Published February 25, 2021

On February 25, author and extreme birder Kenn Kaufman as he discussed his newest book, A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration, with Pete Myers, in a conversation timed to fit with the early stirrings of spring migration. A Season on the Wind offers a close look at one season in one key site that reveals the amazing science and magic of spring bird migration, and the perils of human encroachment. Kaufman and Myers have researched and watched bird migrations for years; hear what you can watch for now and through the Spring.

Watch the video of this event here and read the transcript below:

“The woods are alive with birds—but at a glance you might not notice them at all… Look: up in this maple, where pale green buds are just starting to unfold into leaves, a tiny bird is moving.”

Kenn Kaufman, A Season on the Wind

“Kenn Kaufman knows his birds and their miraculous journeys—and he feels them deeply, too. An enlightening, thought-provoking, and poignant read.” —Jennifer Ackerman, author of The Genius of Birds

“In A Season on the Wind, Kenn Kaufman soars above his Ohio home place and artfully shares the world of birds and the miraculous feats of migration that persist amidst constant conservation struggles and hard-won successes. It’s a wondrous compendium of stories about birds and humans that compels us to be more in nature and work ever harder to protect it. The message within to love and conserve is as clear as a Swainson’s thrush’s flight call in a spring night sky. What A Season on the Wind does is so much more than inform, it inspires.” —J. Drew Lanham, author of The Home Place

Community Partners

Thanks to our community partners for this event: Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, Environmental Sciences Department at UVA, Highlands Bird Club, Ivy Creek FoundationLoudon Wildlife ConservancyNorthern Virginia Bird ClubPiedmont Virginia Bird ClubRoanoke Valley Bird ClubRockbridge Bird ClubVirginia Society of Ornithology

Transcript

JANE KULOW: Welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book, featuring livestreamed author events on Thursdays. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. 

A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers: Please share your questions on Facebook or Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from a local bookseller or check out a copy from your library, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore the full schedule of upcoming events.

Thanks to our many partners who shared information about this event. They include Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory; the Environmental Sciences Department at UVA; the Highlands Bird Club; Ivy Creek Foundation; Loudon Wildlife Conservancy; Northern Virginia Bird Club; Piedmont Virginia Bird Club; Roanoke Valley Bird Club; Rockbridge Bird Club; and the Virginia Society of Ornithology. We welcome you all. 

I’m please to introduce today’s speakers now.

Kenn Kaufman, author of A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration, has observed bird migration on all seven continents. Editor and coauthor of seven titles in the Kaufman Field Guide series, Kenn’s memoir, Kingbird Highway, was designated an Outdoor Classic by the National Outdoor Book Awards. You can learn more at KaufmanFieldGuides.com.

Pete Myers received a PhD from U.C. Berkley for work on the migratory ecology and behavior of sandpipers, work that took him from Arctic Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. He cofounded the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network and is the former senior vice president for science at the National Audubon Society.

Today’s book, A Season on the Wind, reveals the amazing science and magic of spring bird migration and the perils of human encroachment. Kenn and Pete, welcome. Tell us more.

KENN KAUFMAN: Thanks, Jane. 

PETE MYERS: Yeah, thanks Jane. And you got it right; it’s the magic of spring migration. 

I have a disclosure to make, which is I’ve known Kenn for almost forty years now. We’ve had the pleasure of working together and of being birding friends. I probably learned more about how to be a birder from Kenn than from anyone else in the world. So Kenn, it’s such a pleasure to be here with you again.

I have another disclosure. As I was reading the birding literature over the last several years in the 2000s, I kept coming across references to Magee Marsh, and the biggest birding festival in North America. I thought surely that can’t be in Ohio. And I didn’t believe it. But then I was looking into more deeply, and I saw that you were involved in it. And I thought, “Wait a second. I know Kenn well enough to know that he’s not bluffing on this.” And so, I decided to go. Two years ago, I got on a plane and flew to Cleveland, and then drove to Magee Marsh. In the process, I was reading A Season on the Wind, and realized if this is as good Kenn says it is, it’s going to be magical. And it was. My only regret is that COVID has kept me away from it last year and now again this year.

So Kenn, what is it that makes Magee Marsh magical? How does that wrap into A Season on the Wind? Get us into what’s going to develop as February folds in to March, folds into April and May.

KENN KAUFMAN: Okay. Well thanks so much, Pete. I’m going to actually start by jumping into a morning in May. Start at the peak and work backwards. The setup is that in early May there are always small birds migrating at night. There are these tiny colorful birds called warblers, like more than thirty species of them. Other colorful birds like tanagers and orioles and grosbeaks and buntings. And then more subtle things like thrushes and vireos and flycatchers. They are all migrating at night. They’ll take off just shortly after it gets dark, fly through the night, come down as it’s getting light, and look for a place to spend the day. And on a given night in early May there may be a few hundred species and hundreds of millions of individuals moving on a good night all across the continent. As they’re coming down in the morning and looking for a place to settle in, a lot of them will just drop into whatever the nearest trees are, and they’ll be sort of spread out.

