On Dec. 31, 2014, Noah Strycker was celebrating New Year’s Eve in style, basking in a cruise ship hot tub with a bottle of champagne in each hand.
But as soon as the clock finished tolling midnight, the 28-year-old Oregon State University graduate got down to work.
The cruise ship, a converted Soviet research vessel called the Akademik Ioffe, was bobbing in the frigid waters off the coast of Antarctica, and Strycker was on a mission: to identify more bird species in a single year than anyone had ever done before.
Among birdwatchers, it’s a feat known as the Big Year, and breaking the previous record of 4,341 set by a pair of British birders in 2008 would be no small task. To do it, Strycker would have to average about 12 new species a day. As the new year dawned he made his first sighting, a cape petrel, and by day’s end he was right on pace with an even dozen birds identified.
For the next 12 months he would pursue his goal relentlessly, seeking out birds in 41 countries across all seven continents, returning home only once, for a couple of days in May.
He surpassed the old mark on Sept. 16 by sighting a pair of Sri Lanka frogmouths in Thattekad, India, and by the end of 2015 he had racked up 6,042 avian species — more than half of all the known birds on the planet.
Strycker’s accomplishment was hailed by birdwatchers around the world, but the glory was short-lived: A Dutch bartender named Arjan Dwarshuis topped his total the following November, going on to tally 6,852 species in 2016.
Strycker was unfazed, writing a congratulatory blog post in praise of his rival.
“For me, the Big Year wasn’t just about numbers,” he said in a recent interview. “It was about the experience.”
A kind of addiction
Strycker was born in Eugene and grew up outside the nearby town of Creswell. He traces his obsession with birds to a fifth-grade teacher who hung a feeder outside the classroom window.
“It’s been a slippery slope of addiction since then,” Strycker confessed.
“I think they’re just captivating,” he added. “Birds are colorful, they’re relatively easy to see, they have interesting songs and vocalizations, and they’re everywhere — which makes birds a great gateway drug into the rest of nature and the environment.”
Strycker attended Oregon State University in Corvallis, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife science and captained the tennis team, graduating in 2008. At the same time, he found numerous ways to pursue his passion for birds, serving as associate editor of Birding magazine since 2006 and doing ornithological fieldwork around the world, from Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to sites in Panama, Hawaii, Australia and Ecuador.
A two-month stint at the Cape Crozier field station in Antarctica became the subject of his first book, “Among Penguins,” published by Oregon State University Press in 2011. His second, “The Thing With Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human,” was published in 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
His third book, an account of his round-the-world birding adventure titled “Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World,” is due out on Oct. 10. In the meantime, he’s maintaining a busy schedule of speaking engagements, including one coming up this week in Corvallis (see box with this story for details).
Strycker began to think about trying to set a new single-year birding record in 2011, during a four-month solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Up to that point, most birders pursuing a Big Year had restricted themselves to a defined geographic area — a single U.S. state or Canadian province, or perhaps all of North America. The reigning North American champ at that time was Sandy Komito, who had spotted 748 species in 1998.
But a British couple, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, had demonstrated a different way to go about it in 2008, when they set a new Big Year record by pursuing birds all over the world.
That approach appealed to Strycker.
“I thought it was high time somebody did a Big Year on birds’ terms,” he said. “They don’t pay attention to geopolitical borders.”
Big Year logistics
Crisscrossing the globe to track down birds is an expensive proposition — Strycker estimates his quest set him back about $60,000. What made the venture financially feasible was an advance from his publisher.
He also struck a deal to write daily blog posts about his adventures for the Audubon Society’s website and picked up a valuable sponsorship from Leica, which provided him with binoculars, a spotting scope, a tripod and a camera.
He traveled light, carrying all his belongings in a 40-liter backpack compact enough to slide under an airplane seat. Besides his laptop and bird-spotting gear, his kit included an iPhone, a GoPro, malaria pills and water purification tablets, a silk sleeping bag liner, a jacket, a few shirts, extra socks, one backup pair of underpants, and not much else.
To maximize his chances of seeing the most birds, he decided to spend the biggest chunk of his time in the diversity-rich tropics and focus on habitats rather than individual target species. He also took factors such as seasonal migrations and weather patterns into account.
He meticulously planned his itinerary with an eye to traveling as efficiently as possible and joined a carbon-offset program to counterbalance his fossil fuel use.
After starting the year with a few days in Antarctica (where the austral summer made for relatively mild temperatures), he decided to spend about three and a half months in South America, two months in Central and North America, a week and a half in Europe, two and half months in Asia and the Pacific islands, and three weeks in Australia.
