: We’ll take pictures and tell stories.

In anticipation of the outing, I’ve been canvassing the site with a camera. What follows is a photo salon from the Greenlee–Waneka–Thomas complex by my house. All the photos are from the first two weeks of July of this year. The captions are intended to tell a story—ideally, one that might be remembered forever.

Will it sink in? Will all the participants learn all 25? Probably not this first go-around. But the city is hosting additional walks, one per month, through the rest of the year. So I’m hopeful.

“Maybe I’m just a dreamer, but I’m going to go on trying to communicate that basic appreciation of nature to everyone.”

1. American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos. This is the largest bird in Colorado. During the summer months, pelicans come and go at Waneka Lake. They’re hulking and ungainly on the water, but sublime in flight.

2. American Rubyspot, Hetaerina americana. Look for this dragonfly on snags and exposed stones along the edges of Waneka Lake. The size and brightness of the red spot on the male signals his fighting ability.

3. Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta. This is one of our migratory butterfly species, widespread in summer in Colorado in a variety of habitats. The adults are diet generalists, feeding on everything from nectar to overripe fruit to bird droppings.

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4. American Goldfinch, Spinus tristis. The life cycle of this cheery songbird is tightly linked to the availability of thistles. Goldfinches devour the fine seeds, and they line their exquisite nests with thistle down. This is an adult male.

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5. Widow Skimmer, Libellula luctuosa. Like most of our dragonflies, this species is sexually dimorphic—a fancy way of saying the males and females look different. This is the stunning female. Both sexes are plentiful, especially around Greenlee Preserve.

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6. Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus. If you see a sinewy black bird on Waneka Lake, it is probably this species. When they’re not diving for fish, cormorants sun themselves on snags and flotsam. A small flock spends the summer here.

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7. Two-tailed Swallowtail, Papilio multicaudata. This is our most common yellow-and-black butterfly, and just about our largest. While feeding, often on thistles, swallowtails allow close approach. In flight they alternate short glides with leisurely flapping.

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8. Swainson’s Hawk, Buteo swainsoni. Every summer, these hawks nest in the tall cottonwoods near Waneka Lake and Greenlee Preserve. You have a great chance at seeing one perched, in soaring flight, or even hunting garter snakes.

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9. Backroad Tiger Beetle, Cicindela punctulata. Our park is too urban to have actual backroads, so look for these fearsome predators along the well-graded trails. They run or fly short distances, then sit still on exposed ground.

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10. American Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus. They’re tiny! And they favor dense vegetation. But they’re super-active and invariably found in flocks, so that improves your chance of spotting them. Knowing the call—a constant twittering—helps too. This is a female.

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11. Variegated Meadowhawk, Sympetrum corruptum. As dragonflies go, meadowhawks are fairly stout and small. This species is called “variegated” because of the splotchy pattern on the abdomen—on dragonflies, a long, tail-like appendage. This is a male.

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12. Say’s Phoebe, Sayornis saya. Phoebes don’t mind humans; they build their nests on homes along Salina Street, and they barely flinch as you walk right past them. The best place to find them is in the meadow west of Waneka Lake. Listen for the call, a mournful whistle.

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13. Common Whitetail, Plathemis lydia. This one’s got a good name: The male sports a striking white “tail” (technically, the abdomen), and the species is quite common. Look for it in dry meadows, in the marsh at Greenlee, and along the shores of Waneka—basically everywhere!

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14. Red-shouldered Bug, Jadera haematoloma. The key to finding this bug: look on the ground beneath panicled goldenrain trees, whose bright yellow flowers bloom in mid-summer. There’s one by the playground, and several small groves along Baseline Road.

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15. American Robin, Turdus migratorius. One of the fun things about birding in mid-summer is the proliferation of easily studied “baby birds.” This robin is juvenile, recognized as such by its spotted breast. Robins are ubiquitous around the park and all of Lafayette.

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16. Tule Bluet, Enellagma carunculatum. If you see a perfectly straight, horizontal stripe of blue perched or flying around, it may well be this species. Watch for it close to ground level wherever there is standing water.

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17. Killdeer, Charadrius vociferus. Look—and listen!—for this noisy plover in open habitats with bare ground or exposed mudflats. The bird says its name (killdee-ur! killdee-ur! killdee-ur!) over and over again. The irrigated farm fields of Thomas Open Space are best.

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18. Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui. Many Colorado butterflies have relatively restricted distributions, but this one ranges over most of the Earth’s land area! It is recognized from below by the row of eyespots near the tip of the hind wing. Above it is mainly orange with flashes of black and white.

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19. Common Grackle, Quiscalus quiscula. Although disdained by some for being noisy (it is) and aggressive (true), this blackbird is inarguably beautiful. The adult males are iridescent bronzy, purple, and blue with a staring yellow eye. Grackles nest all over the park, especially in dense plantings by homes and wet areas.

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20. Lyre-tipped Spreadwing, Lestes unguiculatus. They’re not as showy as most other dragonflies and damselflies (collectively known as “odes”), but they’re quite common and easily studied. Spreadwings are recognized by their habit of perching with the wings at a 45° angle from the body. This one is a female.

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21. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias. Birders jokingly refer to this mighty heron as a pterodactyl. It doesn’t nest in the park, but you’ll often seen one or two hunting along the water’s edge. As the bird flushes, it emits a drawn-out and startlingly loud croaking sound.

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22. Taxiles Skipper, Poanes taxiles. Throughout the park, this skipper seems to be the most frequently encountered of its clan. Like many skippers, it tends to be down in the grass; this species favors the wet edges around Greenlee Reservoir and Waneka Lake. This is a female.

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23. African Collared-Dove, Streptopelia roseogrisea. This is Lafayette’s “other” collared-dove, occurring in small numbers around the park. Listen for the trilled song, very different from the tripartite cooing of the common Eurasian Collared-Dove.

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24. Cabbage White, Pieris rapae. The white butterflies that fly around the park are called—wait for it—whites. Our most common by far is this one, told by the black dot and dark smudge on the forewing. It can be seen singly or in loose assemblages of a dozen or more.

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25. House Wren, Troglodytes aedon. Where there are houses, these little sprites are sure to be found. Look for them around the properties that abut the park, as well as in bird houses at Waneka Lake. The song, exuberant and explosive, is remarkable for so small a bird.