'There will be birds': Meet Noah Strycker, the world's greatest birdwatcher

In 2015, Noah Strycker travelled to 41 countries on all seven continents, seeing more species in a single year than any birder in history. But when he got back home to Oregon, he learned that his favourite birding spot of all had been occupied by armed, far-right radicals. Tim Walker went there to meet him.

Tim Walker
Burns, Oregon
Friday 27 May 2016 20:12
Ornithologist Noah Strycker searches for birds in the cloud forest of northwest Argentina, during his record-breaking Big Year
Ornithologist Noah Strycker searches for birds in the cloud forest of northwest Argentina, during his record-breaking Big Year

It’s not yet six o’clock on a mid-May morning at the wastewater facility just outside Burns, Oregon, but Noah Strycker has already counted 20 different bird species. With the sky still a pre-dawn pink and his spotting scope propped on the rickety wooden platform that overlooks the reservoir, the 30-year-old ornithologist points out coots and Canada geese, eared grebes and cinnamon teal, a bufflehead and a northern shoveller.

May is migration time for birds. Millions pass through this remote corner of the US northwest as they make their annual long-haul flight to cooler latitudes. “Of the entire year, diversity is probably at its highest this week,” Strycker says with a grin, and then adds: “There’s nothing quite like a sewage pond at sunrise, is there?”

If there were a contest to crown the world’s greatest birder, then Strycker would be the title-holder. In 2015, he honoured the birding tradition known as “The Big Year” – a quest to spot as many species as possible in 365 days – with the biggest year of all, travelling to 41 countries on seven continents and seeing 6,042 different birds. That’s well over half the world’s estimated 10,400 species, and more in 12 months than any birder in history.

In southern Turkey, he came within 10 miles of Isis-controlled territory as he tracked down a bird called the Iraqi babbler. On the island of Sulawesi, he was thwarted in his search for the satanic nightjar by the Indonesian army, which was hunting a local Al-Qaeda cell in the same swathe of jungle. In a palm oil plantation in Papua New Guinea, he spotted a golden masked owl, which had been feared extinct for three decades.

Noah Strycker Birding Without Borders

Perhaps the strangest moment of the trip occurred on his way home, in early January, when he switched on CNN in an Ethiopian hotel to find that his favourite birding spot on the entire planet – the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, near Burns – had been seized by a group of armed, anti-government activists. “The first thing I did was laugh, because I thought it had to be a prank,” he says. “But it quickly became pretty serious.”

The occupation had begun as a protest in support of two local ranchers, convicted for arson after setting fires that spread onto the approximately 300-square-mile Malheur wilderness. Angry at the expansion of protected federal lands, the protesters vowed to return the refuge to “the people” for ranching and mining, and urged “patriots” from across the US to join them.

But the far-right wing-nuts had picked their time and place unwisely. Burns is one of the most isolated communities in the US, almost 200 miles from the closest medium-sized city. In the depths of winter, the surrounding countryside is bleak and inhospitable. They didn’t manage to inspire many patriots – but they did aggravate a heck of a lot of birders.

Malheur headquarters, a cluster of one-storey buildings in a solitary stand of trees on the undulating expanse of the high desert, has the highest bird species density of any single location in Oregon. Its unthinking occupiers had dirtied many of the buildings, dug “defensive” trenches that damaged tribal burial grounds, and destroyed a great-horned owl’s nest that had sat in a nearby watchtower for several years.

“People were absolutely outraged,” says Strycker, who responded to the occupation by speaking in support of public lands like Malheur at a rally attended by hundreds in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon. The stand-off finally ended in February, after 41 days, with one occupier shot dead by the FBI and 16 others behind bars.

Three months later, Malheur headquarters is still closed for repairs, but the birders are back in force – and so are the birds. By seven o’clock, Strycker and his father, Bob Keefer, have spotted two different owl species from the front seats of the family Subaru: a burrowing owl perched on a fence post, and a short-eared owl swooping low over the grasses in search of breakfast.

Strycker picks out a yellow warbler bopping along a branch and a bittern skulking in a reed bed. He hears the call of a chukar partridge from hundreds of metres away and soon sights it through his scope, squatting on a far-off rock among the sagebrush. “Birding will probably never be a cool activity, but I’m fine with being a bird nerd,” says Strycker, whose t-shirt bears the warning: “CAUTION: This person may talk about birds at any moment.”

