In 2015, Noah Strycker undertook the “biggest year ever” for birding: traveling through 41 countries as he encountered 6,042 species of birds in a single calendar year—surpassing the previous record by more than 1,500 species. Noah blogged daily about his travels, and many thousands of birders followed his trials and tribulations through the course of 2015. He was also kind enough to write up monthly summaries for eBird, which we featured throughout the year. This is his final summary—the complete wrap-up of 2015 according to Noah Strycker. Read on to see more photos and also learn how Noah used eBird for all of his big year sightings. Thank you Noah, and congratulations on your amazing year!
By Noah Strycker
The biggest year in birding history is a wrap! I went birding every single day during 2015, in a total of 41 countries, spanning all seven continents, with hundreds of different people, and ended with 6,042 species of birds – a new Big Year world record. What a trip!
Of course, it’s not all about the numbers. The people I met and the landscapes, cultures, and communications along the way made this project memorable. I knew I’d see a lot of birds in 2015, but the quest transcended any list of species. Thanks to everyone – in the field and at home – who helped out.
eBird was a key player in my Big Year. I used it to plan ahead, to connect with other birders, and to keep track of and share sightings. Many of us are used to eBird in the U.S., but I was inspired by how quickly it is spreading around the planet – almost 25% of eBird checklists today come in from outside the U.S., and that figure keeps going up. Pretty amazing, considering eBird only went global five years ago. eBird has become a truly international network, and I saw firsthand how it’s helping mint new birders in far-flung places.
A couple of my eBird stats for the Big Year: In 2015, I entered 1,767 complete checklists, plus some incidental sightings along the way, representing almost 37,000 observations (one species on one checklist = one observation). I entered sightings from all 22 of eBird’s major listing regions, some of which overlap with each other. Interestingly, of the 2,750 species I recorded in the western hemisphere and 3,361 in the eastern hemisphere, only 69 birds were seen in both.
For this project, I counted heard-only birds and also counted re-introduced and exotic species with established populations. Of the 6,042 total bird species, 331 (5.5%) were heard-only; 12 were re-introduced natives (including the California Condor and nine New Zealand endemics); and five were established exotics (African Collared-Dove, Tanimbar Corella, Rosy-faced Lovebird, Red-crowned Parrot, and Java Sparrow). In the end, counting introduced species didn’t make much difference because I eventually saw almost all of them in places where they are native.
The first-ever Global Big Day on May 9 was a highlight. I was birding in Oaxaca, Mexico on that day and added a few Mexican endemics to the global tally. I wondered how my own yearlong number would stack up against the combined one-day effort of thousands of birders around the world, and it turned out to be extremely close: My finish of 6,042 species fell barely short of the Global Big Day’s 6,085. eBirders recorded more birds in one day than I could find in an entire year!
As I traveled through some off-the-beaten-track places in 2015, I thought I might record some bird species new to eBird. In the end, I found just one: An Oberlaender’s Ground-Thrush at Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on September 6. Every other bird I saw in 2015 had previously been recorded in eBird. With 21 million checklists representing 10,218 species, it’s getting hard to add new ones to the database.
Here are the five eBird features I used most during my Big Year:
I’d never previously used an app to enter sightings, because I dislike staring at a phone while birding, but eBird Mobile was indispensable for this trip. I learned to use BirdLog and switched to eBird Mobile when the updated app released in June. After a while, entering birds became second nature in the field. I don’t know what I would have done without the app; it would have been very difficult to enter all of the checklists each evening.
A couple of tips: If you spend all day birding, keep your checklists “in progress” in the app and submit them all at once at the end of the day – it’s much easier to make changes that way. And, rather than adding each new individual bird, punch in new species as they are seen and then modify numbers as you leave each site.
eBird’s Target Species feature, launched just before I began this adventure, was super-useful throughout the trip. Local guides wanted to know what I’d seen before I arrived at each stop, to help with strategizing, and I was able to send them up-to-the-second target lists in taxonomic order and sorted by frequency. These lists also helped immensely with my own planning and studying; I knew what to expect before going into the field. What a great tool!
To visualize the data that have been entered at any hotspot or within any region, I looked at eBird’s bar charts. At a glance, I could see which birds were most frequently reported at a site, which helped a lot with strategizing and with difficult IDs this year. Of course, any given bar chart is only as good as the data that have been entered, but I discovered that even remote places had a sufficient number of lists to get an idea of what to expect. As more information is filled in, these get better and better.
eBird reviewers have set up different rarity thresholds around the world. In some places, the default regional checklist includes every species ever recorded in the country, while in others reviewers might flag several “rare” birds on every excursion. The filters are excellent in most well-birded places and they are being fine-tuned elsewhere.
For me, these filters offered a nice warning system. Nobody is an expert on every bird in the world and, on this trip, I was helped by many local guides, some of whom made identification mistakes (as all guides do – always be sure of your own sightings!). eBird’s filters, built into the app, let me know when to second-guess. Follow-up email correspondence with reviewers around the world also overturned several tricky IDs, based on photos or my own notes, which added or subtracted from the overall tally. I am a reviewer in my home state of Oregon and have seen all kinds of reactions when people’s sightings are questioned. It’s important not to take it personally – for me, communicating with reviewers was especially valuable in places where I had little experience. This network of volunteer experts is an underappreciated eBird resource.
I shared hundreds of checklists throughout the year as I met eBirders in various countries. My personal record, I think, was a day in southern India with nine of us sharing lists (like this one: https://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25057154). That’s more eBirders on one list than I’ve ever managed back home in the U.S.
Sharing lists is a great way to log group sightings without duplicating data and can help spread good eBirding habits. The current limitation of sharing just one checklist at a time can be challenging, however; being able to share multiple lists at once would have saved me hours of work over the course of this year.
eBird developers and programmers are adding new features at an impressive rate. I had fun embedding photos in some recent checklists with the new media upload feature, and look forward to adding more as I have the time to sort out all my images.
Based on my Big Year experiences with eBird, here is my wish list of potential new features:
-Short profiles of other users on eBird – nothing elaborate, but more than just a name – and a way to contact them.
-An option to record heard-only sightings within each checklist. I added the comment “heard” for each heard-only bird, and then had to download all of my data into a spreadsheet and sort the comments in order to tally them up.
-Sharing multiple checklists at once.
This Big Year sure passed in a hurry. I’m back home now with the familiar backyard birds of Oregon, fending off withdrawal, feeling like the world seems a little smaller. Of one thing I am certain: The more places I go, the more places I want to go. After packing a lifetime of birding into one intense year, I have a new bucket list of destinations to visit and birds to see. After all, there are still 4,000 birds left…
Stay tuned for the book (yet to be written), which should be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017. See you in the field, and thanks to all eBirders for sharing this awesome year!