Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Book of the Month - Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica by Noah Strycker

Our dream trip and they're doing it!  Throughout January I had mixed feelings enviously following birders Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale on the Birdfellow blog as they sailed from Argentina to Antarctica, via the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.  The accounts of their adventures as told from the perspectives of both Jim as the experienced guide and Ann as the novice polar explorer were highlights of my January blog reading.  No doubt this was what put penguins, leopard seals, and albatrosses on my mind and influenced my decision to pick up Noah Strycker's tale of his Antarctic adventures. 

Noah's adventures are rather different from Jim and Ann's in several key respects.  Geographically, he begins from New Zealand, flying to McMurdo Station and then on to a tiny research station.  Economically, he is not a tourist paying many thousands of dollars for the experience but rather the prototypical "starving student" who lucks into a research assistant position at the ends of the earth.  And ornithologically, he is not on the frozen continent to build a life list but rather to research that most unique of avifauna - the penguin.
Antarctic: Signy Island - Adelie penguins
Adelie Penguins (image by jWOUW! from Flickr under Creative Commons license)
Within this framework the narrative is simple enough.  We begin with Noah's arrival at McMurdo Station and preparations for his time at a research post with two companions.  He attends survival school, builds a "snow coffin", and meets some of the colourful characters who inhabit the frozen continent.  He then heads out to a tiny hut at windswept Cape Crozier where they begin their three month sojourn studying the colony of 130,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins.  The remainder of the book is set at the research post but the story is interspersed with diversions both literal - counting marine mammals from a hilltop observation post and visiting a small colony of Emperor Penguins - and literary - reminiscences about Noah's experiences as a birder. 

When the book is focused on the Antarctic environment it paints a vivid picture of the life of a wildlife biologist in an extreme environment.   Some detail is provided about the purpose, methods, and results of the research being conducted and, while the scientist in me craved a little more detail, the depth of this material is probably appropriate for the scope of the book.  Noah's obvious passion for his subject shines through the text and I was quickly drawn into the experience of Antarctic life.  More disappointing were the sections on Noah's personal history.  There is no doubting his passion or aptitude (he was the ABA Young Birder of the Year in 2004) but some of his comments about the merits of his peripatetic lifestyle rubbed me the wrong way.  It's not that I don't respect his choice - and a part of me is more than a little jealous - but in my opinion his message would be clearer if presented with a little more humility and maturity. 

Overall I enjoyed reading about Noah's adventures and give this book a qualified recommendation: it is an essential read for anyone with an interest in Antarctic travel and wildlife and may be of interest to those readers looking to immerse themselves in an enthusiastic young birder's adventures in field research. 

“Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica” by Noah Strycker was published by Oregon State University Press in April 2011 as a 224 page paperback.  It is available from Amazon or Chapters for about $16.

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