Delhi ‘visa wallah’ seeks magical 10,000 goal
Peter Kaestner (67) has seen 9,258 bird species till date, nearly 90% of all known species which makes him the top birder globally on eBird, a citizen science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He hopes to round it off to 10,000 soon.
But what is extraordinary about Kaestner’s feat is that he achieved it while working as a career diplomat, making the most of his foreign assignments to pursue his passion for birding.
Kaestner’s recollections of early childhood are all of watching birds in his own backyard.
“I have no recollection of not being a birder ever,” he said during a talk here on Monday attended by a packed hall of birders.
Kaestner has had a long association with Delhi because of the time he spent here as a teenager and then twice in his career as the “visa wallah”, who interviewed thousands of visa applicants in Punjabi and Hindi at the US Embassy in the national capital.
His stay here in 1967 at Hauz Khas left a deep imprint of the city -- of peacocks and jackals calling at night. And, those days, Delhi largely had a dry and desert-like ecosystem.
His stay also fuelled his love for birds — he had a pet Alexandrine Parakeet called Alex and fondly remembers seeing some amazing birds in Bharatpur Sanctuary, including a Bluethroat.
Kaestner’s first international birding trip was to the Bahamas, when he was 10 along with his brother, who was 12. Four years later he took his younger brother also to the same island nation in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
“We had no passports, no credit cards. Two kids went on an overnight trip to the Bahamas to watch birds. All I remember is the birds I watched such as the Bahama Woodstar and nothing of how we had travelled,” he recalled.
Kaestner went on to study Ornithology at Cornell University, but decided that birding will remain a hobby and not his vocation.
“I knew I would never have the money or time to watch all the birds. So, I decided I will watch all the bird families,” he said.
In fact, he chose to become a diplomat just to be able to watch birds.
“I joined the Foreign Service to travel and watch birds. At the beginning of my diplomatic career, I was able to get assignments in India, Papua New Guinea, Colombia and Malaysia, which were all ideal postings for birding.
“Fortunately, there are no prerequisites for becoming a US diplomat -- apart from being 21 years old and an American citizen. There is an entrance examination, and if you pass you are in,” he said over email.
Kaestner‘s surreal experiences and adventures left the birders laughing or exclaiming in awe.
For example, during his first posting at the New Delhi Embassy in 1981 he took a weekend break to fly to Kashmir in search of Ibisbill.
He hiked for a day to Warwan valley through the Margan pass to be able to locate the bird as described in a 1952 book titled ‘Breeding Birds of Kashmir’.
“I found the Ibisbill at the exact same spot on a stream where the book mentioned it was found 30-40 years ago,” he said. Kaestner was so tired after his hike that he could barely walk back, but the excitement of sighting the bird kept him going and he was back at work in Delhi on the following Monday.
He was also once shipwrecked with other birders along the Brazil-Peru border while going to Leticia in Colombia through the Amazon rainforest. His small boat was hit by a ship leaving them sinking until they found shallow water and made a narrow escape.
Kaestner had the opportunity to take American ornithologist, Dillon Ripley, and the famous Indian ornithologist, Salim Ali, to Sultanpur, where he showed Ali the Sociable Lapwing for the first time and describes it to be a “life-time experience” for Ali.
One among his similar adventures in Colombia in 1989 turned out to be an important discovery of a new bird species. Those days, an assignment in Colombia used to be fraught with danger because of the threats posed by the various warring drug cartels.
Kaestner went to meet a group of American missionaries in a remote area in Colombia, and on his way back took a detour to watch birds.
“There was a road going to communications tower where I heard something I couldn’t recognise. I played a recording of its call back, the bird came closer and finally it came up. It was something new,” he said.
The bird was named Grallaria kaestneri in Kaestner’s honour.
On the work front, Kaestner had to handle extremely challenging assignments in Afghanistan at the military base in Mazar-i-Sharif with heavy security surrounding him and all he could see was birds on the concertina wire.
In Delhi, when he returned in 2006 as the Minister-Counselor for Consular Affairs, there was a massive backlog of 158,000 people who had paid $60 to get a visa appointment but they weren’t granted one because of staff crunch.
“We were getting a million dollars a month from visa appointments. It was a horrible crisis,” he reminisced.
Kaestner has seen almost 1,000 different bird species in India till date, and has several more on his wish list, which are found only in the north-eastern parts of the country.
Despite the experience of watching and studying exotic birds, Kaestner’s favourite bird is the Jungle Babbler because of its extraordinary personality and constant babbling.
Kaestner has put up all his observations on eBird because data from the portal can be used for scientific research and guide fellow birders.
He is now a full-time birder after retirement and his wife, Kimberly Vreeland, is a wildlife lover, who plans to work on wildlife rescue projects.