Birder's Paradise

Baltimorean and naturalist Bruch Beehler introduces the world to species discovered in a Papua New Guinea oasis

April 10, 2006|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

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."

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