Tom Bartlett’s not waiting for Hollywood to come calling. His Big Sit is not as visually-stunning or as dramatic as the birding quest that led to the movie, “The Big Year,” starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson.
The film chronicled the competition of three birders attempting to break the record of 721 birds seen in a single year. The movie was based on the adventures of Greg Miller, a computer consultant from Canton, Ohio, who spent an estimated $31,000 chasing the record.
Bartlett chases nothing. He sits on a ladder or camp chair within a 17-foot circle.
Bartlett has conducted a 12-hour Big Sit on International Migratory Bird Day for 17 years at the west end of the Magee Marsh Boardwalk.
So, what can you see restricted to a small circle, a 5-foot ladder topped with a hunter’s chair that swivels 360 degrees, a pair of binoculars, a 20x60 telescope and a MP3 player loaded with bird calls?
Bartlett saw a high of 112 species in 2005, 96 last year and a total of 181 species since 1995. Rare sightings for Northwest Ohio include a Summer Tanager, a Chuck-will’s widow and a Laughing Gull.
Bird watching, like golf, is a pursuit known for its honor code. If you’re compiling a life list, for example, you can’t count birds in a zoo or sanctuary or birds you can’t positively identify. Bartlett recalls one such disappointment regarding a warbler during a Big Sit.
“This Cerulean Warbler was sitting around the corner and I never could see it. People would walk 30 feet from me and see it preening in the tree and feeding in the tree, but because of all the vegetation I couldn’t see through it to see it on the other side. At the end of the day, I walked around the corner and there was the bird sitting there. But, I couldn’t count it because I didn’t see it during the time period.”
Serious stuff, this bird watching.
While Bartlett can’t leave his 17-foot circle to count a bird, that doesn’t mean he can’t call the birds to him. He does this with his MP3 Player loaded with calls for such birds as the Great Horned Owl and the Screech Owl. The most effective time to call is just before dawn so Bartlett arrives at Magee Marsh shortly before 5 a.m.
Bartlett’s Big Sit has become a big event annually for the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. He pledges $1 per species and those who join him make their own pledges. Kim Kaufman, executive director of BSBO, says these birders have contributed some $32,000 to support birding activities, including the Young Birders Club.
Last year, Bartlett was joined by about 20 other birders, six of whom stayed the entire 12 hours.
Bartlett’s love of birding arose from his inability to decide a career path when he moved from New Jersey to attend Heidelberg College in Tiffin, where he still lives. He would eventually graduate with four majors — religion, psychology, biology and American studies — but it was taking an ornithology class on a whim that hooked him to avian life.
Since then, the retired science teacher has become a licensed bander, one of only 50 in Ohio. As a master bander, he is certified to teach banding. He is also a research associate in the Division of Ornithology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Bartlett first volunteered as a trail guide for BSBO in 1995. What he discovered was that birders on the trail didn’t need him, so he settled in on the Big Sit.
You can join him on May 12 just for fun, or to learn more about birds. He’s not shy and he’s willing to share his knowledge and his stories, but just don’t ask him to leave his 17-foot circle. By the way, no reservations needed.
If you wish to help the Young Birders Club, go to bsbo.org and download a pledge form.