On New Year’s Eve 2014, Noah Strycker was in a hot tub, bottle of champagne in hand, on a converted Russian research vessel in Antarctica. His tub mates: a historian, a penguin researcher and a geologist.
Strycker, a birder, was about to embark on an epic journey to spot as many bird species as possible in one calendar year.
The adventure took him to all seven continents and is recounted in his new book “Birding Without Borders: an obsession, a quest, and the biggest year in the world.”
“I got interested in birds in fifth grade thanks to a teacher who put a birdfeeder outside our classroom window and she would stop class every time a new bird showed up and make us try and identify it, and for me that’s all it took,” Strycker said.
In birding, the concept of a “big year” entails traveling to see as many birds in a calendar year as possible.
Strycker’s big year was more ambitious than most, involving some 112 flights and 41 countries. But aside from taking care of those logistical details, which involved six months of planning, he says the real key to the success of his journey was making local connections.
“What took the most time was tracking down local birders in all these different places and getting in touch with them however I could and explaining the project and asking if I could come and sleep on their couch for a few days,” he said. “That was the whole goal, to see every bird with at least one other person and have that person be a local living in the same country that I was visiting.”
He recalls one week in Myanmar with a local birder.
“When people ask me what languages I speak I usually say English, about 78 percent Spanish, and bird,” Strycker said. “When I arrived, it became clear that all he had was a small motorbike for the two of us. We spent the next week riding around rural Myanmar on his motorbike and he didn’t actually speak any English at all except for bird names. So it was a very quiet week except for the bird-watching part.”
Strycker ultimately saw 6,042 birds to set a new world record. But just one year later, that record was itself surpassed by a Dutch birder.
But Strycker says breaking a record wasn’t really the point of his journey.
“To be honest, I was not really thinking too much about the world record,” Strycker said. “It wasn’t so much trying to beat what somebody else had done as much as go on a personal quest.”
Strycker joins Phil Ponce to discuss his big year.
Jan. 5: In 2015, Noah Strycker became a birding legend after a yearlong journey across seven continents to see more than half the world’s 10,000-plus bird species. He speaks this month in Chicago about the adventure and his new book “Birding Without Borders.”
Jan. 3: A trio of tropical birds has landed in Chicago this winter to show off their vibrantly colored feathers and occasional dance moves – but they won’t be here for long.
Dec. 21: An owl loving Chicago photographer takes us along as he shoots a majestic snowy owl during the last “invasion” in 2014.