American Birding Podcast



That Fateful Footnote 

A review by David Liebmann

Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World, by Noah Strycker

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

326 pages—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14766

Noah Strycker sets four ambitious goals in his latest book: to immerse his readers in different landscapes around the globe, to introduce us to birders of many nationalities, to detail encounters with over 6,000 avian species in a single year, and to share the pursuit of a world record. Any one of those goals would make for a compelling book, but the strength (and the slight weakness) of Birding Without Borders is that Strycker, always up for a challenge, takes on all four simultaneously.

Strycker begins the story of his quest on New Year’s Day 2015, aboard a bobbing Antarctic research vessel turned ecotourist cruiser. It’s a memorable way to begin a global Big Year, and it signals not only that adventures will be had, but that there will be plenty of fun and some humor along the way. “Any global journey that skipped Antarctica,” writes the author, “wouldn’t be as cool.” Nice pun. Strycker and his comrades are searching for penguins in the midnight sun of a southern hemisphere summer, popping champagne corks in an onboard hot tub even though the bubbly instantly freezes. The penguins are nowhere to be found, but his initial bird, a Cape Petrel, is the first domino to fall in a line that will stretch for another 364 days and take him—and us—across seven continents.

From the frozen south, we’re off to Argentina. As Strycker chases his computed daily average of 13.7 new species, hoping to break 5,000 for the year, he explains his approach: every bird has to be spotted by at least one other person; companions should be locals, and couch-surfing is encouraged. And he shows us that the use of technology to find birds and connect with other birders is a requirement of modern birding. 

Strycker is a millennial, turning thirty just after completing his Big Year. As a Gen-Xer raised by Silent Generation parents, I was struck by the subtle but still notable role that age plays his story. Birding for me remains an offline, “let’s see what I can find” pursuit. I bird in the same slow, often solitary way I learned to do everything outside. Strycker’s embrace of tools like eBird and Birding Pal, which barely existed even fifteen years ago, reveals how differently some birders now approach the game. Technology was integral to Strycker’s quest. With its help, he spent months and months planning his route and connecting with strangers who would become close birding comrades to help him get particular species—and who would provide local intel or a place to rest his head, briefly, as he dashed from ecosystem to ecosystem and country to country. 

Though Strycker birded and traveled ultralight, his kit included two iPhones and a laptop. Those items aren’t the sole province of millennial birders, but combined with Strycker’s footloose freedom and youthful ease, they left me vacillating between an irrational envy of his unencumbered pursuits and sentimental recollection of my own days as a single guy who could carry almost all of his worldly possessions, including binoculars and field guides, in his backpack, and do it all offline. As Strycker notes, “How we spend our days is an ongoing choice. Most of my own life still lies ahead, and I’m happy, at this point, to have pursued this dream when I had the chance.” 

No regrets for Strycker, who, Thoreau-like, goes on to write of his Big Year, “It is worthwhile to do something intensely for a year, to really dig deep and get to the meat of it.” Envy aside, I admire Strycker for his willingness to take a big risk and embrace a big adventure. There is a sense in the book that Strycker is aware of his youth and relative lack of responsibilities and commitments. That sense of fun and excitement infuses the entire book and makes it a non-stop page turner that appeals to birders and non-birders alike.

Add a fifth goal to Strycker’s project, one unavoidable in such a reflective person and writer: to think about why we bird at all, and what all those ticks on a list really amount to. While youthful zeal infuses his Big Year, Strycker takes on the larger issues at hand seriously but avoids belaboring them. He writes to address the “why” of his project, and does so in ways that prove him to be self-aware and a worthy intellectual companion.

386 species into his adventure, Strycker reveals a pattern that holds for the entire book. He’ll take us to a new, exciting, often remote place like the Cerro Negro of Argentina. He’ll arrive with a small pack of gear. He’ll meet up with a local birder, often someone he’s never met before, a friend of a friend of a friend. And he’ll see scores of new birds, many of them with names as shiny and little known as the far-flung corners of the world he is exploring. 

