It’s not easy to say goodbye to BT3

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sunset with ducks

Some things are just plain wrong, and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.

Last fall my friend, Bill Thompson III, editor and co-publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest (BWD), began feeling poorly. In mid-December, he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He was 57 when he died on March 25.

Bill’s parents, Elsa and Bill Jr., launched BWD in 1978 as a family business from their home in Marietta, Ohio.

Bill, or BT3 as he came to be known, got hooked on birds as a child. After college, he worked a variety of jobs before starting at BWD in 1998.

Eventually, Bill became the magazine’s editor. But his vision extended far beyond BWD.

He and brother Andy worked together to produce a bestselling series of booklets on backyard birding that includes 16 titles.

Not content to edit a successful, award-winning magazine, Bill also wrote a number of popular birding books, including The New Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America (2014), Bird Homes and Habitats (2013) and Birdwatching for Dummies (1997).

Bill cemented his reputation in the birding world with a blog and two podcasts. And since 2014, his BWD Reader Rendezvous has led readers on birding adventures to 11 states and six countries.

When it came to birds, Bill was simply indefatigable.

He was also a talented musician and songwriter. At birding festivals, his group, The Rain Crows, performed for enthusiastic audiences.

I remember one day at West Virginia’s New River Birding Festival a few years ago when he grabbed his guitar and serenaded the crowd: “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowbirds.”

That pretty much sums up Bill’s life and attitude as a birder-musician.

Another insightful memory of Bill is a quote by Charles Lindbergh he once shared with me.

“If I had to choose, I’d rather have birds than airplanes.”

I first met Bill back in the early 1990s. His parents invited their sons, a photographer, an artist and a few writers to their home to get some outside perspectives on the magazine.

Bill was one of those people who never met a stranger. We stayed in touch ever since. Though we only saw each other a few times a year, I considered Bill a good friend.

For a span of about 15 years, we’d connect at the New River Festival, where we’d usually get to guide at least one field trip together.

In fact, my most vivid memory of Bill comes from one of those field trips.

I had often heard Swainson’s warbler, but Bill knew I had never been able to see one well enough to add it to my life list.

As we got off the bus for lunch by a boulder-strewn river, Bill pulled me aside and said, “There’s a good chance you’ll get your Swainson’s today.”

Next thing I knew, Bill was scanning some dense vegetation with his binoculars. Others had already gathered behind him to see what had caught his eye.

Then he whispered, “Watch for movement. There it is…. Swainson’s!”

It was a life bird for most of the group. But even that wasn’t good enough for Bill. He always tried to get everyone to see every bird through his scope. And that is no easy task. But he did it, and always with patience and good humor. That’s how I finally got my Swainson’s warbler.

I also remember Bill as a favorite guest on my weekly radio show. Several times he came on to promote two of his favorite projects — the Midwest Birding Symposium and the American Birding Expo.

And every time he published a new book, I loved hearing him explain how the book came to be.

Bill was a great radio guest. He was knowledgeable, articulate, entertaining and always full of fascinating stories. I so enjoyed those conversations that I often forgot anyone else was listening.

No one ever promised that life was fair; losing Bill Thompson III at age 57 is proof of that.

In the words of a great Steve Miller song, Bill, “… fly like an eagle to the sea…” until you’re free.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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