Birder's Paradise

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bruce Beehler has enshrined the moment in August 1959, when he first glimpsed the future perching in a tree at Lake Roland.

Picnicking with his family in Baltimore County, the 8-year-old boy happened to look up and spot a red-bellied woodpecker.

"At the time, I didn't know what the hell it was," he says. "I just knew it was the most beautiful thing. And it's been all downhill ever since."

As it turns out, the Baltimore-born naturalist was meant not only to marvel over birds, but to infect others with his passion. Last month, Beehler delighted nature lovers worldwide with reports of a new species of bird, the wattled smoky honeyeater, discovered along with other novel animals, insects and plants during a scientific field trip he co-directed on the island of New Guinea.

During a two-week stay in a remote area of the Foja Mountains, the international team of scientists photographed the island's first new bird in 66 years as well as more than 20 new species of frogs and four new butterflies. There were also a number of "remarkable" plants, including five new species of palms, and a white-flowered rhododendron with the largest bloom on record: 5 7/8 inches across its face.

The expedition had found a pristine, "mist-shrouded" spot that Beehler describes as a "lost world" and a "Garden of Eden."

It was the trip the 54-year-old naturalist, who works for Conservation International, had spent most of his career dreaming about. Now, with the combined forces of Conservation International and the Indonesian Institute of Science, he would begin to document the biodiversity of the place he calls "an amazing laboratory of evolution."

"When we first got there, there was no evidence that any humans had ever been in that spot before," Beehler says. "We were so excited. We didn't know what to expect or what to see. It was a little like kids in a candy store."

Within minutes of their arrival by helicopter at the site 5,500 feet above sea level, the scientists discovered a new kind of honeyeater bird, one with a distinctive orange face and orange wattles. And for the duration of their visit, the thrills kept right on coming.

"There was always a bunch of shouting," Beehler says. "The good kind of shouting."

Think the thrill of discovery: Hiram Bingham and the lost city of the Incas, Howard Carter and King Tut's tomb.

"This is the sort of expedition you heard about in the 1920s," says Princeton University ecologist David Wilcove, formerly of the Environmental Defense Fund. "To launch an expedition where you find new species of birds, butterflies and frogs as well as very rare mammals! There are very few places left on Earth where you can do that sort of thing."

In addition to finding new species, the team also observed the mating display of a six-wired bird of paradise, a bird formerly known only by 19th-century specimens that were collected by indigenous hunters. For Beehler, who co-authored The Birds of Paradise, a definitive 600-page field guide, it doesn't get much better.

"Somehow, everything about this trip worked out," he says. "It was miraculous. Good karma."

Affable and easy-going - the sort of fellow who shares dried mango slices with visitors - Beehler has a deep reservoir of curiosity that has served him since he was a junior nature guide at Cylburn Arboretum, scribbling bird sightings in notebooks he still has.

He can hold forth on the complexities of environmental treaties, the poisonous neurotoxins in the feathers of pitohui songbirds and the thrill of his first big bird misidentification: "I was just a wee little thing, we were in Williamsburg, [Va.,] and I was sure I had seen an ivory-billed woodpecker!"

During his high school years at Gilman School, the "woodpeckerologist" took a brief break from bird studies - "I went through a butterfly phase and a girls phase" - before resuming them at Williams College in Massachusetts.

"I assumed I would major in biology, but I found out there weren't any birds in it," he says. "It was all about DNA and premed stuff, meant to scare away and weed out undesirables. So I quickly said, 'This is too unpleasant ... and where are the birds?' I majored in American civilization, the one football players major in, because it allows you to do anything."

Beehler studied history, geology, astronomy - and bird migration. After college, he won a travel fellowship to learn about birds of paradise in New Guinea. The first of his 15 expeditions there, it laid the foundation for his doctoral work in behavioral ecology at Princeton University.

Next came work at the Smithsonian Institution, and a joint appointment with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Conservation International, an organization promoting biodiversity and conservation in more than 40 countries. He describes a stint in the U.S. State Department's office of ecology and terrestrial conservation as his "industrial-strength master's degree in international governance and diplomacy."

Now head of Conservation International's program for Melanesia, a region of islands in the Southwest Pacific, Beehler hopes publicity from this latest expedition will help raise more funds to preserve the area's biodiversity.

