Dawn Hewitt, editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest and Watching Backyard Birds, has been a birder for more than 40 years, and in the publishing world for 20. If you’ve spent even a few minutes with her, you know what a delightful and dynamic person she is and how lucky we are to have her leading our editorial team. Here she talks about getting started in birding, her favorite birds and places to go birding, and her birding wish list. She also reveals some dark secrets that may surprise you!
BWD: When did you become a birder, and how? What was your spark bird?
DH: As a junior at West Virginia University in 1979, I took a course in lab ornithology. For extra credit—that I really didn’t need—I went on an outing with the local bird club, led by one of my favorite professors, Bill Wiley. It was so much fun that I got up at dawn every Saturday morning for the rest of the semester just to do it again. I loved birding.
A few months later I was at home in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, visiting my cousins a few blocks away from my house one evening. My cousin Beth, who is a bit younger than I but had caught the nature bug as a child, pointed out a flock of common grackles in the meadowy lot next door. Grackles?!? In our neighborhood?!? But there they were. That’s when I realized that birding is a way of life, a state of being, a frame of mind. That’s when I realized that birds are all around me if only I am attuned to them. So, common grackle isn’t the first bird on my life list (red-bellied woodpecker is), but I consider it to be my spark bird, and that evening is really when I “got” birding.
BWD: Where did you live and where did you work before you moved to Marietta to work at BWD?
DH: For 31 years, I lived in and loved Bloomington, Indiana. I was a newspaper reporter, copy editor, and the birding columnist at the Herald-Times newspaper. In 2013, when my late, beloved boss, Bill Thompson, III, advertised for a managing editor at BWD, he posted on Facebook that he was looking for “someone who knew about birds and publishing.” I subscribed to BWD, but I didn’t follow BT3 on Facebook. But my friend Andi did. She saw that post and forwarded it to me, saying, “Dawn, I think Bird Watcher’s Digest is looking for you!” She was right! I will forever be grateful to her.
BWD: You have traveled extensively to bird. How many countries have you been to? Do you have a favorite?
DH: I have! Even before I started with BWD in October 2013, I had traveled to all 50 states and birded in most of them. I had also visited (and birded) in Canada, Mexico, Belize, England and Scotland, and Thailand. None of those trips were really birding trips, but where I am, I bird. Since I started at BWD, I’ve also been to Ecuador (twice, including the Galapagos Islands), Colombia (twice), and Costa Rica, as well as to a whole bunch of birding hotspots in the U.S. (Am I lucky, or what?) So, if I count four hours in the Tokyo airport and a five-minute illegal border crossing into Guatemala, I’ve been to 11 countries. (Sadly, I didn’t note any birds in the five minutes I was on Guatemalan soil.)
If I could return to one place I’ve been for more birding, it would be Colombia, I suppose. I’ve visited only two regions of that mega-biodiverse country (well, plus Bogota), and although I saw amazing, mind-blowing birds there—including a long-tailed potoo, which was the coolest bird I’ve ever seen—I know I just skimmed the surface of Colombia’s avifauna. Also, the people were so welcoming and friendly, and the food was delicious! Of course, Ecuador and Costa Rica are pretty amazing, too. I’d go back to any of those three in a heartbeat.
BWD: What birds and locations are on your bucket list?
DH: Hmmmm. Well, I’d love to see more potoos and frogmouths! But also a lyrebird! And a kiwi! And a lilac-breasted roller! And a hoopoe! But first, really, I still have a few hundred target birds on my North American list, such a Bicknell’s thrush, and a bunch of other boreal birds, owls especially. Oh, and sharp-tailed grouse on a lek. Oh, and sooty grouse. And yellow-billed magpie. Locations on my bucket list? The Ruby Mountains of Nevada for a Himalayan snowcock! I have a map of the places I’ve been, and there’s a big gap in the Great Basin. I could pick up Cassia crossbill while I’m out there!
BWD: Do you keep a life list? If so, what is your number?
DH: You bet I do! eBird says it’s 1,122, but I haven’t gotten around to adding my birds of Thailand or the U.K., so it’s probably around 1,200. I also keep year lists and a yard list, and sometimes yard/year lists. I kept a BWD office window list, too. But I work from home now, so that list will probably be forever 43.
BWD: Do you have a favorite bird?
DH: Hmmmm. Well, again, potoos and frogmouths make me swoon! I really loved watching greater sage grouse on a leck. This is a hard question! Wait! I know the answer! My favorite bird is the one I’m looking at. I am truly a bird watcher as well as a birder. Thanks to Tim Griffith of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for making me realize that.
BWD: What is your favorite part about working at Bird Watcher’s Digest?
DH: Oh, there are so many things I love about working for BWD! Getting paid to go birding in far-off places is high on the list. And I’ve made so many friends—my co-workers, of course, are some of my dearest friends. But I’m also talking about people I’ve met on the Reader Rendezvous—when we get to go birding with BWD fans. I’ve made some lifelong friends on those trips, people who I look forward to hanging out with in the future, people who share my love of birds and adventure and exploration. But mostly, I love that I’m getting paid to promote awareness of, respect for, and enjoyment of wild birds, and through that, I think I’m promoting conservation of birds and other wildlife, and wild places, and that, I think, is a worthy endeavor. But also, I got to know and learn so much from Bill Thompson, III. And Julie Zickefoose! And I’ve gotten to go birding with Scott Weidensaul, and Mark Garland, and sooo many other amazing birders and naturalists. And what a thrill for me to work with our amazing lineup of BWD columnists! How can I not be thrilled about that? But really, for me, the birds are number one.
BWD: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
DH: Sure! Here are some weird things about me:
- I have six (indoor only) cats and one small dog (although my partner and I are working on finding another dog not quite as large as his recently deceased, beloved great Dane).
- I play many musical instruments poorly, but I love spending hours with them anyhow: concertina, banjo (clawhammer), accordion, piano, fiddle, guitar, and bass guitar.
- I’m a fan of southern Appalachian string band music.
- I’m an NPR junkie.
- I’m a practicing Unitarian Universalist.
- I’ll be getting my second artificial hip on July 22. YAY!!
- I realize that it’s gratitude that makes me happy. I’m in a better place when I take time to actively practice gratitude.