But when they come to the south shore of Lake Erie, here’s this lakeshore running east/west. So, they’ll be looking north and there’s just nothing but water up there. So, the birds start to pile up as they come to the edge of the lake. If there’s already out over Lake Erie as it’s getting light, even if they’re two, three, five miles out, and even if they can see Ontario on the far side, they turn around and come back to the shoreline. Most of them will fly back. So, you get this big pileup right on the edge of the lake.

Where we are, Magee Marsh and the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge right next it—we’ve got properties managed by the state, managed by the feds—there’s this big block of habitat right on the Lake Erie shoreline with woods right along the lake and marshes next to that that will provide lots of insects as birth food. So, it’s a perfect setup for these birds to have their stopover habitat that they need so much during migration.

Then the final setup is that at Magee Marsh there’s a huge parking lot. It used to be a state park. The parking lot was for the swimming beach, but now it serves as a parking lot for birders, so you can get hundreds of cars in there. But there are so many trails. There’s this mile-long boardwalk. People can come there and be really spread out. It’s just a magical thing. If it’s been one of these big nights with the south wind and clear skies, the place will be filled with these small birds. Little mixed flocks of warbles moving through the trees, and flocks of goldfinches and siskins and waxwings flying past, paralleling the lakeshore. Flocks of blue jays that people don’t even think of as migratory milling around overhead. And it really is a magical spectacle.

The birds are brought there sort of by the vagaries of weather. They haven’t necessarily expected to stop at that exact place. The small songbirds can’t really choose their stopover points the way a larger bird can. Some things like cranes and waterfowl have specific stopover areas that they go to year after year. It doesn’t necessarily work with the small songbirds because they sort of have to deal with whatever happens when it gets light in the morning.

The traditional stopover points of shorebirds, you’ve worked on that a lot, Pete. Your research on migratory shorebirds I think really feeds into this.  

PETE MYERS: Actually, you’re right, Kenn. The migration patterns of migratory shorebirds are quite different from those of the passerines that you mentioned. Except that on average they go north in the spring and south in the fall. That they hold in common. But shorebirds do have stopover sites that attract up to millions of birds around the same place during migration. And they use these sites traditionally. 

I think one of the best examples near where we are in Central Virginia is Delaware Bay in Delaware and New Jersey where literally three million-odd shorebirds will gather in the spring to feed on the eggs of horseshoe crabs that are laid by the crabs as they come in during mid to late May. It’s an amazing scene to be there. I actually wrote about, “Chaos, Sex, and Gluttony on Delaware Bay.” It’s worth a visit.

Kenn highlighted a key difference which creates different migratory challenges. With shorebirds what we have to do is protect these important stopover sites that are really valuable to complete the migratory chain of shorebirds migrating from breeding ground to wintering ground and back. Passerines, as he said, are much more diffuse. And I wonder, Kenn, if you could also comment on the notion of flyways, migratory flyways and what you’ve observed about passerines versus shorebirds versus geese, etcetera? Because I think that’s a really useful insight.

KENN KAUFMAN: Yeah, thanks. The whole concept of flyways seems to be really popular, often, when I’m talking to people. And I meet strangers, and I’m talking to them about bird migration because, you know, I do that. So, I describe how good it is here along the Lake Erie shorelines at Magee Marsh with migration. People will listen, then their eyes light up, and they say, “Oh, you must be on a flyway.” The concept is really popular, and it’s true, we are you a flyway. But every square mile in North America is on a flyway.

The whole concept of flyways was developed back in the 1930s based on the results from banding waterfowl. The first large-scale bird-banding efforts were on ducks and geese. Frederick Lincoln was running the bird-banding lab at that point, and he realized they could band a lot of ducks, and then hunters would send the bands in, and they would know where these birds had gone. So, Lincoln found that these birds really were sort of dividing into four major flyways north and south across the continent with lots over overlap. 

So, it kind of works for the waterfowl. It works for some other kinds of birds. But with the majority of birds, especially small birds, they’re not concentrated into narrow pathways. There are areas where they concentrate, but they spread out as much as they can so that they’re moving on a broad front. Particularly, you don’t have gaps between flyways. That’s something that I think is important from a conservation standpoint. If people get the idea that the birds are just in certain flyways, it sort of gives free rein to ignore the habitats in between. But actually, the entire continent is on a flyway for songbirds.

PETE MYERS: To add a level of complexity to that, I spent a lot of time early in my career studying sanderling migration. The Mecca of sanderlings in the non-breeding season is coastal Chile and Peru. In the spring they fly north to Arctic Canada. Some go over to Siberia. We banded thousands of sanderlings in Chile and Peru and some in Ecuador. Also, along the East Coast of the US where they also winter, and in California. 

