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

Think about it: an inexorable pull that you need to heed, a name that pulls 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 houses 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 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 almost all of her off-shift time outdoor 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 lovely 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 stafffirst as a spatial ecologist and finally 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 belongings in and round Alaska’s Arctic area. For the atlas, Smith, Erika Knight, and their colleagues dug via databases and queried researchers to search out datasets on the bodily and organic options and financial exercise of the realm, 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 hen species that decision the Arctic dwelling for at the least 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. Picture: Kristy Lapenta/Audubon Pictures Awards

The atlas isn’t only a beautiful and engaging doc—though it’s each of these issues. That marriage of visible class and sharp information made it attainable for Audubon Alaska employees to assist affect, amongst different issues, the placement of worldwide transport lanes in order that they might skirt round probably 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 job she has taken on now that she’s extra established in her profession—and received 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 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 things; you simply need to know learn how 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 attempting to mine information 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 subject 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 Chicken Initiative, a challenge that goals to assemble in a single place the entire information about 458 species of migratory birds in North America, in 2018. It’s not all that completely different from her work on the Arctic atlas, however the on-line interactive Chicken Migration Explorer that Smith developed along with her staff expands each the technical and geographic scope—MBI covers your entire Western Hemisphere—far past what she’s accomplished up to now. 

The Chicken Migration Explorernot solely showcases the wonder and stunning nuanceof hen migration pathways, however 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 determine the locations most necessary to birds throughout the Americas with a watch 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. Picture: Tamara Zeller

That on-the-ground strategy—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 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 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 individuals might have that have, too.” 

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

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