Author spends 'Big Year' spotting birds
The adventures of Noah Strycker as he traveled through 41 countries on seven continents during a record-breaking, one-year bird sighting excursion is the topic of his book "Birding Without Boarders," which is this year's Jefferson County Community Read selection.
A native of Oregon, Strycker (rhymes with kicker) grew up in Creswell, where his parents had a 20-acre place. He first got interested in birds when his fifth-grade teacher put a bird feeder by the classroom window.
"She had a bird poster next to it, and every time a bird showed up, she had us identify it. I was fascinated and went home and started looking at birds in our back yard — and it's a slippery slope after that," Strycker laughed.
As a teenager, he was captivated by the book "King Bird Highway," by Kenn Kaufman, and read it multiple times. "He was a 1970s dropout, who hitchhiked all over the U.S. in one of the earliest documented Big Years," Strycker said, referring in birding lingo to a year spent trying to sight the most bird species in a given area, as a competition or personal challenge.
"Ever since reading that book, I wanted to do it, so doing a worldwide Big Year was sort of a dream come true," he said.
But before attempting that, Strycker was a college student at Oregon State University, where he worked his way into internship jobs that also involved a lot of travel.
"I'd already been to every continent except Africa doing research on bird projects. And one year, I volunteered at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which is one of my favorite birding spots in the whole world," he said, explaining, "The scenery is amazing, and the birds are wonderful. It's a wetland in the middle of the desert — like an oasis."
Another internship was doing penguin research in Antarctica, which he loved.
He had also begun writing for "Birding" magazine while in high school, and continues to do an interview for each issue and helps review articles as the assistant editor.
After graduating from OSU in 2008, he wanted to go back to Antarctica, so he landed a job as the onboard ornithologist with Quark Expeditions and for seven years, helped lead tours there and in the arctic. He continues to spend his summers in Svalbard, in the Norwegian arctic.
What fascinates him about polar areas is, "It's totally different than anywhere else in the world. It's not desolate, like most people think. You see penguins, whales, seals and albatross. It's an extreme, other worldly, adventurous place that's about just being there," he said.
In 2007, Strycker hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and had a lot of time to think.
"In the traditional birding world, a Big Year can be done in a back yard, a state or a country, but no one had ever done a worldwide one before. I thought of a lot of ideas while hiking, but this is the one that kept bubbling to the top," he said.
With sponsorship from Leica Sport Optics, which provided binoculars, a spotting scope and a camera, and funds from a contract to write a book about his adventures, Strycker was ready to make it happen.
He set about meticulously plotting his journey, following the migratory patterns of birds, and lining up, in advance, a year's worth of bird experts in each country to help him locate species, then hoping nobody would bail out on him.
His goal was to sight 5,000 birds, or half the birds in the world, in one year's time. Time was always short and there were setbacks that would have scared off most people, but in the end, he more than accomplished his goal.
Two of his favorite countries for bird watching were Ecuador and Uganda. "For seeing the most birds, there's nowhere better than Ecuador. I saw 625 species in 11 days, and there are 1,800 species there — the diversity is incredible," he said.
What he enjoyed about Uganda were the safaris, where he also saw big game animals and impenetrable forests. "The beauty of birding is you are celebrating their diversity," he commented.
He said the difference of a worldwide Big Year was, "It was a snapshot perspective of the world as it is now. I could see habitat loss accelerating in some places. I talked to a lot of people who said things like bird arrivals and rainy seasons were predictable up until five years ago."
"But, I was left optimistic about birds because I met so many people who really cared about them," he added.
The beauty of birding is that there are birds everywhere on earth, and anyone can become interested in them. "They connect people in ways that are awesome. I found birders in every country, and sometimes, we didn't even speak the same language, but could communicate through birds," he said.
Oddly, he said, "In the U.S., birding is something for retirees. But in the rest of the world, it's a young person's game."
What Strycker hoped to accomplish in "Birding Without Borders" was to reflect on his adventure as a whole. "The book is as much about people as about birds," he observed.
Since the book was published in 2017, he has had many interviews and did another book in 2018, "Birds of the Photo Ark," for National Geographic, where he wrote the text and Geographic provided the photos. He is currently working on a new "Field Guide to Backyard Birds," which will also be published by National Geographic.
Strycker now spends three to four months in the polar regions, then travels to speak at bird festivals and Audubon Society events in the spring and fall. He recently spoke in Nebraska, Atlanta and Boston, and will appear in Grays Harbor, Washington, and Colorado soon.
"It's fun to take the story on the road and see how people react to it," he said.
That will stop, however, in August, when Strycker enters graduate school in Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York, to do more penguin research to earn a master's degree.
But first, he will visit Jefferson County, May 16-18, where he will be speaking and conducting bird-watching tours.
"I'm looking forward to my visit. This is the best time of year for seeing birds in Central Oregon," Strycker said.
Author Noah Strycker's schedule
Thursday, May 16
9:30-11:30 a.m.: Birding at Borden Beck Nature Preserve, Crooked River Ranch, Lower Bridge Road.
12 p.m.: Lunch at CRR Senior Center, potluck or on your own.
1-2 p.m.: Presentation by "Birding Without Borders" author Noah Strycker at CRR Chapel.
5:30-7 p.m.: Art Adventure Gallery opening featuring artwork related to the book.
9 a.m.: Birding at Pelton Wildlife Overlook, Northwest Dizney Lane, Pelton Regulating Dam.
10:30 a.m.: Birding on the Warm Springs museum's nature trail.
12 p.m.: Author's presentation at the Museum at Warm Springs.
7:30 p.m.: Free movie "The Big Year," at the library's Rodriguez Annex.
Saturday, May 18
9-11 a.m.: Birding at Crooked River wetlands, O'Neil Highway, Prineville.
1:30 p.m.: Author presentation and book signing at library annex.