by Noah Strycker
Reviewed by Craig Storti
Noah Strycker doesn’t do things by halves. When he decided to do a Big Year, he chose the Biggest Year possible: to see almost half the world’s 10,365 species—5,000 birds—in 365 days. Oh yes: and while he’s at it, to break the world record (4,341) for the most birds seen in a single year.
Strycker, associate editor of Birding magazine, doesn’t quite say so, but the pressure is constant and unshakeable. After all, to get to 5,000 he needs to see 13.7 different species every day, or close to a new bird roughly every half hour if you consider that mornings are the best time and that a lot of time has to be spent travelling from one country to another. “My hectic birding pace meant that I rarely had time to take a deep breath,” he writes. “Not for a moment could I forget the time…. The harder I ran, the more time sped up, like living each day in fast-forward.”
Elsewhere he notes that “[s]omehow, the busier your calendar, the faster it goes. Besides the lack of sleep, I had no down time, no alone time, and no rest. Whenever I moved to a new place, a new local birder was ready to go, and the effect was like constantly swapping fresh horses for the Pony Express. I had another eleven months to go. Could I keep this up?”
His thrilling story about spending nearly an entire day to see a rare Harpy Eagle in Brazil drips with his anxiety about whether this was the best use of his time, which he calls “an unaffordable luxury. [R]acing from place to place…meant that sometimes I felt like a blind sprinter.”
And the birds do fly by. But Strycker knows how to structure his story, slowing down for delightful interludes—a morning with Angel Paz in Ecuador who has somehow figured out how to hand-feed a Giant Antpitta, a lovely story about Roy Orozco, a birder and bird painter in Costa Rica, chasing the Karamoja Apalis in Tanzania. A lot of birds enjoy brief walk-ons, but in just the right numbers and at just the right pace to keep the story moving.
Any Big Year has built-drama, of course, a natural momentum (missing from too many bird books), and Strycker’s has drama in spades. Half way through his year he learns he has some competition, a Dutch birder who plans to do a world big year the year after Strycker, more or less copying his itinerary. Cars break down; planes are missed. His pace flags at one point, upping the daily ante for the months still to go.
But he need not have worried. At the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary in India Strycker gets bird number 4,341, the Common Iora, to tie the record. A camera crew shows up at this moment as his two guides lead Strycker into a small forest for a bird they have “saved” for him so that his record breaker can be something special. “They’re from an Indian news station. They want to show your expression when you see the record-breaking bird.”
Strycker surveys the trees and sees nothing. And “[t]hen I saw it: a clump of dead leaves that, on close inspection, wasn’t vegetative at all. I raised my binoculars with a sense of fate. They were brown with rufous accents, fluffed out in a round ball, with their eyes squeezed shut and wings tucked into soft plumage…. The effect suggested something between a decomposing clod and a plush toy.” They were Sri Lankan Frogmouths, bird number 4,342.
The date was September 16, and Strycker had plenty of time to get to 5,000. In the end he shattered the record and wildly exceeded his own goal, with a final total 6,042 species. Meanwhile, he gets bird number 5,000 in the Philippines—the Flame-crowned Flowerpecker—whereupon his companion Nicky reminds him:
“Hey, weren’t you going to get a tattoo of your five-thousandth bird?”
“Yes,” I said, “but I think it’s best if we forget all about it.”
“Why?” said Nicky.
‘There’s only one place for a Flame-crowned Flowerpecker tattoo, “ I said. “And I just don’t think I’m man enough for it.”