Imagine it: an inexorable pull that you must heed, a call that draws you to the wild unknown. That pull—called “zugunruhe” by migration specialists—grips birds, caribou, butterflies, fish, and countless other animals into their yearly peregrinations from their winter homes to their summer ones, and back again. And it gripped ecologist Melanie Smith, the program director for the Bird Migration Explorer, part of Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative (MBI), early in her college years after she first heeded the call to the Arctic.
“After high school, I went to college for a couple of years, and then I took a break and moved to Alaska and completely fell in love with it,” says Smith.
Smith spent the following three summers working at Glacier Bay Lodge in Gustavus, Alaska, waiting tables during her shifts and spending nearly all of her off-shift time outdoors going sea kayaking, hiking, and watching the Horned and Tufted Puffins as they dove for fish in the bay. “I was completely obsessed—how beautiful and how wild it is. I knew that I wanted to move to Alaska permanently. But I also knew that I wanted to finish college and go to grad school.”
In 2008, after getting a Master's degree in geography, Smith made her final move to Alaska, joining the Audubon Alaska team first as a spatial ecologist and eventually as the director of conservation science. The project that set the stage for her eventual move to the Migratory Bird Initiative was the Ecological Atlas of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas, a cartographic and data-visualization tour-de-force of all the ecological and economic assets in and around Alaska’s Arctic region. For the atlas, Smith, Erika Knight, and their colleagues dug through databases and queried researchers to find datasets on the physical and biological features and economic activity of the area, including shipping lanes, oil and gas assets, marine mammal migration paths, fish spawning grounds, and, yes, breeding and foraging grounds for the hundreds of bird species that call the Arctic home for at least part of the year.
The atlas isn’t just a gorgeous and fascinating document—although it is both of those things. That marriage of visual elegance and sharp data made it possible for Audubon Alaska staff to help influence, among other things, the placement of international shipping lanes so that they would skirt around the most ecologically significant stretches of water along Alaska’s coast.
It was also during her tenure at Audubon Alaska that Smith learned the value of mentorship—a role she has taken on now that she’s more established in her career—and got some killer advice courtesy of then-Audubon Alaska senior scientist John Schoen.
“I’d ask him a hard question and he’d effortlessly be able to answer them with subtlety and nuance,” says Smith. “So I asked him ‘How can I answer these questions with the same ease and finesse? Do I have to wait 30 years to get this good?’ He taught me that this work is all about relationships: You don’t have to know everything; you just have to know how to work with others to find out. And I have found out that whether it’s technical work, where you’re trying to mine data to build an atlas, or you’re trying to work with an agency on policy, every step is all about relationships and slowing down and taking the time to build those authentically.”
After a decade building relationships at Audubon Alaska, Smith switched to working for Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative, a project that aims to gather in one place all of the data about 458 species of migratory birds in North America, in 2018. It’s not all that different from her work on the Arctic atlas, but the online interactive Bird Migration Explorer that Smith developed with her team expands both the technical and geographic scope—MBI covers the entire Western Hemisphere—far beyond what she’s done in the past.
The Bird Migration Explorer not only showcases the beauty and surprising nuance of bird migration pathways, but it also highlights challenges those birds face and pinpoints where they occur. Scientists with MBI and its partners like Birds Canada and BirdLife International will collectively use that data to identify the places most important to birds across the Americas with an eye to guiding conservation actions on the ground.
That on-the-ground approach—as vital in Latin America as it is in the Arctic—is what drew Smith to once travel from the Sea of Cortez to the Arctic Ocean entirely by train and boat. It reminds her that there are places where humans are but one element in a huge network of living beings influenced by the implacable and irresistible forces of nature.
“I grew up in Michigan and the land is very carved up into man-made spaces: roads and fences and ‘no trespassing’ signs,” says Smith. “That’s why I fell in love with Alaska. And then figured out that I wanted to work to protect it, so that other people could have that experience, too.”
After a pause she adds, “I like being reminded that there are places where people are definitely not in charge; places where I am reminded how vast and powerful nature is.”