Birding, he explains, is “like a treasure hunt. You have to gather all this information, and then use it to track down the bird. When you find the bird you’ve been looking for, it’s a rush. And it’s universal. Everywhere you go, there will be birds. Even in the middle of the Bronx, you can look up and at least see a pigeon.”

Noah Strycker at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Birders are collectors by nature, compulsively listing each new sighting in a notebook or on a phone. As a boy, Strycker collected coins, stamps, business cards, even toilet paper tubes, before getting hooked on birds at the age of 10, when his schoolteacher pinned a bird identification guide to the classroom wall and installed a feeder just outside the window. That summer, he persuaded his father to help him build two dozen bird-boxes and put them up around the family property on 20 rural acres outside Eugene. “I identified all the birds in our back yard from a field guide, and then I just kept on expanding my horizons.”

Keefer, an arts journalist and photographer, first brought his son to Malheur to attend a bird festival when he was 12. “It was a real eye-opener,” he recalls. “I saw him in the company of birders for the first time and realised that he knew exactly what he was doing – and that it was a complete mystery to me. Everything I know about birding, I learned from Noah.”

While he was in high school, Strycker found a bloated, days-old deer carcass at the side of the road, hauled it into the boot of his car and drove it home to deposit on his parents’ back lawn, hoping to attract turkey vultures. The following day, there were 20 of them roosting on the roof of the house. Years later, turkey vultures are still his favourite bird.

Birding will never be cool, but I'm fine with being a bird nerd

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“They’re under-appreciated,” he says. “They have so many interesting behaviours, besides just eating dead stuff. For instance, they have an incredibly well-developed digestive system. They can even eat anthrax spores, and everything that comes out the back end is completely sterile. So they often defecate down their own legs to keep themselves cool on a hot day, or to sterilise them after they’ve been walking across deer carcasses.”

During his gap year, he called the US Fish and Wildlife Service and asked whether he could volunteer at Malheur. They didn’t have a bird programme, but they were clearly impressed by the then-teen’s enthusiasm. He was given a three-bedroom house and a pick-up truck, and told to spend three months conducting bird surveys on the refuge.

Since graduating from Oregon State University in 2008, Strycker has stitched together a career as a full-time birder: writing for bird magazines, guiding bird tours and taking part in research projects, one of which involved three months in a tent in Antarctica with two other scientists and 300,000 Adélie penguins, an experience that led to his first book, Among Penguins.

It was as he hiked the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in 2011 that he first began to contemplate pursuing a Big Year. For at least half a century, the only truly competitive activity in birding had been confined to North America, which contains fewer than 800 bird species in total.

The earliest recorded American Big Year was completed by a travelling businessman, whose cross-country work trips helped him to rack up an annual total of 497 species in 1939, five years after the publication of the first comprehensive modern bird guide. The current US record-holder, Neil Hayward, saw 749 species in 2013. Nobody made a serious tilt at a worldwide Big Year until 1989, when American ornithologist James Clements spotted 3,662 species.

By the time Strycker started planning his own Big Year, the global record stood at 4,341 species, seen by a British couple, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, in 2008. He intended to smash it. Unlike Davies and Miller, he would make a single, continuous journey around the globe, with a 365-day itinerary designed to wring the most possible sightings from each location. His target was 5,000 species, an average of 13.7 new birds every day.

To fund the $60,000 (£41,000) trip, he snagged a book deal and an agreement with the National Audobon Society in the US to write a daily blog about his travels. He secured sponsorship from Leica, who gave him a camera, binoculars and a scope. He scanned a stack of field guides into his computer. And then he stuffed everything – Leica kit, laptop, phone, malaria pills, mosquito net, an iPod the size of a postage stamp and a change of underwear – into one carry-on rucksack.

Wherever he went, he would be accompanied by local birders that he’d met on previous trips or contacted online. He would spend most nights sleeping on their sofas and floors. To be a birder is to be a conservationist, so he joined a carbon-offsetting scheme to neutralise his journey’s environmental impact. Back home in Oregon, Keefer and Strycker’s mother, Lisa, would provide logistical support, keeping track of plane tickets and visas.

