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 varsity for a few years, after which I took a break and moved to Alaska and utterly 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, climbing, and watching the Horned and Tufted Puffins as they dove for fish within the bay. “I used to be utterly obsessed—how stunning and the way wild it’s. I knew that I needed to maneuver to Alaska completely. However I additionally knew that I needed 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 groupfirst as a spatial ecologist and ultimately because the director of conservation science. The mission 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 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 belongings, 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 no less than a part of the 12 months. 

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 Pictures Awards

The atlas isn’t only a beautiful and interesting doc—though it’s each of these issues. That marriage of visible magnificence and sharp information made it doable for Audubon Alaska employees to assist affect, amongst different issues, the position of worldwide transport lanes in order that they’d 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 realized the worth of mentorship—a job she has taken on now that she’s extra established in her profession—and acquired some killer recommendation courtesy of then-Audubon Alaska senior scientist John Schoen. 

“I’d ask him a tough query and he’d effortlessly have the ability to 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 need to know all the pieces; you simply need to know easy methods 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 making an attempt to mine information 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. Photograph: Nick Jans

After a decade constructing relationships at Audubon Alaska, Smith switchedto working for Audubon’s Migratory Hen Initiative, a mission that goals to collect in a single place the entire information 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 along with her group expands each the technical and geographic scope—MBI covers the complete Western Hemisphere—far past what she’s finished up to now. 

The Hen Migration Explorernot solely showcases the wonder and stunning 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 information to establish 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 throughout 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 totally by practice and boat. It reminds her that there are locations the place people are however one ingredient in an enormous community of dwelling beings influenced by the implacable and irresistible forces of nature. 

“I grew up in Michigan and the land may 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 needed to work to guard it, in order that different individuals might have that have, too.” 

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

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