Tom Bartlett's choice to attend a college in the larger city of Tiffin instead of a tinier one in Maine proved to be a turning point in his life and a benefit to his community.
The master bird bander known throughout Ohio and beyond got his start at Heidelberg College (now university).
More than 40 years and 50,000 birds later, he's still going strong.
"I'd been accepted at a bunch of colleges," Bartlett said. "The school I wanted to go to was in Maine, but it was a tiny little place. There was nothing there."
Instead, he flew to Tiffin and discovered something a bit larger.
"It was kind of funny," he said. "It was $21 to fly from New Jersey to Toledo and $13 to fly from Toledo to Tiffin."
Big Sit returns
Tom Bartlett will be conducting his 17th annual Big Sit Saturday.
The fundraiser for Black Swamp Bird Observatory takes place in conjunction with International Migratory Bird Day and the Biggest Week in American Birding.
When IMBD festivities were started at the Magee Marsh area, Bartlett said BSBO was asked to provide bird guides for people on the boardwalk.
"The first year, we walked up and down the boardwalk," he said. "The second year, I just sat there and kept a list for the fun of it."
In the third year, he announced he was going to do the Big Sit again, but this time he was taking pledges to raise money for bird research.
"We raised $750 that first year," he said. Since then, the average has been about $1,500 a year, with one year topping out at $3,800.
Bartlett sits in one spot from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. In addition to counting birds, he attempts to last the whole day without taking a bathroom break.
"Now there are people who pledge how long I'll go without going to the bathroom," he said. "Lots of years I've made it the whole 12 hours. The unfortunate thing is, the older I get, the harder it is to do."
He said some people are pledging $20 an hour.
"You just can't give up," he said. "I have to stay in that circle."
Originally from Maine, he graduated from high school in New Jersey in 1969.
As a freshman at Heidelberg, Bartlett was introduced to birds when he took an ornithology class.
"I got hooked on them while I was in college," he said. "I took a class from Dr. (Howard) Hintz."
He went on to become Hintz's lab assistant for the next three years. The two later (in 1989) collaborated on a book, "The Birds of Seneca County," which Bartlett plans to update soon.
Also during that freshman class, Barlett began working with Jean Knoblaugh, a local birding pioneer, banding birds.
And he never stopped.
He trained under her for several years, receiving his own master banding permit in 1972.
During his years at Heidelberg, he met Paula, his future wife, and they chose to remain in Tiffin and raise their daughter, Laura.
"I don't know why we stayed," he said. "But it's 40-some years later and we're still here."
He said Ohio is in the middle of the country, which makes travel convenient to the western and eastern parts of the country.
After he graduated from Heidelberg in 1974 with a bachelor's degree in interdepartmental studies, he started working at Basic Refractories, Bettsville.
"I got a job in the brick factory, where I made very good money. We paid off our college loans quickly," he said. "That lasted a little more than a year because it slowed down or something."
Not long after that, Heidelberg invited him to teach a course on the natural history of Seneca County.
"I really enjoyed the teaching," he said. "So I looked into getting a teaching certificate."
He went back to school at Bowling Green State University and did his student teaching in the Clyde school district, graduating in 1976. It happened Clyde was in need of a science teacher at the time and he was hired to teach life sciences and computer classes.
"I taught at Clyde for 17 years," he said. "I lucked out."
In 1992, he changed jobs and taught biology and general science at Columbian High School until he retired in 2006.
"I taught all different levels," he said. "It was fun. I liked it."
In 1991, he earned a master's degree in science and education from the University of Toledo.
After he graduated from Heidelberg in 1988, Bartlett coached men's soccer at the college.
"That got in the way of birding a lot, especially in the fall," he said.
In addition, he served in several other education- and sports-related positions such as Clyde Junior High wrestling coach, as a registered high school wrestling official, junior high Nature Club adviser and Green Sunday adviser.
He still serves as an ecology instructor for elementary school ecology days.
In 1984, Bartlett started banding birds at Springville Marsh State Nature Preserve, and he was on the Ohio board of the Nature Conservancy from 1979-91 when about 200 acres of marsh was purchased and protected in 1980.
During the first years the marsh was open, Bartlett said he volunteered as a naturalist and led tours.
In 1996, Bartlett was one the founders of the Seneca County Park District.
"Judge (Gerald) Meyer ran an ad in the paper," he said.
Among 16 people who applied to become members of the new board, he, Linda Anderson and Tom Corner were selected.
Bartlett retired from the board at the end of 2010.
"We came a long, long way in 14 years with no funding," he said. "That's the one good thing I did in 14 years. I hired Roland."
