Audubon Spotlight: Erika Knight Charted Her Path One Precise Step at a Time

How the GIS expert and data analyst turned a passion for maps and the outdoors into a career in conservation.

Every kid has an interest—one that expands to take up all the space in their heads and dominates what they do during their free time. For some, it’s dinosaurs. Or trains. Or painting. But for Erika Knight, it was maps. And like parents the world over, hers helped foster this interest. During family trips to a lake in the Adirondacks, her mother used to teach her how to read and trace the contour lines out in the sandcastles.

“I have these memories of learning to read maps with my parents. We would go out in the woods, hike off trail, and they would have a map out and point out where we were,” says Knight. “And my sister and I would try and read the map and navigate us to wherever it was we were trying to go." 

From those moments Knight loved being able to put ideas or data on a map to see that perspective. Knight has utilized this passion to synthesize and distill data for Audubon in a way that can be used to inform science and conservation. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing.                                  

In high school Knight took a computer programming class and interned at Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab, a branch of the Army Corps of Engineers. At the time she thought to herself, ‘oh, this is a horrible career. I'm never going to want to sit in front of a computer all day, every day in a basement.’ After that early foray into analysis she went on to earn her bachelor's degree in Geology from Cornell University and a masters in Environmental and Forest Sciences from the University of Washington, where she started experimenting more in a career in GIS and data analysis.

It was during a stint in Anchorage, Alaska working for an environmental consulting firm that Knight heard about Audubon Alaska. Soon after, she joined the state office where she spent her days synthesizing spatial ecological data for the Ecological Atlas of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas with colleague Melanie A. Smith, then the director of conservation science for Audubon Alaska and now the program director for the Migratory Bird Conservation Platform. The atlas contains more than 100 maps that cover natural resource distribution, critical breeding spots for birds and mammals, and vital migration routes for marine mammals, and aims to provide information on sustainable management of the Arctic’s natural resources. The atlas even helped inform large-scale decisions with global implications, like determining the international shipping lanes in the Bering Strait.

“It was a really great opportunity," says Knight. "I loved this process of taking data and synthesizing and distilling it down to make it into a coherent product that is useful to inform science and to inform conservation, and that was a big part of that ecological atlas.”

But Knight isn’t just obsessed with maps. Her hobbies include hiking, biking, canoeing, and just being outside in one way or another. Which is why, she says, working in a conservation field feels so important to her.

After finishing up the atlas, Knight left the Alaska state office and moved to Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative (MBI) team, where she analyzes data regarding avian migratory pathways and uses all that data to create engaging animated maps for more than 500 species of North American birds. She does this to support MBI’s mission to assure the future of migratory birds by minimizing the threats against them and protecting key areas that birds need across the Americas.

“This idea of pulling together all the bird tracking data that we can and showing it in a way that is engaging and informative, and also hopefully inspiring conservation action based on that information, is exciting,” says Knight. “Putting all the pieces together is one of the things that I really love about my job.” 

Data sources: BirdLife International and Handbook of the Birds of the World (2017); DeLuca, Woodworth, MacKenzie et al. (2019); DeLuca, Woodworth, Rimmer et al. (2015);and Fink, Auer, Johnston et al. (2020)

Full citations:

BirdLife International and Handbook of the Birds of the World. 2017. Bird species distribution maps of the world. Version 7.0. Available at
DeLuca, WV, BK Woodworth, CC Rimmer, PP Marra, PD Taylor, KP McFarland, SA Mackenzie, and DR Norris. 2015. “Transoceanic Migration by a 12 g Songbird.” Biology Letters 11(4): 20141045. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2014.1045.
Deluca, WV, BK Woodworth, SA Mackenzie, AEM Newman, HA Cooke, LM Phillips, NE Freeman, AO Sutton, L Tauzer, C McIntyre, I Stenhouse, S Weidensaul, PD Taylor, and DR Norris. 2019. "A boreal songbird's 20,000 km migration across North America and the Atlantic Ocean." Ecology 100(5): e02651. doi: 10.1002/ecy.2651.
Fink, D, T Auer, A Johnston, M Strimas-Mackey, O Robinson, S Ligocki, B Petersen, C Wood, I Davies, B Sullivan, M Iliff, S Kelling. 2020. eBird Status and Trends, Data Version: 2018; Released: 2020. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.