Strycker saw in 2015 with a bottle of champagne and a dip in a hot tub aboard the Akademik Ioffe, a former Soviet research vessel, since repurposed for Antarctic tourism. He saw his first bird of the year about three hours later: a cape petrel, near Spert Island in the Palmer Archipelago. “I have this theory that the first bird you see of the year is an omen for the year to come,” he says. “So I was really glad that it wasn’t a skua or a gull.”

Birding works on an honour system. “There’s really no reason to cheat; it’s just lying to yourself,” Strycker says. Nevertheless, for the avoidance of doubt, each of his 2015 sightings was witnessed by at least one other person. He took photos of as many birds as possible. A birder can also count a species by hearing its call alone, and around five per cent of the birds on his Big Year list were heard-only.

The first bird you see of the year is an omen, so I was really glad it wasn't a gull

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Over the past decade, birding has been transformed by international travel and by the Internet. Strycker refers incessantly to his iPhone’s eBird app, a social network of some 300,000 bird enthusiasts maintained by the Audobon Society and Cornell University’s ornithology lab, where he records his own sightings and scours those of other birders for clues to find his next spot.

“All the information you could ever want is readily available now, so it’s much easier to teach yourself to identify birds,” he says. “And the Internet has really helped birders to find each other, even halfway around the world. It’s kind of ironic, because birding is intrinsically such an analogue, offline activity.”

In Ecuador, Strycker saw 625 new species in just 12 days. He ticked off at least a dozen while touring the parks of Delhi, one of the world’s biggest, most polluted cities. In Brazil, he waited for hours to watch a Harpy eagle return to the nest with a sizeable mammal in its talons. On Mindanao, he wasted half a day searching in vain for the critically endangered Philippine eagle.

He broke Davies and Miller’s record in southern India in September, where he was met by TV crews after sighting his 4,342nd species of the year, a Sri Lanka frogmouth. His feat made it to the front page of the Times of India. A bishop drove 150 miles in full regalia to shake his hand. “I asked whether he was a birder. He said, ‘I’m interested in all living things.’”

Out of the whole year, there were just three days when Strycker failed to add a new species to his list. Two of those were spent in airports; the third was 3 January, in Antarctica. “I’d already seen all the Antarctic birds on 1 and 2 January,” he explains. He planned to finish the trip in Australia, but realised on Christmas Day that he was running out of species and flew back to India, where he saw his 6,000th on 29 December.

His final new bird of the year was a silver-breasted broadbill, spotted just before sunset on New Year’s Eve, at a forest in Assam province in northeast India. “But the very last bird I saw that evening was an oriental bay-owl. I had seen one before in Borneo, but it’s much scarcer in India. After I snapped a photo of it, at about 10pm, Ramit, a local birder, turned to me and said, ‘That’s the first photo anyone has ever taken of an oriental bay-owl in India.’”

Looking back on his Big Year, Strycker says he was troubled by the amount of environmental damage he witnessed, but heartened by the number of birders he met. “I knew I would see a lot of birds, but I didn’t realise quite how many birders there are in the world. It really has become an international pastime. I came out of the journey feeling pretty optimistic: yeah, a lot of birds are threatened, but more people than ever are interested in conserving them.”

The achievement has made him a celebrity in the birding community: he was recently mobbed by fans at a bird festival in Ohio, seriously disrupting his attempts to admire the state’s diverse selection of warblers. It has also made him a target: Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis is looking to beat his record in 2016, and is currently ahead of Strycker’s total this time last year.

As he makes his way around Malheur’s prime birding spots, he's regularly recognised and accosted by birders of a certain age, who have read his books or followed his blog and are keen to discuss his birding exploits or their own. After one such encounter, Keefer mutters drily: “Some people’s groupies are 16-year-old girls…”

It remains the case that most Americans begin twitching in retirement. But elsewhere, Strycker found, there are fervent birders of his own age or younger. “None of my classmates were birders, and I didn’t really find other young birders for a few years,” he says. “But go to a place like Colombia and they’re all young people who got into it at university. They want to study birds or lead birding tours. One guy there even took me aside and told me: ‘Bird clubs are a great place to pick up chicks!’”

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