Birds of a feather: Kimberly and Kenn Kaufman share a love of birds and nature

Kimberly Kaufman sat aboard the tour bus in Texas, bird guide in hand, excitedly waiting for the guide to board the bus and lead an excursion to find colorful and unusual birds.

A researcher and board member for Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Oak Harbor at the time, Kimberly had flown to Texas for her first big trip, the Texas Tropics Birding and Nature Festival.

“This really gorgeous guy gets on the bus,” says Kimberly, recalling that day in April 2001. “He gets on the mic, and he explains that our guide got called away. He says his name is Kenn Kaufman.”

Kimberly looked down at her field guide, written by Kenn Kaufman, and beyond thrilled that the renowned birder and author would be leading the trip. 

“Looking back, I think I fell in love with him that day, watching him be so enthusiastic about birds I knew he’d seen before,” she says. “He just left everyone so excited about birding and what we had seen.”

Kenn noticed Kimberly that day, too. The pair reconnected nearly two years later in February 2003 when Kenn, who was living in Arizona, flew to Columbus to speak at Black Swamp Bird Observatory’s anniversary banquet. While there, he led a birding hike in an area park.

“When you’re a field trip leader, you try to pay equal attention to everyone there,” Kenn says. “It’s considered bad form if the guy leading the trip is just paying attention to this pretty girl. At the end of the trip, I’m feeling like I’m missing a chance to connect with this beautiful, mysterious girl.”

Then something cold and wet hit him in the back. 

A snowball fight is what initially brought Kim and Kenn Kaufman together. (Photo/Courtesy of Kim and Kenn Kaufman)He turned around to see Kimberly, who had just pelted him with a snowball, grinning at him. He threw one right back at her. A 15-minute snowball fight between the pair and other birders ensued. 

“We’re soaking wet from snow and out of breath from laughing,” Kenn said. “It definitely had an impact on me. For months, I tried to forget about this gorgeous snow angel. I dreamed up some question I could ask her about birds so I could write to her, and it developed from there.”

In 2005, he and Kimberly were married and settled in rural Oak Harbor. They quickly became a celebrity couple in the birding world and a force for research, conservation and ecotourism.

“Anyone who's an avid birder is going to know their names,” says Larry Fletcher, president of Shores and Islands Ohio. “They could live anywhere. To have them here and promoting this region as a prime birding location absolutely results in more people discovering us and discovering this area. If Kenn and Kim say it's a great place to go, we know it's going to deliver.”

Since 2009, Kimberly has been the executive director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory, which conducts bird migration research and puts on the Biggest Week in American Birding with Shores and Islands Ohio and Destination Toledo. Each year, the Biggest Week brings thousands of people from around the world to Northwest Ohio. 

Kimberly also brings her ecotourism expertise to Shores and Islands Ohio as a member of its board of trustees. 

She has touted the impact birding and habitat conservation has had on the region in conferences and events. In December, she will speak in Uganda in Eastern Africa at the International Conference for Women Birders

With Kenn, she has co-written two field guides, “Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England” and “Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest.” In 2015, the American Birding Association awarded her the prestigious Chandler Robbins Award for her work in education and conservation regarding birds. 

Kenn has written numerous field guides and other works related to birding and nature, including birding memoir “Kingbird Highway,” and is a field editor for Audubon Magazine. He is working on a historical book about the study of birds in the 1800s in North America. 

He has led excursions and spoken about birding around the world. On top of his birding expertise and writing, he is an accomplished painter of birds. 

Together, the couple write an “Ask the Experts” column on birding and nature for Birds & Blooms magazine. 

Twelve years ago, the Kaufmans, with Black Swamp Bird Observatory and its tourism partners, started the Biggest Week. This event continues to have a major impact on tourism throughout northern Ohio, especially Lucas to Erie counties, during a time of year that precedes the normal tourist season. 

The marshes of Northwest Ohio are prime birding habitat for migrating birds, especially warblers and shorebirds, that stop, rest and refuel on plants and insects before making the long flight north across Lake Erie. The birds migrate from South and Central America and head north each spring to breeding grounds in the northern United States and in Canada. 

The Biggest Week took advantage of this world-class birding, began marketing it to a large audience and dubbed Northwest Ohio the “The Warbler Capital of the World.”
In talking with the couple, they deflect credit for these achievements to each other and to their partners in the birding field. 

Kenn points out that he isn’t a part of Black Swamp, but he has been a presenter during the Biggest Week. Kimberly argues that Kenn’s involvement gave the festival credibility that contributed to its success.

“We’re working in the same field, but most of our work is really separate,” Kenn says. “There’s a lot of cross-pollination of ideas.”

Although birds are their main passion, they love all aspects of nature, from the spider weaving an intricate web outside their window to the turtles sunning themselves on logs in the marsh along the Magee Marsh boardwalk. Sharing that passion with each and others is what drives them. 

For Kenn, that passion began when he was 6 and growing up in Kansas. He would watch house finches and sparrows. 

“When you get close to the birds on the lawn, they’re so intensely alive,” he said. “It was the sheer intensity and aliveness of these creatures that fascinated me. It still fascinates me. “

Kimberly’s passion began in her ‘20s when she noticed bright yellow birds at a feeder and learned they were goldfinches. They looked like escaped canaries, and she was intrigued. 

“That moment changed the entire course of my life,” she says. “I thought if something that beautiful has been around my whole life, what else is out there? When I found birds, it gave me such a purpose in life. I felt like this is what I’m supposed to do.”
Their work aims to share the joy of nature with others and educate them about the importance of animals, habitat and conservation. 

“I think we make a good team,” Kimberly says. “Every day of my life, I’m thankful I get to be with Kenn. He hasn’t stopped inspiring me and motivating me and bringing joy to my life all these years later.” 

For the Kaufmans, it is rewarding to see others share that love and for Northwest Ohio to benefit from its connection to world-class habitat and birding.

“Being able to live here and do something good and shine a bright, positive light on a place where we work and live is really a wonderful thing,” Kimberly says. “I’ve seen birds make such an enormous difference in people’s lives. I feel like it’s the greatest gift I can give is to connect people with birds.”