We were surprised to learn that birds caught the same night from the same flock took radically different pathways to go north. Some we found on the East Coast of the US. Many we found moving up Central Texas, the Texas/Louisiana coast, up through Central Canada, Saskatchewan particularly. And some of the same flock would wind up migrating north along the West Coast of the US. 

In fact, we had one bird—these were all individually color-banded. We had one bird who was seen at the mouth of Columbia River in spring migration. We had banded it in Chile. I knew from the color bands that were reported where it was from, when it had been banded, and who it has been banded with. That bird in the spring migration was at the mouth of Columbia River in Oregon. But in fall migration it was on Cape Cod. So, this individual bird was taking this vast circum-continental pathway to get from the wintering ground to the breeding ground and back. 

The more that we’ve learned, particularly as new technologies have become available—this work was done in the late 1980s. Well now we have satellite tracking that we can put on birds. It’s just amazing. It’s not one coherent mass of movement. It’s lots of individuals finding their own way.

KENN KAUFMAN: Which is really fascinating. The color marking, the color banding of sanderlings that you were doing was such a thing because observers could go out and identify these birds individually by the way they were marked or at least recognize where they had come from. With smaller birds like the tiny warblers and things we were talking about, there’s been a lot of banding of those as well. But in order to identify the individuals, they have to be actually captured again, perhaps at another banding station or found dead somewhere. So, the number of returns is a lot smaller.

Humans have been trying to figure out this whole thing with what these migratory birds were doing for millennia, actually. Even as recently as a couple hundred years ago there wasn’t a good concept of the fact that birds migrated at all. There were theories that birds were hibernating in the mud during the winter and so on. Actually, there is a bird in the American Southwest that does hibernate in winter. Any crazy thing you can think of birds are bound to do it. But just the fact that a bird that weighs less than an ounce is going to fly from Alaska to Brazil, people just couldn’t really wrap their heads around that.

There have been so many of these study methods used for tracking these birds. But one of the things that’s been really fascinating in recent years is the development of radar ornithology to be able to see what’s happening up there overnight. The use of weather radar, as it has gotten better. With early radar in the 1940s when bird echoes were picked up, no one believed. It was being used mostly for military purposes then. No one believed that something like a bird could show up on radar. You think about weather radar, it’s picking up raindrops. Even a small bird is bigger than a raindrop. With the new Doppler radar, it really reveals this movement overhead.

I’m going to see if I can share a picture here. This is an experiment with sharing a screen, so bear with me. Can you see that?

PETE MYERS: Yes.

KENN KAUFMAN: Is that showing up?

PETE MYERS: Yep, got it.

KENN KAUFMAN: Okay. Here’s sort of a map of Eastern North America at night. All these blue doughnuts that you see there, some of them with really intense green in the center, those are migratory birds. These are Nexrad Doppler radar centers. The reasons these show up as circles, it doesn’t mean that the birds are moving in circular flocks and in big, flat doughnuts, that’s just the sweep of the radar beam. It sweeps in a circle, and it cuts through the elevation where these birds are flying, maybe a thousand and two thousand feet up. And there are so many birds in the air that it shows up as these circles of blue.

Farther west there’s an area here with the deep green and the yellow and orange and red. That’s actual weather which the radar was set up to detect. So, there’s a line of storms moving through there. This is the night of May 1st in 2018. So over here, this is just a massive movement of birds going north. Far fewer to the east. Apparently, it wasn’t that good of a night over in Pennsylvania and long the Atlantic Coast. But right up here through the center of the continent there were massive numbers of birds on the move. Where you see a dark area in between these circles, it doesn’t mean that there were no birds there. It just means that was outside the main sweep of the radar. So, it’s extraordinary what they can do with this now. This probably represents a few hundred million migratory birds moving north in early May. Let’s see if I can un-share now.

PETE MYERS: Up along—there you go. So, the technologies that have become available are quite extraordinary, comparing what we can do today to what I was able to do in the 1980s. Satellite transmitters have been another big revolution. My favorite example of that is the Bar-tailed godwit. The Bar-tailed godwit is a shorebird. We have some godwits along the East Coast, Marble godwits, and also migration Hudsonian godwits. But the Bar-tailed godwit breeds in Northwest Alaska. It gathers in fall migration in a few key places out near the tip of the Yukon River in Western Alaska. It puts on weight. It more than doubles its weight in the period immediately prior to migration. Its physiology changes drastically as it decreases body functions that it doesn’t need. And then Bar-tailed godwits we now know, based on satellite tracking, fly seven to eight thousand miles non-stop over eight days to New Zealand. That’s the longest known single-stop migration known in birdom. It’s quite extraordinary. My bet is that new technologies we are incorporating in ornithology are going to yield additional surprises like that. 

