Birding Without Borders: An Epic World Big Year
Thumbnail image: Noah Strycker
[Photo: Sword-billed hummingbird perched on a branch]
[Noah] Yeah, good to see you, of course. I saw your house today. It was pointed out to me as a landmark.
[Ian] Thanks everybody for coming out tonight. Great to see a standing room only crowd here, and thanks everyone who’s tuning in online as well. My name is Ian Davies, I work here at the Cornell Lab on the eBird project. I’m very excited to introduce Noah Strycker, our speaker for the evening, who will be talking about his international big year in 2015 and Birding Without Borders. I’ll leave it at that, and please welcome Noah.
[Noah] All right, well thanks everyone for coming, looks like we got a great turnout tonight. I am very pleased to be here because I have only visited the Cornell Lab once before in my entire life, and that was during my big year, and I was in this building from about 12:00 a.m. To 1:00 a.m.
It’s good to see it in daylight for once.
Actually when I visited here for ever so brief a time, the only person who was in this building was Jane Kim, the artist who painted this mural just outside the room here.
And she was in process of painting a representative of every bird family in the world, while I was on a similar timeline trip to try to see as many birds as possible in the world, and we finished around the same time as far as I know in 2015.
So good to see the finished product out there. But in any case, I have two mics so hopefully the people online can hear me as well, and without further ado I’d just like to tell you a few stories tonight about a little adventure I went on in 2015.
This, by the way, is a bird called a sword-billed hummingbird, which is found in the Andes Mountains in South America. And I believe it’s the only bird in the world that has a beak longer than its own body length. But my favorite feature of the sword-billed hummingbird if you look very closely you can see the feet are bubblegum pink colored, and I just think that’s very funny.
You know how when you travel to a foreign country they always give you this piece of paper before you arrive, it usually looks something like this?
[Image: Jamaican immigration form]
This is an immigration form and I filled a few of these immigration forms out over the years, and so I can say from personal experience that they have a lot of things in common, and one thing that they almost always have somewhere is a space for occupation.
[Image: Immigration formed zoomed in with “Occupation” circled in red]
I’m not really sure about all of you, but sometimes I have a hard time describing myself, and what I do in one word. So I’ve written all kinds of things on these forms over the years.
[Image: Immigration form zoomed in with “Writer” written over the occupation line and circled in red]
For a long time I was just writing “writer,” which I figured was a nice suitably vague, all-encompassing term. And that was until April of 2015, when I landed in the country of Jamaica, and I walked up to the immigration counter and the officer looked me in the eyes and he just said, “Well, what kind of a writer are you?” And I kinda went, “Uh, uh, uh, I write books.” And he said, “What kind of books?” And I paused, and I said, “Well, I write books about birds.”
And there was this long pause, and he looked at me, this single male, disheveled traveler with no luggage coming into his country, and he got very, very suspicious, and started asking me all these searching questions about who I was, and what I was doing, and what my intentions were for the country of Jamaica.
And I wanted to say, “Look, I’ve got 27 hours to see all 29 endemic species of birds on this tiny island. I’m on a round-the-world bird-watching binge, trying to become the first person ever to see 5,000 species of birds in one calendar year. My friends are waiting outside on the curb, will you please just let me through?”
I didn’t say that instead I said, “I’m a tourist.” He did eventually let me pass, but I learned my lesson. So on every immigration form I have ever filled out since that moment I have just written “bird man.”
[Image: Immigration form zoomed in with “Bird Man” written over the occupation line and circled in red]
And nobody has ever said a word about it.
How many people saw this movie when it came out? Yes, Hollywood film starring Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Steve Martin playing birdwatchers. This was actually based on a true story of three gentlemen who went around North America during 1998 trying to see as many species of birds as they could in one calendar year.
And this was built upon actually a long-standing tradition in the birding world, even going back to the days of Mr. Roger Tory Peterson,
[Photo: Roger Tory Peterson outside with a large book of bird drawings on his lap]
in many ways the father of American birdwatching in the 1950s, took a big trip across the U.S. with a friend of his, which he later wrote into a book called Wild America, which I highly recommend if you’ve never read it.
But it was in that book, literally in a minor footnote at the bottom of a page in the last chapter, that Mr. Peterson wrote something like during my travels in 1953 I saw 573 species of birds period. And he didn’t mean that like a gauntlet being thrown or anything to that effect, but other people kind of took it that way, and said well I could see more birds than that.
And so this whole concept of a big year has been kind of escalating and escalating in the decades ever since.
Until today you’ve got people like this guy, Olaf.
[Photo: Man with sunglasses, binoculars, and sandals, but no clothes, standing behind a sign reading “Naturists may be seen beyond this point. Studland Beach”]
Who did a big year in 2013, just a couple of years ago. Again in North America, where his rule was he had to see every bird in the nude.
Not the bird, himself. He he had all these specific rules apparently that he couldn’t find the bird and then take his clothes off, he had to spot it while he was actually already naked for it count on his list. He still ended up seeing like 600 species of birds by the end of that year, which I think is incredible that he didn’t get arrested 12 times by the end of that trip.
In any case, that’s kind of where we’ve come with big years, at least on the North American scale. And yet,
[Image: Earth from space]
nobody had ever really taken this concept and applied it properly to all of planet Earth before, which I always thought was kind of interesting because if you look at the world from a bird’s perspective, they don’t need visas and passports to travel across borders, they don’t even recognize our political borders, and so if you’re out looking for birds why should we?
And so I always thought that someone should do a proper big year from a bird’s eye view of planet Earth, and just do the whole lot all at once. But I never quite thought that I would be the one to take on this particular challenge.
[Image: Cover of The Biggest Twitch: Around the World in 4,000 Birds by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, with a drawing of toucans, a forest, mountains, and sunset]
And in fact there was a precedent, a British couple named Ruth Miller and Alan Davies in 2008 did a lot of birding in one year. And they ended up the end of that year seeing 4,341 of birds, setting officially a new big year world record, which they wrote up in this travelogue called The Biggest Twitch, and I read it and I was quite inspired. And at the same time, I guess kind of like all those people who had read Peterson’s book in the 1950s, I got to the end and thought, well I could see more birds than that if I really set my mind to it.
But I came to this adventure through a somewhat more circuitous route. So first of all, in 2011, I suppose is when this whole thing kind of sprouted in my mind.
[Photo: Noah wearing a backpack while sitting on the Pacific Crest Trail southern terminus at the Mexico/U.S. Border]
I went on a whole different kind of trip, and hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail, which is a 2,650 mile hiking route that goes from the border of Mexico all the way up through California, Oregon, and Washington to the Canadian border.
That’s a whole nother story, but it took me about four months of walking every day to hike that trail. And I will say when you spend four months literally wandering through the woods all day, every day, much of that time on your own, your mind kind of tends to wander as well.
