Friday, 26 March 2021

Birding without Borders

Fancy spending a whole year travelling the world to see how many species of bird that you can rack up in twelve months? Well, if you do, don't try and then write a book about the experience, because that will be a harder proposition than the 365-day birding jaunt was... I have just finished Noah Strycker's account of his 2015 odyssey, titled 'Birding without Borders - (BWB)'. I was looking forward to reading this, having read nothing but positive reviews. I had already read Alan Davies and Ruth Miller's account of their 2008 world record attempt (The Biggest Twitch - (TBT)) and it was interesting to compare the two books.

BWB comes in at 326 pages, with a large and airy font. This means that the book is not particularly word heavy. The author was out in the field every day, no breaks, and (spoiler alert) recorded 6,042 species. It is reasonable to understand that this means that there are more days spent in the field than there are pages in the book, and that if the species were all to get a mention in the narrative then there would need to be an average of 18.5 species per page. What the author has decided to do is use 51 pages as a complete list appendix, a blow-by-blow account of what, where and when. On first seeing this I felt a bit cheated that one sixth of the book was taken up in this way, but when reading the narrative it quickly becomes apparent that, because of the editorial choices, it was the only way that a reader could have a firm handle of what happened.

There are some bizarre choices made. Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia are covered - altogether - in just one paragraph! The whole lot!! That's 397 species swept under the carpet. Madagascar and Kenya are dismissed in a sentence!!! At the same time he spends three pages describing a stopover in Germany when he went and saw a feral population of Egyptian Geese. There are several other imbalances, but some of these are touching interludes or frank confessions as to why he is doing what he is doing. These gave an emotional edge to the book, a connection with the author beyond him being a robotic birder. The book really needed to be twice as long. Had it been, it could have been a classic.

TBT (300 pages) is far more of a 'went there, saw that' account, denser in narrative but maybe missing the more cerebral aspects of such an enterprise (if, indeed, the authors believed there was one). For a birding adventure, this book wins in my opinion, even if it - possibly - lacks Strycker's depth. They are both worth your while, and both underlined to me that, even though I would dearly love to have travelled more during my life, I would be useless on such an escapade. I would be fretting and worrying at every turn about logistics, safety, the weather, etc, etc. You cannot possibly commit such an adventure to a smallish book. Both have tried in differing ways to get across what happened and what was seen. As to which is the more successful depends on what you want from such a book - why they did it, or what they saw. To cover both aspects needs more pages - many more pages.


Gibster said...

I'm sure you have, but have you read The Big Year by Mark Obmascik? Available for under five quid online and, in my opinion, absolutely unputdownable (but don't watch the crass film, or if you already have just pretend otherwise and enjoy the book). Whenever I go overnight tarp camping I usually try to take a book and this one has been taken twice.

Russ said...

As a one off amusing read Sean Dooley's The Big Twitch for a few quid on kindle is a good read. A few people/location/scenery photos would have been nice.

Steve Gale said...

Seth - that is, I agree, a fine book. Well paced, written like a thriller.

Russ - I don’t know that one, and will investigate, thanks

martinf said...

Loved, a Big Year and have just finished Kingbird Highway which I also loved. The Big Twitch publication coincided with an Ozzy outback road trip with a good mate to see some cool species and places, so i think has meant that it has become my fav birding book.