Monday, March 30, 2009

Meeting Kindred Spirits over Coffee

From back home in Ohio already, Kenn writes: I had a whirlwind weekend, giving three talks in two days, in three very different settings. On Saturday I would get to address an audience of about 300 at the "Shreve Migration Sensation"; on Friday night it was a smaller audience of the top movers and shakers of Audubon’s statewide organization in New York; but in this post I want to talk about what happened Friday afternoon.

The Friday afternoon event was a small gathering, by invitation only, organized by Nancy Castillo and Lois Geshiwim, owners of the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Saratoga Springs, New York. These two had decided some time ago that they wanted to promote the idea of shade-grown, bird-friendly coffee. They had started using their store and their website to educate their customers about this issue, describing how coffee grown in traditional shade plantations supported large populations of native birds, while factory farms of sun-grown coffee would support essentially no birds or wildlife at all. When Nancy and Lois found out that I was going to be in the area, they invited me and my partner, Bill Wilson of Birds & Beans, to give a presentation at their local Wilton Wildlife Preserve.

It was a delightful gathering, with an audience of interested and interesting people. After I gave my migration-and-coffee talk, we had a great question-and-answer session -- I answered the bird questions, Bill Wilson answered the coffee questions -- and a number of people agreed to give the Bird-Friendly Coffee a try. We hope they’ll like it enough to come back for more; if we can build up the demand, we can support those farmers in Latin America who are growing the coffee in the responsible, traditional way.

Here we are squinting into the afternoon sun in front of the WBU banner. From left: Kenn K., Lois Geshiwim and Nancy Castillo of Wild Birds Unlimited, and Bill Wilson of Birds & Beans LLC. If I don't look totally happy in this picture, it's only because I was missing Kim; she was doing BSBO work and couldn't break away for this fast trip to New York.

For me the best part about the afternoon was getting to meet Lois Geshiwim and Nancy Castillo. I’ve been to a lot of wild bird supply stores, and the best ones are owned and managed by people who treat it as more than a job. The best wild bird stores become nature centers in miniature, on the front lines of public education. Nancy and Lois are passionate about birds and nature and conservation, and about sharing the wonders of nature with others. They didn’t decide to promote shade-grown coffee because they thought it would increase their profits -- no, they chose this because it was the right thing to do, because they want to make a difference and help the birds. It’s no surprise to learn that Nancy, on the side, writes a wonderful blog called "The Zen Birdfeeder." These women are truly committed to the subject!

Meeting these two reminded me of the story about workers at a construction site where a cathedral was being built. When the workers were asked about what they were doing, one said, "I’m nailing these frames together," another said, "I’m laying bricks," and so on. But one worker looked up with a smile and said, "I’m building a cathedral." If they don't mind my saying so, something like that applies to Nancy and Lois. They’re not just selling birdseed, they’re changing the world, and it was an inspiration to meet them.

Here's more about their Wild Birds Unlimited store:

Here's a link to Nancy's blog, The Zen Birdfeeder:

Here's more about certified Bird-Friendly coffee:

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Raising Nonprofits

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.
~margaret mead

From Home Base, Kim writes: Well, this logo pretty much sums up a large portion of my life over the last ten years. At our banquet last Saturday night, I used the analogy of an adopted child. I didn't give birth to BSBO --but I couldn't care about it more if I had.

When Kenn came into my life, he took a look at my "child" and saw a lot of potential. And, while the kid needed a lot of work, he could see that the foundation was strong. So, Kenn became the totally supportive step dad; fully engaged in raising this "child".

No offense, of course, to those who are raising actual humans. I admit that I have no human babies of my own. So, I can't speak with any authority on the challenges of parenthood. But, I gotta tell ya...raising a nonprofit is no cakewalk!
You invest your heart and soul in it. Then, you work endlessly to inspire others to invest themselves in it. And, eventually, hopefully, the little nonprofit begins to grow up and do great things in the world. And when the stars finally align, you get to revel in the moments when it shines from all that nurturing.

Last weekend's Annual BSBO Banquet & Weekend Celebration was a series of those moments for me, and I watched with pride and awe as BSBO spread its wings and soared. I just can't say enough about how wonderful this celebration really was. For those of you who have ever planned a big event, you know that no matter how hard you work to make sure that everything runs'll always have a few complaints. Well, after a jam-packed weekend--NOT A SINGLE COMPLAINT! Not one! I can't tell you how proud I am of my staff, the BSBO Board, and all the volunteers who made this happen. And, I have to say, I'm also really proud of Port Clinton (PC), Ohio.

