TAIPEI TIMES (TAIWAN): Taiwan Key Stop in Birder’s ‘Big Year’

Since beginning his birding career at the age of 10, Noah Strycker has always kept his eyes skyward. “Birds are a great way for people around the world to connect with nature. Birds are accessible, interesting and somewhat mysterious,” said the 29-year-old from the US, who set a world record on Sept. 16 for notching up the most birds spotted in a calendar year.

Read the full article here.

THE NATIONAL NEWSPAPER (UAE): Birdwatcher’s Year-Long Global Tour Takes Him to the Emirates

DUBAI // It is every ornithologist’s dream to sight and record as many different species of bird in as many countries as possible, and Noah Strycker is doing his very best to make that deam a reality.

Read the full article here.

THE OREGONIAN NEWSPAPER: Noah Strycker, Eugene Birdwatcher, Sets World Record

Noah Strycker, the ornithologist and author from Eugene, recently broke the world record for counting the most species in a single year and is well on his way to his goal of 5,000.

Read the full article here.

KLCC RADIO: Eugene Man Surpasses Record In “Big Year” Of Birding

Noah Strycker of Eugene is traveling the world in his “Big Year” of birding. He spoke with KLCC’s Rachael McDonald from India via cell phone Thursday morning.

Listen to the full interview here.

THE TIMES OF INDIA: Thattekad Birds Help Noah’s Record Flight

KOCHI: A reluctant smile dawned on the face of ornithologist Noah Strycker the moment he spotted a Sri Lanka frogmouth, a deep greyish coloured bird, on the forked branch of a tree inside the Thattekad bird sanctuary on Wednesday. “That is bird number 4342,” he said.

Read the full article here.

W RADIO (COLOMBIA): El Mayor Observador De Pájaros Del Mundo Estuvo De Paso Por Colombia

El ornitólogo de 28 años Noah Strycker habla de su misión de avistar más de 5.000 especies de aves este año alrededor del mundo.

Listen to the full interview here.

BIRDWATCH MAGAZINE (UK): Noah’s Big Year

Is seeing 5,000 birds in a single year possible? American birder Noah Strycker thinks so. He set out at the beginning of this year to beat the current record. Chantal Cooke caught up with him in the Antarctic.

From the March 2015 print edition of Birdwatch Magazine.

VIA MAGAZINE: He Sings The Praises Of Western Birds

Oregon native Noah Strycker catapulted onto the national birding scene when he became Associate Editor of Birding magazine at just 22. His acclaimed second book, The Thing With Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds And What They Reveal About Being Human, is just out in paperback.

Read the full interview here.

ARGENTINA INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPER: Bird-Binge: One Man’s Quest to Spot the Most Birds, Ever

Noah Strycker, world-renowned birdwatcher, rang in this new year overlooking the Southern Ocean, with a champagne bottle raised towards the biting Antarctic air. A pair of binoculars dangled around his neck. It was midnight and still completely light outside. The moment was perfect, despite one detail. No birds.

Read the full article here.

AUDUBON MAGAZINE: Birding Without Borders

Birds are the world’s premier frequent flyers: They don’t need visas or passports to travel, and there are no blackout days. Whether it’s the Cerulean Warbler on the cover of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the eponymous Goldfinch on Donna Tartt’s bestseller, or the Mockingjay holding together a revolution in The Hunger Games trilogy, to we humans, birds are as free as can be.

Read the full article here.

Reviews of The Thing with Feathers

The Thing with Feathers is getting rave reviews! Some highlights:

The New York Times Book Review said:

“[Strycker] explains in wonderful stories that penguins are afraid of the dark (leopard seals wait in black waters to gobble them up) and that albatrosses truly love one another (mating for life and using each other’s breasts as pillows)….

“As Strycker writes, ‘By studying birds, we ultimately learn about ourselves.'”

The Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy piece, saying: “Mr. Strycker has the ability to write about the worlds of man and fowl without simplifying either. . . He thinks like a biologist but writes like a poet. . . Although Mr. Strycker is only in his late 20s, he writes like a man who’s ripened into advanced eccentricity. Part the palm fronds between his sentences, and you can almost see the British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough standing there in a pith helmet, smiling with amused approval at Mr. Strycker’s off-center sensibility.” [full review]

Newsweek had a wonderful, full-page review: “[Strycker] is a rising superstar in the birding community. . . a fun and enlightening read. Strycker knows words as well as birds; he has the literary chops to make the results of very complex experiments accessible. . . Perhaps Strycker’s greatest accomplishment in The Thing with Feathers is forcing the reader to think of birds not as flying rats that poop on cars, but as animals with superpowers.” [full review]

