Book review: Noah Strycker – Birding Without Borders

Another Big Year story?
Birding without borders

I finished reading Noah Strycker’s Birding Without Boarders – an obsession. Noah sets out to do a big year around the world in 2015 and records a mind-blowing 6042 species and shattering the old record set in 2008 by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller described in their book The Biggest Twitch: Around the World in 4,000 birds.

Yet another Big Year book for birders? There are already many. Ken Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway and The Big Year – later turned into a movie, stand out as two of the better.  But there are a bunch with titles like:

I am wondering if the literary market is soon going to be saturated with Big Year travel stories? Is it really that interesting to follow someone traveling the world one bird at the time? Your “average Joe” author, will not get away with something like this. However, Noah Strycker has proven to be such a fine writer in his previous books The Things with Feathers and Among Penguins so at least in this case the book has found validity,  for meat least. With his already published two books before this one he has built a loyal fan base.

Wow, it is all about me!

Noah, glenn and Gunnar

The main text of the book covers 257 pages, and 326 in total including index and various appendices, excluding the foreword by Kenn Kaufman. I was amazed to see 33 pages dedicated to the adventures in Peru with me and the Kolibri Expeditions staff. That’s 13% of the book! In fairness it should be said that of all 6042 birds that Noah recorded that year, 784 (13%) of them where found in Peru. So It is proportional! Peru is that great.

Noah, has a way of making birding understandable. I recommend the book also to the non-birder, because the quest is interesting and gives a tremendous insight how traveling off the beaten track, around the world can look like. You get inside the head of a birder.

The stories that unfold are a selection of highlights and special quests.They are tastefully decorated with tidbits about conservation concerns, behavioral peculiarities, ecology, evolution, dangerous roads, sleep deprivation and lots of interesting people.

So in spite of being yet another book on a big year, this is a particularly well written account. The chapters are organized linearly, but from the start of each chapter you are thrown into an action-packed quest. Sort of like a well written best seller novel, where you get sucked in at the start of each chapter. There are regressions in each chapter as to what has happened behind the scenes and as mentioned, many interesting tidbits are thrown in.

The layout of the chapters.

Let me present the chapters to give you an insight what it is all about;

Foreword by Kenn Kaufman

A nice read, with reference to Kingbird Highway.

Chapter 1: End of the world.
Noah starts in Antarctica on a cruise. Which would be the first bird to start the big year?

Chapter 2: The DSP.                                                                                                                   

At El Yeso, close to Santiago, Chile, Noah searches for Diademed Sandpiper-Plover. A pretty shorebird living high up in the mountains,  far away from the sea shore at the edge of glaciers

Chapter 3: Cerro Negro.                                                                                                                

A tough hike in the rain in NW Argentina.

Chapter 4: Over the Years.

In an interlude Noah walks us through a review of the previous World Birding explorers. Noah explains that we now really live in the golden age of birding, when all the Birding info is available on line with latest sightings from eBird and Birding experts can be found through BirdingPal and by connecting to Birders around the world through Facebook.

Chapter 5: The Harpy                                                                                                           Sometimes it is worth to do a detour. The Harpy Eagle is the most majestic raptor of the world.  One was staked out at Serra das Araras near Cuiabá. Not exactly en route but close enough to make an exception. Perhaps one of the best sites in the world to see the Harpy Eagle as it has  occupied this same nest for over 20 years.

Chapter 6: Gunning it.                                                                                                           

Yours truly and our Kolibri Staff of; Manuel Zamora – Kolibri Expedition’s legendary driver – and Carlos Altamirano – a young and enthusiastic bird guide, set a tough pace to pack in a maximum of birds in 21 days. Noah could easily have written a book on his Peru experiences alone.

There is far more than the book tells, since Peru produced more overall species (784), more new species (488) than any other country visited and more unique birds for the Big Year (242) only surpassed by Australia (312). This chapter describes the quest for Black-spectacled Brush-Finch in the Satipo Road area, Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager at Bosque Unchog in Central Peru and Marvelous Spatuletail in Northern Peru. Lowland Amazon, both in the South East and in the Iquitos area and how we got Long-whiskered Owlet were not covered in the book at all. 

Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager Buthraupis aureodorsalis at Bosque Unchog. Photo Gunnar Engblom

Chapter 7: An Angel of Peace.                                                                                               

Noah meets Angel Paz – the Antpitta man in Ecuador. Angel has successfully habituated some 5 species of Antpittas, birds that previously, were next impossible to see.  Here is an interview I did with Angel 10 years ago. Sorry for the poor video quality. You can activate English subtitles.

Chapter 8: Flying Free.                                                                                                           

Pura Vida in Costa Rica with the Resplendent Quetzal and of course birding at Rancho Naturalista, where I recently visited with my family, What a great place.

Chapter 9: Home.                                                                                                                     

Bird 2500 on the Durango Highway in Mexico and back for the migration in the US with birding in Texas, California and in home state Oregon.

Chapter 10: Missed Connections.                                                                                           Thanks to United Airlines, Noah gets a zero day. A twitch for Black Duck and Brown Pelican in New York, all night and day birding in Reykjavik and a 4h stop over in Frankfurt gets Noah back on track species wise.

Chapter 11: Kalu.                                                                                                                          First stop in Africa and birding in Ghana for 8 days even in the rainy season, adds 295 new species to Noah’s Big Year.

Chapter 12: The Karamoja Apalis.                                                                                          

More birding in Africa, including somewhat of a disaster in Cameron with many missed species, South Africa with Rockjumper Birding Tours and Tanzania with a particular quest for the extremely rare and local, but nondescript Karamoia Apalis.

Chapter 13: A New World Record.                                                                                                  In India Noah gets the world breaking bird #4342 on day 259. Noah ponders about world records in general.

Chapter 14: Hit and Miss.
Birding in Taiwan and Philippines, Noah misses the Philippine Eagle but gets his bird #5000.

Chapter 15: Birds of Paradise.                                                                                              

Birding in New Guinea. Golden Masked-Owl on New Britain and Birds of Paradise in the montane forests of Papua New Guinea. 

Chapter 16: From End to End.                                                                                                  

After birding in Australia, and few days left of year the year Noah decides to go for #6000 in Assam province in India. He reaches 6042 according to Clements checklist.

There you have it. A great tale and a selection of a highlights from the Biggest Year so far.
Should you want to read the whole story, I recommend jump ahead to the blog where Noah kept score every single day of the year. First read the introductory chapter and then start with day 1, The blog posts combined would easily be enough to fill 3 volumes.

An interview with Noah

Gunnar and Noah

I have prepared an interview with Noah which will be published on BirdingBlogs.com next week. There a interview on this blog post that I did prior to Noah coming to Peru that you may want to check out also for background. Noah has kindly agreed to answer additional questions, so if you want to ask Noah something, please feel free to use the comment section below or shoot me an email at kolibriexp@gmail.com.

Photos: Selfie after scoring with Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager. Gunnar and Noah at Biggest Week, Ohio in 2016. Photo: Dominic Mitchell


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 3:04 marathon runner, right now training for Gold Coast Marathon, Australia in July 2018. In 2016 Gunnar additionally re-launched his rock’n’roll singer career with his band Guran Guran and getting over 215 000 views on his recent Rinkeby and Tensta You tube video.


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