‘The Bird Man’

It was either that or ‘Bird Nerd’ for Watts, whose compulsion started with the most abundant bird on the continent

Times Observer photo by Stacey Gross Don Watts checks his backyard feeders.

Don Watts was in his 30’s when he became a birder.

One afternoon during a spring turkey hunt in the 1970’s, Watts said, he’d given up on a turkey.

“If you didn’t hear a turkey by 7 p.m. you just went home,” he said.

Then, according to Watts, a wave of little “tweety birds” came overhead.

“I don’t know, it’s probably because they were black and orange — Sheffield colors — but that’s probably what piqued my interest.”

From there, Watts said, it became a compulsion. After he’d seen the black-and-orange flock he’d returned home and looked them up in a bird guide that his uncle had given him. One of the birds turned out to be an American Redstart. And, the guide said, it was one of the most abundant birds in North America.

“How can that possibly be,” Watts asked himself.

He’d spent 30-some-odd years in these woods and never seen one before.

Watts said it made him realize that he needed to “start looking around at things.

“I need to start paying more attention to what’s going on and what I see out here,” he said, because even in the place where he felt most at home something new and unseen had been tucked away, unnoticed, for three decades.

It may have been that moment of discovery, or the fact that it came so late in terms of his birding life. “Most of the people that are going to develop into really good birders,” Watts said, “start birding young.”

Whatever it was about that flock of black-and-orange warblers, Watts said, something about it gave him “a compulsion to identify every bird I saw.”

Some birders make lists and competitions out of spotting every bird on their list.

Watt’s sister, Brenda, was a list-maker, and has gone as far as the Pacific coast to see a puffin. He said that he never got into traveling outside the county for a sighting or list-making, except to keep a personal journal of unique sightings or a “hot tub list” of what he could peep from the hot tub behind his house.

But, though they have birded differently, Watts said he and his sister shared and nurtured each other’s interest in birding.

Brenda, who taught at Fort LeBoeuf High School in Waterford, lived in Erie at the time, near Presque Isle State Park. “That was a great place for birders,” said Watts. “It really added to our interest in birds.”

In any case, it was in 1986 that John Dorio and Corky Slack, a Forest Service and also Game Commission employee, respectively, got Watts involved in improving wildlife habitats through their mutual membership in the Sheffield Rod and Gun Club.

“Any bird he heard,” Watts said, Dorio could identify it.

As far as birding goes, Watts said, you start by visual identification and progress to identification by a bird’s song.

“I learned a lot from (Dorio),” Watts said. “I was impressed by his ability to do that.”

Dorio eventually transferred to Minnesota and then to Alaska, Watts said, but “he was an excellent birder. He was really good.” He was also one of the people who’ve had a huge influence on drawing Watts further into his birding habit.

Also in the 1970’s, Watts said, Bill Highhouse and Ron Reeder started a nest box trail in Warren County. They’d gotten about 10 nest boxes set up and were monitoring them, Watts said, with the help of Dorio. Dorio suggested some marginal habitats in which to try nest boxes, Watts said, and the number of boxes grew to 25. Eventually, with Dorio’s transfer to Minnesota looming, Watts said Dorio asked him to take his place.

“He said to me, ‘hey, you’ve got a pickup and a ladder. Would you consider helping this guy with his boxes,” Watts said.

By the time he was finished with the nest box project, Watts said, he’d found himself monitoring over 50 nest boxes.

There are a whole host of men in Warren who’ve mentored Watts and helped him to develop into the birder he is. Highhouse, Dorio, Reeder, and Slack are just a few. Ted Grisez, who banded the kestrels in the nest boxes Watts was monitoring, taught Watts how to band. It was through that interaction, Watts said, that he eventually gained his master banding certificate. That took from 1996 to 2000, Watts said. During that time, Watts was working full-time, 40 to 50 hours a week, at the National Forge, trying to keep up with life, and still birding and monitoring nest boxes as well. “Checking the boxes was really time-consuming,” said Watts. But, still, that compulsion drove him.

Bill Hill and Chase Putnam, and Chuck and Marge Neel, Warren birders who had already started the Christmas Bird Count in Warren County, also influenced him. “They were the birding group in Warren,” Watts said of the people who’d gotten him into birding and kept him there. “They mentored me. They were strong influences over me.”

In 1984, Highhouse asked Watts to help him with the first Warren County Breeding Bird Atlas. He did help, and progressed through the years to become the regional coordinator for the second atlas, which was completed between 2004 and 2008.

Through all these years, Watts said, he’s developed a reputation.

People who watch the birds in their feeders or in the field call him with unusual sightings, and the records for the Christmas Bird Count that Hill and Putnam had been keeping were passed on to him. Although he tried to keep his “binoculars hidden” and his interest in birding quiet, he became well known among the others he worked with as a birder. “They’d call me the bird man,” said Watts, adding that at first he was worried people would think it was a less-than-masculine pastime. He didn’t want to be known as the “bird nerd,” he said. But by the end of his careers at both the Forge and the United Refinery, Watts said that coworkers would be bringing him in feathers to identify.

Watts said that when he worked at the National Forge he was part of a golf league at Jackson Valley. He and a foreman were on the seventh hole of the course, and the foreman noticed a little bird in a tree. “‘Alright bird man,’ he said to me, ‘what’s that one called?'”

Watts looked up and said to the foreman, “Well, that’s one of the most abundant birds in North America.”

The foreman couldn’t believe it. How could that be one of the most abundant birds in North America if he’d never seen one before, the foreman asked Watts.

“That’s an American Redstart,” Watts said with a smile, and bet the foreman $20 that he could prove it was one of the most abundant in North America. The next day, Watts said, he took his bird guide in, showed the foreman his bird, and won himself $20.

Watts said that he worries about the future of birding in Warren.

While people like Hill and Highhouse were able to mentor him, he said, most of the younger people who have an interest in birding and would make good birders don’t stay in the area, he said. While he has a few young people who are interested, he hopes that one day he’ll be able to pass on the Christmas Bird Count torch to someone as Putnam and Hill did to him.

He said that a person doesn’t need to know a thing about birds to get involved and he hopes that anyone with an interest will reach out to him. “I’ll teach you about birds,” he said. “But you’ve got to have an interest.” Watts said he’d love to see a more robust birding community in the area, mirroring the Jamestown, N.Y. birding community. In Jamestown, he said, there’s the Audubon Society and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, and an ornithological club associated with it. And while those are close, easy places to get to, there’s no official bird club in Warren, he said.

For more information or to talk birds with Watts, call him at (814) 723-9125.