Diplomat by Day, Birding Fanatic Around the Clock
Peter Kaestner takes Audubon's Christmas Bird Count tradition all the way to Afghanistan.
What is your bird-watching regimen like?
We're in a war zone so I'm on the lookout every moment of the day. I get up before sunrise to catch the owls calling and at night I leave the windows open to listen for birds. I can only leave the base on official business and bird watching doesn't qualify. But right here at my office, which is a 20-foot shipping container, I can step outside and see exquisite sights. Once I witnessed a lammergeier--a spectacular bird that feeds only on bone marrow--being accosted by a peregrine falcon. What are the odds? Meanwhile, everyone else just walked on by.
The simple fact is, you have to spend a lot of time in the field. You have to go out daily to gather regular information on these creatures. You probably won't see a new bird every time, but there will always be something, like an unusual behavior. Such observations can be crucial for conservation purposes.
For example, I've been learning a bit about the Eurasian tree sparrows that reside here. In the summer they seem to hide out and avoid their larger counterparts. But come fall when the other species of sparrows leave, they cavort about the northern part of Afghanistan without trepidation. Their ability to expand is a result of an important environmental principle--character displacement. Eventually I'd like to publish a short piece on this behavior in the journal Sandgrouse.
Can birding be purely recreational?
Yes absolutely. Everybody has different way to look at it. You can engage in it without having an ulterior motive, a competitive edge, or a conservation angle.
How do you rank as a birder?
In 2004 I was No. 2 in the world because I had been working in Brazil for a few years. I think I'm still in the top 10, though I've added only a few lifers in the past decade. Right now I'm picking jobs that are important for the state, rather than important for my life list.
You can see more photos from Kaestner's Christmas Bird Count here.