I’d like to think I fell for Noah Strycker’s charm. Truth be told however, I almost fell onto the ornithologist instead, like a hurtling piece of timber.
The sun’s finally out after a whole morning of rain and the chugging of boats on the deceptively-calm bottle-green lake of the Royal Belum State Park cuts through the fog of silence hanging over the virgin jungle surrounding us.
We’re out on the Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition at one of the world’s oldest rainforests organised by the Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY) along with Perak State Park Corporation and Perak State together with the support of the Northern Corridor Implementation Agency (NCIA), Tourism Malaysia, Ministry of Tourism & Culture Malaysia, the Wild Bird Club Malaysia and NESt. International delegates, including Strycker, have travelled thousands of miles to arrive at this swathe of pristine tropical forest in search of hornbills.
The heat of the sun beating down our backs, our eyes squint tightly for any sudden sightings of the elusive birds. Meanwhile, Strycker’s holding on to his camera, poised like a sniper ready to take aim. Not long after, the roar of the engine signals that we’re moving to yet another spot, and just as we’re settling back into the boat, it lurches and hits a submerged tree stump. It’s barely a graze but to a little boat packed with birdwatchers, it’s a nasty jolt that sends us ricocheting off our seats and slamming into each other. In my case, I almost land back-first onto Strycker.
In a flash, his hands shoot out and stop me mid-fall. Never mind that it’s probably due to a survivalist’s reflex of save-or-be-crushed-by-falling-large-woman. Still, his quick instincts break my fall and I do nothing more than roll back and forth on my seat without much damage to myself or anyone else.
Thinking on his feet isn’t something new to the 31-year-old birdwatcher. Following the time-honoured tradition known as “The Big Year” — a quest most birdwatchers are familiar with — to spot as many bird species as possible in 365 days, Stryker has managed to accomplish what no birder in history has done.
He embarked on the “biggest year of all” in 2015, travelling to 41 countries on seven continents and seeing 6,042 different species of birds in just 12 months. That’s well over half of the world’s estimated 10,400 species and a world record which he held for a year before Dutch birdwatcher Arjan Dwarshuis set a new world record with 6,852 bird species in 2016. No doubt it’s an endeavour which requires fast thinking, quick reflexes and the ability to “wing” it while on quest to spot as many winged creatures as possible in a short space of time.
THE BIG YEAR
“Well it has always been a dream of mine,” the author, photographer and self-confessed birdman confides with a smile, referring to the informal competition and age-old birdwatching praxis in which birdwatchers attempt to see or hear as many species as possible between Jan 1 and Dec 31. “It’s a tradition that goes all the way back to the 1930s but most people usually do it on a smaller scale in their home city or state,” he explains, pointing out that this competitive birding activity had usually been confined to North America for at least half a century.
Eager for a new adventure and fresh from the publication of his book, The Thing With Feathers, Strycker began contemplating a new challenge. “I started thinking about pursuing the Big Year and decided for my next book project that I wanted to go around the world and look at birds for a year!” he recalls, chuckling, before adding that he only began to grasp at the enormity of his new adventure when he managed to snag a book deal to help finance most of his trip for the Big Year. “I remember saying ‘Oh Crap!’”
In the grandest sense, the Big Year is more than just a game. Though few mortals will ever tackle the rigorous endeavour, most of us can appreciate the decision to follow a passion to its outer limits. Dedicating a whole year to birds is an exhausting, exhilarating, occasionally demoralising, and addictive pursuit, and anyone crazy enough to go the distance is in for a wild ride.
“It was a wild ride,” he agrees. “While I didn’t go to any active war zones, I did birdwatch in Southern Turkey within 10 km of the Syrian border for several days. I also travelled to Mindanao in the Philippines against the advice of the State Department because there were a lot of kidnappings in that area,” he recounts, adding that safety wasn’t really an issue as he was always in the company of locals who knew which areas were safe and which to avoid. In Tanzania, his land cruiser met with an accident and as he would rhyme with a wide grin: “I had the flu in Peru and a ‘Delhi Belly’ in India!” Still, they were relatively minor mishaps so “I kept birding anyway!”
Did he kick off the Big Year from home ground USA? He shakes his head and replies: “No way! I did it as a one way journey, working my way from West to the East, starting with the Western Hemisphere, Europe, Africa and Asia with Australia at the end. I actually started at midnight on New Year Jan 1, 2015 in Antarctica looking at penguins!” He goes on to share that the first bird he spotted to kick off his Big Year was a seabird: the cape petrel.
AN EDUCATION IN BIRD WATCHING
The Oregon-native is clearly in his element when he talks about birds. His eyes sparkle and much of his conversation is peppered with laughter as he regales me with stories about his early days as a birdwatcher, including one grisly tale of a putrefied deer carcass that he chanced upon at the side of a road.
Dragging the bloated carcass to his family’s 8ha forested land in Eugene, Oregon, filled Strycker’s car with such an overwhelming stench that even at 104km an hour, he had to drive with his head hanging out of the window. “I wanted to see the turkey vultures!” he explains. And so he did, with a flock of them landing on the carcass in his backyard the next day. He was in high school then, and a fully-fledged birdwatcher — a passion that stemmed from when he was just 12-years-old.
“In elementary school, I had a teacher who installed a birdfeeder outside our classroom window and she’d make us try to identify the birds,” he recalls. “You could stand right next to the feeder and birds would be flying in front of your face. I thought that was the coolest thing ever but none of my classmates agreed with me. They thought it was the stupidest thing that we had to do, looking at these dumb birds all the time!” he adds, chuckling.
Still he tells me that’s how it all began. “It was a slippery slope to a lifelong addiction thanks to Ms. Judy!” He’s kept in touch with the teacher who introduced him to his lifelong passion. “I just saw her last year and she thinks it’s great that I do what do,” he says, smiling. He recounts that after his introduction to birds thanks to Ms. Judy, he convinced his father to help him build bird feeders around his home, taught himself about birds, learnt their habits and calls, and got in touch with his local bird club. Continuing, he shares: “In the US, most birdwatchers are much older and there weren’t many 12-year-olds who were interested in birds. When I showed up, they loved me and started taking me out on their field trips.”
There was no looking back for the intrepid birdwatcher. Graduating from Oregon State University in 2008, he immersed himself with all things ‘flighty’ — from writing for bird magazines, guiding bird tours and working on research projects on birds in different parts of the world. One of the most interesting researches he’s participated in had him spend months in a tent in Antarctica with scientists and penguins for company — leading to the publication of his first book, Among Penguins.
THIRTS FOR ADVENTURE
Birds, birds and more birds. After an entire year of looking at birds, wasn’t he a little tired of it all? The answer is an emphatic ‘No’. “I was really worried I’d completely burn out and that I’d just hate bird watching, having doing nothing else for a whole year. It was actually the opposite. After Dec 31, 2015 which marked the end of the Big Year, I woke up at 5am and went birding in India. Well I’m here. I might as well!” he tells me, with a laugh.
He has recently published his account of the Big Year called Birding Without Borders. “It’s not so much about the list of birds and places, but it features stories of the people I’ve met, the adventures I’ve had and the inspiration of birding,” says Strycker. And his inspiration, he shares, stems from his belief that bird watching is more of a lifestyle than a hobby. “It defines you in some ways, takes you to places, gives you something to do, and something to focus on. I like that. You feel like you have a mission wherever you go.”
Is there another adventure in the pipeline waiting for him? I pose in conclusion. Strycker grins before answering: “I’m currently working on yet another book for National Geographic about bird behaviour. To be honest, I’m happy to be doing what I love doing most. They say if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. So I guess I’m always on an adventure!”