a birder’s biggest big year, with noah strycker
IN ONE VERY ACTION-PACKED YEAR of more than 100,000 miles of global travel, Noah Strycker saw 6,042 species of birds, which represents 58.3 percent of the world’s avian diversity. Yes, one man in one year.
Many of you, like I do, probably enjoy watching birds, but what prompts a person to set out to pursue a big year, as it’s called in the world of extreme birding? And what besides a possible record do they potentially gain in the process?
On the occasion of the publication of his latest book, “Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World,” I wanted to ask Noah all that–and also for some advice on being a better birder for us mere mortal, less-extreme birdwatchers, so we can up our games at least a tiny bit.
Read along as you listen to the Oct. 16, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). That’s Noah, above, in a photo from his website.
a birding q&a with noah strycker
Q. I followed your 2015 adventure in real time on your Birding Without Borders blog on the Audubon website, so it was great to see the book that I knew was coming come to happen. Congratulations.
A. Thank you. It came out officially on October 10th.
Q. Yes. To set the scene, tell us briefly what you set out to do when you began the year of 2015 in Antarctica and headed for what turned out to be, I think, 41 countries—and sort of why. What was going on with you?
A. Well, a big year for a birdwatcher is where you try to go and track down as many species of birds as possible in one calendar year, between January 1st and December 31st. It’s something of a tradition in the birding scene, even going back to the 1950s.
Roger Tory Peterson, the father of American birding really, did a big trip across the U.S., which he wrote into a book called “Wild America,” and that sort of started this whole thing happening. And big years have been sort of escalating and escalating ever since.
I don’t know if you remember, there was a Hollywood movie that came out a couple of years ago with Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin playing birdwatchers. That was based on a true story of three gentlemen who did a big year in North America a few years ago. So this was the same thing, except taken to the logical extreme, doing all of planet Earth.
Q. I see. So extreme is the operative word. About the motivation kind of thing: You cite in the book something that the psychologist B. F. Skinner called the “variable-ratio schedule” as sort of part of what’s behind all this. Can you explain that to people—the variable-ratio schedule?
A. Well, having been a birdwatcher ever since I can remember basically, I’m always looking for ways to explain the addiction, and …
Q. I see. [Laughter.]
A. It’s the same impulse, I think, that gets people into casinos to go gambling. Essentially, it’s a random reward. You’re going into the field not knowing what you’re going to find, and sometimes you hit the jackpot and find some really cool bird or see an interesting behavior, and then sometimes you don’t see anything at all. And that’s much more intriguing to the human brain than going out and seeing the same thing every single day.
Q. So if the slot machine delivered on every lowering of the handle, it would not be so much fun?
A. Oh, it would be totally boring then, but if it gives you a jackpot sometimes and nothing other times, then even if you’re averaging 90 cents for every dollar you put in, it still keeps you going. Same thing with birdwatching. [Laughter.]
Q. Yeah. So you’ve been into birds for a long time; although I think you’re maybe 31 or 32 years old?
A. Yeah, that’s right, 31.
Q. What was the first count you did? Obviously, you didn’t just start liking birds last week or in the end of 2014, and go and do this big year. What was the first count that you did–how long ago was that, and do you remember what it was?
A. I got into birds when I was about 12 years old. In fifth grade in elementary school, my teacher put a bird feeder on our classroom window.
Q. Oh boy. [Laughter.]
A. And it suction-cupped right to the glass, so you could stand there with your nose against it, practically. And she would stop our class every time a new bird showed up and make us try to identify it. She wasn’t like a hardcore birder, exactly, but she knew the common backyard species.
So we had these purple finches and goldfinches and grosbeaks and things coming right up to our window, and I thought it was so cool. I’m not sure I can say the same for all the other kids in my middle school class [laughter], but you never know where that spark is going to come from. And, well, it’s a slippery slope of addiction after that.
Q. And so the first time you sort of did an official count, was it like something with a club? Was it a “day”? Was it a “big day”—do you remember?
A. I think probably the first count I did was one of the Audubon Christmas bird counts, which they have every year in December and early January.
Q. Me, too.
A. So I went out on my local one here in Eugene, Oregon, and joined a team, and I thought it was so cool that you could go out for a day and record every species of bird you found, and then that would go into this big sightings database.
Q. So it’s a long way and very different numbers from that to the big year. And you alluded to this before, but it’s like a record that in modern history, it hasn’t just been bettered, but it keeps getting sort of smashed, I think, right? I mean, it’s not exceeded by like one bird. It’s smashed, yes? Can you give us a little sort of idea of how long ago, it was what, and now it’s where? [Above: Noah and companions in the Philippines, above, on the day in 2015 he reached his 5,000th bird.]
