Noah Strycker, world-renowned birdwatcher, rang in this new year overlooking the Southern Ocean, with a champagne bottle raised towards the biting Antarctic air. A pair of binoculars dangled around his neck. It was midnight and still completely light outside. The moment was perfect, despite one detail. No birds.
Strycker had planned on spotting his first bird of the year from that jacuzzi, which would have brought him one step closer to his goal of seeing 5,000 species of birds in 365 days. The 28-year-old will spend 2015 travelling nonstop to 35 countries, with the first one being Argentina.
Strycker plans to spend two weeks in the country, which has more than 1,000 known species of birds, according to AviBase, an online bird-database. From Buenos Aires he headed up to Entre Ríos province, then northwest Argentina, and will conclude with four days in the northeast Iguazú area.
A Bird Addict
The challenge to break the world’s bird-watching record “will be a test of whether or not it’s possible to get tired of looking at birds,” Strycker laughs, adding that for him that’s not likely.
The idea isn’t novel, he says. Birdwatchers often record “the big year”, keeping track of sightings in their home state or country. Yet no one has ever attempted a bird-binge on this scale. His target number makes up about half of the world’s bird species. The previous record, set in 2008 by British couple Ruth Miller and Alan Davies, is 4,341.
Strycker’s peaceful demeanor seems to make him the perfect observer. But laid-back quickly turns to focused when he spots a new bird. He logged three new species at Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve in Puerto Madero last Friday, all while chatting with his local guide Marcelo Gavensky. His secret? He never took his eyes off the nearby lagoon. Binoculars seem to be a permanent appendage.
The Oregon native has a global fan network. More than 500 encouraging emails about the trip poured in, and like any celebrity, the occasional piece of hate mail. Among the well-wishers was his birdwatching inspiration, author Kenn Kaufman.
Strycker says he’s lucky to have family support, as some fellow birders’ parents prod them to get a “real job”. His folks, he states, have the right idea.
“There’s worse things their kid could be addicted to,” Strycker says. “And a warning to anyone who starts watching birds, it is incredibly addictive.”
His addiction started at ten years old. Strycker’s fifth grade teacher placed a birdfeeder outside the classroom window and encouraged students to take notice. Most weren’t interested. Strycker however, was hooked. He returned home every day to his parents’ 20-acre property outside of Eugene, Oregon, and started identifying birds as a challenge. The interest grew into an all-out passion. He graduated from Oregon State University in 2008, balancing a varsity tennis career with a degree in fisheries and wildlife.
“You never know where that spark is going to come from,” he says.
The Big Year
Strycker now makes his living as a self-proclaimed bird nerd. The former American Birding Association’s Young Birder of the Year has two books out and a third on the way. His second book, ‘The Thing with Feathers’, caught the attention of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. A book advance, along with a blogging contract from the National Audubon Society and company sponsorships are helping foot the travel bill.
Tech, Strycker says, also made this trip possible. He connected online with local birders—their language translations and help tracking down different species are key. A smartphone application called ‘BirdsEye BirdLog’ allows him to record birds and upload their GPS coordinates. Ornithologists can then use data from this app to monitor migration and endangered species.
Once his two weeks in Argentina are up, Strycker will make his way up to other parts of South America which have a specific appeal for him. The endangered Harpy Eagle, its diet consisting of sloths and monkeys, can only be found in the Amazon Rainforest. A main goal during the trip, aside from “crushing” the former record, is to spot one in Brazil. After three and a half months in South America, he’ll head to Central and North America. From there; a week and a half in Europe, two and a half months in Africa, and three months in Asia and certain Pacific islands. He’ll wrap up 2015 in Australia.
Despite the lack of birds on New Years Eve, Strycker is well on the way to his goal. He needs to spot an average of 13.7 birds per day, or about one new species every daylight hour. With 409 sightings in 20 days, he’s well ahead of schedule. But Strycker’s not counting chickens before they hatch.
“It’s a bit daunting to look ahead. Birds are unpredictable creatures. You never know where they’re going to be, they can fly wherever they want,” Strycker says and for him that’s all part of the excitement. “That’s why there’s not as many cactus-watchers in the world as birdwatchers.”
You can follow Noah’s adventures on his blog: Birding Without Borders.