Paula Bartlett waits for Tom Bartlett to weigh and measure a bird at the bird banding station in Kelleys Island, Ohio in May 2023. She records the data for Tom by hand which will later be entered into a database for scientific research.
Paula Bartlett waits for Tom Bartlett to weigh and measure a bird at the bird banding station in Kelleys Island, Ohio in May 2023. She records the data for Tom by hand which will later be entered into a database for scientific research.

Paula Barlett, 72, may be best known for her work in bird banding, but she’s also a writer at heart.

She is a mother to Laura, wife to Tom, retired social worker and resident of Ohio, where very little of her time is actually spent at home.

Though she may be retired in the traditional sense, Paula’s life is anything but relaxing. She volunteers with her husband Tom during fall and spring migration seasons, where they lead a bird banding operation that is over 50 years strong. This is no small feat, as several of the locations involve trekking all their gear and living essentials via ferries to several islands out on Lake Erie. Days start with opening nets before sunrise, and in the fall owl season, they don’t stop until well after dark. Often, they will spend a morning banding in one location, only to race home, pack up a week’s worth of resources, drive an hour to catch a ferry and set up that following evening for banding on a remote island. They are more active than many people half their age.

Bird banding is a way for Paula and Tom to contribute to bird research, conservation and outreach. They have frequent visitors to the banding stations and many of the people that first met the duo as children decades ago return with their children to experience the same magic they cherished. Several of the visitors pursued careers in science and conservation because of the impact Paula and Tom had on them as young students. Many spoke of the life-changing moment when they were allowed to release a bird after it was banded and the feeling of something so tiny and beautiful in their hand.

Tom is well known because of his outgoing boisterous personality and jokes at the station, but everyone that has taken the time to meet Paula quickly sees that she is the perfect compliment with an equally witty sense of humor, kindness to every stranger and love for the natural world. Tom is the master bander of the pair, but the ongoing project wouldn’t happen without Paula’s hard work at organizing, planning, packing and more. They are truly a team. Vacations between banding seasons always involve seeing birds in a variety of habitats and adding to their 'life lists' of species they’ve seen in their lifetime. Throughout all their adventures, both in travel and during the various banding seasons, Paula dedicates time to write. She keeps incredible journals documenting their journey and has had short stories published about her experiences. Her writing clearly comes from the heart. It will make you cry, laugh and nod your head in relatability. Writing is something she is deeply passionate about.

She lives in Tiffin, Ohio, in the United States.

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How does it feel to be 72?

"I’ve never been one to be overly concerned about reaching age milestones but that changed when I turned seventy. Now, at 72, my brain still thinks I’m 50 but my body sends a different message, it tells me I am old. But achy joints, sleep issues and sagging jowls don’t override the wonderful perks of my age: happy memories and flashbacks pop into my head at random moments, an insightful understanding of the importance of now, the self-acceptance that comes with age and experience. I’m happy to be 72 years old."

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What do you look forward to?

"My life is physically and mentally active. With some reservations I’m looking forward to slowing down. I married a man with a passion for birds and through banding birds, our entire fifty-two year marriage has been devoted to research, conservation and outreach. It’s been a full life of intellectual and physical activity, humor and community with others. Like all things, it will inevitably wane and end. Then there will be more time for travel, reading, writing, cooking soups, baking of breads and exercise to strengthen my thinning bones. I look forward to it with complicated feelings of excitement and dread."

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What is your biggest concern?

"Some concerns seem outside my control: preservation of democracy and slowing of climate change. Some are more personal, like nursing home existence, inevitable mental decline or illness. Selfishly, my biggest concern is not having time to find words that adequately express my heart. I've written plenty: about travel, experience, family. They don’t adequately express the depth of my existence growing up in a dysfunctional family and as an adult with an extraordinary spouse. I occasionally imagine myself lying in assisted living pondering my past. If I don’t get busy I’ll be in a state of regret. I don’t want to, not about this."

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Life expectancy 2023

United States

About the photographer

Christy Frank


I’ve loved people and conservation, and I formed a neighborhood club as a child and had a camera in hand since I was five years old. These days, I am driven to share conservation and documentary storytelling. I strongly believe environmental justice connects us all; people, wildlife, plants, and our beautiful planet.

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