The Washington Post said: “Strycker has a keen eye for what is most interesting about each species, and he presents each bird story with tight language, humor and even an occasional splash of self-consciousness. . . this is a lively and vibrant book. Bird journalism of the highest order. Bird journalism that crackles.” [full review]

The Economist said: “‘The Thing with Feathers’ turns a shrewd, comparative eye on a succession of bird families to explore what [Strycker] calls their ‘human’ characteristics. . . This is an engaging work which illuminates something profound about all life, including our own.” [full review]

Robert Krulwich, of National Public Radio, called TWF “lovely” and “provocative” and wrote several NPR blog posts inspired by four different chapters from the book, which generated hundreds of online comments. [read online]

The scientific journal Nature said: “Birds intrigue humanity, and in this research round-up Noah Strycker reveals why – in marvels such as the equal-radius paths of flocking starlings and the decontamination chamber that is a vulture’s stomach. As he notes, such findings can mirror human realities.” [not available online]

Science News said: “Noah Strycker all but lassos readers with his binocular strap to bring people nose to beak with the plumed creatures he knows so well. . . [an] edifying and entertaining book.” [full review]

The Boston Globe concluded: “Beautifully written, filled with strange and lovely details, ‘The Thing With Feathers’ is a delightful read from start to finish.” [full review]

BirdWatching magazine said: “One of the best bird books you’ll read this decade. Guaranteed. . . The bottom line: Birds are full of wonder. And we’re thankful to have Noah Strycker to tell us about them.” [full review]

The Seattle Times concluded: “’The Things with Feathers’ will encourage you to take a closer look at the natural world around you, and perhaps learn more not only about what you see but who you are.” [full review]

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune said: “fascinating, readable, and informative . . . At the end of the book, you might conclude, ‘We’re all just a bunch of birdbrains.’ And that would not be a bad thing.” [full review]

The Oregonian said: “It is Strycker’s ability to see and draw connections between bird behavior and humanity that make ‘The Thing with Feathers’ difficult to put down. . . ‘The Thing with Feathers’ encourages reflection on one’s own assumptions about the perceived limitations of the animal kingdom.” [full review]

Booklist gave TWF a starred review: “[Strycker] combines the latest in ornithological science with snippets of history and his own vast experience in the field to hatch a thoroughly entertaining examination of bird behavior. . . Birds are equally alien and familiar, and in Strycker’s absorbing survey, we find out how much fun it is simply to watch them.”

Publisher’s Weekly said: “[Strycker] gets in his element. . . His prose is difficult to stop reading.” [full review]

Kirkus Reviews concluded: “A delightful book with broad appeal.” [full review]

Library Journal said: “A dazzling variety of avian subjects, including connections between birds and humans.”

Flavorwire said: “The Thing with Feathers is a delightful addition to the genre of animal writing that tells us about animal habits and why they matter. Strycker . . . is a trusty guide through bird-world, spanning continents and countries in order to tell us what vultures, hummingbirds, and bowerbirds have to offer the world.” [full review]

Mental Floss magazine called TWF “an exciting new book” and included a fun graphic of bird facts from the book. [not available online]

Carl Safina (author of Eye of the Albatross and other books) said: “I can tell you that not only is this book full of solid information—I expected that—but as a writer I am astonished at how loose and easy Noah Strycker has made the reading for us. This is an insightful and wonderfully companionable book. I can’t wait to read more from Strycker; meanwhile we have this gem.”

Scott Weidensaul (author of Living on the Wind and other books) said: “Noah Strycker explores the increasing likelihood that birds enjoy a vastly richer intellectual, emotional and even artistic life than we smug humans have ever suspected. Read this book.”

Brian Kimberling (author of Snapper) said: “A thoughtful, engaging book, encompassing pigeon races, physics, vulture baiting, the Backstreet Boys, and a mathematical model applicable to both tennis rankings and chicken hierarchies—a work of dazzling range, nimbly written.”

Mary Pipher (author of The Green Boat and other books) said: “I’ve read books about birds all of my life and this is the one I’ve been waiting forBirds have a great deal to teach us. Strycker loves birds, understands their magic and mystery, and can extrapolate from their behavior wisdom for us all. At last we have a book worthy of this subject.”

I was interviewed on NPR’s The Dinner Party Download, a national US radio show aired on 130+ public radio stations, on March 8. [listen and read transcript online]

I was also interviewed on Late Night Live, a national radio show in Australia, on June 3. [listen online]

And The East Oregonian and The Register-Guard newspapers have run recent profiles.

