Birding the world: What drives big listers

Red-shouldered Vanga
Red-shouldered Vanga, a small songbird found only in Madagascar, was the last life bird seen by legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger. Photo by Dubi Shapiro

Birders helping birders

Global competitive birding is a small world, and most of the top Big Listers know each other, or at least know of each other. Yet although these birders generally exhibit ultra-ambitious and compulsive personalities, Kaestner swears they all support each other. “I’ve always found it to be a very keen competition,” says Kaestner, who grew up in a large family that fought over everything, from sports to who got seconds at dinner. “But at the same time, I’ve never known a birder to not help another birder.”

Mark Obmascik, author of The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (Free Press, 2004), likens Big Listers to those who visit every country on Earth, attend a game at every big-league ballpark, or climb every 14,000-foot peak in Colorado. “In every job, in every pastime, there are some driven people,” Obmascik explains, adding that it can be “pretty wonderful to pursue one thing with the brakes off.” Obmascik, a birdwatcher himself, has genuinely liked the competitive birders he’s met. He says, “All of them were really smart and really fun and really obsessed people.”

Thanks to expert guides who lead them to their targets, Big Listers don’t necessarily have to be the best birders. “People criticize listing by saying it only measures how deep your pockets are and how much time you have to empty them,” Strycker says. He points out, however, that it also measures desire and perseverance. Indeed, a large life list is impossible without myriad grueling trips to far-off lands, as well as vacation amenities that would horrify most tourists. “You’ve got to have terrific travel skills, be pretty unflappable, and not panic or get scared when you get lost,” Obmascik says.

Of his visits to more than 150 countries, Hugh Buck, 74, a retired veterinarian from Scotland and currently in second place in the world, recalls a 2008 trip to New Guinea as particularly arduous. At one point, he languished through an essentially sleepless night in a mosquito-infested, rain-soaked shelter. But the reward came at dawn, when Buck witnessed two male Wilson’s Birds-of-Paradise putting on a synchronized courtship display for two females. “The bird of my life,” as he calls the Wilson’s, was nearly matched on the same trip by a displaying Western Parotia, which reminded him of “a witch dancing around,” and Vogelkop Bowerbirds, which build elaborately decorated hut-like structures to attract mates.

Though competitive birding may not be the most treacherous hobby, problems far more severe than rain or early wake-ups do arise. “Sometimes it is actually quite dangerous,” Buck says. “It is to a certain extent an extreme sport as you get further into it.” Like any hard-core rock climber or surfer, Buck has his share of horror stories. He has, in fact, been on three trips in which birders died: one got lost in the forests of West Africa, another fell off a boat in Peru, and a third slipped and cracked his skull in the Himalayas. Phoebe Snetsinger, probably the most famous Big Lister, likewise died on a birding trip when her mini-bus crashed in Madagascar. At various points before then, she was taken hostage, contracted malaria, broke her wrist, survived a serious boat accident, and was gang-raped, all while on birding trips. (For her full story, see Olivia Gentile’s terrific 2009 book Life List.)

As detailed in author Dan Koeppel’s book, To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession (Penguin Random House, 2005), competitive birding can also wreak havoc on marriages, careers, and bank accounts. Snetsinger even missed her daughter’s wedding and her mother’s funeral on account of birding. Moreover, Big Listers leave behind a considerable carbon footprint, at a time when climate change poses a severe risk to the creatures they love.

On the other hand, by distributing their tourist dollars to local guides and businesses, they provide an incentive to save habitats that might otherwise be destroyed. Some Big Listers, distressed by extensive deforestation they can’t help but notice in many regions — especially Asia — also make donations to local environmental or education organizations and participate in banding or other scientific projects. “Ecotourism is a tremendous thing,” says Buck, who, in addition to his extensive bird list, has tallied more than 950 mammal species worldwide. “I think the negative part of it is very small.”

Read our newsletter!

Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, and more delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up for Free

Jesse Greenspan

Jesse Greenspan is a Berkeley-based freelance journalist who writes about history and the environment. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, Audubon, the History Channel, and other outlets.

Jesse Greenspan on social media