A few weeks have passed since I got home after the biggest birding trip of all time, but it’s going to take a while yet for things to sink in. In 2015, I went birding every single day, across 41 countries and all seven continents, and saw 6,042 species of birds – surpassing the previous big year world record of 4,341 recorded by British birders Ruth Miller and Alan Davies in 2008. Year lists, unlike life lists, don’t carry over: It’s now 2016, and, at the beginning of January, all birders, including me, reset at zero.
A big year of birding leaves few tangible traces. I have a hard drive of thousands of photos, a pile of notes, and some recordings, and that’s about it. In its purest form, birding creates nothing but memories. We chase fleeting moments and hold on to them. Unlike more concrete products, our experiences never rust or break.
To capture a once-in-a-lifetime sighting, it follows that you have to spend a lifetime looking. But what if you cram a lifetime of birding into one year? Some activities aren’t meant to be pushed to the absolute limit. Imagine if you ate a lifetime’s worth of food in a year, or watched that much TV! My worst fear entering the big year, more than traffic accidents or tropical diseases or missing a Harpy Eagle, was that this adventure would burn me out – too much of a good thing, compressed into too little time.
Now that I’m home, I know that the opposite is true. Big years are less like a hot dog-eating contest than a psychological addiction. Think about it: Feeding a habit doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it worse! A smoker wouldn’t quit by lighting up a carton a day, and neither would a birder burn out by indulging to the max. Well, not this birder.
It’s amazing what the human organism can get used to. Runners train to increase their endurance, gradually upping the length of each run on the way to a marathon. Same goes for birding. If you do it every day, your stamina goes through the roof. By the end of the year, my endurance had been honed to a ridiculously sharp edge; I could get up at 4:00 a.m., go birding straight through to 10:00 p.m., and repeat forever. Your patience takes a hit, though. On more than one occasion, I had to laugh at myself for getting frustrated when others could not keep up the pace. An hour for lunch? Are you kidding?
It’s hard to stop that kind of momentum. By the end of 2015, I understood why some birders go after multiple big years. Sandy Komito, after a huge North American year in 1987, returned to break his own record in 1998. John Weigel, holder of the Australian big year record, did the same thing: After an all-out effort in 2012, he decided to do it again and smashed his own mark in 2014. This is a common affliction not just among big-year birders, but also endurance athletes, from extreme mountaineers to long-distance hikers. In 1968, the French sailor Bernard Moitessier had nearly won the first solo round-the-world yacht race when he decided to abandon the race and just keep sailing – going another two thirds of the way around before quietly putting in at Tahiti.
I have a certain amount of sympathy. After a year of birding my brains out, it’s difficult to fend off withdrawal. I learned a lot about big-year birding last year, and it would be tempting to go for a higher total given a second chance. Practically speaking, though, it’s not going to happen. If you do a big year twice, it’s no longer a once-in-a-lifetime experience; and, for me, this adventure was about much more than a list of birds.
In 2015, I hung out with hundreds of crazy and passionate birders around the world, and that’s the real story: Birding has become an international pursuit, shared by a diverse, global network of like-minded people. My trip would not have been possible in remotely the same way even 15 years ago, before the internet revolutionized how birders communicate with each other. Without a planetary community, this big year would have been a much lonelier adventure, and sharing it – in the field and through a daily blog – was as fun as any personal list.
At a time when birding is peaking in popularity, it is poignant that birds themselves are facing an increasingly uncertain future. Everywhere I went last year, I witnessed climate change and habitat destruction as real, local effects. In some places, the immensity of the threat was depressing. But I was inspired by the incredible number of people worldwide who are helping birds in creative ways, and I realized that you cannot talk about bird conservation without a human context.
World birding has reached a golden age. For me, seeing the planet in one year, rather than building up over a lifetime, offered a unique snapshot of what birding means today. And I am optimistic. The great truth about birding is that it can be anything you make of it – a sport, an art form, a science, a hobby, a lifestyle. Our ranks are swelling, and we birders are more diverse than we often give ourselves credit for, especially on an international scale.
Last week, a reporter asked me if I am now “the best birder in the world” – a line from the Hollywood movie, “The Big Year.” Nah. Birding isn’t like that. It doesn’t have a ranking system in the manner of professional tennis or boxing. There is no best birder. We are all specialists in our own way, pursuing knowledge and satisfaction through a mutual interest in our feathered friends. Wherever that takes us, from our own backyards to the ends of the Earth, I think it’s the best journey in the world.
A five-minute video of Noah’s big year, a map, and archived daily blog entries are posted at audubon.org/noah