Friday, October 12, 2018

Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World by Noah Strycker

Birding as endurance sport
Among birdwatchers (or birders, as they prefer to be called), a “big year” is the ultimate test of birding prowess. The goal is to spot as many different bird species as possible within the span of a calendar year. Often these contests are confined to a specific geographic area, such as North America, but over the past half century a few adventurous souls have expanded the big year to worldwide proportions. In 2015, a young Oregonian named Noah Strycker set out not only to put his name in the record books as the winner of the big year, but also to break the world record for most bird species in a year, a mark previously set at 4,341. As if that weren’t enough, Strycker set himself the ultimate goal of sighting at least 5,000 species, or roughly half the world’s known species of birds. To do so, he would bird nonstop for 365 days, traveling through 41 countries and hitting many of the world’s hottest birding hotspots. Strycker, a self-described “bird man,” naturalist, and birding journalist, recounts this epic journey in his 2017 book Birding Without Borders.

The key to Strycker’s success in this big year challenge would be his previously unparalleled level of strategic planning, as well as roughly $60,000 dollars spent on airfare, lodging, and gear, which he claims was paid for mostly by the publisher of this book. The reader circles the globe with Strycker as he navigates exotic locales on all seven continents, but don’t expect a typical travel narrative. All Strycker does in these far-flung nations is bird, relentlessly. For the average adventurous soul who yearns for foreign travel, it may seem like a big waste to spend three weeks in Peru without seeing Machu Picchu, or to travel all over India without stopping at the Taj Mahal. On the other hand, Strycker spends his time in remote wilderness areas and national parks, often traveling through rugged terrain and barely passable roads to get there. He visits many places that most tourists never see, guided by locals whom he has met online through birding websites, and on whose couches and floors he often sleeps. Though he may be gazing through binoculars most of the time, Strycker’s experience of his exotic destinations and their natural environment is far more authentic, personal, and enlightening than any packaged highlight tour.

Birding Without Borders will inevitably be compared to another big year memoir, Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway, in which Kaufman relates his 1973 attempt at a North American big year. Though Kaufman is a very good writer, I personally prefer Strycker’s book. Kingbird Highway was more of a coming of age story that often gave Kaufman’s personal life precedence over his ornithological pursuits. Birding Without Borders is almost strictly about the birds and Strycker’s quest to find them. Strycker goes off on some interesting asides about birding history, local customs, and conservation efforts, but it never gets bogged down in birder jargon, and he doesn’t feel the need to give you an entire history of the American Birding Association like Kaufman seems to feel obligated to do.

One nice added feature to the book is an appendix that lists every one of the thousands of bird species Strycker logged in 2015, listed in chronological order with the names of the countries in which they were spotted. Even if you’re just a casual birder like me rather than a hardcore lister, you will enjoy Strycker’s engaging narrative of his admirable and enviable journey. At times the fascinating trip turns into an exhausting whirlwind tour. Strycker visited so many countries that some are barely mentioned in the book, but even so he still manages to cram a lot of great birding and travel stories into this entertaining travelogue.
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