A. There wasn’t much precedent for a global-scale figure of birding before this. There was one precedent: A British couple named Ruth Miller and Alan Davies did a bunch of birding trips in 2008, and they ended up writing that into a travel log that they called “The Biggest Twitch,” which I read and was quite inspired by. They ended up seeing 4,341 species that year, out of about 10,500 in the world, and I remember I got to the end of that book, and I thought, “Well, I could find more birds than that if I really put my mind to it.” [Laughter.]
Q. Oooh, they threw down the gauntlet just by writing the book, didn’t they? [Laughter.]
A. That’s right. Exactly. I think they knew what they were doing.
Q. And you pointed out this is global, but you smashed through that, we should say. You smashed through that and went to 6,042, yes? [See the list of those birds.]
A. That’s right.
Q. From 4,341, that’s a big change. But I remember reading Kenn Kaufman’s “Kingbird Highway,” the memoir of his … I don’t know. It was like a 69,000-mile adventure in what, 1973, maybe?
A. Yeah, right.
Q. But all in the Americas, I think. And he did it, he said, for like a dollar a day. [Laughter.] I mean, it was just a hilarious story. And he wrote the forward to your new book, which was so wonderful for those of us who have read that, to see the next generation of it, that was very charming really.
A. Well, Kenn Kaufman has always been kind of a hero of mine. I read “Kingbird Highway” many times when I was younger, and still try to read it every few years if I can. Yeah, he dropped out of high school when he was not even 20 years old and hitchhiked around the U.S. and did a big year that way, sleeping under bridges and eating cat food on the cheap, and I think his story was quite inspiring. So it was kind of cool to come full circle and have him write the forward for this story.
Q. Yes. But a lot has changed besides now that some of these adventures are global. Things are moving fast, and partly is that a sort of side effect—as many things have changed in our sort of social order and our information accessibility—is it because of the digital age, partly, the instant communication availability? Is that why these things are possible, and that these numbers can be broken through by such wide margins?
A. Yes, I think a couple things have happened in the past several decades. First of all, it’s just gotten easier to travel internationally. You can book plane tickets on Expedia dot com and go, and pack a bag, and it’s not that hard anymore. It’s about the same as traveling domestically was just relatively recently, I think, in terms of just the logistics involved.
And, in the birding world, just in the past 10 or 15 years, people have really gotten more connected. Again, with the internet and the easiness of finding information and good field guides and optics, and especially digital cameras coming out, it has pushed birding into places where it wasn’t before.
It used to be kind of this pursuit for first-world retirees, and now you can find birders all over the world in all these different places. And that was what really made this trip possible for me, because I was able to track them all down in all these far-flung countries and say, “Hey, can I come sleep on your couch? Do you want to show off your local hotspots?”
Q. Right, and so you had not a traveling companion exactly—you traveled alone—but you had a companion on each of the sort of expeditions within each country that you landed in, someone who frequently met you at the airport, and like you said, was one of the keenest birders there, and took you to their hotspots and so forth. So when a bird was seen, it was seen by two of you … or maybe sometimes three or four, huh?
A. Yes, I had two rules for myself from the beginning. I said every bird would have to be seen by me and at least one other person, which incidentally would give me witnesses for all these sightings, and all those other people had to be locals living in the same country that I was visiting. So no hiring international tour guides. No importing my friends from back home. This was really all about seeking out the local birders in all these different places.
Q. If you had to profile an extreme birder [laughter]—I know we’re not supposed to profile anybody, but what do you think the common traits are? I have to say that sort of based on the record holders, although there was that couple that you talked about, the people in your book who you asked to meet you and show you around and so forth, it seems like there are a lot of men. It seems predominantly a male pursuit, but what else? Is it a wanderlust, or is it just the birds? [Laughter.]
A. One question I have asked many birders over the years is, “Did you collect things when you were younger?”
Q. Oh, yes; O.K.
A. And almost everybody says yes, so I think there’s that instinct coming into play with listing birds. I certainly collected coins and stamps and whatever else I could get my hands on when I was little. So I suppose birding is kind of a grown-up collection in some ways. And also, pursuing adventure and going out of your comfort zone. You know that you’re not going to see new birds unless you go to new places, and that for me is the joy of it, because there are birds everywhere. They are almost the most universal creatures we have, but if you want to see new ones, you’ve got to go to places you’ve never been before.
Q. And some of the moments you have in your “Birding Without Borders” trip that you recount in this new book, some of them were painful, and the empathy that I felt—I mean, just they sounded exhausting. There were blown tires at 70 miles an hour on iffy roads, and some of it was really tough, and you were go, go, go, go, go ’cause you had to get those birds, you had to get those birds, you had to get those birds. But then there were these moments that … One of my favorites in the book was–and I’ll let you tell it, a little brief version of the story—was “Maria, Maria, venga, venga, venga,” right? Can you tell us about Maria?