“The Thing With Feathers” is finally out!


The Thing With Feathers

My new book “The Thing With Feathers” is out from Riverhead Books in New York. It’s a collection of essays looking at the many surprising ways that birds and people are similar to each other. And it’s already gotten a great review in the Wall Street Journal, which said:

He thinks like a biologist but writes like a poet, and one of the small pleasures of “The Thing With Feathers” is watching him distill empirical research into lyrical imagery.

You can read the whole review here, though a sign-on may be required. And you can buy the book on Amazon here.

I’m spending this spring traveling around the country to promote my book. Then in July, I get back aboard the Akademik Ioffe for a series of polar cruises around the Svalbard Archipelago of Norway. Polar bears!

 

Back to the Ice

Heading back to Antarctica tomorrow for a two-month season on the Adademik Ioffe, and stoked to spend more time with the penguins! Happy holidays to all!

Pictures from Svalbard

This summer I spent two months on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a Russian-owned, Canadian-operated expedition cruise ship, as the on-board ornithologist for five back-to-back trips around Svalbard. The archipelago is about 1,000 miles north of Norway, at the edge of the Arctic pack ice, about 500 miles from the North Pole, and it’s a hotspot for polar bears, walrus, reindeer, beluga whales, and some amazing birdlife. It was an incredible season; rather than trying to describe such a place, I think I’ll say it in pictures…

A Bird Blitz Across Peru

Just back from deepest, darkest Peru, where I have spent the past week and a half attending the Birding Rally Challenge – a wild, invitation-only birdwatching competition sponsored by Peru’s tourism board.

Put simply, the Birding Rally Challenge is a contest between six teams of birders (from five countries) vying to see the most species of birds in one eight-day period, along a 1,500-kilometer route between the coast and the Amazon. But it’s much more than that: The rally is a chance to promote ecotourism in Peru; to raise awareness of birds within the country; to undertake a rapid-assessment scientific inventory of birds; and, of course, to have a crazy adventure along the way.

The whole thing is organized by the Peruvian government and Inkaterra, a hotel association. The six teams of birders, each armed with dedicated guides and drivers, follow the route in separate vans, stopping where they want along the way to pick up bird species, big-day style. Standard tours cover this route in sixteen days, and compressing it to half that time means getting up at 4:00 am every morning and gunning hard from one spot to the next.

I followed along somewhat more sedately in a “press bus,” which bumped along behind the teams of birders, visited many of the same locations on the route, and stayed in the same hotels each night. Altogether, including press, drivers, guides, organizers, politicians, a police escort, an ambulance (!), and the six teams of birders, the rally’s convoy included more than a dozen vehicles and more than 100 people. We stayed in top-tier hotels, ate delicious food, and soaked up birds, scenery, and a bit of culture along the way.

This being my first trip to Peru, I was able to see several dozen life birds – highlights including Marvelous Spatuletail, Gray-bellied Comet, and Plumbeous Euphonia, not to mention all the colorful toucans, trogons, and tanagers. But, since we blitzed across the country at full tilt, hardly stopping for even the most dramatic vistas, I had just a taste of what is really possible there. The winning team, from Louisiana State University in the U.S., recorded an impressive 636 species of birds in eight days, scoring an Ash-throated Antwren-shaped trophy from the Peruvian Minister of Tourism himself. The first Birding Rally Challenge took place last November, and its organizers plan to continue it twice each year, though the event is devilishly expensive (by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, somewhere around a half million dollars). In the long run, everyone hopes, the rally will pay off by attracting more birders to visit Peru.

I certainly want to go back. For a bird nerd like me, Peru has it all: incredible birds, fantastic environments, friendly people, rich culture. What’s not to love?

But now, an entirely different adventure. Just one day after returning home to Oregon, I am off again, sitting here in the Seattle airport, on my way to Norway. I’ll be spending the next two months on an expedition cruise ship in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, working as an on-board ornithologist. Onward!

 

 

Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches?

I hear this question every now and then, often with a wink and a smile. The usual answer says that woodpeckers have spongy bones and thick muscles. They have a long tongue that wraps around inside their skull, a special adaptation to muffle their brain against all that pecking. One researcher even won a so-called Ig Noble prize for discovering that woodpeckers have a third eyelid, which apparently acts like a seat belt in a car crash.

Nobody really knows if the birds get headaches or not, but if they did, you’d expect woodpeckers to stop banging on trees, which clearly isn’t happening.

