Eva Holland | Longreads | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2641 words)
Noah Strycker spotted the first bird before I made it from the parked car to the edge of the marsh. “It’s a rough-legged hawk,” he said when I caught up to him, gesturing for me to peer through his long, 60-power Swarovski scope. I obliged, and there it was: large, mottled white-and-brown, perched on the bare branch of a distant tree.
The sightings kept coming. Strycker picked out a Western meadowlark (“Oregon’s state bird,” he noted), a group of killdeer — lankier members of the plover family — and nearby, on an open mudflat, an American pipit, and a least sandpiper. He identified a red-shouldered hawk, pointing out the distinctive red-orange bars across its chest, and then two, three, four bald eagles. A red-tailed hawk and three northern harriers joined our growing list of raptor sightings.
“I’m just looking for something that doesn’t look like a tree branch,” he explained, scanning the horizon with binoculars. I imitated him with my borrowed binos, watching for lumps, movement, anything out of place. Around us, there was nothing — to my eye — but a sea of tall dried winter grasses and bare, dead-looking trees, lit up by the slanting winter sun.
It was January 16, 2016. Strycker had been home in Oregon for less than two weeks, after a year on the road. On December 31, 2015, he had completed his global “Big Year” — an attempt to see as many bird species as possible over 365 days. The previous world record, set in 2008 by a British couple, was 4,341 species. Strycker’s goal was to see 5,000 bird species; he finished the year with an astonishing list of 6,042. In one year, he saw more bird varieties than many elite birders will see in a lifetime. But the new record wouldn’t stand for long: a Dutch birder, Arjan Dwarshuis, cleared 6100 species sighted by early November 2016, and announced that he hoped to break 7000 by year’s end. On December 31, he spotted his 6,833rd variety. He had seen two-thirds of the world’s roughly 10,000 bird species.
Strycker and Dwarshuis are extreme practitioners of an extremely common practice. Birding is big business: in 2011, 18 million Americans traveled with the specific intent to see birds, spending an estimated $15 billion on food, lodging, transportation, and guides in the process. Birders are list-makers: they track their species sighted in a day, in a month, in a year, in a lifetime. In doing so, they act on a deeply ingrained human instinct: to classify and categorize the world around us. Animal behaviorists call that instinct our umwelt — the way we navigate the world.
Though he was attempting to complete the biggest Big Year of all time, Strycker’s goal, beyond tallying a massive list, was to build something larger: to both lean on and to nurture a growing global community, and to show the world that birding matters; that it taps into something larger — something human. He wanted, he told me, to sell the world on birds.
Across the marsh, a flock of tens of thousands of dunlins — gray-brown shorebirds from the sandpiper family — had taken flight. Unremarkable on the ground, in the air they became a shifting cloud of light and shadow, flying in tight formation. Their white bellies glinted in the sun when they turned one way, then the whole group seemed to vanish when they turned away again. Strycker kept pointing out new birds on the mudflats, but I couldn’t stop staring at the dunlins, following their zigs and zags through my binoculars. Like millions of other people, I had seen that viral video of a starling murmuration — but here was the real thing, unspooling in front of me. The dunlins flew back and forth in a rippling unison, moving like a flag in a high wind, gleaming in the January sun.
I had to admit: I was sold.
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Modern birding began with Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds, published in 1934. The book was revolutionary: while naturalists had typically killed their specimens and carried them home in order to study them, the portable field guide meant that people — people in North America, at least — could now identify birds on sight, in the wild.
Once bird species were readily quantifiable by anyone who’d studied a field guide, it wasn’t long before birders began competing to see who could spot the most species. Big Days became Big Months became Big Years, and the North American Big Year was the biggest of them all. The original record, set at 497 species in 1939, was broken in 1953 (by Roger Tory Peterson himself, with 572) and again in 1956 (598).
The old style of watching birds — people of means, mostly, taking train or car trips, and eventually flights, to places with known guides, and with plenty of downtime between trips — stood until 1971, when a college student based in Arizona spotted 626 species. Young Ted Parker’s record, in turn, was broken by his close friend, Kenn Kaufman, in 1973. Kaufman was a long-haired teenager who’d dropped out of high school in Kansas to chase birds — he set his new record, 671 species, by spending the full year on the road. He hitchhiked back and forth across the continent, tapping into a network of local knowledge as he went, and sleeping out under the stars. His approach — grassroots knowledge and constant travel over targeted trips and hired guides — was an inspiration for Noah Strycker’s global big year.