A. Yes, that was in northwest Ecuador in the cloud forest. I made a pilgrimage to visit an angel of peace, this local man named Angel Paz [below, photo of Angel by Noah Strycker], and he’s got kind of a compelling story. Just briefly, several years ago, some birders happened upon Angel’s property when he was, in a former life, a logger, cutting down his trees, and these birdwatchers said, “Hey, do you know where we might find a bird called an Andean cock-of-the-rock?”
And Angel kind of went, “Oh, you mean those red birds out back? Yeah, I guess I can show them to you.”
A. And as they were walking back there, this little brown bird hopped out of the bushes at their feet. And the birders went, “Oh my gosh, Angel, forget about the cocks-of-the-rock. If you can show this little brown bird to visitors, they’ll actually pay you money to come here ’cause it’s so rare,” and they left very happily.
And so Angel got thinking about this, and he thought, “Well, I know that little brown bird. In fact, it likes to follow me around in the forest when I’m cutting down my trees and eat the worms that are disturbed. I wonder if I can teach it to eat worms?”
And so he befriended this bird, which is called a giant antpitta, which is super rare. Basically the only place in the world you can see a giant antpitta now is on Angel Paz’s property. And so I visited him in 2015, and we went out into the forest. And he had some worms in his hand, and he stopped at a particular spot on his trail. And all of a sudden, he just goes, “Maria, Maria,” which is his name for this bird, and sure enough, like 20 seconds later, it comes hopping out of the bushes and he throws it its worms. It was quite an interesting experience. [Laughter.]
Q. [Laughter.] Besides that Maria’s having a good ol’ time showing off for everybody and getting a guaranteed worm dinner, he went from being a logger—he was cutting down trees—to being like a conservationist in a sense. Now at his place he’s keeping the trees, and he’s utilizing the place for its diversity intact, yes?
A. He’s now visited by more than 2,000 birdwatchers a year, and every one of them pays an entrance fee to see this rare bird he has on his property. He’s since learned all the other birds around his property, and so he’s kind of expanded his operation a little bit. But, yeah, it’s an amazing example of a conservation success story out there in Ecuador because here’s a guy who, instead of cutting down all the trees on his property, found that he could make a much better living, and in fact kind of become the king of his own village, by keeping that forest intact. [The whole Angel Paz story on Noah’s Audubon website. Photo of giant antipitta, above, by Noah Strycker.]
Q. Well, thank you, Maria. And Ecuador—there’s so much in the book. You give us a lot of these conservation lessons. You give us a lot of information about where the pockets of diversity in the world are. So you say Ecuador has .0006 percent of the world’s land surface, like tiny, tiny, tiny, but 16 percent of the world’s birds. Really?
A. If you want to see a lot of birds…
Q. Go to Ecuador.
A. …go to Ecuador. It’s probably the most concentrated bird diversity in the world. Ecuador itself is smaller than the state of Colorado, but it has 1,800 species of birds. That’s like three times as many as in the entire United States. It’s just off the scale.
Q. Right. So is there a risk in extreme birding of not ever really like knowing birds? I feel like—I mean, I’m a very amateurish bird person; although I have watched birds and loved birds for 30-something years. One of the places you go in Costa Rica—you go to Rancho Naturalista in Costa Rica. I went there a million years ago, and I remember it, but I don’t feel like I saw, knew, met those birds like I know the 65 or 67 or 68 kinds of birds who almost every year come into my garden in New York State. You know, my rural place. I feel like I know those birds. Do you know what I mean? It’s a different thing from like, check, check, check, tick it off the list.
Q. So tell me about that for you because what’s your life list at now? It’s at like 85 billion birds or something? [Laughter.]
A. [Laughter.] Well, 6,500 or so.
Q. Out of the 10,000-and-something that are theoretically out there.
A. But yeah, you’re absolutely right. There is no such thing as the best birder in the world because there’s no way to measure that. The best birders are definitely not the people that have seen the most species because, as you said, you see a bird once, and then you move on. You don’t really get to know that bird very well.
So I think the best birders are the people who spend a lot of times on one species or one particular region and getting to know that just in and out and like the back of their hand. So, it’s a balance. This trip for me was not just about getting to know the birds, but all the people and the characters and the cultures and the people and the places and the adventures and the misadventures all along the way. It wasn’t just about the numbers. For me, it was about all of the above.
Q. And you did this with just one backpack and nothing—I mean, that was it. That was your whole gear including clothing, whatever; everything was that, that backpack. I love the picture in the book; there’s a great photo of you standing next to this stack of field guides that’s at least your height, if not a little taller. And of course you’re going around the world; it’s going to be essential equipment to have the field guide for every place you’re going, but you can’t fit those into the backpack. So what did you do?
