5 Questions for Noah Strycker, Birdwatcher Extraordinaire

Photograph by Bob Keefer.

Photograph by Bob Keefer.

Noah Strycker is an associate editor of Birding magazine, and the author of two books about birds. At the beginning of this year he set out to see 5,000 species of birds before December 31—a feat that no one has ever accomplished. As of October 27, he’s seen 5,014 species.


How did you arrive at the idea for this trip?

I’ve thought for years that the 2008 record set by a British couple, Ruth Miller and Alan Davies, of 4,341 bird species seen in one calendar year, could be broken. The key would be to do it in a single, continuous birding trip around the world, rather than separate out-and-back trips from home. And never take a day off.

The worldwide “Big Year” idea—birders often refer to the challenge of seeing as many bird species as possible in a single year as a Big Year—came together for me when I solo-hiked the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada, in 2011. I had a lot of time to think it out, and I figured that if I dedicated myself to it, I could see 5,000 species—about half of the bird species on Earth.

In a way, a worldwide Big Year is like a long-distance hike—you’ve got to show up every day and put in the miles. But with a lot more birds.

You’ve just recently broken the record—so far, you’ve seen more than 5,000 species of birds since the beginning of the year. Does any one of them stand out for you?

I was psyched to see a Harpy eagle in Brazil, near the Pantanal, after waiting for four hours. It flew in carrying half a coati, a raccoon-like animal, in talons that could grasp dinner plates. Awesome!

Other than the fact that you wouldn’t have been alive, what do you think it would have been like if you had done this trip fifty years ago?

Fifty years ago there was no Internet: no web, no e-mail, no online databases of bird sightings, no instant communication to every corner of the globe. Telephones existed, of course, but international calling was expensive and difficult. Local birders communicated by phone trees and long-distance birders sent postcards.

At that time, recreational birding was taking off in the U.S. thanks to Roger Tory Peterson’s 1934 Field Guide to the Birds, but it was not yet a common activity in most developing countries. It was just getting going in Latin America, and hardly existed at all in Africa. Few field guides for these areas were available to help identify the birds there.

Birders attempting a Big Year around the world fifty years ago would have had to brave the wild pretty much on their own, and travel infrastructure was not what it is today. In James Vardaman’s 1980 book, Call Collect, Ask for Birdman, about his 1979 North American Big Year, he estimated the cost of a worldwide Big Year to be $700,000—and that’s in 1980 dollars. In 2015, it’s still expensive, but with the help of birders around the globe, you don’t have to be a millionaire to try. It’s a lot easier these days to connect with other birders, get to good birding spots, identify the birds you see, and share the experience in real time via social media.

What about if you did it fifty years in the future? Based on what you’ve seen this year, how do you imagine the world, and its birds, will be different?

The sad fact is that fifty years from now there will be fewer bird species to see on the planet. In the U.S. alone, shrinking habitat and shifting ranges are expected to imperil nearly half of the birds within this century. As for how birding will itself change in the next fifty years, I can’t even imagine. Optimistically, I hope that international boundaries will have dissolved to the point that it will be more common for birders to go “birding without borders,” which is my theme for this Big Year.

What do you hope others will learn from your trip?

Birding is fun! Birds are everywhere, beautiful, and slightly mysterious—and they are a kind of gateway drug for learning about nature. Once you start paying attention to all the cool birds around you, even the common, everyday ones, you want to protect them, and then maybe you get interested in conserving their habitat, and then all of a sudden you find yourself caring for the well-being of the whole planet.

Read more about Noah’s journey, and stay up to date with his bird count, at audubon.org/noah.


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