- Bird

Audubon Highlight: Melanie Smith Finds Inspiration within the Highly effective Drive of Nature


Think about it: an inexorable pull that you need to heed, a name that pulls you to the wild unknown. That pull—referred to as “zugunruhe” by migration specialists—grips birds, caribou, butterflies, fish, and numerous different animals into their yearly peregrinations from their winter houses to their summer time ones, and again once more. And it gripped ecologist Melanie Smith, this system director for the Hen Migration Explorer, a part of Audubon’s Migratory Hen Initiative (MBI), early in her faculty years after she first heeded the decision to the Arctic. 

“After highschool, I went to school for a few years, after which I took a break and moved to Alaska and fully fell in love with it,” says Smith. 

Smith spent the next three summers working at Glacier Bay Lodge in Gustavus, Alaska, ready tables throughout her shifts and spending practically all of her off-shift time open air going sea kayaking, mountaineering, and watching the Horned and Tufted Puffins as they dove for fish within the bay. “I used to be fully obsessed—how stunning and the way wild it’s. I knew that I wished to maneuver to Alaska completely. However I additionally knew that I wished to complete faculty and go to grad faculty.” 

In 2008, after getting a Grasp’s diploma in geography, Smith made her last transfer to Alaska, becoming a member of the Audubon Alaska crewfirst as a spatial ecologist and ultimately because the director of conservation science. The undertaking that set the stage for her eventual transfer to the Migratory Hen Initiativewas theEcological Atlas of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas, a cartographic and data-visualization tour-de-force of all of the ecological and financial belongings in and round Alaska’s Arctic area. For the atlas, Smith, Erika Knight, and their colleagues dug by means of databases and queried researchers to search out datasets on the bodily and organic options and financial exercise of the realm, together with delivery lanes, oil and fuel belongings, marine mammal migration paths, fish spawning grounds, and, sure, breeding and foraging grounds for the tons of of chook species that decision the Arctic residence for at the least a part of the yr. 

A black and white puffin with a large orange bill and feet skips over the surface of the water.
Horned Puffin. Picture: Kristy Lapenta/Audubon Images Awards

The atlas isn’t only a attractive and engaging doc—though it’s each of these issues. That marriage of visible class and sharp knowledge made it attainable for Audubon Alaska workers to assist affect, amongst different issues, the placement of worldwide delivery lanes in order that they might skirt round probably the most ecologically vital stretches of water alongside Alaska’s coast. 

It was additionally throughout her tenure at Audubon Alaska that Smith realized the worth of mentorship—a job she has taken on now that she’s extra established in her profession—and obtained some killer recommendation courtesy of then-Audubon Alaska senior scientist John Schoen. 

“I’d ask him a tough query and he’d effortlessly be capable of reply them with subtlety and nuance,” says Smith. “So I requested him ‘How can I reply these questions with the identical ease and finesse? Do I’ve to attend 30 years to get this good?’ He taught me that this work is all about relationships: You don’t must know every part; you simply must know the best way to work with others to search out out. And I’ve came upon that whether or not it’s technical work, the place you’re making an attempt to mine knowledge to construct an atlas, otherwise you’re making an attempt to work with an company on coverage, each step is all about relationships and slowing down and taking the time to construct these authentically.” 

Two people look at a map on the hood of a Jeep in a lush green forest.
Smith and John Schoen of Audubon Alaska conducting discipline reconnaissance on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. Picture: Nick Jans

After a decade constructing relationships at Audubon Alaska, Smith switchedto working for Audubon’s Migratory Hen Initiative, a undertaking that goals to collect in a single place all the knowledge about 458 species of migratory birds in North America, in 2018. It’s not all that totally different from her work on the Arctic atlas, however the on-line interactive Hen Migration Explorer that Smith developed together with her crew expands each the technical and geographic scope—MBI covers all the Western Hemisphere—far past what she’s executed prior to now. 

The Hen Migration Explorernot solely showcases the wonder and stunning nuanceof chook migration pathways, but it surely additionally highlights challenges these birds face and pinpoints the place they happen. Scientists with MBI and its companions like Birds Canada and BirdLife Worldwide will collectively use that knowledge to determine the locations most vital to birds throughout the Americas with an eye fixed to guiding conservation actions on the bottom. 

Melanie Smith stands in mud near a pond and looks through binoculars, a snowy mountain in the distance.
Smith birding in Seward, Alaska in the course of the Audubon Alaska annual Birdathon. Picture: Tamara Zeller

That on-the-ground method—as very important in Latin America as it’s within the Arctic—is what drew Smith to as soon as journey from the Sea of Cortez to the Arctic Ocean totally by prepare and boat. It reminds her that there are locations the place people are however one component in an enormous community of residing beings influenced by the implacable and irresistible forces of nature. 

“I grew up in Michigan and the land could be very carved up into man-made areas: roads and fences and ‘no trespassing’ indicators,” says Smith. “That’s why I fell in love with Alaska. After which found out that I wished to work to guard it, in order that different folks may have that have, too.” 

After a pause she provides, “I like being reminded that there are locations the place individuals are undoubtedly not in cost; locations the place I’m reminded how huge and highly effective nature is.” 

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