American Birding Podcast



Bird Migration Through the Eyes of a Master

A review by Laura Kammermeier

A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration, by Kenn Kaufman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019

282 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 14936

Kenn Kaufman’s Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration is a deeply personal look at the phenomenon of bird migration, presented in engaging and observant detail by a keen naturalist with a lifetime of knowledge about birds and their movements.

Written about and from his home in Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kaufman’s latest book focuses on bird migration along nearby western Lake Erie, a critical staging ground for birds moving north in spring. Writing with the intense gaze and curiosity of a master birder, Kaufman recounts both the remarkable feats of strength those birds perform each year and humanity’s role in ensuring their survival.

As Kaufman relates the arrivals and departures and the subtle shifts in behaviors of spring migrants, it’s easy to believe you’re standing behind his binoculars. You see what he sees. But the prologue shows that the author can think like a bird, too. “Pilgrims at the Gates of Sunrise” offers a fascinating insight into the life of neotropical migrants “scattered in a million hiding places, biding their time,” until after a fresh rain and a southerly wind they rise “all at once” to take to the sky, swarming north. Kaufman follows their journey around the arcs of shorelines, the bends of rivers, the rise of mountains, and through the confusion of blinding lights, sharp blades, and glaring windows as they finally come to rest and refuel, storing fat reserves to help them survive the next leg of their journey. With its GoPro-esque perspective, the prologue provides an aerial and intimate view of a bird’s flight—hold on to your hat—while demonstrating the dangers attendant on the migrants’ indomitable urge for going on their way.

Kaufman discusses in accessible language the local biology, patterns, and history of bird migration along the lakeshore, but he also reveals the behind-the-scenes events that led to the creation of The Biggest Week in American Birding and the circumstances surrounding a wind farm project in the middle of this important staging ground. These chapters delineate how the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, led by Kimberly Kaufman, has partnered with others to raise awareness in tens of thousands of people and how the observatory’s staff and volunteer activists have worked to advocate habitat protection. These accounts will be informative and inspiring for other groups faced with related problems and opportunities.

A Season on the Wind is, in large part, an ode to the birds and the people of northwestern Ohio, site of the formerly vast Great Black Swamp. Before it was tamed, the Great Black Swamp was a dark, thick, soggy place impenetrable to migrating settlers but exceptionally accommodating to migrant birds. Today, only shreds of this habitat remain along the lakeshore, but the entire region still serves as a critical stopover for migratory birds. Kaufman provokes readers’ awareness by making it clear that whether or not there are 400-foot towers with spinning 200-foot blades along the Lake Erie shore, birds, “driven by ancient instincts to return to their breeding grounds,” have no choice but to return to their timeless breeding grounds, if they make it that far.

It is only fitting that I finished the last chapter of A Season in the Wind in May of this year, in the middle of spring migration, on the eighth day of the Biggest Week festival. This was the first year in many that I successfully resisted the urge to attend this annual event, but as I read, I recognized the people, the birds, the boardwalk, the birder proms, and even the same cold and wet Kaufman was writing about. In this way, the author’s personal story of the migration through western Lake Erie was mine, too, as it will be for many others.

Detailing one of those late, cold springs, Kaufman muses, “It’s hard to say what is ‘normal’ anymore.” We are living through an extraordinary time of change, a period during which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment. While the reader is left to ponder the future of birds, I ponder the role of consummate naturalists like Kaufman, and of volumes like this, full of insights that span the pre–climate-change and the post–climate-change world.

Laura Kammermeier is Marketing Manager for Birds of North America and other digital publications at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. A founding officer of the Ohio Ornithological Society, she has published widely online and in print. Laura is passionate about birds, travel, and the birding community.