Knowing he couldn’t carry all the field guides he would need, he downloaded all the apps he could onto his smartphone and painstakingly scanned page after page from books to fill in the gaps.
But perhaps the most important prep work he did involved making contacts with other birders all over the world. Using an app called eBird maintained by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, he not only gathered data on bird sightings but made arrangements to connect with birding enthusiasts at every stop on his journey.
Strycker was astounded at the hospitality he received from birders all over the world. Not only were they happy to show him the best birdwatching spots in their area, but many opened their homes to him, offering home-cooked meals and places to sleep for the night.
“That became my strategy: get in touch with local birders,” he said. “There’s no substitute for local knowledge.”
Strycker credits the internet with popularizing birdwatching in places where the activity was virtually unknown just a few years ago.
“Birding has become this very international pastime,” he said. “It used to be this thing that retired people did in the U.S., the U.K. and a few other places. But in the last decade, it’s spread around the world.”
The lack of a shared language was sometimes a barrier, but the fact that birders in most parts of the world use the English common names for birds helped. His local guide in Myanmar was a man named Gideon, an enthusiastic birder who spoke no English at all.
“We spent a whole week riding around Myanmar on a motorbike together, and our only communication was bird names,” Strycker said. “It was neat. It’s really great that you can connect with people through the shared love of birds.”
Highs and lows
There were a thousand things that could have derailed Strycker’s epic quest, but luck was with him on the journey.
“I did not have any catastrophes, but I had plenty of mishaps,” he recalled. “I only got sick twice — I got the flu in Peru and ‘Delhi belly’ in India.”
There was also a car accident in Tanzania, where a blowout caused his Land Rover to veer off the road, but Strycker escaped unharmed. He also avoided danger in some pretty sketchy parts of the world, including a visit to southern Turkey just a few miles from Islamic State-occupied territory and a stopover in a part of the Philippines where rebels affiliated with the terrorist group are active.
“I was with local birders,” Strycker said. “I felt pretty safe for the most part.”
Perhaps the rarest bird Strycker saw on his travels was the golden masked owl, a species that was believed by some to be extinct until 2015, when a birdwatcher in New Britain, Papua New Guinea, posted a video on the internet.
Strycker saw the video and immediately changed his itinerary, flying to New Britain and contacting the sharp-eyed birder, who led him to the spot where he had sighted the bird. They found the elusive owl in the midst of a commercial palm oil plantation — the sort of development that has destroyed vast expanses of bird habitat throughout the region.
“I thought it was an interesting lesson,” he said. “Sometimes rare birds are in the places you least expect them to be.”
His biggest disappointment came in the Philippines, where he failed to spot a hoped-for Philippine eagle.
“They’re perhaps the biggest raptor in the world. They stand about 3½ feet tall and they can eat monkeys and small deer,” he said. “I really wanted to see one.”
Covering so much ground in a single year gave Strycker a unique perspective on global issues, including climate change. The topic seemed to be on people’s minds everywhere he went, even if they didn’t always put it in those terms.
“It was interesting to see it through the eyes of local people,” he said. “Over and over I heard things like ‘The rains used to be very predictable until about five years ago’ or ‘The birds used to come regularly at this time of year, but not anymore.’”
He also got a strong sense of the threats facing birds in many places around the world — as well as the determination of bird-lovers to help them survive.
“I think it’s kind of poignant. Never have more birds faced a more uncertain future, but never have more people cared about them,” he said. “I find that a very optimistic takeaway, actually.”
For the love of birds
Noah Strycker spent the last day of 2015 birding with a group of new friends in a forest outside Tinuskia, India.
Just before sunset he spotted a group of silver-breasted broadbills, the 6,042nd and last species he recorded during his globe-trotting Big Year. Later that evening he photographed an oriental bay-owl — a bird he had added to his list six weeks earlier in Borneo — clinging to a tree trunk.
And just like that, Strycker’s epic quest was over. He had sighted more bird species in a single year than anyone else before him, demolishing the old record by an astonishing 1,700 species.
So what did he do to celebrate? He set his alarm for 5 a.m. to go birding again the next day.
“I was a little worried when I started my Big Year that I would get burned out and that I would hate birds after doing nothing else for 365 days, but by the end it was actually hard to think of anything else,” he said.
Birding, Strycker said, is in his blood.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” he admitted. “It took me a couple of months to step myself back down to reality.”