A Birder for All Seasonings
Having caught the birding bug when he was young, Hank Kaestner chose a worldly career as a spice buyer, and built his sprawling life list when no one was looking.
The large world map on the basement wall of Benjamin H. “Hank” Kaestner III’s suburban Baltimore home bristles with hundreds of color-coded pushpins, each representing a different overseas journey: red for business; blue for trips with his wife; white if traveling with his brother. Some of the locales, such as London, Delhi, and Tokyo, are familiar. Many more, like Sumatra’s Kerinici Mountain, Madagascar’s Masoala Peninsula, and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, are off even the backpacker trail.
But no matter how obvious, or obscure, the address, they share a single bond: birds. The blue pin along Norway’s Barents Sea? A vacation with his wife, Josie, to see the Steller’s eider in Varanger Fjord. The white pin obscuring central Guatemala? The time he and his brother, Peter, witnessed the Lake Atitlan grebe, which became extinct in the mid-1980s. The red pin blotting out New Ireland? A business trip to the Bismarck Archipelago backwater near Papua New Guinea that is home to New Ireland’s endemic ribbon-tailed drongo.
In his 61 years Kaestner has seen a lot of birds: 6,770 different species, at last report. In order to achieve that high-flying figure, he chose a profession that would underwrite his passion. But who goes to New Ireland on business, anyway?
Spice buyers, that’s who. During a 33-year career with McCormick & Co., the world’s largest spice company, and recently as an independent consultant, Kaestner has been a man for all seasonings, procuring vanilla from Madagascar, saffron from Spain, nutmeg from Grenada, cinnamon from Sumatra. His field work—187 trips to 127 countries, and counting—has added flavor to billions of meals and filled his Clements Birds of the World checklist with thousands of rare species. Lately it has also allowed him to create new livelihoods for farmers in developing countries, and to preserve wildlife habitat.
“Just getting into so many places, you see how the people are living, how you can help,” explains Kaestner, a trim man with the carriage of a former college athlete and the calm mien of an airline pilot. “Anyone who gets out into nature has to sit back and marvel at the diversity. It’s a wonderful world out there.”
The journeys began a half-century ago: A red pin marks his first overseas trip, to visit his maternal grandfather in Mexico City. At Chapultapec Park, the 10-year-old saw a bright-red bird unlike anything around Baltimore. The next day he found a guidebook with the same brilliant creature—a vermilion flycatcher—on the cover. “I’ve been hooked ever since,’’ Kaestner says. “I just wanted to put a name on every bird I saw.’’
To encourage his eldest son’s hobby, “Bud’’ Kaestner drove to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in nearby Laurel, Maryland, where he met Chandler S. “Chan’’ Robbins, a major figure in American ornithology for, among other things, his study of migratory birds and authorship of a seminal field guide. Packing $10 Tasco binoculars, Hank soon accompanied Robbins to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to band birds. Robbins noted subtle fall-plumage differences in warblers and demonstrated how to remove a rose-breasted grosbeak from a mist net. For a kid from suburban north Baltimore, the annual migration seemed amazing. “It was wonderful to see these little birds and know they were on their way to South America,” he says, “and know that next year they’d be back up in New England, in the same tree with the same nest.”
While Kaestner learned field marks at a prodigious pace, he also became an all-American lacrosse star at Johns Hopkins University. After graduation he planned to study ornithology at Cornell. But Robbins advised him: Forget academia. You’ll work in a museum without any money to travel. Get a job where you can go overseas and birdwatch. “I didn’t specify any particular company,’’ says Robbins, now 88. “But I knew he was so thoroughly excited about birding that he wouldn’t be happy unless he found a way to do it the rest of his life. And he sure did.’’
Kaestner took a job in the procurement division of McCormick, which was sending buyers to distant spice sources. “My timing was perfect,” Kaestner says. “This was an era before birding tours went all over the world. The chance to get into these places was a spectacular opportunity.”
His first business trip took him to England, India, and Uganda for oleoresins and vanilla; on a Kenyan layover he added 180 “lifers’’ in a single day, thus beginning a symbiotic relationship with McCormick that lasted more than three decades. The company had an employee who would venture anywhere for spices; Kaestner had a dream job that offered the time and money to follow the flocks.
Red pins began popping up in faraway spots like Papua New Guinea, a new vanilla producer with more than 800 bird species. Some of the country’s outer islands might have only a single spice plantation, but if there were also rare birds, Kaestner scheduled a visit. It offered a great excuse to bag some of New Ireland’s 25 endemics, including that drongo, a grackle-size bird with a streaming, two-foot-long tail, or to visit tiny Tong Island, the only home of the ebony myzomela, an all-black, warbler-size sunbird.
During his travels Kaestner eschews VIP treatment, preferring to stand in the bed of a pickup rather than lounge in the backseat of a limousine. “It makes a three-hour ride into a vanilla-growing area very, very interesting,’’ he says. “You’re looking for something new to add to your list as you drive down the road, and when you get to a wood patch you say, ‘I gotta go to the bathroom. Give me 10 minutes.’ Then you’re running into the woods, trying to see birds.’’
Sometimes the birds came to him on a platter—literally. One night, at a planter’s home in northeastern Madagascar, dinner was a mysterious chickenlike fowl.
“This is delicious,’’ Kaestner enthused. “What is it?’’
“Pigeon,’’ a servant replied.
“Wild pigeon?’’ Kaestner asked. “Pigeon bleu,’’ came the reply.