And at some point during that trip I started thinking hypothetically about big years, and how cool it would be to do one, and possibilities. And I started thinking about global big years, and man that could keep me going for days, thinking of ideal strategies, and how you would approach it.
And so by the time I reach the border of Canada on that hiking trip at the end of the summer, I kind of had the the whole strategy already sketched out in my mind. You know just in case I ever might get the opportunity.
[Image: Cover of the The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human by Noah Strycker]
And then in 2014 I wrote this book called The Thing with Feathers, I think they’ve got some copies out in the bookstore here if you haven’t got one yet, you can come see me after class and I’d be happy to sign it for you.
But it ended up doing pretty well, actually. You don’t really expect a book of essays about bird behavior to be a bestseller exactly, but it kind of was. It was on the New York Times bestseller list, and it was reviewed in People magazine and The Economist, and it’s been translated into seven or eight different languages now. And so I was kind of blown away actually, and after that happened I said well, okay, and I sat down and I wrote a proposal that basically just said for my next book I want to go around the world and look at birds for a year, and sent it off.
And Houghton Mifflin, the publisher, came back and they said yep, sounds like a great idea. In fact we’ll give you an advance up front that should be enough to cover the entire trip. And that’s the point when I suddenly went, oh crap.
[Photo: Noah and 14 other men standing in a group]
So, in terms of strategy, planning this whole thing, I had about four months to put all of the logistics together before I started. I knew from the very beginning that even though this was an international trip in scale, I wanted to keep it as local in scope as possible.
So I made two rules for myself from the very beginning, I said first of all every bird would have to be seen by at least one other person, which incidentally would give me witnesses for all these sightings for all those people who are like, yeah well how do you prove it. And second of all, all those other birders 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 to keep me company, this was really about seeking out fellow like-minded bird lovers in all of these far-flung places, and then calling them up and essentially saying, “Hey, I’m doing a big year. Can I come sleep on your couch for a few days, and do you want to take me out to your local hotspots?”
So this for instance is just a picture of a few of the birders that took me out for one morning in northern Borneo when I arrived there. You start multiplying this out and by the end of the year I would have been out in the field with literally hundreds of different birders.
[Photo: Noah’s packed gear, including backpack, laptop, spotting scope, tripod, binoculars, camera, toiletries, clothing, and more]
I have learned a few lessons about packing light from hiking the PCT, and decided to apply those to this trip as well. This is pretty much everything I took for an entire year of traveling. I went down to REI, I got a 40 liter backpack, which is small enough to slide under the seat of any airplane so I would never have to check it, and I told myself if it doesn’t fit, I guess I don’t need it.
I definitely did need a spotting scope and a tripod, which you can see there in the lower part of the picture, and that left just enough room around the edges for an extra pair of underwear, and some malaria pills for Africa, and some water purification tablets, and that silk thing is a sleeping bag liner that I could wriggle up inside and crash out on people’s floors and couches when I had to. But other than that the farther you go, it’s really true that the less you need to take with you along the way.
[Photo: Noah standing next to a stack of books about his height]
One thing I definitely could not take was reference books, so this was kind of a problem. This is a stack of just some of the field guides covering the places I planned to visit during the year. And I hemmed and hawed, hemmed and hawed about this, and I finally ended up either photographing or scanning the identification plates from all of these field guides, and then loading those as digital files onto my phone and my laptop, which was exquisitely useful in the field because it meant I could study up and do my homework as I was traveling from place to place, but it was quite a lot of work up front, as it turned out to get those all scanned.
[Image: World map with red dots at places on Noah’s final itinerary]
And then the fun part, okay, so you’ve got 365 days to find as many species of birds on planet Earth as humanly possible, where do you want to go? I put out a map on my living room floor at home, and I started putting dots down on all the places that I knew I absolutely had to visit. And after about two hours of that I suddenly realized I’d already planned enough travel for about five years, so I had to be kind of strategic about emphasizing locations with a lot of diversity.
In general, the closer you get to the equator the more bird species there are. But also not forgetting about places with high levels of endemism, birds that you can’t find anywhere else. So for that reason lots of the islands like Jamaica, like Madagascar, became quite important as well. So it was a balance between those two things.
This is showing my final itinerary, the places I came up with, and I approached this as a one-way trip, with one long series of one-way plane tickets, from west to east, ending up down near Australia was the plan. And that meant I would have new territory to look forward to right up until the very last day of the year.
[Photo: Close up of a chinstrap penguin; Text: Chinstrap penguin, Jan 1 #4]
And so, at midnight on January 1st, 2015, I found myself on a Russian ship floating off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, because I decided if you’re gonna see the world you might as well start at the end of it. And I really wanted a penguin to be my very first bird of the year, and as it turned out the chinstrap penguin was technically bird number 4 on the 1st of January.
My very first bird was a nice Southern Ocean seabird called a cape petrel, which I thought was a good omen from the very beginning. But I feel like this is kind of how a lot of people see birding, and especially this type of birding where you go out somewhere exciting, you find an awesome bird like this, you angle for a really good view, maybe you take a picture if you’re lucky like this, and then you go, yes, and you go “check”, and then you turn around and you practically forget all about it as you go off chasing the next one.
And I guess by starting this trip in Antarctica, which was strategically the worst possible place to start a big year because there’s only about 20 species on the whole continent, I wanted to make this subtle statement from the very beginning that, yes, my goal was to find five thousand species of birds by the end of the year, that was the motivation.
However, for me it wasn’t just about the numbers, it was also about lots of other things because if you just take one step back you can see it’s not just about the bird,
[Photo: Several people observing chinstrap penguins]
it’s about these people next to you, enjoying this experience with you. And if you take another step back,
[Photo: Ocean and sea ice in Antarctica, with penguins circled in red]
you can see it’s these amazing landscapes and environments that these birds are living in that you get to visit. There are some penguins in this picture, by the way. Right there, for a sense of scale of that massive sea ice in Antarctica. So yeah, it was about the birds, it was about the people, the places, the languages, and the cultures, the food, the adventures and misadventures, and everything else along the way that went into it. That’s why I wanted to do this big year.
However, I think I spent seven and a half days in Antarctica, and after that first week I still needed to find 4,990 more species of birds to make it to my goal.
[Photo: Harpy eagle nest in a tree]
So I really had to hit the ground running in South America, which was easy to do because there are more bird species in South America than any other continent, and I planned to spend the first several months of the year just in various parts of South America.
And my most wanted bird in South America, and maybe really anywhere in the world, was a bird called the harpy eagle. A harpy eagle is the biggest raptor in the Western Hemisphere, it’s like three feet tall, its main diet is monkeys and sloths. It can take a 20-pound howler monkey and pick it out of a tree top and carry it back to its nest, which is about the same size as a Volkswagen bus stuffed up in the top of a tree.
