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Originally published January 12, 2013 at 8:27 PM | Page modified January 13, 2013 at 12:08 PM

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Tenacious couple soar to record in state 'Big Year' bird count

Sherry and Arden Hagen recently rocked the local birding world by demolishing the record for most bird species seen in a calendar year in Washington state.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Great story. It's great to recognize people at the top of their game. MORE
Thanks for giving them some press Danny. Maybe something for my wife and I to do... MORE
Safe to say--they've gone to the birds. ;) MORE

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They're ultracompetitive — willing, in their own words, to "push it to the brink." They have the relentlessness of hawks on the hunt.

No, this is not another article about the Seahawks. I'm talking about Sherry and Arden Hagen: two kindly retirees from Vancouver, Washington, who could show any athlete a thing or two about tenacity.

Their sport? Bird-watching.

It didn't make big news — or any news that I could find. But the Hagens recently rocked the local birding world by demolishing the record for most bird species seen in a calendar year in Washington state.

It's called a "Big Year" — a quixotic marathon of bird-chasing and list-ticking in which participants try to see every bird species that enters the state's 71,000 square miles.

Nobody sees them all. But the Hagens came close, recording 370 total bird species in a year in which all birders saw 401 types of birds here. That means this one couple saw 92 percent of the birds that anybody saw.

There are only about 330 species that are full- or part-time residents here. The Hagens saw all of those. For the rest they raced pell-mell around the state pursuing "rarities" — birds blown off-course or making fleeting stopovers.

They logged 31,531 miles running down everything from the green-tailed towhee (outside Walla Walla) to the tropical kingbird (in Tokeland on the coast).

Here's a day in the life: They're in Spokane, bird-watching of course, when they get a ping on their smartphone from a birding email group (named, perfectly, "Tweeters"). An Asian finch called a brambling has been seen in a gated community in Blaine.

"It's 7 a.m., so we jump right in the car and head off," Sherry Hagen says.

Yes, but Blaine is 400 miles from Spokane, I say. And you live in Vancouver, another 300 or so miles from Blaine.

"Right. We got home at nine that night," she said. "But we got that bird!"

Only four birders had ever tallied 350 species in a year in this state. The previous record, set in 2001 by Marv Breece of Seattle, was 359.

"To break it by 11 is an astonishing feat," says Ken Knittle, publisher of Washington Birder and one of the state's longtime "extreme birders."

"It takes so much work and dedication that most people poop out in September or won't go there to begin with. Everyone who does it says they'll never do it again."

Audubon Magazine said the winner of a Big Year must be "ruthless, have a photographic memory, a supersonic ear and the fortitude to brave blizzards to garbage dumps. The rest of your life — your wife, your kids — is on hold."

I read the Hagens that description and they laughed. Arden Hagen, 65, has become hard of hearing enough that he couldn't make out the hoots of a spotted owl until it landed practically on top of him.

"What we are, mostly, is super-persistent," said Sherry, 64.

They dodged the biggest pitfall by doing it together. Their rule was that if both didn't see (or hear) a bird, then neither did. Same with their closest competitors, Tammy and Eric Bjorkman, also of Vancouver, who recorded 360 species.

"It's a major obsession, so they are very lucky they share it," Knittle said. "Many married birders can't even try this because they won't stay married."

Still, there's the pesky question of: Why? Why drive all those miles to stand in soggy bogs or on boats in stomach-churning waves off the coast, to peer through binoculars and tick birds off a list?

The Hagens admit there's no good answer. They got to know their state like no tourist ever will. Married 45 years, they also got to know each other better. But like most obsessions, this one is probably inexplicable to anyone who doesn't share it.

"You may not believe this, but there's a rush when you first hear of that bird you haven't seen," Sherry says. "You drop everything, take off and go for it. We didn't unpack our bags for a year!"

I believe. Plus I love that birders gave this specific brand of craziness such a broad, promising name.

The Big Year. Even if you're no birder, there's hope in there the rest of us can go have our own big years, in something.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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