Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, A Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World. Noah Strycker. 2017. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Raptor: A Journey through Birds. James Macdonald Lockhart. 2017. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
It is a commonplace of all religious thought, even the most primitive, that the man seeking visions and insight, must go apart from his fellows and live for a time in the wilderness. (Loren Eiseley)
Birding has always lent itself to keeping lists. Life lists and year lists are common, but certain birders are a bit more arcane with their listing proclivities. I know people who keep lists of birds seen while they are going to the bathroom or birds seen at a Red Sox game, and I have even kept a list of birds encountered as I wait for a cab. The possibilities are endless; you go about your life and tally birds as they happen to appear in your choice of situations.
Some birders up their game by not merely waiting for the birds to come to them. Instead, they actively seek out certain birds with a definite goal in mind. In its most common form, these quests have sought the maximum number of species that could be seen in a day, week, month, or year in a single spot, city, county, state, country, or, ultimately, the world. In most of these quests, time is of the essence, and the birder is birding on a deadline, which gives these birding events a certain tension and the air of a sport.
Below are two recent books describing bird-inspired quests. These two books are radically different in scale, focus, geography, pace, and tone.
I already knew this would be no ordinary year. I'd just quit my only regular job, broken up with my girlfriend, spent most of my savings, and then, cramming all my possessions into a small backpack, made my way literally to the ends of the world. (p. 1–2, Birding Without Borders)
Thus, with some trepidation, Noah Strycker set off on January 1, 2015, to beat the record for most species of birds seen on Earth in a year. The previous record was set in 2008 by two British birders, Ruth Miller and Alan Davies, who managed to tick 4,341 species. Strycker's goal was to see 5,000 species while visiting 40 countries with no days off. All of this required considerable planning; much easier in today's wired world than it was when James Clement set a world record in 1989 with 3,662 species seen.
Strycker's strategy was to spend the most time in species-rich South America, as well as a few countries in Africa, several countries in Southeast Asia, and Australia. For the most part, North America—with the exceptions of visits to Texas and Mexico—and Europe were birded only briefly. His timing to make already-booked connecting flights had to be precise. He relied heavily on hiring local guides. He counted heard birds as well as seen birds. By the end of it all, Strycker tallied 6,042 species, his first being a Cape Petrel in Antarctica. The last was a Silver-breasted Broadbill, seen in India.
The cost of this endeavor was about $60,000 for travel, lodging, food, and guides, which comes to about $10 per bird. Along the way, he blogged about his progress and ultimately wrote Birding Without Borders.
As a book, Birding Without Borders is a solid, if sometimes exhausting, account of Strycker's year. Because of space limitations, he could devote only so many details to each leg of the quest. Birds' names whizz by, and soon the reader longs for Strycker to stay put for a few days. Thankfully he does this several times. The usual screw-ups happen, of course, to be expected in a book like this. Cars break down, he gets sick, there are missed connections, but overall this is a Big Year without too many dramatic incidents. Miraculously, it comes off pretty much without a hitch. A few times there are hints that the wider world of political, religious, and social turmoil rages on outside of Strycker's privileged bubble. Here he mentions his local guide's financial problems.
Benji said between cigarettes that tourism had crashed in Cameroon after Boko Haram guerillas invaded the northern part of the country, and that he was surviving by selling knickknacks at a botanical garden in Douala. I felt sorry for him, but also chagrined that he'd applied my entire Cameroon budget to his personal debts. (p. 187)
There are also times when the reader is left wondering if Strycker is being brave or just a foolhardy slave to the list:
I tried to not dwell on the many recent kidnappings in the south Philippines, including a pair of Swiss and Dutch birders who were abducted on the nearby island of Tawi-Tawi in 2012. The Swiss man escaped in 2014 during a shootout, but the Dutch birder was still held captive, more than three years later. The U.S. State Department had listed at least fifteen separate kidnappings during the first nine months on my Big Year, including four tourists abducted from a Mindanao resort a couple of weeks before I arrived. One of them, a Canadian, was beheaded several months later after a failed ransom effort. (p. 226)
But Strycker needed to tick the Philippines Eagle, so he birded on.