On Sunday, I discovered this White-headed Woodpecker excavating a nest cavity in a three-foot-high stump north of Burns, Oregon, and had a bit of a revelation as I watched it work. Maybe woodpeckers are more delicate than we think. Instead of scything through the wood, as one might expect, this bird was tapping daintily at the stump, often chipping away chunks no larger than a grain of sand. Instead of using brute force, it was gently prying its way into the wood.

It must be a lot of work to dig a hole without any sharp teeth. Maybe these birds should hire a beaver to do the heavy excavation.

Otherwise, I had a great trip to eastern Oregon this weekend. Sunshine and 80 degrees, felt like summer!

Bird World … Coming in 2014

 

The manuscript is done! After spending more than a year working full time, I have written an entire book about bird behavior. Yes! I’m very excited about it: The book is wide-ranging, but focuses on ways that birds behave in parallel to humans. We can relate to a lot of the amazing, strange, and crazy things that birds do.

For instance, the fact that parrots can dance to a beat (but other animals, like dogs and cats, can’t) has implications for the evolution of music in people. Hummingbirds give us a warning about our ever-quickening pace of life. Magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror, but does that mean they have self-awareness, like us – and could holding funerals have anything to do with it? Starling flocks can be better described with quantum physics than biology, and good deeds of fairy-wrens might be explained by strategic military theories. And on and on… the ways birds reflect our own lives are endlessly fascinating.

So now I can sit back as the publisher (Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin in New York) works through various rounds of edits, proofs, and designs. I guess I’ll be assigned a publicist sometime soon. This process is sort of mystifying to me, as this is my first book with a major publisher.

The book, called “Bird World,” will likely be released (in hardcover and e-book first) sometime in early 2014.

Meanwhile, I’ve been pretty quiet around here lately. But you can check out a couple of my recent posts over on the American Birding Association’s blog:

Loneliness of the Antarctic Birder, about the people I met in Antarctica this year.

A Different Kind of Wildlife Photography, with some amazing recent photos from my trail cameras.

 

Three Expeditions to Antarctica

Just got back from a month and a half in Antarctica, and life is good! I traveled with One Ocean Expeditions as an on-board ornithologist for three cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula (from South America), and what an amazing season – it was good to see my penguin friends again. The first trip also visited the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, with their awe-inspiring albatross and penguin colonies. And I spent Christmas in the realm of Emperor Penguins (saw several on ice floes), with excellent company aboard and incredible scenes all around the ship. It’s a much different experience working on a cruise ship than sleeping in an unheated tent on the ice… Imagine, a shower and fresh food every day!

And now I am back to work on my latest book. If I’ve been quiet lately, it’s because I’ve either (1) been in Antarctica, or (2) been working on my book, neither of which leaves much time for anything else. My manuscript deadline is April 1st (really), after which I’ll have more news about the project. Meanwhile, I’m learning fascinating things about bird behavior. Did you know that magpies can recognize their own reflection in a mirror, but dogs and cats apparently can’t? Birds have more in common with us than we often realize.

Here’s a few snaps from Antarctica:

Backyard Cougar on Camera

About a month ago, on a whim, I bought two remote cameras and put them up in my backyard.

I had been inspired by the Jaguar camera trap project at Tiputini Biodiversity Station in eastern Ecuador. Jaguars are tough to study, so researchers at Tiputini have set out motion-sensing cameras in the jungle for the past few years. They’ve accumulated some incredible pictures of cats and other rare Amazonian wildlife.

It got me wondering what might be lurking in the forest next to my house here in Oregon. I live about five miles east of Creswell (south of Eugene), bordering Weyerhauser and BLM timber properties; bears occasionally wander through the yard, and who knows what else? I’ve seen coyote, elk, and bobcat near my house, any of which would theoretically be possible in the backyard.

The cameras are marketed toward trophy deer hunters. They use motion sensors to take a picture whenever something walks in front of the lens. These days, the technology is pretty advanced: a good-quality game camera will withstand cold and moisture, snap a photo within a second of detecting motion, record color pictures with a flash after dark, and take up to 50,000 images on one set of batteries. Mine arrived packaged in camouflaged plastic with testimonials from celebrity hunters splashed across the front. Strap one to a tree, leave it for a while, then download the resulting images; you’ll know if there’s a big-antlered buck out there, or anything else large enough to trip the shutter.

Easy enough. I loaded my two cameras with batteries, posted them in likely-looking spots near the edge of my backyard, and went off to southern California to vacation in the desert for a couple of weeks.

