The Washington Post‘s story about how the appearance of a rare Painted Bunting in Maryland captivated local birders includes an unusual photo credit: It’s by Switzerland’s ambassador to the US.
As it turns out, His Excellency Jacques Pitteloud is no stranger to sharing his hobby as a birder with the world; a biography from the embassy notes that he has “published his pictures in several books and publications in Kenya and South Africa.” Indeed, he says that he was disappointed with the photo that ran in the Post because he took it in bad weather. He returned to the Maryland shores of Great Falls the next day for a better picture, which like many of his birding photos he posts on his Facebook page. (On that page, he says, he never posts “anything personal, anything political.”)
We got the ambassador on the phone to ask him about his fine-feathered pastime.
Washingtonian: Have you sighted a Painted Bunting before?
Ambassador Jacques Pitteloud: Never. It was certainly one that was on my bucket list. It’s actually not the greatest sensation of the last two weeks, but the other sensation only the birders took notice. It was two weeks ago, for the first time since bird records have been established in Washington, DC, a Barnacle Goose was seen on the Mall. And so there must have been like 200 birders there.
So, your excellency, how did you become a birder?
It was 50 years ago, and my parents got a bird book. And I started studying this bird guide. I was fascinated by the variety, the beauty, and then I started birding. I joined the local club and much later on, I started with photography. It must have been ten years ago when I arrived in Kenya, because I was ambassador to Kenya. And so I spent five extraordinary years birding in East Africa.
What was the first big bird sighting that you were proud of?
The first really, magnificent sightings were when I was a teenager, the first time I saw a Golden Eagle, because we have the Golden Eagle in the mountains in Switzerland. Then in East Africa, every time I managed to photograph one of the endemics: An endemic is a bird that’s present only in one country. And in Kenya, there are five endemics, and seeing one of the endemics was extraordinary.
How about in the US?
I’ve had many, many, many, many sightings. But I think one of the amazing moments was the first time I saw, in my own garden, a Cooper’s Hawk. And Cooper’s Hawk is not a rare bird. But it’s an extraordinary raptor. It’s beautiful. And I had never seen this raptor before. And I had one in the garden. It’s actually the house hawk. So to see the first time extremely close and to be able to make beautiful pictures of this beautiful bird, that was a very, very moving moment for a birder.
What sort of equipment do you use to photograph birds?
Probably like every bird photographer, I started with pretty much average equipment. And the more you go into it, the more you go for, let’s say, high quality lenses and cameras, but especially the lenses, because for the photography, you are working at pretty great distance. So the camera itself is not very important, because there are so many good cameras out there. But what’s really important is the lens. So I have an old car and a very good lens.
How do you fit your hobby in with your job?
Something that’s really helping for birding is the fact that we have a time difference with Switzerland. So I usually go to the office very, very, very early, like 4:30, 5 o’clock, which gives me the time to do all the phone calls with Switzerland, then I go birding and then back to the office. And then usually evening, we have events. The good thing about this DMV area is that there is so much within reach. I mean, within between ten minutes to go to Rock Creek to 35 minutes to Occoquan, you have extraordinary places with an extraordinary birdlife. And you don’t need to travel far. So far, I haven’t been birding further than the Skyline ridge. And that was on the weekend, of course, because that I couldn’t do on the weekday.
Do you have advice for people who would like to get into birding? Is this a passion that is easy enough to take up?
Maybe before I give any advice, I should tell them why they should go birding. Because birding gives you an awareness of the beauty of nature that you wouldn’t have by just looking at the landscapes—and mind you the landscapes around here are absolutely amazing. Once you start looking and waiting and hiding a little bit, suddenly you see things you wouldn’t think possible, like you know, this Painted Bunting is here, but 90 percent of the people would pass by without even noticing it. And then you realize, oh my God, nature is so beautiful.
Literally every time I go birding, I meet a new person who is really fascinating. I must have met something like 50 people over the last year. I think that the best way is to start with someone who will be able to show you what’s around. Because if you start on your own, it can be a frustrating process. It takes a certain time until you learn how to see movement, how to see the colors, how to differentiate the shapes, the way a bird is flying.
So go with someone or to take a course. Here in the US, you have probably the best university in ornithology in Cornell University. And they have a range of extraordinary apps, learning programs, online programs to learn birding—it’s fantastic.
And this hobby even landed you in the Washington Post! Not too bad for a hobbyist.
Maybe my capital would prefer me to enter the Washington Post for political reasons, but at least I was in the Washington Post!