What? The cook produced a plate of azure feathers plucked from the main course, the rare Madagascar blue pigeon. Kaestner had never seen it; eating one hardly constituted a lifer. The next day, however, the cook led him into the forest to observe the pigeon in a wild, non-fried state.
Festooned with red pins, vanilla-producing Madagascar figures prominently in his adventures. In its remote southwest he tracked the long-tailed ground roller, an extremely rare roadrunnerlike species that breeds in desert burrows. “It was once considered extinct,” Kaestner says of his favorite bird. “It was difficult habitat—impenetrable cactus scrub. I spent three days on my hands and knees with no help, no guide. I was down to my last hour, and the bird walked by. When you work that hard for something, your gratitude for success is even sweeter.”
Then there are the pins that stick out like cankers. On a birding trip with Conservation International to Mexico’s Chiapas state, his party was attacked by swarms of killer bees while hiking in the Lacandona rainforest. The birders fled down a trail and dove into a stream, but not before Kaestner suffered several dozen stings. Later that night their camp crawled with scorpions; the next morning jaguar tracks ran beneath his hammock. All this before the group was stopped by Zapatista rebels while canoeing across a lake and briefly interrogated.
It’s no stretch to say that birders seek out some of the planet’s wildest destinations. Twitchers will venture to Iran for a glimpse of the Sind woodpecker, Yemen for the Arabian partridge, the islands of the Bight of Benin for the São Tomé spinetail, the Darien Gap for the Pirre bush-tanager. Birders have also been kidnapped by guerrillas and killed in Third World accidents. In 1999 Phoebe Snetsinger, the world’s top lister, died in a Madagascar van crash shortly after seeing a male red-shouldered vanga.
“Mostly he tells me after things happen,” says Josie, Kaestner’s wife of 38 years. “Or it would come out in conversation at a dinner party, where I couldn’t freak out. I did worry, but he’s always very confident. . . . I’d say Hank’s birdwatching was an obsession if I didn’t know his brother.”
Currently the world’s third-ranked birder (8,059 lifers at last count), Peter Kaestner has shaped a career with the U.S. State Department around birding; in Colombia he even discovered a new species, the Cundinamarca antpitta (Grallaria kaestneri). “I like the competition,” said Peter, 53, in a phone interview from Cairo, where he currently serves as American consul general. “There’s also a collection side to it. And it’s great exercise.”
The brothers bird together as often as possible—most recently in Yemen, where they saw 10 endemics—and white pins scatter Hank’s map from Quito to Kuala Lumpur. They also maintain a good-natured sibling rivalry. Peter took his children to southern Egypt to see Hume’s tawny owl—so they could rib their Uncle Hank about a bird he hasn’t seen. And when Hank flew to a remote Amazon lodge to celebrate his 60th birthday, he knew exactly which seven local birds Peter still lacked. That made his white-crested spadebill sighting so special.
“If it’s rare, and especially if my brother hasn’t seen it, the more I want to see it,’’ Kaestner says. “But it’s not just checking off birds. That’s not the only thing I feel when I’m out there. You’re seeing different habitats, new cultures, meeting people, being successful in your career.”
Those interests now inspire his work with local farmers in Sumatra and Central America. A recent project in northern Guatemala dovetails his expertise in spices, birds, and history. The area is part of the original range of vanilla, which, it is thought, was first brought back to Europe by Hernán Cortés. Working with ForesTrade, a Vermont-based supplier of organic coffee and flavorings, Kaestner is reviving vanilla cultivation by Maya growers, only in shade-grown plantations that will preserve habitat for neotropical birds. “I can work with people and improve their lives by giving them a value-added product,” he says. “And we’re doing it in an environmentally sustainable way—no pesticides, no logging—that protects rare habitat. It’s a wonderful combination.”
Thomas Fricke, cofounder of ForesTrade, says, “Because of his passion for birding, he’s clearly concerned about habitat and also in figuring out economic incentives for producers to protect those species. Hank is at the forefront of this. His greatest impact lies ahead of him.’’
Kaestner had grown pessimistic years ago because in almost every place he visited, bird populations were facing mounting threats. For example, the rainforest that once blanketed eastern Madagascar had virtually vanished, and wintering areas for neotropical migrants were becoming badly fragmented. But the efforts of conservation groups around the globe give him a measure of hope. “A lot of birds are threatened, but there are now programs in place. I’m much more optimistic today.’’
There are still areas on his map without pins and with the potential to boost his global ranking: 21st in the American Birding Association’s 2005 life-list standings. “A birdwatcher is always thinking: Where’s the next place?’’ Kaestner confesses. “This is the mentality. I’ve got to get to 7,000. It seems like a nice, round number.’’
Cameroon would easily yield 180 lifers. Taiwan has 15 endemics he hasn’t seen; he could work a Taipei layover into his next Sumatra trip. Ironically, one of his most exciting recent birds wasn’t found overseas. The avian sensation was a boreal owl, a resident of the Canadian taiga that briefly appeared in New York City’s Central Park. Kaestner read the news on a birding website and immediately scheduled a business meeting in northern New Jersey for the following day.
“For a lifer,’’ says Kaestner, “I’ll leave anytime.’’
He raced up I-95 at dawn in his 1996 BMW 525i (“An effective birdwatching car—it gets you there fast’’), and witnessed the owl outside Tavern on the Green. Then he e-mailed Peter, and ticked it off in his Clements checklist.
Christopher R. Cox wrote "Beauty & the Bomb," about the Puerto Rican island of Vieques and its bioluminescent bay in the November-December 2006 issue.