Spying the First Bird

Noah Strycker rings in 2015 with his first bird species of a hopeful 5,000 this year.

This morning, at the strike of 2015, I was in a hot tub with five friends 
and a bottle of champagne, with a pair of binoculars around my neck. We were 
on top of a Russian ship, the Akademik Ioffe, which was sailing along the
western Antarctic Peninsula at midnight. What a way to start the year!

I hoped to spot my first bird of 2015 from the hot tub. But after the 
traditional countdown and while someone sprayed champagne everywhere (to
 cries of “What, is this a NASCAR awards ceremony?”), it became apparent that 
no birds were in sight. Even in Antarctica, there are almost always some 
birds around—skuas, penguins, terns, gulls, maybe a shag or two. But as I 
looked around with excitement during the first minutes of 2015, nothing 
moved. The midnight sun hung low behind a layer of clouds, and the Ioffe
 sailed on a calm sea dotted by iceberg castles.

The freezing air sucked the heat out of the hot tub in a hurry, and, after a
 few minutes, my friends started joking around: “Do goosebumps count as a 
bird?” I desperately scanned the landscape, but saw nothing but water, rock,
and ice. Eventually we couldn’t stand the cold anymore and retreated to an 
indoor sauna to warm up (no birds there, either).

A while later, after everyone else had gone to bed, I wandered out alone on 
deck, keyed up by the start of my worldwide big year. Antarctica stretched 
into the distance, glacier faces and ice cliffs dominating the horizon. My
 thoughts drifted. Then, out of the twilight, a shape glided toward the stern
of the ship—a Cape Petrel! I watched it tack neatly back and forth across
 the ship’s wake, flashing a pretty pattern of black and white on its 
upperwings, and smiled. One down, 4,999 to go!

Antarctica might seem a funny place to kick things off this year, as it is 
far less diverse than any other part of the world. But The Ice is a special 
place for me; I’ve taken 10 trips to the frozen continent in the past three
 years. I’m working as an on-board ornithologist for this Antarctic voyage,
and it’s nice to launch my big year among familiar places and faces (one 
year ago, I celebrated New Year’s on this same ship in Antarctica, with many 
of the same people). 

Just getting here required quite a journey. On Christmas Day, after presents 
and Christmas dinner at home in Oregon, my parents drove me to the airport
 in Eugene. I spent the next 50 hours taking seven separate flights to 
reach Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southern tip of South America. There I
transferred to the Akademik Ioffe and we set sail on December 28. It took
 two sea days to cross the Drake Passage; December 31 was spent visiting the 
South Shetland Islands; and we arrived at the Antarctic Peninsula, my
 jumping-off point for 2015, just in time for New Year.

I will be in Antarctica for the next four days, adventuring among icebergs, 
glaciers, whales, seals, and penguins. If I’m super lucky, Emperor Penguin
will be one of my first birds this year! After that, I head north, through 
the Drake Passage and back to Argentina, with a quick stop at the Falkland
Islands en route. I expect that my year list will stand at 60-70 species by
the time I step off the ship at Ushuaia on January 9th—a slow start, 
numbers-wise, but most of those will be birds I don’t see anywhere else.
 Then I hit South America, and this world big year will kick into overdrive.

It’s very exciting to begin this project today! In the next year, I will 
travel through 35 countries on all seven continents, see thousands of birds,
 and meet a lot of interesting folks. Along the way, I’ll post daily updates 
here (uploaded when Internet allows). Here we go! Best wishes to everyone 
for a wonderful 2015.

Follow along: