Kemper opens our eyes to songbirds, raptors, wildlife

April 6, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Woodland resident John Kemper, former dean of the College of Engineering at UC Davis from 1969 to 1983, has found retirement to be anything but boring. He can hardly keep up with all the projects he has undertaken.

One of those projects included the recent compilation of his newspaper and newsletter nature columns into a book, "Discovering Yolo County Wildlife." The slim paperback was published last year by the Yolo Audubon Society and the Yolo Basin Foundation. It sells for $9.95 (the proceeds are divided between the two conservation groups) and can be found in local bookstores.

Kemper is just the kind of guy you want to have along on a nature hike because he's knowledgeable, experienced and tells a good story.

Much of this knowledge and experience has been distilled between the pages of his book, framed within personal anecdotes, which makes it enjoyable to read.

"Thank you, I worked hard to achieve that effect," he said in a recent interview.

"I've had an interest in wildlife all my life, especially in birds, and after I retired I became more active in the Yolo Audubon Society," Kemper added.

After writing columns for the newsletters he then offered a column to The Davis Enterprise, which the newspaper runs monthly. From there, it wasn't much of stretch to put together a book.

"It took on the order of four months working almost full-time, putting it together on my computer and drawing the maps," he said. Kemper also drew all the wonderful black and white illustrations in the book. I particularly like the sketch of an angry looking burrowing owl, his right talon pinning a lizard firmly on the ground as he glares straight at the reader.

"I grew up in Palo Alto, which was then a small town, loving birds and wildlife. There was countryside nearby. I was an Eagle Scout, too, and I had to know a terrible total of 21 birds which was very had to do at that time. That piqued my interest and I kept it up all my life."

Many people share his interest -- 25 million people over the age of 18 in this country are birders. And Yolo County is a rich place for birding.

"I've lived in Yolo County for something like 35 years and I've always loved it because of the farm fields and the atmosphere but until about the past 10 years I wasn't really so conscious of the fact that bird life and other animal life in Yolo County was as rich as it is," said Kemper.

He credits this growing appreciation to his association with the Yolo Audubon Society, which encouraged him to explore the area. His book lists 39 different places in Yolo County to go to see birds and other wildlife like otters and elk.

A sad chapter in the story of Yolo County wildlife concerns the burrowing owls. Only a decade ago there were nearly 50 of these little owls on the UCD campus but now there are virtually none. They don't mind people that much - they can coexist with humans -- but they need wide open spaces for foraging habitat.

"Burrowing owls all over the state - except for the Imperial Valley - are in decline and they are headed for endangered status just as clearly as anything," Kemper said.

Falcon Press has asked Kemper to write a birding guide for Northern California and he's currently at work on that project.

He says there is virtually no difference between the birds that can be found in Yolo County and those found in Solano County with one important exception: the black rail. Solano County has it, Yolo doesn't.

"Many birders put the black rail on the list of birds they'd most like to see," Kemper said.

"It's a very unusual bird, very hard to see and very tiny. It hides in the Suisun Marsh and is only visible at very high tide when it's forced out of its hiding places."

But, on the other hand, Yolo has something that would make Arizona cowboys feel right at home: roadrunners. Betty Nelson in Guinda wrote a letter to her Audubon friends wondering why no one was interested in the roadrunner that had take up residence near her home.

"Two days later," Kemper wrote, "I was standing in Betty's yard, watching a roadrunner at work, hunting insects."

He says there are about 300 different bird species in Yolo County. He's seen many, about 255 or 260, not all of them. That's what keeps birders coming back.

But I had to ask the kind Mr. Kemper why he didn't include any mention of my favorite bird - the mourning dove.

"They're so common!" he replied. "But a wonderful little bird."

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