Another satellite discovery involves a species of shorebird that I actually studied in Barrow, Alaska, long before there was satellite. Just this past decade in the late 2000s, a German ornithologist discovered that petrels, the male comes in in the spring and sets up a territory. Stays there several weeks and then leaves. Where does it go? Well, it follows the wind to Siberia, or if the wind is in the other direction, to Central Canada and sets up another territory. It goes thousands of kilometers beyond the places where it bred for the first time that season. Just extraordinary flexibility in the migration pattern of a species. We had no idea that was happening when we were at Barrow working on shorebirds.

KENN KAUFMAN: It’s really amazing stuff. I think as the technology improves, as you say, we’re going keep finding out more and more. We know now from circumstantial evidence that there are really small birds—the bar-tailed godwit is pretty good sized. But you take a tiny bird like a Blackpool warbler. It’s like five inches long. When it’s really fattened up for fall migration it will double its weight to like an ounce from about a half an ounce. But apparently some of those birds fly nonstop from New England or the East Coast of Canada, like the maritime provinces, to the North Coast of South America. 

There aren’t really trackers small enough to do satellite tracking for a bird that small. But there is some evidence from the light level of geolocators, which are tiny devices that will just measure time of day—the time of when it gets light and when it gets dark. You can sort of figure out where a bird was by the time of sunrise and sunset, if you can recapture the bird and read the data off of that. So, we’ve got good evidence these birds are making that kind of flight. And eventually we’re going to be able to prove it. The endurance of these small birds, the fact that they can do these things is just beyond extraordinary.

PETE MYERS: I would second that, Kenn. Definitely beyond extraordinary.

Here’s another dimension of migration that has fascinated me for a long time. So, we know they migrate. We know they undertake extraordinary adventures in migration, avoiding predators, dealing with hurricanes, all that sort of stuff. One fundamental question is, how do they know where to go? We’re learning that different species have very different strategies in learning where to go.

So, for example, geese, swans, etcetera, it looks like they learn where to migrate by following their parents. They migrate in groups of adults and juveniles from their breeding ground to their wintering ground. And then they learn what that path is, and then they follow it the rest of their life.

Other birds aren’t nearly as—I wouldn’t call it simple but aren’t nearly so clean in their behaviors. Take, for example, shorebirds. As you spend the summer on the Arctic tundra, you realize that different ages of birds—the adults versus the juveniles—are disappearing at different times. So, take a Red phalarope or Pectoral sandpiper. In phalaropes the female leaves after laying eggs. The male takes care of the young; the female may never see them. And the females start migrating south towards oceanic wintering grounds. 

Pectoral sandpipers, the males never care for the young. They leave. They breed in June, and then they leave in July. They’re en route either to a new breeding ground in Russia or to the south. By the end of the summer, there are no adults except in Barrow where there is one species, and that’s dunlin. All the others are pretty much all juveniles. They were hatched that year. So how do they know where to go? They’re not following their parents. And that’s true for a lot of the birds that Kenn has talked about. The migratory passerines, they don’t follow parents.

One finding that has emerged is that—and this been best worked out in some of the passerines. In that first fall migration when they’re not following their parents, they have a genetically determined direction to go, which may switch at different points along the migration. So, they’ll fly for three days south/southeast, and then they’ll fly south. The directionality is very easily demonstrated using some tools that have been around in ornithology for a long time. They fly in a direction, and they fly for an amount of time. It gets them in to the general region where their parents might be, but not to exactly the same habitat, not to the same place. So, you have this complicated process going on. Fly a distance in a direction, find some suitable habitat to spend the winter, and then learn where that habitat is, imprint on that wintering habitat. Then the next season they will migrate to the land that they’ve imprinted upon and remain faithful to it for the rest of their lives. 

There are all sorts of variations in this, but it’s fascinating to see birds have solved the problem of how to migrate, how to orient during migration, how to find their wintering ground in very different ways.

KENN KAUFMAN: That’s fascinating some of the tools that they use. When you look at birds in terms of determining direction, a lot of these nocturnal migrants navigate by the stars. They have the ability to learn which sets of constellations represent the North just because they rotate around Polaris, around the North Star. It’s a fixed point in the northern sky. Scientists have actually raised songbirds inside a planetarium with imaginary constellations, star patterns that don’t even exist. They learn what represented north on the basis of these imaginary constellations. They were able to just take it in.

There is also the magnetic sense. That’s still being worked on. We’ve known for decades, starting with research on homing pigeons. We’ve known that birds can detect the Earth’s magnetic field. It turns out they can use that to a large extent for their navigation. There’s a recent study just published this month. Some scientists worked with reed warblers, which is a small migrant. They captured them in Central Europe in Austria. They set up a geomagnetic field that mimicked what would have been the geomagnetic field at a point about a thousand kilometers farther east in Central Asia. Then they released those birds in flight cage to see what they would do. These birds, even though they could see the sky and see local landmarks and so one, they were orienting as if they were in that spot a thousand kilometers farther east. They were orienting toward the west as if they needed to get back to their regular migratory route just on the basis of what their magnetic sense was telling them. To me that kind of thing is just extraordinary.

