Saturday, July 4, 2020

Book Review: Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World by Noah Strycker

I love stunt memoirs. You know, like Julie & Julia or The Year of Living Biblically--those people who'd go off and do a nutty thing for a year. It's a memoir, my favorite genre, and you know nothing can go too horribly wrong or else they wouldn't have gotten through the year and there'd be no book. So it's memoir with a purpose and it's emotionally on the lighter side, sometimes even funny. Perfect. And yet, there are almost none of these left. I read all the decent ones back in their heyday in the mid-2000s. But we've run out of crazy-thing-for-a-year ideas. All the good ones are done. So alas, my absolute favorite subgenre has been moribund for a decade or so.

But then I found this book! Several years ago I read The Big Year and I watched the movie, which I recently rewatched (it's decent. Not amazing, but a good watch and moderately entertaining with nothing offensive.) I looked the book up on Goodreads to see when I read it and Goodreads suggested this book to me--which was recent and has an even better rating! Woo hoo! This rocketed to the top of my TBR list.

Noah is a big birder. He even works at Birding magazine. And he decides to take his 29th year and do an International Big Year. Most big years are geographically limited which means if you do a Big Year for your state or for North America, when a bird has gotten off track and is in the wrong place, you have to jump in your car or on a plane and race off, otherwise you're limited by the birds native to your area, and that isn't the way to make a record. But Noah's year was different. If he was in one place and there was a sighting of an unusual bird halfway across the country, he didn't care. He'd probably go to that bird's natural habitat and see it there. Instead, his goal in each stop was to see the birds endemic to that place--the ones never seen elsewhere at all. So it's the opposite theory--he really wants to see all the native Sri Lankan birds when he's there and all the Costa Rican birds while in that country. He's able to become more immersed in the local habitats and environments, because his focus is much more on what's supposed to be there, not on the outliers.

He does spend the entire year on the road except for a few days in May when he does hit his home of Oregon, on the US part of his trip. He starts in Antarctica, hitting all seven continents, a few of them twice. There are over 10,000 known species of birds (according to the guidebook he uses. There's a different one that has a larger number, and recently scientists have way upped the number to over 14K using genetics.) A few years ago a couple got over 4500 birds on a world Big Year.  Noah plans to pass them and his goal is 5000--to see half the known species. Along the way he meets loads of people. While he's traveling alone, he never is alone--he meets up with locals he finds through a birding app and occasionally friends meet up with him for brief stints. The birds seem fascinating--I did have to look up a couple of them that are just bizarre. I keep being tempted to start birding and yet, I can't possibly keep even 1000 birds straight, let alone ten times that, so I'm content to just observe the ones in my own backyard.

Meanwhile, I was so grateful, in this time of uncertainty and weirdness, to find one last stunt memoir, to lighten my days.

I bought this book from Quail Ridge Books, an independent bookstore.

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