And so that’s the kind of bird I knew I really had to go seek out during this adventure, and luckily when I landed in central Brazil, I met these two local birders there
[Photo: Giuliano and Bianca sitting on a bench outside]
Giuliano and Bianca, brother and sister, one of them was a researcher, one of them was a bird enthusiast slash guide. And they came up to me in the airport, and before they really said anything else they said, “Guess what? Guess what? We have found an active harpy eagle nest and we’re gonna go stake it out at dawn tomorrow. It may be the only active nest in all of Brazil right now.”
And they never should have told me that, because I did not sleep at all that night
I finally rolled out of bed again at about 4:30 a.m. And we went out to that nest site I just showed you, and staked it out, very energetically, for about six straight hours. And nothing moved, we saw not a feather. We were getting quite confused, and me massively disappointed to miss my most wanted bird right out of the gate. Maybe it was off hunting somewhere, maybe it was inside the nest, and we couldn’t even see it because the nest itself was like this castle hiding it, who knew.
But, I hate to do these calculations, but I was sitting there thinking, you know it’s getting to be lunch time, I know technically a harpy eagle counts the same as a house sparrow, but it does have more style points
but I do need to average like 13.7 new birds every day to get to five thousand species this year, which is like one new bird every waking hour if you average that out for 365 days, so every hour I spend here and not really, I could be out there seeing a bunch of ugly brown birds in the bush somewhere, and so I was getting really frustrated, and Giuliano said, “I think we should go have some lunch now,” and I said, “I think I agree.”
I stood up to leave, I picked up my backpack, and of course that is the one second that the harpy eagle would pick to fly in right over our heads, swoop up into this tree in front of us,
[Photo: View up into a tree with a harpy eagle perched on a branch]
and perch there remarkably inconspicuously for such a huge raptor,
[Photo: Zoomed in on harpy eagle; Text: Harpy Eagle, Jan 30 #624]
but if you zoom in you can see it’s just a spectacular animal, it’s got this massive crest up on top of its head. The talons of a harpy eagle are about as long as a grizzly bear’s talons. Its feet, if it spreads it out, it has about the same circumference as a dinner plate, their legs are about as thick as your wrist.
This one had a half of a coati in its talons when it flew in, this kind of raccoon-like tropical animal, and it was tearing it apart in front of us for the next hour, and so yes the harpy eagle definitely went down as one of the very top birds of the year, at number 624 on the thirtieth of January.
[Photo: Noah standing in the mountains of Peru]
Valentine’s Day came around in Peru, and on that day February 14th, I got higher than I’ve ever been in my entire life, and this is at a place called Ticlio Pass in central Peru, which is at about 16,000 feet above sea level.
And I’d actually started that same morning in Lima at sea level, so when this photo was taken I had a pretty killer altitude headache and stomachache, but it was well worth while because the birds in central Peru are bar none spectacular, lots of endemics and diversity, the ultimate combination for me.
And I planned to spend the next couple of weeks birding all around different parts of Peru, with this character
[Photo: Gunnar in a forest wearing binoculars and a baseball hat with MORE BIRDS on it]
whose name is Gunnar, rhymes roughly with lunar as far as I can tell. He is a Swedish man who moved to Lima, Peru several decades ago when it was kind of a sketchy place to move to. More or less because he wanted to be immersed in the bird life of that country, and he’s more or less flourished in Peru ever since.
So when I sent Gunnar an email just explaining the project, he immediately replied in all caps with one sentence that just said I AM YOUR MAN, like 10 exclamation points behind it.
When I arrived I realized he always wears this hat, again with all caps embroidered across the front MORE BIRDS, so I figured he probably was, at least to some extent. And we had some adventures together.
[Photo: Wooden, multi-level building in a rain forest]
We went to the rain forest
[Photo: Mountains of Peru]
[Noah] Spotlight, when in the distance we caught a little bit of eye shine, and crept up closer and closer to it, and found that there was this little bird sitting on the ground.
[Photo: Person taking a photo of a nightjar on the ground]
I wasn’t quite sure what it was at this point because there’s a couple species of nightjars in that area of Mexico that looked quite similar to each other, but luckily I’ve loaded all my field guides onto my phone
[Photo: Noah holding his phone with bird guide on it up to the nightjar]
so I just held my phone up next to the bird itself, and started comparing the field marks back and forth, and eventually deduced that it was actually a bird called a
[Photo: Common poorwill; Text: Common poorwill, May 16 #2,500]
common poorwill, which I am very familiar with because we have poorwills in my home state of Oregon in the desert, and I’ve seen many of them before. But this particular common poorwill turned out to be kind of a special individual, because first of all, I had heard before that you can kind of dazzle a poorwill with a flashlight if you keep it aimed in its general direction and sneak up on them, and this one, I ended up lying on my stomach with one arm outstretched gently petting the bird on the back of its head while it didn’t move a feather.
Finally I backed off and turned the flashlight off, and the bird flew off into the night, and then I realized this common poorwill that I had just been petting was bird number 2,500 on the 16th of May, so that was about the first time I started to realize, oh if I keep this up I might actually see more than 5,000 species of birds by the end of this year. But I wasn’t really thinking too much about the end game just yet, because I still had many more miles to go.
[Photo: Sign saying “Welcome To The USA” in an airport]
I didn’t spend too long in the U.S., two days in south Texas, a day and a half in southeast Arizona, a long day around Los Angeles and the outskirts. I went home to Oregon for a few days so I could sleep in my own bed for a couple of nights, and get my own staked out birds around where I live.
[Photos: Noah before and after his haircut]
And so I could get a haircut while I traveled through, and my last stop in the Western Hemisphere was
[Photo: Tim with a spotting scope near a lake]
right here in the state of New York, in Ithaca. I paid a visit to Cornell to go birding for the day with our celebrity Tim Lenz, back there, who works on eBird, which I’d been using to keep track of all my bird sightings in the field. And Tim was kind enough to take me around for a day and look for some relatively common, local summer New York birds that I hadn’t found yet for my big year.
[Photo: Upland sandpiper in a grassy field]
So we were out finding these awesome things like upland sandpipers and I think that afternoon we were actually looking at, up at Montezuma for American black ducks
which I know are something of a trash bird around here, but I hadn’t been to New York yet that year, and so I really needed to find a black duck. And Tim said I think we can probably track one down for you. We were out some time that afternoon, and Tim suddenly gets this WhatsApp message on his phone, and I swear he started vibrating instead of the phone.
I was like, “Tim, what is it?” And he said, “You’re not gonna believe this,” and I said, “What?” And he said, “A brown pelican has just been reported on Cayuga Lake, do you realize how rare this is? This is like the first record of brown pelican ever from this region, they’re rare anywhere in the state of New York, we gotta go find this brown pelican right now before it can fly away again.”
And I said, “Okay, but Tim you realize I just saw like 2,000 brown pelicans
last week in California, where they’re supposed to be. I don’t really need this one, in fact I really need to find a black duck this afternoon.”
