Adventurer of the Week: Record-setting birder landing in Tacoma

Noah Strycker visited all seven continents during his 2015 year-long birdwatching expedition. He saw more than 6,000 species of birds, setting a new world record for most birds seen in one year.
Noah Strycker visited all seven continents during his 2015 year-long birdwatching expedition. He saw more than 6,000 species of birds, setting a new world record for most birds seen in one year. Courtesy

When Noah Strycker was a fifth-grader growing up near Eugene, Oregon, his teacher put a bird feeder outside the class window.

“She’d stop class when a bird showed up and had us identify it,” Strycker said.

His family and friends weren’t into birding, but Strycker, now 31, was hooked. “I’d say it’s a slippery slope of addiction from there,” he said.

Strycker identified birds in his parents’ yard. In high school, he decided he wanted to photograph a turkey vulture. So he did what any kid who wants to photograph a turkey vulture would do. He dragged home a road-kill deer carcass and left it in the yard.

The next morning 25 turkey vultures were perched on the roof of his house.

In 2015, Strycker set out to see as many birds as he could in one year. Birders call this a Big Year. Strycker wanted his year to be the biggest, so he set a goal to break the world record.

He visited all seven continents and saw a record 6,042 of the world’s approximately 10,000 bird species. He financed the trip with the advance he received for his forthcoming book, “Birding Without Borders.”

Strycker’s Big Year is the subject of his April 12 presentation at the University of Puget Sound, sponsored by the Advanced Birding Club of Tahoma Audubon Society and the Slater Museum of Natural History.

Of all the birds he’s seen, the turkey vulture remains among his favorites.

“Turkey vultures are amazing birds,” Strycker said. “They have an amazing sense of smell. They are incredibly elegant in the air for how ugly they may seem up close. They are one of the only birds in the world that has no vocalization. They are completely silent. They are very secretive.

“They have cast iron digestive systems. They can eat just about anything — even anthrax spores — and it’s sterile when it comes out the other end. I just think they are incredible creatures.”

We caught up with Strycker a few days after his most recent trip to Antarctica and asked him a few questions about his passion and what it takes to be a bird nerd.

Q: As a Pacific Crest Trail hiker and marathoner, how many of these outdoor activities do you incorporate into bird watching?

A: The great thing about birding is that it can be almost anything you make of it. It is collecting, it’s adventure, it’s sitting and watching one bird for a long time and trying to figure out its behavior, it’s learning. It’s almost like a treasure hunt. You can never learn everything there is to know about birds, so it’s a continuous quest.

Q: Did you visit all seven continents in 2015?

A: That’s right. I started in Antarctica on Jan. 1 and went from there. … I’ve been going to Antarctica (He estimates more than 15 trips) since I went there as a researcher after graduating from Oregon State University in 2008.

Q: What sort of research work did you do on your first trip to Antarctica?

A: I got hired on a project called Penguin Science right after I graduated. I spent the summer at a place called Camp Crozier in the Ross Sea area of Antarctica south of New Zealand. I studied Adélie penguins all summer, so I was helicoptered out to a field camp with tents with two other researchers and was dropped off for 2 ½ months. We put GPS tags on penguins and hung out at 20 degrees below zero. That experience led to my first book, “Among Penguins” (Oregon State University Press, 2011).

Q: What was the rarest species you saw during your 2015 trip?

A: My most wanted bird before I set out was the harpy eagle. It lives in South and Central America in undisturbed rainforest. It is a couple of feet tall and flies around the jungle and eats monkeys and sloths. It’s the most powerful predator in the Western Hemisphere.

I got to see a harpy eagle in central Brazil. A local birder told me he knew the location of an active nest. We staked out this nest at dawn. We waited for four hours, and then finally the male harpy eagle flew in over our heads with half of a coati — a raccoon-like creature — in its talons. It perched on a branch right in front of us for an hour and devoured (the coati).

Q: Is your goal to see every species?

A: It’s impossible to see every bird in the world. It’s a game of diminishing returns. I’ve now seen the easiest half. I have the rare ones left. There are thousands that I still need to track down, and that would take more than a lifetime.

I just see birds as a motivation and an excuse to get out and see the world. Birding and traveling go hand-in-hand because to see new birds you have to go to new places. And everywhere you go you have this focus and something to do rather than wandering around blindly like a tourist.

Q: What recommendations do you have for people who want to try birding?

A: It helps to get up early. The first hour after sunrise is usually the most active. Get yourself a good pair of binoculars. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars, but the best mid-range binoculars are a couple hundred dollars. Get a good field guide. Either “The Sibley Guide to Birds” or the “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.”

Then go out to your local park or lake and look around and see what you see. You can also join a local Audubon group or birding club. It’s a good way to meet like-minded people and join them on field trips.

Q: You are 31. Are more young people getting into birding?

A: It’s getting vastly more popular, even in the past 10 years or so. It is probably because of better digital cameras coming out, better connectivity with the internet, and I think there is just a general need to get out in nature and get away from all these screens we are around all the time.

Q: Do birders eat chicken sandwiches?

A: Of course. I enjoy birds in every way possible.

Learn more


Oregon-based birder Noah Strycker will discuss his 2015 around-the-world birding expedition. Strycker’s “Birding Without Borders” is due out Nov. 7, but is already for sale on Amazon.com.

When: 6:45-8:45 p.m. April 12.

Where: Wheelock Student Center rotunda, University of Puget Sound.

Tickets: $10. Can be purchased in advance online.

More info: tahomaaudubon.com.