Within the last 15 years or so, there have been several individuals undertaking what might be the ultimate birding challenge: a global big year. In 2008, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller broke the 4,000-species barrier. Then, in 2015, Noah Strycker raised the bar even further, reaching 6,042 species. Most recently, Arjan Dwarshuis set out to break that record. The (Big) Year That Flew By documents Arjan’s 12 months of travel around the globe, aiming to reach 7,000 species, fundraising for BirdLife International in the process.
Much of what is in the book is what you’d expect from a year of intense birding: early starts, long, often sweaty hikes, moments of frustration, moments of jubilation, and birds. Lots of birds. Although every leg of the journal was as interesting as the next, I found the book was best consumed in bitesize chunks; after all, although the countries and the birds differ, the general framework of the operation remains the same throughout. It is pleasing, though, to see interesting snippets woven into the narrative that veer away from the birds and birding – the challenges of conserving Yellow-eared Parrots Ognorhynchus icterotis in Colombia due to an over-zealous priest, for example.
The story is also intertwined with memories or events from Arjan’s past, many of which aim to link into the current leg of the world-record attempt, or to paint a deeper, more personal connection to the bird he was searching for. These flashbacks, which are often just a few paragraphs, appear under a dated header – ‘Malawi (1995)’, for example, where he talks about a trip there as part of a fundraising project for a school. The problem I had when reading through the book, though, was that these constant jumps from the past to, as it is written, the present, were jarring and broke the flow of reading – in part because there was no attempted segue between the different sections of writing; in part because some of these short pieces from pre-2016 simply seemed like something the author wanted to say but didn’t really have a place in the main text, so were shoehorned in at the least-worst point; and in part because the use of the simple present tense for everything written about what happened during the big year gave the whole read a rather matter-of-fact, almost instruction-manual feel to it, in contrast to the more natural-feeling past tense used elsewhere. It’s hard to know if this clash of tenses is down to what the author had written or due to a direct translation from the Dutch. Certainly, though, it fails to convey the infectious enthusiasm that – having met him in the field and from having watched the documentary, Arjan’s Big Year – I know Arjan exudes.
It’s difficult to reach a firm conclusion on this book. I did enjoy its contents, and I enjoyed picking it up, reading about Arjan’s time in one or two countries, and then putting it back onto the bookshelf for a bit. For anyone who has an interest in world birding or listing, this will likely prove to be an interesting read; the book does, after all, give a much more detailed narrative than the trimmed-down coverage in the documentary. For those looking for a good or easy-going read, though, this book might fall a little flat, which is disappointing for a book on a subject – and from an author – that should, on paper at least, have been a thoroughly exciting read.