On December 31, 2014, as midnight approached, passengers on the Antarctic cruise ship Akademik Ioffe prepared to toast the New Year. Noah Strycker joined fellow shipmates in a hot tub on deck, and took a swig from a bottle of champagne. Then he did what only the wonkiest among us might even consider: He got to work. Since there's 24-hour daylight at that time of year, Strycker grabbed a pair of binoculars and looked toward the sky, just in time to spot a cape petrel flying by. "That was a good omen," he says. "It was the first bird of the year." In fact, it was the first of 6,042 birds he would spot in 2015.
In the obsessive world of birders, nothing inspires fanaticism quite like the Big Year, the quest to see as many species as possible in a 12-month span. First accomplished in 1939 by a traveling businessman who recorded 497 species, the Big Year is like the 100-meter dash of the birding world. (Most competitive birders, a subculture within a subculture, go for the marathon: the life list.) Now and again some rabid participant goes for broke — most recently in 2008, when two Brits saw 4,341 of the estimated 10,400 bird species on Earth.
Strycker, a 30-year-old ornithologist from Oregon, didn't simply want to break that record — he wanted to shatter it. "I've talked with other birders, and they got into it for the same reason I did: You want to see all of them."
There are strict Big Year rules, set by the American Birding Association. Any attempt must start and end in the same calendar year. Species are recorded in a notebook, and the list is judged on an honors system, a relaxed approach that occasionally leads to particularly heated recriminations. To avoid this, Strycker photographed as many of his species as possible and used local birders as witnesses.
Strycker, who landed a book deal to help pay for the $60,000 trip, honed his itinerary for months. His strategy: Follow the seasons and fly into locations that would allow him to see the most birds in the shortest amount of time, often cities with big parks. He started in Antarctica, worked his way up to the Americas, over to Europe, down to Africa, then to Asia, and finally Australia. Some days he would see dozens of species; others, only a few.
In the waters off southwest Mexico, he observed dozens of black terns and wedge-tailed shearwaters. In Ecuador, he took two boats down a river before ending up in the Amazon rain forest, where he saw hundreds of species. In Brazil, Strycker caught sight of the rare harpy eagle. "Birds are very similar to people," he says. "They can be a little wary."
Miraculously, he was never mugged or injured and never got sick. But there were close calls. While in Indonesia, he learned the military was chasing Al Qaeda operatives in the forest where he was birding. In Turkey, he returned to his lodgings, turned on the TV, and realized he'd been only five miles from an ISIS-controlled area. "All of this sounds scary," he says, "but one thing I learned is that if you watch the news, you wind up being much more paranoid than you should be."
In the end, Strycker hit 41 countries and smashed his initial projection of 5,000 birds. He also witnessed a world increasingly hostile to the feathered friends he risked everything to see. "Many places I went people would say, 'Well, this species was around here until a few years ago, but now we can't find it anymore,' so that one's off the list," Strycker says. "It would be interesting to do this trip in 10 years, to see how different it would be."
Birdman: Strycker's Year on the Fly
Number of bird species recorded by Strycker in 2015: 6,042
Number of bird species he saw in Ecuador alone: 625
Most birds he saw in a single day (Panama): 186
Air miles traveled over the course of the year: 100,514
Days out of the entire year he didn't record a new species: 3