An interesting moment comes when Strycker learned that one Arjan Dwarshuis of the Netherlands is closely following Strycker's blog so he can learn from Strycker's mistakes and successes; Dwarshuis was planning his own 2016 world Big Year. At this point the reader may wonder why Strycker's results are so important to other birders. Certainly Strycker got to see a lot of cool birds, if most of them briefly, and traveled to some wonderful places. Obviously good for him. But what meaning does his Big Year have for the larger birding audience? Strycker is quite idealistic about the global importance of his Big Year and writes:
The best way to avoid chasing rare birds is to take on the whole planet. You can go where each bird is supposed to be instead of waiting for a lost vagrant to show up on your doorstep. The world is the only scale that doesn't rewardrarity hunts. I liked the idea that, by thinking globally and birding locally, I was helping to reinvent the Big Year as a way to appreciate the most common birds in their proper habitats. It seemed almost subversive, akin to a graffiti artist who paints murals instead of spraying his initials everywhere. (p. 155)
Here he is being a smidge disingenuous because he certainly did seek out real rarities like the Harpy Eagle and Philippine Eagle, so he wasn't always just ticking the common species. The fact is that most birders cannot afford this kind of nomadic ticking life, for a year or even a few months. Most birders I know squeeze their precious moments in the field around a life that also includes a job, a love life, and sometimes a family. Appreciating a global Big Year is like appreciating some stranger's ascent of K2. Sure, it's a fascinating feat, but at a distance it seems far removed from the concerns of real life. What about future Big Years? Is the next world's record Big Year going to go to the person with the most leisure time and disposable income? I kept thinking about the reality that Benji in the Cameroons lived in versus the world of the globetrotting birder.
Finally, realistically, what do Big Years do to help bird communities? Is the mere fact that Strycker could generate publicity enough to help save birds? Does that publicity translate into enough dollars to make a difference? Is publicity the best way to do this? The reader has to ask the question: would it make more of a difference to the world's bird populations if Strycker had instead donated that $60,000 to serious conservation organizations that work hard to save habitat and species? I don't know the answer. He mentions "carbon offsets" during the year (p. 255), and I wish he had written more about these, because when you think about it, a Big Year leaves a very large carbon footprint because of all the plane travel. Finally, why must birding hold in awe listing that burns so much fossil fuel? Could you write a compelling book about a Big Sit? These are just some of the questions that flitted through my mind as I read Birding Without Borders.
I had the privilege of interviewing Strycker in 2017 for my radio show and found him a serious and idealistic person who really hopes his feat matters to the wider world. His summing up at the end of Birding Without Borders reflects that idealism. "By working together across all kinds of borders we can help make sure the next generation enjoys birds too." (p. 256)
Birding Without Borders is an enthusiastic account of an extraordinary experience. At times, the book seems a blur of exotic names and places as Strycker zips from one habitat to another and to the next roster of bird species. But that likely conveys the experience of a Big Year: lots of birds quickly seen. Birding Without Borders also contains a handful of his photographs taken during the year, which helps make the quest experience more real to the reader.
The last section of the book, pages 268 to 318, is the complete chronological list of the birds the author tallied during his Big Year. Each page is single spaced, printed in small type with two columns on each page. That alone gives the reader a sense of what Strycker accomplished.
"I envy Audubon greatly, that he knew William MacGillivray so well." (p. 297, Raptor: A Journey through Birds)
Raptor is a unique book. Partly a well-written account of a very personal birding quest, Raptor is also a tour of some of the more interesting places to be found in Britain. And if that isn't enough, Raptor is also a biography of one of the great forgotten figures of ornithology. Together with the author's fine ability to capture the essence of a bird or place, his prose makes Raptor one of the great birding reads of 2017.