I could see this look of utter horror across his face. We compromised, and we took a detour to find the pelican before we would go back to our black duck search, and meanwhile the WhatsApp reports kept coming in with up to the second updates of velocity and direction of this pelican as it was cruising the lakeshore, and so we were able to position ourselves at a marina in the path of the pelican about 90 seconds before looking off into the proper distance, you could see a speck getting closer and closer
[Photo: Brown pelican in flight]
and then sure enough this thing just flew right over our head, and continued on its merry way over urban Ithaca, where the reports kept coming in. It’s over the farmer’s market right now, it’s over campus, that’s a mega tick for the campus list
oh my gosh. I thought this was all quite entertaining, and we did eventually see a black duck that afternoon.
I guess it’s an example of how doing a big year on a global scale really turns the whole strategy completely upside down, because if you do a big year on any smaller scale, even like the whole continent, like those guys in the big year movie, you are completely reliant on finding lost, vagrant, out of range birds and going and seeing that one individual before it can turn around and go back over the border and you can no longer count it for your year list.
But if you just do the whole world you don’t have to worry about finding vagrant birds at all. In fact you are not rewarded for rarities like that, and it’s more about finding the local birds in the places where they actually live, and the places where they are the most common. And I actually kind of thought that was sort of refreshing about this whole trip.
[Photo: Plane on the tarmac at an airport]
I won’t say too much about United and American Airlines flying out of Ithaca,
but after five and a half months of budget travel all over Latin America, leaving New York I had the worst travel disaster of the entire year. I showed up to the Ithaca Airport, the United flight crew did not show up. I spent half a day sitting there, they put me on a bus to Binghamton. I sat there for the rest of the day, and then some thunderstorms came through, and they canceled all remaining flights out of Binghamton. And so I got on a Greyhound bus, and I went to New York City, and spent the night there, and finally managed to fly out some time the following day.
But I was delayed by about 27 hours at that point, and it was kind of a bummer because my next planned layover was supposed to be in Iceland, and I had planned just over one day in Reykjavik to cover the necessary arctic birds, before continuing on to Norway, and when the new itinerary came down they had me landing in Reykjavik at midnight, and then taking off again shortly before 7 o’clock a.m.
I was like well, there goes Iceland. But then I realized it was June, it does not get dark in Iceland in the northern summer
and so I called up my local contact in Iceland, Jan, and I said, “Look, here’s what happened. I’m landing at midnight, don’t worry about it, I’ll just grab a taxi, and drive around, find whatever birds I can on my own for a couple of hours, and then continue on my way. But you know, if if you’re up for an adventure, it might be kind of fun to pull an all-nighter with me.”
And he didn’t even hesitate, he said, “Yep, sounds great. I’ll pick you up at midnight when you land, and we’ll go from there.” So sure enough I came down in the land of Midnight Sun
[Photo: Noah and Jan outside with spotting scopes]
and a couple minutes after I touched down Jan and I were scoping for Manx shearwaters off the shore from Reykjavik. And we spent the next several hours streaking around the outskirts of the city, seeing birds like
[Photo: Rocky sea cliff]
Atlantic puffins on this remote sea cliff at 3 o’clock a.m.
[Photo: Whooper swan on the ground]
and whooper swans at 4 o’clock a.m.
[Photo: Godwit standing in shallow water]
5:00 a.m. there were all kinds of birds, there were godwits
[Photo: Greylag goose, black-headed gulls, and arctic terns in shallow water and on rocks]
and greylag geese, arctic terns, black-headed gulls. These were all new ones for my year list.
[Photo: Presidential palace of Iceland and lagoon in front of it]
We ended up on this lagoon just outside of the presidential palace of Iceland, at about 6 a.m. And I could just imagine the president sleeping in there when this photo was taken, probably dreaming about his amazing yard list that he’d seen out his front window. And I turned to Jan, and I said, “I can’t thank you enough. Do you realize we have just seen 54 species of birds between midnight and 6 a.m.? I hope you can at least go home and get some sleep now.”
And he kind of shrugged and he said, “Yeah, well kind of.” And I said, “What do you mean, kind of?” And he said, “Well I don’t really live in Reykjavik.” And I said, “What do you mean? Where do you live?” And he said, “Well, I’m actually from northern Iceland, and so I actually had to drive for about five hours to come meet you at the airport, and we’ve been birding for a few hours since then. Now I’m dropping you off, I’m going to try to sleep here about an hour and a half in my truck, and then turn around and drive five hours back home because I actually have to go back to work today.”
This is the kind of generosity that people will come up with when you have a passionate project, and it just blew me away over and over and over again, all the way throughout this year.
[Photo: Noah and Bjorn in a cemetery]
So I continued with a short connection over to Oslo, in central Norway. I hadn’t slept in about 36 straight hours at this point, and I landed and met my next contact here named Bjorn, in the Oslo Cemetery actually, which is a pretty good birding spot.
And it was kind of like swapping in fresh horses for the mail service or something, because Bjorn was very well-rested, and he was not about to let me miss any birds on his home turf in central Norway, where we planned the next four days together.
And so his plan was we’d go all around central Norway for the next four days looking at these awesome birds
[Photo: Breeding lapland longspur on a rock]
like breeding lapland longspurs up in the mountains. And it doesn’t really get dark in central Norway either in mid-June
and so we would go until about 11:00, 11:30 p.m. When it started to get a little bit dusky, and then in Norway you’re allowed to camp wherever you want even on private property as long as you’re not on someone’s back lawn. And so he just brought along a couple of sleeping bags, which we’d throw down
[Noah sleeping in a sleeping bag on an inflatable mattress in a forest]
and sleep for maybe two hours, till 1:00, 1:30 a.m. And then get up again, and keep going through the next day. And after four days of that I was about ready to say, I need to go to a country where it gets dark.
I am going to die, this is not sustainable. But it was kind of cool to be birding like this in Norway, admittedly, because when I started this adventure I started a daily blog on the National Audubon Society’s website called Birding Without Borders. And when Audubon kicked off that blog they sent a photographer to my house in Oregon to take a photo to serve as the illustration for the landing page, and this was the picture that that guy came up with.
[Photo: Noah sitting up in a sleeping bag in a forest while looking at an owl in a tree]
This photo is completely fake, okay. I’m sitting there in a sleeping bag, reading a copy of my only book, while I’m spotlighting this owl up in the top of a tree that’s actually a plastic owl that he’s nailed to the top of that snag
and the whole thing is lit by floodlights, and he sketched this whole thing out in a sketchbook before he arrived, and he’s very proud of it. And so I’ve been looking at this picture every day for the whole year on my own blog’s landing page, and kind of laughing about it. But then, on day three in central Norway, in this haze of sleep deprivation at about 11:30 p.m. Bjorn and I were on this remote forest road and got our sleeping bags out, and threw them down, and got inside.