He referred to Roland Zimmerman, who served as park director for 10 years, retiring in January.
"We hired him for 10 hours a week and then took his watch away," Bartlett said.
Bartlett remains active in the park district as a volunteer.
"I've only missed one board meeting since I retired," he said.
"It was fun. I really enjoyed it," he said. "You had such a good crew of volunteers. There wasn't a whole lot of pressure.
"First we got Garlo (Heritage Nature Preserve), then guys like Dan Mason and Joe Vera fell in our laps because they didn't know any better," he said.
And the good fortune continues.
"Every park we get there's people that jump in," he said. "People don't understand how remarkable it is. They just figure out how to get it done. People just show up with stuff."
Just one example was blazing a trail along the Sandusky River at Steyer Nature Preserve on a hot, humid day using machetes.
"We'd gone a couple hours and we'd gotten only a short distance," he said. "Out of the brush comes Larry (Barto) with his skid loader and he's already got a quarter mile done. A job that would have taken us days was done in an afternoon."
Bartlett said he retired because it was time.
"It was time for a change," he said. "You need to bring in some new blood that looks at things in a different way."
But retirement from teaching and his park district duties doesn't mean he's retired altogether.
Bartlett has become more active in bird banding activities.
He's active in many associations, and now is the president of Inland Bird Banding Association.
"I've been a member for almost 40 years," he said.
In the past, he's served on the organization's board of directors and served as treasurer for 15 years.
"Tom Kashmer (of Sandusky County) and I used to go the meetings all the time," he said. "It was an excuse to travel."
Bartlett said he's one of about 50 licensed banders in Ohio and 5,000 nationwide.
He is certified to train other people as master banders using the procedures of the North American Banding Council.
"I get around all over the county doing that," he said.
In May 2010, Bartlett banded his 50,000th lifetime bird.
"It was a hummingbird. It was kind of neat," he said.
After seeing so many birds up close, Bartlett said he doesn't have a favorite.
"They're all fun," he said. "You like to get the uncommon ones now and then, but they're all fun."
He enjoys recapturing birds to find out how long they live. He's recaptured a 12-year-old yellow flycatcher, which was a national record.
During his early years, he caught the same catbird on the same day three years in a row.
In 1995, Bartlett was invited to speak at Kelleys Island during a Nest with the Birds event. During that trip, he realized the research potential of banding on the island. He started in 1996, and he has been banding there once a month since 1997.
"I go the third week of every month," he said. "Which gives you a good snapshot of the birds that use the area."
He has banded more than 5,000 birds at Kelleys.
Numbers of banding days and numbers of birds have increased since he retired from his full-time job.
He banded about 500 birds last year at Kelleys and 1,500-2,000 every year at Springville.
Also in the last five years since he retired, Bartlett has started banding shorebirds at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge and Winous Point Hunt Club.
Research is showing the importance of the marsh area around Lake Erie to the birds.
"Some of these birds triple their weight in the fall," he said. "They fatten up and fly to the Gulf (of Mexico)."
Then, he said, they stop to feed again before they continue their journey to South America.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife used bird data already collected by banders to determine where to buy land on the islands as state parks and nature preserves.
"In order to buy it, you had to show that the birds were there," he said. "It made it easy for them to document."
Through the years, Bartlett has acquired an extensive collection of awards, ranging from an Eagle Scout Award in 1966 from Boy Scouts of America, to the Oak Leaf Award in 1985 from the Ohio chapter of the The Nature Conservancy to many awards for volunteer service to several organizations.
Last fall, he was named the first research associate in the Division of Ornithology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Some others of his most recent awards were a Recognition of Contributions this year from the Ohio House of Representatives, the 2008 Outstanding Alumni Award from Heidelberg, the 2008 Volunteer of the Year Award for the Seneca County Park District and an award for serving 1,000 hours as a volunteer for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Because Paula is retired also, the Bartletts now plan to travel more.
Last winter, they went to Ecuador in February and March where they saw 392 bird species, of which 250 were new ones.
In general, Bartlett said there are several reasons for banding birds. It helps to monitor populations and reproductive rates. Banding helps prove birds use the same places to breed year after year. Each bird banded is weighed and given a check-up to determine physical characteristics. And banding shows behavioral traits.
"We band mainly to show what birds are using the area," he said. "Birds are a true indicator of the environment. A good environment is a diverse environment. If we show it's not as diverse, there are going to be problems for us (humans).
"Monitoring the environment is important and birds are one of those things we can monitor fairly easily," added.