The concept of Raptor at first seems simple enough. Over several years James Macdonald Lockhart set himself the task of seeing and studying all fifteen species of diurnal raptors that breed in Britain. This requires Lockhart to spend time in some unique parts of his home country. "My book Raptor is the culmination of these journeys. It is a book about the birds and also a book about the places I went to search for the birds in." (p. xiii, Raptor)
The places where Lockhart seeks out breeding raptors are often as interesting as the birds themselves. He visited the windy and wild Orkneys looking for Hen Harrier, as well as the remote Outer Hebrides looking for Golden Eagle. Lockhart sought out Merlins breeding in an area called "The Flows," which contains 4,000 square kilometers of peat bog. Some of the places he visited sound like something out of Lord of the Rings:
Ninety years ago Culbin was a restless desert, a vast area of shifting sands. A place so unlike anywhere else in Britain that at the end of the nineteenth century it became the home to a population of Pallas's sand grouse, a species usually found in the deserts of central Asia. Culbin was known as "Britain's Desert," large enough to lodge in the imagination, a place where history shuffled with mythology: skeletons excavated by the shifting sands were either travelers who had lost their way in its expanse or an ancient race who had lived and foraged along the shingle ridges. (p. 88–9)
The border area between England and Scotland, where Lockhart looked for Goshawk, had its own unique history. "If you went on the run from justice in Scotland or in England, this is where you ran to, the Debatable Grounds, the Batable Lands, the No-Man's land that straddles sections of the Border. A place which neither nation could agree on, a refuge, a place to flee to." (p. 151)
This coming together of these different British cultures results in some unique language differences depending on which way you travel. "The whole district is rife with dialect isoglosses. Within the space of a mile or two you can go from being a scarecrow to a flycrow to a crowbogle to a tattiebogle." (p. 153)
All these travels led to Lockhart looking for Sparrowhawk near his home. Lockhart arranged these expeditions so they ran from north to south for a special reason: to emulate the walking tour of the Scot ornithologist William MacGillivray.
Whilst I made these expeditions alone I don't feel I could have written this book without William MacGillivray. I have structured the book around an extraordinary eight hundred mile walk MacGillivray made from Aberdeen to London in September and October 1819, loosely mapping MacGillivray's journey against my own journey from north Scotland to the south of England. (p. xiii)
When he was still young, MacGillivray decided to walk to London to see the British Museum because he had heard of its great collection of beasts and birds. All along this extraordinary journey on foot, MacGillivray took numerous detours to see or collect some interesting botanical specimens he had read about that occurred along his route. He stuffed them in his pockets until, toward the end of the journey, he began to look like an ambulatory scarecrow. Along the way, MacGillivray mostly kept to himself, barely talking to people he met on the road, but keeping careful notes of all his adventures and expenditures. He made this journey very much on the cheap, and spending of every penny was duly noted.
As Lockhart recounted his own adventures with Britain's raptors, he also took the reader along MacGillivray's journey and wrote about his later life as a great ornithologist. Most of this will be a revelation to American readers who may know the warbler but haven't a clue about the ornithologist it was named after. One of MacGillivray's most important publications was Descriptions of the Rapacious Birds of Great Britain, published in 1836. It was MacGillivray's careful description of the life of the Hen Harrier in this book that set Lockhart off on his quest. MacGillivray was also an accomplished bird artist, though most people have never seen his paintings. I would strongly recommend a web search to see his paintings of raptors. There is also a strong American connection to MacGillivray's life. MacGillivray had a close relationship with John James Audubon and helped write many sections of Audubon's Ornithological Biography. Audubon never gave MacGillivray credit for his work.
All these threads are woven together seamlessly in Raptor. Though Raptor is Lockhart's first book, it shows that he is a gifted writer able to convey a poetic sense of a place. "What a strange grey beauty these mountains have." (MacGillivray compared them to a poor man's skin appearing through rags.) "The land scraped bare, the moor a craquelure of gneiss. The warm rocks smoking in the rain. Like the earth must have been when it was raw and molten-new." (p. 69)
Because he spends time with each of his target species, Lockhart is able to capture the essence of each raptor in his writing. Watching a Montagu's Harrier, Britain's rarest breeding raptor, inspires Lockhart to write:
Lightness and lift, will-o-the-wisp, the soul set adrift like a plume of smoke…The poet John Clare described the Montagu's harriers he saw from his home on the edge of the Fens as swimming close to the green corn. It is in her lightness and ease of buoyancy that the corn-swimmer is most distinct from the hen harrier, the heather-wanderer, a sense that you have met, in the Montagu's harrier, the epitome of lightness and drift, that you could not perceive any creature more buoyant than this. (p. 184)
Raptor is an impressive achievement. It is a passionate account of the raptors of Britain as well as those places where they breed. But Raptor is also a loving tribute to a great, if now little known, ornithologist. Despite its narrow geographical scope, Raptor is destined to become a classic of ornithological literature.