The first time Brooke Bateman recognized the haunting wail of a Common Loon in northern Wisconsin, she was in second grade. The sound enchanted Bateman as it echoed across a glassy lake and proved to be her gateway into conservation. She went on to write a report about the eerie red-eyed waterbirds for school, devouring every book that so much as mentioned the species.
Some 25 years later, Bateman stood with her three-year-old daughter on a lakeshore not far from the one she birded on as kid. When her daughter heard the ghostly yodel of a loon for the first time, she watched a similar wide-eyed expression of awe cross her child’s face. “I became so emotional about it,” Bateman says, “because I know in a couple of years we can go to that same spot and the loons might not be there anymore.” As global temperatures continue to rise, loons, and thousands of other species across North America and beyond, are abandoning their historic ranges in search of more suitable habitat.
It’s realizations like these that inspire Bateman’s work. She first started tracking the effects that extreme weather has on wildlife as a doctoral candidate at James Cook University. She then went on to analyze data for 285 North American bird species, with help from researchers in Wisconsin and Australia, to assess how birds are responding to a changing climate. The results revealed that not only are birds moving faster than anticipated, but they’re also showing up in places researchers didn’t expect.
Now, as Audubon’s senior scientist of climate, Bateman is leading Climate Watch, a survey conducted by community scientists across the United States who will test the predictions in Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report against real-life sightings. “We’re able to use the data to see the relationship between range shift, climate change, and birds based on our studies,” Bateman says.
Solutions to the climate crisis are going to start at the local level, Bateman says, and recruiting diverse communities into the data-collecting and problem-solving process are essential to tackling such a global issue. Just like in nature, “the more diversification you have in an ecosystem, the more resilient that system will be to change,” Bateman says.
For climate science in particular, opening up the dialogue and participation within the “ivory tower” of academic research and beyond to include women, people of color, and indigenous communities is pertinent. “If you exclude a whole gender,” or race, or social class, “you’re going to miss a whole perspective and way of seeing things,” Bateman says. Community science projects like Climate Watch have the potential to recruit leaders, researchers, and activists from regions most affected by climate change into the discussion—so “we’re not limited to one singular point of view.”
The pilot phase of the survey focuses on tracking seven species of bluebirds and nuthatches. When the project fully launches in June, it will include additional species in the counts, but by starting with common backyard birds, Bateman hopes to bring climate change’s local impact to the forefront.
“If you can get people to realize that birds that used to come to the feeders aren’t showing up any more, it makes climate change personal,” Bateman says, and counting birds for Climate Watch is a tangible way to do that. For Bateman, holding her three-year-old daughter on her lap while they listen to the fading call of a Common Loon not only makes climate change feel personal, but it also reminds her that it’s not just a future for birds that she’s fighting for.
Hear Brooke Bateman talk more about Climate Watch below.
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