Birding

Noah Strycker's Global Big Year Record Has Been Broken

And here’s what the former birding champ has to say about it.

Eleven months have passed since I wrapped up my Birding Without Borders quest: a world tour of 41 countries and seven continents, during which I recorded 6,042 species of birds in one whirlwind year. It was an incredible trip, and I’m now finishing a book about the experience.

Sure, it was fun to set a world record, but I knew the number wouldn’t last forever. In fact, it stood just one year. Last week, Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis topped 6,100 species of birds so far in 2016, and he’s still going strong. He was in Costa Rica when he surpassed my total, logging a Black-bellied Hummingbird as one of his latest additions.

Since January, Dwarshuis, a 30-year-old bartender and cooking enthusiast from Amsterdam, has crisscrossed Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, and South and Central America with the single goal of notching as many bird species as possible. He has yet to visit North America, and plans to finish up with a return to Asia in December.

“I’m very, very pleased,” he said in an interview with a Dutch news site. “Pleased that I broke the record; pleased that I broke it so early in the year.”

Along the way, Dwarshuis received help from many birders—and all for a good cause. On a JustGiving page, he urges his followers to donate to BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions Programme, and has raised nearly $12,000, mostly from folks in the Netherlands.

 

It has been interesting to keep tabs on his progress after my own Big Year in 2015, when I eclipsed the existing record of 4,341 set by British birders Ruth Miller and Alan Davies in 2008. Each new attempt builds on the last, incorporating fresh knowledge and strategies, and I’m happy to see the torch passed on.

Dwarshuis has followed a similar route and approach to mine with a few tweaks. Of the 41 countries I visited last year, he elected not to go to Antarctica, Cameroon, or Myanmar (where I averaged fewer unique species) while substituting some destinations that I missed: Ethiopia, Malawi, a couple of Caribbean islands, Suriname, and Java. He’s succeeded in pacing each leg based on the number of species that might be found there, keeping up the daily average of new sightings.

Like me, he has depended heavily on local birding communities, offset his carbon emissions, and submitted sightings to an online database that tracks bird populations (I used eBird.org; he uses observation.org). I hope these strategies will become standard for future Big Years, should others take up the challenge.  

It’s also worth noting that Dwarshuis plays by a different taxonomy, which has caused some confusion with numbers. Instead of the Clements Checklist (used for all previous global Big Years), he follows the IOC World Bird List, a progressive authority that recognizes more species. By that measure (IOC v. 6.3), my 2015 year list was 6,153 species, which Dwarshuis has also now passed.

With just seven weeks to go, Dwarshuis is aiming for 7,000—and who knows? With a productive session in North America this month and a fast end-of-the-year tour through Vietnam, Taiwan, and Japan, he might just make it. In any case, the Big Year record is getting a major shake-up.

Records, of course, are made to be broken, and any number is evanescent compared to the experience behind it. (A similarly thrilling contest is brewing in North America this year.) Each Big Year is a personal journey, like climbing a high peak or even mastering a soufflé. Birding, in its many variations, celebrates the infinite details of life on Earth—and birds can help illuminate the world in unexpected ways. In the context of other headlines this week, I think a global birdwatching record is especially symbolic: It shows that no one is truly isolated, and that great things are achieved by working together across all kinds of borders.

I tip my hat to Arjan Dwarshuis, the new Big Year record holder, and wish him good birding for the rest of the year.

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