I compete with birds

When Peter Kaestner is not holding visa interviews at the US Embassy in Delhi, he prefers nurturing his ambition of spotting all the 10,000 known bird species. He has spotted 8,200 so far. He has also discovered a new bird in Colombia which is named after him. Arnab Pratim Dutta caught up with him. Excerpts:

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Peter KaestnerWhy did you become a bird watcher?

I remember getting exhilarated on seeing a bird when I was five. I was 10, when I went on an international bird-watching trip in 1963. My elder brother Hank took me to the Bahamas for a day. When I was 14, I took my younger brother who was 12 for three days to the Bahamas. We did not have any credit cards and not much money. We landed at the Nassau airport and decided to walk to Kingston through a mangrove, suitcases in hand. In the mangrove was a thick billed vireo, a new bird for me. I got all excited.Then a man drove up and asked, what are you guys doing? We said we were walking it to Kingston. He said you can't walk to Kingston, it is 30 km away. He gave us a ride and found us a hotel.

I went to Cornell University with the idea of becoming an ornithologist. When I was leaving the university, I was not sure if I wanted to become a professional ornithologist or if my calling lay elsewhere. A good friend told me if I became an ornithologist, I would lose my hobby. I thought that was very wise advice and took two years off as a science teacher in a tiny village in Zaire. I worked there from 1976 to 1978 on a yearly salary of us $1,500.

What brought you to India?

Yeah, I came to see birds. I was here for 10 months in 1968. I was a ninth grade student then. I managed to see about 150 bird species.

Then I came here in 1981-1982, as a foreign service officer. I had to work hard then because there were only three officers in the consular section in the US embassy. The consulate general did not do any work. The other chap was declared persona non grata and kicked out of India. For a long time I was the only one working in the consular section. So I could not get out as much as I wanted to. I used to go to Sultanpur all the time. There was no Gurgaon! Palam airport was a tiny place. Sultanpur was in the middle of a desert. There were no trees, no reeds, and very little water in the lake. But I did see some very interesting birds: dalmatian pelicans, white tailed eagle, adjutant storks. Stuff you don't see any more there.

You are not a typical diplomat then?

A typical diplomat goes to receptions, plays golf, hangs out with other diplomats and talks to people in the government. Bird watching helps me appreciate the country much more than a typical diplomat. I tend to have very different experiences and very different perspectives.

One reason I am in the consular business is because I can be in Manila or Mexico or India or any other place. If I was a political officer, then I would have to spend more of my time in one region: say South Asia or East Asia.

Tell us about your expedition to Colombia where you discovered a new bird species ?

It was not really an expedition. I had driven to a place called Dio Vercencia, on the eastern edge of the Andes Mountains. The Colombian capital Bogot is at about 2,700 metres on these mountains. Near Dio Vercencia was the headquarters of an American mission group which was facing security problems. I had gone there just to tell them that the embassy cared about them. They were building a road right behind their little village. The road was going to connect to a television tower. Bird watchers love television towers--all telecommunication towers in fact. Because there is always a road that goes up to them and they are usually up in the mountains, with nothing around them. That means good birding.

Driving along that road I heard a bird sound I did not recognize. It went wheet wheet wheet. I tape recorded and played it back. After about 45 minutes the bird popped up on a log and started singing. Goodness gracious! I knew it was not a bird known to be found in Colombia. I knew it was not migratory. Inside the Amazonian jungles, birds are sedentary. They don't migrate. I did not know whether it was a Peruvian or a Bolivian bird, that has just never been discovered in Colombia.

In the 1980s, there were no books on the birds of Peru, Bolivia or Ecuador. So I got home and went through a world list. I knew its genus: Galleria antipitta. I looked at the list of all the Galleria antipittas, I counted every bird in the list and I knew it was something new.

You've been compared to precision bombers, you know what you want to see.

Ha Ha. That's not far off the truth. If I am going to an area for the first time, I spend hours ascertaining where exactly birds are found, what they look like. I get tape recordings, now I get them off the Internet, and if I don't, there are friends who get them for me. Lot of it is persistence.

How does your family put up with your hobby?

They usually put up with it. My wife likes birds, but she is not a bird watcher. She is an animal lover. When we were in Michigan to get married, she forbade me and my brother to drive four hours to look for the cerulean warbler. She feared if the car broke down we would miss the wedding. My brother did see the elusive bird some years later.

Is bird watching expensive?

It does not need to be. You see a lot of birds in the garden. You just need a pair of binoculars and a book to identify birds. Normal bird watching is inexpensive. What I am doing is expensive because I have a few goals. When I was in the university in the early 1970s, I wanted to be the first person in the world to see all bird families. So in the 1970s I went to Madagascar twice, an unusual destination those days.

Can you tell me about competition among birders?

We could talk all night about competition. But it is a competition with birds, to track them. You can't really compete against other birders because everybody does something different.

The story of James Bond...

The guy who wrote the definitive book on the birds of the West Indies was an ornithologist named James Bond. Ian Fleming was looking for a name for his secret agent. Like many Brits, Fleming was interested in birds and actually had a copy of Bond's book, and said ah! That's a great name for my agent. James Bond.

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