Kingbird Highway Revisited

Lately I have been conducting encore readings of some books that I love, and with regard to birding, one that falls into this category is Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder by Kenn Kaufman. This book is a marvelous birding adventure, the story of a "Big Year" quest by a teenager following his heart. It is filled with birding stories and the people he meets along the way. Nowadays Kaufman could regale the online birding community for months on end with a blog filled with these stories. And as a harbinger of things to come, he says early on in the book, "My sole intention was to learn about birds, but on the way I also learned some things about the world."

The book hooked me in right away as in at the outset he talks about when going someplace new, the first thing he thinks about is the birds he could possibly see. I can very much relate to that. Kenn Kaufman is from my generation, indeed we are the same age, so I can also identify with that "Dharma bum wanderlust" that, combined with his love of birding, helped fuel his trip.

One aspect of the book that was fun for me was all of the old bird species names. I grew up in birding with the likes of the Myrtle Warbler, and the Eurasian Green Winged Teal. The mention of the Ipswich Sparrow really sent me careening back into the past. That was a bird name I hadn't heard in a very long time. I had to go back to my 1947 edition of the Peterson Field Guide to look it up (Note: it is now in with the Savannah Sparrow).

I also had been some of the places that he visited in the book. Southeastern Arizona was one, High Island, Texas was another, and birding the woods around the ferry dock in Anacortes, Washington while waiting to go to the San Juan Islands was another. We both took one look at the woods and apparently had the same thought. I love the San Juan Islands so it was fun to read about his experiences there.

My favorite passage in the book is from page 117:

"Everything had worked out all right, just as Rich Stallcup had insisted it would: everything would always work out if you just went forward boldly into every experience."

I love that thought.

I think the spirit of the book and its author is summarized by this marvelous passage from page 62:

"I was free and aimed in the direction I had chosen. Like a leaf floating in a creek, I might be stalled briefly in a backwater eddy, but eventually the flow would pick me up and sweep me on downstream - toward my destination."

There is an excellent self-empowerment book called Steering by Starlight: Find Your Right Life, No Matter What! that has an appropriate thought worth pondering:

"You will never realize your best destiny through the avoidance of fear. Rather, you will realize it through the exercise of courage, which means taking whatever action is most liberating to the soul, even when you are afraid....If you do nothing more than choose what feels most "shackles off" to you moment by moment, you will fulfill your best destiny."

I think Kenn Kaufman embodies that spirit in this book and more power to him for that.

Boreal Owl
Photo Credit: USF&WS


Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding (Kaufman Field Guides)

Birders can memorize hundreds of details and still not be able to identify birds if they don’t really understand what’s in front of them.Today birders have access to almost too much information, and their attempts to identify birds can be drowned out by excess detail. The all-new Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding takes a different approach, clarifying the basics and providing a framework for learning about each group. Overall principles of identification are explained in clear language, and ten chapters on specific groups of birds show how these principles can be applied in practice.


  1. Thanks for your reflections about Kenn Kaufman and Kingbird Highway. Not only is Kenn a great birding inspiration, but he was profoundly inspired by Roger Tory Peterson's life and work. Kenn was kind enough to grant me an interview reflecting on Peterson's legacy and the times they spent together for my new book, Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson (Lyons Press, 2008.

    Peterson played a central role in the expansion of birding not only in the US, but also Europe and East Africa. My book details these things, and demonstrates the breadth of his involvement and leadership in nature education and many of the most celebrated conservation causes of the 20th century. From his early 20s onward, Peterson was teaching about all aspects of nature, sometimes informally, sometimes formally, through his writings, lectures, books and work with various conservation organizations.

    Also, the reader learns about Peterson the Man: what motivated him, personal and professional challenges he faced, and his personal impact on many of today's top birders and conservationists.

    I ended up talking to well over 100 people from around the world to put together this portrait of a complex and driven man. Birders, natural history buffs, and conservationists alike will enjoy the book.

    Bill, since I don't see a way of contacting you directly via your blog, I'm hoping that you read this - and that, if you do, you'd be interested in reviewing my book for your blog. I would be happy to send you a review copy. For more information about my book, please go to My e-mail address is Thanks.


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