Birding By the Book

Birding By the Book

By Larry Spivak

How did I become a birder?

Well, quite simply, I spent most of my younger life in the woods. Vacation meant camping all over California. Summer meant three months at my grandparents on a 60-acre parcel in the redwoods with my siblings and two cousins. The creek on the property, the Eel River, highway 101, Richardson’s Grove State Park – that’s where I grew up and learned to love the outdoors.

Fast forward to 1994 when I met a young lady who just returned from teaching in Venezuela with a bunch of people who were birders. It did not take long before I wanted to keep track of all the birds we saw on our excursions – in December I started a life list and became a birder.

I do not know when I first heard about Kenn Kaufman, an acknowledged legend in the birding world by 2000 when his field guide was published, or when I met him at an Audubon lecture (he signed my copy), or when I first read his book, listed below. I had no chance of recovering to a normal life after this.

The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got A Little Out of Hand
Kenn Kaufman
1997 A Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, New York

At the age of sixteen, Kenn Kaufmann dropped out of high school and hitchhiked back and forth across North America from Alaska to Florida. His goal was to set a record for the most birds seen in the span of a year. It ended up a closer understanding of the natural world and of the people who lived in this country. To quote one of the cover statements “This is not merely a mad quest for birds, rather it is a young man’s search for his place in the world. Kenn Kaufman’s masterful imagery and warm, conversational writing entice you along on this journey, page after page and mile after mile”

A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession
Mark Obmascik

2004 Free Press, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney,
A Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.

“Every year on January 1, a quirky crowd of adventurers storms out across North America for a spectacularly competitive event called a Big Year..” This fictional account is about three men who undertake this event in 1998 and was the basis for a movie by the same name. The three men are from different economic backgrounds and are unaware that the other two are on the same quest until they meet mid-year. It is a fun look at a crazy pastime.

This book was also made into a movie

A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds
Olivia Gentile

2010 Bloomsbury USA

At age forty-nine, Phoebe Snetsinger, frustrated housewife and mother of four was told she was dying of cancer. She decided to spend her last days seeing as many birds in the world as she could. Against all odds, her cancer went into remission and she ended up seeing more bird species than anyone in history, more than 8,000.  But it all was at great cost to her family and her safety. She died in an automobile accident in Madagascar in her sixties while on another birding expedition.

Phoebe Snetsinger

2003 American Birding Association

Birding on Borrowed Time is the chronicle of her birding more than her personal life.
Snetsinger said “If it’s my last trip, so be it – but I’m going to make it a good one and go down binoculars in hand.” and birded for 18 years after her terminal cancer diagnosis.

An Obsession, A Quest, and the Biggest Year in History
Noah Strycker

2007, Mariner Books, Houghton Miflin Harcourt. Boston, New York
With a forward by Kenn Kaufman

Take a Big Year, spread it out over the entire world, set your sights on seeing 5,000 different species in 365 days and go. That’s what Noah did, traveling to seven continents (yes, even Antarctica) in a year, meeting other birders, going places only birders would go, never slowing down for an entire year. The writing is great – I have a hard time putting this book down, even to write this – and the people he meets are astounding. The birds he sees are amazing – I was constantly going online to see pictures of the few he described in detail. A great adventure – thanks, Noah, for sharing your story with us.

Why is birdwatching so fascinating?

Funny you should ask this question. Almost every birding book I have read has asked and tried to answer the same question., The practical answers are many:

It is an inexpensive hobby

They are beautiful to look at

Regardless of where you are, there is probably a bird to watch

It is full of adventure – you never know what will be there

There are so many different birds to look for

but what sucks us in with a passion – the birds are free from the earthly bonds and we wish we could join them.

“Once you have tasted flight, you will always walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you   have been, and there you will always long to return.”

Leonardo da Vinci

What has been the most memorable birding experience with kids?

I really enjoy talking about birds with students on field trips. What I always try to focus on, with kids or adults, is bird behaviors. That way they will get to know them as living things – sorta like people.

Strangely enough the most interesting and intense birding conversation with students on a field trip was about a dead bird rather than a live one.
Well, on a field trip at Stevens Creek we found a dead Barn Owl right by the trail. This led to a deep discussion of what it was, at first, then “how did it die?”, then “what was it hunting?”, to an examination of the wings and other features. The discussion was much more intense than that over a stuffed barn owl in the classroom. There was no “Is it real?” or “Was it alive?”
I imagine that this experience was memorable for the kids though, and they got a very deep understanding about the ecosystems in the park that day.

Larry Spivak has been a teaching docent with the Environmental Volunteers for about nine years and was on the Board of Directors for the past six years.

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