And just before we passed out unconscious for the evening we heard in the distance the sound of a tawny owl calling, and so Bjorn pulled out his phone and he played a snippet of a tawny owl vocalization, which the owl thought was another owl, and so it flew in and landed in a tree right over our heads and Bjorn pulled out his spotlight, and shines it up there,
[Photo: Bjorn sitting up in a sleeping bag in the forest, with a tawny owl in the distance circled in red]
and actually nails this owl perched right over us, and so in the end the fake blog photo actually ended up coming almost 100% true in central Norway.
I didn’t spend very long in Europe at all, about a week and a half total, because let’s be honest there’s not that many bird species in Europe compared to other continents. And then I dropped down into Africa for the next two and a half months. And for me,
[Photo: Sunset above the African savannah with zebras walking across]
Africa was by far the most exotic and foreign, at least to my own experience. Because it was the only continent that I’d never personally visited before this big year. And so yeah, the landscapes changed all of a sudden,
[Photo: Women holding bracelets up to the camera in an outdoor market]
the people and the cultures changed quite dramatically,
[Photo: A zebra herd up close]
and the wildlife changed too. All of a sudden there were all these other animals around all the time
that were awesome but kind of distracting
[Photo: Wildebeest herd]
[Photo: Hyena running]
when you’re trying to look for little browns cisticolas down in the grass.
[Photo: Two impalas]
[Photo: Female lion on a rock]
It was admittedly pretty cool to see the big cats. I got nice sightings of lions and
[Photo: Leopard standing and looking at the camera]
leopards popping out of the bush in South Africa,
[Photo: Cheetah standing in grassy field]
cheetahs hunting out in the grass in the Serengeti like something out of a nature documentary. But I was looking for birds,
[Photo: Elephant standing at a water hole with African fish eagle on a branch in a tree in the background]
so when people were checking out the elephant at the waterhole, I was more focused on the African fish eagle perched over the elephant’s head.
[Photo: Buffalo with oxpecker on its back]
and when people were looking at the buffalo coming toward us, I was focused on the oxpecker sitting on the buffalo’s back.
[Photo: Hippo in the water with a jacana on its back]
Sometimes the birds use the other animals as habitat in Africa, so this jacana is sitting on a hippo’s head, which was quite entertaining.
[Photo: Southern ground hornbill crossing the road in front of a car]
And sometimes the birds will stop traffic in their own right, as well. This is a southern ground hornbill crossing the road in Kruger National Park in South Africa.
[Photo: Stork standing in grass with two vehicles in the background]
And there’s these big storks that hang around the campgrounds and make a nuisance of themselves all the time by chasing you around.
But I started noticing a trend especially on these safari legs in East and South Africa, which was, I would be out birding for the day with a group of pretty serious birders in a safari truck of some kind, and we’d find some really cool bird perched next to the side of the road, and stop and be checking it out,
[Photo: Giant kingfisher]
like say this giant Kingfisher sitting there again in South Africa, and be taking pictures, and looking at it with our binoculars, and high-fiving because it was so awesome. And after about a minute and a half you would turn around, and there would be like
[Photo: Line of ten safari trucks filled with people stopped bumper to bumper]
15 other safari trucks parked bumper to bumper behind you, all of them wanting to know where the lion was that you were so obviously excited about hidden out there somewhere in the grass. And as soon as they realized that you were just looking at some bird there would be these expressions of disappointment, and like disgust that you’ve wasted precious seconds of these people’s lives. And they would drive off in a giant cloud of dust.
So we eventually came up with a solution to this particular issue, which was that we had a copy of the paper field guide with us that one of the local guys had brought, with a big picture of a bird on the front cover that was quite obvious. So whenever anyone parked behind our bumper, we just rolled down the window and waved the field guide at them, and they’d see it and realize that we were looking at birds, and leave us alone.
We called that maneuver flipping them the bird.
[Photo: Forested landscape with mountains and a lake]
Moving onward into Asia, again things changed quite dramatically. In Africa I was quite taken with how there’s all these spectacular national parks, and they were all full of people. But for the most part the parks that I visited in most of Africa were full of foreigners, with hardly any local people in the mix in their own parks, which of course there’s plenty of reasons for that.
But when I then continued on to places like south India, again lots of amazing national parks full of people, but most of the people visiting those parks were locals with hardly any foreigners. And I thought that was pretty cool, actually.
[Photo: Six people with binoculars walking along a road]
And there is a thriving subculture of birders all over Asia, but especially in some particular countries including India that I was able to plug into, and they just took me under their wing. I would email one guy and when I show up, he’d have invited all of his friends along for the day.
[Photo: Noah and five other people eating lunch outside]
So I would go around with these posses of crazy hardcore Indian birdwatchers while I was there.
[Photo: Two young men with binoculars standing outside]
There’s even young birders in India. This guy on the left is named Ramet, he was 24 years old, the one on the right is named Tatch, he was 14 years old. They’re wearing a Cornell t-shirt
as I as I see now. And as far as I could tell they knew the local bird species and vocalizations and behaviors just about as well as any of the established experts in that area. So that was quite heartened to see that there’s a new generation of birders coming up even in these far-flung places.
[Photo: Two Sri Lanka frogmouths perched in a tree; Text: Sri Lanka Frogmouth, Sep 16 #4,342]
It was in South India that I saw this bird. There’s actually two birds in this picture. There’s a gray one and a red one behind it, hidden in the leaves. This is a pair of birds called a Sri Lanka frogmouth in South India, and officially the Sri Lanka frogmouth, when I saw them, was bird number 4,342 on the date of September 16th, which meant that in mid-September I had officially passed the existing big year world record.
And to be honest I wasn’t really thinking too much about the world record at that point. I was more focused on my own personal goal of getting to 5,000 birds. I didn’t see this trip as trying to beat what someone else had done, and compare it against others’ efforts and that kind of thing. But it was kind of fun to suddenly realize, hey you’ve just done something that no human has ever managed to do before.
And I gotta say, if you are going to break a world record, then India is definitely the place to do it. And there’s some, they are crazy about world records in that country.
Some hugely disproportionate number of Guinness Book of World Records submissions come from India. They have their own Indian Book of Records, there’s a third one called the Limca Book of Records, for anyone that didn’t get into the other two.
And so while I was looking at these stationary, sleepy frogmouths not doing very much
[Photo: Noah being filmed while photographing the frogmouths]
I was being filmed by the TV crews that were out for the day,
[Photo: Noah standing next to a man]
and this guy a actual real, practicing religious bishop showed up. He’d apparently just driven a hundred and fifty kilometers, just to come shake my hand that afternoon. I’ll never forget he came up and he said, “I had a feeling you would break the record today.”
I said, “Great, but are you a birdwatcher?” and he said, “I have an interest in all living things.” and I said, “That’s wonderful! I just love the enthusiasm.”
