Day 259: A New Big Year World Record

In India, Noah passes the mark for most species in one year—with more than three months to go.

September 16, 2015, Thattekad, IndiaEight and a half months ago, on the first of January, I set out for an unimaginable year of birding around the world. I knew this quest would pass through many exotic locations and that I’d see lots of birds, and those things have happened on schedule. India is the 27th country I’ve visited this year, and the birds have stacked up even faster than I might have hoped.

But I couldn’t have predicted how this big year would become a worldwide, grassroots effort of like-minded bird lovers! My little dream has taken flight in a way I can’t even express. Thank you to the thousands of people who have followed and supported this adventure—I’m blown away by the response it has received!

Harsha and I woke up at 4:30 this morning with a mission to do something no human has ever done. We began the day just 27 birds shy of the existing world big year record: In 2008, a British couple named Ruth Miller and Alan Davies found 4,341 species between January and December. Could Harsha and I surpass that mark today?

We met Sonu, a local birder at Thattekad, in a lowland rainforest, with a list of targets and high hopes. Soon after we arrived, the Ezhupunna Birders showed up—a group of about ten enthusiastic young birders from the Cochin area who’d heard about the project. All morning, the gaggle of us tramped around the forest, flicking leeches off our pants and getting soaked by intermittent downpours. One by one, we saw 22 species of new birds… and then, just before midday, activity stopped.

Six species from a new record, nothing stirred in the forest. The Ezhupunna Birders clocked out for lunch but Sonu, Harsha and I kept birding without a break. An hour passed with no new sightings, then two. A new plan was formulated: Sonu knew a place near his house with White-breasted Waterhens and White-rumped Munias (generally regarded as common birds here) and the three of us blitzed out there. We squeaked out a couple of bonuses, and, in a monsoon cloudburst, Sonu spotted a Common Iora to tie the mark.

It was time to play our last remaining card. Inside the Thattekad forest sanctuary, Sonu had staked out a pair of day-sleeping Sri Lanka Frogmouths—a type of weird, awesome nocturnal creature which looks like a dead leaf on its perch. Harsha, Sonu and I arrived at the spot at about 3:30 p.m. and were met there by the Ezhupunna crowd, a couple of photographers, and a TV crew from the local news station. The frogmouths seemed to sleep through the commotion as many photos were taken and handshakes given. I felt like stepping past the end of a trail of footprints—suddenly on untouched ground!

The afterparty was held at the guest house of a local birding legend named Eldhos. I was greeted on arrival there by a bishop—a real, religious bishop in full regalia—who had apparently driven 140 kilometers just to give congratulations. This was quite an honor—I’ve never met a bishop before! (He had a special interest in birds, he said, and in all living things.) Harsha, the bishop and I had tea with Eldhos and a reporter from the Times in India, which seemed as appropriate as any way to celebrate a world big year. Later, three guys traveling on a National Geographic grant stopped by, and I met perhaps the world’s only birdsong beatboxer ( Birding sure brings people together in curious ways.

Of course, this year still has three and a half months remaining, and my goal is to see at least 5,000 species. Most of Asia and Australia await. We’re officially in new territory now—let’s see how far it will go!

New birds today: 29

Year list: 4343

Editor's Note: Watch the big moment here

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Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article placed Noah in Thatekaad, India—the more common spelling is Thattekad. We've updated the post accordingly.