PETE MYERS: Kenn, I know part of the book is about the perils birds face during migration. What can you offer about that to this call?

KENN KAUFMAN: Obviously, they’re taking on these amazing journeys. There’s hardly anything in human experience that you can compare it to. Especially when you think about a young bird taking off for its first southward migration or turning around in spring and migrating back to the breeding grounds for the first time. It’s never even had a date or anything. It has to find a mate and raise young. It’s the challenging thing to consider for a bird that’s less than a year old.

There are so many dangers out there, just normal things like weather and predators and so on. But now there are manmade threats as well. There’s something like a billion birds in North America that get killed by flying into windows every year. It’s just a few here, a few there. In big cities where there are brightly lit buildings, the mortality is a lot higher. Birds are disoriented by the lights at night. they wind up in the city in the downtown areas. And then in the morning as it’s getting light, they’re taking off, flying into widows because they see reflections. There’s been a recent movement to encourage these lights-out programs where tall buildings in large cities are encouraged not to have unnecessary lights on at night during the peak of spring and fall migration. I think one of the first efforts was in Toronto. But right there at Toledo, Ohio, where we live, we’re just used to Toledo. My wife Kimberly was involved in an effort there to get a lights-out program established. It’s taken affect. A lot of the bright lights downtown are turned off at the peak of migration, and we think it’ll help more of these migratory birds to get by.

PETE MYERS: So Kenn, I’m going to shift the discussion a little bit. We’ve been talking about the miracle of migration. As you think about your experiences in observing migratory phenomenon—and we’ve got people on the call from all over the country and beyond—what would be four or five places that you would recommend they visit and where to get some sense as to what we’re talking about here, so their jaws drop? My jaw dropped multiple times when I see what’s going on here, and I’m sure yours has to. So, could you share some insights into where to go to see things?

KENN KAUFMAN: Sure. There are certain kinds of places. Obviously, I’m biased to Magee Marsh in Northwestern Ohio. But there are quite a few places along the edges of the Great Lakes. Even the parks along the Lake Michigan shoreline in downtown Chicago sometimes under certain conditions have big concentrations of migrants, Central Park in the middle of New York City. Pete, you and I have birded there together. At certain times Central Park is full of migratory birds because at dawn birds are over the city, and they look down and there’s this rectangular green, and so they drop in there.

Some of the biggest concentrations happen along the Gulf Coast the upper Texas coast east of Houston, but only under certain conditions. What you have there are birds that are taking off from the northern coast of Yucatan just after dark. This is especially during late April. They take off from the North Coast of the Yucatan just after dark. They fly north. It takes them something like eighteen hours to make the crossing, so it’s the middle of the next day when they reach the Texas coast or the Louisiana coast. 

If the weather is good, most of them will just keep flying inland. But if they run into a storm system near the coast, they have to come down and seek the nearest land. I’ve been there a few times for fallouts like that, and it’s amazing what you see. Flocks of Rose-breasted grosbeaks out on the beach just hopping around. There’ll be like fifty Tennessee warblers just come piling into one tree, and then they go flying on. 

It’s a sad thing, too, because some birds aren’t making it in that situation. So, what you’re seeing are the survivors. For that reason, I prefer the kind of concentration that we see along the Great Lakes where it’s just birds piling into the available habitat. But we can’t stop these fallouts on the Texas coast from happening. So, if you’re there, it’s worth just going and seeing just to see a natural phenomenon that’s at a level beyond what I can really describe. 

But I also want to say that people anywhere can see concentrations of migratory birds. We encourage people to go to these really special places. There’s a higher volume of small birds that are migrating in the eastern half of the continent than in the West for a variety of reasons. But any place. I lived in the Eastern Kansas for a while. Lived in the Philadelphia area for a while. Even in a suburban neighbor, if it had been a certain kind of night, say a relatively warm, clear night in spring with south winds, and then rain moved in just before dawn, there could be a mini fallout right there. So, a tiny park could be full of warblers or something. 

If people can’t travel in spring, I really encourage them to watch for that kind of thing. Watch the backyard. There are Red-winged blackbirds moving north right now, moving north across the continent. There are turkey vultures moving north. They may not be in your backyard, depending on what you have. But it’s going on. And any place where you are, if you can’t travel to a hotspot, you can see local migration.

PETE MYERS: I’m always struck every spring and fall. I’m in Central Virginia just west of Charlottesville. When the jay migration moves through, thousands of jays fill the sky during a day. And if you’re paying attention, you can’t miss it. 

KENN KAUFMAN: That’s fascinating. I didn’t know that you really had concentrations of jays there.

