Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Katie Percy gained a deep appreciation of the surrounding environments and ecosystems—longleaf pine savannas, bottomland hardwood forests, barrier islands, high marsh habitat, and coastal beaches. Though Percy spent most of her youth enjoying nature and the outdoors, she would be the first to tell you that she was not "a child birder.”
Her love of birds and population ecology came later in life, as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University. Every April since her third year in college, Percy trades the loud commotion of copy machines and telephones with the rumble of a boat motor at 5:00 a.m. and the “sweet, sweet, sweet” song of the Prothonotary Warbler ringing throughout a cypress-tupelo swamp—the sounds of research and field work.
Looking back, Percy says she would tell her eighteen-year-old self, “Follow your heart, and let your conscience be your guide.” Throughout her career, from her Master’s research on Golden-winged Warblers in the Cumberland Mountains to monitoring seabirds on California’s Central Coast, Percy never rested on her laurels. That forward-thinking mindset was especially important during a migration season that looks a lot different than past years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
During a typical migration season, Percy would regularly visit Audubon Louisiana’s study sites for Prothonotary Warblers and conduct avian point-count surveys at her second home (and office), Maurepas Swamp. A continentally significant Important Bird Area, Maurepas Swamp is more than 100,000 acres of cypress-water tupelo swamp and bottomland hardwood forest. As an avian biologist for Audubon Louisiana, Percy is monitoring bird populations (i.e. species diversity and abundance) and resurveying point count locations within the wildlife management area.
Maurepas Swamp faces numerous threats. Disconnected from the Mississippi River, the swamp has suffered from a lack of seasonal high and low water cycles that enriched the soil and allowed for tree regeneration.
“I prefer being in the middle of a swamp, waist-deep in my chest waders, over anything. But during these times, my field crew is keeping safety at the forefront of our minds,” says Percy. “After the stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, I hope to check in on our Prothonotary Warbler study sites to document annual survivorship and reproductive success, to the extent possible this breeding season—a huge part of my work has been dedicated to understanding the species ecology and migration. Although it is sad to miss nearly an entire season of data collection, we completely understand the need to be cautious during these uncertain times.”
In addition to her work for Audubon Louisiana in Maurepas Swamp, Percy has installed two automated very high frequency (VHF) receiving stations along the Yucatán Peninsula to help fill a critical gap within the Motus Wildlife Tracking System, a collaborative research network that uses coordinated radio telemetry to study the priority birds of Louisiana. Additionally, Percy was a featured scientist with the Interpreters and Scientists Working on Our Parks (iSWOOP), a program to build people’s understanding of science at national parks, and a co-author on a migration study that examined Prothonotary Warblers’ migratory routes and location of overwintering grounds and stopover sites.
Although much of the spring fieldwork season was curtailed due to the pandemic, Percy was able to resume avian point-count surveys in Maurepas Swamp in mid-May, because the surveys can be safely conducted with just two staff members. According to Percy, phase two of the state’s reopening has begun, and the next step is to safely examine and visit the Prothonotary Warbler study sites.
“I work in a passion-driven field,” says Percy. “The images we see of southern Louisiana landscapes and ecosystems are amazing. But, if you did a ‘behind-the-scenes’ documentary on capturing photographs and data, you’d see that the conditions can be brutal, humid, and swarming with biting, and stinging insects. This type of work may not be for everyone, but it is for me. I enjoy it, because I work alongside passionate people that are dedicated to a singular goal: Conserve the threatened birds we love and protect the habitats they depend on.”