Bird-watching champ Noah Strycker to land in Petaluma
In 2015, Oregon-based writer Noah Strycker (“Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica,” “The Thing with Feathers”) set out to see more birds in the wild than any other human had ever seen in a single year. Between January 1 and December 31, he visited 41 countries on seven continents, looking for birds wherever he could find them. At the end of his “Big Year” - that’s birdwatching parlance for a birder’s greatest personal challenge - Strycker had spotted 6,042 distinct species, setting a world Big Year record. The previous record, set in 2008 by Britain’s Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, was 4,341 birds.
Strycker beat Davies and Miller by exactly 1701 birds.
In doing so, he became instantly famous. Among bird-watchers, anyway.
“I suppose I’m more well-known in the birding universe than outside it,” allows Strycker, calling up from his home in Eugene, Oregon. “It’s kind of fun to be a celebrity in this one, very small area.”
His book about the experience, “Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest and the Biggest Year in the World,” was published in 2017. This Friday, April 27, Strycker will be appearing at Copperfield’s to discuss his newest book, “Birds of the Photo Ark,” a collaboration with renowned photographer Joel Sartore, published by National Geographic. His visit will mark a return to Petaluma, where he lived back in 2009, while working for Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory (now called Point Blue), banding birds out in Bolinas.
A lot has changed for Strycker since those days - world travel, acclaimed books, bird-related glory. And now, “Birds of the Photo Ark.”
“For me, this book was the next step after the Big Year,” he says, noting that Sartore has been documenting the planet’s many endangered and obscure animals for years in a project he’s dubbed the “Photo Ark.” When National Geographic approached Strycker with the idea of writing short essays to accompany some of Sartore’s most beautiful bird photos, he leapt at the chance. “The book became a kind of celebration of birds, internationally,” he says, “with thoughts on how fascinating they are, a look at some of their behaviors, and some of my own thoughts on why it matters that we should be looking at them.”
Some of the birds in the book are now extinct in the wild, he points out.
“It’s cool to be able to present these birds to people in ways they can actually see them,” Strycker says. “If you go out looking at birds in the wild, you’re looking through binoculars at some distant fleeting speck. I think it’s neat, when you are looking at birds so close, face to face - even in photographs - that instead of seeing ‘species,’ we start to see them individuals. It’s impossible to go through these pictures in the book and not think of these birds as individual creatures with emotions and personalities. That’s how they actually are. Every personality trait you can think of in a human being, probably also exists out there in birds.”
One of the other pleasures of birdwatching, he says, is in learning their names, many of which - the Sri Lanka Frogmouth, the Hoary Puffleg, the Satanic Nightjar, and Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco - are kind of hilarious.
“Some birds have pretty ridiculous names,” Strycker admits. “There’s a bird called an Oleaginous hemispingus. That’s a great one. I also really like the Wandering Tattler, a type of shorebird. You’ve got them all up and down the California Coast.”
Asked which bird he most hoped to see during his Big Year, Strycker immediately names the Harpy Eagle, an endangered species considered to be the most powerful raptor in the Western Hemisphere.
“It’s, like, three feet tall and eats monkeys and sloths as its main diet,” he enthusiastically reports. “Their talons are as long as a grizzly bear’s paws. I got the chance to see one in South America, in Central Brazil, where I was able to visit a Harpy Eagle nest. I staked the nest out for five hours, until, sure enough, this huge eagle flies in out of the rain forest, with half of a coati in its talons. That was definitely one of the top bird sightings for me, ever.”
Later on, Strycker attempted to spot an even larger bird called the Philippine Eagle, endemic to the Philippines. It’s the Eastern Hemisphere counterpart of the Harpy Eagle, and is even more endangered.
“There are only a couple hundred of them left,” Strycker says. “They sometimes eat small deer. I spent half a day looking for one on the island of Mindanao, which was actually kind of sketchy to travel to. I heard martial law was declared on Mindanao a couple of months after I was there.”
That’s another thing his “Birding Without Borders” book illustrates so well. To see so many birds, you have to deal with a lot of very unpredictable humans, and you end up visiting some very dangerous places. Even so, it doesn’t stop people from attempting their own Big Year.
Strycker acknowledges that his own astonishing world record was beaten almost immediately.
“A Dutch guy went out, as soon as I finished my Big Year, and did his own using my trip as a blueprint,” Strycker says. “He saw a couple hundred more birds than I did. So now he’s got the record.”
Okay. So. One has to wonder if Strycker plans to go out again in the future, and attempt to recapture the title?
“Oh, I don’t think so,” he laughs. “I always looked at this as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. And it really was. I would like to go back to the Philippines, though, and try again to see a Philippine Eagle.
“That’s the great thing about birds,” he adds. “You’re never going to see them all. But it’s sure fun to try.”
(Email David at email@example.com)