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

Think about it: an inexorable pull that you could heed, a name that attracts you to the wild unknown. That pull—known as “zugunruhe” by migration specialists—grips birds, caribou, butterflies, fish, and numerous different animals into their yearly peregrinations from their winter properties to their summer season ones, and again once more. And it gripped ecologist Melanie Smith, this system director for the Chicken Migration Explorer, a part of Audubon’s Migratory Chicken 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 outside going sea kayaking, climbing, 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 college.” 

In 2008, after getting a Grasp’s diploma in geography, Smith made her closing transfer to Alaska, becoming a member of the Audubon Alaska workforcefirst as a spatial ecologist and ultimately because the director of conservation science. The challenge that set the stage for her eventual transfer to the Migratory Chicken 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 property in and round Alaska’s Arctic area. For the atlas, Smith, Erika Knight, and their colleagues dug by way of databases and queried researchers to seek out datasets on the bodily and organic options and financial exercise of the world, together with transport lanes, oil and gasoline property, marine mammal migration paths, fish spawning grounds, and, sure, breeding and foraging grounds for the lots of of fowl species that decision the Arctic dwelling for at the very 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. Photograph: Kristy Lapenta/Audubon Images Awards

The atlas isn’t only a beautiful and interesting doc—though it’s each of these issues. That marriage of visible class and sharp knowledge made it potential for Audubon Alaska employees to assist affect, amongst different issues, the placement of worldwide transport lanes in order that they might skirt round essentially the most ecologically important stretches of water alongside Alaska’s coast. 

It was additionally throughout her tenure at Audubon Alaska that Smith discovered the worth of mentorship—a task she has taken on now that she’s extra established in her profession—and bought 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 should know all the things; you simply should know tips on how to work with others to seek out out. And I’ve came upon that whether or not it’s technical work, the place you’re attempting to mine knowledge to construct an atlas, otherwise you’re attempting 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. Photograph: Nick Jans

After a decade constructing relationships at Audubon Alaska, Smith switchedto working for Audubon’s Migratory Chicken Initiative, a challenge 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 Chicken Migration Explorer that Smith developed together with her workforce expands each the technical and geographic scope—MBI covers all the Western Hemisphere—far past what she’s executed prior to now. 

The Chicken Migration Explorernot solely showcases the wonder and shocking nuanceof fowl migration pathways, nevertheless it 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 essential 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. Photograph: 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 completely by practice and boat. It reminds her that there are locations the place people are however one ingredient 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 discovered that I wished to work to guard it, in order that different folks might 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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