I'll write about this in more detail later, but, we have cultivated great support for the Observatory from the PC business community through something we call our BSBO Business Alliance. We put together an Enterprise Tour on Saturday afternoon, and encouraged birders to visit the businesses who are supporting BSBO. I've heard from several businesses who were part of the tour, and they were thrilled at the number of visitors they had on Saturday. During what is normally an incredibly slow time, their shops were bustling with birders! Nothing like a mutually beneficial partnership! Thanks, Port Clinton!

More later, but, thank you to everyone who came out and spent the weekend with us. From the Friday night ROCKIN FOR THE BIRDS benefit concert at Mango Mamas, Kenn's brilliant Waterfowl ID Workshop on Saturday morning, the evening banquet on Saturday night when our guest speaker, Norman Smith of Massachusetts Audubon received a standing ovation for his incredible program on Snowy & Saw-whet Owls, to the field trips on Sunday morning that filled our eyes, ears, and hearts with the magic of the marsh region.....we had a fabulous time, and, if you were there, we sincerely hope that you did too!
Here are a few links to posts from fellow bloggers who spent the weekend with us:

Friday, March 20, 2009

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

It's spring, the Red-winged Blackbirds are all pumped up and making music, and so are we.

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: In my most recent book, Flights Against the Sunset (published by Houghton Mifflin in 2008), there was a whole chapter ("Nightland") that was an extended essay on sleep deprivation. None of our friends were surprised about that. For Kim and me, sleep is usually pretty far down the list of priorities. There are always too many other interesting things to be doing.

Right now we're a little more crazed than usual. This weekend is the big annual banquet / celebration of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO), and we've been swamped with trying to prepare for it. The observatory has a great staff and a lot of wonderful volunteers, without whom nothing would ever happen (come to think of it, I'm a volunteer). But still, Kim has been going like crazy all week, like a hummingbird on overdrive, dealing with a zillion details relating to the weekend. I never move as fast as she does, but I've been preoccupied with prep for the weekend as well.

Most of the action is taking place in Port Clinton, on Ohio's North Coast. It kicks off tonight (Friday night) with a show by our band, 6-7-8-OH, playing classic rock from 8 to 11 in a benefit concert for the observatory. Tomorrow morning (Saturday) I'm teaching a workshop on field identification of ducks, geese, and swans, a two-hour intensive course (and no, I'm not finished preparing for it yet). Saturday afternoon there's a tour of local businesses in Port Clinton, focusing on the many who have offered support to BSBO. Then in the evening we have the annual banquet, with awards, silent auction, etc., and a featured presentation by Norm Smith from Massachusetts Audubon, showing pictures and talking about his amazing research on Snowy Owls. Then Sunday morning we have field trips followed by a celebratory brunch.

And then maybe we sleep, or at least lie around on the floor with our tongues hanging out.

Ah, Spring! It's such an exciting time of year, the birds are all jazzed up, and so are we! But if you've called or written to us recently and haven't heard back, this is my attempt to explain why!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sage Stuff

Two male Greater Sage-Grouse in display mode

From back home in Ohio, Kenn writes: When Bruce Ackerman picked us up last Saturday morning at our hotel in downtown Boise, Idaho, it was a good two hours before daylight. But we didn’t complain. We were headed out for a fabulous opportunity to watch Greater Sage-Grouse, one of the truly iconic birds of the American West. Kim already wrote about our encounter with those birds, so this post is just to describe some of the other aspects of the day.

I had birded with Bruce Ackerman before, just a few years ago in Florida, when he was president of the Audubon chapter in St. Petersburg. Now he’s the president of the Golden Eagle Audubon Society (GEAS) in Boise -- he gets around! Also along this morning were Mike Morrison, one of the stellar field birders of GEAS, and David Hazelton, the chapter’s field trip chairman, known to his followers as "All Day Dave." Rounding out the party were Dr. Jay Carlisle, research director of the Idaho Bird Observatory, and Heidi Ware, one of the observatory’s most talented volunteers.

If we had been going out seeking Greater Sage-Grouse two centuries earlier, we wouldn’t have had to travel two hours to a specific spot to find them. The birds were abundant then, and good habitat for them covered a huge area of the West. The total sage-grouse population probably has declined by 90 percent from historic levels. The species isn’t listed as endangered -- such listing would have been inconvenient for pals of the previous administration -- but it clearly merits that designation. The biggest threat to Greater Sage-Grouse and to its sagebrush habitat, though, is a surprising one; they’re threatened by exotic grasses.