The cameras clicked away in my absence, taking several dozen photos over the two-week period. There were lots of deer, as expected. I also got a photo of a feral cat, several squirrels, and an opossum that appeared at 10:41 pm on May 6, 10:32 pm on May 14, and 10:28 pm on May 17 – a true creature of habit.

When I clicked through to the last couple of frames, though, I gasped. There, undeniably recorded by one of my new cameras, stood a cougar (mountain lion) – a mere hundred yards from my back door, just after noon on a Tuesday! In the picture, it is staring straight toward my house (invisible behind a fence and some trees). After I got over the shock, I showed the photo to a contractor who was at the house working on a remodeling project on that particular day, probably eating lunch on the back porch at the instant the photo was taken. It’s likely that the cougar was listening to his conversation.

In 26 years – my entire life – of living here, I’ve never seen, heard, or found signs of cougars in the woods, though I’ve suspected that they’re around.

This just continues my streak of good luck with big cats. In the past 12 months I’ve run into two different mountain lions while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and had close visits with a Margay and a Jaguar in the jungles of Ecuador, all one-on-one encounters in the forest. Now, it seems, the cats are coming to me. Makes you wonder what else is lurking out there…

 

Announcing… My Next Book!

Back in September, I got an email out of the blue from an editor at Riverhead Press, an imprint of Penguin Books in New York (the largest publisher in the world). “I’m looking for a writer for a book on birds,” she wrote, and “I think you’d be great for it.”

She had been directed to my website after reading several posts I’d written for the American Birding Association’s blog, and was apparently impressed enough with my writing to ask for a book proposal in a brief phone conversation. I wrote an introduction, a couple of sample chapters, and an outline; Riverhead’s editors accepted it, and they offered a generous contract. Just like that!

To negotiate the details, I was advised to enlist the help of a literary agent. My first book, “Among Penguins,” was published by a much smaller university press which didn’t require negotiation, so this was a new step. Happily, I connected with the same agent who represents David Sibley, Pete Dunne, and other well-known bird authors, and, over the last couple of months, he has helped streamline the process so that today I sat down, pen in hand, and signed four copies of the 11-page contract.

It’s so exciting to have my first major book deal!

Riverhead is a well-known press and has published several bestsellers including “The Kite Runner,” which augurs well for the success of this project.

The book, tentatively titled “Bird World,” will be an accessible and fun investigation of bird behavior, from homing instinct and pecking order to unexpected stories of bird intelligence. Basically: Birds are cool and fascinating. Get ready to sit back and be entertained…

The book will probably be released about two years from now (since I still have to write most of it…), first in hardcover, then in paperback. Stay tuned.

I had a great winter in Ecuador, ended up seeing almost 500 species of birds in three months in the jungle. Now I am home in Oregon and looking forward to spending most of 2012 on this project – a whole new adventure. I do have more exotic trips planned, but, for now, am totally jazzed about this book. Onward!

 

Tiputini Megafauna

It’s easy to get preoccupied with birds and big cats, but Tiputini is full of other interesting wildlife. In the past two months I’ve seen some cool stuff here.

For starters, monkeys are abundant. Tiputini is remarkable in hosting ten different species of primates, of which I’ve encountered eight: howler, wooly, spider, squirrel, tidi, and saki monkeys; golden-mantled tamarins, and brown capuchins (I haven’t seen the owl monkey, which is nocturnal, or pygmy marmoset, which is rare).

Collared peccaries (wild pigs) are also quite common, and sometimes give you a rev-up when they suddenly crash away through the undergrowth. Less conspicuous are the red brocket deer, a smallish, shy species of deer which hides remarkably well in the jungle—I’ve only managed to see a couple of them.

There are a couple of squirrels here, including the red jungle squirrel, which is impressively large and bright. You might find an agouti (a type of rodent about the size of a squirrel) lurking around the station, or, if you go to the bathroom at night, a small possum in the ceiling.

One of the best ways to see mammals is by boat. I was lucky to watch a tapir swim across the river on my way in to Tiputini and snapped a really bad photo of it as it hauled out on the muddy bank. A little farther upstream we found a peccary crossing the river; I didn’t know pigs could swim! I’ve also seen pink river dolphins a couple times in the last two months—a very strange animal indeed—and, once, a large ray.

Visiting groups often go on boat trips after dark to spotlight wildlife, and, as a researcher, I like to jump aboard. I’ve accompanied five such trips so far and seen crab-eating raccoon, paca, emerald tree boa, lots of caiman, and several potoos. Last week we found dolphins at night, which was a cool experience.