Based at the nonprofit's Washington headquarters, Beehler travels at least two months every year - a recent trip took him to Argentina, Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Samoa and Los Angeles - delivering the gospel of conservation to governments, indigenous communities and private foundations.

"The Gates Foundation is interested in global health and HIV and malaria - those are the big-ticket things - and the World Bank and U.N. organizations are interested in fighting poverty," he says. "There's usually no mention of the environment. Our thinking is that all of those human-welfare things have an environmental basis - and that you have to work from the grassroots up."

Part of Conservation International's mission is to preserve fragile human cultures as well. When members of the local Kwerba and Papsena tribes accompanied the scientists on their recent New Guinea trip, some were able to identify flora and fauna from legends and stories passed down from their ancestors.

"The indigenous forest people are actually more at risk than the wildlife because their uniqueness does not come from their genetics, it's their knowledge, their culture," Beehler says. "And that can disappear, essentially in an instant. If the transmission fails one generation, it's gone forever and cannot be recaptured."

New Guinea has more than 1,000 languages, he says, each marking a distinct culture. Conservation International's "forest stewards" program helps create archivists within each tribe to collect and preserve its heritage.

Eventually, Beehler hopes to build partnerships between these communities and research institutions.

"Being a naturalist is entirely fun," he says. "You're providing information and writing books, but you're not really doing much for the world. There are a lot of big problems out there. My selfish side likes to spend more time as a naturalist, but my better side says I've got an obligation to my children and grandchildren to leave a little something behind."

Still, he usually finds a way to work birds into the program. Take the 45-minute commute from his home in Bethesda to Washington: Beehler bikes to work along the C&O; Canal.

"Every day in the spring, I do a warbler survey," he says. "I come into the office, change my clothes and do a little list just to keep me from going insane from all the e-mails."

And although he spends a lot of time at a computer, he can still identify at least 600 different bird calls. Fellow birder Hank Kaest- ner, who also participated in Cylburn's nature programs, considers Beehler a major "bird brain."

"Good bird-watchers - and I don't mean to brag here - are usually pretty bright because they have to remember so much," says Kaestner, who has spotted 6,771 of the world's roughly 10,000 birds. "You have to keep track of their names, how they're different, what the males and females look like, what they sound like, the times of year they migrate, their habitats - there's a wealth of information.

"Bruce is focused on the scientific aspects [of the activity] but he's also able to collect all his knowledge and experience into formats that other people can enjoy."

He introduces the Foja Mountains to visitors, for instance, through photos of such rare wonders as tree kangaroos, birds that construct "love towers" from twigs and spiny anteaters that lay eggs. But he also speaks enthusiastically about the force that supports them: More than a million hectares of old-growth tropical humid forest, entirely undeveloped, that comprise perhaps the most "pristine natural ecosystem in the Asia-Pacific region."

"That beautiful mountain range is producing millions of gallons of water that the world needs. It's a vital part of our environmental support system that's so badly messed over in most of the world," he says. "The local people have only to walk a few hundred meters out of their villages to find everything they need because they have evolved in beautiful harmony with the forest and the waters.

"It's nice to go to a place and say, 'Ah, this is the way the world's supposed to be!' "

And to see a few birds along the way.

linell.smith@baltsun.com

Bruce Beehler

Born:

Baltimore, Oct. 11, 1951

Employment:

Directs the Melanesia program for Conservation International

Education:

B.A. in American civilization from Williams College. Ph.D. in behavioral ecology from Princeton University

Most recent accomplishment:

Co-directed an expedition that found new species of birds, frogs, butterflies and plants in a remote area of New Guinea

Most famous book:

Birds of Paradise, co-authored with Clifford Frith, for Oxford University Press. Part of the Oxford Bird Families of the World series

Family:

Wife Carol, a graphic designer, and three children, Grace, 17, Andrew, 14 and Cary, 10

Home:

Bethesda

Childhood hero:

Arthur A. Allen, founder of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University

Bird he most wants to see:

Ivory-billed woodpecker

Next field trip:

Walking across New Guinea this summer in search of the source of the toxin that lodges in the feathers and flesh of the pitohui songbird

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
73°