At one time, Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) covered tens of thousands of square miles. The individual "bushes," sometimes standing more than ten feet tall, were spaced out with relatively little ground cover in between them. Lightning strikes would occasionally cause fires in the sagebrush flats, but the fires seldom spread far.

That was before non-native grasses were introduced into the West. Cheatgrass and other grasses, brought in from other continents, have spread throughout the sagebrush country. Areas that once had little or no ground cover now have a dense, continuous buildup of dead grasses. Now when lightning strikes, the fires can rage across miles of habitat. The exotic grasses are adapted to fire and they come back stronger than ever afterwards, but the sagebrush is weakened or even killed by the blazes. So year by year, the classic sagebrush habitat is being replaced gradually by boring flats of non-native grass. The birds that depend on sagebrush, such as Sage Thrasher, Sage Sparrow, and Greater Sage-Grouse, are being squeezed out.

The problem is big enough that it’s hard for individual conservationists to do anything about it. Scientists are working on it, trying to come up with biological controls that can rid the sagebrush habitat of these non-native grasses. The members of the Golden Eagle Audubon Society and the Idaho Bird Observatory are well aware of the situation, but aren’t in a position to attack the problem directly; they do great work by educating the public about the value of birds and wildlife, helping to build up a constituency of people who will care about the survival of sagebrush habitat and its wonderful birds.

For Kim and me, with our involvement with Black Swamp Bird Observatory, it was inspiring to see the great relationship between the Golden Eagle Audubon chapter and the Idaho Bird Observatory. They know how to work together. They also know how to have fun together. Birders in general are fun people, but this Idaho gang was outrageously fun, and we were seeing great birds and laughing like maniacs all morning.

One of the neat things going on here was a friendly year-list competition between Jay, the observatory’s research director, and Heidi, a relative newcomer to birding who is already scary-good in the field. Just two and a half months into the year, their competition had already attracted attention from birders throughout the northwest, and they were running a blog about their progress. Members of Golden Eagle Audubon, and birders from elsewhere in Idaho, were cheering them on.

All in all, Kim and I were impressed at how much was going on in the bird community around Boise, and we were totally grateful to Golden Eagle Audubon for inviting us to come and visit. Check out these links for more info (the URLs should be self-explanatory):

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Grouse Business is Booming!

From Boise, Idaho, Kim writes: When Susan Hazelton from Golden Eagle Audubon (GEA) in Boise, Idaho contacted me about having Kenn give their 2009 banquet address, my first reaction was, “There’s no way we can do this!” Kenn and I had decided that our 2009 schedule was full enough, and that we just couldn’t accept any more requests. But, when Susan told me that the proceeds of the banquet went to the Idaho Bird Observatory (IBO), we both agreed, “We have to do this!” (Oh…and it didn’t hurt that she mentioned the possibility of seeing Greater Sage-Grouse!!)

Greater Sage-Grouse are birds that I've had no experience with. I just haven’t spent time in the right places with the right people. That all changed this morning! Several people from IBO and GEA took us out to search for grouse. David Hazelton, one of GEA’s top field trip leaders, had done some scouting yesterday, and, in spite of the fact that it’s pretty early in the season, he found several birds on a few different leks. We had good looks at a few birds at the first stop--mostly foraging and not displaying--but still fascinating. I was pretty stoked to finally see these guys. But, when we got to the last stop, I got to see them in all out boy grouse mode. Nine males were visible at once! And, in spite of the fact that there were no females present, they were really into being male grouse. Strutting, booming, and totally inflated, it was quite a show! I gotta tell ya, I’m no sage-grouse…but I was diggin it! We were close enough to hear the birds during these displays, and I was mesmerized! Even now, hours later, I'm still wearing my "grouse grin!" Here are a few pictures of these gorgeous birds and their outrageous displays.

In this picture a male Greater Sage-Grouse (looking a lot like a female in two obvious ways)
does its best Mae West impersonation.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Brew the Right Thing

From home base in Ohio, Kenn writes: Last weekend, Kim was posting updates while I was away in Massachusetts promoting shade-grown coffee. She promised that I would provide more info on that, so I’m here to make an honest woman out of her.