PETE MYERS: It’s not like the Hudson River, but it’s very noticeable if you start adding up the number of jays that are going overhead. And also, the amount of noise that local jays are making, protesting potential invaders into their territories, it gets very noisy. We’re right along the Blue Ridge Mountain, so that may contribute to it. And of course, there are migratory hotspots for hawks. We have one just west of us at Afton Mountain where you go in fall migration and see on some days ten thousand Broad-winged hawks migrating overhead. 

KENN KAUFMAN: Concentrations of migratory hawks, that’s something that’s really spectacular. For the most part, hawks don’t want to be concentrated when they’re migrating. It’s easier for a tiny warbler to find lots of bugs than it is for a bird the size of a hawk to find prey. So, they concentrate pretty much only where they’re forced to. But there are spots on the south shore of the Great Lakes where there are hawk concentrations in spring. And on the north side of the Great Lakes there are concentrations in fall. Some of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my life have been on the coast of Mexico in Veracruz, halfway down the Gulf Coast of Mexico in early October. The official counters there said that the tally was 400,000 hawks for the day. But for all I could tell there could have been a couple million. Just amazing when the sky is filled with this swirl of these birds up there. Daytime migrants, birds of prey.

Once you get into looking at bird migration—this is a warning, this is a fair warning. If you’re new to birds, once you start reading about migration, you’re going to develop this urge to go to these places where the huge concentrations happen. But if you can’t, really every tree in North America is visited by migratory birds in the spring and fall. Anywhere you are you have an opportunity to observe some of this migration. I really encourage everyone to go out and make the effort.

PETE MYERS: I’m smiling because when I was kid, we lived in Veracruz. I remember those movements; they’re just extraordinary. There’s nothing like it. Well, there are. There are placed like Magee Marsh. 

Kenn, so when COVID goes away, where are you going to go? Other than Magee Marsh.

KENN KAUFMAN: Magee Marsh, yeah, number one. There are lots of places. I would really like to go back to Beidaihe on the coast of China. I spent a month there once observing migratory birds. It’s really phenomenal area. I’m hoping to go back in either the spring or fall. Birds moving between the far east of Russia and Southeast East Asia concentrate right along the shoreline there. I would love to go back there. 

But there are so many places here in North America for observing migration that I want to visit for the first time or get back to. White Fish Point in Michigan. Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in the fall, or just north of the Golden Gate when the hawk migration is going down up there.

PETE MYERS: Yeah, that’s spectacular too.

KENN KAUFMAN: Central Kansas when the shorebirds are coming through in late May. Some people wouldn’t expect Kansas; it’s not on the shore. But so many of the migratory birds, as you know, move north through the Great Plains. And there are spots in Kansas that are loaded with shorebirds the last two weeks of May.

There are so many places to go, and we’re sort of sheltering in place here and waiting for things to open up again.

PETE MYERS: Speaking of opening up, I’m going to open this up to questions. Thanks for the segue. I have a series of questions from listeners. Because I know this is an issue that is really important to you, the first question I’m going to convey is from Susan Kirk, who is a local birder. She said, “One of the most dramatic chapters of the book is wind turbines and the efforts you’ve been taking to make sure wind turbines don’t destroy the migratory value of Magee Marsh. Do you have any advice as to what we might do as individuals to address this rapidly growing problem?”

KENN KAUFMAN: Thanks so much for that question. I think the best thing we can do as individuals is just try to be as well informed as possible. Obviously, we need renewable energy, we need clean energy, and I’m not opposed to wind power in general. I just think that location is so incredibly important. I believe there are a lot of places where you can put wind power where it won’t have a negative impact on birds.

I know of case studies out in Oklahoma where biologists worked with the wind companies to figure out places they could put wind farms where they wouldn’t have a damaging effect on the local populations or birds like lesser prairie-chickens. In Wyoming they figured out how to site the wind power so it wouldn’t be on the flight lines of Golden eagles. That kind of thing is great. But we really need careful and honest studies of the wildlife values at a particular spot before wind farms are put there.

PETE MYERS: Great. Thank you. On another issue of interest to you from Joanne Daley, “Are there areas near Magee Marsh that one could visit this spring despite COVID, using good protocols, that might permit camping? What do you recommend for a plan this spring with respect to McGee, or should we just forget it?”

KENN KAUFMAN: No, I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to forget it. The Division of Wildlife is still working out what their plan is going to be. Last spring, they just closed Magee Marsh to visitation to avoid the kinds of crowds that could have developed there. It was a wise decision.

This year I think they’re still working out their plan. Most likely the boardwalk itself will be closed, but they may open up additional trails where it’s really wide and people can spread out. There are also state parks in this immediate area—Maumee Bay State Park, East Harbor State Park. They have campgrounds. They have protocols in place. I believe they’ll have the campgrounds open again this spring. And again, those are places with wide trails where people can get out and be spread out and distanced and still have a chance to see exactly the same kind of migratory phenomenon that happens at Magee.

