A walk with the world's
third ranked bird watcher
One early morning Peter Kaestner, the world's third ranked bird watcher, and I walk in the old gardens that is spilling with morning joggers and endless birds. Our conversation is interrupted a million times – by the nimble squirrel scampering up the tree, the Alexandrine parakeet resplendent in the morning sun, the large kite lording over a tomb, the green pigeons fluttering their wings and puffing their neck amorously and the swifts that mottle the beryl sky with their dark silhouettes.
If Gore Vidal were to meet up with Peter G Kaestner, the world’s third ranked bird watcher, he would alter his portrayal of an ornithologist. For Vidal, ornithologists are tall, slender, and bearded so that they can stand motionless for hours, imitating kindly trees, as they watch for birds. Well, Peter is tall, but there is no hint of a beard. His Leica is slender with an enviable 32x magnification and Peter sure must have stood motionless for hours in dense jungles, waded through swamps and marshlands, trudged in deserts, puffed his way up the mountains… He must have done it hours – for he has seen 8,134 bird species. That’s a lot of birds, considering there are only 9,930 species in the Clements Checklist of the Birds of the World, the bird Bible. He is also the first bird watcher ever to have seen one representative of each bird family in the world. Add to that the reputation this US Consul General has to live with – he has discovered a bird and for the past 25 years he has been in the world’s top 5 bird watchers’ list.
This amateur ornithologist loves nothing more than the mornings in Delhi.The colossal dead tree in his home is often agog with the clamour of birds and when he walks out to the nearby Lodi Gardens with his binoculars and bird book in tow, he stops at every bend to stand and stare at his winged favourites – specially the jungle babblers. “Unlike most birds that are prim and preened, this one is unkempt, its feathers ruffled, but there is something about them that I really love,” says Peter as one early morning we walk in the old gardens that is spilling with morning joggers and endless birds. Our conversation is interrupted a million times – by the nimble squirrel scampering up the tree, the Alexandrine parakeet resplendent in the morning sun, the large kite lording over a tomb, the green pigeons fluttering their wings and puffing their neck amorously and the swifts that mottle the beryl sky with their dark silhouettes. Peter calls Lodi Gardens his “homestead” and it not surprising to find it in his Top 5 birding destinations in India.
Not just the gardens, in terms of bird population, Peter rates Delhi as the best city for birds. Trust this Baltimore-born foreign service officer when he lauds Delhi for its bird population; he has been to 115 countries and has not seen more birds huddled in any city anywhere in the world. This is the bird watcher’s third sojourn in Delh, but he is ready to zip off to the remotest area if he knows there’s a bird experience waiting. Like he did recently. One weekend he packed his bags – and daughters – and took off to Leh/Ladakh to see the Tibetan Sandgrouse, the 30-41 cm long bird with buff underparts, orange countenance and feathered feet. Peter had heard tales of how the Sandgrouse, native of arid Tibetan terrain, flies to watering holes at dawn, dips its feathers in the water and then flies back to its nest to quench the thirst of its little ones that sip water off the wings. He pitched his tents at 15,000 ft above sea level where even the fittest can gasp for an effortless breath. But Peter does not complain; nothing daunts his bid-watching instincts. Not even leeches or the wrath of an angry bull or getting lost in the jungles for two days; not even those innumerable close shaves with death. Gore Vidal might think watching birds is about standing motionless, Peter knows the thorny details.
Perhaps that is why he shuns the predictability of bird sanctuaries where bird sightings are such clichéd certainty. He thinks birds sanctuaries are to keep the humans at bay. “Human beings have blatantly intruded on the habitat of birds and animals,” says Peter who believes that an ornithologist “sees more through the ears than the eyes”. And he sure can mimic a bird or two though he wishes he were a better “mimic artist” for it helps lure the birds.
In Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Peter used none of his mimicking skills, but he did see 12 of the 13 endemic species in one visit. Not many are lucky enough. Or not many have the grit to hold on, or to stand motionless for hours! He regrets not having seen the 13th one, but he is ready to wait, to trudge one more time with his binoculars and the book to catch a glimpse of the elusive bird. Peter is not waiting for her glimpse alone; he is heading to a little swamp near Pushkar to look at the white-bellied minivet.
That is not the end of his wish list, though. Someday Peter wants to return to Congo to see the endangered Congo Peacock that was last sighted more than 25 years ago. And yes, the monkey-eating birds that live in the islands of Philippines.
Peter G Kaestner travels the world to see birds, not just the garish ones, but every kind that flies his path, or every habitat that he moseys up to. He has been doing it ever since he can remember, he will do it as long as the jungle babbler stays unkempt and gregarious and the green pigeons flutter their feathers amorously. And Peter is always ready to count the feathers!
Mail Today, December 2007