Black-throated Green Warbler: often winters in coffee plantations in Central America

If you read Bird Watcher’s Digest (and you should!), you may have seen my column in the Jan / Feb 2009 issue, talking about coffee. To recount it briefly: as a birder in my early twenties, I spent a lot of time birding in Mexico in winter, and I soon found that coffee plantations were great birding spots. These were farms growing coffee the traditional way, in deep shade. The growers (usually family groups or villages) would clear out the undergrowth in native forest and plant coffee bushes, tending to their crops by hand. My friends and I found that such spots were full of birds, both local tropical species and many migrants from the north. All winter I could enjoy birds from "back home" spending the season in the shade-coffee plantations.

A few years later I made a shocking and depressing discovery: there was a strain of coffee that could be grown in full sun, and it was rapidly replacing traditional shade coffee all over Latin America. The old shaded plantations, with their abundant birdlife, were being replaced by sterile "factory farms" of coffee growing in the glaring sun. Sun-coffee farms supported essentially no birds at all, they were subject to major soil erosion, and they required lots of fertilizers and pesticides to keep them going. And the disappearance of the shade-coffee plantations was a disaster for wintering populations of North American nesting birds.

Baltimore Oriole, male: often common in shade-coffee plantations in winter

Some people have been working on this issue for years. Careful studies in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean have documented the value of shade-coffee plantations for birdlife. And a number of scientists and conservationists have been trying to convince birders to demand shade-grown coffee. There are good reasons for supporting shade coffee; it usually provides better working conditions for the farmers (cooler shade, fewer chemicals), it’s a premium product that tastes better so it should be possible to sell it at a higher price, and of course it protects bird populations.

By now, many birders have at least vaguely heard about the concept. Unfortunately, some companies have jumped on just the edge of the bandwagon -- but only to the extent of marketing, not genuinely working to guarantee the sources of their coffee. So birders may buy a product that claims to be "shade-grown" but really isn’t. There are different levels of shade, after all, and the term may be slapped on any coffee that was grown in the sun with a few trees nearby.

To address this problem, scientist / conservationists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) have developed criteria for certifying truly "Bird-Friendly" coffee. The SMBC standards are quite stringent, and any farm that meets these criteria will support birds, and people, too: these are almost automatically organic and fair-trade farms as well. SMBC certification is the gold standard for genuine shade-grown, Bird-Friendly coffee. But SMBC-certified coffee is still not easy to find, because birders haven’t been demanding it.

Wilson's Warbler: often common in winter in shade-coffee plantations in Mexico

That’s where we come in. Our good friend Scott Weidensaul, the great nature writer (Living on the Wind, Return to Wild America, and two dozen other books) put me in touch with Bill Wilson, a marketing genius who is determined to make a difference for bird conservation. Wilson has started a company called Birds & Beans (as in coffee beans). Three artisan coffee roasters are now working with Birds & Beans, and are being supplied only by SMBC-certified Bird-Friendly plantations. Scott Weidensaul and I are helping to get the word out, and so is Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, who is a professor at York University, a leading researcher on bird migration, and author of the wonderful book Silence of the Songbirds.

Ultimately the goal is to create more demand for the certified Bird-Friendly coffee so that farmers growing the right thing will be able to maintain these quality shade plantations and will be able to support their families. We in turn will benefit by having populations of migrant birds coming back each spring from these safe wintering havens. I’m no businessperson, but I understand how all these things are connected. If birders in the U.S. and Canada will insist on Bird-Friendly coffee, we can actually shift the market in a way that will protect bird habitat.

Please check out the website for Birds & Beans: Even if you’re not a coffee drinker yourself, think of all your coffee-drinking birding friends who would appreciate such a thoughtful gift, and think of all the birds that would appreciate it also!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Kenn's Totally Caffeinated Adventure

From Home base, Kim Writes: I thought I'd give an update on Kenn's progress with the Birds & Beans project this weekend. Kenn is one of the "Voices for the Birds" on the project. I love the sound of that! The dude has done some pretty amazing things, but, I have to say that I am particularly proud of his involvement with this project. He's just insanely busy right now, but committed to invest his time for this cause anyway. Thanks to all of those who showed their support by commenting on the blog, and eMailed me privately to help me cheer him on!

It's been great hearing from people around the country who are already "up" on shade-grown coffee. Although, as my good friend Dave pointed out, some people might need to consider the sanity of others before consuming too much! I hear ya Dave! The staff at the bird observatory will not allow me to drink much coffee. Picture a kinglet with a caffeine buzz. T-R-O-U-B-L-E! But, when I do, I always drink the coffee that's got it made in the shade!

