Welcome to Birding Without Borders

Can one “bird nerd,” with little more than a backpack and a spotting scope, crush the round-the-world Big Year record?
Corey Arnold

Birds are the world’s premier frequent flyers: They don’t need visas or passports to travel, and there are no blackout days. Whether it’s the Cerulean Warbler on the cover of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the eponymous Goldfinch on Donna Tartt’s bestseller, or the Mockingjay holding together a revolution in The Hunger Games trilogy, to we humans, birds are as free as can be. And the pursuit of birds—part sport, part existential meditation—is an expression of that freedom.

Why, then, are birders so obsessed with borders? I have friends who keep bird lists for every county in the United States (there are more than 3,100). When an Amazon Kingfisher shows up on the north bank of the Rio Grande, hundreds of birders fly there to see it—even though they could spot one anytime, along with lots of other interesting birds, almost anywhere in Latin America. On a large and complicated website, the American Birding Association (ABA) tracks birders’ tallies for every region of the world; each listing category is defined by boundaries, rules, and red lines. You can, for instance, submit a “millennium list” (birds seen since January 1, 2001) for the “ABA Area” (the United States and Canada; minus Hawaii, Bermuda, and Greenland; plus French Saint-Pierre and Miquelon; plus adjacent waters within 200 miles or halfway to another country, whichever is less).

It’s a bit silly, really. Geopolitical boundaries have nothing to do with birds. Perhaps the ultimate illustration of this disconnect is The Big Year, the story of three birders who in 1998 tried to see as many species as possible in North America. The rivals dashed around the continent’s fringes, ticking off one wayward vagrant at a time. At one point, all three spent a week on Attu, Alaska’s westernmost island, desperately hoping to glimpse a few common backyard Asian birds on U.S. soil. Anyone could see those birds, with less hassle, just by going to Asia.

There was a time, before rare bird alerts, when hard-core North American birding was less like stamp collecting and more adventurous. When Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher spent a hundred days traveling from Newfoundland to the Pribilof Islands in 1953, as recounted in their classic book, Wild America, the two great naturalists focused on seeing a “complete cross section of wild America,” and didn’t worry much about technicalities; at one point they dipped significantly into Mexico. Even when 19-year-old Kenn Kaufman spent 1973 bumming rides around the U.S. to spot birds, he was mostly looking for expected birds in fun places (he spent time in Mexico, too). But soon after that, birding changed. “A birder with money could jump on the next flight, rent a car, and check off a bird that he had never even heard of a few hours earlier,” Kaufman wrote at the end of his memoir, Kingbird Highway, foreshadowing The Big Year. “It was inevitable that Big Year listing would come to focus more and more on such rarities.”

In the 1950s Peterson and Fisher couldn’t have imagined how technology would eventually shrink the world. We can now find other birders, get directions, document rarities, and instantly post sightings from a cell phone. Not to get all weepy with nostalgia, but it’s safe to say that the Internet took much of the mystery out of birding, for better and worse.

At the same time, though, in the past decade or two, technology has quietly transformed birding into an international pastime. It’s now as easy to talk to a birder in another country as to someone across town. Even the most isolated bird lovers have access to all the inspiration and information they can handle, as long as they can get online. This, to me, is a more significant and exciting change than the advent of rare bird alerts. It means that, for the first time, birders have become a global community. And it means that our pursuit of birds is lately back in sync with the birds themselves. Why stop at the border when there are more birds, and more like-minded birders, waiting on the other side?

This year I will try to become the first person to see 5,000 species of birds in one calendar year, a sort of cosmopolitan, modern version of Wild America and Kingbird Highway. Rather than hiring international tour guides, I’ll spend my time with passionate locals—individuals who care about their home patches, and who are making a difference for birds in their own areas. Along the way, I will explore how birding, and the conservation of birds, fits into our new, crowded, globalized millennium.


It will be one continuous trip, with no out-and-backs. In chronological order, I will spend a few days in Antarctica, three and a half months in South America, two months in Central and North America, a week and a half in Europe, two and a half months in Africa, three months in Asia and some Pacific islands, and three weeks in Australia, traveling by short hops. I’m packing super light. Everything—binoculars, a tiny laptop, malaria pills, a mosquito net, water-purification tablets—must fit in one small, carry-on backpack. My bulkiest item is a compact Leica spotting scope. I might take an extra pair of underwear.

Nobody has ever before tried a single, yearlong, round-the-world birding trip. In 2008 a British couple, Ruth Miller and Alan Davies, managed to see 4,341 species by squeezing a lot of birding tours into one intense year, but I’ll take more of a big-picture approach. Instead of going home periodically to do laundry, I’ll just keep birding, across one border after another, for 365 straight days. It’s hard to say what’s possible, but 5,000 is a nice round number!

It sounds like a lot of flying, but a year is a long time to trace one methodical circuit of the globe. Contrasted with the quick overseas vacations taken by many birders, the environmental impact of this project seems less extreme—or at least more efficient. Traveling with a purpose carries other benefits, too; in my view, if everyone could visit just one other country, the world would become more humane. Still, I know I will be responsible for burning a lot of fuel in 2015, so I have joined a carbon offset program. It’s not a perfect system, but in theory my net carbon footprint during this trip will be zero. 

I’m 28, and a full-time bird nerd. I have been fortunate to study birds on six continents already, mostly by working on various far-flung research projects, and have spent more than two years of my life sleeping in tents. I enjoy writing about my adventures. (Newsweek, while reviewing my recent book, The Thing With Feathers, called me the “Birdman of Razzmatazz”—whatever that means!) I’m certainly not wealthy; like other full-scale expeditions, this one is financed by advances and sponsorships. At home, in Oregon, my bookshelf sags with exploration classics: The Snow Leopard, Endurance, Desert Solitaire, Kon-Tiki, Into the Wild, Running the Amazon, Into Thin Air, The River of Doubt, The Long Walk. Assuming I make it through this year, I will eventually write another book, to be released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Of course, anything could happen. One guy actually said to me, “You know what you need, to make this a good story? You need to get a good disease—something like dengue fever. That would be interesting.” 

Some risks are unavoidable, even on a birding trip. But despite an overabundance of terrorism, economic unrest, and Ebola, the world is not as scary or hostile as it might seem in the news. In the end there is only one way to find out how this story will play out: Just go for it!

It is exhilarating, daunting, and a bit surreal to embark on a full—and maybe frantic—year of birding. Seeing thousands of birds in 12 months is a thrilling proposition, but even more than racking up species, I’m looking forward to exploring the nature of birding in the digital age. I hope you’ll join me on this quest, through updates on the blog and in this magazine. Who knows—maybe I’ll see you out there!