PETE MYERS: I would ask you comment on the social phenomenon of Magee Marsh and the boardwalk. I’ve never seen anything like it.

KENN KAUFMAN: Yeah. People see photos of it, and they say that looks terrible, looks so crowded. But people only take photos where there is a crowd, and there’s a crowd at a certain spot on the boardwalk when there’s some great bird there. A Golden-winged warbler or something that’s flitting around right there. The birds get used to the fact that there are people there, and they’re foraging sometimes just a few feet away. And people are taking photos with their phones. Pick up their cell phone and here’s this little warbler. The birds are not really that bothered by the people on the boardwalk. If they were, they could fly back twenty or thirty feet and be completely out of sight in the woods.

People who haven’t been there imagine it to be like a terrible, crowded situation. I suppose it could be challenging for some people, but to me it’s like a party. There are all these people who are just so friendly and so sharing, and everyone is moving quietly and talking in whispers and so on. A stranger can show up. Someone who’s never looked at a bird before could show up with no binoculars, no field guide, but walk out there and somebody will reach out to them and say, “Here, look at this; here’s a Blackburnian warbler.” To me it’s like the most joyous and welcoming party that I’ve ever been to. For a few weeks in spring, it’s one of the most joy-filled areas on Earth. I can’t wait for the day when the boardwalk is opened up again and we can have that party again.

PETE MYERS: I must admit I was a little afraid of what I had heard about the crowds. But you’re right, it’s a joyful party. And people are so sharing in their knowledge and their experience.

I’ll never forget. There was a whippoorwill about ten feet from the boardwalk. A guy with a spotting scope stayed with the spotting scope focused on the whippoorwill I’d say for at least four hours. He would stop everyone going by to say, “You want to see a whippoorwill up close? You’ll never see one like this every again.” I actually spend about an hour helping him stop people, showing them that whippoorwill, because it was amazing. The sharing of knowledge that goes on. Without caring how knowledgeable the person you’re talking to is, sharing what you know. And also, the freeness with which people ask questions of folks who clearly were experts. It’s an amazing thing. So even though I was reluctant to go there at first because of the crowds, I’m going back. I’m going back as soon as I can.

KENN KAUFMAN: Well, we’re looking forward to seeing you here. If people are curious and want to know more about the area, there is a lot of information about it on the website of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, which is local here. And the Black Swamp—

PETE MYERS: Do you want to say who the director of that observatory is?

KENN KAUFMAN: Yeah, I’ve met the director. Her name is Kimberly Kaufman. I actually volunteer for the observatory sometimes, as a volunteer by marriage.

The observatory runs a big bird festival in spring with the modest name of The Biggest Week in American Birding. The website to that also has a lot of information. They have maps of the area, maps of other birding hotspots in the area. They have indications of all these other places in Northwestern Ohio where people can go if they don’t want to be around crowds. 

This week, The Biggest Week in American Birding is going to be a virtual event instead, scaled down so it may be like a medium-sized week. But the website still has tons of information for anyone who might be curious.

PETE MYERS: Kenn, you piqued someone’s interest. “What bird species actually hibernates during winter?”

KENN KAUFMAN: Okay, right. It’s a bird called the common poorwill. It’s related to whippoorwills, and it’s found in the Southwest. Some of the Native American tribes apparently knew all about the fact this bird hibernated. One of their names for it was sleeper in the rocks. It wasn’t until I believe the 1940s that a naturalist named Edmund Yeager, if I’m remembering that correctly, found poorwills actually hibernating in the rocks in the deserts. I believe it was in far southeastern California. Now I may have the details wrong, but Yeager found these poorwills, just individuals looking like they were dead. Just sound asleep. Their heartbeat slowed way down. Their breathing slowed down to practically nothing. But eventually they would wake up and fly away. So, they have the ability to hibernate.

PETE MYERS: That’s fascinating. Here’s a somewhat technical question but a useful one. “You showed a map of Doppler radar results. Are there available to ordinary people?”

KENN KAUFMAN: Yes, they are. You can look up through the National Weather Service. You can look at these maps in real time. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a program now called BirdCast where they look at weather patterns several days ahead and predict when and where there are going to be big movements of birds. If you’re looking to figure out which days, you’re going to call in sick from work or whatever—

PETE MYERS: Shhh, don’t give that away.

KENN KAUFMAN: Put up a fake image on your Zoom calls that you’re skipping. You can look at BirdCast to get a sense of which nights in spring and fall are going to have the biggest flights of birds on certain nights. That’s a good thing because it’s not just looking at the radar at the moment; it’s predicting ahead. We looked at BirdCast ahead of time, and then overnight, like midnight, one in the morning, we’re awake looking at the Doppler radar picture to see if the birds are actually moving at the levels that we thought they would be.

