A mosaic of birds found on Noah Strycker's Biggest Year in 2015. Photos: Noah Strycker

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Read an Excerpt From Noah Strycker's Book on His Record-Breaking Year of Birds

Strycker recounts all the gritty and glorious details of his 2015 global Big Year in "Birding Without Borders."

The numbers are dizzying: 41 countries, 100,114 miles, and 6,042 species of birds—all in 365 days. 

In 2015, Noah Strycker circumnavigated the world with one goal in mind: To see as many birds as possible. The writer and birder set aside an entire year to spy, hear, and identify at least 5,000 avian species—something no human has ever done before. In the end, Strycker went way past his initial target, logging more than 6,000 species and setting a new record.

While traveling, Strycker wrote up his adventures for Audubon's Birding Without Borders blog. His daily posts detailed the thrills, highlights, challenges, and friendships he uncovered during his pursuits. But there was still a lot left to tell. His new book (with a foreword by Audubon's field editor Kenn Kaufman) covers the rest of the journey, from Antarctica to Cameroon to Strycker's hometown in Oregon. If you’re looking for the right stories to nudge you into planning a trip yourself, Birding Without Borders may just do the trick. Below is an excerpt from the chapter on the author's whirlwind tour of Peru, where he teamed up with an especially colorful and adventurous guide to find a total of 784 (!) species. 

Excerpted from BIRDING WITHOUT BORDERS. Used with the permission of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin.​ Published October 2017. Copyright © 2017 by Noah Strycker. All rights reserved.

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t 16,000 feet of altitude, the ratio of oxygen in the air is almost exactly the same as it is at sea level—about 21 percent—but atmospheric pressure is reduced by half. The low pressure is what upsets your system. When you take a deep breath at 16,000 feet, you’re inhaling only half the usual amount of oxygen, so your heart and lungs have to work twice as hard to keep up.                     

This thought flitted through my hypoxia-addled brain as I gazed down on the country of Peru from Ticlio Pass, high in the Andes Mountains east of Lima, on Valentine’s Day, the forty-fifth day of my Big Year. Colorful ridge lines spidered away in pastel shades of red, yellow, and brown, with hardly a scrap of vegetation clinging to the rocks. Lingering snowfields and glaciers dotted surrounding peaks like dirty specks of frosting, and the sky was impenetrably, obscenely blue. The whole riotous scene seemed to be celebrating my good fortune in passing the 1,000 species mark of my Big Year. I had been inching toward this milestone for the past few days, and finally got it with a fluffy Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant. It took twenty-two days to see the first 500 birds of the year and twenty-three more days to add another 500, and I liked the way things were adding up. I laughed, a little too hard, and got a concerned look from Carlos Altamirano, a young Peruvian birder I’d met just a few hours earlier.

“You feel okay?” he asked.

“Never better!” I replied.

In fact, my head ached and my stomach churned indelicately—typical symptoms of mild altitude sickness. At high elevation, the oxygen-starved human body pumps more blood to the brain in an effort to compensate, and those dilated vessels cause the headache. Meanwhile, blood is diverted away from your digestive system, which means the stomach becomes less efficient. I’d landed in Lima, at sea level, less than twenty-four hours earlier, not nearly enough time to acclimate to a change of more than three vertical miles.

Never in my life had I been so high. Ticlio Pass is above the level where skydivers typically jump from planes, higher than most helicopters can safely fly. A rock dropped from this height would fall a third of a mile before striking the summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48 states. At this spot, I was more than twice as high as any particle of the entire continent of Australia, and I sure felt like it.

Dizziness swept over me as Carlos snapped a picture to mark the occasion.

“Feliz Día de San Valentín!” he said, grinning.

In the photo, I am smiling in front of the Andes Mountains, standing alone with feet shoulder width apart and hands stuffed deep in the pockets of my black down jacket. My shoes and pants are visibly dirty, my hair is sticking up, and binoculars dangle loosely around my neck. Behind me, an empty road snakes around several hairpin bends before disappearing down the mountainside. It is a portrait of a man who, for the past 45 days, has done nothing but look at birds and who, in the back of his mind, knows that he will spend the next 320 days doing nothing but the same.

What I didn’t know, at that moment, was just how crazy things were about to get.

 

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onths earlier, when planning the logistics for South America, I had earmarked a full twenty-one days to cover Peru, a country bigger than the combined areas of Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Romania, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, and Poland. For birders, it is an exciting part of the world to visit: you’ve got everything from desolate coastal deserts to the snow-capped Andes to the Amazon, with all kinds of elevational gradients and tropical diversity in the mix. About 1,900 bird species have been recorded in Peru, of which nearly 150 are endemic—that is, found nowhere else. Compared to the rest of the world, these numbers are staggering; the United States, for instance, has fewer than half as many species in an area eight times as big.

But traveling here can be hazardous, especially off the beaten path. Virtually all foreigners who visit Peru head straight for Machu Picchu, the fifteenth-century Inca city that is now swamped by more than a million tourists each year. It would be nice to see those ruins, but on this trip I had to focus on the birds. Awaiting me were tanagers to chase through the cloud forest, owls to spotlight in the jungle, and hummingbirds—including one very special hummer called the Marvelous Spatuletail—to stalk among the Andean valleys. Three weeks would scarcely be enough to scratch the surface of Peru’s bird life, and that’s not even considering the di culties of getting around this country.

