For most kids, learning about birds means learning the names of a few local ones in the neighborhood.
For Creswell native Noah Strycker, however, learning about birds turned into a year spent traveling the world on a record-breaking birding trip, authoring several books and landing a job leading expeditions in both the Arctic and Antarctic.
His interest started in the fifth grade when Strycker’s teacher put a bird feeder on the classroom window. “She stopped class each time a new bird showed up and she tried to get us to identify it and it went from there,” he says. “At about age 11 or 12, I just realized I really loved birds.”
In particular, he’s most intrigued by seeing new bird species and many other “big list” birders. But, he’s realized, being able to add new bird species to his “life list” has meant going increasingly further afield.
Strycker, now 33, took a year off between high school and college to work on field research projects in central Panama that connected him with an Oregon State University research professor, who later became his academic adviser.
While at OSU, Strycker majored in fisheries and wildlife science (a degree in “birds” was not available, sadly), and he continued working on several research projects, in Oregon and around the United States. In 2015, he set a “big year” record of sighting more species of birds than anyone had before in a single calendar year, which led to his 2017 book, “Birding Without Borders.”
Now, he spends about four months each year working with Quark Expeditions as an onboard naturalist specializing in birds, giving presentations and getting others excited about the birds they’re seeing.
Through Quark, Strycker gets to visit the most isolated and breathtaking wilderness areas in both the Norwegian Arctic and Antarctica. He also leads tours for National Geographic and is associate editor of Birding magazine.
Strycker’s authoring career got off to an incredible start in 2011 with his book, “Among Penguins.” In that book, as a self-described “bird man,” he chronicled a season of working with Adélie penguins in Antarctica right after he graduated from college. He was 22 and had been dropped off by a helicopter at an Antarctic field camp with a three-month supply of frozen food.
Strycker kept a daily journal of his penguin experiences in the field, and an editor at OSU Press suggested he turn them into a book. “The same week after I got back home from Antarctica, I went skiing at Mount Bachelor, broke my leg and ended up in a cast and crutches for the next two and a half months and I had to give up my summer job,” he says. “When I got that email from the editor, I said, ‘Well yeah, actually I’ve got a lot of free time on my hands.’”
Closer to home
Despite having done field work in the Ecuadorean jungle, Costa Rica, Panama, the Australian Kimberley, the Farallon Islands, Hawaii, Michigan, Florida and Maine, one of his favorite experiences was right here in Oregon.
At age 14, Strycker and his father visited Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where they encountered a great horned owl that had caught a snake. Problem was, a nearby barred owl — rare in the southeastern Oregon area — also wanted that snake.
“So, I watched these two big owls roll around on the ground and tussle with each other,” he recalls, the vision as fresh as it was when he witnessed it 15 years ago. “Finally, the great horned owl ended up beating the barred owl, which flew off and looked kind of stunned on a branch for a while and the great horned owl ate the snake right in front of me. I thought that was one of the coolest sights ever.”
His second book, “The Thing With Feathers,” is all about bird behavior. For the book about his “big year,” Strycker traveled around the world. “I spent an entire year doing nothing but watching birds in 41 different countries on all seven continents,” he says, “and set a world record for how many species of birds anybody had ever seen in one calendar year.”
Strycker identified 6,042 different species of the world’s estimated 10,400 bird species. It’s not possible to document every bird you see with photos, as some are too far away and, sometimes, they move too fast. But, because of his arrangements with hosts in the areas he was visiting, each bird on his list was witnessed and confirmed by at least one other person. The Guinness Book of World Records team took months to decide that his record couldn’t be verified well enough to make it into the record books.
“Birding Without Borders” was recently translated into German, and Strycker’s books have also been translated into Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Polish. He is also the author of the just-released National Geographic book “Birds of the Photo Ark,” which highlights Joel Sartore’s efforts to document birds by taking studio-style portraits of them.
Strycker’s life list is now up to an impressive 6,508 species. He says some have much higher numbers than he does, but they are also decades older. To keep track, he uses an app called eBird.
“It’s changed the world of birding within the last 10 years,” Strycker says. “It’s a global database that’s now being used by hundreds of thousands of birders around the world. The way it works is you go out into the field, you have the app on your phone, it takes your GPS location and some other data. You punch in what birds you see, and then you upload that as a list.
“It’s really cool,” Strycker says. “It’s being used by scientists to track migration and climate change and all kinds of things now.”
Strycker’s newest project will be taking him back to his early passion for penguins. He’s starting a master’s degree program this fall at Stony Brook University, on New York’s Long Island, where he likely will be studying Antarctic ornithology.
“I love penguins,” he says. “One of my personal goals is to see every type of penguin.”
He’s not far off from achieving that goal — there are 18 species and he’s already seen 13. “They’re just fascinating creatures and they’re so easy to anthropomorphize because they almost look like little people how they waddle around and it’s easy to empathize with their various behaviors. But they’re also good indicators of the Antarctic environment in many ways, which of course people are concerned about now because of climate change. So, by studying penguins you can study how Antarctica in general is doing, and that’ll probably be some of the basis of my research.”
Strycker encourages everyone to dress for the weather and start a birding list. First, he says, get a pair of binoculars that are 8-power or 10-power. Then, get yourself a field guide.
“I like to use either the Sibley guide or National Geographic’s ‘Birds of North America,’ but any good regional field guide that shows you the different birds in your area will be good,” he says. “And then, find your local hotspots.”
Any local park, pond or green space will have birds.
“That’s the joy of birding,” Strycker says. “There are birds everywhere, even in your own backyard.” If getting out is tough, you can put out bird feeders to attract them. He recommends getting to know your local birds first, and before long you’ll be ready to branch out.
He also suggests connecting with local birding groups, such as local chapters of the Audubon Society, which often offer field trips. “I think birding is a social activity, as much as it is a solitary one,” Strycker says.
In the Eugene area, Strycker’s favorite spots are Fern Ridge Reservoir, particularly out at the end of Royal Avenue in West Eugene. There, among the marshes, viewing platforms bring the birds up close. Peak migration time for most birds is spring and fall. June is good for breeding birds, and in winter Arctic birds fly south. “So, you really can see a lot of birds year-round,” he says.
Learn more about Noah Strycker’s research and his books at noahstrycker.com. He also occasionally gives presentations in the local area about birds.