Interview: Arjan Dwarshuis has just broken the world record for the number of bird species spotted in a single year. And he is doing it to raise money for BirdLife.
Despite birdwatching around the world almost non-stop since January 2016 for his “Biggest Year”, which is also being captured in a documentary film, Arjan has an excitement that does not seem to fade, and his infectious enthusiasm makes you feel like you are looking through the scope with him.
From Amsterdam, Netherlands, Arjan is a BirdLife Species Champion supporting our Preventing Extinctions Programme. We caught up with him at a birding lodge where he had brief access to WiFi…
First things first: where are you?
Behind me I can hear this incredibly loud ‘bell’ sound coming from three birds with snowy-white heads and bizarre pieces of skin dangling below their bills. I’m in Costa Rica and just saw these Three-wattled Bellbirds displaying on an exposed ledge at 60x zoom through my scope.
They must be loud at that distance. Sorry to drag you away, but how do you feel now holding this incredible new world record?
I feel fantastic. Yes, very excellent.
What motivated you to go for your “Biggest Year”?
I have been fascinated by nature for as long as I can remember. Aged nine, I started noting my bird sightings; at twelve, I started looking for rare migrants. At 15 I travelled on my own in Turkey and at 18 I made a hitchhiking trip around the world and came across a lot of threatened birds and ecosystems. I wanted to use a ‘Big Year’ of birding to raise awareness, and two and a half years ago I decided to go for the world record. I put everything aside, got guides and tour companies excited to be on board. But two days after I tweeted about it, someone told me that an American, Noah Strycker, was going to go for it too. Initially I was going to attempt it on a ‘hitchhiking budget’, but to get the record now I had to step up my game [laughs].
But I also wanted to give something back – with all this flying I cannot just raise awareness. The BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme is the best fitting charity, importantly focusing on the most threatened birds in the world.
You’ve probably got many great anecdotes to tell, where shall we start?
One story started before my trip began. I received a phone call from the very popular “RTL Late Night” talk show on Dutch TV, saying they wanted to do a feature, but under one condition: that the presenter, Humberto Tan, went birding with me. He was voted best-dressed man in the Netherlands, and one early morning near my house there he was dressed in full birding gear. We ended up staying for five hours looking at firecrests, treecreepers, etc. He loved it so much he decided to join me for seven days of hard-core birding in Suriname (his country of birth) instead of holidaying with his family! So here I was, driving through the forest with one of the most famous people from my country, when suddenly we slam the brakes on hard. A HUGE male Harpy Eagle flies over, just a few metres above us, showing its massive talons. Perhaps the best bird to see!
You’re certain to raise awareness in the Netherlands then. What is the most extreme length you’ve been to for spotting a bird?
I was in Madagascar, in a very remote part of the Perinet Reserve, where a spectacular bird – the Helmet Vanga – is found. First we went down a very bad, muddy track. Then, not even a trail, hacking our way through the jungle with a machete. I’d forgotten to bring lunch, the temperature dropped by ten degrees, it rained, and I was very cold. We saw one bird every 2-3 hours and after 8-9 hours there was still no sign of the Helmet Vanga. I asked my guide how much longer: “Just four kilometres back to car,” he said, but my GPS clocked nine when we got back. Gruesome.
The one that got away…
You can miss some. You can see some. That’s the beautiful thing about birdwatching. Sometimes you get something very unexpected out of your efforts. Last week in Panama, on the Cerro Chucanti Ridge – very remote – we got up at 4AM to ride on horseback and saw a Beautiful Treerunner, and I took one of the first good photos of that species.
One in every eight bird species is threatened. Are you focusing on trying to see the most endangered birds?
Yes. Quantity is very important for the record, but I am trying to incorporate as many Critically Endangered birds and habitats as possible. These rare birds are very important locally.
We certainly think so too, but please explain…
Travelling so much is of course bad for the environment, but my biggest message is the importance of ecotourism for these birds. Here in Costa Rica, ecotourism is a big thing. In Malawi or Madagascar that is not yet the case, and in my opinion and experience the only reason some patches of forest still stand is because a local guide is engaging their local community in conservation. So eat local foods, stay at local places. This is why I like BirdLife’s Species Guardians concept – funding those trying to change things at a local level, that’s the key.
What is the rarest bird you have seen?
The Black-eared Miner in the Mallee Forests of southern Australia. This bird is threatened by hybridisation with the far more common Yellow-throated Miner. They live in complex, highly social family groups and I did not hear of a single 100% pure group of Black-eared Miners left. This means that soon they could be hybridised out of existence. For the bird itself this is not a bad thing, in fact he wouldn’t even notice. But for the ecological diversity of our planet it is a catastrophe since we lose yet another species forever.
Your most memorable rarity?
