This year was a very special year for Malaysia when it comes to birding. Sabah was chosen to be the host for the annual Asian Bird Fair 2023. As a result, all eyes were on Borneo this year when Sabah hosted 2 important birding events back-to-back, namely the Asian Bird Fair 2023 held in Kota Kinabalu and the Borneo Bird Festival 2023 held in Sandakan.
Birding with Noah Strycker in Borneo
Attending these 2 events was a real privilege. Being an enthusiastic birder since young, I never would have imagined that I would have the opportunity to meet and spend time with one of the biggest names in the birding world, Noah Strycker! Noah Strycker was invited to be the Guest of Honor for the Asian Bird Fair 2023 (ABF). After the ABF, Noah extended his stay for another week so that he could grace the Borneo Bird Festival (BBF) as well! As someone who managed to attend both events, I would say that I am very privileged to have had the chance to spend time with him during his stay in Sabah.
Who is Noah Strycker?
To people not familiar with who Noah Strycker is, it is important to highlight the reason why he is a big deal in the birdwatching world! Among the world’s bird species, there are an estimated of around 10,365 species of birds worldwide. As of now, no birder in the world has ever seen all 10,000 species before. In America, there is a competition to see the greatest number of bird species in a year. This annual competition in the US is known as the Big Year, and it is very famous there.
In the year 2015, Noah became the first person in the world to attempt a Big Year around the world. He spent the whole year of 2015 travelling to different countries to record as many bird species as possible. In that year, Noah broke a record as he became the first person in the world to see more than half of the world’s species in one year. He was the first person to see more than 5,000 species and would eventually reach the number of 6,042 species! His record would eventually be broken by Dutch Birder Arjan Dwarshuis in 2016. Nevertheless, Noah will always be remembered as the first person to cross the halfway mark!
Noah Stryker at the Asian Bird Fair 2023
Noah has visited both Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah during his Big Year journey in 2015. Therefore, this visit was not his first one. He mentions that his sightings in Sabah and Malaysia did contribute to him getting his 6,042 species the last time. However, he acknowledged that his priority was getting the numbers during that time. Hence, he did not get the chance to take his time and enjoy the birding here. During this visit, he was more satisfied with getting some of the species he missed in his previous trip.
At the ABF 2023, Noah Strycker charmed all of us when he gave the opening address and a presentation on how he managed to carry out his big year in 2015. He also shared slides and video clips to give us glimpses of his journey in 2015. It was truly an inspiring presentation to all birders present at the fair. To get the opportunity to explore the world and see the world’s bird species is something that all of us present there could only dream of.
Throughout the fair, he met up with many of the participants of the fair and visited the various vendors. During this time, I finally got to meet him in person! Noah’s best-seller Birding Without Borders was sold out on the first day! A testament of the influence that someone like him has on the birdwatching world.
As the ABF 2023 went on, the highlight was definitely the field trip held at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kinabalu Park! All the participants of the Bird Fair had the opportunity to visit Kinabalu Park and its endemic bird species on the final day. It was memorable when the Birdwatching Asia Team had the opportunity to spend some time birding with Noah Strycker himself on that day. Ron Pudin, President of the Sabah’s Birdwatchers Association, also accompanied us. We did see some memorable birds during the trip. My Birdwatching Asia colleague Ashraf covers the birds that can be seen there in a separate article. You can view the article here.
After having a delicious lunch at the world-famous Liwagu Restaurant at Kinabalu Park, we had a last session of birding at Kinabalu Park! We saw more of the specialist montane birds, such as the Indigo Flycatcher, Penan Bulbul, Bornean Treepie and other birds. After that, we finally headed to the Rasa Ria Reserve for the closing dinner in the evening. It was indeed a memorable day for us to spend time birding with Noah during his trip here.
Noah Strycker at the Borneo Bird Festival 2023
As chance would have it, Noah’s original schedule was to head back home to the US after the ABF. However, as the Borneo Bird Festival 2023 was just a week away, the organizers made arrangements for him to attend both events. A week later, in Sepilok, I had the privilege to meet Noah again. The Borneo Bird Festival had a different atmosphere compared to the Asian Bird Fair. It was more of a localized community event with many programs taking place at the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC). One could also go birding anytime in RDC whilst the festival was ongoing and attend the guided walks around RDC.
During this time, I had the privilege of personally guiding Noah for birding at the RDC. Throughout the afternoon, Noah mentioned to me that he personally wanted to see an Orangutan in the wild. The early afternoon was pretty quiet as birds are usually less active at this time. However, as we walked on, we encountered a mini bird-wave. We saw the Lesser Cuckooshrike, which became a lifer for Noah. I also obtained a special bird lifer when I finally saw my 500th Malaysian bird species, the Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker! What made it more special was when Noah shared with me that his 5000th lifer during his big year was also a flowerpecker species as well, which he saw in the Philippines.
As we went on during our short walk that afternoon, another surprise was in store for us. On a huge tree, I saw a creature that was on Noah’s wish list during his trip to Sabah, the Bornean Orangutan! When I spotted it, I immediately alerted Noah! He was really excited and rushed to see this magnificent large ape! I was glad to have assisted him in getting this amazing sighting! This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. As the day went by, both Noah and I had other things to attend to. We would part ways at that time and eventually bird together later in that evening.
Obtaining a Lifer with Noah Strycker
It was a pleasant morning on the second day of the BBF as we had the privilege of having the Vice-President of the Sandakan Borneo Bird Club, Cede Prudente, and Noah, join us for a birding session! As we were walking through one of the trails at the RDC, we heard the call of the Bornean Bristlehead! We attempted to track down the bird, but unfortunately, none of us were able to see it. It is a normal occurrence in birding where sometimes we do not see the birds we badly want to see. However, this adds to the excitement of this wonderful hobby!
Despite having missed the Bornean Bristlehead, the morning was not over. As chance would have it, we would hear a call of another star bird at the RDC, the Sabah Partridge! With guidance from Cede, he led us into one of the smaller trails while following the bird’s call. Eventually, all of us managed to see this elusive bird and obtained our lifer! My personal thanks to Cede and his masterful guidance in allowing me to see this rare and elusive bird!
I would eventually part ways with Noah that morning as he wanted to do some personal birding and see certain species. I had another target that morning: to see a bird that Noah and my colleagues from the Birdwatching Asia Team managed to see on the day before the Borneo Bird Festival, the Black-crowned Pitta! Eventually, I did manage to see it and was satisfied.
In the afternoon, I attended the various bird talks at the Festival. It was enlightening to listen to the presentations of the different speakers present. Noah was one of the main speakers during the festival. It was a real delight to listen to Noah’s presentation that afternoon as he shared about his journey during his Big Year in 2015!
Towards the end of the talk, Noah mentioned something that definitely strikes a chord with most of the birders present in the hall. He mentioned that travelling is a choice and depending on how much priority you put into it regarding other spending, such as buying a car, it is affordable to many people. Hearing Noah share his birdwatching experiences and adventures was a real privilege. This definitely inspires me to follow in his footsteps one day!
After Noah’s presentation, the BBF eventually came to a close. As all good things would eventually come to an end, it was also time to part ways with Noah. I was really glad to have the opportunity and privilege to meet and spend time with Noah. It was wonderful to share experiences with him as well as to personally bird with him on many occasions! Wishing that Noah will visit this part of the world again. I hope to see him in the future when I can attempt my own personal Big Year around the world!