Breaking Birding Records
Breaking Birding Records
Binoculars
Breaking Birding Records
Breaking Birding Records
A scrappy young birder publishes a memoir of his record-setting year
By Adam Rosen
Images courtesy of Christian Hagenlocher
In late August 2016, Christian Hagenlocher found himself in a twin-engine propeller plane approaching Gambell, Alaska.
From his seat, he could make out Russia. Christian had been lured to the remote town of fewer than 700 residents, at the tip of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, by the promise of birds.

At the time, Christian was nearly three-quarters of the way through his Big Year: a classic birding challenge in which someone tries to see as many birds as possible within a calendar year. Big Year parameters can vary; some are confined to a single state or city, some (like Christian’s) extend to the continental U.S. and Canada, while others span the entire globe.

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Christian meets an owl at the Raptor Trust
Christian meets an owl at the Raptor Trust in Long Hill Township, New Jersey.
Christian poses near a white-tailed ptarmigan in Colorado.
Christian meets an owl at the Raptor Trust
Christian meets an owl at the Raptor Trust in Long Hill Township, New Jersey.
Christian poses near a white-tailed ptarmigan
Christian poses near a white-tailed ptarmigan in Colorado.
Christian’s journey took him to locales far and wide, big and small, hot and cold. Just a few days before his journey to Gambell, he was 4,000 miles east in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, tracking down Cory’s shearwaters and White-tailed tropicbirds—among other species—in the Atlantic. A few weeks before that, he was in California, and a few weeks before that, Montana.
By the end of 2016, Christian had identified 752 birds.
He was among three other Big Year participants who broke the previous American Birding Association (ABA) Area Big Year record. In addition, at just 26 years old, Christian had become the youngest person to spot over 700 birds in the ABA Area in a year, a record that still stands.
Falcon Freeway
In September 2019, he published a book recounting his 2016 adventures, “Falcon Freeway: A Big Year of Birding on a Budget.”
Equal parts travelogue, personal growth tale, and how-to guide for low-cost birding, the book offers a refreshing spin on the classic American road trip story. It includes 40 striking ink bird drawings by Montana artist and birder Andrew Guttenberg, who accompanied Christian for part of his Big Year.
Birdwatching may bring to mind scenes of serenity, quiet, and calm, but there’s plenty of action in “Falcon Freeway.” On his way to breaking records, Christian had to navigate barracudas, polar bears, and hostile Canadian border patrol agents. (Despite these hazards, he insists the most dangerous threat he faced was highway drivers on their cellphones).

Nor were his birding grounds all idyllic nature preserves and national parks. Christian trekked through landfills and sewage treatment ponds, and in downtown Chicago, he came across birds that had flown into skyscrapers and fallen to the street below. “It just goes to show there’s really no place where humans haven’t reached and impacted birds in some way,” he says.

Christian traveled the country
Christian traveled the country in his car during his Big Year.
Pacific golden plover
A Pacific golden plover Christian spotted in Honolulu, Hawaii
Additionally, Christian completed his Big Year on a relatively shoestring budget, unlike many Big Year birders, who tend to be affluent retirees. While he took numerous flights and a few cruises to cover especially long distances, he spent most nights sleeping in his car. When 2016 was over, he had driven over 60,000 miles.

“The fact that he just went ahead and grabbed it at his young age is really, really impressive,” says Nate Swick, communications manager of the ABA. “He hit this incredible number in a way that was not the traditional Big Year route.”

Birds are kind of a portal to viewing the world around me, to understanding the connection between the landscape, different types of habitat, different types of people, and conservation issues around the country.”
–CHRISTIAN HAGENLOCHER
 Birds are kind of a portal to viewing the world around me, to understanding the connection between the landscape, different types of habitat, different types of people, and conservation issues around the country.”
–CHRISTIAN HAGENLOCHER
/ A Birding Program Takes Flight /
For Christian, birdwatching is much more than a passive activity; it’s a deeply enlightening experience. “Birds are kind of a portal to viewing the world around me, to understanding the connection between the landscape, different types of habitat, different types of people, and conservation issues around the country,” he says.

His enthusiasm for birds goes beyond just spotting them, logging them, and moving on, says Andy Bankert, an accomplished birder based in Fort Collins, Colorado, who spent a week birding with Christian during his Big Year. “A lot of times, birders will go out and just look for different species, but he really wanted to get to know [them],” Andy says.

Three years after his Big Year, Christian remains committed to birds. He currently splits his time leading birding tours in and around Colorado and giving talks across the country. It’s all part of his work with the Birding Project, an outreach program he created to “connect people with birds” through volunteering, conservation efforts, and public education.

In spite of his far-reaching travels, Christian wants people to know they don’t have to go all the way to Gambell to experience the thrill of birding. Whether they undertake a Big Year or just a Big Day, “there are so many different ways to enjoy birds,” he says. “Whatever motivates you to get outside, to learn, to connect with other people, and to engage with birds is well worth the time and effort.”

Invest in a good pair of binoculars.
Christian recommends birders invest in a good pair of binoculars.
Christian caught site
Christian caught site of a cedar waxwing in Portland, Maine.
/ ESSENTIAL BIRDING GEAR, ACCORDING TO CHRISTIAN /

A good field guide: “The Sibley Guide to Birds” or the free MERLIN Bird ID app
A National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass ($80)
The best binoculars you can afford
Sunscreen
A smartphone for taking pictures and notes
 
 
To learn more about Christian and the Birding Project, or to purchase “Falcon Freeway,” visit TheBirdingProject.com.
About the Writer
Adam Rosen is a writer and book editor in Asheville, North Carolina.

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