A. It was tricky to pack for this trip, with the field guides in particular. I ended up either photographing or scanning all of the identification plates from all these different books and then loading those as digital files onto my phone and my laptop. So I had all of the reference material in the field, which was exquisitely useful because I could study the field marks of the birds as I was traveling, but it was quite a bit of work up front to do that for my own personal reference.
A. And as far as all the other gear, the farther you go, the less you really need to take with you along the way. I wasn’t in wildernesses the whole time, so I had access to necessities along the way. And I learned a few lessons about packing light from backpacking. A few years ago, I hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail, which goes from Mexico to Canada. Every ounce, you really have to think about hard, “Do I really need that on my back this whole way?” And so I applied those same lessons to this trip as well.
Q. Smart. So I want to ask you something for again, like I said in the introduction, those of us who are more mere mortal, not-so-extreme birders. I was just rereading a book. I think it’s a Pete Dunne book, a little book about how to identify birds, and it’s this very deceptively simple little book called “The Art of Bird Identification,” and he has his particular kind of advice.
Our instinct, those of us who are not so expert, is that we want to hold the book in our hand, and we want to “uh, uh, uh” … we see the bird, and we, “uh, uh, uh”, and we want to look through the book and find that bird.
What would you say? Like how to look? What’s your first thing that you’re looking for, and any other advice? And then maybe you can talk to us a little bit about gear.
A. Yeah, well, bird identification is as much about behavior and habitat and season and range as it is about looking at individual field marks.
A. So taking all of those things into account as well, but when you’re looking at a bird, if it’s still in view, keep looking at it. The instinct is to take a close glance and then immediately look at your field guide and start paging through it. Meanwhile, the bird flies away, and you realize that there’s 10 birds that look very similar, and you didn’t look at the right part of it. So absorb as much as you can right up front.
And find like-minded bird lovers to go out into the field with. Birding is as much a social activity as it is a scientific one, and you’ll learn the most by going out with other people who have been there and can kind of point out the things to look for.
Q. And then, of course, there’s those earbirders that you meet on those walks—the people who can bird by ear who you meet if you go on a walk with some expert guide, and it’s mind-blowing. That’s a whole other level, but we won’t even go there. [Laughter.]
A. Oh, yeah. Going through a forest, it’s like 90 percent birding by ear. It’s like speaking another language.
Q. Yeah, and then for night time, you met a lot of birds in the darkness—not a lot, but a number of birds in the book in the darkness. You had some kind of really groovy flashlight for that, yeah? You did have some special gear for certain things.
A. It helps if you’re looking for owls to have a nice LED spotlight that can focus narrowly into a beam so you can see eye shine from a distance and see birds after dark.
Birding is not a real gear-intensive pursuit, but you really do need a good pair of binoculars. A lot of birders will get a spotting scope as well, when they really get into it for looking at distant ducks and shore birds. And a nice camera can be helpful for documenting birds and reviewing their field marks later. And just it’s fun to take bird photos. A lot of people get into birding that way.
And a good field guide. And besides that, if you want to go to a different country, you might need a passport and a pair of pants, but not too much else. [Laughter.] [From his Audubon big year blog, read Noah’s roundup of advice and gear.]
Q. [Laughter.] Yes, exactly. I wanted to say you remark various times sort of along your journey that there’s no place like home, and I just wondered at home in the Pacific Northwest (and you just sort of alluded to this): Certain people are expert in a particular group of birds or a particular area. Is there a niche, a passion, that you have that wasn’t in this book maybe?
A. I love all birds. I don’t have a particular group that I study.
Q. O.K. Does not discriminate, O.K.
A. But I really like the birds around my home, of course, because they feel like old friends.
Q. Well, yeah. I totally agree, and some of the ones where I live, they’re not fancy. Brown creepers and hermit thrushes and ovenbirds—little unassuming birds, but I feel like I know them, again, like we said before. Who are some of the regulars at your place?
Q. Yes, yes, yes. Well, Noah Strycker, I’m thrilled to finally speak to you, and thank you for the blog that year. And thank you for the new book, and congratulations.
more from noah strycker
enter to win ‘birding without borders’
I’LL BUY A COPY of Noah Strycker’s newest book, “Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World,” for one lucky reader. To enter, answer this question in the comment box at the very bottom of the page (scroll past the latest comment):
Who are some of “your birds” that are most familiar, the way Noah mentioned his home-turf Steller’s jay or I cherish my local brown creeper. Also: has there been a bird that surprised you when you saw it, or felt unusual or rare? (For me I suppose that would be birds I saw in Costa Rica decades ago, but truthfully I get more excited by a new warbler seen closer to home, one I’ve never seen despite more than 30 years in this spot.)
No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I will select a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, October 23. Good luck to all; U.S. and Canada only.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Oct. 16, 2017 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)