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Seven former interns tell how PRBO shaped their lives in conservation science.

Interns' Stories


"One day at Palomarin, as I was standing in the coastal scrub on a typically foggy morning, the sun suddenly broke through and illuminated thousands of spider webs, sparkling with drops of mist. The beauty of it struck me immediately, and I'll never forget it, but that moment also came to symbolize what I learned at PRBO--to see natural habitats and wildlife that had always been close at hand but that I had never noticed before."

Thus writes Miyoko Chu, an intern at PRBO's Palomarin Field Station in 1992 and now a science writer and editor at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. She is one of several individuals we invited to recount some memorable aspects of the field training they received as PRBO interns. These correspondents represent hundreds of other past interns (see article on page 7, for example) who are now applying lessons and skills learned at PRBO in their life work. Together, their stories exemplify what our interns gain from the PRBO experience and continue to value over time.

Insight
Pictured at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Sapsucker Woods is science writer and editor Miyoko Chu. Photo courtesy Miyoko Chu

For Miyoko, a moment in the sunlit mist symbolized a turning point in her life. "I had grown up in the East Bay," she continues, "only about 35 miles from Palomarin. Before it became an urban neighborhood, perhaps White-crowned and Song sparrows had bred there. I had never listened to their songs or had stood in sagescrub and looked for their territories. It was a revelation to discover that Wrentits, Song Sparrows, and White-crowned Sparrows were sitting on nests in sagescrub, coyote bush, and blackberry vines within arm's reach, that scrub-jays were wily predators, and that so many nests failed before the young ever fledged."

Her new-found fascination led Miyoko into doctoral studies of the Phainopepla, a desert bird. She recently completed her first book, Songbird Journeys: Four Seasons in the Lives of Migratory Birds. Miyoko still draws upon what she learned at Palomarin: "along with valuable, practical skills, something less tangible--to gain awareness by watching birds closely; to see common threads as well as profound differences between the lives of birds at the edge of the Pacific, in the Colorado Desert where I later worked, and in the Eastern deciduous woodlands that surround my workplace now. That awareness has helped me as a scientist, as a communicator, and as a citizen who grew up with few connections to the natural world."

Long-term Study

A chance to view the natural world through the lens of field biology proves uniquely valuable for many interns. Often the details come into focus only over time. Nina Karnovsky, professor of biological sciences at Pomona College in Southern California, interned at PRBO's Palomarin and Farallon Island field stations between 1989 and 1992. During that time, she writes, "I learned to operate mist-nets, record data, enter data into a computer, keep a field notebook, identify birds by sight and sound, make museum study skin specimens, find bird nests--the essential skills of an ornithologist. But what I really learned while at PRBO was how exciting it was to participate in long-term research, where the measurements that you made on a daily basis were part of an ongoing effort to understand how populations change over time."
Pursuing her love of seabirds, Pomona College professor Nina Karnovsky studied Dovekies on Spitzbergen Island. Photo courtesy Nina Karnovsky

In this, Nina found herself in good company at PRBO. "I was introduced to a whole group of dedicated scientists who were (and still are) so passionate about what they did that it was really infectious. My experience at PRBO made me realize that I wanted to be a biologist. I eventually went to graduate school for my master's degree at Montana State University, where I studied Antarctic seabirds, and then went on to get my doctoral degree at University of California, Irvine, for which I studied Arctic seabirds."

Motivation, Connections

A new or renewed commitment to rigorous academic study is another frequent outcome of the intern training at PRBO. Scott Johnston, for example, today is a senior biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), helping protect migratory bird populations. That might not be the case had he not interned at Palomarin in 1983. At the time, Scott writes, "I was attending Humboldt State University, competing on the intercollegiate volleyball team, and a year of general chemistry was about to sink my commitment to a wildlife management degree. I needed to figure out whether I really wanted to commit to a career in wildlife biology.
Then (1983), a banding intern at Palomarin Field Station (with White-crowned Sparrow); now, a senior U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist: Scott Johnston. Photo courtesy Scott Johnston

"Palomarin has meant everything to my career. The field skills I gained were invaluable, and they helped me a lot in getting other jobs later on. More importantly, the training let me know that this was definitely what I wanted to do for a career. Once I got back to school, I was much more committed (though it took me a few tries to finish chemistry!)."

