On January 1, 2015, Noah Strycker began an epic quest to find more than 5,000 bird species in one year. The number would shatter previous “Big Year” records; the pace would exhaust the hardiest travelers. In his book “Birding Without Borders,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, Noah describes the experience with riveting prose and sharp numerical accuracy. The result is an impressive blend of exciting story and accurate documentation.
From the first pages, I was swept into the tale of an obsessive young man, who spent many months planning before arriving on a ship in Antarctica, to launch his big year from that remote corner of the globe. On New Year’s eve Noah was sitting in a hot tub with a geologist, a historian, and a researcher. It sounds like the start of a party joke, but all were thoughtfully serious as Noah described his quest. His stomach turned as the clock ticked on. Could he maintain the grueling pace, birding in 41 countries, visiting every continent, carrying only a daypack? Sleep was impossible, and at the stroke of midnight, he was peering over the dark, churning waters. MUST. SEE. A. BIRD. Finally, at 3am, something flitted through the wake of the vessel, a Cape Petrel. Not a penguin (he’d see hundreds later that day), but an auspicious start to an amazing year!
Logistical details fascinate me, and I admired Noah’s ability to map in advance, a year’s worth of travel around the globe. He set a target of adding 13.7 new birds every day – an average, of course, but a goal that would drive his pace daily, weekly, monthly. Noah’s eloquent recounting reflects that his Big Year was far more than numbers. He vowed to travel light, use only local guides (people who lived in the country), and count only birds that were seen/heard with someone else. He set an irrefutable standard that earned him friends around the world, led him to stunning landscapes, and ultimately yielded a list of 6,042 birds, more than half of all known avian species.
The quest proceeded at a dizzying pace, with each new location bringing a rush of birds. By January 29, Noah had recorded 617 species, well above record-breaking pace, but still a long way to go! Moreover, his endeavor was building momentum, attracting excitement from a global community of birders and friends. His carefully-planned contacts, some whom he’d never met but communicated only through social media and through different languages, proved remarkably reliable, and wonderfully generous. Only one contact didn’t respond in the days before his planned arrival. Noah knew him as a friend and responsible person, so he was puzzled at the silence, and googled to find out more. With shock and sadness, he learned the man had died of cancer weeks earlier.
From Antarctica through the Americas, into Europe, Africa, Asia, then Australia, Noah described fascinating adventures of birding in myriad habitats, climates and conditions; weeks of functioning on less than 4 hours of sleep a night; travelling on motorcycles, jeeps, taxis, canoes, speedboats, and planes. Mishaps were few, thanks to strong advance-planning and willing flexibility when the situation required.
Noah’s capivating story is peppered with numbers that reflect milestones, time zones, eBird checklists, travel distances, dollars spent (remarkably few!). It’s a testimony to his character that Noah meticulously tracked these details despite constant moving, exhaustion, and changing conditions. He never failed to blog each night, keeping his word to sponsor, National Audubon Society, and recorded only three “zero” days out of 365!
The book was gripping from the first word to the last, followed by a lengthy list of species recorded in chronological order. One of my favorite chapters was the last, when Noah detailed his decision-making in the final days of the year. He was in Australia on Christmas Day, just 34 birds shy of 6,000 species. His itinerary was complete, and he’d exceeded his goal comfortably. Could he reach the next milestone by December 31? He’d already ticked most of Australia’s avian residents; he needed a brand-new location that would produce several dozen new species. Read the book to find out where he rang in the New Year with new friends.
“Birding Without Borders” highlights incredible efforts from an extraordinary young man. Noah Strycker served as America’s ambassador to the world birding community for one whirlwind year. With knowledge, fortitude, and respect, he connected thousands of people through his remarkable journey. Though his worldwide record has already been broken, Noah’s impact is everlasting.
Review by Debbie Beer