Ultimate Big Year.
Did you hear about the guy who has set out to be the first person to see 5000 species of birds in a year – THE ULTIMATE BIG YEAR? Yes, it is acclaimed author, birder, ornithologist Noah Strycker. You really have to follow his quest on Audobon.org.
Before Noah’s imminent arrival in Peru, and our birding together for three weeks, I took the opportunity to pick his brain somewhat. I had hoped to do a videoblog, but Noah’s busy birding schedule and scarce access to wifi made this impossible. Anyway, here are some questions answered. If you have more questions to Noah, please put those in the comment section below and I make sure we will get answers in the next coming days.
Why Big Year?
Gunnar: You are aiming for 5000 species. Arjan Dwarshuis is doing a Big Year in 2016 on mainly public transport and without pro guides. Arjan will also, like you, just do one continuous trip. Apart from the route, you are follow a similar strategy as Ruth and Alan did, in that you will employ local guides, yet from some of your blogposts, thus far, one can tell you have not unlimited funds and sometimes even have somewhat of a shoestring budget.
It goes to show that someone who had a totally unlimited budget should be able to beat both you and whatever Arjan comes up with in 2016. So what is the point? And what do you reckon is possible had you had unlimited funds?
Noah: What is the point of setting any record, if all records are made to be broken? Finding 5,000 species of birds this year is the game. But the real adventure is in the people I meet, the places I visit, and the stories I accumulate along the way. As for what is theoretically possible, who knows? I think I can hit 5,000 this year, though it will be close; perhaps someone with a private jet, full-time guides, and perfect execution could do 6,000. Of course, the rules change every time a new round of splits comes out.
The route in the Americas
Gunnar:. You hiked for several days in Argentina. Was that smart or do you feel you missed out on several species?
Noah: I probably left a few birds on the table in northwest Argentina by not birding by car, but I gained an awesome adventure and probably saw a few good specialties I’d have otherwise missed. I mostly missed the lowlands there, which has the most overlap with other places; the Yungas cloudforest was the key, and I hit that pretty hard.
Gunnar: As a primarily Neotropical birder myself, I am interested in a more exact description of your route. What areas of Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia are you visiting? And then what? Where are you going after the Neotropics? Countries and areas?
Noah: Brazil – Atlantic Forest (Sao Paulo); Pantanal and Cerrado (Cuiaba); Amazon (Belem); and the east coast (Itacare). Ecuador – Amazon (Shiripuno) and a weeklong transect from the Choco (NW) to the central Andes (Quito). Colombia – Santa Marta Mountains, West and Central Andes (Cali to Medellin and around Bogota). Afterward I will be in Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Oaxaca, and Mazatlan before hitting the US in mid-May.
Gunnar: There must be a number of areas you have eyed on that are not included? Which ones – and why did you not include them?
Noah: I crossed off some islands like Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Tasmania that have a few endemics but maybe not enough to justify the extra travel. I won’t do any of the Guianas, pretty much nothing in the Caribbean, only a week and a half in all of Europe, no Morocco or Namibia, very little in the Middle East, no Japan, and no central Australia. A year is actually a pretty short timeframe to try to bird the whole world. I will have to do another year to see all the places I miss this year!
Gunnar: What are the five top birds you hope to see your trip.
Noah: #1 – Harpy Eagle – already seen!
Otherwise it’s just impossible to choose. Oilbird in South/Central America, Shoebill and Picathartes in Africa, birds of paradise in New Guinea… the list is way too long.
The Peru part of the trip
Gunnar: I am looking forward to bird with you here in Peru. We shall be able to boost the year list considerably. I would have liked more time to also cover central Peru and a few days in the Iquitos area, and to do a pelagic, but there is not time in the 3 weeks we have. Still, we are covering an area with a combined checklist of some 1300 species during this time, so we should certainly see a lot of birds.
I am not sure people know that they can join your adventure in Peru. Anything you would like to say to birders who potentially would like to join on the Peru leg of your trip?
Noah: I can’t wait to go birding in Peru! I have seen some of northern Peru before, but southeast Peru will be all-new for me, and I expect to add a ton of birds on that leg. If anyone wants to come along, they are more than welcome to join us – the more the merrier!
Gunnar: What are the five top birds you hope to see in Peru.
Noah: Pale-billed Antpitta; Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan; Amazonian Umbrellabird; Marvelous Spatuletail; Black-and-chestnut Eagle (one can dream)… man, it’s too hard to choose!
Gunnar: I am happy you write on Audubon Blog, because it does have a lot of readers, and the Audubon web-team is giving you fantastic support. However, as a hardcore birder, one asks why you did not choose a more birder specific location. ABA blog, Cornell Lab or 10000 birds perhaps. Or will you do some guests appearances elsewhere?
Noah: I am writing some guest posts for the ABA blog and eBird’s home page, and daily posts on the Audubon site. Audubon is a big organization so they can support this project in a comprehensive way, and I like the chance to feature some conservation stories along the way.
Gunnar: It is nice, as you have announced, that your publisher feels this is worthwhile to become a book. Yet, are there enough people really that are world birders and interested enough to buy yet another BIGGEST YEAR book – after The Biggest Twitch by Alan Davies and RuthMiller (Amazon US/Amazon UK) ? I am guessing you have a lot of pressure from your publisher to make it a book for a wider audience. How will you go about that? What will the secret ingredient be to sell a milion copies? 🙂
NOAH: I see this project as a meta-story about our changing global environment, and a fun story about humans, with birds stitching the narrative together. It is not a day-by-day, here’s-what-I-did-last-summer tale; that’s been done.
Gunnar: What do you miss from home. Food, sweets or other items.
Noah: I’m not gonna lie; I miss my mom’s chocolate chip cookies. Otherwise, I haven’t had any real cravings or homesickness yet. Ask me again in a few months.
Some useful links.
- The birding strategy in Peru.
- Noah’s running tally.
- Background to the 5000 species Big Year quest. Noah’s own words.
- Noah is an acclaimed author. His The things with Feathers is immensely popular. His other book Among Penguins – A Bird Man in Antarctica. also has got many good reviews.
- There is a cool map showing all the spots around the world where Noah will be birding.
Don’t forget you can ask Noah questions in the comment section below. What would you like to know?
Gunnar Engblom is a Swedish birder who lives in Peru since 1998, where he operates birdwatching and nature tours for Kolibri Expeditions. He is also a dedicated 3:14 marathon runner, right now training for Boston Marathon.