Environment

A natural-born birder

Arjan Dwarshuis’ record-setting year shows how much birdwatching has changed

June 24, 2020
Arjan Dwarshuis looks through his binoculars
No longer the armchair hobby it once was, birding has grown on young folks as a tool for conservation. [Credit: Friso Boven | All rights reserved]

Feeling anxious as he prepared for a year of intensive birdwatching all over the world, Arjan Dwarshuis got up in the middle of the night on Jan. 1, 2016, and stepped onto the balcony of his home in the Netherlands. The call of a common blackbird greeted him. Soon, a European robin joined in. His anxiety eased as he entered the two birds into his cellphone: only 6,041 more birds to go for a Big Year world record. 

Dwarshuis’ Big Year — an attempt to see and hear as many birds as possible in 365 days — took him around the world, raising money for conservation along the way and demonstrating how birdwatching has changed since the hobby’s humble origins in the 1800s. And in the end,  he did set the world record — one that still stands four years later.

“When I broke the record, I fell back in the grass,” says Dwarshuis, now 33. “A friend of mine was traveling with me. He had a bottle of champagne and a box of cigars, so I took a sip of champagne, I lit a cigar, and I said, ‘I love it when a plan comes together.’ ” More than four years later, he’s still executing the final part of his plan: using his fame as a record-setter to promote conservation and responsible birdwatching worldwide — even during the current coronavirus lockdown. 

The potential audience for Dwarshuis’s message of conservation is both growing and changing. In just four years, the number of users on eBird, a birdwatching app, has nearly doubled to more than 500,000 in 2019 and includes sightings from every country. 

“It’s inarguably growing,” says Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association. “This COVID thing is obviously terrible,” he says, but it’s helped people realize that nature is a necessity — and birding offers an invitation to nature. Easier travel has helped, too. “In the ’70s or ’80s,” Gordon says, “planning a trip to southeast Arizona, south Texas, or North Dakota used to be considered a fairly major undertaking.” Now trips built around birding are more popular than ever, Gordon explains, prior to the pandemic, at least.

Of course, not everyone birds like Dwarshuis, who approaches the pastime with an intensity born of longtime passion for the natural world. Growing up, he was an only child and “a bit of a lonely kid,” he says, but always full of energy. Some of his earliest memories involve birds — mostly boldly-patterned chickadees and intelligent, stubby-headed jackdaws that fluttered about his childhood home in the Netherlands.

“I started to become really fanatic when I was like 10 years old,” Dwarshuis says. He began keeping lists of each sighting, and by the age of 15, he began traveling to see new birds. At 18, he was dreaming of a Big Year. “I heard about this record — James Clements’ record — and I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ ”

With a near encyclopedic knowledge of birds and a childhood full of international travel, Dwarshuis was well-suited to take on the ultimate challenge for birders. “A Big Year is simply an effort within the birding community to record as many bird species as possible in one year,” explains Dwarshuis. In 2011, Big Year birders made it into the box office with the comedy film The Big Year. While the characters are “a bit nerdier” than most real-life birders, Dwarsuis says, the film does a good job highlighting the tenets of a Big Year: being honest, having fun, and going on an adventure. 

The first Big Year, completed by Guy Emerson in the 1930s, only counted birds in the United States. More ambitious birders go for the global Big Year, which doesn’t have any overseeing committee and only happens when an eager birder announces an attempt. Regardless of where they go, birders are on an honor system to only record birds they personally heard or saw.

Dwarshuis tried to visit as many countries as possible that have high numbers of threatened birds — places that make the top of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List for avian species. Along the way, he stayed at local accommodations, used local guides, and kept as small of an ecological footprint as possible. “Responsible ecotourism,” Dwarshuis says, “can sustain a local community for decades.”

Ecotourism has even changed some hunting habits, says Peter Lobo, All India Birding Tours owner, who led Dwarshuis through the Himalayan foothills during his Big Year. Back in 2005, Lobo recalls, he would run into hunters who were killing the same birds he had been taking birders to see. At the time, Lobo responded by paying a few locals — folks who had no interest in birds but who did own guns — to act as bird bodyguards. “Today, twenty years down the line, the same guys who were bodyguards,” says Lobo, “have become top guides” — and Lobo says he hasn’t seen any more hunters. 

These are exactly the sort of changes Dwarshuis champions through his birding. He loves birds, but he seems to love local birders just as much.

In Brazil, where Dwarshuis saw over 500 species of birds, he relied on Eduardo Patrial, a Brazilian guide with a background in bird biology, to lead him through the species-rich Atlantic Forest, where birding has taken off among locals.

It’s driven by photography, says Patrial. Wikiaves.com.br, where people can post photos of birds, is a popular site, he explains. The site and accompanying app have helped spread interest in birding, especially among young people, Patrial says. 

Such apps have made smartphones a vital tool for modern birders. “My phone was maybe even more important than my binoculars” during the Big Year, Dwarshuis explains. To record each sighting, he used an app from Observation.org. Birders around the world now use various apps for the same purpose. A popular choice is eBird.

“What we’ve tried to do is create this platform where the millions of people around the world that love birds can come together and report everything they see,” says Ian Davies, who helps coordinate projects at eBird. The data they collect, which includes information on about 99% of all known species, according to Davies, can be used to see large scale population changes in birds around the world. It’s already been used in hundreds of research projects and governmental conservation efforts.

This citizen science data is important because so many birds are in trouble. About 40% of all bird species have been in decline since 1988, and one in eight is at risk for extinction, according to a 2018 Birdlife International report.

Since the year 1500, we’ve lost over 150 bird species, according to the report — and this is mostly due to human action. When he was in the Philippines, Dwarshuis saw what can happen when habitats are not protected. “You can see debris around you and hear chainsaws cutting down the last remaining trees,” he says. “You’re basically looking at a remnant of what used to be this beautiful, very rich ecosystem. And you’re looking at it and you’re seeing all these birds and you know maybe in ten years, (they) will be gone forever.” 

By November 10, 2016, Dwarshuis was in a coffee plantation in Costa Rica, where he spotted his record-setting bird, a buffy-crowned wood partridge. But having broken the record at 6,043 birds, he wasn’t ready to stop yet — he wanted to reach a whopping total of 7,000 birds. On the last day of the year, he was in Vietnam, in the middle of a heavy downpour. Visiting the mountainous Bidoup Nui Ba National Park, he tried fording streams to enter the park, but they were impassible. “The river had swallowed entire coffee plantations, houses and, unfortunately for us, also the trail system in the park,” Dwarshuis wrote in his blog entry for the day. Still, he spotted a vibrant, orange collared laughingthrush not far from the road. And then finally, as dusk settled, Dwarshuis’s local guide, Phuc Le, played the call of the black-crowned fulvetta — and it called back, finalizing Dwarshuis’s Big Year list at 6,852 species.

Now, with the record behind him — and still unbroken — he’s focusing on raising money for bird conservation. He has already raised more than $47,000 for BirdLife International, a global conservation group, and plans to keep pushing towards his target of over $100,000 by sharing his Big Year adventure through a TED talk, a book, and a documentary

His goal, then and now, is to save birds by inspiring birders. “Birds are nature’s silver lining,” Dwarshuis says. When they disappear suddenly, “you will notice.”

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About the Author

Curtis is a photographer and science journalist who focuses on health, Earth science, and ecology. Growing up in New Mexico, his life was centered around nature—hiking, biking, and exploring. When he wasn’t outdoors, he was reading (he loves travelogues). Later, while studying geology at Trinity University, he realized he could combine these passions by becoming a science journalist. Now, he uses his words and photos to help others see practical beauty in science.

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