Sometimes an entire species can be found just in one tiny marsh, one tiny pocket of rainforest. In some places there are good conservation projects to boost the population, but sometimes nothing is happening. At a place called PICOP [Paper Industry Corporations of the Philippines logging area], on Mindanao, there is one last patch of lowland forest, home to the Mindanao Broadbill and spectacular Celestial Monarch. I was watching the birds when I heard chainsaws buzzing from 360 degrees around me. There is so much logging going on. I was crippled, wanting to cry. I still get a lump in my throat, as I know the bird will be gone from there. The army controls the area; no one can buy this forest.
Did you feel like speaking to the loggers?
Yes, but it is dangerous to get angry with them. My guide had been threatened multiple times. It’s a hard situation: it’s ruthlessly understandable that they log the forest, as it’s their subsistence.
That’s why community involvement is so important. You can show them they can benefit economically from ecotourism. Otherwise the forest is a supermarket.
Where was the best place for seeing many bird species?
Peru. Hands down. Miguel Lezama of Tanager Tours was an exceptional guide. With my girlfriend, Camilla, we saw 1,001 species in 24 days – a record within a record! 577 were new for the Biggest Year. Of those, we saw 70 really special endemics and criticals. It’s also the landscape, culture, people…
You have quite a unique perspective of the world’s 11,000 bird species. Any major changes you have noticed?
I had been to Africa when I was younger, and now you can really notice the lack of vultures. After just 10-20 years they are much harder to see. I can’t believe the speed of the decline.
What’s your favourite African Vulture?
Lappet-faced. They are huge and brutal. Beautifully ugly. [laughs]
Now, quick-fire on the technical stuff – what counts as a tick?
You have to hear or see it, recognisably. I always have somebody with me too, a local guide, a travel companion for that crucial second opinion. It’s impossible to do all on your own. My final list will clearly show which species were only heard and which were seen.
What bird tipped you over the record?
A Buffy-crowned Wood-partridge, and the best thing was that it was a thrilling moment. We had to really chase it for 15 minutes. Three best friends were present, filming the whole thing for our Biggest Year documentary film, which will be out in 2017.
Have you broken the record using the taxonomy of BirdLife and Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW)?
My current record is based on the IOC [International Ornithological Congress] World Bird List, mostly because I use the Observation.org i-Obs app to record. But when I return home, I will put my whole list into HBW Alive too. The previous record used the Clements taxonomy, which is based too much on DNA in my opinion.
What do you think about the news that there are now more than 700 newly split bird species?
Fantastic, very happy to hear that. The more species there are, the better. This will only boost my list, and conservation. If a bird gets split, then a patch can have a previously overlooked species now recognised as endangered – so it can be far more interesting for people to conserve it. It’s important the splits are scientifically based too, there has to be a good reason. During my big year, I tried to see and record every subspecies as possible as well, so even in ten years my list can grow.
Why do you think about the human tendency to categorise things?
We cannot comprehend nature. It is so complex and so special that we have to categorise it. It is important for working with science, conservation, policy too. Categorising is the only way to communicate about these things.
What bird do you still want to see?
You can never see them all but I would love to. This year in Guatemala I hope to see Horned Guan, it’s a fantastic black and white bird with a huge red knob on its head.
The best bird of the whole year?
I was in a beautiful rainforest in Ghana with Ashanti Tours, my father and filmmaker friends. We had to be silent. Stuck underneath a boulder you could see this ‘cup’ nest. We waited and waited. Suddenly the bushes started moving and this amazing black, white and yellow bird hopped into view – a White-necked Picathartes. It was so special: you can easily get muddy in the rainforest but this bird is so clean and crisp, you can see different shaped feathers! For a full minute I watched with my mouth open. This time there were no high-fives or photos, just complete awe. Then it continued to show behind me whilst we captured it all for the documentary, it was my David Attenborough moment!
How do you feel about being a BirdLife Species Champion?
I am very proud, and very happy to help the Species Guardians – they embody what the programme stands for. I hope more companies and people will do the same – raising money for this fantastic programme to save the most threatened birds.
Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
Please go to my fundraising page to support saving these birds from the abyss. I won’t stop until I have raised €100,000, so please relieve me from this burden!
Since this interview was written, Arjan has now completed the entirety of his record-breaking Biggest Year, so the final numbers are:
Biggest Year in Numbers
- Total number of birds seen: 6,833
- That’s averaging: 18 birds per day
- Previous record: 6,042 set by Noah Strycker in 2015
- Most birds seen in one day: more than 200, in Kenya
- Countries visited: 40
- Black-crowned Fulvetta: 6,833rd and final species seen
- Money raised so far: nearly €20,000 of €100,000 target
- Biggest Year documentary: due later in 2017, directed by Michiel van den Bergh, filmed by John Treffer
- Age: 30
- Job(s): 3 – The Birding Experience, Arjan’s company in the Netherlands, where he gives tours, talks, etc. He also has a weekly feature about birdwatching on the Dutch TV programme Binnenstebuiten, and is a bartender at weekends.
- More on Twitter / Instagram: @ArjanDwarshuis
The entire BirdLife family congratulates Arjan for setting this incredible new record, and are very grateful to him for doing so much to raise vital funding and awareness for BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme.
Patricia Zurita,Chief Executive, BirdLife International