Getting to know birds and people - this is the slogan for Dutch Ambassador Gajus Scheltema who arrived to Hungary les than a year ago. For the Witty Leaks section of Diplomacy & Trade, he wrote a piece on how he took up bird watching as a hobby.
Somewhere around 1996 when I was posted in Bratislava, the capital of newly-born Slovakia, a colleague from Prague gave me a call to ask whether “I would like to join him on a search for the Great bustard, somewhere on the Austrian-Hungarian-Slovak border”.
I had no idea what he was talking about. ‘Bastards’, I knew, but bustards I did not and its Dutch translation, Trap, meant stairs – which did not clear up things any further. But then, he explained and bustard turned out to be a bird, a very big one, and one which has become quite rare in Europe.
We did find the Bustard (no bastards, that time) hopping along the border and spent the afternoon talking with a local ornithologist about the different species of falcons. It was a conversation that left me out completely. I felt they could as well have been talking in Latin. However, I was intrigued: why would these two guys get so excited about birds, about something flying over, usually too shy to see and never kind enough to wait for a decent picture?
Why not talk about flowers or plants: at least they don’t have that annoying habit of moving away when you see them. I did get what they were after, and it did not get me very excited. Next time when my friend came over to Bratislava, I joined him, without much enthusiasm, to see more birds.
However, this time he showed me a most northern breeding spot of the European bee-eater, a very colorful bird, as well as a nest of the Golden eagle in a forest. I became a little bit more impressed. No idea that birds could be that exuberantly ‘tropical’ in appearance in Europe, or that big for that matter!
I left it at those two trips and forgot all about birding for awhile. However, once back on a posting in the Netherlands, more friends of mine turned out to be birders. My daughters on the other hand forbade me to go bird-watching and happily declared me a ‘nerd’ if I did. So, I hesitated.
It was the next posting, Jordan, which did the job. Not that there was nothing else to do on the weekends, on the contrary, but somehow I slowly became addicted to birding through some new friends who showed me the way. I cannot explain how it went so far, or why, but it did. Within a year, I could not walk in my spare time without decent binoculars.
A real scope was the next investment. Now, I had joined the club, I was a real birder (=nerd). We went into the desert looking for larks and wheatears, waders at the sewerage ponds of Aqaba, Dead-sea sparrows at –where else? – the Dead Sea, and raptors over the Jordan Valley on migration. I was hooked.
During my Jordan days, I went over to Afghanistan, to spend half a year at a military base outside of Kandahar. I made it a habit to watch birds early every morning at the camp, and published a list afterwards which has helped to increase the database in that part of Afghanistan, where few if any birders have ventured recently.
As one can imagine, my scope would sometimes arouse the suspicion of the guards, and explaining my ‘mission’ was not always easy. But the camp was big, and had open fields as well as an impressive sewerage system, which is always liked by birds. Never mind the smell.
My next posting in the United States brought a wealth of new feathered acquaintances; this huge country is well equipped both in birds and birders. Migration, so impressive with many species, as well as local varieties, made my lifelist grow to a more respectable number (I am now at 1,356 species).
In the US, bird watching is quite common and I can recommend a very good recent movie, ‘The Big Year’, that shows in a humoristic way the addictions and abnormal behavior of dedicated birders. Amust see!
After the Unites States came Pakistan, which brought again a new group of birds, those of the Indian subcontinent. It was close to my home in Islamabad, at a lake, that I once saw a Little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus), an otherwise quite boring type of bird, but never before spotted in Pakistan.
After positive identification and some excellent pictures by a befriended photographer, I ventured a small entry of my discovery in a distinguished local scientific paper, the Journal of Zoology of the University of Lahore! It is sadly my only footprint in the world of Ornithology in Pakistan, although, I can certainly recommend a fantastic blog, islamabadbirding.blogspot.hu, which features these and many other spectacular birds. The cryptic HGS, mentioned here and there, is actually me.
Now here I am, back in Hungary where I have renewed my acquaintance with that one magnificent bird which maybe started it all, the Great Bustard (Otis tarda, in Hungarian: Túzok). The other day, in an area south of Budapest, Kiskunság, I counted over 50 together in a field. The area is a mixed remnant of the puszta landscape with open agricultural plots, a habitat very much preferred by these birds. Many birders from Budapest go to that area as it is known for raptors and many other varieties. Spring is the time to go!
Why birding, one may ask. I already pointed to the obsession of the collector, the hunter-gatherer in mankind, who wants to add species to its ‘lifelist’ of birds (in birding language, this aberration is called ‘twitching’). But there is more: it is a good excuse to go out into nature, to meet people you may not meet otherwise as a diplomat and to see parts of the country which otherwise may remain hidden. I have a four-wheel drive for my outings and love to go out to the puszta, the marshes, the forests and the mountains. But one bird is still missing on my Hungarian list: the White-backed woodpecker. Anyone seen it around?
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