The movie „The Big Year“ brought the concept of seeing as many birds as possible in a single year to the attention of many for the first time, but hardcore birders have known about these events and have been taking up the challenge for as long as I remember. In the movie, the contestants had limited themselves to the confines of a specific geographic area defined by the American Birding Association which is essentially the United States and Canada. It’s an enormous undertaking, considering the amount of territory in question and the difficulties at reaching the most remote corners of the territory.
In 2013, many followed along as Neil Hayward finally broke the 20+ year record that the Big Year movie was based on, tallying 749 species in the ABA area. His wonderful blog „Accidental Big Year“ was great fun to read and by the end, many of us were watching and following along awaiting Neil’s daily posts as he’d add one bird here and another there. The story of that final, record-breaking species tallied in the „11th hour“ that late December day is described by Neil in the Traveling Trinovid blog. However, this amazing, unmatched total still only represents 7-8% of the nearly 10,000 estimated bird species in the world, so naturally some birders have pursued big years at a whole different level ignoring geo-political boundaries and chasing much higher big year totals!
In 2008, our friends Ruth Miller & Alan Davies sold their house and took off on a worldwide birding adventure. In doing so, they set a new world record mark for the number of bird species seen in a single year worldwide at 4,341 (smashing the former record total of 3,662). They chronicled their amazing adventure in the fun read, „Around the world in 4,000 birds, The Biggest Twitch“. Although a less common birding phrase here in the US, birders on the other side of the pond (the Atlantic), refer to chasing a specific bird (typically a rarity) as a „twitch“. Today, Alan and Ruth still have great fun birding as professional guides and writing about their adventures on the website and blog entitled (not surprisingly) the Biggest Twitchfrom their home base in the UK! They’re a charming couple and great fun to be around so if you’ve not met them and have the opportunity do so, jump at the chance. You’ll find their passion for birds & birding extremely contagious and you’ll definitely find yourself wanting to spend more time with them!
This past fall, a birder announced his plans to pursue a worldwide big year run, with his goal set at seeing 5,000 bird species!!!!… An ambitious mark indeed, but Noah Strycker a 28 year-old from Oregon, has been happily accepting birding challenges his entire life it seems. A past winner of the American Birding Association’s prestigious & highly competitive „Young Birder of the Year“ title, the competition requires young birders to submit different modules on writing, artwork, field notebooks, photography etc. over the course of an entire year. Each module, is subsequently judged by a panel of birding professionals, and those with the highest cumulative score on all modules win the coveted title and are awarded a new Leica binocular as well!
In the years that followed, Noah entertained us with the featured column „Bird Boy“ in WildBird magazine and countless other articles that appeared throughout the community. He is currently an Associate Editor for the ABA’s „Birding“ magazine, and has already written two books „The Thing With Feathers“ and „Among Penguins„. So as a proven competitor & determined birder Noah’s challenge is one to be taken seriously, and as a gifted writer, his blog posts from the field are a joy to read.
Noah, titled his endeavor „Birding Without Borders“ and writes daily updates on a blog by the same name hosted on the National Audubon Society’s website which many are already following. As of the last update on March 16, 2015, Noah had noted 1,670 bird species since January 1, by comparison, The Biggest Twitch shows Alan & Ruth at 1,835 bird species by March 16, 2008. So by date alone, Noah is behind the Biggest Twitch mark. In reality though, comparisons of this sort are likely not valid because the approaches are wholly different.
In 2008, Ruth & Alan began in Arizona & Texas moving to Mexico, jumping down to Ecuador, then back to the UK and finally spending five straight weeks in Africa by this date so their total includes birds from four continents (North & South America, Europe, and Africa). Noah is taking a VERY different logistical approach. He began on an Antarctica cruise – a continent with fewer but undeniably awesome bird species & (of note) the only continent Ruth & Alan didn’t hit. By day 8 Noah returned from his Antarctic cruise with only 54 species – highlights including 6 Penguin & 5 species of Albatross!
Noah intends to live out of the single backpack with little more than the gear on his back as seen above. So for Noah in 2015, home is quit literally where the pack’s at! He states, „All you really need for a year of international birding is a pair of binoculars, a pair of pants, and a passport, but my packing list is slightly more luxurious than that. I have just one rule: Everything must fit in a carry-on bag. No checked luggage allowed!“
If you look at Noah’s track you see a systematic course, methodically moving in a continuous serpentine track. From Antarctic beginnings, Noah has birded slowly north through South America ever since, at the peak of their Austral summer. The different colored dots on the map above roughly represent planned months, starting with purple in January, green in February, maroon for March, blue for April and so on. He will continue his steady crawl northward, birding Central America through April, and reaching southern US in May. He will hit a few key spots in northern US in early June and and then finally hopping across the pond for his first European birding later in that month. Kind of like the „Tortoise and the Hare“ the Biggest Twitch is off to the an early lead with their approach from four continents, but time will tell if Noah’s steady plodding approach can rival Alan & Ruth’s efforts. Noah’s total from only two continents is a bit behind (165 species less).
In an attempt to compare „apples to apples“, we can look to their book and see that Alan and Ruth visited South America on 3 separate trips in 2008 – Ecuador in January; Brazil, Argentina, and Peru for two months in June through August; and then a return to Ecuador in late December to finish their big year run for a total of 82 total days in South America (very similar to Noah’s time here). Because the Biggest Twitch lists running totals at the end of each trip, we can also deduce that Ruth & Alan ADDED 1,389 new birds on their South American trips, Noah has added >1,600 here. However, Noah is now adding bird species like Herring Gull & Blue-winged Teal, Neotropical migrants like Blackpoll Warbler, and more widespread tropical species that occur in Central America like White-breasted Woodwren. Ruth & Alan likely had already tallied birds like these so we would really need to compare total species seen rather than just those added.
I know Noah is not specifically shooting to dethrone the reigning record holders and in his descriptions of his adventure he never alludes to world records, so it seems he views this as more of a personal challenge he feels he can attain. Many of us outsiders looking in know what his goal would represent though, and can’t help but compare this current run, to these best efforts of the past. I’ve happily had the GREAT privilege of birding with all three of these fantastic human beings and enjoy their respective company greatly, and am appreciative of them sharing the tales from their journeys and the highlights seen along the way for all of us to enjoy – the journey being more impressive than the destination itself, perhaps.
Still, I (and others) can’t help but wonder, will Noah be able to maintain this pace and will he actually be able to see 5,000 bird species in a single year?!?… I eagerly anticipate each update in the interim and am enjoying following along at home as Noah’s run progresses. Any doing the same, will be treated to the excellent narrative, the amazing global perspective provided from seven continents, and will undoutedly drool over the lovely images of exotic birds from far away places like Noah’s shot of the endangered Diadamed Sandpiper-Plover (above) seen in the high Andes in Chile on Day 10! (Noah is using the Leica V-Lux (typ 114)for the images on his blog or digiscoping these with his iPhone through the APO Televid spotting scope). If you are enjoying these updates, then you should also pick up Alan and Ruth’s book to get a taste of what challenges and great marvels Noah has yet to endure and enjoy, respectively. Follow the Leica Birding Blog for more from Noah and hopefully Ruth & Alan as well in the near future.
To find out more about Birding Without Borders, visit the Audubon website here. You can also check out Ruth Miller & Alan Davies blog, The Biggest Twitch, here.