Snakes are generally rare. Tiputini has two particularly venomous snakes, the fer-de-lance and bushmaster, neither of which you want to tangle with, but I have yet to encounter a single one, though some students found a bushmaster on a night hike last month.

Several weeks ago a young tamandua (a type of anteater) was brought to the station; apparently it had been found or confiscated in one of the settlements in the region and found its way to Tiputini to be released to the wild. It had partially imprinted on humans and was one of the cutest creatures I’ve ever seen or cuddled with! We named it Tammy. It seemed to do OK finding food on its own, so we let it free in the forest—hope it’s enjoying its new home.

There are plenty of large animals I haven’t spotted yet. At the top of the list is the giant anteater, which a couple other researchers have seen since I’ve been here. Tiputini also has giant armadillos, giant otters, wild dogs, porcupines, rabbits, anacondas, tayras, and, of course, the big cats: though I’ve been extremely lucky to encounter a jaguar and a margay, there’s still three more species of cats out there—puma, ocelot, and jaguarondi.

A couple of days ago, a group of visitors photographed a Harpy Eagle perched next to the river on their way in to Tiputini (jealous…). Maybe it’ll eat the sloth I spotted earlier. Every day brings something new!

 

JAGUAR

At 9:10 this morning, I was working alone in a remote research plot about two miles from Tiputini. I’d just finished a transect of mixed-flock surveys and was standing quietly in a small clearing, writing in my field notebook, when something rustled a leaf at the edge of the open area. Thinking it was one of the peccaries I’d flushed a few minutes earlier, I glanced up just in time to watch a full-size Jaguar emerge from the undergrowth in front of me. I thought: Holy $%&*!

It was close, really close, and angled toward me, apparently not noticing my presence as it approached slowly across the clearing. I stood absolutely still and had time to admire the intricately spotted fur, long tail, rippling body, and even the sharp feline teeth exposed in a slight grin across the blocky head. The animal was the size of a very large dog but much stockier, and had a relaxed, muscular gait. When it was within 25 feet, just a few steps away, I began to inch my hand inside my pocket to retrieve my camera. The slight movement finally caught the Jaguar’s attention and it looked up, locked eyes on mine, and froze.

There followed a few slow beats of absolute silence as we both began to comprehend the encounter. I realized how utterly alone I was, more than an hour’s hike from the station, off-trail in the rainforest without any means of communication, face to face with the king of the jungle. My adrenaline finally kicked into gear. I wondered what the cat was thinking.

Evidently it didn’t like me very much, since, after a few moments, it turned its head and, with a few unhurried paces, merged into the surrounding greenery as silently as a ghost. It had been in view less than a minute.

According to camera trap data, Tiputini has one of the highest densities of Jaguars in the world (estimated at 22 per 100 square kilometers). Hardly a day goes by when we don’t talk about them. They’re usually the most-wanted animal for visitors to Tiputini but are very rarely seen; in the last two months since I arrived, only one other person has encountered one. I’m extremely lucky to have seen one so well, and on such intimate terms – many sightings are fleeting glimpses or from boats on the river.

Guess it’s been a good year for cats. I ran into two different Mountain Lions while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail last summer, and found a Margay here at Tiputini last month. What could be next?

Biggest Big Day

The game: To find as many species of birds as possible in one day at Tiputini.

The rules: Each bird must be positively identified by sight or sound.

The players: Abby and me.

Pretty simple, really.

Abby and I got up at 3 am on Friday to do an all-out “Big Day” around the Tiputini trail system with the goal of finding at least 200 species of birds before dinner. A worthy challenge, but was it even possible?

I’m no stranger to Big Days, having done more than a dozen of them in my home state of Oregon. Several years ago, my team set the all-time Oregon Big Day record at 219 species by driving a well-scouted 750 miles across the state between 12:01 am and 11:47 pm. But I’ve never tried one in the tropics before, and things are a bit different down here.

Most important, Abby and I wouldn’t use any transportation besides our own feet. No cars, no bikes, no boats. Instead of driving 750 miles, we’d walk a 10-mile loop. That’s it.

Also, the strategy is a bit different in the tropics. Birds here are generally rarer and more difficult to observe. That means you’ve really got to know your bird songs for any chance at a high tally, since “heard-only” sightings are within the rules. At the end of the day, about two-thirds of our list would be by ear alone.