On reflection, I saw this as a necessary formula given the vast scale of the undertaking. Back in the late ’80s, I spent six months in the backcountry of the Rockies. There would be no way to convey every experience or what I saw every day or everyone I met. I quickly appreciated Strycker’s challenge, then, and admire the deft way in which he compresses 365 days, forty-one countries, and 6,042 species into a coherent narrative of 258 pages. The places and people and birds become a blur, as they were no doubt to Strycker, and would be to anyone in such constant motion. That the writer can recall with detail and clarity what he saw and who he met testifies to his poise as an observer and traveler. The book is a model of a tightly executed narrative even in its exuberance.

Recognizing that not all of his readers might keep pace with him, Strycker regularly steps aside from his memories to provide historical context for listing in general and for Big Years in particular. Chapter 4, “Over the Years,” is one such diversion, offering readers of all experience levels quick and excellent summations of American ornithological history, field guides, bird quest literature, and listing. In the course of these discussions, he identifies the literary catalyst for his Big Year, what he calls “that fateful footnote” at the conclusion of Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher’s Wild America. If a monument to listing is ever built, Peterson’s words should be on the bronze plaque: “Incidental information: My year’s list at the end of 1953 was 572 species….” 

As Strycker observes, “In fine print, a gauntlet had been thrown.” Those thirteen words gave rise to the ABA, to Kingbird Highway, to a global Big Year, to birding’s Everest. What’s exciting for Strycker and for birders in general is the fact that the number is there at all. Can it be bested? By whom and how? In Strycker’s case, the world record he set on September 16, 2015, stood for a mere fourteen months before it was broken. And the record will no doubt be broken again.

Sixty-five years after Peterson’s big year, Strycker raises the question of whether the pursuit of a record that requires dashing around the planet on jetliners is ethical in a time when global warming should be on everyone’s mind. He believes that carbon offsets and the positive benefits of ecotourism and habitat protection helped his Big Year meet a standard of reasonableness. I tend to agree with him, but I also think we might be on thin ice. Perhaps it’s better to bird local and protect ecosystems closer to home. For a variety of reasons, my own birding skews that way. 

But I have to admit that looking at Strycker’s checklist, which fills a fifty-page appendix, presented an enticing temptation: there are thousands of species I had never heard of and will likely never see, in countries that I didn’t consider great birding locales. But then I caught myself and saw his point. Strycker saw them and Strycker wrote about them, and maybe the nourishment for my imagination is justification enough. Maybe the fact that his birding abilities and his facility with words and images make his journey the stuff of readers’ inspiration and healthy dreaming enriches the world even for those of us who won’t or can’t take off to do it ourselves. 

That giant list also solidified my appreciation for just how good a birder Strycker must be. I know how rich and demanding the challenge can be when I’m in a new locale. New birds, new field marks, new trees, plants, sounds, smells, light. Those are some of the many compelling reasons we bird away from home. But in any new environment, all that newness can be mentally taxing, if not downright exhausting. Strycker pushed through that day after day, all the while learning new birds and letting experience be his guide. I imagine that an MRI of Strycker’s brain before and after his Big Year might tell us something, just as the London taxi drivers whose brains grow in response to learning different routes across the city. We all know that “bird brain” is a rather poor and inaccurate turn of phrase—all the more so, I’d wager, in Strycker’s case. Any birding neurologists or neuroscientists out there want to pursue that research project?

Strycker’s work deserves a place on the shelf of books that narrate exuberant romps: fun, well-written, and enriching reads about things and places most of us will never see. There is a need for books like this in a time when species and ecosystems are threatened and the world is changing ever more quickly. They remind us of what is possible, where our imaginations can lead, what is out there, and what wonderful places and people a big dream can introduce us to. This is the kind of book a child, seeing a Snowy Owl or Merlin for the first time, might someday come across and find inspiration in. Or the kind an experienced birder might pick up and then find themselves asking, “Well, why the heck not?” 

– David Liebmann undertook his initial ornithological training at Chewonki in Wiscasset, Maine, where Roger Tory Peterson began his Field Guide to the Birds. Liebmann writes about birds and birds in literature on the occasional break from being Head of Glen Urquhart School, north of Boston.

Recommended citation:

Liebmann, D. 2018. That Fateful Footnote [a review of Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World, by Noah Strycker]. Birding 50 (3): 66-68.