The kicker was the the next morning as I was leaving that area I was walking down a dusty road in some village, and there was one newspaper stand next to the road with The Times of India newspaper displayed. The world’s largest English language newspaper, and I just glanced down and saw a picture of my own face on the front page. Imagine that ever happening in the United States, I mean it was just crazy.
[Photo: Noah standing outside with eight other birdwatchers]
So I continued on my way throughout Asia, and again ran into these crowds of hardcore birders in many places. This is in Taiwan, in Taipei. This group of birders took me out for a couple of days. And they decided that they would take me to see a local celebrity while I was there. We went to a farm field just outside of Taipei city limits next to a paved, fairly busy road.
[Photo: Siberian crane in shallow water]
And in that field walking around was this bird called a Siberian crane. This was in fact, to my knowledge, the first Siberian crane ever recorded in the country of Taiwan. We didn’t find it, it had been there for about five months before I arrived.
And it was a legit celebrity. The Taiwanese called this bird the Little White Crane. It had been in all the news and media outlets. The government had assigned this individual bird its own 24-hour security guard to make sure that nothing harmful could happen to it, because they saw it as this pure symbol of Taiwanese-Siberian ambassadorship, and all of this kind of stuff.
[Photo: Noah standing next to barriers blocking access to the field, with the crane in the background]
And so I arrived, and sure enough they’d set up barriers to keep you out of that field. The crane was just out there walking back and forth as it done every day for the past five months
[Photo: Crane crossing sign]
They had crane crossing signs set up,
[Photo: People walking near souvenir stands, with others looking through binoculars, and a man with a large camera on a tripod]
and there were souvenir stands set up selling crane-themed knickknacks alongside the road, again like a random Tuesday afternoon, there were dozens of photographers lining the street taking pictures of this bird. They estimated that by this time more than 60,000 people had come just to take a look at this wayward crane.
And they were kind of starting to say, well okay, but what should we do with this bird? It is lost. Siberian cranes are an endangered species, there’s only about 2,000 individuals left. They nest in Siberia, and spend the winter in central China, although they’re threatened by the Three Gorges Dam in that area. And so since they learn how to migrate from their parents, this one had evidently strayed, and it didn’t know how to get back home. Maybe they should capture it and take it back to China so that it could rejoin its flock.
But there’s all kinds of international regulations now, and avian flu in that part of the world. And transporting birds is against the law, and so, in the end it didn’t really matter because this crane all on its own one day was observed to lift off out of the field and fly away. It was relocated later that same evening, sheltering inside an urban subway station within Taipei’s downtown area, where it was filmed by all the news trucks, live, and then the next morning it took off again, and it flew out to sea and really nobody knows if this crane made it back to rejoin its flock, or whether, like some of the rest of us I suppose, it took a path more on its own.
[Photo: King of Saxony bird-of-paradise perched at the end of a branch]
Going into the homestretch of this year, I stopped in Papua New Guinea, which for birders is pretty much synonymous with birds-of-paradise. Ever since David Attenborough did that special Attenborough in Paradise, they’ve been quite famous.
There’s 41 or so species, and they’re all bizarre. They have strange courtship rituals, crazy calls, beautiful plumage. This one’s name is a King of Saxony bird-of-paradise, which is a name that’s ridiculously long, just like those plumes that are attached right above its eyes, which it can apparently move around, almost independently like a set of antennae or something. Very strange.
So I spent a couple days in the raw, rugged highlands of central New Guinea looking at various birds-of-paradise, but then I did something a little bit different, because a couple of months before, while I was traveling, I had happened to see a video posted on YouTube. And when I saw that video, I immediately changed my plane ticket so it would include a detour from New Guinea up to a separate island called New Britain, just to the northeast.
So I ended up flying almost directly from these very wild highlands to New Britain,
[Photo: Rows of palm oil trees]
which turned out to look quite different. New Britain is largely owned by a company called New Britain Palm Oil, Limited. I don’t know how much you know about palm oil, it is ubiquitous these days. It’s in more than 50% of all supermarket products, like it or not you’ve probably eaten palm oil today, maybe used it to wash your hair, put it on your car in some manner. It’s in everything, it’s unavoidable, it doesn’t really get labeled as palm oil on packaging, it goes by any number of different names. It is very lucrative, because it’s cheap to produce, and it’s taken over much of the lowland tropical parts of the world just in the past decade or two, because it grows so well there.
And I’d seen palm oil plantations in other places during my travels, but I hadn’t really been inside one until I got to New Britain. It was kind of interesting, just to see how they
[Photo: A pile of collected palm oil nuts]
cut down the clumps of nuts, and then each one is squeezed
[Photo: A palm oil kernel being held up]
and the oil comes out, and it’s milled on site, and then gets exported to be made into products in other, more developed countries.
[Photo: Joseph, holding binoculars and smiling at the camera]
I met there a local guide named Joseph, who was not really a birder, he works at a dive resort. Birdwatchers hardly ever go to New Britain, but it’s fairly popular with scuba divers because it’s part of the so called Coral Triangle, and it’s very diverse underwater.
And a few months before Joseph had taken a group of divers one evening after dark to a palm oil plantation about a quarter mile from this popular resort to try see fireflies after dark, and something flew through their headlights while they were headed out there, and landed on a palm frond. And Joseph turned his flashlight on it, and went oh my gosh, that is a golden masked owl, a species of bird endemic to New Britain that had not been seen alive in approximately 30 years.
Joseph managed to get a video, he put it on YouTube, I saw the video, I rebooked my plane ticket, and I came down on New Britain in November, met him, and we spent a couple hours birding around the plantations by day to get a sense of the place. And then after dark we drove out to the spot where he kind of staked this thing out. It had been seen a couple more times since he first found it, always in that same area.
[Photo: Golden masked owl perched in a palm tree]
And lo and behold, there’s this owl perched up on a palm frond just like he said it would be. Quite a cool bird. It’s just like a barn owl in appearance except a little more yellow with more dots on its plumage, again an endemic species.
I’m gonna say this was about the last place I ever expected to find what would be the rarest bird of my entire year. Definitely not an endorsement of palm oil plantations as rare bird habitat, but maybe that’s why this owl had flown under the radar for so long, because nobody would have ever thought to look for it there, and it’s somehow managed to make a living by eating rats and other rodents in the undergrowth that have been cleared out, and then roosting during the day in the adjacent forest.
And so hopefully there is some population of them there and they’re still surviving and doing okay. But always good to just keep an open mind when you’re out birding, about where you might be able to find some of these birds.
[Photo: Landscape with trees, a pond, a dead tree in the pond, and black birds flying by]
My very last country of the year was planned to be Australia, and I came down first in the town of Cairns in Northeast Australia, where I met a local birder and a reporter from the Cairns Post newspaper who wanted to do an article, and he asked me all these questions that day. One of his questions was, “What bird do you most want to see in Australia?” And I said, “Well, I’ve never seen a cassowary before. I’d really love to find one.” And he said okay, he wrote that down.
