The soul of an avid bird watcher

Dr. Tom Johnson uses binoculars to sight birds during a recent birding venture in Appanoose County.

If the eyes are a window to our souls, then local optometrist Dr. Tom Johnson may be our soul man.

Tom’s journey to Centerville is a story that came into focus through his early years of serving his country during the Vietnam war, years of college and years as a science teacher.

Tom reminisces, “After graduating from Iowa State University, I worked. During that time, I was drafted in 1969.”

Nixon’s newly implemented draft swept Tom up during a tumultuous time in the nation’s history. He served as a medic for two years.

After the service young Tom returned for more college in Ames and then began a teaching career in Ottumwa and Rockwell City for six years.

In 1980, Johnson’s career path changed as he chose to attend optometry college in California on the GI Bill. It was after Tom’s optometry education, service to his country and teaching career that he finally set his sights on Centerville.

In 1984, the now-certified optometrist purchased Dr. Gleason’s Optometry practice.

Today, Tom is semi-retired. Allowing more time to travel with his family, his volunteer work, and to enjoy his favorite hobby: birdwatching.

Sharon Bluffs, Lake Rathbun, the Sedan Bottoms and even his own certified backyard habitat are a few of his favorite vistas for birding. In his 35th year as a fan of all things aviary, Tom is still learning and having a great time.

“Birding is just fun, anytime,” he said.

Johnson recalls when the seeds of his birdwatching were planted.

“I always enjoyed outdoor things like young boys do,” Johnson said. “Science was my field. I never watched birds specifically until I was teaching school while signing up for non-credit classes on birdwatching at the community college. That was back in 1973 or ‘74 and I have been interested in birds ever since.”

Meeting up with one of our local birders means getting up before the birds. Tom explains, “We get up early, sometimes when it’s dark.”

On a recent morning, the Appanoose County sky was partly cloudy to humble. Johnson is experienced, knowledgeable, active in local, state, and federal bird counts, and has sighted 94 percent of our county’s bird species. He also possesses a pleasing talent for communicating his birding intelligence.

You can call Tom for supper but not an expert.

“I don’t bird watch because I want to be an expert,” Tom said. “For example, I have never taken an ornithology class. It’s just a good thing to do outdoors, and it’s fun.”

Tom is also quick to acknowledge his fellow local birdwatchers, noting that “there are other knowledgeable birders in our area.”

The American Museum of Natural History lists 18,000 species of birds worldwide. North America can claim 939 of those varieties.

Focusing down to our own state, the IOU, or the Iowa Ornithologist Union, lists 429 diverse species of birds in Iowa. In Appanoose County, citizens have the opportunity to sight 313 varieties.

Of the 99 counties in Iowa, Appanoose County ranks ninth in the IOU’s state species ranking. No doubt Rathbun Lake is an asset to the county’s variety of waterfowl.

Johnson’s hobby has put him in positions to lay eyes on 295 of the 313 species in Appanoose County while his traveling has enabled his bird count to check off 600 of the 939 varieties nationwide.

“We have birded in 27 states, which includes Alaska. All the western and midwestern states,” remarks Tom. “Most southern states are also great for birdwatching.”

In two weeks, Tom and his wife Becky Johnson, accompanied with their binoculars, will have their sights set on mountains and migratory birds of the southwest.

“We are going to Arizona for birdwatching,” Tom said. “This will be our seventh or eighth trip there. People from all over the world will come to where we will see certain rare birds migrating from Mexico.”

Tom not only enjoys the ‘sightings’ but is involved in important bird studies.

Tom takes part in state and federal bird counts.

“I do two breeding bird surveys, one goes to Appanoose County and I do another one that goes through Lucas County,” Johnson said. “I turn that information into the federal government. You have 50 stops in 25 miles. You stop every half mile and then listen for three minutes and write down the birds you hear or see. You do this year after year to see how things change. We lose certain birds and we gain others.”

Considering his bird watching pastime of several decades, watching birds both local and national, does Tom have his Moby Dick?

Is there that one elusive bird that Tom has never seen but would like to?

“The Lucifer Hummingbird,” quickly answers Tom. “The Lucifers enter from Mexico up to the Chiricahua Mountains and that is where we are going.”

For the local optometrist, will trip number nine to the Chiricahua Mountains be when Tom at long last looks into the soul of the Lucifer Hummingbird?



Dann enjoyed a 16-year career with Casey’s General Stores. Centerville’s wayward son uncomfortable with success, returned home to own and operate the 88-year-old Blue Bird Family Restaurant for 23 years.

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