Ornithologist Bruce Beehler ’64 Describes New Guinea Travels, Career Path in New Alumni Talk

In 1958, when Bruce Beehler ’64 was just seven years old, his family took a day trip to Lake Roland in southern Baltimore County. Worried that it might rain, and terrified by the possibility, he hid beneath their picnic table, gazing up at his family through cracks in the wood. What he saw next would change his life forever: not rain, but a red-bellied woodpecker.
“I was completely transformed by seeing this bird,” Bruce said. “I had no idea what it was, but I knew it was the most beautiful thing on Earth, and I wanted to know what it was, and that was basically the start of my career in ornithology.”
A year later, Bruce wrote his first formal report on woodpeckers for Mr. Gillet’s Ninth Age class – and he never looked back, later pursuing ornithology, the scientific study of birds, at Williams College and Princeton University.
Now a research associate with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Bruce has spent about 40 years studying birds and their ecosystems, with most of his work focusing on the exotic species of New Guinea.
He recently described his globe-trotting research and conservation efforts, as well as his new book – New Guinea: Nature and Culture of Earth's Grandest Island – in a virtual conversation with Calvert alumni.
As part of his research, Bruce has visited the island of New Guinea more than 70 times, including co-leading an expedition to the remote Foja Mountains that identified 20 species of frogs, four species of insects, and several new plants and mammals in 2005.
Shortly after arriving, the team also discovered a new bird, the wattled smoky honeyeater (Melipotes carolae), which Bruce named for his wife, Carol.
“The one amazing thing is, if you get to a place like that, not a lot of other people will have been there,” Bruce said. “It’s a pretty exciting thing to get to a place like that.”
In addition to studying birds and their habitats, Bruce has written 16 books – including six about New Guinea – and authored a number of articles on the subject. His latest release, New Guinea: Nature and Culture of Earth's Grandest Island, compiles his decades of research in comprehensive overview of New Guinea’s history, geography, climate, and native animal species.
The book also includes more than 200 photos from award-winning National Geographic photographer Tim Laman.
“This book basically tries to tell the world about New Guinea and its wonders,” Bruce shared with alumni. “Because it really is a wonderful place.”
A respected conservationist, Bruce also works to preserve the environments he studies. His proudest accomplishment, he says, is partnering with conservation scientist Lisa Dabek to protect wildlife within nearly 200,000 acres of New Guinea rainforest.
In addition to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Bruce has worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society, U.S. State Department, Counterpart International, Conservation International, and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation. He is an elective Fellow of the American Ornithologists Union and has served on the boards of the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), RARE, and the Livingston-Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy.
He also serves on the scientific advisory board of the Rainforest Trust and is a research associate of the American Bird Conservancy.
To learn more about Bruce’s extensive travels and impressive research, order his latest book, New Guinea: Nature and Culture of Earth's Grandest Island.
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