The next day the headline in the paper was something like “Birdwatcher wants to break world record with the cassowary in Cairns.”
Well, kind of. I would like to see a cassowary. But a couple hours after the paper came out that morning I got a call on my cell phone, because my number was in that article. And this guy came on the line, he said, “Hey, I read the paper this morning, have you seen one of them cassowaries yet?” And I said, “No, and I don’t have a good stakeout for one. Do you know where I might find one?”
And he said, “Well, yeah. I’ve got a cass and a couple chicks, likes to hang out in my backyard, if you want to come over. They were just here.” So I said, “Hold it right there.” Jumped in the car, and drove up to it turned out to be this beautiful property in the wet tropical rain forest above Cairns, and walked behind this guy’s house, and sure enough
[Video: Cassowary adult and two chicks walking around a grassy yard]
there’s this male cassowary, it’s always the father that takes care of the chicks. This bird just looks like a dinosaur. I know that all birds are technically dinosaurs, but this one actually looks like one with that crazy casque on top of the head.
It is the third biggest bird in the world after the ostrich and the emu, just about as tall as I am. It also has the somewhat fearsome reputation of being the world’s most dangerous bird, because technically they are the only bird that has ever disemboweled someone by kicking them so hard in the stomach that they killed them. And yeah, they’re kind of mean sometimes.
But this one seemed super friendly, and so I didn’t really have any issue with hanging out with it at close range like this for about an hour. Definitely, again one of the very top sightings of the year.
[Photo: Christmas tree made out of tires and decorated]
Least Christmassy Christmas I think I’ve ever spent in my entire life. This was the only Christmas tree I saw all day on December 25th, several hundred kilometers inland from Perth in Southwest Australia, at a place called Paynes Find. In fact the only person I saw all day on Christmas was this guy named Frank O’Connor, who had generously volunteered to spend his entire holiday birdwatching with me in the middle of nowhere, which I was eternally grateful for.
But you know, if you’re in the proper spirit and frame of mind, then any tree could be a Christmas tree on Christmas, and so I was quite happy to see this one
[Photo: Mulga parrot in a dead tree; Text: Mulga Parrot, Dec 25, #5,959]
and it had a green and red bird in it to celebrate the holiday, called a mulga parrot. And on the 25th of December this mulga parrot was bird number 5,959. So that evening after it got dark I said, “Frank, look. I’ve already exceeded my original goal by almost a thousand birds. It’s all gravy at this point. But it wouldn’t be criminal to come so close to 6,000 and not quite get there.
Come on, where are we gonna find 41 more birds?” And so we stayed up hours into the night on Christmas, painstakingly making a list of every possible bird in Australia that I hadn’t yet seen, and eventually concluded that it was not possible.
Maybe if I had a few weeks to track them all down one by one, but not in a few days and so, then I said, “Well, Frank, it’s been great birding with you, but where in the world can I go to find 41 more birds? I’ve only got one shot at this.”
And so that was when eBird came in extraordinarily handy, because they had very recently introduced a new feature called target species, which will filter all the observations from any given region of the world against your own personal list, and then export that as a descending list in order of frequency of encounters in the field.
So you could calculate with pretty precise accuracy how many birds you could expect to find in any particular place. And so I ran that for a whole bunch of different regions, and eventually concluded that the one spot I could go back to that I hadn’t quite covered properly the first time around, which was probably a strategic mistake in hindsight, was the far northeast corner of India. Way up there in the Assam province by the Chinese border, almost as far east as you can get.
So, some fancy footwork with visas, and booking international plane tickets on Christmas Day for the following day, 24 hours later, after spending a 95 degree Christmas in the Australian outback
[Photo: Snowy mountains of the Himalaya]
I was shivering at 8,000 feet in the Himalaya, where I contacted again
[Photo: Noah and three young Indian birders]
these gung-ho hardcore young Indian birders. That’s Ramet again on the right, who invited two of his friends along from that region. And they were 100% committed to going hard for the last several days of the year to find these 41 last birds.
[Photo: Rocky cliff face with plants and moss growing out of it, and yellow-rumped honeyguide on a branch in the center; Text: Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Dec 29 #6,000]
We did find this one. Can you see a bird in this picture there? It is there, I swear. It’s a, this is a horrible photo of a really good bird called a yellow-rumped honeyguide. It’s only really found in that immediate region around Northeast India within a fairly narrow elevational range, usually alongside rock cliff faces like this, that also have an active honeybee hive attached. So quite specific habitat for the yellow-rumped honeyguide.
But when we saw this bird I was literally jumping up and down in the middle of this freezing road, because the yellow-rumped honeyguide on the 29th of December was bird number 6,000.
Of course I still had two more days, I didn’t stop there.
[Photo: Oriental bay-owl clinging to a thin tree trunk]
The very last bird I saw on the 31st of December was this one called an oriental bay-owl at about 11 p.m. I took this picture of it and Ramet was standing next to me, and he turned around and he said, “Do you realize how rare this bird is in India?” And I said, “How unusual is it?”
And he said, “As far as I know this may be the first photograph ever taken of this species of owl anywhere within this country.” And I said, “Okay, I think the big year is a wrap.”
[Image: Map of route taken showing number of sightings per day as different sized circles in each area and big year tally over time with changing colors]
When all the dust settled I had visited 41 different countries on all seven continents. I flew just about exactly 100,000 miles during this trip, which sounds like a lot. It’s about the same as four round trips from here to Southwest Australia or so. It averaged out to maybe one flight every 3 or 4 days, each of those was just a short hop of one or two hours. I booked all those at night so I could preserve my daylight hours for birding. So I didn’t really spend that much of my year in airports, somewhat counter-intuitively.
I think I spent about $60,000 on the whole trip, all expenses included, all accommodation, food, transportation, all the rest. Which again it might sound like a lot, might sound like not so much. For me, 10 dollars per bird seemed like a pretty small price to pay for this trip.
And I guess it just goes to show that travel like almost anything else is a priority, and can be done on a variety of different budgets. Would you rather have a nice SUV in your driveway at home? Or would you rather go to 41 different countries? These are literally the choices that we are making every day, whether it’s consciously or subconsciously.
I knew from the beginning that it wasn’t just about the numbers, like I said earlier, but in the end they were maybe even a little more fleeting than I first imagined. First of all because the very instant I stopped my big year, another young man named Arjan from the Netherlands began his own round-the-world birdwatching trip in 2016, largely using this map as a blueprint, and tweaking a few places to squeeze out some extra birds. And by the end of last year he had seen actually a couple hundred more birds that I had.
So right away my world record was broken, which I actually think is quite funny. More power to him. But also at the same time the scientists are constantly redefining what our idea of a species even is. The global bird list has been inflating by about 1% per year for the past ten years or so, and it shows no sign of slowing down.