Adds Scott, "The other key part of the experience is the contacts I made there." Through a PRBO connection, Scott obtained a volunteer post in wildlife biology in Hawaii, then used his field skills to assist in Alaska seabird studies and as a foreign-fisheries observer in the Bering Sea. "Eventually this led to a permanent job with the Fish and Wildlife Service, working on the California Condor Recovery Project, and shortly thereafter a master's degree at UCLA, working on least terns."

With expertise in endangered species and in ecosystem management, Scott Johnston now heads a branch of the USFWS Division of Migratory Birds. He is also co-chair for Waterbird Conservation of the Americas in the mid-Atlantic New England maritimes region. As the lead person for shorebirds in the northeastern office of USFWS, Scott has been wonderfully supportive, financially and strategically, of high-priority shorebird conservation projects; he works closely with PRBO biologist Catherine Hickey on the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan.

A Way of Life

For some PRBO interns, it is living and working as a field biologist that exerts the strongest pull. Such is the case for Carina Gjerdrum, newly appointed by the Canadian Wildlife Service as seabird biologist for Atlantic Canada, and veteran of three internships with PRBO in the mid-1990s--at the lower Sacramento River, the Farallon Islands, and the Eastern Sierra.
Seabird conservationist for Atlantlic Canada, Carina Gjerdrum. Photo courtesy Carina Gjerdrum

Carina writes, "I have been involved with many projects since that time that required me to completely immerse myself in the work--where the work generated a lifestyle. That first internship on the lower Sacramento, living and working with others at a study site, demonstrated to me how I wanted to balance life with work, and fun with the collection of good data. That experience with good friends and good biologists was why I chose biology as my career path in the first place, and it inspired me to remain a field biologist for the next ten years.

"My internships at PRBO taught me specific skills related to the study of birds, but most of all I learned something about myself: I learned that the work I wanted to do would have to be consistent with the life I wanted to live."

Now based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Carina's seabird work involves gaining better understanding of the species using Atlantic Canada's marine habitat and addressing such issues as birds oiled at sea, climate change, and fishery interactions.

Collaboration

Among PRBO's past interns making big contributions to bird and habitat conservation, Jorge Schondube, of Mexico, has an unusual claim: "Even though I received all my basic training in bird-monitoring techniques from PRBO personnel, I have never visited a PRBO field station. I was a student in the second training course held in PRBO's Latin America Program, at Manantl√¡n Biosphere Reserve in western Mexico, in February 1994. In the fall of 1994, through a collaborative program between PRBO and the U.S. Forest Service, I received two months of bird-banding training in California--at the Forest Service's Redwood Sciences Lab in Arcata. Finally, in 1996, I learned nest-searching techniques from Gregor Yanega, who was sent by PRBO to Manantl√¡n Preserve to help us establish our nest-monitoring program at Las Joyas Field Station."
Jorge Schondube (here with his son) conducts collaborative research and teaches university courses in western Mexico. Photo courtesy Jorge Schondube

Nonetheless, Jorge expresses a sentiment common to his cohorts. "Without that first field training course in 1994, my life would have been completely different. After the basic training I got from PRBO, I landed a job (and more training!) as a bird ecologist. This job gave me enough experience to help me enter graduate school. Now I'm both a researcher and an educator. So, in the end I also became an instructor myself."

Currently a researcher at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, one of the most important universities in Latin America), Jorge works collaboratively on bird ecology and conservation. "I'm also coordinating a new bachelor's program in environmental sciences at UNAM. My collaboration with Steve Latta (PRBO) and Eduardo Santana (University of Guadalajara)--in developing the workshops to train managers of protected areas in Mexico (see Observer 143, fall 2005)--is one of the most rewarding aspects of my long-term relationship with PRBO.