So, anyway, about that update:
I spoke to Kenn early this morning and, though it's been a long weekend, he's still rarin' to go. He was in route to the final talk in the lecture series, and sounding filled with energy and enthusiasm! He's fired-up about this cause, but his energy level might also have something to do with the fact that he's been riding around all weekend in a car that's filled with the aroma from the trunk, which is "filled to the brim" with bags and bags of coffee. Can you get a coffee contact buzz? I guess Kenn's finding out!

If we drank de-caf, I'd call Kenn's lecture series the "De-Caf-alon." Wouldn't that be a great title? But hey, with the kind of pace we keep in "Kaufman Land" we are all about the caffeine, baby! Kenn's totally caffeinated adventure began with a talk in the Boston area. It's so cool that "Picus", one of our blog followers, was actually THERE and gave me an on-the-scene report! THANKS PICUS!! The second talk was at the Mass Audubon's annual birders' conference. And, the final talk takes place today at the Mass Audubon headquarters at Drumlin Farm. It sounds like things are going great, and lots of people are coming out to learn about the concept of shade-grown coffee. Go Kenn!!!!

I know that Kenn is planning a post filled with details about Birds & Beans, and I don't want to preempt that. But, I thought I'd least give you the link to the website so you could learn a bit more about what this is all about.. AND ORDER YOURSELF SOME COFFEE!!! : )

Friday, March 6, 2009

Shake your shade-grown pom-poms!

From home base , Kim writes: Kenn will be in the Boston area this weekend giving a series of presentations on the importance of shade-grown coffee to migratory birds. I won't go into detail about the project in this post; I'll let Kenn fill us in when he returns. Instead, I'm writing to ask all of you to join my "Cheer Kenn On" Committee! Help me show support for this important issue--and for Kenn this weekend!

Here's how you can help: I challenge each of you to do a bit of research on this subject this weekend. And, if you're already a shade-grown coffee expert, why not make a point to share the concept with someone new this weekend. Better yet--share the idea with your favorite restaurant or coffee house!

I'll keep you posted on Kenn's progress throughout the weekend. Kenn and I don't ever like to be apart, but I'm cheering from the sidelines this time because the band has a big gig this weekend. Those of you who know us, or follow our blog, know that Kenn is the bass guitar player in our band, and you're probably wondering how this will work. I'm wondering myself! We have a stand-in for Kenn, and it's going to be REALLY hard to rock without him.

Kenn was not at all happy about missing the gig, but he really believes in the shade-grown coffee issue. And hey, through this process we've been able to introduce some of the people here in Northwest Ohio about the issue simply by explaining why our "noted bird expert and bass guitar player" (a recent quote from a local newspaper!) isn't going to be here tonight.

Thanks for helping me cheer Kenn on and for doing YOUR part to help spread the word about shade-grown coffee!


Monday, March 2, 2009

Antarctica, Day Three: Beautiful Female on the Beach

From home base in Ohio, Kenn writes: We already wrote about some of the birds we saw on January 9, our first full day in the Falkland Islands (see previous posts on "Punks and Saints" and "Carcass Characters"). But I haven’t yet mentioned my favorite bird of the day.

First, some background. The South American geese of the genus Chloephaga make up a very distinctive group, apparently not closely related to the well-known geese of the northern hemisphere. They are fantastically patterned birds, and in some the females and males are strikingly different in appearance.

For example, above is the male Upland Goose, from Saunders Island ...

And here is the female of the same species.

In the afternoon of January 9 on Carcass Island we had our best close studies of another goose in this group, the Kelp Goose. This all-white bird is the male. Sort of blah, right? Just another white bird. Looks kind of like a barnyard duck.

Now here are the male and female Kelp Goose together. The bland male is totally upstaged by the classy female -- she is elegantly marked with white patterning on deepest chocolate-black.

In fact, the female Kelp Goose is one of my favorite bird plumages in the world. There’s just something about that pattern that makes me want to get out my sketch books and pencils and paints, to have an excuse to just study that pattern.

Here’s another portrait of the female Kelp Goose. I would go out on a limb and say that this was the second-most-beautiful female that I saw on the whole trip. (Obviously, THE most beautiful female was Kim.) True to their name, Kelp Geese are most numerous right along the shoreline, among the rocks and the kelp washed up at the high tide mark. We had seen them in Tierra del Fuego also, even right along the waterfront in the city of Ushuaia, but the Falklands gave us our closest views.