A Very Big Year


Every birder at some time or other has a wild dream of taking a whole year off from life and travelling to the far reaches of the planet; from the tropical rainforests, to the mountain heights, to the vast grass savannahs, to the polar regions, and to the windswept seas.  The goal is to see hundreds, no thousands of new birds, all in a single year, and join the relatively short list of birders who have gone before and had a really big year.  Then we wake up from this dream in a cold sweat, realizing the cost, logistics, miles, physical energy, safety issues, and time from loved ones this adventure would entail.  But wait–as we speak this adventure is being lived by a fellow birder and he is sharing his daily itinerary and growing year-list with us all via the wonders of the internet.

Eurasian Jay, Italy

Eurasian Jay, Italy

Noah Strycker is a 28 year-young self-described “full-time bird nerd”, an accomplished international birder, and the author of “The Thing With Feathers“.  His lofty goal is to be the first person to see 5000 bird species in one calendar year, accomplishing this amazing feat in one continuous birding trip beginning in Antarctica, then, South, Central, and North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Pacific Islands, ending 365 days later in Australia.  I’m jet-lagged just writing that sentence.  He describes his “pursuit of birds as part sport and part existential meditation.”  Instead of using one or two guides for the whole trip he is meeting local birders and experts who lead him to their local birding hotspots.

Red-crested Cardinal

Red-crested Cardinal, Argentina

Noah is fostering the concept of “birding without borders”, the name of his website.  He notes the irony of artificial geopolitical borders where birders line up on one side to see wandering species of birds cross the border and satisfy their checklist, when they could just travel a few miles across the border and easily see the same birds.  Another example is the difficult trip to  Attu in Alaska to see the Asian rarity and satisfy the North American checklist, when the same bird is common and easily seen in Asia.  For Noah, the only list worth keeping is a whole world list.  His mantra for the trip is “stay flexible and keep a sense of humor.”

Spot-billed Duck, Japan

Spot-billed Duck, Japan

At the stroke of midnight, Day 1, New Years Eve, 2015, Noah was in a hot tub on the deck of a Russian ship with 5 friends and a bottle of champagne, cruising the Western Antarctic Peninsula.  By dawn he had found the first bird, a Cape Petrel–only 4999 to go.  There are days when Noah sees over a hundred birds in South America, but only can count 1 or 2 as new birds for the year.  Bird #2000 was a Shining Honey Creeper in Panama.  Rain did not stop Noah on Day 47 in Peru as he noted, “the birds don’t seem to mind it.”  I remember that Phoebe Snetsinger, the all time life-list record holder at 8674, noted that birding in the rain is the one time a female birder has an advantage over a male–she could fasten the umbrella handle to her bra and keep both hands free for the binos.

Great Kiskadee, Argentina

Great Kiskadee, Argentina

One interesting facet of this trip is the logistics, and particularly the packing list.  Noah’s goal was to travel light, with just a small carry-on backpack and no luggage to check.  He included binoculars of course, and his heaviest item, a Leica spotting scope.  Medical supplies included malaria pills, mosquito net, and H2O purification tablets.  He took a small laptop but debated about the second change of underwear.  The year has been set up as an endless summer of birding, so winter clothes would only be necessary in the higher mountain treks.  The down jacket is primarily used as packing material or pillow.  On Day 77 he received a thoughtful and practical care package from Mom–new socks, and on Day 81 in Columbia he celebrated using the first proper washing machine in 45 days.  Oh to be young again.

Eurasian Blue Tit, Italy

Eurasian Blue Tit, Italy

But why listen to me rambling on about this adventure when you can go to Noah’s site at www.audubon.org/features/birding-without-borders, and read his daily journal.  He currently is on Day 156 and making his way across the USA.  His list stands at 2733 birds.  The last bird was a Barred Owl seen at Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, New York on June 5.  That brings this all closer to home for me as I’ve birded that same woods many times.  One theme of his journal is the support he has received from the countless local birders, many previously unknown to Noah, but gladly leading him to their favorite spots and supporting his quest.

I’ve sprinkled some of my international bird photos throughout this post to rekindle my travel urge, but I think I’ll stick to the a more modest itinerary, and take more than one change of underwear.

2 thoughts on “A Very Big Year

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