There was a paper that came out about a year ago now that suggested that with some of the new DNA methods maybe instead of the 10,500 or so species we have today, there should be something more like 18,000 birds in the world. So who knows, but it looks like the splits are not gonna stop anytime soon, and I can sit in my armchair and check them off as they’re newly minted by a scientist for the rest of my life.
Yeah of course, what I came away with most from this adventure was all of the friends, and the connections, and the people, and the characters I met along the way.
[Photo: Collage of Noah with many other birdwatchers in various places throughout his trip]
I did go out in the field with hundreds of different birders throughout this trip, and many more were following along on the blog, which was getting 10 or 20,000 visits a day by the end. I had not really envisioned that. At the beginning I started it mostly as a way to tell my mom and dad that I wasn’t quite dead yet.
So it kind of blossomed, and I suppose that if I can help spread that inspiration of birds as far and wide, into as many far reaches of this planet as humanly possible, then that is definitely the best possible outcome of all. Thank you so much.
We probably have time for a couple of quick questions. Does anybody have any queries? Yes? Oh yeah so on that map I just showed you there was a big dot in the Middle East. What was that about? That was because that map was a little misleading, actually. It was showing average new birds per day, and I only spent one day in the UAE, and I saw 118 species of birds that day, so I didn’t really ever make that average go down. But the birding there was incredible and I’d love to go back to the UAE or adjacent parts of Oman or anywhere in that whole area.
Terrestrial and aquatic species, yeah. There, we actually saw quite a few shorebirds that day on some sod farms outside of Abu Dhabi, as I recall. We started in the sand dunes, and we ended up by the border fence of Oman in some kind of brushy, rocky, hilly areas, and so it was quite a diverse day.
Any other quick questions? Yeah. Ah, well, yes. Have I taken pictures of all these birds and where have I posted them? Well, I have to admit I still have a hard drive of bird photos, and I haven’t really sorted through all of them quite yet. I suppose one of these days I’ll get them up on Flickr or something. But I suppose I should note that I have written a book about this whole project.
It’s called Birding Without Borders.
[Image: Cover of Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World]
It is officially out on October 10th, so it’s not even published yet, but they managed to get some in here on Friday. And so this is basically the first place I will have signed any of them, just to throw it out there. If you’d like a copy, I’ll stay here as long as necessary. But there are some photos in the middle of that book as well.
Will I date them as well? I will write almost anything you wish me to write in the book.
Yeah, so what did I do with particularly clothing since I didn’t pack very much of it with me? In hot, humid, lowland jungles, which is where I feel like I spent about three-quarters of my year cuz that’s where the highest diversity generally is, I would sweat out my clothes every day, and if I was too sleep deprived I would just sleep in them and get up again the next day.
If I could remember I would wash them out in a sink or something. I did have one or two extra shirts with me so I could rotate. And same thing with the other articles. But yeah, it was going very light. So I was never, I never felt bad sitting next to someone on an airplane, let’s say that much, but maybe it wasn’t the most cleanly big year ever.
How about my shoes? I wore one pair of shoes through the whole trip, just a pair of trail shoes. Actually, the same exact model of shoes that I had bought for hiking the PCT several years before. And when I got those shoes I remember I showed up to Fred Meyer, and went down to their shoe section, and got the first pail of, pair of trail runners I saw, and said, “Yeah, I think these will fit, I’ll take five pairs.”
And they worked out just fine. So you don’t have to overthink these things sometimes.
Yes, so hiking the PCT did I have drop, drops for my clothing and stuff? I I would send boxes to myself along the way. On this trip I didn’t, so the only time I was able to replace my clothes was when I came through Oregon about halfway through the year, where I live, and was able to just throw out the first half of my clothing and go with a new pair.
Yeah? Any ideas about what’s next? Well, yes so I’m kind of on a tour now for the next couple of months, going around since this book is coming out. I was actually at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary yesterday, and I’ll be in Pittsburgh tomorrow with the Three Rivers Birding Club, and then back home to Oregon by way of the Georgia Ornithological Society, so there’s all kinds of things happening.
But then I’ve been working for the past three or four years as an onboard ornithologist for expedition cruise trips to Antarctica and the high arctic, particularly Svalbard, north of Norway, so I’ll go back down to Antarctica in December and back to the arctic next summer.
In between I work as the associate editor for Birding magazine, the American Birding Association’s bimonthly publication. And work on other projects, I’m now actually working on a new book project with National Geographic, which will be totally different.
It’s gonna be a photo essay book with one of their photographers named Joel Sartore, who takes these amazing, intimate photos of birds and other animals. And so it’ll be his bird photos and my essays together, and that’ll come out sometime in 2018, which Nat Geo has declared will be the Year of the Bird next year. So they’re gonna have a whole bunch of bird-related stuff happening.
So all of this different stuff comes together, and somehow it works out into a career as a bird nerd.
Yeah? How did I contact people in all these different countries? First by word-of-mouth, I asked my existing friend circle who they knew, and then I asked them who they knew, and went on down the chain until I tracked people down.
In some places that didn’t really work out so well, so I had to just start searching on the web for whoever I could find, eBird was useful because you can see who’s been birding in different regions, and go from there. And I also used a website called Birding Pal, which people will sign themselves up as willing hosts for free for any visiting birders to their area. And the expectation is then the favors will get returned at some point. And so there’s a whole network of people on birdingpal.org that are willing to put you up as well. So some combination of those things.
Were languages an issue? For the most part no. When people ask me if I speak a foreign language I always say, well I speak English, and I can get around mostly in Spanish, and I speak bird.
I think that’s very true. I didn’t run into issues until I got to Asia, because some of the birders I met there didn’t really speak English. And actually in Myanmar I spent a whole week with a birder who only had a motorbike, he didn’t have a car. So I was sitting on the back of his motorbike for a whole week around rural Myanmar, and he knew all of the bird names in English which was great, and he knew them all very well. But he didn’t really know that much other English. And so it was a very quiet week
driving around Myanmar on a motorbike looking at birds. But I think it’s really cool that you can have this shared passion for birds, and be able to connect with very, very different people in different cultures almost anywhere that you plan to go.
No other questions, well if you have any other questions or comments don’t hesitate to come on up, and meanwhile thanks again for having me here today.
[Applause]End of transcript
What does it take to see and identify over half of the world’s bird species in a single year? In 2015, Noah Strycker found out. Birding on seven continents and carrying only a pack on his back, Strycker enlisted the enthusiastic support of local birders to tick more than 6,000 species, including Adelie Penguins in Antarctica, a Harpy Eagle in Brazil, a Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Thailand, and a Green-breasted Pitta in Uganda. He shared the adventure in real time on his daily blog Birding Without Borders, and in this seminar, he reveals the inside story. This humorous and inspiring presentation about Strycker’s epic World Big Year will leave you with a new appreciation for the birds and birders of the world.