Friday, March 2, 2007

A Great Birder & Lister (and a diplomat and friend)

Last year, I got to combine my profession (journalism) with my passion (birding) when I did a profile of U.S. diplomat Peter Kaestner, one of the world's most intrepid birders (and now a good friend of Lisa and mine). For those who may not have seen it, I'm reposting the article from last April.... Peter's life list is now in excess of 8,070..
- Warren

U.S. diplomat Peter Kaestner would like to be the world's No. 1 birder

By Warren P. Strobel
Knight Ridder Newspapers

HELWAN, Egypt - To get a glimpse of how intense Peter Kaestner is about birds, tag along with him early one morning to a narrow strip of land between the Nile River and a dusty highway in a southern suburb of Cairo.

Kaestner won't see any birds today that he hasn't seen before. That's not surprising: He's identified 8,056 species around the globe, including one he discovered. His lifetime of birding began when he was 5 and will end, he says, when he's lying on his deathbed listening for peeps and twitters outside the window.

There are nearly 10,000 recognized species of birds on the planet, and only two living people have seen more of them than Kaestner (pronounced "case-ner") has. His numbers and knowledge put him on Olympian heights in the competitive world of international birding.

"I'd like to be the No. 1 birder in the world," he says.

He seems to tweak birds out of the landscape with eyes, ears and an occasional, insistent "psssh!" that causes feathered creatures to emerge from their hiding places to investigate.

A bluethroat, a small robin-like bird that sports a bright blue bib, peeps out from the top of a bunch of reeds. Kaestner instantly recalls where he saw his first one: It was in Bharatpur, India, in December 1967.

A tiny, barely distinguishable dot with a buzzy call zooms rapidly overhead. Kaestner, who somehow seems relaxed and focused at the same time, barely turns to look. "Zitting cisticola," he says. It's a type of warbler.

To many people, the term "birdwatcher" (practitioners prefer "birder") conjures up images of the socially dysfunctional, or of rumpled, late-middle-aged men and women, festooned with odd equipment, peering up at the tops of trees.

The reality is often quite different.

Kaestner, 52, is a senior U.S. diplomat who's now the consul general in Cairo. It's a career he's succeeded at and enjoys, but one that he also chose to bring him closer to more birds. While his colleagues angle for posts in London or Paris, he sought out assignments in places such as Colombia, India and Namibia.

"Birding pushes so many of my hot buttons," he says. He ticks them off: the competition, the creatures' beauty, being outdoors, the joy of sharing knowledge with others.

Kaestner has survived shipwrecks in the Amazon and many other dangers that come with traveling in remote areas.

In mid-March, he'd just returned from Yemen.

On the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, he said, he persuaded a reluctant boat captain to take his small, coastal craft several miles offshore in search of the jouanin's petrel, a pelagic bird - one that visits land only to breed.

The boat rolled dangerously, battered by wind and spray. Then, three miles offshore and wondering whether he'd make it back, Kaestner spotted what he'd come for, out on the horizon. "It was a great feeling," he said.

Kaestner saw 18 new species, or "lifers," on the Yemen trip, and one more back in Egypt this month.

There's a common root to Kaestner's drive and love of birds: family.

He was one of 10 children, seven of them boys, growing up in Baltimore with a father who demanded excellence. Bud Kaestner was a three-time All-American in lacrosse and is in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. "That's where we all got our focus on doing things well," said eldest sibling Hank, who's also in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

Hank is also an accomplished birder (life list: 6,762), whose business trips buying spices for McCormick & Co. had allowed him to pursue his hobby in exotic locales.

It was Hank, at age 10, who began the fascination. In Mexico City, visiting his maternal grandparents, he saw a stunningly bright red bird. Eager to know its name, he went into a bookstore the next day. In one of those coincidences that seem like fate, he found a guide with the bird's picture on the cover. It was a vermillion flycatcher.

"I taught him all that he knows," Hank says teasingly of his younger brother. He credits Peter's success to intensive preparation before each trip.

Most big-league birders go on organized guided tours. Kaestner does most of his birding alone. He prepares meticulously before each expedition. He creates lists of birds he hopes to see, knows their habitats and migratory patterns, and brings audiotapes of their calls to attract them.

If he did it any other way, Kaestner probably wouldn't have discovered a new species in October 1989.

He was 50 miles outside of Bogota, Colombia, returning from a consular visit to a group of U.S. missionaries, and saw a promising spot to do some birding.

He "heard a bird I didn't recognize," tape-recorded its song, played it back and eventually got a glimpse of the bird. "I knew instantly that it was nothing that had ever been seen in Colombia before."

Or anywhere else. After passing proper scientific review, the bird, a bit less than 7 inches long with a dull white throat, a streaked breast and an appetite for insects, was named the cundinamarca antpitta. Latin name, Grailaria kaestneri. (A group of birders trying to spot the creature in 1998 were kidnapped by anti-government guerrillas and held for 33 days.)

"It doesn't get much better than finding a new species," Kaestner says.

Is all this, well, normal?

Ask Kaestner, who has a biology degree, whether he considers himself an ornithologist or a birder and he instantly replies: "I consider myself a diplomat. That's what I get paid for."

"Peter is the kind of guy every American should hope is in our Foreign Service," U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Frank Ricciardone says in an e-mail. He calls Kaestner "dedicated, savvy, personable, service-oriented, with rock-solid integrity, a wide-ranging mind, and a ... personal, passionate and highly accomplished intellectual pursuit."

Kaestner says he's compressed his birding since he and his wife, Kimberly, had two daughters, Kate, almost 16, and Laurel, 14.

He does the birding equivalent of precision bombing. In mid-February, he drove from Cairo to southern Israel and back, 900 miles, in 38 hours. And got four of the five birds he'd targeted.

While there are nearly 2,000 birds left for him to find, there's an unsettling cloud on the horizon for the birding world: bird flu.

Research now suggests that the H5N1 strain of bird flu virus, at first thought to be transmitted solely by domesticated fowl, may be spread by wild migratory birds.

Kaestner, at first a skeptic, says: "I'm on the fence now."

He's just a little more careful. In Israel, he saw a common quail that was acting strangely, as if sick, and he didn't go too near.

He won't stop birding, though: "I will be lying on my deathbed, if I still have my hearing, listening for birds at the window, literally."

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