A routine business meeting was the unusual trigger for Kimberly Kaufman’s birding career. She is now not only a recognized bird expert and author, but also director of the renowned Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio. In this interview, Kimberly talks about the moment when birds became her life’s mission, what birding means to her, and her best birding experience.
I grew up on a farm in Ohio where we spent every possible moment outdoors. However, despite that, I only discovered birds in my late twenties. I was at a meeting at an office not far from home when I noticed several blazing gold birds at a feeder outside the window. They were stunning, and I was completely mesmerized! When I asked the woman at the counter what they were, she told me they were American Goldfinches (Carduelis tristis), and that they were quite common in our area. My entire life changed in that instant. The very idea that I had failed to connect with something as fabulous as these bright yellow birds, despite the fact that they had been around me my entire life, awoke a burning desire within me. At that moment, birds became my life’s mission.
Birding – and bird conservation – is my life. And being married to world-renowned bird expert, Kenn Kaufman, I have the perfect companion and partner for this lifestyle. Kenn and I agree that an awareness and appreciation for birds is the greatest gift we can ever give to someone. Birds and nature are a constant source of discovery and joyfulness, and time in nature can enhance the quality of our lives in myriad ways.
I know this might sound sappy, but I say this with all sincerity. My favorite place for birding is right in our own backyard. Kenn and I have worked hard to transform our three acres in northwest Ohio into a nature sanctuary. And being there with Kenn is the happiest, most peaceful and joyful place in the world for me.
Without a doubt, it was an encounter with a Pennant-winged Nightjar (Caprimulgus vexillarius) near Punda Maria in South Africa. During the months leading up to our trip, I spent hours poring over the field guides, trying to absorb as much as I could. However, I will admit to you that I skipped the nightjars completely, focusing on birds that we were more likely to see. I had absolutely no idea what was waiting for us at the other end of a dark and dusty drive. I had not even heard Kenn or the guide speak the name of the bird that we were to encounter. Mentally and emotionally, I was totally unprepared for it.
At that moment, for the first time in my life, I truly understood the meaning of the word “surreal.” With the light fading fast, our guide whispered, “Here he comes.” And out of the sunset flew an angel. A miracle with wings. A dream bird that exceeded all my expectations of how extraordinary a bird could be.
My mind struggled to process what was happening, for this could not possibly be a real bird. The answer was surely, no.This was a scrap of silk cut from the deepest, darkest night sky, drifting over our heads in the most ethereal sky ballet, with feathers like ribbons streaming behind. This bird ruled the skies. And it ruled my heart, too.
The Pennant-winged Nightjar was a bird that Kenn had dreamed of seeing ever since he was a boy. He took this magnificent photo. I never even lifted my camera. I was so utterly captivated that it never even occurred to me. Truth is, after I watched this miracle bird pass by once, I turned to watch Kenn’s face. I did not even need to see the bird to know how special it was. Everything I needed to know was reflected in Kenn’s eyes.
Kimberly Kaufman is an Ohio native whose lifelong love of the outdoors grew into a passion for birds in the 1990s. She was appointed education director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) and executive director four years later. Kaufman still holds this position today. She is a contributing editor to Birds & Blooms magazine and has published several specialist books together with her husband Kenn Kaufman. In 2015, Kimberly Kaufman received the American Birding Association’s prestigious Chandler Robbins Award. Away from work, she is still closely involved in the bird world. At her home in Ohio, she has transformed her garden into a natural refuge. She describes it as: “My favorite place to watch birds.”
The Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in Harbor, Ohio, was founded in 1992 by a group of biologists to study bird migration and the habitat requirements of songbirds, raptors, shorebirds, and rails. The BSBO also has a strong focus on education and youth work, for example with the Ohio Young Birders Club for ages 12–18. 2019 marks the tenth anniversary of the BSBO’s Biggest Week in American Birding – the largest birding event in America. Held in northwest Ohio, known as “the warbler capital of the world,” the ten-day festival features a packed program for birders.