"My first interaction with birds came from a PRBO training course," Jorge sums up. "My first teaching experience was as an instructor in a course organized by the PRBO Latin America Program and the University of Guadalajara. My first international collaboration was with interns from PRBO that came to Mexico to help in our bird-monitoring program. From PRBO I learned not only techniques but also the importance of education and international collaboration to achieve bird conservation."

Collegiality

Resident interns at PRBO have daily contact with staff biologists, and this aspect of the program was most powerful for Matt Johnson, a 1992 bird banding intern and now a recently tenured professor of wildlife biology at Humboldt State University. Writes Matt: "What I remember most about my time at Palomarin, and what shaped my future career the most, were the discussions of migratory songbird ecology I had with Geoff Geupel and other biologists, including Nadav Nur and Grant Ballard, as well as my fellow interns. In the evenings, we began discussing the nuances of migrant ecology--birds' life histories, whether their populations might be limited in the breeding or non-breeding seasons, and so forth. We were reading several papers weekly, and soon we joined Geoff and the others for paper discussions during the workday. With our curiosity piqued, we began exploring the long-term dataset at Palomarin. This ultimately led to a publication for Mary Chase (on the Wilson's Warbler) and for me (on the Swainson's Thrush), both with Geoff and Nadav as co-authors.
Pictured (with his children) near Jamaica's Blue Mountain forests, where he studies birds in coffee plantations, is Humboldt State University professor Matt Johnson. Photo courtesy Matt Johnson

"In fact, my dissertation work focused on food limitation of warblers wintering in Jamaica, and I remain interested in food as it relates to songbird population dynamics. To this day, Geoff and I continue to argue: he disagrees that food supply is the strong limiting factor for songbirds (he believes it's habitat)!

"I guess I've come full circle," Matt concludes. "Three of my first four graduate students have worked or are currently working for PRBO. I must admit, I favor students who have worked for PRBO because I know from my own experience how the environment at PRBO can advance a person's interest and passion for conservation ecology."

Partnerships

PRBO has now been training interns and volunteers for well over three decades--long enough that a number of our current scientific and management-agency partners are past interns. Their lasting high regard for PRBO is universal, and fruitful exchanges occur between their programs and ours. Professors Nina Karnovsky and Matt Johnson recommend students for PRBO internships and accept our recent interns into their graduate programs. Jorge Schondube actively collaborates in PRBO's Latin America Program. Scott Johnston is an influential colleague in efforts co-led by PRBO to protect shorebird populations nationwide.
Pictured in one of the Sierran habitats she helps to study and protect is U.S. Forest Service biologist Kathryn Purcell. Photo courtesy Kathryn Purcell

Another long-time associate, biologist Kathryn Purcell of the U.S. Forest Service, conducts important and multi-faceted research on bird populations and habitats in the Sierra Nevada. Having learned bird banding at Palomarin Field Station in 1981, Kathryn sent us "a classic story that must be told!" about an incident that revealed just how cash-poor the interns were! (See more at www.prbo.org/Observer).

According to Terrestrial Ecology Director Geoffrey Geupel, "Our work with Kathryn Purcell involves reviewing one another's scientific papers, occasionally co-authoring a paper, participating in one another's symposia, and cooperating in both California Partners in Flight and the huge northern Sierra forest project headed by PRBO's Ryan Burnett (Observer 132, Spring 2003). And Kathy hires our interns: she calls us periodically to ask for people we've trained."

"Over the years," adds Kathryn, "I have had the pleasure of hiring and working with many former PRBO interns and have recommended the program to others to enhance their skills and increase their experience as field biologists." She values PRBO's internship program as many others do: "I have nothing but respect for the way the programs have grown and for the fine biologists they have produced."

PRBO Conservation Science, in turn, is proud to have fledged so many influential biologists and educators from our training programs, and to know that our past interns now are working effectively to measure and protect environmental health.