We hiked into the forest by headlamp, three hours before dawn, and kicked things off with some good nocturnal birds: Spectacled, Crested, Mottled, Black-banded, and Tawny-bellied Screech-Owls; Nocturnal and Salvin’s Curassows; Ocellated Poorwill; and Common and Great Potoos. By six a.m. we were up to a respectable 15 species.

Then the sun came up, a Laughing Falcon and Lined Forest-Falcon began calling, and, suddenly, we were recording new ticks faster than we could write them down. Abby and I could barely keep up with the overwhelming tropical dawn chorus. We hit 100 species at 7:20, highlighted by a tiny Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant.

At 11:30, we hit 150.

Then the daytime doldrums set in. On a sunny day in the Amazon rainforest, bird activity shuts down by mid-morning, and we had to scrape for new sightings. Abby and I trekked the most remote trail at Tiputini, called Maquisapa, sweating hard in the heat and humidity, eating one foil-wrapped cheese sandwich after another. At one point we both tried to cross a log bridge at the same time and, when it suddenly collapsed, both ended up in the creek below along with a surprised bat that had been roosting on the underside of the bridge. A Great Jacamar was a bonus, but where were the Variegated Tinamous? Could we make it to dinner without dropping from exhaustion?

Luckily, we had a big card left to play—130 feet tall, to be exact. Tiputini’s canopy tower, built around a giant Ceiba tree, promised a whole bunch of hard-to-get birds in late afternoon. Abby and I climbed into a tropical paradise full of birds, including in-your-face Paradise Tanagers and, at 3:30 pm, our 200th species of the day: a Black-bellied Thorntail.

High fives all around and we kept racking up new species, including a rare Fiery Topaz—perhaps the most spectacular hummingbird I have ever seen. As dusk fell, Abby and I sat along the Tiputini River and watched Short-tailed Nighthawks chase each other against the sunset. We’d been birding for 15 hours straight and looked back on an incredible streak. When a Ringed Kingfisher swooped past just before dark, Abby tallied our list: the kingfisher was #233.

I had never seen that many species of birds in one day before, and neither had Abby. Very few people in the world have ever exceeded that total, much less entirely on foot. We called it good, sat down to a satisfying dinner at 7 pm, and were asleep by 8:30. I dreamed all night of tinamous and kingfishers.

Double Celebrity Birthday

Birthdays are obviously healthy, since the people who have the most live the longest. I had a memorable one today.

It’s pretty cool to turn 26 in Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest. Last year I was banding birds in the highlands of Costa Rica for my 25th. Next year… who knows?

Incredibly, out of the dozen researchers currently residing at Tiputini, one of them (Brandt, a Smithsonian scientist studying Wire-tailed Manakins) shares my exact same birthday: Feb 9th.

So, we had a double celebration this evening after dinner. The two of us teamed up to blow out the candles on an enormous apple crumble cake baked specially by Tiputini’s staff – can’t say I’ve ever shared a birthday cake before…

And we were lucky enough to celebrate with some distinguished guests. Peter and Rosemary Grant, two of the best-known scientists in the world, dropped in to Tiputini this week on vacation after their latest field season in the Galapagos, where they have been studying evolution in Darwin’s finches for the past 40 years (if you’ve taken a general science class in high school or college, you’ve probably learned about their research). They were nice enough to sing us a happy birthday along with the rest of the Tiputini crew.

I spent most of the day in the jungle, tracking Wedge-billed Woodcreepers and hoping, as always, for a cool wildlife sighting. Something amazing did happen today, as it turned out, just not to me; Amy, tracking monkeys a couple kilometers away, ran into a jaguar early this afternoon and had a long and close encounter with it, alone and deep in the forest. Definitely jealous – it made my Spangled Cotinga seem pretty ho-hum.

Meanwhile, thanks to everyone who sent birthday wishes!

The Tale of Tiny Tim

Fifteen days after arriving at Tiputini, I noticed a mosquito bite on my back that hadn’t seemed to heal right. Instead of disappearing, the lump was getting bigger, and, well, something inside it seemed alive.

“Guys,” I said that evening at the dinner table, “I think I have a bot fly.”

I knew by heart the grisly details. The bot fly is among nature’s more grossly fascinating creatures, and I’d sort of hoped to get one here. An adult fly captures a mosquito in midair, lays its egg on the mosquito’s body, and lets it go. When the mosquito then bites you, the fly’s egg drops on to your warm skin and quickly hatches. The tiny fly larva then burrows into your flesh where, if left unmolested, it will grow into a fearsomely spiny, inch-long grub in eight weeks. The maggot then wriggles out of your skin, pupates in the soil for a while, and eventually develops into an adult fly.