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One of the first things we do, from infancy, is learn to categorize the world around us: That’s a dog. That’s a cat. That’s a bird. We gain a more complex understanding as we go: that’s a blue jay. That’s a cardinal. That’s a bald eagle. But while the basic impulse behind birding — categorization and collection — is near universal, we don’t all advance to the level of knowledge or intense attention wielded by active birders. What makes someone take that leap?
To explain themselves, birders talk about “spark birds” — the single bird species, or single sighting, that cements a lifelong addiction. For Strycker, now 31, that encounter came at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge when he was just 14 years old. The refuge is best known as the site of last winter’s armed occupation by an anti-government militia, but back then, it was a quiet, wild corner of eastern Oregon, popular with birders and virtually no one else. A couple of years earlier, Strycker’s fifth-grade teacher had installed bird feeders outside her classroom windows and passed out binoculars for each student’s desk. Her young pupil went home and begged his parents to build birdhouses on their wooded property just southeast of Eugene. He had already begun memorizing the identifying markers and distinctive chirps and calls of his local birds. Eventually he started birding farther afield — and Malheur was an early, favorite destination.
That’s where he spotted them, on a visit with his father during the spring migration: a barred owl and its heavyweight cousin, a great horned owl, brawling on the ground over a snake that each was intent on eating. This wasn’t a passive songbird on its perch. This was primal violence: beaks and talons, feathers and dust. He was hooked.
Since then, Strycker has made a career of watching birds, counting birds, and thinking and writing about birds. At 16, he landed a summer job surveying the bird population at a reservoir outside Eugene. He started submitting articles to birding magazines — they were good enough that one of his first editors initially wondered whether a parent wrote them. At 18, he was named “Young Birder of the Year” by the American Birding Association. While at Oregon State University (where he studied fisheries and wildlife science, with a minor in fine art), he did field research in Oregon, Panama, Michigan, Maine, and Hawaii. He was also hired as a part-time, paid editor at Birding magazine, a job he still holds a decade later. On customs and immigration forms, he lists his profession as “bird man” — as good a way as any to describe his cobbled-together, bird-themed professional life.
The nearly three months he spent in Antarctica after college, at a remote three-person research camp, inspired his first book, Among Penguins, published in 2011. It’s a young man’s memoir (count the penis jokes) that nonetheless established Strycker’s voice as a writer: earnest, light-hearted, informed, and likeable. Then came more field work in Australia, Costa Rica, Ecuador; California’s Point Reyes, and the Farallon Islands, and a side gig as the resident ornithologist/naturalist for a small cruise company specializing in the Arctic and the Antarctic.
…birds have something to teach people – that intensive, intentional observation of birds can reveal truths not just about life as a bird, but about ourselves.
In 2014, Riverhead Books published Strycker’s second book, a well-reviewed collection of essays called The Thing With Feathers. It mixes the latest academic research with Strycker’s own thoughtful observations from the field. Whether he’s discussing how the nesting habits of fairy wrens can illuminate some of human society’s norms, or exploring what nutcrackers can teach us about the limits and possibilities of memory, his premise, broadly speaking, is that birds have something to teach people — that intensive, intentional observation of birds can reveal truths not just about life as a bird, but about ourselves. (“It takes time to get to know birds,” Strycker writes, “as it takes time to get to know anyone.”)
During his Big Year, Strycker spotted an average of 17 bird species per day to hit his total of 6,042. In one hot streak, in Ecuador, he spotted 625 species in 12 days. There was no time to rest, or to contemplate what he was seeing. He crashed in hostels, with friends, and on birders’ couches, and lived out of a carry-on sized backpack. He moved rapidly from place to place — traveling mostly overland, averaging one short-haul flight per week. His carefully constructed around-the-world route took him to 41 countries and all seven continents. The year cost him, all in, roughly $60,000. (Nearly half of that went to flights alone.) A publisher’s advance, for a forthcoming book about the year, footed the bill.
He recalls sleeping past 6:30 a.m. just once in 2015. Most days he was up and on the hunt by 4:30 or five in the morning, often keeping at it until 10 or 11 p.m. that night. He had worried, before he started, about burnout, but instead, he just seemed to get stronger as he went. His ears and eyes got sharper; his list grew and grew.