PETE MYERS: So, you plan your next day accordingly.

KENN KAUFMAN: That’s right, yeah. 

PETE MYERS: Excellent. And actually, BirdCast is a really wonderful resource if you want help—not diving into the technical details of the Doppler but getting a summary that’s actually quite useful information.

So, a different sort of question. “Has climate change affected the timing of migrations?”

KENN KAUFMAN: Yes, it has. It’s complicated. It’s not as straightforward as a person might expect. But we know from long-term data from a number of places in Europe and North America that spring migration for various species has gotten earlier by seven days to ten days to two weeks. So, spring migration is getting earlier in some places. Some birds are wintering farther north than they used to. The sandhill cranes in Eastern North America are cranes that used to migrate to Florida and are now wintering in large numbers in Tennessee. And increasingly they’re wintering farther north than that, including up here around the Great Lakes. They’re migrating south to the extent they do it in December and coming back in early February.

We come down to the question of do individual birds start moving earlier or is it an inherited thing. And there have been bizarre things. You’ve probably read all about this, Pete. The Black-tailed godwits going to Iceland moving earlier. You can’t really say it’s hereditary because it depends on how early their parents started nesting and how early the bird hatched. The birds that hatched earlier in the summer are migrating north earlier in the spring. It’s bizarre. 

Climate change is definitely having—or I should say there are changes in the timing of migration that are consistent with what we would expect to be caused by climate change.

PETE MYERS: I think about climate kind of like an orchestra with different instruments in it. One of the problems that climate change represents for migratory birds, for example, is that some of their prey are responding to day length, as they are, whereas some of their prey are responding to temperature. And so, when temperature and day length get out of sync, it has the capacity to really screw up migratory pathways. 

We have seen impacts in the Arctic for migratory shorebirds exactly along those lines where the emergence of insects in the spring is temperature dependent. But you’re got birds that are coming to the Arctic from the southern part of South America. Their migration has evolved to day length to get them to the right latitude at the right time. Now they are arriving later compared to the insect bloom than they used to. Scientists have reported negative effects on the weight of nestlings that are a result of that disconnect between the emergence of insects and the arrival of the shorebirds from a migratory pathway that’s largely controlled by day length.

KENN KAUFMAN: A serious problem. Given enough time, of course, the birds can evolve because the individuals that happen to be arriving earlier, whatever genes are controlling that will be selected for. So, they’ll be a shift within the population for the birds to migrate earlier. The question is whether that kind of evolution can happen fast enough to keep up with the changes in the seasonality there. It’s really a complex issue.

PETE MYERS: Yeah. It’s less complex for the birds that breed farthest north like Pectoral sandpipers and sanderlings, etcetera, because their habitat’s going to disappear as the temperature warms. Instead of tundra, they have heat. The birds who breed farthest north are among those that are going to have serious challenges from climate change.

Charlotte Clements, who’s another local birder, specialist in finding rufous hummingbirds in the area. She asks, “Will the COVID vaccines that use horseshoe crab blood have an impact on migratory shorebirds?”

KENN KAUFMAN: That’s a really outstanding question for which I have no answer at all. 

PETE MYERS: I have a little bit of experience there because part of my research at the Academy of National Sciences when you and I were there was on the complex passage of shorebirds through the Delaware Bay dependent upon horseshoe crab resources. It really depends upon the magnitude of the harvest of crabs. A little bit probably is not going to have much of an effect. But as more and more vaccines are being made, and more and more crabs are being bled, there is a chance that there will be problems. I haven’t looked at this recently, so I don’t know how the calculus comes out. But we have seen problems in the past for other reasons when horseshoe crabs were being harvested, of it having an effect on the migratory shorebirds moving through Delaware Bay.

KENN KAUFMAN: Yeah. I know there has been some talk of developing a synthetic replacement for the horseshoe crab blood used in the vaccines. And I hope that there’s rapid progress on that.

PETE MYERS: Yeah, I think that’s great.

Well, Kenn, this has been fabulous. It’s such a pleasure and honor to be able to talk with you in Zoom with this group today. I’m afraid, though, that it’s time to wrap things up. Thank you. Thank you to everyone who tuned in, and there are a lot of people out there who have joined us today.

Here is something really important. Please consider buying Kenn’s book, A Season on the Wind. I found it wonderful to read. It’s very informative. The best thing to do is to buy it en route to Magee Marsh and really get ready for what you’re going to see there. But if you aren’t going to Magee Marsh, buy it anyway. There are places you can buy it from your local bookseller. I’m sure that New Dominion Books would be happy to order it for you, other stores in the Charlottesville area, or in your local bookstore wherever you are.

You should also check out further events like this called Shelf Life Events from the Virginia Festival of the Book. They take place on Thursdays at noon. You can learn more about them at vabook.org.

With that, thank you all, and have a wonderful experience this migratory season. 

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