Birding in a war zone is dangerous business. U.S. diplomat Peter Kaestner does it anyway.
For the past nine months Kaestner has immersed himself in the desert to unearth the ecological richness of a seemingly barren country. He spent his New Year's Day completing the only Christmas Bird Count to ever take place in Afghanistan. During this solo endeavor he recorded a total of 26 species and 2,142 individuals.
Can you set the scene for us?
The military base that I live and work on is based in Mazar-e Sharif, which is very close to the northern border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The grounds are mainly composed of native desert scrub and aren't overgrazed, unlike most other parts of the country. Russian thistle, more commonly known as tumble weed in America, is a native here and can grow up to three feet high. It grants shelter and access to food for birds that are grounded by inclement weather.
Which species from your survey really stood out to you?
We had a large snowstorm in December that brought in many interesting species. I noted about 10 birds that I didn't expect to see—a few from the States actually, like European starlings and horned larks. Nine species of lark were spotted on the base, the rarest being the calandra lark. I photographed a large flock of Spanish sparrows. Initially, I thought there were 300 individuals. But I blew up the picture, counted the birds, and discovered that there were 1,000 more. I was also lucky enough to hear a common crane. It has a very distinctive, comforting call that makes it special.
What made you do a Christmas Bird Count in Afghanistan?
There isn't anyone regularly studying the Afghan birds so I wanted to collect some novel information. I haven't done many Christmas Bird Counts overseas. I got to participate in the one in Chersterville, Maryland while I was on vacation in December. Again, I didn't see anything new, but just adding to the greater body of knowledge felt really good. That sense of activism really fires up my cylinders.
Outside of your Christmas Bird Count experience, what has birding in Afghanistan been like?
It's been really, really incredible. The fall migration was fantastic; a front came through and I went up to the highest point on base. In the morning alone I collected 30 species. There were huge flocks of greater short-toed larks flying overhead. Another great experience for me was the nocturnal migration of seagulls, which is unheard of in Central Asia.
I haven't added anything new to my life list, but I'm yearning for a glimpse of the Afghan snow finch. It might get pushed down from the mountains at some point of my stay. But it's highly unlikely. Currently, corn buntings and Eurasian linnets have been on my radar; they'll leave as soon as the snow melts. Sparrowhawks—the most common accipiter among these parts—are fun to watch. They'll often go after rabbits twice their size, quite unsuccessfully.
There was this little owl that I'd been keeping track of. He disappeared recently and I'd rather not imagine what trouble he's gotten into. I'm hoping that he just died quietly and moved on to greener pastures. Or maybe he is a she and is getting ready to lay eggs somewhere.
What do you think of the conservation landscape of Afghanistan and how are you helping to change it?
The Afghan government and the American government are very focused on bringing security and democracy to the land. I'm a senior American representative, which means I have to discuss this topic with locals in an appropriate way. But there is a budding conservation movement.
On my next trip to Kabul I will be presenting a slideshow on birds in northern Afghanistan. I also have a birding blog on the U.S. Consulate's Facebook page. It has over 4,000 followers and garners a lot of comments from young people. It's how I share my love of birding with the population, while gently bringing conservation to the fore. The Christmas Bird Count is another good way to do that. It introduces the concept of enjoying birds on the days following Christmas, rather than shooting them. There is finally a realization in this region that birds are marvelous creations, not prey.
Last summer BBC did an article on the prevalence of bird hunting in Afghanistan. Is that something that you've encountered?
I haven't come across any of the situations that BBC described. That might be because the North isn't as weapon-enabled as other parts of the country.
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.