Things have improved since the Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) period of guerrilla revolt, severe economic turmoil, and political unrest in the 1980s and 1990s, but Peru is still a raw, developing nation. It produces more cocaine than any other country, except possibly Colombia, and has all the trouble that goes with the drug trade. Outside major cities, you’re lucky to find pavement. Some regions have no roads at all. In the deep Peruvian Amazon, there are still a couple of native tribes relatively untouched by civilization, including the reclusive Mashco Piro of the Madre de Dios region—an area I planned to visit—who figured in a sensational murder in 2011.

Birds don’t stick to tourist traps, of course, so I needed someone local to help navigate this complicated landscape—someone who lived in Peru and understood its culture and birds. I contacted a couple of guides at ecotour companies, but they were less than helpful. Others didn’t reply at all. In the end, I realized there was only one man to turn to: the bird-crazy Swede of Peru, the man who, when I mentioned his name to several friends, came across as a modern-day warrior, post-punk rocker, and international birding legend.

His name is Gunnar. It rhymes with “lunar.”

I’d heard a few rumors about Gunnar Engblom, and had even come close to meeting him several times, but he was like a ghost, popping up in unexpected places, then disappearing back into Peru. Two months before the beginning of my year, I was at a birdwatching festival in Texas when someone at a party turned to me and said, apropos of nothing, “Did you know that Gunnar Engblom showed up here today but was immediately detained by the authorities?” It was simply assumed that I knew who Gunnar was and that I would want to know that he had been detained by the authorities. I chalked it up to idle cocktail conversation and forgot all about it until months later, when I met Gunnar for the first time. After I asked him about it, the subject morphed into a fascinating story about something else, and I still have no idea what happened at that bird festival in Texas.

Some tales are true, some exaggerated, but everyone in South America seems to know Gunnar. Originally from Sweden, he first traveled to Peru as a thirty-year-old biologist in 1990—the year that monetary inflation hit 12,000 percent—and returned for several months each year before moving permanently in 1998 to Lima, where he’s flourished ever since. He quickly fell in love with the country’s birds and began to pursue them with singular zeal, developing a reputation for new discoveries and for bravery in treacherous situations.

Once, in the early days, following patchy information, he took a public bus across the Andes and found himself escorted off by armed guerrillas at a checkpoint. This was serious: two British birders had just been captured and executed by Sendero Luminoso soldiers, their bodies never recovered, and kidnappings were common at the time. Gunnar, crouched on the side of the road, explained that he was broke and just looking for birds.

“They pointed at my binoculars and demanded for me to hand them over,” he told me. “But they were nice binoculars, and I didn’t want to lose them! So I said no, but they could have my camera, which was basically a piece of crap. I told them it was a really valuable camera and that I’d donate it to the cause as a supporter.”

After a lengthy interrogation, the guerrillas became so baffled by this Swedish man’s babbling about birds in accented Spanish that they just let him go.

“The best part,” Gunnar said, “is that I was wearing a T-shirt that day of Che Guevara”—the Marxist revolutionary instrumental in the Cuban Revolution. “Just imagine!”           

These days, insurgency is less worrisome than plain old logistical chaos, which Gunnar confronts with practiced equanimity as he guides visiting birders around the country. Strikes, strandings, accidents, and natural disasters are part of daily life in Peru, but Gunnar is not a man given to panic. He can put together any trip, on any budget, and now runs a full-time business outfitting custom itineraries for birding expeditions.

When I sent him a message to explain my mission, Gunnar replied immediately and enthusiastically.

“I am the right guy to talk to!” he wrote. “I love these kinds of challenges, and am glad to be involved. Time is money for most people. Time is lifers for birders. Count on me for Peru!”

He was as good as his word, and soon drafted a schedule on a shoestring for my proposed dates, encompassing every corner of Peru. Only later did I realize quite how ambitious the itinerary was: Gunnar intended to wring every possible second from our twenty-one days in his adopted country, targeting endemic birds all over the map. This wasn’t a regular tour — it was a saturation patrol. He would personally accompany me for most of the trip, and we would rendezvous with local experts in each region. Gunnar also found an American birder from California, Glenn Sibbald, an environmental scientist from Sacramento, who would join us for the full three weeks; Glenn’s extra company, cost-sharing, and good humor turned out to be an enormous bonus. All around, it seemed like a great, if potentially exhausting, plan.

And so, after leaving Brazil—the memorable Harpy Eagle with Giuliano and Bianca in the Pantanal, plus another ten days with other excellent birders in Belém/northeastern Brazil and in Itacaré/east-central Brazil—I touched down in Lima with high expectations. When I landed, I found a brief message om Gunnar: “Just back from a successful and disastrous day trip. Lots of good birds. I will meet you in Santa Eulalia Canyon at 5pm.”

He had arranged for a local birder to pick me up with a driver, and they waited diligently with a sign at the airport. We did a little birding in urban Lima and then took off out of town. As we ascended toward the 16,000-foot Ticlio Pass that afternoon, one single-lane switchback at a time, my head swam with the altitude and I began to wonder what, exactly, I had gotten myself into.

Birding Without Borders, by Noah Strycker, Houghton Mifflin, 336 pages, $27. Buy it online at indiebound.org, and meet Strycker in person at an Audubon chapter or other local event.
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