Published by Hilltromper Santa Cruz | September 2013
By L. Clark Tate
Clay Kempf is a soul birder. It’s not about the lists for him, or about having a big year. He just loves being outside. If a bird happens to fly by while he basks in Mother Nature’s glory, so much the better. In fact it might be more accurate to say Kempf is a soul naturalist who happens to watch birds.
Introduced to birding in a college ornithology class, Kempf didn’t take to it right away. “I had this fear that if I was labeling birds I would somehow stop experiencing them,” he says, “but it was the opposite. I started to see all the details of the birds.” Their markings, their feet, the color of their bills; he was hooked. “That’s really how I got into birding.”
He made friends through the class and kept birding for a time. But then he suffered a serious setback: lost binoculars. Kempf fell out of the hobby. But true loves tend to return. He got a new set of binoculars for his 28th birthday, joined the Santa Cruz Bird Club and got right back to birding.
Since then, Kempf has amassed a trove of birding knowledge. And he isn’t stingy with his cerebral stash. He’s led trips and taught birding classes for 20 years, contributed to birding guides (the Guide to Birding in Santa Cruz County and one for the Panoche Valley in San Benito County) and is unable to count the number of emails titled “Monterey Bay Birding Festival” that have piled up in his inbox.
Out And About
For Central California birders, the Monterey Bay Birding Festival (Sept. 12-16, 2013) is the event of the year, and Kempf is a crucial part of it. As incredible as many of the festival’s speakers and workshops are each year, though, Kempf is still a college student at heart. “The main thing I’m excited about is the field trips,” he says.
One particular past outing to the Central Valley stands out in his mind. Kempf recalls a quiet, reserved man who didn’t seem particularly excited. “Then we were standing under a huge flock of snow geese with some sandhill cranes mixed in and he just looked at me and said: ‘This is just awesome. I wish my friends who weren’t birders could see this, and then they would understand.’ And I saw that he was really into it, really getting it, getting the magic,” recalls Kempf.
So where does this local avian luminary spend quality time with his binocs? The obviously enticing waters of Monterey Bay are his first choice (“I love going out on the ocean on pelagic bird trips”)—but he also tromps around on less hallowed ground: Kempf loves mudflats, especially in the fall. Seemingly barren stretches of water, dirt, and grass, mudflats teem with critters that, to a ravenous migrating bird, are perfectly delectable and conveniently snack-sized. Such a buffet appeals to practically every passing flock, so the potential to sight a wide variety of species is high. On one such mudflat run, Kempf spied a “mega-rarity,” the lesser sand-plover, marking the first-ever sighting of this Asian shorebird in Santa Cruz County. For Kempf, such rarities are the most special of sightings. “It’s kind of like a treasure hunt; you never know what you’re going to see.”
Actually, finding the treasure is just a bonus, though. What Kempf really loves is the hunt. “The coolest thing about birding is just getting out and enjoying the sense of awe in nature,” he says. Birding has taken him to new, incredible habitats. Take Yosemite. A world-class wilderness, Yosemite is a great place to go birding. To Kempf, “Seeing mountain bluebirds at Tuolumne Meadow—one of the most beautiful birds in one of the most beautiful places in the world—is just the best.”
Closer to home, his Monterey Bay backyard can offer a fresh perspective on the familiar. Even an overlooked gull (and if you ever see a black-tie-ready Sabine’s gull you’ll rethink your indifference) can gleam with glamor when a flock of them skims over the back of a surfacing blue whale amid sunlit spray. As Kempf sees it, “That’s the thrill of it, seeking those sublime moments in nature.”
Dreams on The Wing
Partially because the birding is so good right here in Monterey Bay, Kempf hasn’t traveled extensively to pursue sighting exotic birds. “And for that reason I’m kind of an exception amongst birders. I have gone out of state on birding trips, but never internationally,” he says. “It’s definitely on my to-do list.”
Where would he go first? “My number one and, well, number one and number one ‘A’ would be Antarctica and Africa,” Kempf says. Antarctica ranks first due to the exotic species found there—the penguins and albatrosses. And Africa? It’s all about the mammals. “Combining the birding with the mammal extravaganza would be a spectacular trip.” That’s when Kempf gives the big reveal: he’d rather be “mammaling.” But actually seeing a puma or antelope while “mammaling” is a dicey proposition, whereas one can actually expect to see birds on any given outing. So that’s what he does.
As amazing as these trips will one day be, Kempf is pretty content here at home. “Some people have a list of birds that they’d like to see. I’m not as driven by that. I really like seeing rare birds on my own or with one other person. You’re not always catching the rarities when you travel.” It’s hard to argue with his field-tested perspective. Let other birders keep their birds on a checklist; Kempf likes them in context, gorgeously framed by the natural world they inhabit.