On January 1, 2016, in India, the day after he’d completed his record-setting Big Year, Strycker woke up at 5 a.m. and…went birding.
* * *
By late afternoon, the sun was setting and the air had turned cool. Strycker suggested that we wait for dusk, in hopes of spotting a short-eared owl as it emerged for the night. I was game.
While we waited, we watched two northern harriers making low, lazy loops above the marsh. A type of hawk, the harrier tends to hunt from flight, Strycker explained. He’s a natural teacher, slipping casually into a clear, explanatory mode without ever seeming to lecture, delving into a memory bank of knowledge about hundreds, even thousands of bird species: their shapes and sizes, their feather colors and patterns, their calls and songs, their movements. In the fading light, and with the birds in near-constant motion, he could still easily identify the harriers by their style of flight.
The owl we were waiting for shared some habits with the harriers. It, too, hunts from the air, he explained: hovering low over the marshes and fields where its prey, small mammals, try to hide.
Then — speak of the devil — the short-eared owl appeared, flying behind one of the harriers, both of them just shadows in the dusk. Through my binoculars I could see its pale face popping out of the darkness — a sign that this was a male bird. Another owl joined the first, and then a third. Soon, with Strycker’s help, I could distinguish between their flight and the harriers’: the owls’ languid, deliberate wing beats reminded me of a ray’s slow underwater flight. I said so, and Strycker complimented me on the comparison. I felt that surging glow of achievement — the feeling you get when you answer a tricky question correctly at pub trivia, or you navigate the subway successfully in a new-to-you city.
Birding fulfills its practitioners on several levels. It can be about activism, or altruism, and about competition: Arjan Dwarshuis, throughout his mission to break Strycker’s record, was also aiming to raise money for BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme. It can provide the small, specific pleasure I experienced with the short-eared owls — the little thrill of lining up the details to make a correct identification — or moments of abstract, transcendent beauty, like my long drinking-in of the dunlins. Perhaps most importantly, it can feed our bone-deep, soul-deep need to classify and organize the world around us.
The term umwelt comes from the German word meaning, roughly, “environment” or “surroundings.” But in this context it refers to a given species’ way of perceiving the world around it: dogs organize their world by smell, bees by ultraviolet light, and so on. Carol Kaesuk Yoon, a biologist, proposed in her 2009 book, Naming Nature, that we humans, in turn, navigate through and organize our world via a system of ordering and classification of other natural beings, and that this system is remarkably consistent across history, languages, cultures, ecosystems, and societies. Our umwelt is “our shared human vision of life.”
This isn’t merely a vestigial trait from the days when our daily survival hinged on correctly identifying predators and prey. It’s a vital part of our orientation in the world. When brain-injured humans lose access to their umwelt, their ability to navigate the world through a system of classifications, they lose their bearings. One such patient, who otherwise acted and interacted normally, had to be regularly prevented from trying to consume his hospital blankets and other inanimate, inedible objects. Another, a former birder, could no longer distinguish between species of birds in the images shown to him — he told the doctors that they all “look the same.” Think of a musician who’s no longer able to distinguish between notes, or a foodie without taste and smell: their world is cruelly diminished.
The umwelt, Yoon writes, “is so potent, so compelling, and so vivid that we cannot ignore it. We find we simply must and do order and name the living world…We humans can be counted on to do a number of things: breathe, eat, walk, notice organisms, and organize them into a hierarchical classification.”
In Among Penguins, Strycker’s stock response to the inevitable question, “What got you into birding?” echoes that idea: “I sit back, smile, and ask the asker: ‘What got you so interested in eating, sleeping, walking, and talking?’”
What motivated Noah Strycker to spend a year circling the world, seeking out birds for up to 18 hours every day? What drives millions of birders to venture out into the fields and forests every year, ears cocked and field guides in hand? Call it competitive desire, or the collector’s compulsive need to make and complete ever-longer lists. Call it umwelt.
Maybe it’s all those things, or maybe it’s something less complex. When I asked Ted Floyd, Noah Strycker’s longtime mentor and editor at Birding magazine, what he thought drove Strycker, his answer was simple: “He’s just really, really interested in birds.”
That night in the marsh, we watched the short-eared owls bank and hover, glide and bank again, until their silhouettes faded into the deepening darkness — until even Noah Strycker couldn’t see them anymore.
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