Wings over water: Author Jonathan Franzen to speak at Birding Festival

(A flock of American white pelicans cruise the water of Harkins Slough in Watsonville. Photo by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE — The annual Monterey Bay Birding Festival returns next weekend, and in addition to extensive birding and wildlife viewing, this year’s event will also feature some renowned keynote speakers.

Jonathan Franzen, internationally-acclaimed writer and avid birder who currently resides in Santa Cruz, will speak to festival-goers on Sept. 29 at 7 p.m. at the Watsonville City Council Chambers. The presentation, entitled “Seabirds: Their Beauty, Their Amazingness, Their Plight,” focuses on seabirds and their threatened environments.

For Franzen, the world of birds was first revealed to him in New York City, where hundreds of species use Central Park and other locations in the metropolis as a migratory stop-over every year.

But moving to the West Coast was what really changed things for the writer, known best for his award-winning 2001 novel “The Corrections.”

“It’s only a bit of a stretch to say it was coming to Santa Cruz that really turned me into a birder,” Franzen said. “It really began here.”

Franzen’s partner, writer Kathy Chetkovich, is from Santa Cruz. Chetkovich’s family are keen bird watchers, Franzen said, and eventually they began teaching him what to look out for.

“What really struck me was watching the pelicans diving off of West Cliff Drive,” Franzen recalled. “It was incredible. From then on, I began noticing birds in a way I hadn’t before.”

Over the years, Franzen has written on the subject of birds for a number of publications, including The New Yorker and National Geographic. He has also served on the board of the American Bird Conservancy for the past nine years. In 2015, the writer received the EuroNatur Award for his conservation work.

For his appearance at the upcoming Monterey Bay Birding Festival, Franzen will focus on California’s seabirds — their behaviors, habitats and what threatens their survival.


“Seabirds are elusive,” Franzen said. “Most of their life is spent on open water, where humans can’t easily follow. There’s a real mystery to them.”

Franzen said he will shed light on what is being done to protect the creatures through environmental safeguarding efforts.

“It’s difficult work,” he said. “There are lots of threats to these birds. But it’s exciting, and inspiring, to see what is being done to protect them.”

The Monterey Bay is one of the most famous places in the world to view seabirds, thanks to its protected and easily accessible coastline and wealth of birdwatching cruises. Which directly correlates to the region’s dedication to conservation, Franzen said.

“My partner’s brother once told me, ‘When you create a birder, you create a conservationist,’” he said. “It’s that simple.”

The day before Franzen’s appearance, naturalist, educator and artist John Muir Laws will give a presentation entitled “Thinking like a Naturalist: Reclaiming the Art of Natural History” at 7 p.m. Both speakers will add to an already full schedule of field trips, workshops and presentations throughout the three-day Monterey Bay Birding Festival.

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