Everyone at the dinner table who had spent a significant amount of time at Tiputini had had one at some point. Brandt once tried to squeeze a bot fly larva out of his forearm, accidentally broke the grub in half, and fought the subsequent infection for a full year. John had once hosted thirteen of them on his back simultaneously. Amy had killed three bot flies on her scalp with superglue after carefully shaving away a patch of her hair; her ex-boyfriend had actually hatched one out of his hip a few years back. But nobody had hosted one recently.

Given that the larva takes a while to grow big enough to notice, I’d likely contracted it within a day or two of arriving in Ecuador. Lucky, I guess!

Several people volunteered to inspect me after dinner, so after dessert we retired to Tiputini’s laboratory. A bot fly larva should be visible once every minute or two as it extends a breathing tube for air. Amy grabbed a hand lens and a head lamp, and trained both of them on the red lump on my back.

“Oh! I can see it moving, even without the magnifying glass!” she quickly exclaimed.

“My. God. That is soooo gross!” squeaked Rebekah, who, like me, had never seen a bot fly before.

Abby, who had spent three field seasons working at Tiputini without ever hosting one, merely stared in fascinated silence.

“How’s it feel to be a father?” asked Brant.

They all agreed that I should let my parasite grow for a while before extracting it; that way, it might be easier to remove in one piece.

Bot fly extraction can be a delicate process. Methods generally rely on suffocation; cut off the larva’s air supply and it will either die or wriggle to the surface. You can strap a piece of raw meat over the hole, cover it with Vaseline, smear it with superglue, or soak in a hot bath for several hours. You can use a snake venom extractor to pull it out. You can even, apparently, heat up a glass Coke bottle, position its neck over your bot fly, and throw ice water on the bottle – the difference in temperature will create an instant vacuum which sucks the maggot into the bottle. Or you can just wait eight weeks for it to crawl out on its own, though everyone advised against this idea since, in the end, it becomes a painful and bloody experience.

As I mulled these options over the following days, I began to grow fond of my new friend and named him Tiny Tim.

I felt a certain attachment to him. Tiny Tim accompanied me wherever I went at Tiputini. He never complained much except during my daily shower (understandable, since it cut off his air supply), and I introduced him in turn to everyone at the station, including some appalled study abroad students. Usually, when I pulled up my shirt, Tiny Tim would pop out his breathing tube to say hello within a few seconds. It was kind of fun.

But yesterday my perspective abruptly changed. While watching a group of howler monkeys in the jungle canopy, I noticed one with something strange on its neck. Closer inspection revealed about thirty goose-egg-sized lumps swollen into one disgusting mass around the poor animal’s throat: massive, pus-filled, tormenting, bot flies. It looked awful. Staring back at me, from the throat of a howler monkey, was the dark future of Tiny Tim.

I’d decided on superglue, so, yesterday evening, Abby carefully covered him with a layer of glue while Rebekah (who had been having nightmares in which Tiny Tim grew to more than a foot long) monitored the action in our air-conditioned office. Tiny Tim, for his part, didn’t like this very much and visibly tried to wriggle to the surface while Abby and Rebekah ran play-by-play commentary, but the glue formed an impenetrable, sticky barrier, so he eventually retreated back into his hole to die. I could feel sharp pricks as he writhed in panic, but it was a satisfying feeling. We let the glue set under some athletic tape overnight.

Today, before dinner, half a dozen researchers gathered in anticipation of Tiny Tim’s exhumation. Since he was on my back, Amy volunteered to squeeze him out. As I sprawled facedown on a table in the lab, she peeled off the layer of dried superglue then put a firm finger on each side of the lump and pushed, hard.

Millimeter by millimeter, Tiny Tim’s suffocated body emerged to a chorus of oohs and aahs. He was still tiny by bot fly standards, and, when I finally got a glimpse of his whole body, I was a bit disappointed. Grasped by a pair of tweezers in the lab’s sterile illumination, he looked frankly pathetic. But under a magnifying glass, I could see rows and rows of sharp spines and an undeniably maggot-like body, all created by a transformation of my own flesh.

Since bot flies don’t want their hosts to die, they produce chemicals to ward off infections and a bot fly complication is rare. Once Tiny Tim was out, my body would heal itself just fine. Rebekah presented me with a purple Hello Kitty band aid and I was good to go. Tiny Tim now resides in a souvenir vial of preservative alcohol on my bedside table.

So, what should I name the next one? Femme Bot?