Birding couples enjoy big year

Vancouver residents break record for number of species spotted in Washington

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

'Big year' watching birds

Two Vancouver couples recently completed a friendly competition known as a "big year," in which birdwatchers attempt to spot as many species as possible. They both broke a Washington state record, and shared a unique adventure in the process.

GET INVOLVED

Vancouver Audubon will hold its next meeting at 7 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Clark County Genealogical Society, 717 Grand Blvd. in Vancouver. Arden and Sherry Hagen and Eric and Tammy Bjorkman will deliver a presentation about their “big year.”

People may send donations to Vancouver Audubon at P.O. Box 1966, Vancouver, WA 98668.

When Eric and Tammy Bjorkman pulled into a Kennewick park last June, they came upon an unusual sight: a man lying on the ground, binoculars to his face, looking straight up.

The Bjorkmans approached the man, positioned under a tree. They didn't ask him what he was doing. They didn't have to.

"We said, 'Is it there?' He said yeah," Tammy Bjorkman said. "So we just laid down next to him."

"It" was a northern parula, a bird the Vancouver couple had yet to see in 2012. On a tip, they had driven from their home earlier that day, and made the three-hour trek back to Clark County the same night. All to spot a single bird.

Obsessive? Maybe. For a dedicated birdwatcher? Just another day.

The Bjorkmans had extra motivation to make that and many other birding trips in 2012. They were locked in a friendly competition with fellow Vancouver residents Arden and Sherry Hagen. The challenge: a "big year." That's an endeavor in which birders try to see or hear as many different bird species as possible in a single year. The four kept this particular challenge within Washington's borders.

The Bjorkmans and Hagens tackled the effort as pairs, meaning both members of a team had to track down any bird for it to count. That didn't slow them down — both couples broke a state record. The Hagens finished the year on top with 370 different birds. The Bjorkmans racked up 360. The previous best was 359 species, a mark set in 2001. (Just more than 500 species of birds have ever been confirmed in Washington).

More than a hobby

The competition originated as a fundraiser for Vancouver Audubon, in which all four are involved in some capacity. Friendly wagers and other donations collected more than $3,000 for the organization by year's end. For the Bjorkmans and Hagens, the year became much more than that.

"Bird-watching itself is a passion. Then you put a passion with a competition," Arden Hagen said. "What have you got? OCD."

Hagen laughed, but he was only partially joking. Many longtime birdwatchers simply can't treat their interest as a half-hearted hobby, he said. Toss in a big year, and all bets are off.

"It's expensive and it's time-consuming, and you have to put your life on hold," Arden said. "You think about it every day. Every day."

Both teams took a meticulous approach to the task. They kept detailed spreadsheets of bird types, checking them off throughout the year. They kept journals. They followed online message boards for birders. They set up automatic alerts on their phones when something noteworthy was spotted anywhere in the state. Both teams kept a suitcase packed at all times, ready to leave at a moment's notice.

The Hagens and Bjorkmans spent much of their time chasing tips from online sources. They also used their own knowledge, following migration patterns to be in the right place at the right time.

The two couples traveled separately at first -- it was a competition, after all -- reaching just about every corner of the state. At one point, the teams actually passed each other on a remote road in Okanogan County, Eric Bjorkman said. Eventually they decided to take a more collaborative approach, realizing they were covering much of the same ground anyway.

Team Hagen may have enjoyed a leg up in the competition -- both Arden and Sherry are retired. Eric Bjorkman works as a custody officer at the Clark County Jail, keeping him and Tammy from tracking down some birds right away.

Often, the target doesn't wait. Arden Hagen calls them "one-day wonders."

"They show up one day, and they're gone," he said. "If you don't go after them, then you miss them."

That's why the most dedicated birders are willing to go to extreme measures to get them. Maybe it's swinging by Blaine, near the Canadian border, en route from Spokane to Vancouver (not exactly on the way). Maybe it's sitting in a complete stranger's kitchen, waiting for a certain bird to show up on a feeder outside.

Both true stories.

"It's almost like doing puzzles," Tammy Bjorkman said. "You want to find that next piece."

Growing community

That kind of dedication can be difficult for nonbirders to understand. But the birding community is growing fast, and is already bigger than many people realize, Eric Bjorkman said. With gas, hotels, food, guides and other expenses all playing a role, bird-watching has become a huge industry, he said.

Tammy and Eric Bjorkman became avid birders in 1997. The Hagens have been at it seriously since 1979, Sherry said.

For this foursome, the payoff is more than crossing another species off the list. It's experiencing natural beauty. It's an escape, being outdoors. It's making new connections with people and places.

Among their most memorable sightings of the past year: Tracking down a McKay's Bunting, a rare bird that hadn't been confirmed in Washington in more than two decades, in February. The group also shared a close encounter with a spotted owl outside Packwood last summer.

"To me, that was the most spine-tingling one," Eric Bjorkman said. "It's kind of the holy grail-type bird for us in the state here."

The group admitted enjoying some good fortune in breaking the state record during their big year. Some birds strayed well outside their normal range, perhaps driven by unusual weather patterns across the country in 2012, Eric Bjorkman said.

All four will share their big year experiences at the next Vancouver Audubon meeting in February. They'll also unveil final fundraising results and hand out raffle prizes.

The Bjorkmans completed a less successful big year in 2010. The Hagens had never tried one before last year. All four say they'll never do it again.

And that suitcase that stayed packed for a full year?

"It's finally unpacked," Sherry said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.