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The Eternal Quest for the “Nemesis Bird”

In the world of birdwatching, Peter Kaestner stands alone. No one has seen and identified more birds than Mr. Kaestner, a retired US diplomat who aspires to become the first birder to spot 10,000 of the earth’s roughly 11,000 bird species. With 9,697 on his eBird List so far, he’s getting closer.

But in spite of all the birds he’s searched for and found There are still some left that he was looking for and couldn’t find. He doesn’t forget her.

There was the Congo peacock – a rare variegated pheasant of the Central African rainforest – which he went missing in 1978 when his tour party was disabled by a crash on the remote airstrip they were trying to search. There was one Black-browed Albatross He tracked him off the German coast in 2015, some 300 miles and a four-hour ferry ride from Mr Kaestner’s then-home in Frankfurt.

“I’ve taken four 10-hour trips to twitch it with no success,” Mr Kaester wrote in an email. “Once I missed it by 20 minutes!”

Through such attempts, birders develop what they call “Nemesis Birds,” birders speaking for the species that, despite their best efforts, continue to cause them problems. As birdwatching continues to grow in popularity, the hobby’s unique idiom needs some explanation. “Twitch” means to drop everything to hunt a rare bird found outside of its proper range. A “sparking bird” is what birders refer to as the bird that piques a person’s interest in birding. A “nemesis” holds you back, tantalizingly staying out of reach.

“It’s a species that eludes you after several attempts, especially if the bird was there or should have been,” Mr. Kaestner said. “You get the impression that something supernatural comes between you and seeing the bird.”

Peter Kaestner, with a southern yellow-billed hornbill in Namibia.Credit…Peter Kastner

A Article in Audubon In 2017, Dan Koeppel defined a nemesis bird as “a nemesis so common that a dedicated birder should have spotted it, yet which remains unseen.” Mr. Koeppel, an author and science journalist, has since expanded the definition slightly and noted that it can mean different things to birders of different abilities and interests.

“If it’s a bird that’s driving you crazy, you can call it a nemesis,” Mr. Koeppel said. “It could be a bird that your mother saw but you didn’t.”

What Causes People to Be Driven Crazy by Birds? The positive health benefits of bird watching are now well documented, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about 45 million Americans identify as bird watchers. But what makes a human obsessed with a particular bird? This is something very special and personal.

“The concept of Nemesis birds is one of the things that confuses and then amuses my non-birding friends the most,” said Danielle Khalife, a Brooklyn-based public health researcher. “Someone asked if it’s birds you hate. Not exactly.”

Sometimes a bird’s novelty makes it a sworn enemy. Since Ms Khalife started birdwatching during the pandemic, she has yet to spot one Yellow Breasted Chat, despite several reported sightings in nearby Prospect Park. Chats are large, mysterious warblers that are rare north of Delaware and, as the name suggests, are heard more often than seen.

“You’re an elusive bird, so that makes me feel a little bit better,” Ms Khalife said.

Sometimes it’s just desire. Howard Fischer, 72, a retired Staten Island educator, saw it more than 3,000 species in 57 years of bird watching. But it took almost five decades see a variety of thrushes, an iridescent orange-black relative of the Northwestern robin.

Mr. Fischer traveled into the normal range of the thrush and got nothing in Washington, Montana and British Columbia. He also tracked reports of rare sightings that were more local: one in New Hampshire, one in New Jersey, another in Central Park.

“And I’m not a twitch,” said Herr Fischer. “I’ve waited years to see this bird.”

Finally, in his 47th year as a bird watcher, Fischer saw his first bluebird, a tramp, who spent five days in Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan, in December 2013.

“Exactly,” said Herr Fischer.

Sometimes it’s sadness. Koeppel’s father Richard was one of the most accomplished birders of the 20th century, counting more than 7,000 species worldwide before his death in 2012. But one was always hidden from him: the mountain quail, a plump wild bird of the Pacific Slope Mountains.

“Think of the word ‘quail’ – it means to recoil, to hide,” said Herr Koeppel. “The bird’s very name tells you it doesn’t want to be near you.”

After his father’s last wish to see one, Mr. Koeppel spent nearly five years searching for a mountain quail. He couldn’t scatter his father’s ashes until he succeeded.

“It became such a quest,” Mr. Koeppel said. “It really became my nemesis. Although I’m not a big bird watcher, I became obsessed with it. It had to do with grief and the fact that my dad’s ashes were in the back seat of my car forever.”

When Mr. Koeppel finally came across a pair of mountain quail in a Southern California state park, he could hardly believe it. He ran back to his car to retrieve the urn and, along with his young son, threw their patriarch’s ashes to the birds.

“It was a total ‘Big Lebowski’ thing where we were both covered in this white powder,” Mr. Koeppel said. “It was kind of amazing. It became a very emotional moment.”

Sometimes Nemesis Birds are about something else – how to defeat them with persistence. Mr. Kaestner spent time on the Indonesian island of Sumatra this summer looking for several species endemic there. One of his targets, the rare and reclusive Schneider-Pitta, eluded him on a previous attempt in 1993. This time, the search required a long hike up Mount Kerinci, the country’s largest volcano, and nine hours of stakeout before the bird finally found it appeared appeared.

“I got Pitta today,” reported Mr. Kaestner via SMS from the field. “Maybe I’ll have a new nemesis tomorrow!”

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